Contenders or Pretenders? AFC Division Leaders
Through one-quarter of the NFL season, there have been many surprises. Super Bowl favorites like the Minnesota Vikings and Atlanta Falcons look lost. Teams like the Cleveland Browns and Miami Dolphins look much better than most expected. Within all this surprise, it’s important to know whether a team’s record can be trusted. After all, it’s only been four games. Luck and schedule can play a big part in such a small sample size. With that said, here are the division leaders in the AFC and whether they’re real contenders, or just pretenders holding someone else’s throne for the moment.
AFC East – Miami Dolphins: Pretenders
The Miami Dolphins are by no means a bad football team. They’ve played well in their wins and have looked much better than last year. Ryan Tannehill’s return has returned a spark to the offense that they lacked last year. This rating isn’t due to their ability as a football club; it’s due entirely to the sleeping giant within their division.
As long as the New England Patriots have Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, betting against them is impossible. Let’s be clear; the Patriots are a flawed team. They have a weak defense, depleted offensive weapons, and an aging QB that hasn’t quite looked himself for most of the season. And yet, I still can’t vote against them. They’ve been too good for too long. If there’s any proof behind this, the 31-0 drubbing the Patriots gave the Dolphins just last week is excellent evidence. The Patriots will be atop the division once more at the end of the season.
AFC West – Kansas City Chiefs: Contenders
While the Los Angeles Chargers have looked good and the Denver Broncos gave the Chiefs all they could handle on Monday night, the Chiefs have something special down there. That something special goes by the name Patrick Mahomes. The second-year QB has arguably been the best player on the planet through 4 weeks. His comeback on Monday night featured several jaw-dropping plays, including a left-handed toss while getting hit. Just in case people aren’t aware, Mahomes is right-handed. Mahomes is a discussion in and of himself, but the rest of the team is also talented.
In the receiving core, Tyreek Hill is a Weapon with a capital W. Travis Kelce is the one TE that can be argued to be above Rob Gronkowski, and Sammy Watkins and Kareem Hunt are also superb. The Chief’s defense is porous at best, but this offense can score 35+ on anyone when they’re rolling. Their undefeated record is also a factor. This isn’t a perfect team, but they’re the best the AFC West has to offer despite those flaws.
AFC South – Tennessee Titans: Pretenders
Like the Dolphins, the Titans are a solid team that just happens to be in a division with a better one. They did manage to win over the Jaguars in week 3, but that was a messy game on both sides. Moreover, Leonard Fournette didn’t even play that game. It’s easy to imagine the Jaguars could score 3 or more points extra with him on the field.
For more proof, look at each team’s point differential. The Titans sit at +2, while the Jags are at +32. The Jags have scored more and allowed less than the Titans. Plus, they have the best defense in the NFL now. Once Fournette is back, the Jags will pull away from the Titans. It might not even take that long. The Titans are contenders for a wild-card spot, just like last year, but not the division lead.
AFC North – Cincinnati Bengals: Contenders
The AFC North is one of the more challenging to predict divisions right now. The Baltimore Ravens also look good, but given how they performed in the head-to-head matchup, the edge has to go to the Bengals right now. The offense is back in form after a down year in 2017. The defense is stingier than ever, minus a poor game against the Falcons. Most importantly, the team feels stable and somewhat fixed on the offensive line. That one weakness crippled the entire team last year so that any improvement will have massive implications.
Even if the Ravens or Steelers come through in the rest of the year and take the lead, the Bengals are a very good team. Right now, my money is on them to be the class of the division at year’s end. It will be close, however.
There’s no way to know anything for sure in the NFL. The league shifts wildly year to year and game to game. That unpredictability is part of what makes it fun to watch. After taking a close look at the first quarter of the season, however, I think we can get a decent read on teams. Expect the standings to look a bit different come season’s end when the real contenders show up.
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