October arrives on Thursday, just in time for the first game of Week 4: Ravens–Steelers on Thursday night in Pittsburgh. As it does, the lay of the NFL land is starting to become clearer, at least when it comes to distinguishing each conference's favorites.
The Patriots and Broncos are creating some space in the AFC, joined by the North-leading Bengals. Over in the NFC, everyone is looking up at the Packers and Cardinals, with undefeated squads in Carolina and Atlanta stating their cases to jump into the “favorites” category.
The middle of the pack is far more muddled ... and has been far more inconsistent.
How the Power Rankings stand as Week 4 arrives:
1. New England Patriots
Ah, 2007. Feels like it was just yesterday. Pirates of the Caribbean and Harry Potter were blowing up at the movies, The O.C. was just wrapping up its TV run, as was Bob Barker on The Price Is Right. Tim Tebow, Chris Leak and Urban Meyer had the Florida Gators national title-bound. And, of course, the Patriots finished the regular season 16–0. Could history repeat itself there? “It's just three games in,” Tom Brady said on WEEI this week when asked to compare this year to the perfect '07 run. “We're going to try to make some improvements, a lot of good execution. We need four more months of it.” A reasonable approach. Still, it will be hard to ignore the hype if New England gets through an upcoming two-game road trip (at Dallas, at Indianapolis) unscathed.
2. Green Bay Packers
Are we still tracking how long it has been since Aaron Rodgers last threw a home interception? It is an incredible, unprecedented run, but at some point we may as well just accept it as set in stone. For example, we don't say, “The United States hasn't lost a Revolutionary War on home soil since 1776.” We say, “The United States won the Revolutionary War,” period.
3. Arizona Cardinals
Any discussion of the Cardinals usually focuses on their defense first. This is currently the top-scoring team in football, though. Granted, the defense is responsible for multiple TDs—two pick-sixes against San Francisco and one in Chicago—but the Carson Palmer–Larry Fitzgerald duo has been next to unstoppable and Chris Johnson has kick-started the run game.
4. Denver Broncos
Tough to ding an unbeaten team after it wins back-to-back road games in prime time. Or, at least it would be if the Cardinals were not destroying everyone in their path right now. As for the Broncos, despite all the focus on Peyton Manning, everything on offense would be a lot smoother if they could run the football at all. Having the league's 31st-ranked rushing attack would overextend any quarterback in this league.
5. Cincinnati Bengals
The top three QB ratings in the league right now belong to Aaron Rodgers, Andy Dalton and Tom Brady, in that order. Anyone questioning Dalton's place there either has not watched Cincinnati this season or is waiting for September Dalton to morph into Playoff Dalton. Maybe, just maybe, the fifth-year starter has turned a corner.
6. Atlanta Falcons
Yes, it's early, but Julio Jones is on pace to do to single-season receiving records what Joe DiMaggio did to hitting streaks. At his current clip, Jones would finish 2015 with 181 receptions for 2,346 yards. The standing marks in those categories are 143 (Marvin Harrison in 2002) and 1,946 (Calvin Johnson in 2012), respectively. He's also seeing 15.3 targets per week, up from 10.9 a year ago.
7. Seattle Seahawks
Shutting out the Bears in their present state almost feels mean. The Seahawks will take it, especially as a jumping-off point now that safety Kam Chancellor is back in the fold. Everyone seems to forget that Seattle started last season 3–3 before clicking into another gear. This team will be fine.
8. Buffalo Bills
Havin' fun yet, Bills Mafia? While the Week 2 loss to New England surely stung, Buffalo has kicked the bejeezus out of Indianapolis and Miami—two expected playoff contenders. And an underrated move that’s paying early dividends? Nabbing RB Karlos Williams in the fifth round of the 2015 draft. His early performance means the Bills won't sweat it if LeSean McCoy misses time.
9. Minnesota Vikings
Back-to-back weeks, an opposing quarterback has left Minnesota looking like a losing fighter from Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! Matthew Stafford felt the brunt of the Vikings' defense in Week 2, then Philip Rivers was in the crosshairs this past Sunday.
10. Dallas Cowboys
Allowing 39 points probably would be too much to overcome even with Tony Romo and Dez Bryant in the lineup. Without them, it's an insurmountable obstacle. Dallas has to embrace the notion of winning ugly for the next several weeks.
11. Carolina Panthers
The Panthers took care of business against three subpar teams, which is easier said than done in the cuckoo bananas world of NFL parity. A Week 4 trip to Tampa Bay should be a test; a Week 6-to-Week 9 stretch featuring Seattle, Philadelphia, Indianapolis and Green Bay shapes up as the real measuring stick.
12. New York Jets
“I can't believe Ryan Fitzpatrick is so inconsistent” falls about in line with being surprised when someone enters a dark room alone during a horror flick. The Jets had one first down over the first 28 minutes of Sunday's loss to the Eagles.
13. Pittsburgh Steelers
Blame it on the offenses of the 49ers and Rams, if you must, but the Steelers' defense has been far more formidable than anticipated thus far. But will they ever have their offense at full strength? Just as Le'Veon Bell returned (and with Martavis Bryant just a week away), the Steelers lost Ben Roethlisberger. Michael Vick's potential last hurrah needs to be a good one.
14. San Diego Chargers
The Chargers couldn't stop Giovani Bernard in Week 2. Things were even worse in Week 3 vs. Adrian Peterson—the tackling attempts were like watching quarters bounce off a trampoline. San Diego's secondary is talented and the offense chock-full of playmakers ... and neither will matter if the run D doesn't get fixed.
15. Kansas City Chiefs
Denver on a Thursday night, Green Bay the following Monday and now a short week before heading to Cincinnati to face the 3–0 Bengals? That Week 5 home game with hapless Chicago must feel like a mirage in the desert. Let's also see how getting Sean Smith back changes the Kansas City defense. The pass rush keeps getting after it, there just have been ample holes behind it in Smith's absence.
16. Indianapolis Colts
Chuck Pagano could not hold back his emotions after Sunday's come-from-behind victory, telling his team with tears in his eyes, “That’s as big a win I’ve ever been a part of in my life.” Love the intensity. Let's maybe walk back the celebratory hyperbole. At 1–2, the Colts are now tied atop the underachieving AFC South.
17. Philadelphia Eagles
Ryan Mathews stepped into the starting RB role Sunday and rushed for 108 yards in a win over the Jets. At his current pace, DeMarco Murray would need a little less than 20 games to hit 108 yards. Murray's too talented of a back to stay grounded all year, but Philadelphia might be wise to ride its other horses for a bit.
18. Oakland Raiders
The Raiders have not been this high in the Power Rankings since wrapping the 2011 season at 8–8. They also have not been this competitive in at least that long. A win over Chicago this Sunday would move them to 3–1, with the first-place Broncos visiting in Week 5. The Oakland fans have been waiting for a game of that magnitude.
19. St. Louis Rams
“What, exactly, are the Rams trying to be? Right now, they’re a team with an identity crisis.” That's how The MMQB's Andy Benoit introduced the Rams' offense during his season preview ... in 2014. New year, same issue. The ground game should be complementing the defense's pass rush, creating a grind-it-out team that wins with physicality. Instead, the Rams are averaging 71 yards rushing per game.
20. New York Giants
Only the Broncos boast a better turnover margin through three weeks than the Giants’ plus-5. The ability to flip the field has been one of the few bright spots for a defense that has given up 393 yards of offense or more each game.
21. Washington Redskins
Chances are there will be several opportunities to chastise Washington for making the same mistakes that led to its 2014 letdown. A Thursday night road loss, following a physical Week 2 win and without starting WR DeSean Jackson, hardly qualifies as one.
22. Baltimore Ravens
For lack of a better word, the Ravens have been a tease in their first three games—the football equivalent of landing on 20 in blackjack right before the dealer draws to 21. A loss in Pittsburgh on Thursday could be the dagger. They already find themselves likely in need of at least a 10–3 finish to have a shot at the playoffs.
23. Houston Texans
With guys like Carson Palmer and Derrick Johnson out there (not to mention Adrian Peterson, though his 2014 absence was not injury-related), Jadeveon Clowney would have to start compiling a healthy dose of sacks to jump into the Comeback Player of the Year discussion. The Texans are content to see his steady progress, which has him inching back toward the dominant force he was in college.
24. Miami Dolphins
Based on their performances the past two weeks, in losing to Jacksonville by a field goal in Week 2 and then at home to Buffalo by 27, the Dolphins deserve to be ranked about 33rd—behind the 31 other NFL teams plus the 1972 Dolphins, because at least those guys would show up and play hard.
25. Cleveland Browns
The entire football public is jammed into the backseat of a station wagon and Mike Pettine is driving. “Can Johnny play yet?” “No.” “Can Johnny play yet?” “No.” “Can Johnny play yet?” “ASK ME ONE MORE TIME AND I'LL PULL THIS TEAM OVER.”
26. Detroit Lions
The Lions' insistence on using Joique Bell as their No. 1 running back is bordering on a baseball manager saving a reliever for the ninth because “He's the closer” (hey there, Matt Williams). Bell's apparently still not 100%, and Ameer Abdullah, Theo Riddick and Zach Zenner all have much higher upsides.
27. San Francisco 49ers
San Francisco's impressive Week 1 win over Minnesota is starting to feel like Tennessee's upset of Kansas City in the 2014 opener. That is to say, the Vikings are trending toward playoff contention while the 49ers are on the verge of a meltdown. They've surrendered 90 points the past two weeks and play Green Bay (and Aaron Rodgers) on Sunday.
28. Tennessee Titans
Games like the Titans' heartbreaking 35–33 loss to Indianapolis happen when a team is mid-rebuild. It's not enough to upgrade the roster or even to find a franchise quarterback. The notion of “learning to win” is a relatively cliché one ... but also true. Tennessee still has to figure it out.
29. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Kyle Brindza's first kick attempt last Sunday absolutely pierced the uprights for a 59-yard field goal, with several yards to spare. He then missed an extra point and his next three field goal tries (of 41, 33 and 57 yards). Such is life in Tampa Bay these days—a few positives here and there, mixed with an abundance of spots needing clean-up.
30. New Orleans Saints
Luke McCown actually played a decent, if ultra-conservative, game in his first New Orleans start. Does that mean anything moving forward, if Drew Brees remains out of the lineup? Probably not, but at least Sean Payton's club didn't roll over with Brees sidelined. So ... uh, yeah, I guess we're counting moral victories for the Saints now.
31. Jacksonville Jaguars
Have you ever won a video game, turned up the difficulty level and then gotten demolished? Then you know how the Jaguars felt waltzing into Foxboro last Sunday after a win over the Dolphins. This team has improved, but it's nowhere near ready to compete on a weekly basis.
32. Chicago Bears
The Bears this week traded away Jared Allen—miscast in their new 3–4 defense—to Carolina, dealt Jonathan Bostic to the Patriots and cut 2014 draft pick Brock Vereen. Kudos to GM Ryan Pace for not waiting any longer before starting to plan for 2016. Of course, the next few months will be miserable for Chicago fans, who now only have the playoff-bound Cubs, defending champion Blackhawks and Eastern Conference power Bulls to watch.