Though 75 percent of the NFL season has yet to be played, identities of teams are starting to form. By now most teams aren’t as good as they will be, but time for excuses is running out. Players and coaches are going to have to dig in and brace for the brunt of the season, because at this point, there’s no turning back. They must overlook their mistakes, penalties, injuries, and missed opportunities in order to move on to their next opponent.
Of the five teams on this list, four were on a bye last week. Teams that impressed in Week 4 didn’t influence the order of this list, because if a team was performing at a high level before their week off, why should they descend in the rankings?
The problem with an early bye week is that you may not have significant time off for the rest of the season. That potential peril is countered by the stability of each team’s personnel and coaching staff. I think every team on this list will make the playoffs because of balanced talent throughout their organizations.
1. Seattle Seahawks (2-1)
Next game: at Washington (1-3)
No team is perfect, but Seattle is the team with the fewest flaws. Russell Wilson, in my opinion, will garner MVP consideration before the season is over. Their defense is relentless, and good luck trying to tackle Marshawn Lynch. We’ll find out a lot about the Seahawks when they face the 49ers twice in three weeks later in the season, but until then, they’re the No. 1 in my book.
2. Cincinnati Bengals (3-0)
Next game: at New England (2-2)
Coming off their bye week, the Bengals will have had two weeks to prepare for a road game against the struggling Pats. Despite the loss of Tyler Eifert and Vontaze Burfict’s concussion, Cincinnati has been able to maintain an unblemished record and is in first place in the rugged AFC North. After the first quarter of the season, the Bengals lead the league in scoring margin (plus-47) and scoring defense (11.0 points allowed per game). Their schedule will only get tougher from here, but I don’t see any game in which they’ll be prohibitive underdogs.
3. Denver Broncos (2-1)
Next game: vs. Arizona (3-0)
Although it’s at home, playing the Cardinals this weekend should be a big challenge for the Broncos. Arizona’s secondary is tough, confident, and skilled. Denver has only played one divisional game thus far and their point differential is a mere plus-8. In other words, they’ve gotten off to a good start, but they still have a lot of work to do if they want to get back to the Super Bowl.
4. Arizona Cardinals (3-0)
Next game: at Denver (2-1)
Normally if a team loses its starting quarterback, that team won’t win. But despite Carson Palmer’s absence, Arizona has remained undefeated. They are 7-point underdogs at Denver this weekend, but I think this game will be decided by four points or less. The Cardinals are a good team that will challenge for the 2014 NFC West title.
5. San Diego Chargers (3-1)
Next game: vs. New York Jets (1-3)
If there’s a knock against the Chargers, it’s that they will have played the lowly Jaguars and Jets at home in consecutive weeks. However, Philip Rivers is on a tear. He leads the league with a quarterback rating of 114.5. Head coach Mike McCoy deserves a lot of credit, too. He has this team going in the right direction, especially considering it’s lack of healthy running backs and the sporadic play of Antonio Gates. San Diego’s defense, led by Donald Butler, Eric Weddle and former Raven Jarret Johnson, rank fifth in the NFL in points allowed per game (15.8).
If the Chargers can split with Denver and win the rest of their divisional games, I see them being the AFC West champions. They have that kind of potential.
Game of the week: Arizona (3-0) at Denver (2-1)
Sunday, October 5 at 4:05 P.M. ET on FOX
Current Vegas line: Denver -7
Game-time forecast: Sunny, 76 degrees, 0% chance of rain, wind ESE at 7 mph