A mere five weeks into the NFL schedule and there’s already been a massive separation between the true Super Bowl contenders, the pretenders, and the vast ocean of mediocrity in the league.
For fans in New England, Pittsburgh, Minnesota, Seattle, and perhaps Green Bay, making travel plans for late January and early February is not farfetched. Those appear to be legitimate championship threats.
Evaluating other successful teams — Atlanta, Oakland, Dallas, Philadelphia — and even the defending champion Broncos, who have lost two in a row, is more difficult.
And then there are the clubs who stand just outside the morass that makes up most of the league right now: Buffalo, Los Angeles, Washington, Kansas City. It probably will take two more months to figure out whether they belong in the postseason.
“I can tell you that 100 percent of our attention and our focus is to try to accomplish that,” says Bills coach Rex Ryan, whose franchise has an almost unfathomable string of non-playoff seasons dating to 2000. “But playoffs, anything like that, we’re not even close to that. And as I’ve mentioned before, we’ve still got a lot of dirt on us from opening up the season, losing those first two games.”
What seems certain is that the NFL has too many substandard teams, even though a few of them (AFC South members, that’s you) figure to be in the race right up until 2016 ends.
“But you can’t get ahead of yourself,” says Colts coach Chuck Pagano, whose team could tie for the division lead with a win at Houston this Sunday. And with the Titans (2-3) hosting winless Cleveland, a three-way tie is quite possible. “You can’t sit there and look at what could be. If we do this, we’re this — you’ve got to go take care of business now. You have to worry about today. You’ve got to prepare.”
So, looking at the NFL today:
There’s no denying that the 5-0 Vikings, the league’s only unbeaten squad despite several devastating injuries (Adrian Peterson, Teddy Bridgewater, Matt Kalil), have proven they belong in the conversation. Their defense, led by Everson Griffen and Harrison Smith, is championship material, and the way Sam Bradford has stepped in to replace Bridgewater at quarterback has been inspiring.
There’s also no denying that the offensive firepower of Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Co. in Pittsburgh, and Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and the boys in New England has those teams on a collision course atop the AFC. We get a showdown in Steel City next Sunday, too.
Seattle tends to build toward the winter months, and might have the most-balanced roster around. The Packers have Aaron Rodgers, pedigree as a playoff team and, for once, a defense that looks reliable.
Avoiding overreactions after each game is tough in a 17-week season. So Denver’s demise is not at hand, folks; comparing these Broncos to the 2015 champions simply is unfair at this point, particularly on the Peyton-less offense. Dismissing that defense, though, is unwise.
Teams on the upswing with more to prove are in position to do exactly that this weekend, when the Cowboys visit the Packers , the Eagles are in Washington,the Falcons are at the Seahawks, and the Raiders host their archrivals, the Chiefs.
The biggest statements would be made by Dallas if it can move to 5-1 behind rookies Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott, and by Atlanta. Coming off the most impressive victory of the season at Denver, the Falcons would stamp themselves as legitimate candidates to be in Houston in February with a victory in Seattle.
Sure, they went 6-1 last season before flopping to 8-8, but this version is more balanced and experienced.
“One negative thing happened and then it was like a snowball effect on us,” star receiver Julio Jones says of 2015. “This year, we’re definitely a different ballclub as far as the mentality of the team. We’re just sticking together and holding each other accountable.”
MUCH TO PROVE
The Bills, Rams, Redskins, Ravens and Texans all have winning records. Anyone out there really believe in any of them as title threats?
Kansas City needs a lengthy streak of wins like it had a year ago to make us take notice, something even less likely with Oakland having emerged in the AFC West.
For now, Arizona and Carolina are outsiders who must show they can emulate in some way the clubs that reached the NFC championship last January. The Cardinals seem vastly more capable of that than the banged-up Panthers.
THE SORRY SET
It sure is a challenge to have any faith in the Jets and Bengals, who each won at least 10 games a year ago, but have been either unimpressive (Bengals) or unwatchable (Jets).
Pretty much everywhere else stands the uninspiring, teams such as the Dolphins and Bears and 49ers, who we expect to remain also-rans when the holidays hit.
As for that AFC South race, well, a four-way slog to the finish wouldn’t be a surprise.