I’m glad we’re all in agreement that Cam Newton unleashing his natural gifts upon the world—and being compensated for doing so—is a good thing. Somewhere Ayn Rand (or at least Brad Bird) smiles. A single player with a jaw-dropping stat sheet can make even the most hopeless team bearable for its fan base. The Panthers may not win more than four or five games, but that’s not the point. The point is that NBC could flex Carolina into a Sunday Night Football game, and no one would complain. A single saving grace, and a season is relevant.
Which is to say, it’s extra-depressing for fans of 0-2 teams without the blessing of even individual accomplishment. To know after two games that your team is going nowhere is to die a four-month death, and you rarely need more than two games to identify the terrible teams. I feel confident in pronouncing seasons over in Minnesota, Indianapolis, Seattle, Miami, and Kansas City. They’ve shown us nothing, not even a spark of better things to come. Any one of these teams has a legitimate shot at and a desperate need for Andrew Luck, so any tanking is going to start soon. Or, in Indy’s case, it started two weeks ago, when Kerry Collins showed up for work.
And what about the other side of the ledger? Who looks good after 120 minutes of football? The signs are promising in a couple of unexpected places. Buffalo has a legitimate No. 1 running back in Fred Jackson—not even half the teams in the league can say the same thing—and a talented change-of-pace guy to spell him in C.J. Spiller. Stevie Johnson is elite. And in Harvard man Ryan Fitzpatrick, they have a Trent Dilfer or Jeff Hostetler, the vaunted game manager. He’ll never wow you, but he’ll rarely shoot his team in the foot. That’s good enough for nine wins in today’s NFL.
The 2-0 Texans are built the same way. They have a solid offensive line and talent at the skill positions (Matt Schaub, Andre Johnson, and whoever’s got two healthy hamstrings running the ball), and if those things alone aren’t a blueprint for January success, they’re good enough for 9-7. Unlike Buffalo’s, Houston’s 9-7 is enough to win the division.
Which brings us to the Lions, who are second in the league in both points scored and points allowed. Bill Simmons fretted that too many people liked them as sleepers, but that’s a straw man. The Lions, hard as it may be to imagine, were full-fledged playoff favorites going into 2011. In a weird way, Matthew Stafford’s two season-ending injuries were the best thing that could have happened to Detroit: two lost seasons to spend building around the defense, through trade, the draft, and free agency. While Buffalo’s and Houston’s lack of a pass rush will kill them as the season wears on, Detroit is built to go deep into the winter, and not just this winter.
But it goes without saying that everything depends on Stafford’s shoulder, which at this point is held together by duct tape and the magic of children’s laughter. One injury and Detroit’s written off. So here’s my question to you, Tommy: Is there a more valuable player in football right now? I don’t mean the MVP award—Tom Brady is going to throw for 6,000 yards because he can. I mean, which individual is most responsible for his team’s success? Cam Newton need not apply.