4 weeks into the season seems too early to evaluate teams and assess their playoff chances, but after 1 month we are a quarter of the way through the season and 1 team in particular have already opened up a seemingly unassailable lead in their division. With the team that usually goes on to win the Super bowl being the one who performs the best at the latter end of the season it is however too soon to make any sweeping predictions in that regard.
The Texans are 4-0 in the AFC South and all of their victories have been divisional games, leaving them 3 games ahead of their nearest divisional rival, the Colts and as the only AFC team to have won 4 divisional games so far. The Texans have the best overall defence in the league, allowing on average just 273 yards per game, so barring a major injury crisis (which is not unheard of for both the teams in Texas) the Texans look to have already booked their place in the postseason.
There are 2 other teams with an unbeaten record so far this season, but neither one of them can really feel as comfortable as the Texans do with their place in their respective divisions. The Falcons currently have a 3 game lead over their nearest NFC South competitors, the Buccaneers and they lead the league in turnover ratio with +10, 7 more than anyone else in the division, but with teams that have such explosive offences as the Panthers and the Saints behind the Falcons in that division they can’t afford to slip up.
The final undefeated team after 4 games is the Arizona Cardinals and it’s quite difficult to uncover the secret of their success, the one noteworthy fact from the Cardinal’s first 4 games is that they’ve only played 1 team with a winning record thus far, the Eagles. They won that game by 21 points, their biggest winning margin so far this season. They are 28th in rushing statistics so far, 24th in passing and 18th in overall defence; even their special teams aren’t particularly “special”, although their kickoff return average of 29.8 yards is 5th best in the league. The Cardinals division, the NFC West is a very competitive division and the team in 4th place is currently just 2 games behind them and every team has won 2 divisional games so far this season.
The chasing pack of teams with a 3–1 record consists mainly of the usual suspects, the Bengals and Ravens who look to be in a battle for the AFC North and you can never count the Steelers out of the playoff race, even with their current 1–2 record. The Bears, Chargers and 49ers all have 3-1 and should make the playoffs despite the Chargers being the only team of the 3 to currently top their division. The Eagles also stand at 3-1 atop the NFC East although with the other 3 teams in the division all standing at 2-2 and NFC East teams topping the league statistics for running offence and pass defence the, almost traditional, last day of the season NFC East nail biting finish promises to be on the cards again.
The biggest surprise package of the season so far has to be the Vikings, not just because they lead a division with the Bears, Packers and Lions, but also because having just sneaked past 2 teams nobody expects to have a winning record this year in the Colts and Jaguars by the odd field goal they’ve beaten many people’s favourites for the Super bowl, the 49ers and one of the highest powered offences in the league in the Lions. While young quarterback Christian Ponder has stepped up in recent games much of the Vikings success rests squarely on the shoulders of Adrian Peterson and Percy Harvin, who have been susceptible to injury, or in Harvin’s case migraines. If those 2 stay healthy then the fight for the NFC North title could be as ferocious as the NFC East.
Holding up the table, with a 0-4 record are the Saints and after the “bountygate” scandal there was always going to be an adjustment period for a team who lost not just a head coach, but also a replacement head coach and their GM for the star of the season. After such a bad start the Saints are now 12-1 to win that division and while that seems like they’re a long odds outsider that still makes them second favourites to go into the playoffs as a division winner. They are favourites to beat the 3-1 Chargers, who are currently 3rd in the AFC and quite frankly if the Saints are to have any chance of hauling in the Falcons they need to start on Sunday night.