We are over halfway through the 2018 NFL season, and it’s to the point where (as Colin Cowherd pointed out on The Herd Monday morning) we are starting to see separation among football teams. With each game played, we get a better understanding of each roster and in turn, which teams are complete wastes this year, which are playoff-bound, and which are legitimate Super Bowl contenders.
For example, we know that there is a clear-cut top echelon consisting of the NFL’s four best teams: the Los Angeles Rams, New Orleans, Saints, New England Patriots, and Kansas City Chiefs. In the tier immediately below, you have the Los Angeles Chargers, Carolina Panthers, and Pittsburg Steelers. And maybe you can include the Philadelphia Eagles, Houston Texans, and Minnesota Vikings in that conversation as well.
And we know teams like the Oakland Raiders, New York Giants, Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco Giants, and Cleveland Browns have virtually no chance at making the playoffs. You can include the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tampa Bay Buccaneers in that discussion because of how they are playing or how they are playing and the divisions they are in.
What we also are seeing is the contrast between the NFC and AFC. The AFC has extreme clarity regarding the tiers of teams and the playoff picture. The four divisions appear that the current leaders are going to hold onto their respective leads and win their divisions.
Let’s start with the AFC East, which has been ruled by the New England Patriots for the last 18 years because of the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick duo, combined with the mediocrity of the other three teams. At 7-2, and winners of six-straight, the Patriots are well on their way for yet another division championship and a first-round bye.
They started slow, once again, and with the Miami Dolphin’s 3-0 start, there was panic from everyone outside of the organization about whether this is finally the time New England’s slow start is the first sign of a decline. But the Dolphins have gone 2-4 since, while the Patriots are back to being the cream of the crop. The New York Jets are regressing into oblivion while the Buffalo Bills have been an utter disaster.
The AFC North looked competitive early on, but the Pittsburg Steelers have rebounded from a slow start to push themselves back atop the division with the help of their competition. The Cleveland Browns are in the tank once again while the Baltimore Ravens have lost three straight games to fall to 4-5. What looked like a dark-horse AFC Super Bowl candidate after six games, Ravens coach John Harbaugh may find himself on the hot seat while Joe Flacco may be playing himself out of Baltimore.
At 5-3, the Cincinnati Bengals are the biggest threat to the Steelers, but they are untrustworthy as they come. They are losers in two of their last three outings, haven’t won a single playoff game since 2003, and have historically been unable to win the big regular season games. They have a matchup with the Steelers remaining, and that has not been a favorable one. The Bengals have lost the head-to-head matchup seven straight times, including ten times in their last 11 games.
And the Steelers are improving each week. The pass rush is excellent, and the secondary has quietly improved. The offense is always going to be there, even without Le’Veon Bell. His presence has not been felt, with James Connor tearing it up. They’ve hit their stride, and it’s almost impossible to see the Steelers lose their grip on the division.
In the AFC South, the Houston Texans have won six-straight games after starting 0-3. Deshaun Watson is playing better, and the front office recently gave him another great receiver in Demaryius Thomas. Not to mention, the running game is starting to come to life. Plus, the next best team in the division is 3-5 (or 4-4 depending on if the Titans win on Monday Night Football).
The Texans are among the hottest teams in the NFL while playing in the league’s worst division. Quite simple.
The AFC West is where the most intriguing race in the conference resides. The Los Angeles Chargers are 6-2 and just one game behind in the loss column from the 8-1 Kansas City Chiefs. This is a legitimate race because both are two of the elite teams in the game and the Chargers may have the best overall roster in the NFL that will get a boost when one of the game’s premier pass rushers in Joey Bosa returns.
This is the only division where there isn’t any ‘clarity.’ But second place will no doubt secure a wild-card spot, meaning that five of the six playoff teams are all but certain. The sixth seed is occupied by the Bengals, with a bunch of mediocre or slumping teams still ‘in the hunt.’ Look for the (3-5) Indianapolis Colts to make a run at it.
You have the clear-cut playoff teams in the top five with the other 11 teams all meshed together, ranging from average to bad.
In the NFC, however, it’s complete chaos once again. Heading into the season, we knew the conference would be stacked. The playoff race was a mess last season, with all the participants reaching double-digit wins. That still left three teams with winning records on the outside looking in.
And this year is no better, with all but one playoff spot locked up. Let’s stay in the west, where the NFC West belongs to the 8-1 Rams. The next best team in the division are the Seattle Seahawks at 4-4.
But the other three division leaders are up a combined two games. In the NFC North, the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings have the same amount of wins and losses, but because the Vikings have a tie on record, the Bears are up by percentage points. And even after two straight losses, the Green Bay Packers sit just 1.5 games behind and have Aaron Rodgers at the helm. If history has told us anything, it’s never to count him out as long as he is in striking distance.
The NFC East is wide open yet again. The Washington Redskins have a one-game lead over the defending champions Philadelphia Eagles, but the Dallas Cowboys are lurking. If they win on Monday Night, they would be just one game back as well.
And the NFC South is once-again a slugfest. The New Orleans Saints sit at 7-1 while the Carolina Panthers are at 6-2. Oh, and the Atlanta Falcons have newfound life, winning three straight to get back at 4-4.
The teams that don’t win their respective divisions, however, will very much be in play for the two wild-card spots. Right now, they are occupied by the Panthers and Vikings. But, they could easily be the Chicago Bears and New Orleans Saints with the snap of a finger.
And you have three teams in the Falcons, Eagles, and Seahawks, who are all rising and just a single game back. We can’t forget about the Packers and Cowboys either. And the Detroit Lions and Tampa Bay Buccaneers still have an outside chance. It’s hard to differentiate whether some of these squads are genuinely good or just beneficiaries of circumstances.
The only thing we know for sure is that the Los Angeles Rams will get a first-round bye at worst. Everything else is still up in the air, and with eight weeks to go, almost anything can happen, which makes for yet another thrilling finish for the NFL’s superior conference.