Room at the top for everyone

BY foxsports • October 1, 2011

Let's see, the usual suspects already are on top of their divisions through three weeks: the Packers in the NFC North, Saints in the NFC South, Chargers in the AFC West.

And then there's, uh, the Texans, Titans, Raiders, Redskins, Browns and Lions with a piece of the lead. Yep, that's correct.

Not to mention the Bills and 49ers standing alone in first place. With Buffalo and Detroit joining Green Bay as the only undefeated teams.

Sure, it's early - but not too early to look at the top and figure out who the true contenders and phony pretenders are.

Nearly every season, there's enough volatility in the NFL that teams quickly rise and fall. The Buccaneers' surge and the Vikings' collapse last year are indicative of that.

Throw in the lockout and the 4 1/2 months of relative inactivity it brought, followed by free agency chaos and, in some cases, a lack of flexibility in certain cities (Indianapolis, Denver, Miami) and some slow starts probably were inevitable.

Yet a bunch of teams have gone the other way, most notably the Bills and Lions.

''Everyone liked us last year because we lost and we fought so hard,'' Buffalo center Eric Wood said. ''But that's not where we wanted to be. When we came in on Mondays, we were still losers. We know the feeling, and I think that'll keep the chip on our shoulder.''

More like a boulder, one that has grown in weight as the Bills have been mired at the bottom of the AFC East. Now, with a signature victory that snapped a 15-game slide against New England, and with the boost in confidence that provided, counting out the Bills in the playoff race would be foolhardy.

Even with a difficult schedule following this week's visit to Cincinnati.

''It's not anything you dwell on,'' coach Chan Gailey said of the 3-0 start built on a dynamic offense - Gailey's specialty. ''It's great, I don't want to downplay it, but at the same time it's not the end-all. It's not where we want to be.''

Where they want to be is far from where they have been - outside the postseason since 1999.

That's also the last time the Lions made the playoffs, when Barry Sanders still was around. They became a laughingstock when Matt Millen was running them.

Nobody is laughing now.

Just like the Bills, Detroit has a dangerous offense. Unlike the Bills, Detroit has perhaps the best defensive player in football, tackle Ndamukong Suh.

Many people saw the Lions as an improving bunch, while also noting they are in a division with the Packers and Bears, making it tougher for them to end that postseason-less streak. They also face five likely playoff contenders in their final six games.

Still, there's an aura developing around the Lions that makes you believe they are legitimate, especially with them owning the longest active regular-season winning streak in the NFL, seven games (going back to last season).

''It's good to be able to nit-pick over things when you're 3-0,'' coach Jim Schwartz said. ''There's points that you can make. I think if you go down to our locker room after each of these three weeks, there's nobody that felt that we played our best football yet.''

Two other front-runners could have the goods to stay where they are, and it has less to do with their strengths than with the incompetence of their division rivals.

Houston should - finally - earn its first playoff spot in its 10th year of existence. While the Titans are tied with the Texans atop the AFC South, Tennessee lost one of its key players when leading receiver Kenny Britt, it's only real threat at the position, tore up his right knee last Sunday. There's a sense that the hard-working Titans under new coach Mike Munchak are overachievers.

Not so with the Texans, who are oozing with talent offensively and have the makings of a stingy defense built around Mario Williams, DeMeco Ryans and Johnathan Joseph. With the Jaguars in disarray and the Peytonless Colts in the dumps, everything is set up for a Texans title in a division Indy has owned for so long.

San Francisco just might benefit all season from the ineptitude displayed at various times by the Cardinals, Rams and Seahawks. The Niners hardly are a powerhouse, and they could replicate Seattle's division-winning 7-9 record of 2010.

They have shown resilience so far, however, and easily could be 3-0; a blown late lead against Dallas handed them their only defeat, then they went on the road for the first time and won at Cincinnati.

''I think it's a very positive thing,'' rookie coach Jim Harbaugh said. ''Young football team that goes on the road, plays a good football team, in a tough, hard, physical game, shows a real level of tenacity and mental toughness. I think it's a real good thing in terms of a character-building process for our team.''

Across the San Francisco Bay, the Raiders appear to be on a similar path. If nothing else, they have become among the NFL's most physical teams, and that helped them to both of their victories. The Silver and Black might become fearsome colors again.

''I hope the rest of the league can see this is a different and improved football team,'' new coach Hue Jackson said. ''We're not where we want to be, but I think we're working to get there.''


AP Sports Writers Janie McCauley in San Francisco, Josh Dubow in Oakland, and John Wawrow in Buffalo contributed to this story.

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