By Wide Right
It feels like everything is happening in the NFL right now but with an ominous dark cloud threatening to bring the whole thing to a screeching halt. More on that in a moment. But first, we have seen teams fly out of the blocks. We have seen playoff-calibre teams stuck in the muck and looking for a way to drag themselves out. We have seen a coach (and GM) fired already and question marks abound all across the league, particularly in the NFC. New York sports fans will be hoping the Yankees can somehow keep playing all the way through January because it is NOT a good place to be a football fan right now.
It must be said however, that what is shaping up to be an exciting season could all come crashing down in the form of Covid-19 (the aforementioned dark clouds). Tennessee have been hit hard with their game against the Steelers postponed until later this month and some head-scratching going on in Buffalo as to whether or not they will be heading to the Volunteer state on Sunday. Cam Newton missed the Patriot’s loss to the Chiefs and may be unavailable again this weekend as he tested positive for the virus. Catching positive tests early is absolutely crucial in making sure this season can push on because a team-wide outbreak will have Roger Goodell in crisis meetings as to how to negotiate such a hurdle.
So let’s have a look at how the two Conferences are shaping up. Please note that this is based purely on the games played this season. Expect these rankings to change dramatically as the season (hopefully) plays out.
Elites: Kansas City, Buffalo, Tennessee, Pittsburgh, Baltimore
Did anyone have Buffalo mixing it with this sort of company four games in? I didn’t and I am a Made Man in the Bills Mafia! After years of relying on defence and a solid run game, this team is suddenly all about gaudy passing numbers. If they can get the D back to what they have been the last few years and get more out of their ground game then this team might stop being compared to the Bills teams that made four straight Superbowls…. because they might just be better! KC have figured out the real-life cheat codes and are playing on the easy setting. There is absolutely no sign that they have let up even a little after last year’s success and are the clear early pace setters in the NFL. Baltimore were manhandled by the Chiefs but they won’t be the only team to suffer that fate this season. I still see them being a big player at the pointy end. The Titans and Steelers haven’t played yet and that game may alter these rankings slightly but so far so good for both of these strong teams.
Contenders: Indy, Cleveland, New England, Las Vegas
The Colts defence is as good as any unit going around this year. They are legit and when combined with a steady presence under Centre and a moderately easy division the Colts are setting themselves up for playoff action. Cleveland are putting together some stretches of elite play and if they can put it all together for a full game they might just be as strong as anyone. They have a bevy of stars swarming over the field and will only struggle due to the tough division games. I think the Raiders are better than what they have shown but they slot in nicely at the Contender spot after 4 rounds. They have beaten the Panthers and Saints which looks like a pretty handy form line right now. Losing both games against AFC East opponents may come back to haunt them if they are duking it out for a Wild Card spot.
Work To Do: Cincy, LA Chargers, Miami, Denver, Jacksonville, Houston, NY Jets
The Bengals, like the Browns, are hurt by the strength of their divisional opponents but as Joe Burrow continues to develop we may see some serious entertainment from this underrated squad. The Chargers are cycling through QB’s which is never a great way to start a season. They have had some tough games thus far so I give them half a pass for that. The waiting game continues in The Magic City as Ryan Fitzpatrick continues to do juuuuuust enough to keep out Tua at the QB spot. Going down 31-23 to Seattle is not what a basket case football team does. They will be a tough out for the teams fighting for Wild Card spots. I’m reserving judgement on Denver. They have had a tough slate so far and haven’t disgraced themselves. If they want to be a player in this season though, they need to start putting W’s up. Being blown away by the Dolphins and then getting to within a field goal of the Steelers are the kind of bums-on-seats results that seem to encapsulate Jaguars QB Gardner Minshew perfectly. They may not win a lot, but they are fun to watch. Houston has fired Bill O’Brien who was not only the team’s coach but also the General Manager. It was a huge risk to trade the best receiver in the league for a mediocre running back and it just hasn’t worked out. Did anyone, O’Brien included, really think that it would have? The Jets….umm…the Jets…well, the Jet’s just aren’t very good.
Elites: Seattle, Green Bay
Pretty small group at the top of the NFC tree. A fun debate would be whether this is due to other teams not being up to scratch or these two teams just simply separating themselves by flat out balling. The two undefeated teams are playing at a level consistent with a Superbowl run and will have it their own way unless other teams can step up. Seattle have had a couple of closer-than-expected games but all they do is win. Russell Wilson is putting his hand up nice and high for MVP votes. How do you get the best out of one of the most elite QB’s the game has ever known on the downhill stretch of his career? How about not only avoiding receivers for him in the draft but actually drafting his replacement! Having a mixed bag receiver group doesn’t matter if you are Aaron Rodgers. He is just that good.
Contenders: Tampa Bay, LA Rams, Chicago, New Orleans, Carolina, Arizona, San Fransisco, Philly
I expect at least two of these teams to have pushed themselves up into the Elite category by seasons end. Tampa Bay are giving themselves every shot at being playoff relevant as they benefit from a pretty soft schedule. The Rams will have to time their run f they are going to have an impact. Being in a tough division doesn’t help but they would be desperate to separate themselves from the Niners as much as possible in the short term. Chicago have been a surprise. Their three wins have come against teams in the next group but show me a team that wouldn’t take a 3-1 start before the season. If the Saints were a company I would be selling my house to buy their shares. Yes they are 2-2 and Brees hasn’t looked particularly great but football follows a simple set of rules. The Saints always start slow. They always improve over the season. They always go into the postseason as one of the favourites for the Lombardi and then they always lose to the Vikings in the playoffs. That’s just how football works in the NFC. Carolina are doing better than expected, Arizona are NOT doing as well as expected, every hundredth person through the gates on gameday gets to play for the 49ers such is their injury list and if anyone can give me an idea about just what the hell is going on in Philly right now, Id love to hear it. They are leading their division with one win. One! Which brings us to….
Work To Do: Washington, Dallas, Detroit, Minnesota, Atlanta, NY Football Giants
Ahhhh, so this is where the rest of the NFC East is hiding. Once the most powerful division in football, the famous “Black and Blue” division is now more of a custardy yellow colour. Washington are doing the best they can with limited weaponry at their disposal. Dallas have the NFL passing leader through four weeks but have only one W to show for it. I was hoping for better things from Detroit but upcoming tilts against the Jags and Falcons may help them recover their W-L ratio. Minnesota gave a massive contract to a so-so QB and are now paying the price. Matt Ryan’s shoulders must be aching after carrying the Falcons franchise for so long. The Giants weren’t going to be knocking anyone’s door down this year and that was BEFORE they lost their best player in Saquon Barkley.
So there we have it, four weeks in and we have seen the highs and lows that this game can throw up at us already. It really should make for a fascinating season with so many variables in play across the league. Teams playing in empty stadiums, teams playing in half empty stadiums, teams playing in brand new (and empty) stadiums. As mentioned earlier, I believe that certain teams will correct their course as the cream usually rises to the top eventually but it is fun to think of teams like Buffalo and Tampa Bay making deep post-season runs. In a world that has brought us nothing but chaos this year, it is great to see that the chaos being played out on the gridiron is (mostly) of the expected kind. The kind we all love.