After four weeks of the NFL season, a murky top tier of elite teams has emerged. The two 4-0 teams, the New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs, are the clearest members. We can reasonably put the 3-1 Dallas Cowboys, New Orleans Saints, and Los Angeles Rams there. The Green Bay Packers, Philadelphia Eagles, and San Francisco 49ers are hanging around. It would be harder to elevate the QB-needy Chicago Bears, but their dominant defense makes it a question.
Notice how there are no AFC teams outside of New England and Kansas City? I’d have a hard time saying any AFC team belongs as a true contender below the top two. Every Los Angeles Chargers player is injured, as always. The Houston Texans are 2-2 with serious offensive line issues. The Buffalo Bills can stop anyone from scoring, but Josh Allen shrivels up against smart defenses. Coming into the week, I would’ve cited the Baltimore Ravens as the AFC’s third-best team, but they lost 40-25 to the Cleveland Browns in Week 4.
Ben Roethlisberger’s injury will knock out the Pittsburgh Steelers for the time being; they will have a hard time navigating a competitive division with Mason Rudolph at quarterback. The Indianapolis Colts lost to the Oakland Raiders, though Jacoby Brissett looks like the real deal.
Let’s take a look at the eight teams who could challenge for AFC playoff spots, and whether they can win enough games to become real contenders:
We’ll start with the Colts, who lost 31-24 to Oakland on Sunday. Brissett played well again, going 24-46 with three touchdowns and a pick, but he has been held back by a dire receiving corps. T.Y. Hilton was out with a groin injury, and according to Bob Kravitz of The Athletic, Colts receivers dropped five of Brissett’s passes. An anemic running game — Marlon Mack rushed for 39 yards on 11 carries — didn’t help matters.
The Colts are 2-2, in a division where every team is 2-2 (That means four of the eight teams in this article are from the AFC South.) Coming into this week, the Colts were 26th in adjusted sack rate, and after a game in which Derek Carr had little trouble completing passes from the pocket, they dropped to 27th.
The offense should improve when Hilton returns. But there are question marks with this team.
Giving up nine points to the Patriots offense despite facing multiple short fields is a pretty impressive achievement. The Bills’ defense confounded Tom Brady and co., and yet still managed to lose the game 16-10 as a result of a Matthew Slater blocked punt touchdown and a horrendous performance from Allen and the offense.
Allen was 13/28 for 153 yards and three interceptions when he left the game injured. New England spied him all game and took away his running lanes, forcing him to drop back and make throws. Against an opportunistic Patriots secondary and a consistent pass rush, Allen had no success whatsoever. His turnovers (plus a shanked punt from Corey Bojorquez) gave Brady multiple chances to operate from higher up the field. The Bills’ defense never faltered, at one point picking Brady off in the end zone.
There’s reason to believe that Buffalo’s offense only hurts the collective, as it did against New England. Allen will have an easier time against lesser defenses, obviously, but he has shown little ability when facing the kind of opposition Buffalo will need to beat. His receivers (Cole Beasley? John Brown?) won’t help much. The machine Frank Gore is the one bright spot.
With a relatively tough remaining schedule, it would be fair to project Buffalo to finish 9-7 on the back of the defense. That might be enough to slip into the playoffs, even with that offense.
I wrote an extensive praise of the Ravens last week, arguing that they’re the third-best team in the AFC. Their blowout loss to Cleveland dampens that hype. Baltimore had trouble defending the Browns’ secondary wideouts (notably Jarvis Landry and Ricky Seals-Jones) and turned the ball over three times on offense. Mark Ingram’s fourth-quarter fumble was a decisive moment in the game.
I’d still lean toward the Ravens as the best contender beyond the Chiefs and Patriots, though. The defense will improve when run-stopper Brandon Williams returns (his absence helped unleash Nick Chubb). The offense will have to overcome the notable lack of a top wideout — Marquise Brown has cooled off a bit.
Minshew Mania looks justified. Gardner has been completing tougher passes and executing the Jags’ gameplan as he fills in for Nick Foles, winning a couple of games against the Tennessee Titans and Denver Broncos after a 13-12 Week 2 loss to Houston. Minshew was clutch against Denver, driving Jacksonville down the field and setting up a game-winning Josh Lambo field goal.
Against the Panthers and Saints in the next two weeks, Minshew will face a pair of difficult defenses. Leonard Fournette’s 225-yard explosion against the Broncos is hope that he’ll provide the help on the ground Minshew needs.
The concern with the Jags, naturally, is the Jalen Ramsey situation. Ramsey didn’t play against the Broncos and still wants to be traded. Without the best corner in the league, Jacksonville’s defense is significantly less threatening.
Sometimes we forget that the Titans have gone 9-7 each of the past three seasons. They’ve never been anything to write home about, but they’re a competent NFL team that generally wins the games they should win. The occasional above-average play from Marcus Mariota balances his general state of inconsistency.
Mariota played (relatively) well in a dominant Week 1 win over the Browns, only to regress in a tight Week 2 loss to the Colts, and then regress even further in an ugly Week 3 loss to Jacksonville, in which he completed 23/40 passes. Tennessee rebounded last Sunday in a 24-10 win over Atlanta, evening out at 2-2. The hard running of Derrick Henry and explosiveness of rookie wideout AJ Brown are offensive bright spots.
It’s hard to expect the Titans to play riveting football, or win more than nine or 10 games. But despite two early divisional losses, they will hang around the AFC playoff race.
Offensive line struggles hold back the Texans, who, like every AFC South team, sit at 2-2 after four weeks. Laremy Tunsil’s settling into the offense will help, though, and according to Next Gen Stats, Deshaun Watson has actually had the fourth-highest average time to throw.
(It’s fair to be skeptical of the time to throw stat, given Watson’s ability to extend plays behind the line of scrimmage before finding a throw. The magician Aaron Rodgers shows up third on the list.)
As Hopkins fantasy owners will attest, Houston has to find a way to involve DeAndre Hopkins more in the offense. That doesn’t mean having him throw the ball. After a big Week 1 performance in New Orleans, Hopkins has caught 16 of a total of 23 targets for 148 yards and zero touchdowns, an average of five catches per game.
Los Angeles Chargers
The LA Times counts the number of injured Chargers starters or key contributors at 14. After a Melvin Ingram hamstring strain on Sunday, the Chargers have now dealt with short-term injuries to the star pass-rusher, receivers Mike Williams and Travis Benjamin, and running back Justin Jackson. There appears to be a curse on all tight ends attempting to play for the Chargers at the moment (poor Hunter Henry, Virgil Green, and Sean Culkin). Denzel Ward has been out since preseason.
With Philip Rivers carrying on just fine at age 37, the Chargers are perfectly capable of making a serious run and securing a wild-card spot, as they did last year. The Chiefs will make things difficult, but the Chargers have talent and will be looking to make up for the shellacking they took in Foxborough in last year’s divisional round. They’ll have to get at least reasonably healthy first.
The Browns are the most interesting team on this list. They have plenty of frontline talent and entered the season as the league’s hype team, with Baker Mayfield entering household name territory. Their Week 1 collapse at home against the Titans softened expectations, but everyone is high on the Browns again after they nearly beat the Rams on SNF and followed that up with a dominant win in Baltimore.
Mayfield looks better and more comfortable in the pocket. It’s fair to question Mayfield still, considering he was far from flawless in those games against LA and the Ravens, but he has a way of flashing brilliance. He has plenty of talented skill players around him, clearly, and the offensive line has looked less harmful of late.
The defense’s performance against the Ravens is especially promising. Cleveland was missing young defensive backs Greedy Williams and Denzel Ward, and still managed to perform hold back John Harbaugh’s previously vaunted offense. There is hope for the Browns yet in volatile Cleveland.