Only 14 teams have a winning record after the sixth week of the 2018 campaign, but I've assigned myself the task of finding reasons for optimism for every NFL squad this season. It's going to be easier with some teams than others, but let's give this a shot.
Arizona Cardinals: It's possible that cornerback Patrick Peterson has never played better. Defensive end Chandler Jones, safety Budda Baker and linebacker Josh Bynes are all flying around in coach Steve Wilks' defense. That group -- and rookie QB Josh Rosen's laudable willingness to make tough throws in a nearly impossible situation -- provide reasons for depressed Cardinals fans to keep tuning in.
Atlanta Falcons: The season isn't over at 2-4. The Falcons earned a win they desperately needed over Tampa, with a home game coming up against the Giants before a Week 8 bye. Matt Ryan has thrown for 12 touchdowns with no picks over the last four weeks and the Falcons have eclipsed 30 points in every home game. Eventually, Ryan must prove this offense can travel.
Baltimore Ravens: Only the Rams have a better scoring differential than the Ravens, who have managed a difficult early slate with aplomb. At 4-2 after a three-game road swing, Baltimore owns the most cohesive and creative team defense in football. In a pass-dominant league, the best pass defense is a trump card.
Buffalo Bills: Buffalo's defense has held three of its last four opponents under 300 yards, with defensive end Jerry Hughes, defensive tackle Kyle Williams and breakout linebacker Matt Milano all playing well. LeSean McCoy's return to form gives the Bills a path to stay competitive if they can get anything out of their quarterbacks. Big if.
Carolina Panthers: The offensive line has stabilized in recent weeks and the team's young cornerbacks are mostly playing well. The Panthers are a 3-2 squad without glaring weaknesses in any facet of the game and a lot of room for improvement if youngsters like D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel can develop.
Chicago Bears:Tarik Cohen's breakout game against the Bucs was backed up by another 121 yards from scrimmage against the Dolphins. Taylor Gabriel's early slump is over, and the return of rookie Anthony Miller is a plus. The severe disappointment of losing in Miami shows how far coach Matt Nagy has already moved the goal posts for this organization.
Cincinnati Bengals:Sunday's loss to Pittsburgh undoubtedly stings. It will conjure memories of all the other losses from ahead during the Marvin Lewis era, but Andy Dalton's big-boy drive before the Steelers' game-winning touchdown was different. Week after week, Dalton is playing his best in the game's biggest moments.
Cleveland Browns: It took until Baker Mayfield's fourth NFL appearance for the No. 1 overall pick to look like a rookie. That alone is a victory. Coordinator Gregg Williams' boom-or-bust approach to defense will produce games like Sunday's loss to the Chargers, but this season should ultimately be judged on whether the Browns have finally found their quarterback. Mayfield has already shown enough to provide that answer, and the slump-busting Bucs defense is next on tap.
Dallas Cowboys: Sunday's 40-point outburst against the vaunted Jaguars defense came out of nowhere. The Cowboys' defensive performance against Jacksonville did not. Dallas suddenly has a deep pass rush that is supported by the standout play of young linebackers Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith. It's enough to make Cowboys fans -- and ownership -- completely unrealistic about their prospects.
Denver Broncos: John Elway has problems, but his 2018 rookie class isn't one of them. Royce Freeman and undrafted stud Phillip Lindsay have made an incredible backfield duo. No. 4 overall pick Bradley Chubb broke out with three sacks of Jared Goff on Sunday, and wideout Courtland Sutton looks like a keeper. Even fourth-round linebacker Josey Jewell has been a valuable role player. This is the type of draft class that turns an organization around, even if it doesn't happen under this coaching staff.
Detroit Lions: Bill Belichick often figures out his team in September before covering up its weaknesses and highlighting its strengths after that. Could Matt Patricia do the same? At 2-3 (with two quality wins) coming out of their bye week, the Lions' offense is more balanced than ever before, with Kerryon Johnson adding juice to the running game and Kenny Golladay making the leap to a No. 1 receiver.
Green Bay Packers: This season could look a lot worse than 3-2-1. Aaron Rodgers' smile was extra wide after another daredevil prime-time comeback Monday night because he has two weeks to rest his knee while his wideouts heal, too, as the Packers have their bye in Week 7. Winning just enough games in ugly fashion early in the season before Rodgers goes on a run late is basically the Packers' annual formula.
Houston Texans: Bill O'Brien's crew is somehow tied for first place despite starting 0-3, allowing Deshaun Watson to be hit 66 times and failing to play one truly complete game as a team. The stars here are healthy and almost all playing well, especially J.J. Watt. In short: This team can get a lot better.
"In my core, I'm not discouraged," Luck said after Sunday's loss to the Jets. "From a 10,000-foot perspective, I'm not happy we lost. But I think we are going in the right direction and the results will come."
This sounds like athlete-speak, but I totally buy it in this case.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Just look around the rest of the AFC South. Despite the Jaguars' disappointing start, they are still tied atop the division and their painstakingly constructed defense remains intact and healthy. The Jags started 3-3 last season, too, and this team still looks better on paper.
Kansas City Chiefs: I never want to hear a Chiefs fan complain about not developing a homegrown quarterback again. Even in a loss to the Patriots, Patrick Mahomes made five throws Sunday night most organizations have never produced. The Chiefs' defense has enough talent to improve by January and anything less than a playoff bye will be a massive letdown.
Los Angeles Chargers: Center Mike Pouncey has provided a nastier edge for an offense that revolves around big passing plays and big production from running backs Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler. This can be one of the league's most balanced teams, and the performance by the Bolts' secondary over the last two weeks shows their upside. Only one AFC team has a better record than the 4-2 Chargers.
Los Angeles Rams: The Rams have shown over the last two weeks they can win any style of game, in any climate. Jared Goff sets defenses up and Todd Gurley has knocked them down in the fourth quarter. Despite all the star power on this roster on both sides of the ball, it might be the low-profile offensive line that is dominating the most.
Miami Dolphins: The Dolphins might've found the right coach if Adam Gase can scheme up 541 yards and 31 points on the Bears' defense with Brock Osweiler at quarterback, all while reviving Frank Gore's infinite career and making Albert Wilson a free-agent bargain. That Gase can engineer this much production out of disparate parts, however, does make me wonder if Miami still needs to upgrade at quarterback.
Minnesota Vikings: Despite all the early turbulence, the Vikings are 3-2-1, half a game out of first place, coming off a much-improved rushing performance with 195 yards in their win over Arizona. Kirk Cousins has been at his best this season when under pressure, a trait that is only going to become more vital as the games become more important.
New England Patriots: The Patriots lost to Kansas City in Week 1 last season partly because they failed on two fourth-and-1 situations. On Sunday night, they converted four third-and-short situations, including Sony Michel's patient run on third-and-1 during the game-winning drive. The New England running game is undeniably tougher this year, leaning on strong interior linemen and Michel's decisiveness.
New Orleans Saints: New Orleans' defense has transformed from disastrous to passable since transitioning to a safer, more zone-based scheme over the last two weeks. "Just approach average" is not a worthy slogan for the Saints' D, but it's all the unit needs to be in order to support a razor-sharp offense that is only growing more dynamic with the return of Mark Ingram and the emergence of rookie wideout Tre'Quan Smith.
New York Giants:Saquon Barkley is on pace for more than 2,100 yards from scrimmage in his rookie season. The folly of passing on a quarterback in last year's draft is re-litigated every time Eli Manning drops back to pass, but at least Barkley is delivering the goods, making the team far more watchable for years to come.
Oakland Raiders: This is shaping up as a lost season in Oakland, but rookie defensive linemen Maurice Hurst, Arden Key and P.J. Hall are all playing competent snaps. Hurst is currently ranked as a top-20 interior defensive lineman (out of 93 qualifiers) by Pro Football Focus. Not bad for a fifth-round pick.
Philadelphia Eagles:Fletcher Cox should be a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Brandon Graham, Michael Bennett and Derek Barnett are starting to show up every week as defensive line disruptors. Chris Long is deep into his career renaissance. While the rest of the Eagles work out the kinks, the D-line is ready to carry the team once again.
San Francisco 49ers: It feels like the 49ers are wasting two years of Kyle Shanahan's coaching prime, but there is no doubt they have the right guy. Shanahan's offensive vision creates results like C.J. Beathard, Raheem Mostert and Marquise Goodwin putting up 30 points in Lambeau Field on "Monday Night Football." Shanahan is Sean McVay without the infrastructure.
Seattle Seahawks: Repeat after me: The Seahawks' offensive line is no longer a liability. It might even be an asset, at least on running downs. The dramatic transformation of the most-maligned unit in football -- on display in the comfortable muck of Wembley Stadium -- has given this Seahawks team legitimate playoff aspirations.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Bucs came out of their bye week with their best rushing performance of the season in Atlanta, with Peyton Barber's resurgence and Jameis Winston's underrated scrambling leading to 123 yards on 20 attempts (6.2 per carry). A little balance would go a long way toward taking pressure off Winston's arm and the team's lackluster pass defense.
Tennessee Titans: There were legitimate questions about head coach Mike Vrabel's defensive bona fides after he struggled in his only year as an NFL defensive coordinator. Six weeks into his first year at the helm in Tennessee, the Titans are third in scoring defense with a creative attack led by a complete secondary. After a dispiriting home-shutout loss to the Ravens, perhaps Vrabel can bring Mike Mularkey back to run the offense.
Washington Redskins: The Alabama defensive line duo of Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne held the Panthers' rushing attack, previously ranked first in the NFL, to 81 yards. (Christian McCaffrey had 20.) No opposing running back has topped 61 yards against the 'Skins all season. Jay Gruden has the team he always wanted -- a smashmouth outfit that can run and stop the run -- even if that identity is out of step with today's NFL trends.