Through five weeks of the season, there’s not much clarity in the NFL’s eight divisional races. Frankly, it would be weird if any team had a huge lead this early. Maybe that will start to change once season two of Stranger Things finally blesses our Netflix queue. But for now, almost every division is in a gridlock at the top.
Only two defending division champs have any sort of lead: the Kansas City Chiefs and the Green Bay Packers. The Chiefs, the NFL’s only unbeaten team, are 1.5 games up on the Broncos, but the AFC West rivals still have to play each other twice. Same for the Packers with the Lions and Vikings, who both trail the NFC North leaders by just a game.
So yeah, there’s lot of the football left to play. But we’re still going to check in with each division, and figure out which of last year’s champions should be worried about the way things stand this season.
One of the earliest surprises of this season is just how vulnerable the Patriots look — and how competent the Bills and Jets have been (relatively speaking). All three teams are sitting at 3-2 right now. The Patriots haven’t looked like their usual dominant selves, squeaking by in two of those wins while their defense tries to fix its early-season problems.
The Bills have been even more unpredictable, following up two big-time wins over the Broncos and Falcons with a loss to the Bengals. Tyrod Taylor’s targets also look like this list of vaguely familiar “didn’t he play in college at ... I wanna say Syracuse? Northern Illinois?” names:
Currently healthy Bills WRs/TEs:— Field Yates (@FieldYates) October 9, 2017
* Zay Jones
* Andre Holmes
* Brandon Tate
* Kaelin Clay
* Nick O'Leary
* Logan Thomas
* Khari Lee
The Jets have won three in a row, which is more than some thought they’d get all season with Josh McCown (who was their best option on the roster) under center:
#Jets McCown has won 3 straight for the first time in his 15-year career— Mary Kay Cabot (@MaryKayCabot) October 8, 2017
The Patriots aren’t just the defending AFC East champs. They’re the octuple defending AFC East champs. They set an NFL record with their eighth straight division title last season, so really, their own record is all that’s on the line. Well, that and the shame of losing the crown to a rebuilding team (or the Jay Cutler Experiment).
Panic index: Lol. The Patriots are trying to lull us into a false sense of security. The Super Bowl wasn’t even a pregnancy-long ago. We would never, ever, ever, ever count out Touchdown Tom (or Bill Belichick). The Patriots, even with their flaws, have got this, y’all.
AFC West: Can any team catch the Chiefs?
The Chiefs are the league’s most well-rounded team, looking strong in each of the three phases. But the Broncos have that absurd defense.
The offense is still a wild card with the Broncos. However, it would be irresponsible to count them out just yet. Trevor Siemian has shown flashes that he can be more than just enough to the Broncos back to the playoffs. If he can somehow maintain that, Denver is a big problem for Kansas City.
As far as the Raiders, they they have some serious ground to make up after a 2-3 start to the season. There’s no reason they still can’t make the postseason, but catching the Chiefs seems like a tall task.
They’re making every move they have to, with Derek Carr expected to come back from his back injury in Week 6 against the Chargers — who should just be playing for a draft pick at this point.
Panic index: Second place (and maybe even third place) can still get a wild card spot!
AFC North: Will the Steelers stumble to another title?
Nothing about the Steelers looks remotely successful right now. They’ve lost games to the Bears and the Jaguars in the last three weeks. Ben Roethlisberger sounded like a man who wished he had gone ahead and retired after his five-interception performance against Jacksonville. He waved those comments off a couple days later, but it’s clear that all is not well inside the locker room.
It’s hard to think that the Steelers won’t get better. We saw them hit a four-game skid in the middle of the season last year, and come back for an 11-5 finish to win the division. The defense is looking really good, so it’s just a matter of getting the ball into the hands of their offensive playmakers and not the other team’s defensive backs.
They’ll have to get better soon too, with road games against the Chiefs and Lions before the end of the month and dates with the Packers, Patriots, and Texans after that.
Jaguars defensive lineman Malik Jackson seems to think Roethlisberger and the Steelers will get better. “To me, he’s an elite quarterback, and they’ve got a really good team. Hope nobody sleeps on the Pittsburgh Steelers.”
Panic index: The Ravens are also 3-2, but nowhere near as talented. But if the Steelers can’t find a way to fix what’s ailing their offense, this might come down to the wire, or at least whoever can beat up on the rest of the division.
AFC South: The Texans are still in it, but winning the crown won’t be easy
The back-to-back AFC South champs actually have to face a division that doesn’t have a doormat this time around. The Jaguars lead the group at 3-2, but are incredibly inconsistent, and both the Colts and Titans are dealing with quarterback injuries that have led to 2-3 starts.
At 2-3, Houston is right on the doorstep and Deshaun Watson is probably the best of the four quarterbacks currently starting in the division with Andrew Luck and Marcus Mariota sidelined.
But season-ending injuries for J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus won’t be easy to overcome either.
Panic index: Losing two dominant defensive players is sad, but the Texans are still just fine. There’s a lot of season left to play.
NFC East: Sorry Cowboys, the Eagles may not collapse this season
Philadelphia got off to a 3-1 start in 2016 before grinding to a 7-9 finish as teams gradually adjusted to the play of then-rookie QB Carson Wentz. On Sunday, Wentz showed off his development by setting career highs in passing touchdowns (four) and passer rating (128.3) against a middling Cardinals defense. That’s great news for the 4-1 Eagles — and troublesome for the rest of the NFC East.
The Cowboys look vulnerable after losing to the Rams and Packers in their 2-2 start, albeit in close games that featured correctable mistakes — namely giving Aaron Rodgers the ball with 73 seconds left on the clock. Dallas is one loss away from matching 2016’s total, and tailback Ezekiel Elliott is averaging nearly 1.5 fewer yards per carry than he did as a rookie.
Washington has emerged from a brutal early schedule to survive at 2-2. Kirk Cousins is on pace to have the most efficient season of his career, but the team has already lost once to the Eagles and will have to go an extended stretch without top cornerback Josh Norman (rib injury). The Giants, 0-5 and now without Odell Beckham Jr., need a miracle to be anything more than fertilizer for the franchise’s 2018 edition.
That leaves the Eagles as early, tentative favorites — which would make it 13 straight seasons in the NFC East without a repeat champion.
Panic index: It’s early in Philadelphia, and the Eagles are still starting a second-year quarterback. Teams that did that in 2016 (Titans, Buccaneers) each fell just short of the playoffs, so ...
NFC West: Here come the Seahawks ... like always
There’s a long list of reasons for the Rams to be happy with their start to the season, and for the Seahawks to be concerned. But after five weeks, both teams are 3-2 and Seattle has a head-to-head win over Los Angeles.
The Seahawks started 2016 with a 4-2-1 record and couldn’t protect Russell Wilson at all, and started 2015 at 2-4. So trying to win a division title after a 3-2 start is nothing new.
But the Rams have reason to be optimistic too. Yeah, a 16-10 loss to the Seahawks was disappointing, but they definitely weren’t outclassed. If it wasn’t for one drop by a rookie in the final seconds, the Rams could’ve came away with the win and a two-game lead in the NFC West.
the Rams really were a Cooper Kupp catch from being 4-1— Harry Lyles Jr. (@harrylylesjr) October 9, 2017
The Seahawks seem to always start slow and then catch stride later in the year. But the Rams don’t look like a team that plans on giving them much breathing room.
Panic index: The NFC West is Seattle’s until another team rips it away. There’s very little reason for the Seahawks to be too worried about the division outlook right now.
NFC North: The Packers have better competition this year
It’s hard to look at what the Packers have done this season — especially last week against the Cowboys — and not pick them to win the division.
Aaron Rodgers did what Aaron Rodgers does, and that’s break the heart of millions of Cowboys fans across the country. They call AT&T Stadium Jerry World, but it’s Rodgers’ Universe. He’s playing some of his best football, and the Packers have proven time and again that they can play with the best in the NFL.
But you can’t count out the Lions. They’ve played some great football this season. Their two losses have come in close games against the Falcons and Panthers. Matthew Stafford is living up to his contract, and Golden Tate is having a solid season with 267 receiving yards and a touchdown.
The Vikings are also hanging around, thanks to a fearsome defense.
Panic index: The Lions have a shot, but the Vikings are too unstable at quarterback. The only concern is if the Lions — particularly Stafford — can stay healthy and maintain. Of course, the Packers too have had their own injury problems. But in Aaron Rodgers we trust.
NFC South: The Panthers have rebounded, but the Falcons won’t give it up without a fight
The Panthers have gotten over the proverbial Super Bowl hangover that plagued them throughout their 6-10 2016 season. Carolina is 4-1 and sitting on top of the division once again, and all but one of those wins is over a team that’s over .500. The Panthers are playing good football right now, and Cam Newton is coming off one of the best games of his career.
However, the Falcons are more recently coming off of a Super Bowl, and so far, have shown no signs of a hangover. Even in their one loss, they still almost managed to beat the Bills in Week 4, despite injuries to Courtney Upshaw, Vic Beasley, Julio Jones, and Mohamed Sanu.
The NFC South is always up for grabs year in and year out, but if the Panthers and Falcons keep going at this rate, the race is going to be as entertaining as it’s ever been. There’s only been one repeat winner of the division, and that’s when Carolina won it in three consecutive seasons from 2013-2015.
Atlanta is trying to become the second.
Panic index: At this rate, both are making the postseason — so the big question is which one will be a wild card. Unless the Falcons have trouble getting healthy, the race should come down to the wire. That’s of course, assuming the Panthers don’t run into their own speed bumps.