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Three teams rising, falling after Week 7

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Seven weeks into the NFL season is long enough to take a hard left turn. Teams like the Bills who started off promising have swerved toward disaster. The opposite also remains true: The Dolphins and Saints have real hope Monday morning after suffering through brutal Septembers.

Let's take a look at three teams that should be feeling good after Sunday's action, and teams that have taken a turn for the worse. We'll start with teams on the upswing:

New Orleans Saints


The division is all but out of reach with the Saints trailing second place by three games. But a potentially lost season feels reborn after successive convincing victories over the Falcons and Colts. The Saints' defense is never going to be dominant, but they are figuring out how to cover up their weaknesses better. Cameron Jordan is suddenly having his best season and the secondary has turned competent lately. The defense is young and has a chance to improve.

The real hope here is the schedule. This week's "homecoming" for Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is the toughest matchup the Saints have until November. They also have games against Tampa, Detroit and Jacksonville in December. After some admittedly premature think-pieces about Sean Payton's future, it's very easy to imagine this team having a winning record entering the home stretch. That should be good enough to stay within striking distance of the NFC's last wild card spot.

Oakland Raiders


Sunday's game against San Diego was a fork in the road game for both teams. There is room for a second AFC West team to contend for a wild card spot, and the Raiders improbably have shown they will be that team. Derek Carr has been one of the steadier quarterbacks in the league. Khalil Mack and Aldon Smith form a terrific pass rush duo. This might not be a playoff team yet, but they're only one spot out of a playoff spot through six weeks and should hover around .500 all season.

Miami Dolphins


Dan Campbell is a leader and a philosopher.

"You transferred energy without physically even touching them ... and things like that happen, guys," Campbell told his team in the locker room after their latest destruction of an AFC South opponent.

The Dolphins will have to get back to playing legitimate teams again starting Thursday night in Foxborough versus the Patriots, but there's no doubt that the talent in Miami is showing itself again. The Dolphins essentially added one of the league's best pass rushers and one of the best left tackles during their bye week when Cameron Wake and Branden Albert returned to health. Campbell smartly committed to Rishard Matthews as an every-down player at receiver, ignoring the pedigree of DeVante Parker and Greg Jennings.

All jokes aside about the AFC South, the ability to blow out lackluster teams is a consistent sign of a playoff contender. But the schedule could be tricky to navigate because Miami already lost two home division games including a "home" game in London. The Jets also look more like a legitimate top-shelf NFL team every week, so passing them for second place in the AFC East will be difficult.

Unless the Dolphins can win in Foxborough on Thursday, they will be 3-4 and headed to Buffalo. That Week 9 game with the Bills could feel like an elimination game for relevance in the AFC East.

Speaking of which ...

Teams on the Downswing:


Buffalo Bills


They have plenty of legitimate excuses. The Bills haven't been able to field their best team because of injuries to Sammy Watkins, Kyle Williams, Percy Harvin, and LeSean McCoy at various points in the season. EJ Manuel was a huge step-down from Tyrod Taylor, who should be back after the team's bye. With all that said, the Bills have already lost three games at home. They haven't been particularly competitive with the league's best like Cincinnati and New England. Rex Ryan didn't even seem that angry after losing to the Jaguars; he just looked exhausted.

Their defense hasn't been nearly as good as the sum of its parts. This was a team with playoff expectations, yet their first game back from the bye feels like a "must win." Last place in the AFC East at midseason is nearly a death sentence because they'll have almost no margin for error in the second half and a tricky schedule to navigate.

San Diego Chargers


The schedule is forgiving. The Chargers don't play any team that currently has more than two wins until December. That gives Philip Rivers a chance to go on one of his patented runs, and there is enough talent around him to pull off the improbable. The Chargers just have to come to terms with the reality that they look like an easy game on the schedule, too. Trailing 37-6 at home against the Raiders after three quarters should have been a humbling moment. We've never seen Mike McCoy so angry after a loss. Their big budget defensive players (Donald Butler, Manti Te'o, Eri Weddle, Brandon Flowers, Corey Liuget) are not living up to their contracts.

San Diego's home games are increasingly depressing, and the possible relocation to Los Angeles has infected the season. We've seen similar situations rip apart an organization before. We hope that doesn't happen here.

Dallas Cowboys


Matt Cassel felt like an improvement on Brandon Weeden, yet he still threw three interceptions against New York. Darren McFadden had his rejuvenation game and the Cowboys still lost their fourth-straight contest. It's almost certain they will find a way to lose the fifth straight against Seattle, which would put them at 2-5. The defense certainly looks improved and healthier, but it's not going to mean much without getting some wins.

Bonus Faller: Atlanta Falcons


The Falcons are coming off their sixth win Sunday in Tennessee, yet there are signs for concern. The passing game somehow looks worse than it did a year ago despite the great record. The pass rush is also not any better. There are only three games left against teams with a winning record, but the Falcons look capable of losing to just about any team. (And beating any team.) That's just the kind of team this Falcons squad is, with very little separating them and a 3-4 squad. They were No. 14 in Football Outsiders' metrics before the ugly game in Tennessee. In short: If the Falcons make the playoffs, expect a bumpy ride on the way there. Don't be surprised if they come back to the back.

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