With an absorbing Week 8 in the books and about half of the season complete, we should have a clearer picture of the contenders and pretenders of 2016.
But outside of the New England Patriots in the AFC East, can you confidently pick any of the division winners? Even after "statement" victories for the NFC South-leading Atlanta Falcons and NFC East-leading Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, it's hard to feel entirely confident they're head-and-shoulders above their divisional competition.
The only four teams that can safely be pronounced out of the hunt are the Browns, Jaguars, 49ers and Bears (the last of whom, in fairness, showed signs of life Monday night). If you dump those four and concede that the Falcons and Cowboys will probably join the Patriots in the playoffs, you still have an amorphous scrum of 25 teams that will need to sort themselves out as they vie for the other nine playoff spots in the second half.
These are the five teams of those middling 25 that I'm most confident will still be playing football in January:
Pittsburgh Steelers (4-3)
While the Steelers are currently leading the AFC North, they are still "on the bubble," because both the Bengals and the Ravens are just one win back with three head-to-head matchups remaining. Pittsburgh has the league's 27th-ranked total defense but is surprisingly near the top 10 in scoring defense (the only defensive stat that really matters), surrendering just 21.4 points per game.
That said, this team will rise or fall based on its offense, and in terms of personnel, it still has potentially the most explosive attack in the NFL, with Ben Roethlisberger dispensing the ball to Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. The unit hasn't been hitting on all cylinders to this point, for obvious reasons: Bell was suspended for the first three games, Big Ben was hurt in Week 6 and big-money free-agent tight end Ladarius Green has yet to see the field. Still, Roethlisberger has adapted, spreading the ball around to the crowd auditioning for the No. 2 receiver role, including Eli Rogers, Sammie Coates, Markus Wheaton and Darrius Heyward-Bey. But they haven't yet had the continuity they need; there are still parts to sort out. It's also true that if Roethlisberger is healthy, people don't want to have to play this team in the postseason.
Kansas City Chiefs (5-2)
Under Andy Reid, the Chiefs have become a perennially good team, never really dominant in any one particular area but pretty good at almost everything. Kansas City has moved to 5-2 despite getting only a slight contribution from its best offensive player, Jamaal Charles (who has only 12 carries for 40 yards coming off last year's ACL tear, and was placed on injured reserve Tuesday) and nothing at all yet from its best defensive player, edge-rush boss Justin Houston (who is still rehabbing his knee). I think the AFC West is the best division from top to bottom in the entire NFL. The Chiefs are the only team in the division to have won all of its divisional games thus far (victories over the Chargers and Raiders) and have very winnable games in the next three weeks (vs. Jags, at Panthers, vs. Bucs). But then the schedule gets tougher, as they play Denver (twice), Oakland and Atlanta over a five-week stretch. The return of Houston could function as essentially the biggest second-half acquisition of any team in the NFL; it might be enough to allow the Chiefs to break Denver's five-year stranglehold on the division.
Philadelphia Eagles (4-3)
They won't admit it publicly -- you can't, really -- but the Eagles entered the 2016 season thinking this was a rebuilding year, in which they'd dismantle the unbalanced roster Chip Kelly left behind and try to construct the nucleus of a team for 2017 and beyond. New coach Doug Pederson had every intention of sitting second overall pick Carson Wentz for a full season, so he could learn from veteran quarterback Sam Bradford. Everything changed in September, when the Eagles were able to recoup a first-round pick from the suddenly QB-needy Vikingsin exchange for Bradford.
Two months later, the Eagles are in the thick of a playoff race, with only an overtime loss to Dallas keeping them from being in the driver's seat in the NFC East. They'll get a rematch with the Cowboys in Philadelphia on the final week of the season -- one that could very well decide the division. Wentz has been a revelation, but it's clear things are sunny in Philadelphia not merely because of him. Veteran coordinator Jim Schwartz has revived the Eagles' defense with his much-discussed wide-9 scheme (giving his defensive ends plenty of room to start their pass rush unimpeded). The Eagles are in the top five in both scoring and passing defense and rank eighth in total defense. If not for some costly fumbles, this team could easily be 6-1.
Green Bay Packers (4-3)
No Eddie Lacy, no James Starks, no Randall Cobb and no Ty Montgomery ... so of course, Aaron Rodgers has his breakout game of the season Sunday. Despite the Week 8 loss to Atlanta, this game may have been just what the sluggish Packers needed to jump-start things. Rodgers threw four touchdown passes and Davante Adams (12 receptions) showed strong signs of maturing into the receiver the Packers have been hoping he'd be. If Adams develops, perhaps the Packers can use Cobb and Montgomery as dynamic slot players or out of the backfield for the remainder of the season.
While there are certainly no moral victories in the NFL, the Packers got a lot out of this loss -- and they are showing hints of being similar to what they were in 2010, when they had to fight through regular-season injuries and qualified for the playoffs as a wild-card team, then ran the table to the Super Bowl title. Green Bay still needs to find a reliable running back, but this team could get hot at just the right time and be a tough out for anyone in the playoffs.
Seattle Seahawks (4-2-1)
Much like the Steelers, the Seahawks are currently leading their division, so it is hard to characterize them as a "bubble" team. But they are far from the dominating force they were when they made back-to-back Super Bowl appearances in 2013 and 2014. Statistically, what is missing most is the rushing attack. The loss of Beast Mode is obvious -- but this is less about the retirement of Marshawn Lynch than it is about an almost criminally inept offensive line, one that's providing little run support or pass protection. Consider that banged-up quarterback Russell Wilson, who ran for 849 yards in 2014 and whose previous career low was 489 as a rookie, is on pace to rush for fewer than 100 yards this season.
Wilson has long ago proved he can be a reliable pocket passer, but with little time in the pocket and without the added threat to run, defenses are adjusting and pinning their ears back. If the offensive line can even be decent, perhaps Wilson can get healthy over the second half of the season. If so, the Seahawks might be able to return to the offensive scheme that made them so productive earlier in Wilson's career.