The NFL season is flying by as we’ve already seen Week 6 come and go in the blink of an eye. Even though there is still plenty of time for those fringe teams to turn their seasons around, a handful of squads have emerged as frontrunners to win the Super Bowl. Of course, this is the NFL where injuries happen, teams go through slumps and Aaron Rodgers plays like the league’s worst quarterback for a year, but if you are looking for a Super Bowl champion it's pretty clear you can limit your search to a select group.
The Packers and Chiefs are borderline contenders, but Rodgers is 7-8 in his last eight starts and Kansas City always falters down the stretch upon reaching the postseason. Buffalo looks good, but there are still several question marks on offense (Tyrod Taylor and the lack of a go-to receiver).
The Raiders are just the opposite, suffering from a serious identity crisis on defense, where Khalil Mack has a measly two sacks and the secondary is surrendering the most passing yards per game. Heck, as a team they’re 32nd in total yards allowed, which won’t win them any Super Bowls.
That leaves only these eight teams, including one that’s currently just 3-3.
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Following two consecutive losses to the Falcons and Chargers, the Broncos look to have fallen off. That’s simply not the case. Trevor Siemian missed the Atlanta game, and the Broncos were clearly unprepared against the Chargers on a short week. It’s not unusual to see a good team get upset on Thursday night, which is exactly what happened to the Broncos.
Denver’s defense, just as it did last season, will carry the Broncos to the playoffs and beyond. Siemian just has to play as well as he has been going forward, which isn’t exactly a difficult task. At the very least, he’ll be substantially better than Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler in 2015. If he continues to protect the football and lean on the running game, the Broncos will be perfectly fine.
Upcoming tests against the Texans, Chargers and Raiders should allow the Broncos to once again solidify themselves as a top team in the AFC despite recent bumps in the road. Like the Vikings, the Broncos’ success will be determined by the defense’s ability to make big plays at crucial moments.
Not many expected the Falcons to be among the best teams in the league after six weeks. However, despite the overwhelming doubt surrounding Atlanta and QB Matt Ryan, that’s exactly where they are. They’ve scored more points than any team in football, and by a wide margin. Julio Jones, Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman give Atlanta a dynamic trio of offensive weapons, which Ryan has taken full advantage of.
The Falcons will have a tough road in the NFC with teams like the Cowboys, Vikings, Cardinals and Seahawks in their way, but they proved on Sunday – even in a loss – that their offense is strong enough to overcome deficiencies on defense, particularly the pass rush. So long as Ryan keeps throwing for 300 yards and puts up 30 points per game regularly, the Falcons will be tough to stop, even for a defense as strong as Minnesota’s.
What also greatly benefits the Falcons is the unspectacular division they play in. The Panthers are all but done, as are the Buccaneers. The Saints will probably hang around thanks to Drew Brees, but their defense won’t be good enough to make a run at the playoffs. The Falcons will certainly be around in the end, unlike during last season’s collapse.
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There’s a great possibility that Carson Palmer’s absence from the lineup two weeks ago was exactly what the Cardinals needed to turn their season around. It forced them to lean on their best offensive player, David Johnson, rather than consistently trying to force the ball downfield to their big-play receivers. Not coincidentally, the Cardinals have won each of their past two games handily.
In those two weeks, Johnson received a total of 49 carries. That’s more than he had in the previous three weeks combined when the Cardinals went 1-2. He leads the league in yards from scrimmage and has a whopping eight touchdowns on the ground, while he trails only Ezekiel Elliott and LeSean McCoy in rushing yards. Johnson is truly one of the best backs in football, and he’s proving to be the Cardinals’ go-to weapon on offense. It just took an injury to Palmer to make them realize it.
Now that they’ve established the run and changed their offensive game plan, the Cardinals are once again Super Bowl contenders. At 3-3, they still have some ground to make up, but the roster is loaded with talent. The defense has gotten much better with Tyrann Mathieu as the nickel corner, while Patrick Peterson continues to shut down opposing receivers. With their speed on defense and outstanding pass-rush abilities, the Cardinals will be tough to beat – as long as they stick to their current Johnson-laden approach.
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The Steelers have been down this road before: Le’Veon Bell being suspended, Ben Roethlisberger getting hurt, losing to inferior teams. It’s not an ideal situation, but the Steelers will be just fine without Big Ben for a week or two. He’s already been ruled out against the Patriots, but the Steelers have a bye the following week, giving him ample time to recover from minor knee surgery. Not to mention, they still have two (gimme) games left against the Browns, so two additional wins are almost guaranteed.
Once the Steelers reach the playoffs, they’ll flex their muscle. Roethlisberger is outstanding in the postseason, and having a healthy Bell will certainly help after going without him last year. I say all of this without even mentioning the best wide receiver in football, Antonio Brown. That just proves how explosive and versatile Pittsburgh’s offense is.
The defense still has its problems, though. The pass rush is far from strong, and the secondary is just now coming into its own. Cornerback Artie Burns will have to play a major role down the stretch if the Steelers hope to limit opponents through the air, which he should be able to handle. The Steelers will most likely be playing the Patriots in the AFC Championship game.
Who predicted that the Cowboys would have a legitimate shot at winning a Super Bowl after losing not only Tony Romo but Dez Bryant, too? Not many, but Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott have made it possible. Both rookies are playing exceptionally well this season and have carried the offense to five consecutive victories. Has it been a fluke, or are the Cowboys legit? The latter, and it’s not even a debate, really.
Dallas hasn’t had the toughest schedule in the world, but the Cowboys have beaten just about every team they’ve crossed paths with – besides the Giants in the season opener, of course. Their latest win over the Packers established the Cowboys as an NFC powerhouse, which they’ll further prove in two weeks against the Eagles.
The only thing that could possibly derail Dallas’ magical season is the off-chance that Tony Romo tanks, should the Cowboys opt to insert him into the starting lineup again. Jerry Jones and the front office have waffled on the situation for weeks, but it’s getting to the point where it might be tough to pull Prescott. Regardless of who starts at quarterback, the Cowboys are here to stay.
In addition to the offense playing extremely well, the defense has been surprisingly good, and underappreciated. Morris Claiborne has emerged as a true No. 1 cornerback, while Sean Lee, Terrell McClain and Byron Jones are all having solid seasons. The pass defense is among the best in the league despite not having a great pass rush.
The Seahawks got off to a slow start offensively, scoring just 15 points in their first two games and coming dangerously close to starting 0-2. Since then, they’ve won four straight and sit atop the NFC West at 4-1. Seattle was tested by the Falcons on Sunday in a game which they won thanks to a controversial final play that may or may not have been defensive pass interference by Richard Sherman.
Alas, they came away with a victory and proved that they can beat even the best teams in the league. It wasn’t just the defense that got the job done, either. Russell Wilson had 279 total yards, and while he didn’t find the end zone, he did have a solid game. It was the Seahawks’ ground game that led the way in scoring with Christine Michael and Alex Collins finding the end zone three times.
Due to Seattle’s recent success, it’s easy to forget that Thomas Rawls has been on the shelf for much of the season. He’s rushed just 19 times in two games and has been sidelined due to an ankle injury. Once he returns, the Seahawks will have one of the best backfields in the game. They’re once again a force to be reckoned with, led by their defense.
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As it stands right now, the Vikings are statistically the best team in the league. They’re the last remaining unbeaten squad, sitting at 5-0 and coming off of a bye week with the Eagles up next on the schedule. It’s crazy to think that just over a month ago, the Vikings were entering the season without Teddy Bridgewater and would be without Adrian Peterson soon, too. Sam Bradford’s MVP-caliber play has played a huge role in their undefeated streak, but so has the defense.
The Seahawks proved a few years ago that having a dominant defense can lead to a Super Bowl ring, even if the offense wasn’t among the best in the league. Minnesota’s group isn’t as strong as Seattle’s “Legion of Boom” in years past, but they’re undoubtedly the best defense in the NFL right now. Everson Griffen, Danielle Hunter and Brian Robinson all have four sacks each, while Linval Joseph is consistently wreaking havoc in the middle.
Bradford will have to keep protecting the football and remain healthy, but the Vikings are currently the team to beat in the NFC.
New England Patriots
The biggest question mark for the Patriots entering this season was whether they’d be able to overcome Tom Brady’s four-game suspension. They quickly buried that very concern by going 3-1 without their All-Pro quarterback. Now that Brady is back in the fold, the Patriots look absolutely dominant on both sides of the ball. They beat up on the AFC North the past two weeks and will likely continue to do so when they visit the Ben Roethlisberger-less Steelers on Sunday.
The pass rush remains somewhat of a problem for New England, but once Rob Ninkovich gets completely up to speed, it should improve. After all, this team won’t win a Super Bowl because of its defense. It’ll be the result of Brady and the offense scoring 30-plus points per game and controlling time of possession.
The Patriots, as they always do, have a good shot at winning the Super Bowl, and an even better chance of reaching it. That’s because the AFC is especially weak this season with few teams there to challenge New England for a conference title. The Steelers are a bit banged up and the Broncos have problems of their own, but both will challenge the Patriots. Outside of them, though, there isn’t much competition.