We're just three weeks into the NFL's new season, and it's already starting to distinguish itself mightily from its predecessor, as seems to be the case each and every year in Roger Goodell's 32-team fiefdom.
Of last season's eight division winners, five start Week 4 south of .500: Miami, Tennessee and Carolina are a desperate 0-3, while Pittsburgh and Arizona, who just met in that memorable Super Bowl not quite eight months ago, are floundering at 1-2. All but the defending NFC champion Cardinals already trail by at least two games in their division race as September draws to a close.
(John P. Lopez breaks down the 16 NFL teams with a losing record here.)
They say a win is a win in the NFL, but we know all winning teams are not created equal. So with 16 teams, exactly half the league, currently at 2-1 or 3-0, let's sort through the crowd of first-month winners and try to separate the real deals from the flukes and fakes:
Baltimore (3-0) -- The rest of the league's nightmare scenario for about 10 years now has been the thought of the Ravens with a big-time offense, and it's a fear that has finally come true in the Joe Flacco/Cam Cameron era. Only New Orleans has scored more than Baltimore's 13 touchdowns, and the Ravens have been a model of consistency, scoring 38, 31 and 34 points in their three victories. The schedule is about to turn challenging the next three weeks -- at New England, Cincinnati, at Minnesota -- but Baltimore is a team that does everything well.• Early season playoff potential: That run to the AFC title game last year was just the beginning.
New Orleans (3-0) -- What's not to like about this Saints team? They've won at home, they've won twice on the road. They've won with overwhelming passing, and on Sunday in Buffalo, they won with a running game (222 yards) and defense, sacking Bills quarterback Trent Edwards four times, hitting him 14 times, and limiting Buffalo's offense to 243 yards. When Sean Payton's club can win on a day Drew Brees throws for just 172 yards with no touchdowns, you know things have finally changed for the better in New Orleans. The Saints' next two games will either prove or disprove their elite status: home against the Jets, then the Giants.• Early season playoff potential: The Saints won't be the NFL's feel-good story in this year's playoffs. This time, they're just good.
New York Giants (3-0) -- If I were a gambling man, I'd love the Giants. They've become one of the few NFL teams with a baseline consistency to their play. For the most part, you know what you're going to get from New York every week. They're methodical in how they win on the road (2-0 already this year), and they can beat you in so many ways: their two-headed rushing game, Eli Manning's underrated passing, or a defense that always seems to assert itself when necessary. With games at Kansas City and against Oakland in the coming two weeks, New York is also the league's best bet to start 5-0.• Early season playoff potential: Tom Coughlin's guys haven't missed the postseason since Eli's rookie year, and it'll be an NFC-best five trips in a row in '09.
New York Jets (3-0) -- Nothing breeds confidence on a team more so than winning even when you don't have your "A'' game on any particular day, and that's why the Jets' Week 3 grind-it-out conquest of the Titans was valuable. Quality teams find a way to get the W even when they're not at their best. A huge test looms this week with New York's trip to New Orleans, but Rex Ryan has his Jets believing they're destined for great things this season, so no game will be too big for them. And check out that schedule. After the Saints, New York isn't likely to play another winning team until its much-anticipated rematch at New England in Week 11.• Early season playoff potential: Even Eric Mangini took the Jets to the playoffs in his first season, and Rex Ryan is no Eric Mangini.
Indianapolis (3-0) -- If there's a preseason prediction I'd like to have back, it's that the Colts would finally slip out of the 12-win neighborhood into the nine-win range and miss the playoffs. Indy just keeps rolling, and I thought their dismantling of the Cardinals on Sunday night was the sure sign of a team that's starting to figure out what it does best and how to attack its opponent. The Colts haven't lost a regular season game since last October (12 in a row), and Peyton Manning continues to be the single biggest difference-maker for his team in the NFL. Bar none.• Early season playoff potential: With the Titans, Texans and Jaguars inspiring no confidence, who else but the Colts could represent the AFC South?
Minnesota (3-0) -- After the euphoria of Brett Favre's "Miracle at the Metrodome'' died down a bit Sunday night, you realized the Vikings shouldn't let their giddiness obscure just how close they came to losing at home to the resilient 49ers. If Dre' Bly doesn't drop that sure interception on Minnesota's penultimate drive, we're talking this week about the Vikings having failed their first test of the season against a quality opponent.
But Favre proved he can still beat you with his arm, and it shouldn't be overlooked that San Francisco was 0-of-11 on third downs against the tough Minnesota defense. Now let's see what the Vikings can do against a motivated Aaron Rodgers and that Green Bay offense.• Early season playoff potential: We learned our lesson from the Jets' Favre era. Let's let the story play out in the NFC North this year.
San Diego (2-1) -- A pair of big fourth quarters have provided wins over Oakland and Miami, but the Chargers remain a team lacking in killer instinct and a four-quarter sense of urgency. Losing to Baltimore at home is no disgrace, but that's the sort of statement game San Diego needs to win, but rarely does. The Chargers have another chance to earn our respect this week, with their near-annual trip to Pittsburgh for a Sunday night affair. San Diego can't afford to let the Broncos run and hide in the AFC West like they did in last season's first half.• Early season playoff potential: Should easily still be the class of the AFC West when all is said and done.
New England (2-1) -- The offensive balance the Patriots displayed in their 16-point win over visiting Atlanta on Sunday is a great sign, because that's the kind of pass-run mixture that helped New England earn three Super Bowl rings earlier this decade. The Patriots' red zone issues remain troubling, but they will play better in that phase of the game once Wes Welker returns to health and Tom Brady and Randy Moss get back in 2007-like sync.• Early season playoff potential: The Jets and Patriots are both going to the playoffs. It's just a matter of who's the division winner and who's the wild card?
Philadelphia (2-1) -- The Eagles have sent us mixed messages. They out-classed Carolina and Kansas City, and were out-classed by New Orleans. But Philly clearly has more promising young offensive weapons (Kevin Kolb, DeSean Jackson, LeSean McCoy) than it has possessed in recent years, and Sean McDermott is finding his footing as the team's new defensive coordinator. With a bye this week, then games against Tampa Bay, Oakland and Washington, the Eagles should be 5-1 when November and the serious part of their schedule arrives.• Early season playoff potential: There's a long way to go in this chapter of the Philadelphia story, but history tells us the Eagles will be in the fight until the end.
Atlanta (2-1) -- The Falcons failed their audition for breaking into the NFL's elite class with that 26-10 loss at New England on Sunday. But their only real focus at this point should be sticking close enough to first-place New Orleans in the NFC South to ensure their Week 8 and Week 14 games decide the outcome of the division's two-team race. The biggest concern I have about Mike Smith's team so far is a 24th-ranked run defense that's giving up 136 yards per game.• Early season playoff potential: Nothing should be taken for granted with a franchise that has never posted consecutive winning seasons, but the Falcons are a good team that won't just fade away this year.
San Francisco (2-1) -- That was just about the most excruciating way imaginable to lose Sunday in Minnesota, and I can still see 49ers general manager Scot McCloughan sitting by himself in the Metrodome press box afterward, staring straight ahead in glassy-eyed disbelief. But something tells me 49ers head coach Mike Singletary has already turned getting "Favred'' into a teaching moment, and his team won't let the defeat distract them from winning at home this week against St. Louis. That would make San Francisco 3-0 in the NFC West, and put it in command of its division.• Early season playoff potential: With Matt Hasselbeck hurt in Seattle, and Kurt Warner looking shaky in Arizona, the 49ers can see a clear-cut path to playing in January.
Green Bay (2-1) -- The Packers' rather ugly win at St. Louis was kind of the ultimate taking-care-of-business victory, but you've got to hit your layups in the NFL. Green Bay's protection problems got somewhat better after the first quarter against the Rams, but Aaron Rodgers now looks as if he's anticipating pressure at all times and seems willing to take off from the pocket at the slightest provocation. That's a troublesome development, because it's hard to see Green Bay getting where it wants to go this season unless Rodgers is sitting back and firing it downfield.• Early season playoff potential: Whatever mojo the Packers had this preseason has largely evaporated, and the harsh realities of the regular season have set in. There's still plenty of promise, but so far, not enough production.
Denver (3-0) -- I give Josh McDaniels' team credit for entering October undefeated after going to hell and back in August. But beating the Bengals on a lucky bounce, and then handling the sad-sack Browns and Raiders shouldn't make anyone start printing playoff tickets in Denver. The Broncos are about to embark on two of the longest months an NFL schedule-maker can dish out in 2009: Dallas, New England, at San Diego, at Baltimore, Pittsburgh, at Washington, San Diego, and the N.Y. Giants. If the Broncos are anything better than 4-7 heading into December, I'll tip my hat.• Early season playoff potential: Go back and read those previous two sentences once more, closely. Playoffs? Playoffs?
Dallas (2-1) -- I didn't see anything in Monday night's win over Carolina that will jump-start the hype machine in Dallas, but it was obvious that quarterback Tony Romo tried to remain patient and take what the Panthers were giving him, rather than force the issue and drown in another wave of turnovers. That's a good sign. Also, it's pretty remarkable the Cowboys rushing game, minus Marion Barber, produced its second 200-yard-plus rushing effort in a row -- a first for the franchise since 1979.• Early season playoff potential: For a team that has perennially proved it can't finish the season strong in December, what's the point of making a playoff prediction in September?
Chicago (2-1) -- Jay Cutler has been superb since that embarrassing four-interception opener at Green Bay, and he's playing the position of quarterback far better than he ever did while he was rolling up glitzy statistics in Denver last season. The Bears are banged up on defense, and we still haven't seen enough impact out of Matt Forte, but Cutler gives them the chance to win games they normally would have lost in the past. The jury's still out, however, because we don't yet know how often the good Cutler will out-weigh the bad Cutler.• Early season playoff potential -- With the Vikings, Packers and Bears a combined 7-2, with one of those losses coming head-to-head, the three-team race in the NFC North is shaping up just as expected. It's way too early to know which two teams earn a playoff berth.
Cincinnati (2-1) -- Yes, I know the Bengals are a play away from being 3-0 and the talk of the NFL. But they're also a play away from being 1-2 and in third place in their division, were it not for that stirring Carson Palmer-led, 16-play, game-winning touchdown drive against the Steelers. The Bengals are clearly better than they've been since 2005. But sustaining their momentum is now the next test. If Cincy really has grown up, it'll dispatch the woeful Browns in Cleveland this week without any messing around.• Early season playoff potential -- Easy there, Bengals fans. Knocking off the Steelers at home was a great first step. But a trip to Baltimore looms in Week 5.