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The Fine Fifteen: It’s Getting Crowded at the Top

As the season begins to sort itself out, the top teams are separating themselves on the strength of stellar quarterback play

Patriots, Packers, Cardinals. Those are my top three teams after three weeks of football, in that order, but if you disagree, have at it. You can put those  teams in any order, and I would not argue. And if you want to put Denver or Cincinnati in there somewhere, be my guest. It’s late September and I really should be back at (pro football predicting) school.

I had hoped Monday night to get some clarity in this scientific exercise known as the Fine Fifteen, and I did. Green Bay so manhandled a good Kansas City defense—all those who predicted the Chiefs would give up 30 a game in September, go to the head of the class—that I am having the Packers leapfrog the Cardinals this morning at number two.

But I would make this point: If New England, Green Bay or Arizona hosted any of the other 31 teams in football right now, I’d pick the home team. It’s that close. I do have the Patriots at the top, which is understandable given their dominance in the first three weeks. But there are better challengers to the Patriots’ throne this year than there were eight years ago. In 2007, when New England went 16-0 in the regular season, the Colts and Packers each went 13-3 … but neither appeared to be as strong in 2007 as the 2015 Packers or Cardinals are.

Obviously, that’s subject to change. Already in the first three weeks, we’ve seen injuries to Tony Romo, Jay Cutler, Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger, and Arizona’s Carson Palmer is 35 and coming off an ACL tear in 2014. So this could all vanish. But the upper echelon of the league this season is shaping up to be quite strong.

On with the countdown. I’m your Casey Kasem.

Palmer has a 117.8 passer rating through three games. (Photo: Mark J. Rebillas for Sports Illustrated)

Palmer has a 117.8 passer rating through three games. (Photo: Mark J. Rebillas for Sports Illustrated)

1. New England (3-0). The Patriots embark on the dreaded Week 4 bye. Dreaded, because the Patriots are extremely healthy right now, and when they really need a week off, in midseason, they’ll be dragging a bit. They’ll have to play at least 13 straight weeks, while the Cards and Seahawks, for instance, get the advantageous Week 9 off. One thing you can be sure of: You won’t hear any grousing out of Belichick or Brady about something so trivial (to them) as bye placement.

2. Green Bay (3-0). Steve Young said something Monday night on ESPN that falls into the category of I Don’t Really Know What That Means, regarding Aaron Rodgers: “If you say he’s the best player in the league, you might be underrating him.” Couple thoughts. One: I know what he means. Two: I don’t know what he means. But let me extrapolate. The best season, measured by passer rating, for a quarterback was Rodgers’ 2011 season, when he had a 122.5 rating. There will be weather down the stretch, of course. But right now, Rodgers’ rating is 135.4.

3. Arizona (3-0). Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Carson Palmer: 27 touchdowns, two interceptions. Every one of these teams has a quarterback who can grind you up.

4. Denver (3-0). Smart for Gary Kubiak to let Peyton Manning go to his comfort zone—the pistol formation, five yards behind the line of scrimmage. It makes no sense for the plodding Manning to have to drop back like he did in his prep school days in New Orleans.

5. Cincinnati (3-0). Interesting two-game home stand coming up against current two-loss teams: Kansas City and Seattle. The Bengals are good enough now that they can say it would be an upset to lose either, and everyone in the building would believe it.

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6. Seattle (1-2). Impressed with the 26-0 win over Chicago. Okay, but is there anyone out there who thought the Jimmy Clausen-led Bears would make this a game, score more than a couple of field goals on the hungry ’Hawks? Now you’ll ask why I have a 1-2 team ahead of two 3-0 teams. My answer: I think the Seahawks are better, and would win if they played Atlanta or Carolina on a neutral field.

7. Atlanta (3-0). Coach of the Year through three weeks: Dan Quinn. Not particularly close.

8. Carolina (3-0). Something Carolina cornerback Josh Norman said to me Sunday about deriving motivation from the world doubting the Panthers. “Keep doing it,” he advised me to tell my brethren in the media. Okay, consider the message passed on. And look: I’ve got your Panthers last of the 3-0 teams, and behind a 1-2 team. Meat for the hounds! Come and get your red hot motivation here! 

9. Buffalo (2-1). In Tyrod Rex Trusts. This is why: Tyrod Taylor has put up 73 points the last two weeks. Tyrod Taylor is completing 74 percent of his throws. Tyrod Taylor has a passer rating 33 points higher than Peyton Manning.

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10. Pittsburgh (2-1). Is there any way Mike Vick can engineer two October wins out of four games—against Baltimore, San Diego, Arizona and Kansas City? Tough duty, particularly for a guy who hasn’t been in the offense very long. By the way, I loved Mike Tomlin’s injury report on Ben Roethlisberger Sunday after the game in St. Louis. “Ben’s got a knee,” Tomlin reported. Unless something happened overnight, I’m pretty sure he’s got two.  

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11.  Minnesota (2-1).

12. New York Jets (2-1). Even if they have to go to London to do so, the Jets picked a good time to play Miami, which is in full coaching-firing, fans-wailing crisis mode. Hey—another 9:30 a.m. NFL game. Love when an extra game is televised. I still think an 11:30 p.m. ET game on the West Coast would be a growth industry for the NFL, but I can’t get anyone to buy a reprise of Chargers-Raiders a couple of years ago.

13.  Kansas City (1-2). The offensive line is going to get Alex Smith maimed at some point this season. Seven sacks of Smith by the Packers Monday night.

14.  Dallas (2-1). Brandon Weeden has completed 88 percent of his throws this year, in five quarters. See? Stats really do mean something.

15.  Philadelphia (1-2). It’s good for the Eagles to be supportive, on and off the record, of Sam Bradford. But he’s not playing well. You’ve got to trust that he’s still getting adjusted to this offense, and to playing full speed after missing nearly two years.

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16.  Oakland (2-1). The Raiders are a field-goal pick at Chicago Sunday. If they win there, they’d be two games over .500 for the first time since 2011.

17. Indianapolis (1-2). Salvage job in Tennessee Sunday. Problems aren’t over. Terrible offensive line play.

18.  St. Louis (1-2). Remember when Todd Gurley was slated to be the biggest savior in St. Louis since Pujols? His debut Sunday: six carries, nine yards.

19.  Baltimore (0-3). “We’re going to find a way out,’’ John Harbaugh said Monday. Sometime in the next two days, though? Before facing the Steelers at Heinz Field?

20.  San Diego (1-2). Even Philip Rivers’ mother thinks this is charitable.

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