With Week 9 in the books, we are more than halfway through the NFL season. Let’s check in on the top teams and distinguish between the contenders and the pretenders.
Tier 1: At least one of these teams will be in the Super Bowl
1) Philadelphia Eagles (8-1)
The Eagles, sitting at 8-1, are the class of the NFL right now. Carson Wentz has been worth the laundry list of valuable picks Philadelphia traded to him as the second overall pick. Having completed 61 percent of his passes with an impressive 104.1 QB rating and a 23-5 TD-INT ratio, he would receive many votes for a midseason MVP. The Eagles have arguably the league’s most talented backfield, pairing former Dolphin Jay Ajayi (who they acquired for only a fourth-round draft pick) with LeGarrette Blount, who is averaging 4.6 yards per attempt this year.
Entering the season, many had concerns about a potentially leaky secondary, but the Eagles’ star-studded front seven with Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham has helped to create a stout defense that has allowed only 19.9 points per game, good for 12th in the league. Their only loss came in a 27-20 Week 2 game against the Chiefs, and they are 3-0 within their division.
One potential issue is at left-tackle: Nine-time Pro Bowler Jason Peters suffered a torn ACL and MCL last Monday against Washington, and backup tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai will have to take his place. Wentz will have to operate within a rougher pocket without Peters.
Other than this hole, the Eagles have no significant flaws — something absolutely no one was predicting at the start of the season. Nevertheless, they still do not belong in a tier of their own atop the NFL just yet because of their lack of a true signature win (which may come Week 13 in Seattle), but they are in a strong position to secure a first-round bye if Wentz continues playing at this level.
2) Kansas City Chiefs (6-3)
The Chiefs shocked the NFL world on opening night, embarrassing the Patriots’ defense en route to a 42-27 win in Foxborough. This began what would become a 6-3 start for Kansas City, but this team could easily be 8-1 right now. The Steelers needed a dropped interception coupled with a tremendous Antonio Brown on-the-fly adjustment catch to come away with a 19-13 victory at Arrowhead in Week 6, and the Raiders needed a tedious number of untimed downs at the end of the subsequent week’s 31-30 home win.
There is real concern on the defensive side of the ball, exposed by the Cowboys and their potent rushing attack. The Kansas City defense has struggled to limit opposing offenses’ yardage, allowing 390 yards per game (the second worst in the NFL).
Game manager Alex Smith throwing for 230 yards on 30 attempts was one of the few things we could count on the past few seasons amid all the unpredictability that football brings, but he is no more. Smith, a legitimate MVP candidate, leads the league in passer rating (113.9) and yards per attempt (8.3). His transition from a game manager to a top-five quarterback this season has come at a very convenient time for Kansas City with its defensive struggles. 2017 third-round draft pick Kareem Hunt has emerged as one of the league’s best running backs, totaling more than 100 yards in each of his first seven games and becoming a favorite for Offensive Rookie of the Year. Last year, the defense carried Smith and his average, complacent offense. This year, it’s Smith and Hunt carrying a flawed defense.
3) New England Patriots (6-2)
Speaking of flawed defenses, how about the New England Patriots? Coming into the year, they were being discussed as a potentially 16-0 team. They’ve looked far from that in the first eight games, severely lacking on defense. Free agent signing Stephon Gilmore has not helped that side of the ball as hoped, as they are giving up a league-high 417 yards per game.
Even so, the brilliance of a 40-year-old Tom Brady has carried them to a 6-2 record; he has a 16-2 TD-INT ratio and a 106.5 passer rating, good for second in the league. He has been playing so well that Bill Belichick felt comfortable trading backup Jimmy Garoppolo, who has been groomed to be Brady’s successor, to San Francisco for a second-round pick. But Brady’s decline does not look to be coming soon. They have strong wins against quality teams such as New Orleans, Carolina and Houston. Although the defense looks like one of Belichick’s worst, we have learned to give the Patriots the benefit of the doubt before declaring them second-class.
4) Pittsburgh Steelers (6-2)
In the offseason, almost every sentence that contained “Steelers” also mentioned “weapons.” Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Brown and the return of Martavis Bryant were supposed to produce a historic offense that could win a shootout with anyone. That has not been the case in 2017. They have yet to score more than 30 points in any single game. Instead, it has been the defense that has stepped up, only allowing 16.4 PPG to opposing offenses (second in the league). Behind Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Ryan Shazier, the Steelers have been playing like the Steelers of old: low-scoring, grind-it-out, defensive games.
Part of this transformation is a consequence of aging veteran quarterback Roethlisberger. After contemplating retirement this offseason, he decided to give it another shot, but he has not looked the same. His lowest moment this year was throwing five interceptions against Jacksonville at Heinz Field in a 30-9 loss. Not only has he been inaccurate, but Bell has also not looked quite the same. There have been flashes (like the 179 yards rushing against the Chiefs), but he has only eclipsed the 100-yard rushing mark three times. These concerns are valid, without a doubt, but the fact remains that this team still has the potential to explode in any game, given their weapons. It is the type of team that could go into any game and beat any team if it could just get it together, especially given its much-improved defense.
Tier 2: Need to see just a bit more
5) Seattle Seahawks (5-3)
The Seahawks are in a tier of their own, in between the true contenders and the teams that have just a tiny shot. Unlike the teams in Tier 1, they have a bit more than just one true concern.
They have always neglected their offensive line to concentrate on other areas of the depth chart, relying on the magic of Russell Wilson to bounce around in the pocket and find an open man. This has not only put their quarterback in danger, but this hasn’t allowed them to establish a reliable running game. They thought Eddie Lacy may be the man to be the No. 1 running back, but he has not panned out. The famed Legion of Boom has not looked as dominating as we have known them to be, most recently giving up 38 points to the Texans, led by Deshaun Watson.
Despite the noticeable flaws, they keep winning. They’ve had close encounters with the Niners in Week 2 (12-9 win) and the Rams in Week 5 (16-10 win) that haven’t exactly been the most convincing wins you’d like to see from a Super Bowl contender, but they are still much closer to the cream of the crop than the teams limping into the wild card spots. They were one of many teams that enjoyed an active trade deadline, dealing a 2018 third-round pick and a 2019 second-round pick for three-time Pro Bowl OT Duane Brown and Houston’s 2018 fifth-rounder. This move should bolster the team’s offensive line, but that isn’t a given, considering Brown hadn’t played all season prior to Week 8 because of a contract holdout.
Amid all of the mistakes in their 17-14 loss Sunday to Washington, the Seahawks would have won this game if kicker Blair Walsh were able to convert a few of his field goals. Seattle has proven its ability to win games such these where it struggles put points on the board, and it easily could have if it weren’t for the special teams mishaps. This loss hurts its chances to win the division, but it is still quite a strong team.
Tier 3: Could sneak into a conference championship game
6) Dallas Cowboys (5-3)
After a dominating 28-17 performance at home against Kansas City, the Cowboys have never looked better. Dak Prescott’s excellence in the short-to-intermediate passing game, combined with Ezekiel Elliott behind an offensive line that is again looking like one of the best in the league, is making the Cowboys a legitimate NFC contender.
What is truly different this year in Dallas is the defense. DeMarcus Lawrence, David Irving and Sean Lee make for a frightening front seven that will give headaches to many offensive linemen. Irving (6.0 sacks) and Lawrence (10.5 sacks, second in the league) are one of only three pairs of teammates to combine for more than 16 sacks on the year. The return of Lee is making all the difference, too, evident in how they were able to limit Hunt, the NFL’s lead rusher, to only 37 yards on nine attempts.
Unfortunately, Dallas’s position in these rankings are subject to change at any time. If Elliott’s six-game suspension kicks in (who knows what’s going on with that), it will lose a large part of its magic and will have a hard time keeping pace with the top NFC teams.
7) Los Angeles Rams (6-2)
8) New Orleans Saints (6-2)
These teams are the definition of sneaky. Both are plagued with unsuccessful recent years and still linger in the minds of NFL fans as bad teams. The Saints have been known as a team that will score 40 points behind Drew Brees but give up 50 points, and I’m still not convinced that Jeff Fisher isn’t coaching the Rams to another 7-9 record (maybe I will be once they get over 7 wins). These images of these two teams are no longer.
The Saints seem to have finally cobbled together an, at minimum, average defense for their star quarterback, led by elite edge rusher Cam Jordan and star rookie Marshon Lattimore. According to Pro Football Focus, opposing quarterbacks (through Week 7) have only managed a 50.2 passer rating when throwing in Lattimore’s direction, and he is their No. 1-graded cornerback in the entire league. This defense is holding teams to just 19.4 PPG (9th in the league), levels of which that have been unheard of in New Orleans for quite some time. Couple this with the 101.7 passer rating Brees has posted, and you’ve got a team capable of hanging with the best in the league.
New 31-year-old head coach Sean McVay has injected the same spirit into the Rams offense that made Kirk Cousins look like a legitimate franchise quarterback last year. Though he has his share of struggles this year, sophomore quarterback Jared Goff is much improved from last year’s season in St. Louis. The Cal product has performed above expectations with a 97.9 passer rating and a 13-4 TD-INT ratio. Todd Gurley at running back has also been a dual-threat revelation, averaging 128 yards from scrimmage per game. On the other side of the ball, Aaron Donald has continued to anchor a solid but unspectacular defense. If Goff grows a bit more as a passer toward the ends of the season, this could be a dangerous wild-card playoff team.
Tier 4: Could win one playoff game (no more than that)
9) Vikings (6-2), 10) Panthers (6-3), 11) Bills (5-3), 12) Jaguars (5-3)
These teams are not good enough to deserve their own lengthy paragraphs, so here are some quick thoughts.
The Vikings have a massive question at quarterback. Despite Mike Zimmer’s early insistence that Sam Bradford “is fine,” Case Keenum has been starting since Week 1, except for Week 5 at Chicago, in which Bradford played some snaps but was yanked after it was clear he could not properly move because of swelling in his knee. Sorry, even if you have a winning record, a high seed, two top-15 wide receivers and a more-than-stout defense, you’re not going far into the playoffs with Case Keenum at the helm. I also don’t trust Teddy Bridgewater to win playoff games. It feels like he hasn’t played since 2012.
The up-and-down Carolina Panthers are 6-3, but they have only been 1-2 against the true top teams (losses to the Eagles and Saints, but a nice win in New England). They laid an egg in a 17-3 loss against Chicago in Week 7, and this feels like a team that is capable of performing like that any given week. You have to take their 20-17 win at home over Atlanta Sunday with a grain of salt, as the Falcons were only one Julio Jones wide-open touchdown drop away from winning a game in which Matt Ryan clearly outplayed Cam Newton and looked great. Still, they have as good a shot as any to win AFC South, especially with Atlanta now two wins behind.
LeSean McCoy and the Buffalo rushing attack have enjoyed reliable and safe quarterback play from Tyrod Taylor. After acquiring Kelvin Benjamin, their offense looks even better. But their five wins have only been against the Jets, Broncos, Falcons, Bucs and Raiders. They have done what good teams are supposed to do by beating up on worse teams, but they still have to prove they should be taken seriously as an AFC contender. Again, don’t put much stock into their Thursday night loss against the Jets last week: It’s hard to take much from that with the Bills coming off a game just four days earlier.
The Jaguars’ historic passing defense, in spite of Blake Bortles, has carried this team to a 6-3 record. Their 12.2 percent sack rate, 4.3 average yards gained per pass attempt, 1.6 TD percent and 156.4 opposing passing yards per game all lead the league by significant margins. Stars such as Jalen Ramsey, Calais Campbell, A.J. Bouye and Malik Jackson are proving Jacksonville’s heavy defensive investment in the draft and free agency to be an excellent strategy, but this team will struggle to win playoff games on the road without a true, passable quarterback.
Tier 5 : Crushed by Injury
Houston Texans (3-5)
First, it was J.J. Watt. And now, Deshaun Watson. Just one day after the Astros’ Game 7 World Series win in Houston, the Texans’ star rookie quarterback went down with a noncontact ACL tear in practice. In what was looking like a weak AFC wildcard playoff race, Watson looked primed to lead Houston to January football along with star receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who is finally flourishing with a competent quarterback. Without Watson, the Texans (at home!) couldn’t even put away Jacoby Brissett and the Colts. Instead of watching him direct a high-octane Houston offense in New England, Pittsburgh, or Kansas City in the playoffs, we’ll likely have to settle for Tyrod Taylor or, much worse, Blake Bortles.
Dev Navani writes for Bear Bytes, the Daily Californian’s sports blog. Contact him at [email protected].