Four weeks in, the 2014 NFL season is beginning to take shape, with some squads getting off to decidedly strong starts and others stumbling out of the block. But there's a sizable chunk whose record would seem to indicate very little about the direction in which they're headed: the 13 teams that have settled right in the middle at 2-2.
How do we sort through this glut? The past two seasons don't offer much guidance: Of the 10 teams at .500 through Week 4 in 2013, just three made the playoffs, while half of the 10 teams at that mark through Week 4 in 2012 reached the postseason. That said, it is possible to tell which 2-2 squads are on the way up and which are bound to slip. Here is how I would order all 13, according to the likelihood that they'll make the playoffs:
1) Indianapolis Colts
My rationale is simple: Indy has Andrew Luck, who just became the first player in NFL history to notch consecutive outings with 370-plus yards, four touchdowns, a completion rate of 70 percent or better and less than two picks. And he leads an offense that is tops in the league in scoring average and is tied for the most yards per game (444). The two road games at the end of the Colts' schedule could make things tough, but ultimately, I have faith in Luck.
2) San Francisco 49ers
Folks have questioned this defense, but the Niners have given up the second-fewest yards per game in the NFL thus far -- and that's without injured linebacker NaVorro Bowman or suspended pass rusher Aldon Smith. Smith is due back in Week 11 -- in plenty of time for a tough five-game season-ending stretch that includes bothSeahawks contests and matchups against the Chargersand Cardinals. Despite the recent headlines about Jim Harbaugh, I am emphatically not worried about the coach. I've known him since he was about 5 years old, and I know he's an overcome-all-obstacles type of guy.
3) Green Bay Packers
The Packers' offensive production is down this year -- the team is averaging just 23 points and 306 total yards per game, compared to 26 points and 400 yards per game last season -- and their line is thin. But when you have a quarterback like Aaron Rodgers and a receiver like Jordy Nelson, you know you're going to make some plays, and I expect the group to return to its 2013 proficiency. I like that Green Bay plays five of its last eight games at home, including the finale against Detroit. The Packers will make the playoffs.
4) New England Patriots
The Patriots probably will not win 12 games like they did last year, and Tom Brady will not throw 25 touchdown passes. But the defense, the kicking game and Bill Belichick -- who is as good as anyone who's ever coached in the NFL -- will net them enough victories to get them back to the playoffs. Yes, Brady has struggled, but I think this offensive line will eventually cohere and give him time to actually make his throws. New England has a tough road schedule, but the last three games on the slate -- home against the Dolphins, at the Jets, home against the Bills -- give the Pats a good shot to end the season on a high note.
5) New York Giants
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New coordinator Ben McAdoo's offensive system has begun to produce points and yards: In their pasttwo games (both wins), the Giants scored a total of 75 points and averaged 434 yards. Eli Manning has stopped making mistakes and throwing picks, and he's started anticipating the open man. Along with the rest of the team, Manning looked much more confident in the Thursday night rout of Washington. The 11th-year pro gives New York a chance to win the NFC East. The defense must tighten up, but the key is the Giants' schedule, which includes games against Jacksonville, Tennesseeand St. Louis down the stretch.
6) Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs showed what they can do over the past two weeks, with a win at Miami and a blowout at home over New England. Andy Reid and Alex Smith are vastly underrated, and Justin Houston and Tamba Hali are still there to supply a pass rush (eight total sacks already this season). Losing linebacker Derrick Johnson to injury hurt, but Josh Mauga is playing well in his absence. Plus, between a slimmed-down, more effective Dwayne Bowe and an emergent Travis Kelce, it looks like the Chiefs finally have some additional offensive playmakers who can help shoulder the burden borne by dynamic back Jamaal Charles.
7) Chicago Bears
The Bears' next two games -- at Carolinaand Atlanta -- are very important. They also must figure out a way to beat the Packers, who soundly defeated them in Chicago on Sunday. Luckily for them, they have a bye before traveling to Green Bay in Week 10. The schedule looks good at the end, with five of seven games at home. The defense must play better -- more pass rush would help -- and running back Matt Forte has to have more games like he did last week (23 carries and five catches for 171 total yards).
8) Miami Dolphins
Ryan Tannehill is the key here; ultimately, I think new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor and a line that is continuing to gel will help him. I like that three of Miami's last four games are at home. And Knowshon Moreno will be back for that stretch run, as the running back thinks he's about four weeks from returning right now. As it stands, the Dolphins boast the NFL's sixth-ranked rushing attack and have scored the most points in the AFC East.
9) Atlanta Falcons
Matt Ryan leads a very good passing attack, and the ground game is getting better. The Falcons, who are already 2-0 in the NFC South, end the season with four of six games at home, including the finale against Carolina. They will rack up points. But then, they'll also give up plenty; only the Rams, Buccaneers and Jaguarshave allowed more per game this season. Atlanta's pass rush is lacking, and at this juncture, it's tough to see how it'll improve, meaning the team will have to outscore people to reach the playoffs.
10) Pittsburgh Steelers
I had high hopes for the Steelers, whom I picked to win the AFC North, but based on what we've seen through four weeks, I worry. The thing is, if defensive pieces Ryan Shazier,Jarvis Jonesand Ike Taylor had been healthy on Sunday, Pittsburgh likely wouldn't have qualified for this piece, as the loss to the Bucs would've been a win instead. Getting those three back in action will be crucial. The Steelers can pass and run effectively behind Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell, but the group can't afford to make mistakes -- not when the defense isn't coming through with sacks and turnovers.
11) Buffalo Bills
The Bills' defense is playing well (allowing 337.8 yards per game), the young offensive line is very good and the team can run. More than anything, though, Buffalo needs a quarterback who can make some plays and get the ball to the receivers. Kyle Orton, who replaced youngster EJ Manuel this week, might prove to be that guy. If the veteran comes through, Buffalo could take the AFC East, with the Patriots possibly looking vulnerable. But that seems like a stretch at this point, especially with a schedule that wraps up with three of four games on the road.
12) Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings are looking at a difficult path with rookie Teddy Bridgewater under center and Adrian Peterson unavailable for the foreseeable future, as their division includes three teams with good, veteran signal-callers (Rodgers in Green Bay, Jay Cutler in Chicago and Matthew Stafford in Detroit). They caught a bad break this week, having to play the Packers on short rest. Looking ahead, I wonder how this squad, which is playing in an outdoor stadium while a new home is constructed, will fare without the advantage it used to have in the old Metrodome, where noise would disrupt opponents.
13) Carolina Panthers
Coming off offseason ankle surgery and a preseason rib injury, Cam Newton is simply not making the chain-moving plays -- on the ground or in the air -- that he used to. If Carolina is to have any sort of realistic shot, the quarterback must get right. The defense, which was so dominant last season, has been hurting; a unit that allowed just 17 touchdown passes and 241 points in 2013 is on pace to allow 32 touchdown tosses and 384 points (an increase of almost nine points per game) in 2014. The Panthers definitely miss Greg Hardy. It's going to be tough for this group to return to the playoffs in 2014.