Pretender or Contender? (After Week 16)

(credit: masslive.com/AP Photo Charles Krupa)

After 16 weeks of play, the NFL post-season is really starting to take shape. Several teams in both conferences have already clinched playoffs berths, but others remain hopeful for a chance heading into week 17.

With all this on the table, we have an opportunity to predict who will snatch the last few spots and compete for a title. Have my contender picks stood strong all season? Are my pretenders still pretending? What will the 2020 NFL Playoffs look like? Let’s dive in.

For reference:

Status of a contender = having enough talent to make the playoffs and seriously compete with the best of the best in the NFL to win a championship

Status of a pretender = does NOT mean the team is bad and uncapable of winning. Instead, it is a label given to teams with talent, but without the capability of going toe to toe with contenders/secure a playoff spot.

Pretender/Contender for Teams That Have Clinched:

Of all the teams that clinched, I had previously had 5/7 listed as contenders (fairly consistently) all season long. These have been the cream of the crop all year long, but, as we know, ANYTHING can happen in the postseason. All you have to do is get into the dance, and you have a shot.

Buffalo: The Bills have shaped up to be one of my favorite picks to win the NFC. Josh Allen, to me, has been playing at an extremely high level and should be in the MVP conversation. Plus, Stefon Diggs should probably be top 3 in OPOTY votes. The Buffalo offense is extremely explosive (ranking 4th in total offense according to ESPN), and the defense has been extremely solid (top 10 or just outside of it in all major defensive stats). There are not many weaknesses on this team, but Josh Allen has been previously labeled as a QB who crumbles under pressure. We saw it last season in his wild card game against Houston. I have a feeling though that he will break that stigma and carry the Bills towards a deep playoff run. Contender.

Pittsburgh: After a dominant 11-0 stretch, the Steelers feel like they’ve fizzled out physically and mentally. The defense has suffered from some big losses due to injury. The offense has struggled to even move the ball, let alone score points. I think this team has a solid foundation, but getting cold and worn down towards the final stretch of the regular season is not a good sign– despite their heroic 2nd half performance against the Colts. They’ve looked lazy, tired, and frustrated. Barring any miraculous turn around headed into the playoffs, I really don’t see this team making a far run. I’m going to have to label them as a pretender.

Kansas City: I don’t think it comes as a surprise that Kansas City has already locked up their division and a first round bye week. They’ve been one of the most consistent offensive teams in the NFL over the past few seasons with Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes leading the way. Strangely enough, Mahomes has struggled recently. In the month of December he’s had 8TDs/4 Ints, 3 fumbles, and has recorded back to back games with 50-55% completion percentages, none of which is your typical Mahomes. Aside from this outlier month, the Chiefs have been extremely good and I expect Pat to turn things around in the divisional round of the playoffs. The Chiefs are more than likely the best team in the AFC and are surely contenders, but let’s not forget how hard it is for a team to make back to back Super Bowls…

Green Bay: The Packers have been extremely hot ever since their loss to Indianapolis 5 weeks ago, and have continued the winning streak with a blowout win over the Titans. The Green Bay offense is probably the best all around in the NFC and has shown the ability to utilize an elite rushing and passing attack where necessary. The defense is, however, just solid. They have an elite corner in Jaire Alexander with good depth in the secondary, and a talented group on the front 7 anchored by Kenny Clark. In order for the Packers to make it all the way to the championship, they need Aaron Rogers to be dominate and the defense to hold up against any of the tough offenses they’ll face in the NFC. Nonetheless, GB is an obvious contender.

New Orleans: I’m not sold on New Orleans as a winner out of the NFC. Yes, the defense has been top end in the NFL this season, but the offense has been inconsistent. Drew Brees has been banged up again this year, on top of taking on a decline in his throwing power/accuracy from last year’s thumb surgery. The line hasn’t held up either, mostly due to injury, but with a unit being so hurt all season long– is their chemistry where it should be this far into the season (let alone their conditioning and durability in a year with contactless training camp). On top of that, Michael Thomas has been extremely underwhelming (40 catches, 438 yards, ZERO touchdowns in 7 games), which is a huge hit to the Saints’ efficiency and explosiveness as an offense. Defense wins championships… so long as the offense can produce, and I’m not convinced this is the year or the window for the Saints to do it. Pretender.

Tampa Bay: Tom Brady and the Bucs were supposed to be UNBEATABLE this season remember? Mike Evans, OJ Howard, Gronk, Leonard Fournette, LeSean McCoy with TB12??? If you believed the hype back then, you were probably in for a wake up call when they lost the season series against the Saints (including a 38-3 blowout loss), got manhandled by the Chicago defense, and struggled against some very mediocre teams (NYG, LAR, LAC, ATL). Yes the Bucs are good, but all the excitement and attention they got in the offseason was uncalled for, and their play this season as an average team should have been proof enough. I respect that Brady was able to leave the Patriots and still be successful (granted he has one of the best offensive coaches in the NFL in Bruce Arians), but their inconsistency as a team this year has me worried for them going into the playoffs– especially with their defense being so inexperienced. I think they’ll win a wildcard game (depending on the matchup), but I don’t expect much more than that. Pretender.

Seattle: I love Russell Wilson and what he brings to the table as a QB in the NFL. Without a doubt he has elite instincts and abilities (especially when he’s outside the pocket) that very few possess. However, the lack of talent on the defensive end of the ball worries me headed into the playoffs, which is unusual for a Seattle team. At the start of December, Seattle ranked LAST in yards allowed, which is just unacceptable as a playoff bound team. If they come across an Aaron Rogers or even a Tom Brady in the playoffs, their run will be very short lived with such poor play on defense. For these reasons, I have to put them as pretenders. Russ’ magic might sneak them a win, but I don’t expect them to hold out for a Super Bowl run.

Pretender/Contender: In the Hunt

Now, I’m not here to say who will or won’t get into the post season (we all know how crazy these in/out situations get), but I do want to highlight whether any of these teams still have a chance at making a legitimate run.

Miami: As Miami gained some traction as a legitimate squad in the NFL, I previously labeled them as a pretender, and I still have to stick by that. Despite an impressive record for a team that was supposed to continue their rebuild, an excellent defense, and a rising star in HC Brian Flores, I don’t think Tua is good enough to lead the Dolphins on a deep playoff run. Yes, he’s a rookie and needs some more help from his weapons, but from what I’ve seen the highly coveted rookie seems like the next Alex Smith to me. He is smart with the ball, fairly athletic, and has a good enough arm to make some impressive throws– but he’s no Mahomes, Rogers, or Wilson. There is certainly room for improvement, but as it stands, he functions as a middle of the pack game manager type QB. He’ll get his big chance to prove me wrong this week with the biggest game of his young career (Fitzpatrick out with COVID) and a chance to lead Miami to their first playoff appearance since 2016. To me though, the Dolphins are pretenders.

Baltimore: The Ravens really had a huge fallout through this back half of the season. After a 6-2 start, Baltimore had a tough 3 game skid that put them at 6-5 and seemingly on track to miss the playoffs. This setback could still cost them a playoff trip, but we’re here to talk about their power to make a run IF they do get in. At times, this offense appears absolutely lethal (7 games with 30 points or more), and at other times they look fairly stagnant. The low games are what make the Ravens a tough call as a contender. When they scored under 30, they were only a 3-3 team. Granted, that’s fairly average– but 1. This tells me Baltimore struggles to win when the offense can’t carry the load all game, 2. Average isn’t enough in the NFL playoffs. You need to be totally balanced with all 3 phases of the game (offense, defense, special teams) and if the offense can’t pull their own weight in the post season– Baltimore is doomed. We’ve seen, multiple times now, that when a team comes up with a game plan to contain Lamar Jackson in the postseason the team tends to crumble. Is Jackson ready to turn that streak around? It doesn’t feel like it… Pretender

Cleveland: This is the best Cleveland Browns team I have (personally) ever seen. The 1-2 punch between Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt is lethal, the defense is playing at a superb level, and the offensive line is top 5 in the league in my book. This is a very, very solid team… BUT their weakness lies in the most crucial point of any team… the quarterback. When Baker Mayfield was drafted 1st overall in 2018, I rolled my eyes and said to myself ‘what a Browns thing to do’, and I still stand by that thought. Time and time again, Baker has proved to be shaky at best when it comes to accuracy (7th highest ‘bad throw %’ at 19% per Pro Football Reference), and inaccurate QBs will get pummeled in the post season. Let alone, we haven’t seen Mayfield play in a big game that was comparable to an NFL play off game since he was in college, making him very untested and unproven… I don’t trust that. Even with a top 5 line, elite running backs, and pro bowlers in Jarvis Landry and Austin Hooper to throw to, Baker has still be very average (if not worse at times). Pretender.

Tennessee: The Titans have been a super solid team all year and have carried that momentum they had at the end of the year last season into this one. Derrick Henry is by far the best power running back in the game, and most definitely top 3 in terms of all around talent in the NFL. Ryan Tannehill has been on fire, allowing their young wideouts AJ Brown and Corey Davis to really have productive seasons. On the other side of the ball the defense is, without a doubt, built with star talent with guys like DaQuan Jones, Rashaan Evans and Kevin Byard headlining the group. Last year, the Titans really showed the league that they deserve to be up there with the elite teams in the NFL with a trip to the AFC championship game. This year, they’ve brought the same energy and intensity, despite a crazy COVID season. Early in the year I didn’t see them as continuing the hot play, but they’ve showed signs of legitimate contention with huge wins against the Colts, Bills, Ravens, and Bears (all teams with a shot to make the playoffs). If they want to make a deep run, they do need to make sure their special teams play stays steady (can’t have a repeat of what happened against the Colts on a Thursday Night game a few weeks ago), but if they can fix that dimension of their play then they can be serious contenders.

Indianapolis: Those who know me know that the Colts are my team, and that I think this is one of the best teams Indy has had in quite awhile. When healthy, I think they have a top 3 O-Line, a top 5 defense, and one of the best sets of running backs in the league (Marlon Mack has been out with an achillies injury all year remember). Plus, the wideouts are extremely underrated. Rookie Michael Pittman has shown signs of a budding star along with the undrafted Zach Pascal… not to mention star TY Hilton has been getting hot lately. However, the issue with this team has been Philip Rivers and his inability to make plays with his feet or make deep passes consistently. At several points this season the offense has gained a huge lead and become one dimensional to the point where the opposition was able to catch up and not allow Rivers to make plays by controlling their run game and blitzing Rivers to pressure him to make inaccurate throws (because he can’t escape the pocket at all). If the Colts get in, they need to have a totally healthy offensive line and Rivers needs to be perfect every possession for them to have a chance…but I don’t have faith in either variable so far. Sadly, I don’t think Indy has the QB talent to push them for a Super Bowl run. The league has changed and a pure pocket QB like Rivers won’t get them far if they do get in. Pretender.

WAS/DAL/NYG: Well, one of these teams are going to get into the playoffs. Dallas is essentially incompetent defensively and totally unbalanced on offense without Dak Prescott. Pretender.

The Giants are young and headed in the right direction. They need some help at wideout and the offensive line, but otherwise they are a very good young squad, but there is certainly lots of room to improve. However, without star RB Saquon Barkley, they have no shot. On the right track, but pretender.

Washington is the one team in this division who can win a surprise game or two in the playoffs. They, quietly, have one of the highest rated defenses in the NFL with (maybe) the best defensive line in the league. That’s a hot take, but there’s no denying that they have elite talent there. On the other hand, the offense has grown Terry McLaurin and Antonio Gibson into young stars. With Haskins out of the picture at QB, they aren’t totally awful there anymore. Alex Smith (if healthy enough to play) could very well carry the team to a wild card win. If it happens don’t be surprised. However, they are not ready for a Super Bowl win. Don’t get it twisted though… they are extremely close to being there. For this year though, Pretender.

Chicago: The Bears dug themselves into a hole by swapping starting QBs multiple times this season. I said it early on in the year when Trubisky was originally benched at halftime after a 3-0 start to the year– you can’t keep changing QBs and expect the offense to click or the team to keep morale high. This (probably) explains the team’s struggles to stay .500 (currently 8-7). They do possess a very talented defense and if they get into the playoffs they could surprise a few with a win in the wild card round, but this just isn’t the year for them based on what I’ve seen. They have the tools, but have consistently fallen short of expectations which forces me to list them as pretenders.

LA Rams/Arizona: After a decent start to the year with some huge divisional wins, the Rams have been severely inconsistent with a 9-6 record. Losses to the Jets, a depleted San Francisco team (twice), and a devastating divisional loss to the Seahawks have really slimmed their chances towards the end of the year. A matchup for a playoff spot (essentially) with division rival Arizona should prove to be a fun game to watch. Arizona, similarly, has had an extremely up and down sort of year– but I think they have a slight edge in offensive prowess and talent to top the Rams and potentially lock up a playoff berth. Despite the outcome, both teams have been far too inconsistent to make a legitimate run. LA has holes all over their roster and a QB who has failed to perform consistently on the big stages, while Arizona is young and untested all across the board. Both squads have to be labeled as pretenders now– especially in a highly competitive NFC.

Contenders: Buffalo, Kansas City, Green Bay, Tennessee.

Pretenders: Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Tampa Bay, Seattle, Miami, Baltimore, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Washington, NYG, Dallas, Chicago, LAR, Arizona

Pretender or Contender? (After Week 10)

After realizing not much was changing every 2 weeks, I wanted to give some time for the NFL to really shape up and sort out the good and not so good teams. Now, with 6 more weeks of football played, the playoff outlook has drastically changed since I last assessed things. Let’s get back to it then:

For reference:

Status of a contender = having enough talent to make the playoffs and seriously compete with the best of the best in the NFL to win a championship

Status of a pretender = does NOT mean the team is bad and uncapable of winning. Instead, it is a label given to teams with talent, but without the capability of going toe to toe with contenders/secure a playoff spot.

Still a Contender: Of all the teams I saw as contenders after 4 weeks, here are the ones that still sit pretty on the list.

Bills: Buffalo has a very complete team and are in prime position to win the AFC East. With key wins against Seattle, NYJ, and New England– they are sitting with 7-2 record and are sitting in the 1st place throne in their division. However, a surprise team has been slowly creeping up and may just compete for the division title… Anyway, Josh Allen is still in MVP talks (to me anyway), the Buffalo defense is balanced and super solid as a unit, and they have finally acquired a superstar offensive skill guy in Stefon Diggs– so they stay on the contender list without a doubt.

Steelers: As the only undefeated team in football, can we really even make a case for Pittsburgh to NOT be on the contending list? Big Ben, despite my worries, has been rock solid all season and has proven himself once again as an elite QB in the league– despite his age and recent surgery. Plus, the Steelers boast one of the deepest receiving groups in the league. Outside Juju, both Dionate Johnson and Chase Claypool have been outstanding playmakers and have been putting up impressive stats over the past few games. Pile the explosive passing attack on to a team with a dominant, top 3 defense in the league– and you have a contender… maybe even the best team in the AFC.

Colts: Sitting at a solid 6-3, Indy has been one of the better overall teams in the league. I’d argue that the Colts have a top 3-5 defense in the league (they’ve certainly played that way thus far), but they are hindered by the offense. In their 3 losses, we have gotten the turnover heavy version of QB Phillip Rivers, where he’s had crucial, game changing miscues (talk about a Game Winning Turnover…) that have ended badly for the Colts. However, with the emergence of Jonathan Taylor and Nyheim Hines, and the steady improvement of the young receiving group (not to mention the fact that they have the best offensive line in the NFL), this team has all the makings of a contender– especially with a HUGE TNF win against division rival Tennessee to take the division lead.

Chiefs: You really can’t count out a team lead by Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs after what we saw last season– especially as they sit atop their division at 8-1, and their only loss coming from a very competitive LV Raider team. I do have concerns about the offensive line and the depth on defense– but they were also the same concerns I had last year and we all know how their post season run went… Easily a contender still.

Packers: After an explosive 4-0 start, the Packers have dropped some very winnable games and they have sort of came back down to Earth. A blowout loss to an inconsistent Tampa and a crushing divisional loss to the (2-5) Vikings raised some concern, but I think they will be just fine. The trio of Rogers, Jones, and Adams has been exciting to watch, and the defense has continued it’s solid play from last season– making them a legitimate contender and all but a lock for the divisional title.

Seahawks: After a 5-0 start, Seattle has dropped to 6-3 and has a lot less momentum than they did since I last assessed them. 2 of those losses have been to the Rams and Cardinals– two highly competitive teams who are all tied in the division. However, losing those two games is a huge setback in a tight divisional race and a very competitive NFC conference… Even at, say, 10-6– this team could miss the playoffs. I’m keeping them as contenders for now, but they are on veryyyyy thin ice here with their divisional record.

Rams: The LA Rams are so inconsistent to me. They’ll have huge wins against very good teams, but then crap the bed against a team that they should have no problem handling. The LAR defense, between stars Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey, is insanely talented and can be dominant at times– but the offense is very up and down– mostly due to the recent QB play. At this point, it is almost safe to say that Jared Goff is a bust. Not because he’s awful QB, but when you take a guy 1st overall– you expect much more dominant play, and I really believe that without an offensive genius as HC like Sean McVay, Goff would be on the bench or playing somewhere else by now. Even so, Goff has been super average– but they have gotten the job done. This past week’s win against Seattle was HUGE to keep them on my contender list. The next few weeks are pivotal however, and they need to keep earning divisional wins to keep up with the others in a tight NFC conference.

NEW Contenders:

Cardinals: I have known how sneaky talented the Cardinals have been since last year, but Kyler Murray has really surpassed my expectations and has grown steadily as an NFL QB. The team has really put Kyler in a position to grow, mature, and make big plays– especially with the addition of DeAndre Hopkins. At the moment, Arizona sits atop the NFC West with an undefeated divisional record, and a huge win against a dominant Buffalo team this past week. I love the explosiveness of their offense, and the defense is sneaky good. As we know, hot teams like this usually have opportunity to make nice playoff runs (see last year’s Titans), and I have a shaky feeling Arizona could be that team this season… look out for it.

Raiders: I love the makeup of this football team, but I thought the core pieces on both sides of the ball were just a bit too young to start producing at a high rate just yet– however, the Raiders have seriously proven me wrong. LV has huge wins against Kansas City, Denver, and the Chargers– keeping them undefeated within the division and two games behind KC for first place. Gruden has really made scrappy group of young guys into a solid overall squad and could seriously contend for a division title or at the least a wild card spot. They get to take on Mahomes and Chiefs again this week, and this game could have HUGE implications for the playoff hopes for the Raiders. If they can pull out a win and stay hot, look out for them as underdogs to steal the AFC West.

Pretenders:

The Entire NFC East: At this point, it isn’t really worth making separate writing blocks for any of these squads. All of them are just flat out bad– especially when you look at some of the other NFC squads. Washington and Dallas have tremendous QB issues, New York lacks an offensive line and offensive weapons (remember Saquon is hurt), and I guess that leaves Philly– who at this point is the division leader and will probably be the winner in the end. However, I expect whoever wins this division to get smacked in the wildcard round quite honestly.

49ers: I was really hopeful for San Fran this season, but it has been an utter disaster for them. The once dominant defense is extremely injury plagued, Jimmy G is either hurt of playing awfully, and they have fallen far, far behind the rest of their divisional opponents in the race to earn a spot in the post season. Unfortunately, I don’t see their season turning around anytime soon. At least, for San Fran sports fans,

Dolphins: Now, the Dolphins have been extremely good over the past few weeks– much better than anyone probably imagined was possible at this point in their rebuild. They decided to bench Fitzmagic for their 1st round draft choice in Tua– a move that I questioned heavily at the time due to the hip injury Tua had been recovering from. However, he has been much more mobile and confident than I imagined, but he has not put up eye popping numbers or anything. What I love about Miami is their defense– which Brian Flores has really brought to life. Despite all the good, I don’t think they can grab a playoff spot without the Bills falling apart– even if that happens I don’t see them making any sort of spectacular run in the AFC. They do have room to move up on the list though, with huge games coming up against KC, Vegas, and the Bills.

Titans: After falling apart on TNF this past week, it’s hard to say that the Titans are going to go on a magical playoff run again. Unlike many more obvious contenders, Tennessee has only 1 impressive win, which was a blowout victory against Buffalo, but other than that they’ve grinded out narrow wins or lost. I think they’re a decent team with a dominant run game and underrated air attack, but the defense is up and down. Plus, the special teams has been more than inconsistent (especially when you look at the disaster of a second half they had against the Colts)– which has cost them heavily. They will continue to compete with Indy for the division title, and will probably steal a wildcard spot– but it won’t be easy and I haven’t seen enough dominant play for me to deem them a contender.

Saints: I have seen flashes of defensive dominance and excellence, but as I’ve said before, Drew Brees does not look the same after last year’s thumb injury. Also, Michael Thomas has never been able to get going and has been sidelined with injury much of the season. The offense seems out of sync to me– yet they are still in prime position to win the division… unless Drew Brees misses significant time with his rib injury from this weekend. The reason I list them here is because the NFC is tough and I just haven’t seen enough out them to list them as a legitimate Super Bowl squad. It can always change for them.

Buccaneers: Brady and the Bucs really started to get hot after a tricky start, but now they have lost both divisional matchups with the division leading Saints which puts them at a severe disadvantage. They do have a big shot to gain some ground over the Saints with Drew Brees being sidelined with an unknown return date. If they can get some big wins and take a dominant lead in the division– they could definitely move up.

Ravens: I’ve noted before that the Ravens need Lamar to be elite and on top of his game at all times for them to have a legitimate shot as contenders– and he still has been streaky. Before, Lamar was allowed to be streaky and the defense was good enough to keep them in complete control of the division– but now with their defense a bit weaker/older and the division becoming much more competitive he has minimal room for error. The Steelers hold a dominant lead for first, and the Browns are lurking right behind them. Right now I’m not convinced they can seriously push for a Super Bowl– let alone the fact that I don’t even know whether they’ll earn a post season spot.

Browns: The Browns are finally utilizing their super talented roster. Their offensive lines is probably top 5 in the league– which allows their dominant two headed backfield duo to run up and the down the field all game long. They also boast a top 15 defense in the league and have potential to sneak up on the Ravens as a wild card team. I need to see more consistency out of Baker Mayfield and a few more key wins for me to really be convinced to take them off this list though.

So, we have our verdict for the top teams in the league. There were some tough choices to be made, but at this point in the season and with what I have seen– these are my best assessments. After a few more weeks, I Imagine we will have a much clearer version of the playoff picture– which is where things will really start to get interesting

Pretender or Contender? (After Week 4)

Another exciting 2 weeks of football has been played and now comes the time where I swap teams between lists, eliminate some teams, and attempt to predict the eventual Super Bowl matchup.

For reference:

Status of a contender = having enough talent to make the playoffs and seriously compete with the best of the best in the NFL to win a championship

Status of a pretender = does NOT mean the team is bad and uncapable of winning. Instead, it is a label given to teams with talent, but without the capability of going toe to toe with contenders/secure a playoff spot.

AFC:

Bills (4-0): I can’t say enough about this Bills squad. Josh Allen is in the MVP race, their defense is playing at a high level, and they recorded 2 impressive victories against the Rams and Raiders the past 2 weeks. In those games, Allen has put up over 500 yards, 4 TDs and only 1 interception. This team is really good, and running away with the division. Look for them to battle the Chiefs for a 1st overall seed in the AFC. Easily a contender.

Titans (3-0): Since the last edition of Contender/Pretender, the Titans have only played one game against Minnesota, where they narrowly won. Tannehill was underwhelming (23/37 321 yards, 0 TDs, 1 INT) and the defense let a struggling Vikings team score 30. The lone bright spot was Derrick Henry was dominant with *almost* 120 yards and 2 TDs (4.6 YPC). However, I haven’t seen enough to change their status just yet- they still sit on my pretender list.

Patriots (2-2): The Patriots have caught a very tough break as of recent. They started off the 2 week period with an impressive win against the Raiders, but then were struck by the virus and lost to the Chiefs without Cam Newton (COVID). New England also received word that star corner Stephon Gilmore had tested positive for COVID and are now unable to practice for the time being. A rough couple of weeks like this would be worrisome for most other teams, but we are talking about the Patriots. I’ve seen Belichick come back from similar situations (slow starts, injuries, etc.), so I have no doubt that they can only go up from here- especially considering how well the defense has been playing. I’m gonna keep the Pats on my contender list… for now.

Steelers (3-0): Another team who were only able to get in 1 game in this 2 week span (Titans COVID outbreak postponed their matchup in week 4). Pittsburgh was able to pull together a decent win against the winless Texans– where their defense was very dominant (5 sacks and 1 INT). Big Ben looks healthy, Conner has remained active and is the undisputed #1 ball carrier we all knew he could be. I really do like this Steelers team and like to think they could steal the division from the heavily favorited Ravens… with that being said, the Steelers are a pretty obvious contender in my eyes.

Ravens (3-1): Baltimore has dominated in all 3 of their wins… against subpar teams. The only legitimate squad they’ve faced has been Kansas City- and they were toyed with through most of the game (L 34-20). Obviously, the Ravens have a very good defense and one of the most exciting offenses in the NFL (Lamar Jackson is a pretty good QB), and I still don’t see them as a contender. However, I said it before and I will say it as much as I need to, Lamar needs to prove that he can face adversity and pull through against great teams (especially in the playoffs).

Browns (3-1): Cleveland is 3-1????? WOW they must be a contender! Things have changed right?!?! Uhhh, not really. They’ve won against 3 really poor teams and have allowed a TON of points (OPP PPG = 31.5). Yes, that means they have also scored a bunch of points to compete and win- but they have only faced one serious contender (Baltimore) and they were completely plowed through. Please do not fall for this trap. The Browns are still a pretender, plain and simple.

Colts (3-1): Last edition, I was on the fence about this squad. They were upset by a pretty bad Jaguars team week 1 and then finally seemed to catch their stride against the Vikings (also not that great of a team right now). However, I needed to see some more from Indy to be certain about their status going forward. How does 1st in opponent points and yards, 5th in lowest opponent completion percentage, 6th in allowed rush yards, and 4th in fourth most forced turnovers. This is the type of production you would expect out of such a talented group (Darius Leonard, DeForest Buckner, Justin Houston, Xavier Rhodes, and so on). Plus, Rivers has been a very good game manager, while rookie back Johnathan Taylor has been very impressive with his fill in for the injured Marlon Mack. Now, with a 3 game win streak and the best rated defense in the league- I can confidently say this team looks like a contender.

Chiefs (4-0): The Chiefs, since last time, have beaten the Ravens and a short handed Patriots team– regardless of the circumstances, both wins have been against legitimate contenders. With the Chargers sliding downhill with losses and the Raiders (I think) not being quite up to the task of winning this division- I think the Chiefs are primed to run away with another division title. Pat Mahomes has been electric and he has gotten help from his defense the past couple weeks. Look for KC to keep the ball rollin’ and sit on the contender list for awhile now.

Raiders (2-2): After a super promising start, the Raiders have lost their past 2 matchups (New England and Buffalo). Granted they held their own against the Bills and gave the Patriots a fight, they lost both games– which shows me they can’t hang with contenders. They have all the right pieces for the future to be great, but they aren’t quite there yet. Pretender.

Chargers (1-3): The Chargers are a really tough team that is going to compete every single matchup. Justin Herbert looks like the future of the franchise, and the defense is extremely solid. However, they just haven’t gotten the job done against the less than average Panthers and the up and down Tampa squad. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen enough in them at this point to keep them as contenders to this point… so they have to be pretenders.

NFC:

Washington (1-3): Over the course of 4 games, I think Washington has shown flashes of becoming one of the better defense in the league in the near future. That front seven is very very talented and the defensive backfield gets better every year. However, they are just no ready to compete for a title with the state of their offense. Haskins is officially benched for Kyle Allen in the upcoming week 5 and Alex Smith was listed as the #2 option if Allen gets hurt. So the young Haskins has a very uncertain future with the team. Outside of the QB issue, the line is aging, the run game has been subpar, and they have no real receiving threats outside of Terry McLaurin. They remain “in the hunt” at this point solely because of the state of the NFC East. Pretender.

Eagles (1-2-1): Philly has probably been one of the most disappointing teams to watch in football. Carson Wentz has gone from one of the most promising young QB talents to a lost cause. He’s been off target a ton (has the most missed throws in the league) and has turned the ball over at an extremely high rate. Yes, I understand that the weapons he has are not great, but he showed us previously that he can work with what’s he given. The great QBs in NFL history can turn practice squad guys into weapons with their arm– and Carson, thus far, has not shown that ability to be elite. Tack on a swiss cheese offensive line, questionable play calling, and a defense that appears lost at times– this team is simply not good. However, they sit atop the division with a (not so) staggering 1-2-1 record. Don’t be fooled though, if this team somehow manages to sneak into the wildcard round they will more than likely finish the season with another 1 and done appearance. Pretender.

Cowboys (1-3): Offensively, this team is extremely efficient. Dak Prescott seems to be thriving in HC Mike McCarthy’s new offense (#1 in Pass Yards with 1,690 through 4 games) — which makes sense considering he has Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, Mike Gallup, and Zeke Elliot to work with. However, without the disastrous mismanagement the Falcons had late in a game that was already over, the Cowboys would be 0-4. Why? The answer is simple… their defense is atrocious. The past 3 weeks (which includes their W against Atlanta) the Cowboys defense has allowed 126 points… which averages out to 42/game. You don’t have to look at any other statistic or be an NFL analyst to know that the number is insanely high and unacceptable. If you want to win a championship in the NFL, you need to play defense and Cowboys seem completely unable of doing so– making them a total pretender.

Packers (4-0): The Packers have continued to roll through the league while staying red hot offensively (averaging 38 PPG). Both Aaron Jones and Aaron Rogers have been phenomenal, despite the absences of DeVante Adams and Allen Lazard at wideout. On top of that, the defense has been excellent in supporting the offense (12 total sacks, 5 from Za’Darius Smith) and giving the team a great chance to win every week. Overall, Green Bay is extremely balanced and I really don’t see any weak points on their team. I really consider them to be the most complete team in the NFC– which obviously keeps them as contenders on my list.

Bears (3-1): The Bears have a nice record, a top 10 defense, and plenty of offensive weapons. What makes me question things is their decision to pull Mitch Trubisky, despite a very productive start, for Nick Foles. Yes, Foles came in and pulled off a comeback against the Falcons, but then came in and played very poorly against Indy (granted they are the #1 ranked defense right now). He missed several key throws and was a huge reason the Bears were unable to keep up with the Colts. An early season QB switch when the team is 2-0, playing well, and looking to keep rolling can be detrimental to the team- especially after how Foles played week 4. Unless Foles comes back the next couple of weeks and impresses me, I have to keep them as pretenders.

Buccaneers (3-1): Last edition, I looked right past the Bucs with their slow start. To be fair, a loss to the Saints and a short margin win against a rebuilding Carolina was NOT a good look. However, after dominating Denver and Brady leading the team with 5 TDs against a very good Chargers defense- I might just have to change my opinion on them. Their defense definitely needs to be more consistent, but they have shown flashes of excellent play. For now, the Bucs will be moved to the contender list, but they have a tight leash with me.

Panthers (2-2): The Panthers are very much in rebuild mode, yet they’ve stacked up two very impressive wins against the Chargers and the Cardinals in back to back weeks without CMC– which is extremely better than what I thought they’d do without their best player. Carolina also has a tough schedule coming up, so I’ll keep my eye out to see how they do (Atlanta, Chicago coming up the next 2 games). I’m going to move them up from a “no show” on my list to a Pretender.

Saints (2-2): I was impressed with how the Saints competed with the Packers in a shootout, but was very disappointed in their play against a struggling Lions squad (which they still managed to win). This Saints team, even when Michael Thomas was healthy, has just not looked the same as the past few seasons and I worry for them. The Bucs and the Panthers have been extremely competitive and if New Orleans isn’t careful they could easily slip to 3rd place and miss the playoffs in an extremely competitive NFC conference. They still haven’t shown me anything to make me take them off the pretender list… and with more disappointing play they could even end up off my list entirely.

Seahawks (4-0): Along with the Packers, Seattle is one of the more balanced teams in the league (let alone the NFC). They have an excellent defense and the probable MVP on offense with Russell Wilson, who has been electric. With the state of their division and their dominance over all teams that have come their way so far, this is an easy contender label.

Rams (3-1): The Rams have shown flashes of excellence, but their 3 wins are all against NFC East teams…. let that sink in. Plus they barely got away with a W against the Giants. Yikes. They did, however, play well against the undefeated Bills, so I’ll give credit where it’s due. 3 wins and one loss is a great start, but I need to see them pull off some wins against some better teams to feel a bit more confident. However, I’m going to keep them on the contender list due to their star power and spot within the division.

Cardinals (2-2): The Cardinals started off with 2 very impressive wins, but followed those with 2 disappointing losses to Detroit and Carolina. This team definitely has all the right pieces, but has shown some inconsistency along the way. The Murray and Hopkins duo is elite, plus a young defense, young and talented HC in Kliff Kingsbury– this team gobs potential. AT this point though, the two losses are tough, especially in a super competitive division. Pretender is my final verdict for now… and they are on watch to drop off the list entirely.

49ers (2-2): The Niners have so much talent on their roster– most of whom are injured. They are depleted on the defensive line, struggling to find a tolerable backup to replace Jimmy G, and they are coming off a very bad loss to a terrible Eagles team– which is alarming. Their division is very tough and playoff spots are going to be very hard to earn in the NFC, especially with all their injuries at key positions. I have no choice but to list them as pretenders and put them on watch to be dropped off the list.

Final Post Week 4 List:

Contenders: Bills, Chiefs, Seahawks, Colts, Ravens, Steelers, Rams, Packers, Buccaneers, Seahawks.

Pretenders: Titans, Raiders, Cardinals, Bears, Washington, Philly, Cowboys, 49ers, Saints, Browns Chargers.