The NFL season is only five weeks old, but we can start parsing the contenders from the pretenders after another telling Sunday.
It’s barely the second week of October, making it no time for sweeping statements. This is a time for beginning to understand the picture being presented to us, albeit in dribs and drabs. Like every NFL season prior and to come, some team will make a late run to surprise us all, while another will slide down the mountain, never to be heard from again.
Still, we can start to dissect the information at hand.
The teams with one or fewer defeats include the Atlanta Falcons, Kansas City Chiefs, Denver Broncos, Philadelphia Eagles, Carolina Panthers and Green Bay Packers. While injuries can take their toll, it seems that would be the only way to keep these teams from playing in January. None have the look of a fluke, regardless of metric used to judge.
Meanwhile, the San Francisco 49ers, Cleveland Browns, Los Angeles Chargers, New York Giants, and Chicago Bears are all looking for either their first or second wins. If percentages and eye tests are indications, none of these teams will reach the playoffs.
Combining the teams off to hot and awful starts, that leaves 21 teams in the middle with either two or three wins. Some of these squads are talented like the Seattle Seahawks, New England Patriots, Oakland Raiders, Dallas Cowboys, Pittsburgh Steelers and Detroit Lions. Others are seemingly hanging on for dear life such as the Miami Dolphins, New York Jets and Arizona Cardinals.
So what to make of this cluster in the middle of the standings? Look for teams with quality head coach-quarterback combinations to make runs.
The Patriots, Steelers and Seahawks fit the bill. Along with their remaining schedules and ample experience, those three would be the likeliest to emerge from the pack. The New Orleans Saints also fit the quarterback-coach description, although questions about the defense remain despite a shutout in Week 3.
Then there is the AFC South. Somebody has to win the crown, with it unlikely that any of the other three take a wild card spot. Which of the Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans can make a move?
We remain early in the year, but the leaves are changing and the calendar is no longer showing September. The excuses for poor play are dwindling while the injury list grows, exposing flaws and depth charts across the league. If teams don’t have solid players behind starters, we will know soon enough.
In a league that trumpets parity, we are seeing that in full force this year. It’s tough identifying any in 2017, save perhaps for the Chiefs. Still, Andy Reid and Alex Smith have plenty to prove come January, even in Arrowhead Stadium. For all the talk about Kansas City’s home-field dominance, it has not won a home playoff game since 1993, losing its previous five postseason dates in that building.
We’re a solid month from the midway point of the season, but teams are beginning to show their hands.
Top 10 remaining games on the schedule
1. Atlanta at New England (Week 7)
2. Pittsburgh at Kansas City (Week 6)
3. Atlanta at Seattle (Week 11)
4. New England at Pittsburgh (Week 15)
5. Oakland at Kansas City (Week 14)
6. Green Bay at Pittsburgh (Week 12)
7. New England at Denver (Week 10)
8. Kansas City at Denver (Week 17)
9. Green Bay at Detroit (Week 17)
10. Oakland at Philadelphia (Week 16)
– Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger after a 30-9 loss, in which he threw five interceptions
This isn’t the statement Steelers fans were looking for after an embarrassing 30-9 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars at Heinz Field. Roethlisberger tossed five interceptions, four of which came in an ugly second half that saw a pair of pick-sixes.
To this point, the Steelers have played the Browns (DeShone Kizer), Vikings (Case Keenum), Bears (Mike Glennon), Ravens (Joe Flacco) and Jaguars (Blake Bortles) and are 3-2. Now they go to Arrowhead Stadium to take on the Chiefs, who have revenge on their mind after their AFC Divisional matchup in January.
Things either change quickly, or they very much stay the same in Pittsburgh.
Check out the Stacking The Box podcast every Monday on iTunes, with Matt Verderame and Josh Hill breaking down the week that was, while analyzing and previewing the week ahead.
In 1943, Sammy Baugh produced the greatest individual season of all-time. The Washington Redskins quarterback led the league in passing, punting and interceptions, notching 11 thefts in 12 games.
Info learned this week
1. Chiefs remain unbeaten with win over Texans
Kansas City seems incapable of losing. The Chiefs went into a tough environment, taking on the Texans during a short week and took care of business, winning 42-34 that featured two garbage-time touchdowns from Deshaun Watson. Offensively, Kansas City did whatever it wanted, with Kareem Hunt once again going over 100 rushing yards while Travis Kelce had eight catches and 98 yards in the first half before being knocked out with a concussion.
Yet the real story is Alex Smith, who continues to make an early case for league MVP. Smith was terrific, throwing for 324 yards and three touchdowns on 29-of-37 passing. For the season, Smith has 1,391 passing yards with 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions.
The season is long, but right now, the Chiefs are the considerable frontrunners.
2. Giants buried under losses, injuries
The New York Giants have been pronounced dead. After losing 27-22 to the previously-winless Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday, the 0-5 Giants have no reason to play except pride. In addition to a mother back-breaking defeat, New York was ravaged by injuries to its receivers.
Odell Beckham Jr. was carted off the field with an apparent ankle injury and immediately was diagnosed as needing surgery. No official word has been given, but it would be surprising if Beckham plays again in 2017. Meanwhile, Sterling Shepard and Brandon Marshall also left early with ankle injuries.
The Giants had Super Bowl hopes. Now, they are headed straight into football oblivion.
3. Bengals get back into AFC North race
With a 20-16 win over the Bills, Cincinnati finds itself squarely back in the divisional battle. Coupled with a loss by the Steelers and a road win from the Ravens, the Bengals are trailing the pair by a single game after a disastrous 0-3 start.
Still, the Bengals have real problems. Andy Dalton was intercepted twice and the rushing attack was held to 2.4 yards per attempt. All that said, the season remains young, and Cincinnati finds itself alive and fairly well in a division that has nobody playing like a true contender.
4. Rams can’t quite make statement against Seahawks
The Rams are clearly coming for the Seahawks, but they aren’t there yet. After a terrific win in Dallas, Lo Angeles couldn’t back it up at home, losing a 16-10 affair to Seattle. With the defeat, the Rams fall into a tie with the Seahawks atop the NFC West at 3-2, with the latter holding a significant tiebreaker.
Jared Goff was uneven on the day, throwing some darts while also being intercepted twice while hitting on 22-of-47 throws. Goff must be better, but considering the improvement he’s shown to this point, there is reason for optimism.
5. Mitchell Trubisky says hello
On Monday night, the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings get after it at Soldier Field, with all eyes on Mitchell Trubisky. Trubisky, the second-overall pick in April’s draft, is getting the start after Mike Glennon led the Bears to a 1-3 start. While Chicago has a long climb ahead both this year and in the future, a good showing for Trubisky will help fans take heart.
On the other side, the Vikings have to find a way. A win would put them back into the NFC North conversation. Minnesota has been crushed by injuries to Sam Bradford and Dalvin Cook, and yet it has everything in front of it. However, a loss here and things could go south quickly.
In 1972, the Miami Dolphins went 17-0, becoming the only undefeated champion in NFL history. In 1976, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers went 0-14, the first franchise to lose all its games in the post-World War II era.
Larry Ball, a linebacker out of Louisville, was the only player to play for both teams.
Aaron Rodgers is the most talented player of our generation, if not any generation. The Packers should have lost on Sunday to the Cowboys, who scored on a Dak Prescott rushing touchdown with just over a minute remaining.
Down 31-28, Rodgers went to work. He drove Green Bay 75 yards in 62 seconds, finishing the nine-play, game-winning drive with a back-shoulder missile to Davante Adams in the left corner. All told, Rodgers only threw for 222 yards but did so with three touchdowns and a leaky offensive line.
Without Rodgers, the Packers would not be a playoff team. At best, they would be similar to the Arizona Cardinals; good enough to win occasionally, but with enough holes to sink against good opponents. With Rodgers, Green Bay might be the best team in the NFC, and certainly one of the favorites as we go deeper into October.