We're into the second month of the NFL season and it's been full of surprises. The Patriots have already experienced incredible highs and lows, there are no undefeated teams remaining, the Bills are in contention, the Browns have become the most dramatic team to follow and the league's parity looks to be as strong as ever.
Several teams have gotten off to surprisingly fast starts and some of the more talented teams have been sluggish out of the gate. However, it's not yet time to crown certain teams as Super Bowl contenders. It's all a smoke screen for now, until we get to the real grind of the season, in November and December, the months we've seen so many teams rise from the ashes and so many teams crumble under pressure. There's also a question of, which of these supposed contenders will actually still be around deep into January. It's time to start separating the pretenders from the contenders. Let's sort through the top five pretenders, followed by the top five contenders.
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10 Pretenders: Houston Texans
The Houston Texans have already surpassed the amount of wins they had a season ago, but it shouldn't be too surprising. They were given a fourth place schedule and their defence was never the issue, so they've been able to put teams away.
Some are of the belief though, that the Texans could very well surpass the Colts for the AFC South crown, or that they'll sneak into the playoffs as a wild card. That won't happen. They're still in the bottom 10 on every offensive category except running the football. Ryan Fitzpatrick is their starting quarterback. How can a team with that situation surpass a team led by Andrew Luck?
J.J. Watt sure has worked miracles for Houston, but them getting to the playoffs won't happen. They started 2-0, with their wins coming against Washington and Oakland, teams that have combined for one win. They beat the Buffalo Bills at home, a team who has benched their opening day starter. The Texans' powder puff schedule will likely get them to seven or eight wins, as they play the Titans and Jaguars twice, but they aren't reaching 10 wins. If they get an upgrade on Fitzpatrick for next year, then that will be a different story. For now though, don't get too excited about them.
9 Pretenders: Detroit Lions
On paper, the Detroit Lions should be real contenders; they just can't seem to get out of their own way. Yes, with a better kicker, the Lions could very well have been 4-1 after five games. Now they have Matt Prater, making their special teams a real strength, but there are other problems with this team.
Matthew Stafford still hasn't quite taken the reigns and carried this team to victories. Since the Monday night blowout of the New York Giants in Week 1, the offence hasn't been the team's strength, which is what it was supposed to be.
The defence has actually been the better unit, as they're a top-five defence against the pass and the run. However, it's hard to see them keeping that up with a questionable secondary.
It just feels like the Lions are going to be an up-and-down team all season. They still have the Bears twice, Minnesota twice, whom they've struggled with and the Packers in Green Bay to close out the season. It's hard to imagine Aaron Rodgers and the Packers being as bad as they were in Detroit a couple of weeks ago. That battle in Week 17 may very well be for the division title and you have to take the Packers in a big game like that. The Lions always seem to find a way to lose.
8 Pretenders: Buffalo Bills
Remember how Bills fans were on cloud nine, with their 2-0 start coupled with the team finding new, stable, local ownership?
Well, things changed quickly with two straight losses and a switch at quarterback from E.J. Manuel to Kyle Orton.
To their credit, the defence looks very solid, with a tremendous front-seven, even without injured linebacker Kiko Alonso.
On offence, they found themselves a stud in Sammy Watkins, who will be a Rookie of the Year candidate if his quarterbacks can get him the ball.
The Bills are right in the hunt for the AFC East, but it's still hard to see them sustaining a good record for the course of the season, where as the Patriots have proven they can, time and time again. Miami's inconsistent and the Jets look like a mess, but the Bills have their share of tough games ahead, with Denver, Cleveland, New England and Green Bay on their schedule. Those will all be games where the offence will struggle to keep up with the opposition.
7 Pretenders: Dallas Cowboys
Yes, the Cowboys have one of the league's best offensive lines and DeMarco Murray is looking like an MVP candidate, but there is still a long way to go this season.
They have yet to play a single divisional game and while Murray has carried them, the pace he's going at isn't sustainable for a 16-game season. He's had trouble staying healthy in his career and he's on pace for 416 carries this season, which would tie the NFL record set by Larry Johnson in 2006.
Jason Garrett has said himself the Cowboys will scale back on his carries. That means Tony Romo will eventually have to throw more and Joseph Randle and Lance Dunbar will get more carries. That doesn't sound ideal for Dallas.
They'll be in contention, but they'll fall short again.
6 Pretenders: Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals' abysmal 43-17 loss against the Patriots tells you all you need to know about them. When the big moment comes, they're going to shrink. It's happened over and over again, be it in the playoffs, or a big primetime game on the national stage.
Coming off a bye week, playing a team that had just been shellacked six days earlier, Cincinnati came out flat. Yes, it was Bill Belichick and Tom Brady coming off a bad game, but there's no excuse for the Bengals' blowout loss. The fact is Marvin Lewis has gone over 11 years without a playoff victory.
The Bengals are as talented and deep as anybody, but they continuously disappoint and it's hard to convince ourselves that this year will be any different.
5 Contenders: Arizona Cardinals
Give Bruce Arians the Coach of the Year award right now. Despite losing Carson Palmer after week 1 to injury, he still has the Cardinals tied for first in the NFC West with the Seahawks. The Cardinals also have three of their top defensive players out with Darnell Dockett and John Abraham injured while Daryl Washinton is suspended.
The Cardinals have continued finding ways to win and Carson Palmer will be back eventually. They've weathered the storm of injuries exceptionally well, and when it passes, they'll get on a roll.
4 Contenders: Philadelphia Eagles
The Philadelphia Eagles have been very inconsistent on offence and their defence continues to struggle at times. Yet, they've managed to start 4-1. The bottom line is, be it through special teams, a key turnover, they make the big play when they have to.
They're second in the league in scoring, but they're 14th in total yards. Their special teams has saved the day there, with Darren Sproles continuing to astound people and LeSean McCoy struggling to get it going. That's due to the decimated offensive line, with all five of its starters having missed time due to injury.
Despite all this, the Eagles are 4-1. Good teams find a way to win, and the Eagles have kept doing that. When their o-line gets healthier, the team will be even better.
3 Contenders: San Diego Chargers
The Chargers have stormed out of the gate, picking up where they left off last year, when they rattled off five wins in their last six games to make the playoffs.
They've beaten the Seattle Seahawks and very narrowly lost to the Cardinals, 18-17 in Week 1. Their schedule got easier after those two games, and they've taken full advantage of it.
In all honesty, they're the biggest threat to the Denver Broncos' AFC dominance, moreso than the New England Patriots right now. Philip Rivers looks like a leader in the MVP discussions. He has an astounding QB rating of 116.3. Finally, the Chargers still have four total games left with the Raiders and Chiefs. They also continuously give Denver fits.
They're a legitimate challenger for Denver's AFC West title hopes and they'll make Broncos fans nervous if the two meet in the playoffs again this year.
2 Contenders: Denver Broncos
In a thin AFC, the Denver Broncos are still the favourites to return to the Super Bowl. Peyton Manning still looks like himself. Wes Welker is back. Emmanuel Sanders is a great fit with the offence. Demaryius Thomas appears to have finally woken up. Julius Thomas is a load at tight end and the defence looks tougher this year.
Denver's only loss was an OT thriller in Seattle, a game in which Denver proved they're far gutsier than what they showed in the Super Bowl.
If you look across the top teams in the AFC, the Colts rely too heavily on Andrew Luck, the Bengals come up short in big games, the Patriots still have many issues to resolve and while the Chargers are a threat, Denver has the playoff experience.
1 Contenders: Seattle Seahawks
No surprises here; the Super Bowl champions still look super. While they may have the NFL's toughest division chasing them, they have the most stable situation and they're the top contender until someone knocks them off their pedestal.
The defence doesn't look quite as impenetrable as last season, at least so far, but they're still getting the job done. This is all happening while the offence looks far more dynamic, with Russell Wilson having taken a huge step forward in his development, Marshawn Lynch as dominant as ever and Percy Harvin's return, practically his debut with Seattle, has them more balanced than they were last season.
Repeats are difficult in the NFL, but the Seahawks have as good a shot as any in recent years. The teams that were supposed to be their main threats have disappointed, including the 49ers, Saints and Packers. They have been the sharpest of the bunch and it's unfathomable to see this team collapse down the stretch. If they have home-field advantage come January, a return to the Super Bowl is very likely. There's been nothing to suggest they can't do it again.
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