Historically coaches like to break the season up into quarters in order to set short-term goals. We are going to try that method based off my preseason rankings of all 32 teams.
After the first quarter of the season, each team will fall into one of three categories: Exceeding, meeting or failing to meet my expectations.
Green Bay Packers (Preseason rank 1): Even though they were my top team coming into the season, the Packers are still going above and beyond. They are the NFL's top-scoring team (37 points per game) and Aaron Rodgers is on pace to have his best season. Losing Nick Collins hurts their depth in the secondary, but I still see them being the NFC's top seed.
New Orleans Saints (4): They average 31.8 points per game, thanks in part to the second-best offseason signing, Darren Sproles. This team has rebounded from a tough Week 1 loss at Green Bay and is most likely going to win the NFC South. Their outstanding coach and quarterback combination is going to take them a long way.
Detroit Lions (9): They are 4-0 for the first time since 1980, which is even more impressive when you consider three victories came on the road. This team will make the playoffs as a wild card. The big win at Tampa Bay should help if tiebreakers come into play.
Buffalo Bills (24): The offense, led by Fred Jackson and Ryan Fitzpatrick, is exceeding expectations. Coach Chan Gailey is also doing a heck of a job. I don't like the fact that they have to play three road games in a row in November. They will win four more games than they did in 2010, but won't make the playoffs.
Tennessee Titans (25): They have a new coach and quarterback. Speaking of which, Matt Hasselbeck has been the best free-agent addition so far. His strong play has been complemented by the league's best scoring defense. An early December matchup at Buffalo could determine if the Titans make the playoffs.
San Francisco 49ers (26): New coach Jim Harbaugh made one of the best offseason decisions by telling Alex Smith he would be the starting quarterback. Smith might finally be living up to expectations. Along with Buffalo, San Francisco is the second biggest surprise to me.
Washington Redskins (27): This team is much better on defense. Their points allowed have dropped while the sack total has risen. They had seven sacks against the Rams. Still, Rex Grossman is the key. He must avoid bad plays, and to help him do that, Washington needs to run the ball more. If that happens, they can win the NFC East.
Ten teams where they should be ... in the hunt
New England Patriots (2), Baltimore Ravens (3), Atlanta Falcons (5), Pittsburgh Steelers (8), San Diego Chargers (10), Houston Texans (11), New York Giants (12), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (13), Dallas Cowboys (20) and Chicago Bears (22).
Failing to meet expectations
New York Jets (6): Quarterback Mark Sanchez has to play better. The same can be said for the running game. The Jets could easily be 1-3 and have gotten away from their previous plan for success. They are relying on throwing too much. They have a 50-50 chance of making the playoffs.
Philadelphia Eagles (7): They allowed a team-record 31 touchdown passes in 2010 and are on pace to give up 40 this season despite adding two Pro Bowl corners in Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Asomugha has been a disappointment in his move to Philly. The Eagles also have weaknesses at linebacker and the middle of the offensive line. Relying on a rookie kicker, Alex Henery, really hurt them in the loss to San Francisco. Making the playoffs looks unlikely.
St. Louis Rams (14): Another case of a young QB having a down year. Sam Bradford and new offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels have yet to hit their stride. The defense has also regressed, allowing 72 points more through the first quarter of the season than the unit did to open 2010. No way the Rams make the playoffs. They should have had a chance in the NFC West, but not the way they're playing. I can't figure out why this team is where it's at.
Indianapolis Colts (15): This was a descending team even before the loss of Peyton Manning. I think they'll be among the bottom three teams by the end of the season. They had a great run because of one of the greatest QBs ever. There's a good chance they'll end up with the first pick.
Kansas City Chiefs (17): Injuries have hurt this team, but the defense has given up 69 more points than it did through four games last season. Matt Cassel already has five picks compared to seven all of 2010. Don't expect a repeat trip to playoffs.
Jacksonville Jaguars (18): This a well-coached team that waived its quarterback right before the start of the season. While David Garrard had reasonable success last season, there's been limited interest in him on the open market, which makes you think Jacksonville made the right call. Blaine Gabbert will be OK because of the running game, but I don't think he's ready to lead this team to a winning season.
Miami Dolphins (19): Their biggest offseason addition, Reggie Bush, has been very average. The defense is among the bottom 10 in points allowed. They've lost six straight games at home dating back to last season, and it's doubtful they win six games.
Minnesota Vikings (21): They have a new starting quarterback(Donovan McNabb) and offensive coordinator (Bill Musgrave) who have struggled to get the passing game going. They've given up second-half leads in three of four losses. The defense has failed to hold up. I doubt that they win six games this year. Don't be surprised if they change and go to Christian Ponder soon.
Six teams where they should be ... struggling
» The Patriots are the first team in NFL history to have 2,000-plus yards of offense after four games. They are also the first to give up 1,900-plus yards defensively.
» The Lions are the first team in league history to win consecutive games after trailing by at least 20 points in each game.
» In the first three weeks of the season, there were four pick sixes. Last week, there were eight (plus one that was negated by penalty).
» Patriots QB Tom Brady had two touchdown passes vs. the Raiders to give him 274 in his career, good enough to pass Joe Montana for ninth on the all-time list. With two more, Brady will pass Vinny Testaverde for eighth on the list.
College player who helped his stock
In early September, I got a call from East Carolina offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley to tell me about South Carolina DE Melvin Ingram. Riley's team had faced Ingram the previous week and he made quite an impression. "He's one of the best defensive players I've seen," Riley said of Ingram.
Ingram continues to impress, coming up with 3.5 sacks and an interception in a tough loss to Auburn last week. Even though he's only 6-foot-2, Ingram makes up for it with great speed and a motor that never stops. I projected him to be a mid second-round pick before the season, but if Ingram continues to play this way, he should move into the lower half of Round 1.
Top senior defensive line prospects
1. Quinton Coples, DE, North Carolina
2. Brandon Thompson, DT, Clemson
3. Billy Winn, DT, Boise State
4. Jared Crick, DT, Nebraska
5. Melvin Ingram, DE, South Carolina
Defensive line seems like it will be a strength come draft time. There were 12 defensive linemen taken in Round 1 in April and it wouldn't surprise me to have 10 go in 2012.
Game of the week: Jets and Patriots
This is always one to get excited about, especially with all the bad blood between these two teams.
It will be interesting to see how the Jets respond coming off a blowout loss and playing their third straight road game. History says a team playing three straight away from home has a tough time winning that final week.
Keep an eye on who covers Wes Welker. Will the Jets go with Darrelle Revis? Defensively, the Patriots have struggled and their focus could be on Santonio Holmes. That could open up things for New York's ground game to get going. With Jerod Mayo hurt, it will be on Gary Guyton to step up as the Jets want to run the ball more.
The Patriots win by 10, possibly with more points scored by both teams than what you would think.