Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. In today's installment, he examines the outlook on three notable division leaders at the quarter mark.
The NFL season has always been viewed as a marathon by coaches and executives. The long road to Super Bowl Sunday takes many twists and turns, but great leaders keep the team on the path by focusing on incremental progress along the way.
During my time as a scout with the Carolina Panthers, head coach John Fox broke down the regular season into four equal parts, with the goal of posting a 3-1 mark during each quarter of the 16-game campaign. He viewed 12 wins as the magic number that would guarantee not only a playoff berth but one of the top postseason seeds.
With four Sundays in the books, the 2023 regular season is essentially at the quarter mark. (Yes, the 17th game throws a wrench into this previously simple equation.) At this moment, these are the league's eight division leaders, factoring in tiebreakers:
- AFC East: Buffalo Bills (3-1)
- AFC North: Baltimore Ravens (3-1)
- AFC South: Indianapolis Colts (2-2)
- AFC West: Kansas City Chiefs (3-1)
- NFC East: Philadelphia Eagles (4-0)
- NFC North: Detroit Lions (3-1)
- NFC South: Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-1)
- NFC West: San Francisco 49ers (4-0)
Each division race is only just beginning, to be sure, but this is a nice time to stop and take stock of the teams on top. Of the eight early leaders, which one is the most secure in its standing? The most surprising? The most suspect? These are my selections.
MOST SECURE DIVISION LEADER
No surprise here, as Kansas City has enjoyed an uninterrupted reign over the AFC West since 2016, boasting the longest active division-title streak in the NFL. Andy Reid’s squad typically overwhelms AFC West foes with a high-powered offense and opportunistic defense.
The 2023 Chiefs have not posted eye-popping offensive numbers, but reigning league MVP Patrick Mahomes has found a way to regularly put the ball in the end zone by orchestrating a methodical approach that mixes the pass and the run. With Isiah Pacheco setting the pace as the workhorse back, Kansas City has been able to complement the always-potent Mahomes-Travis Kelce connection with a punishing ground game that anchors a revamped, ball-control offense.
The biggest early-season development for the defending Super Bowl champions is a stifling defensive effort headlined by All-Pro defensive tackle Chris Jones. K.C. is tied for fifth in scoring D, thanks to Steve Spagnuolo’s creative schemes and a collection of young, athletic defenders who are flourishing at every level. From George Karlaftis off the edge to Leo Chenal and Nick Bolton (when healthy) at the second level to Trent McDuffie, L'Jarius Sneed, Joshua Williams and Bryan Cook on the back end, the Chiefs’ young defensive core has changed the dynamics of a team that routinely had to win shootouts in prior seasons. As the unit gains more experience -- with so many young defenders thrust into prominent roles -- Kansas City will only become more of a well-rounded powerhouse.
Who presents the biggest threat to an eighth straight AFC West title for the Chiefs? The Raiders and Broncos don't look too imposing at 1-3, leaving the 2-2 Chargers as the top contender. One problem: K.C. has won 15 of the past 18 games in this division rivalry.
MOST SURPRISING DIVISION LEADER
Tampa Bay sitting atop the NFC South was not on my bingo card this past summer, in the wake of Tom Brady's retirement. Much to Todd Bowles' credit, though, the Buccaneers have found a way to win with a disruptive defense setting the table for an opportunistic offense led by Baker Mayfield.
After signing a one-year prove-it deal back in March, Mayfield has played his part by keeping his turnovers to a minimum (just two through four games) while playing efficiently from the pocket. With a pair of talented, big-bodied pass catchers (Mike Evans and Chris Godwin) expanding the strike zone for the former No. 1 overall pick, Mayfield has posted a strong passer rating (101.5) that reflects his effectiveness in guiding a “low risk” offensive attack.
Meanwhile, Tampa's defense has flexed its muscles, with the stars playing exceptionally well in an aggressive scheme that creates splash-play opportunities. With NT Vita Vea (3.5 sacks), LB Lavonte David (28 tackles, three tackles for losses, one sack), LB Devin White (26 tackles, one tackle for loss and an interception) and S Antoine Winfield Jr. (31 tackles, two sacks, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries) dominating the middle of the field, opponents are met with playmakers right up the spine at all three levels.
While 0-4 Carolina appears to be in the midst of a rebuilding season, Atlanta and New Orleans (both 2-2) could make a run at Tampa Bay-- though the Bucs just blasted the Saints in their house this past Sunday.
MOST SUSPECT DIVISION LEADER
This selection shouldn't be too surprising, considering every single team in the division is 2-2. Indianapolis just currently sits at the top via tiebreakers. But I'm afraid the Colts' tenuous hold on the AFC South is not sustainable, with an inexperienced rookie quarterback leading a collection of largely unheralded players on both sides of the ball. General manager Chris Ballard has assembled a roster loaded with traits and athleticism, and the future could be bright, but this team still has deficiencies that will be difficult to overcome over the rest of the 2023 campaign.
The Colts just don't have an explosive playmaker in the passing game, and this lack of an outside threat will allow opponents to keep extra defenders in the box to slow down Anthony Richardson and Zack Moss -- and maybe now Jonathan Taylor? -- on the ground. In addition, Indianapolis' offensive line has produced scattershot results that will make it hard to consistently win against the stingy defenses and explosive offenses in the AFC.
Gus Bradley’s defense has kept the Colts in the hunt with energy, hustle and relentless spirit, but a dearth of blue-chip talent could show up in the matchups that determine playoff positioning down the stretch. While effort, toughness and superb execution can produce wins against undisciplined teams, Indy must step it up to hold off the more talented teams vying for the division crown.
Jacksonville entered this season as a substantial favorite to win the AFC South, while Tennessee is aiming to win its third division title in four years. Houston might be the biggest surprise of all, with rookie QB C.J. Stroud shredding the Jaguars and Steelers in back-to-back blowout wins. Indy deserves credit for technically holding the throne at the outset of October, but I question whether this will be the team on top come January.