Through seven weeks of the 2015 season, six teams have established themselves as the class of their respective divisions.
The two divisions up for grabs are the NFC East and the perennially underwhelming AFC South.
Are we sure they can hold off a suddenly frisky Jaguars squad averaging 28 points over the past three games?
Hope floats for the entire NFC East and AFC South, where no team is more than 1.5 games out of first place.
- The Jets' defense entered the game ranked No. 1 in the NFL, but Tom Brady humbled the Todd Bowles' unit in his latest MVP-worthy performance. Brady finished 34-of-54 for 355 yards and three touchdowns (one rushing), numbers that would look even better if New England didn't finish with an astounding 10 drops. The Patriots won the game because the Jets could not stop Brady on back-to-back touchdown drives in the fourth quarter. No. 12 remains the difference in this rivalry.
- Chris Ivory has been a terror all season, but staying healthy remains an issue for the running back. Ivory appeared to pull his hamstring on the first carry of the game, an issue that clearly affected him the rest of the way. Ivory deserves credit for gutting it out; he ran the ball better in the second half and had a touchdown reception, but this was not the game the Jets could afford to have their star running back in a compromised state.
- The Jets have to be frustrated by Brandon Marshall's recurring mental/physical hiccups. Marshall had a end-zone drop in the fourth quarter that effectively cost New York four points. Then, on the final play of the fourth quarter, Marshall didn't hustle back to the line of scrimmage and got called for an illegal procedure, prompting a 10-second run-off that ended the game.
-- Dan Hanzus
Manuel crumbled early on Sunday with a trio of turnovers that paved the way for Jacksonville to build a daunting 27-3 lead. Over three drives and just eight plays, the fill-in signal-caller lost a sack-fumble deep in Bills territory that pass rusher Chris Clemons turned into a Jaguars touchdown. On the first play of the next possession -- just seven seconds later -- Manuel unfurled a ridiculous lob into the arms of linebacker Telvin Smith for the pick six. One series later, EJ was intercepted by linebacker Paul Posluszny.
What a mix of good and bad: Manuel tossed a pretty 57-yard touchdown strike to wideout Marcus Easley, but the box score won't show that Smith dropped another potential pick in the end zone. The Bills passer deserves credit for generating points with so many skill players injured, but he's responsible for too many overthrows and ill-fated plays. It was a resilient effort, but Tyrod Taylor remains the better option.
- Blake Bortles -- arguably one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL over the last few weeks -- started the game well but faded in a dangerous way for large stretches. The positive takeaway is that he's navigating the pocket like a 10-year veteran and effectively using his legs. The game-winning touchdown pass was perfect. The negative is that a dangerous pick-six nearly cost Jacksonville the game, and that outside of a few drops, Bortles was letting his improving mechanics slip a bit against an opportunistic defense.
- The Jaguars talked all week about closing games, and Sunday's win was another example of a young team still learning to keep their foot on the gas. After a 27-point second quarter, games like these should be cemented, especially with Jacksonville getting the ball to start the second half. Maybe this unique scenario is on Toby Gerhart, who failed to punch the ball in from a yard out in four tries, but that wasn't their only gaffe. Still, watching the sidelines erupt after stopping the Bills on fourth down was fun. These are a bunch of 23 and 24 year olds figuring it out together.
-- Conor Orr and Marc Sessler
- Stefon Diggs isn't leaving the Vikings' starting lineup. The rookie receiver dazzled again Sunday. After Mike Wallace compared him to Antonio Brown this week, Diggs did his best AB impersonation. Diggs' precise route running and lightning-quick breaks burned Lions DB consistently, highlighted by a ridiculous 36-yard TD dive after he smoked Rashean Mathis on a textbook double move -- Teddy Bridgewater should thank the rook for saving him on an overthrow. He finished with six receptions for 108 yards and a score. Diggs now has at least five catches and over 80 yards in his first three career games. Yup, he's a keeper.
- Bridgewater probably wishes he could play the Lions every week. He's had his two best games of the season against Detroit. He finished with 316 yards passing -- one yard shy of a career high -- and two touchdowns. While he took some bad sacks in field-goal range, Teddy consistently made proper reads and found wide out receivers.
- As we've seen time and time again, the Lions' inconsistency on offense killed them. After jumping out to a 17-6 lead, Joe Lombardi's offense went into a shell. Detroit gained 160 yards in the first quarter. With 3:21 in the fourth quarter they had gained five total yards since the opening stanza. There was zero rhythm and no creativity to the offense. But, hey, no turnovers!
-- Kevin Patra
- Embattled Colts coach Chuck Pagano appeared to be running out of lifelines entering halftime with a 21-0 deficit, a dysfunctional offense and a listless defense. It will be interesting to see how the organization's brass views the second-half effort in which Andrew Luck and T.Y. Hilton took advantage of a stumbling Delvin Breaux for a pair of long touchdown bombs. Luck had trouble moving the ball against uprightSaints defenders. Until the offense finally showed signs of life, Indy's defense was going through the motions, leaving gaping holes for Mark Ingram stroll through at 10.2 yards per carry. Ill-timed turnovers and penalties continue to haunt the team in all phases of the game, a telling sign that Pagano's troops lack the requisite discipline to win with consistency.
- Saints coordinator Rob Ryan told the CBS broadcast crew that his young defense was ready to come alive after a big victory over the Falcons last week. That was the case on Sunday, as Ryan's play-calling kept Luck off balance throughout. Defensive end Cameron Jordan is heating up, with five sacks in the past two games. Rookie linebackers Stephone Anthony and Hau'oli Kikaha combined for 10 tackles and an interception. Prior to the two stumbles, Breaux had been one of the most pleasant surprises in the league. He's a keeper.
- We need to talk about Luck, who didn't play nearly as well as his box score might suggest. He hasn't looked right all year, going back to the season opener in which his pocket presence, decision making and even arm strength seemed off. He appears to have trust issues, not just with his own shoulder, but also with the offensive line's protection and receivers failing to gain clear separation. As a result, he's holding the ball too long, settling for check-downs and short crossing-route throws whereas he used to pull the trigger on intermediate and deep windows.
-- Chris Wesseling
- With Ben Roethlisberger out of the lineup, the Steelers' coaching staff has had to pick their poison between handcuffing the quarterback with ultra-conservative game plans and play calls or risking back-breaking turnovers. They were bitten by both on Sunday. Landry Jones struggled to move the chains early, with coordinator Todd Haley leaning heavily on the run. Once Pittsburgh fell behind, Jones was forced to throw -- and the turnovers followed. He threw a pair of interceptions and lost a fumble, nearly equaling the team's season total of four giveaways entering the game. With the 3-3 Dolphins coming like a freight train in the AFC wild-card race, Roethlisberger will be pushing hard to return for next week's titanic AFC North tilt versus the undefeated Bengals.
- The Chiefs were similarly banged up, with West replacing Charles and rookie Chris Conley filling in for Jeremy Maclin, who is still nursing concussion symptoms. West's big game was all the more impressive coming against a talented young Steelers front seven that ranked fifth in Football Outsiders' run defense metrics. Conley played well enough to earn a bigger role going forward.
-- Chris Wesseling
- The Dolphins outclassed the Texans in every facet of the game in the first half. How dominant was interim head coach Dan Campbell's revitalized team? By the time the Texans registered their first yard of offense, the Dolphins had already built a 35-0 lead early in the second quarter. The lead ballooned to 41-0 before Campbell mercifully took his foot off the pedal after halftime.
- The Texans got embarrassed, and they also lost their franchise running back for the year. Arian Fosterleft the game in the fourth quarter with what was later diagnosed as a torn Achilles, a source informed of his injury told NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport. You have to wonder how many more injury-related setbacks Foster can take.
- Miami's turnaround under Campbell can't be boiled down to one player, but Lamar Miller is a good case study. The running back couldn't find regular work under Joe Philbin, but Campbell has put Miller front and center in the offense. Miller piled up 236 total yards and two touchdowns in the first half against the Texans. He could have had a historic day if he played the game's final two quarters.
-- Dan Hanzus
- This is Jeff Fisher's dream team. They are all defense and running. The Rams' defense essentially scored ten points in the first seven minutes by forcing two fumbles, including a recovery for a touchdown by safety Rodney McLeod. The defensive line gets all the attention, but the Rams secondary is playing very well. McLeod, Janoris Jenkins, Trumaine Johnson, T.J. McDonald, and Mark Barron all played big roles Sunday. They hit and they cover.
- The Browns, now 2-5, don't have a lot to feel positive about. Josh McCown was knocked out of the game late in the fourth quarter with a shoulder injury. He also took a big hit to the head a handful of plays before leaving the game. The Browns actually out-gained St. Louis, but continually self-destructed with penalties and turnovers. They lost four fumbles, two of them by McCown. The Rams' hard hitting deserves an assist.
-- Gregg Rosenthal
- This was another example of the Falcons finding a way to win the type of game they would lose a year ago. On a day when Matt Ryan was erratic, the defense held the Titans to 252 yards and picked off Mettenberger to prevent a potential game-tying field goal late. It's a team defense that is greater than the sum of its parts.
- Ryan missed open receivers throughout the game, including a few misfires that could have resulted in touchdowns. He threw his second interception on a fourth-and-goal from the one-yard line midway through the fourth quarter. It's amazing that the Falcons are 6-1 despite Ryan not playing particularly well over the last month.
-- Gregg Rosenthal
- Give Kirk Cousins credit for bouncing back after a terrible start to the game. The Redskins were outgained 203-21 yards in the first quarter. Cousins was sloppy and off target early while under pressure, his fumble returned for a touchdown put the Redskins in a 24-0 hole. But in the second half, play-action passes and quarterback rolls helped him see the field.
Cousins got into a rhythm and he never let up. In four second-half drives he led three touchdown marches and a field goal. On the game-winning drive, Cousins smartly took the open underneath throws to march down the field, then hit Jamison Crowder on a dime to set up the winning touchdown to Reed. It was the best and worst of Kirk wrapped into one game.
- The Bucs were down to just two healthy receivers after Vincent Jackson and Louis Murphy left with knee injuries. Mike Evans made it not matter. The skyscraping wideout earned a plethora of chunk yardage plays, including catches of 40 yards (touchdown), 25, 24 and two 20-yarders. The Redskins had no answer for Evans' size. Jameis Winston's willingness to let Evans make plays for him is a positive sign moving forward.
- Praise for gutsy Jay Gruden! After getting down big, he went all in. Following a touchdown on the Redskins' first drive of the second half, Gruden called for an onside kick, which Washington recovered. The game turned on the call. Another score on the subsequent drive made it a three-point game in the blink of an eye. To the aggressor goes the NFL spoils yet again.
-- Kevin Patra
- This game was a fantastic opportunity for one of these teams to step up in a watered down AFC West as the clear second place team that could contend for a wild card. The Raiders left no doubt they were that team on the way to a 37-6 lead after three quarters. The Raiders, now 3-3, scored on their first seven possessions and didn't punt or turn the ball over in the first half for the first time since 2002.
- Amari Cooper is a force of nature. He leaped over a defender to save a dangerously late Derek Carr pass over the middle for a 44-yard gain in the second quarter. Just a few minutes later he took a short pass and weaved through the Chargers defense for a 52-yard score. Carr is playing consistent, heady, clean football. Cooper is playing like a Pro Bowler. With 133 yards, he has topped 100 yards in half his career games.
- Don't let Philip Rivers' final numbers (336 yards, 3 scores, 2 interceptions) fool you. He struggled badly in the first half when the game was in doubt. The pass protection and lack of Antonio Gates Sunday certainly didn't help matters, but Rivers did not help his case Sunday. The Chargers, now 2-5, are playing with such a small margin for error because of their dink and dunk offense and erratic defense.
-- Gregg Rosenthal
- Matt Cassel shook off three interceptions in a five-pass span to tie the game at 20 with a touchdown toss to a toe-tapping Devin Street in the middle of the fourth quarter. Those good vibrations lasted just a few seconds before special teams ace Dwayne Harris came back to haunt his former team with the first 100-yard return touchdown by a Giants player in more than 50 years. Minutes later, Cole Beasley sealed the game with the muffed punt, leaving Dallas to lament Harris' presence on the opposite sideline.
- Darren McFadden excelled in the workhorse role after Joseph Randle left early with a back strain. Paced by a hard-charging McFadden consistently moving the chains against a stout run defense, the Cowboys dominated time of possession (38:04 to 21:56), total yards (460 to 289) and first downs (27-13). McFadden generated 162 yards and a score on 31 touches. He would have added another 31-yard touchdown on a screen pass if not for a questionable Street penalty. McFadden played well enough to earn a larger share of the backfield pie going forward.
- The Giants' backfield is a full-blown committee. A healthy Rashad Jennings watched Orleans Darkwa outplay him for a significant stretch of the game. Shane Vereen remains the primary pass-catching back, while Andre Williams' role continues to shrink. It would be no surprise if Jennings loses his grip on the starting job. He's shown a marked decrease in playmaking ability this season.
-- Chris Wesseling
- Cam Newton once again had a very average statistical showing -- he tossed three picks, only one of which was truly his fault, and threw for just 197 yards. Still, the MVP candidate proved his mettle when it counted. Newton continued to throw with zip, showed great pocket poise and even played Manning-esque mind tricks on his opponent. Take for example a crucial second quarter Panthers drive: Newton forced the Eagles to encroach on two consecutive plays with loud counts deep in the red zone, and then, with the shortened field, proceeded to run it into the end zone himself.
- Still, Superman needs sidekicks, and Carolina's skill players helped Newton out plenty Sunday night. Jonathan Stewart (24 carries, 125 yards) showed burst and pass protected as well as he slipped through tackles. Mike Tolbert scored two touchdowns and remains a human pinball/bowling ball/orb in the red zone, refusing to go down after first contact. One of the more pleasant surprises of the night was the emergence of Ted Ginn (102 total yards), who looked like his ol' college self-bursting through screens, speeding past defenders and hauling in difficult grabs. Save for a few drops from rookie Devin Funchess and company, Newton had a valuable and reliable cast of characters at his disposal Sunday night.
- The Eagles suffered an injury scare early on when left tackle Jason Peters went down with a lower back injury. The entire Philadelphia sideline surrounded Peters on the field and dramatically wished him well as he was carted off; the veteran tackle did not return. If there's a player that the Eagles couldn't afford to lose, it was Peters. His presence on the offensive line paves the way weekly for the Eagles' effective edge rushing with Ryan Mathews and, occasionally, DeMarco Murray.
-- Jeremy Bergman