Contenders and Pretenders

Contenders (teams who look strong enough to challenge)

Buffalo Bills 4-1
Josh Allen has demonstrated great progress in his 3rd year as starting QB. The addition of Stefan Diggs has given their offense an added dimension. The Titans gave them a bloody nose in week 5 and the Bills D does need to get healthy and back to their 2019 standards but they should take the AFC East.

Pittsburgh Steelers 4-0, Cleveland Browns 4-1, Baltimore Ravens 4-1
The AFC North is stacked with three true contenders this year. The Steelers offense is back in business with Big Ben at the helm and rookie WR Chase Claypool looks like another great find. The Browns are for real this year and have shown the ability to adapt gameplans to maximise their chances. The talent on offense should propel them to the playoffs. For the Ravens their offense has been somewhat muted in comparison to their stellar 2019 but they have a very solid roster on both sides of the ball which should see them through. The divisional match-ups will be key to who advances as division winners with the week 6 Browns @ Steelers the first glimpse of who will have the bragging rights.

Tennessee Titans 4-0
Could the Titans repeat the recipe on offense this year with Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry? Apparently so. They followed up three close wins with stuffing the Bills 42-16. With AJ Brown now back on offense, and a weak AFC South they should be able to navigate their win to another division title (and maybe better than 9-7 at last!).

Kansas City Chiefs 4-1
The Chiefs had opened with four straight wins but there have been signs of teams (Chargers and Patriots in particular) working out how to slow Mahomes and company down. Then the Raiders came to town and produced a stunning upset. So, some things for Andy Reid to ponder. This is still potentially the most explosive offense in the league but they may not have it all their own way.

Green Bay Packers 4-0
The focus and the determination of Aaron Rodgers looks borderline scary at the moment. The lowest number of points scored across first four weeks is 30! The script has been flipped since 2019 with the offense dominating and making up for some defensive frailties which may need correcting to be a true challenger or maybe Rodgers is going to do it all himself. Speaking of which….

Seattle Seahawks 5-0
Let Russ cook! That could be the summary. The Seahawks don’t win easy dull games. As with the Packers, the Seahawks defense is not going to win them the championship, but Wilson, DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett might.

LA Rams 4-1
Great coaching job by Sean McVay this year, after a disappointing 2019. The switch to Brandon Staley as defensive coordinator has renewed the defense, with Aaron Donald looking like he may be a good bet to beat the season high sack record (2001 Michael Strahan 22.5 – Donald already has 7.5 putting him on track for 24). The offense is back to an efficient scheme, run first then develop play action. They could repeat their 2018 challenge.

In the mix (they may mount a challenge)

New Orleans Saints 3-2, Tampa Bay Buccaneers 3-2
Both of these have shown glimpses of their ability to challenge, but they have also demonstrated their limitations. Both have experienced QBs, but Brees and Brady are not invincible anymore and Sean Payton and Bruce Arians may need to scheme their way out of that. Their defenses may need to help dig them out of a hole now and again. The battle for the NFC South title will be scrappy.

Indianapolis Colts 3-2
Are the 2020 Colts the Peyton Manning Broncos? They have a winning record and a top 10 defense but do they enough on offense? Injuries have stacked up (Marlon Mack, Parris Campbell, Michael Pittman) which has limited players available to Philip Rivers to look to. The system looks designed to take the pressure off Rivers and at least he is behind a good offensive line so he has protection. However, he has already looked like the Chargers turnover machine of recent years and that may impact their ability to make the playoffs in a strong AFC.

New England Patriots 2-2
Cam Newton looks like a great acquisition and will be one of the main reasons the Patriots will stay competitive. They remain one of the best coached teams in the league, particularly in terms of defensive game planning and situational football. However, as with the Colts, this could be a brutal AFC race to the playoffs and they may miss out in the end.

Dallas Cowboys 2-3
The Cowboys get to be in this category purely for three reasons: how poor the NFC East is this year, their trio of WRs (Cooper, Gallup and Lamb) and Zeke Elliott. With Dak Prescott now out for the year expect Andy Dalton to lean heavily on his superb trio of WRs and Zeke. The defense needs to press reset but they might win the division just by beating the Giants, Redskins and Eagles.

Frisky (will be a thorn in anyone’s side)

Chicago Bears 4-1
The Bears are 4-1! The Nick Foles Experience is in full effect again. Their defense has helped them to edge out some close games and they are heading for a difficult part of the schedule (Rams, Saints, Titans weeks 7-9 and still both Packers games). Survive those and they might accrue enough wins for a wildcard spot.

Las Vegas Raiders 3-2, Arizona Cardinals 3-2
Both these teams have shown signs they are working things out, particularly on offense. The Raiders have Josh Jacobs on the ground, Darren Waller as a premium pass-catching TE and WR Henry Ruggs as a deep threat. And they’ve beaten the Chiefs, which will give great confidence. Games against the Buccaneers and Browns following their bye week might tell us if they can make the playoffs. The Cardinals are built around throwing to Deandre Hopkins and Kyler Murray’s dual threat. They have stuttered a bit in a relatively soft part of their schedule with 5 NFC West divisional match ups to come. They may not get enough in the W column to make January football.

Carolina Panthers 3-2
In my view probably the best coached team in the league at the moment. Rookie HC Matt Rhule has taken a team predicted to tank in the pre-season and engineered 3 wins in firs 5 games. Offensive coordinator Joe Brady is getting the best out of Teddy Bridgewater and the rookie defensive pieces have helped mould the tough persona Rhule demands from his teams. Panthers will continue to surprise through the season and probably be around .500 which would be a very promising first season.

Season slipping away

Houston Texans 1-4, Minnesota Vikings 1-3
Much was expected from the Texans and Vikings pre-season. Both have disappointed in the first few weeks and are now up against it to mount any sort of challenge in 2020. The Texans have been decisive in sacking their GM/HC Bill O’Brien and they may play with more freedom now and become quite a dangerous team with nothing to lose. Their next two fixtures (Titans and Packers) may decide whether they can flip the switch or are destined for a 6-10 type season. The Vikings look similar on offense to 2019 with the ability to both dazzle and frustrate but the defense is a work in progress. Their run of divisional games in weeks 8-10 (Packers, Lions, Bears) will dictate if they can catch Chicago and challenge for a wildcard spot.

Philadelphia Eagles 1-3-1, San Francisco 49ers 2-3
Both of these sides have QB issues. Carson Wentz looks better running with the ball than throwing it and Jimmy G has the Super Bowl hangover from hell (remember he was probably 1 good deep ball throw from being a Super Bowl winner last year). The Eagles have what feels like perennial injury problems but they are in the dire NFC East so they could challenge the Cowboys. The 49ers are behind the 8 ball in a talent stacked NFC West and have had their own fair share of injuries on both sides of the ball. The Seahawks, Rams, and Cardinals have got a head start and even with Kyle Shanahan’s ability scheme up the best chance to win it will be hard for San Francisco to return to the playoffs this year.

Detroit Lions 1-3
This should read must do better, for the sake of HC Matt Patricia and GM Bob Quinn. There are small signs of improvement each week but not enough to secure the wins needed. Games against the Jaguars and the Falcons may dictate the future direction of the franchise. Win and they may be able to salvage something, lose and Patricia and Quinn can be added to the casualties of 2020.

On the mend

Miami Dolphins 2-3
The Dolphins are having some fun. They almost made it into the frisky section of the article. Crushing victories against the 49ers and Jaguars have been in-between close, 1-score, defeats to contenders the Bills and Seahawks. Ryan Fitzpatrick knows he is probably in his final flourish, with Tua waiting in the wings, and he is making the most of it. Again they look a well coached outfit by Brian Flores and his team, and with high picks already in the bag for the 2021 draft things are looking good for the Dolphins. A .500 season would be a step in the right direction.

Cincinnati Bengals 1-3-1, Los Angeles Chargers 1-4, Denver Broncos 1-3
The new shiny QB effects galvanised the Bengals and the Chargers. Burrow and Herbert may not have turned that into W’s on a regular basis yet but the future looks bright for both as they look really composed in their play. The Bengals have also added well to their defense which looks like it will grow into a much improved unit. The Broncos have been unlucky with key injuries which have negated any opportunity to see their young, fast offense in full flow. For the Chargers it is the defense which has been hit hard by injury. Ultimately all three will probably have losing records but they should be able to take positives from this year.

In limbo

Jacksonville Jaguars 1-4, Washington Football Team 1-4
The Jaguars looked good for about a fortnight with Gardner Minshew and rookie RB James Robinson fast out of the blocks. However, since their week 3 stall versus Miami they have fallen behind in games which is a place they cannot recover from, they have to get out in front. It will be interesting to see if they can pick some momentum back up, first of all this week with a winnable matchup against Detroit. If not it could be a long hard slog. For Washington they are in QB turmoil and that is not a good place to start. It looks as though Dwayne Haskins time is up, and the duo of Kyle Allen and the returning Alex Smith will not be able to conjure much with a talent poor offense. Their defense will cause problems for some and Ron Rivera’s effort during his treatment for skin cancer is heroic, but they look like a team in rebuild with one eye on 2021 already.

On fire

Atlanta Falcons 0-5, NY Jets 0-5, NY Giants 0-5
Oh dear. Not a win between them. One HC and GM gone in Atlanta (Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff) and surely one more of each (Adam Gase for the Jets, Dave Gettlemen for Giants) will follow, A case of when not if. All three are already looking at their potential draft pick for 2021. The Falcons have shown a tremendous capacity to lose leads, with a defence which cannot stop the opposition. For the Giants, the offense has been the root of most issues particularly after the early season loss of Saquon Barkley. Dave Gentlemen has not been able to revamp a Giants roster which is still talent poor in areas and he will surely not be given another offseason. As for the Jets it is hard to know where to start. Sam Darnold is being wasted and could be lost for all the talent he has shown glimpses of at times. Worse still it looks as though the players and coaches are not on the same page. As I finish this article I keep refreshing my NFL app expecting to see the firing of Adam Gase, which seems to be the starting point for any recovery.

So where would I point to right now as a potential final four? I’m going to go with possibly the four strongest QBs and expect to see the Chiefs and the Ravens in the AFC, and the Packers and the Seahawks in the NFC. The next month’s matchups will help shape where we are headed!

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