In The First Read, Jeffri Chadiha provides a snapshot of the hottest stories and trends heading into Week 7 of the 2022 NFL season, including:
But first, making sense of all the AFC volatility ...
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- A third of this season is now officially behind us, which means there's enough of a sample size for us to start drawing some conclusions about what we've seen so far. We know the NFC presents a bit of a conundrum, as the East has three legitimate playoff contenders, and the other Super Bowl favorites -- Tampa Bay, Green Bay and the Los Angeles Rams -- are all struggling with serious flaws. The AFC, on the other hand, is filled with an assortment of teams that have experienced their ups and downs. It's here that this week's version of The First Read will concentrate its attention.
The AFC was supposed to be a gauntlet when this season began, mainly because of the combination of quarterback talent and aggressive offseason moves by various teams. What it's become is a weekly exercise in trying to determine why teams that were expected to be bad are playing well and why teams that were expected to be good are playing poorly. It's the beauty of the game. Nobody has ever won a championship on paper or in July.
So today, we'll play our first 2022 edition of contenders and pretenders. It's the perfect time, because we're six weeks into the season, and we've just had our first blockbuster game between conference heavyweights -- the Buffalo Bills' 24-20 win over Kansas City on Sunday. There's no denying those are the two best teams in the AFC.
Here's how the entire conference stacks up today:
These teams are championship-caliber.
The Chiefs have gone 4-2 so far through the toughest part of their schedule. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes could've used Tyreek Hill, who was traded to the Dolphins this offseason, in critical moments in that Buffalo game, but the Chiefs' offense has been productive without the star wideout, ranking first in scoring and sixth in yards. The defense has taken a hit over the last two weeks, with the Raiders and Bills both posting impressive numbers (378 yards and 29 points by the Raiders, 443 yards and 24 points by the Bills) against that unit. Still, there's no shame in losing to Buffalo in a tight game. Verdict: CONTENDER
THE SAFE BETS
These teams should make the playoffs.
The Chargers might be fortunate in that a number of their key injuries happened early enough in the season that some absent star players could still return in time to help in the second half. That list includes wide receiver Keenan Allen, edge rusher Joey Bosa and even left tackle Rashawn Slater, who has a chance to come back from a ruptured biceps tendon late in the year. This team has too much talent to be counted out. They're also now tied with Kansas City for first place in the AFC West after escaping Monday night with a win over Denver. Verdict: CONTENDER
The Bengals have won three of their last four games after starting 0-2. They dug themselves out of that hole by seemingly realizing they had to play a little differently on offense. Quarterback Joe Burrow has become more efficient as a result, while the offensive line has become more reliable and playmakers like wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase are capitalizing on their opportunities when they do arise. In truth, this team probably plays better when it's doubted than when it's loved. Verdict: CONTENDER
It's become an annual ritual to talk trash about the Titans and count them out -- then glance at the standings in October to find them leading the AFC South. That's exactly where the Titans sit once again, even though their road to success has been more rugged than in years past. They still pound the rock with Derrick Henry and rely on a scrappy defense. It's just that the 28th-ranked passing game isn't nearly as explosive as it was when receiver A.J. Brown, now a member of the Eagles, was on the roster, and the margin for error is much thinner. But when you reside in that division, ugly gets it done on most days. Verdict: CONTENDER
THE NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK
These teams have shown flashes of playoff potential.
This is the most surprising squad in the AFC by far. A few weeks ago, Jets head coach Robert Saleh was defending his team and talking about keeping "receipts" on his haters. He's going to have a hard time finding critics these days. The Jets just went to Lambeau Field and whipped the Packers in impressive fashion. Their defense frustrated Aaron Rodgers. Their offense once again showcased the star potential of rookie running back Breece Hall, who just posted the first 100-yard rushing game of his career. And all the questions about the Jets feasting on less-than-elite quarterbacks in their previous wins evaporated. This group suddenly looks for real. Verdict: CONTENDER
Imagine what this team would look like if Tua Tagovailoa had never been thrown into a maelstrom of concussion complications. They were 3-0 when everything went south, and they've had quarterback health issues ever since (even third-stringer Skylar Thompson went down in Sunday's loss to Minnesota). The good news is that Tua will return this week against Pittsburgh. At 3-3, the Dolphins are still in a very good spot. The talent is there. Miami just needs to stabilize what's happening under center. Verdict: CONTENDER
These teams have replaced high hopes with mystifying problems.
The Ravens were planning on their defense being improved after going through most of last year with an injury-riddled unit. So much for that hope. Baltimore is 20th in the NFL in points allowed and 28th in passing defense. They've also lost two games after holding 17-point leads. They've still got Lamar Jackson and an excellent coaching staff on their side, and they're in the underwhelming AFC North. But right now, they're testing the limits of everyone's faith. Verdict: CONTENDER
It wasn't that long ago that people were excited about what quarterback Matt Ryan could do for a team with a strong run game, a tough defense and a smart head coach. Turns out the 37-year-old Ryan wasn't as good as we remembered, the 29th-ranked run game (which has been without Jonathan Taylor since Week 4) wasn't as reliable and Frank Reich hasn't had many answers for how to remedy all these issues quickly. It actually is stunning that this team is 3-2-1. They've had very few impressive moments. Verdict: PRETENDER
Nobody saw this coming. Russell Wilson was supposed to be the missing link for the Broncos when they landed him in March, the Pro Bowl quarterback that would make all their Super Bowl dreams come true. Nathaniel Hackett was a first-year head coach, but he'd prepped under Matt LaFleur in Green Bay and coached Aaron Rodgers. Everybody goes through growing pains, but in terms of on-field results, this marriage has been a dumpster fire. They played better in the first half against the Chargers on Monday night, but their dysfunction reappeared in the second half of the loss. Verdict: PRETENDER
THE JURY IS STILL OUT
These teams have talent and coaching but lack consistency and key players.
There are two ways to look at the Patriots. One is to say they've done a masterful job of rebounding to 3-3 while playing without injured quarterback Mac Jones. The other perspective is to say the AFC East is a lot more unforgiving these days, with the Bills, Jets and Dolphins all standing in the way of New England's hopes for playing in January. Verdict: PRETENDER
This is the one team in this category that is truly scary. When the Jaguars are on, they look tough. The defense flies around, and the offense has an assortment of playmakers around young quarterback Trevor Lawrence. The problem is that Jacksonville isn't always on, as their current three-game losing streak attests. Verdict: PRETENDER
The Browns are yet another team that just can't make enough plays to win. Before falling to the Patriots 38-15 on Sunday, they suffered a 1-point loss, a 2-point loss and a 3-point loss. They watched the Jets pull off a miracle comeback in the final two minutes of a game started by Joe Flacco. The hope was that Browns quarterback Jacoby Brissett could get this team five wins before Deshaun Watson returned from his 11-game suspension. That likely isn't happening now. Verdict: PRETENDER
THE LOST CAUSES
These teams started in holes too deep for them to still be playoff contenders.
It's always difficult to count out the Steelers' Mike Tomlin. He's that phenomenal of a head coach. The problem is this team is trying to break in a rookie quarterback and has just two wins. Even if Kenny Pickett (who left Sunday's win over Tampa with a concussion) eventually settles in, there are just too many other teams for Pittsburgh to fight through to get back into a position where the playoffs are a possibility. Verdict: PRETENDER
You can make a strong case that the Raiders are better than their 1-4 record indicates. Ask Kansas City. The Raiders would have had a great chance to beat the Chiefs last Monday night if wide receiver Davante Adams hadn't bobbled a catch on the sideline. Las Vegas actually has lost four games by a combined total of 14 points. Yeah, we know -- close doesn't count in this game. Verdict: PRETENDER
The Texans are another team that plays hard and generates poor results. They wound up in a 20-all tie with Indianapolis after leading by 17 points in the fourth quarter in Week 1, and two of their three defeats have been one-score games. This is yet another group that would be better off with improved talent and an understanding of what it takes to win games. Verdict: PRETENDER
Quick-hitting thoughts on storylines to track around the NFL.
1) Bucs had better start waking up: We've gotten so accustomed to Tom Brady doing Tom Brady things over the past two decades that it's become easy to believe he can accomplish anything. That belief may not apply to what's happening in Tampa Bay these days. It's fair to say this team was crippled by injuries at the start of the year. It would not be accurate to say that is their biggest problem today. The Bucs simply aren't very good at the moment -- they've lost three of their last four -- and this goes far beyond their 20-18 defeat to a Pittsburgh Steelers team that rallied behind a quarterback (Mitch Trubisky) who was benched two weeks ago. The offense has no rhythm or consistency. A defense that started the season suffocating opponents has become incredibly vulnerable, as the Chiefs hung 41 points on them two weeks ago, and Trubisky completed 9 of 12 passes for 144 yards and a touchdown in emergency duty. There's a lot of talk about how Brady missed the team's walkthrough on Saturday to attend the wedding of Patriots owner Bob Kraft -- Bucs coach Todd Bowles told reporters Monday that Brady "works as hard as anybody" -- but that stuff isn't going to impact an entire team. The Bucs still have a lot of key pieces from a team that won a Super Bowl two years ago. The problem is they just don't know to make the most of them right now.
2) Don "Wink" Martindale was one of the best acquisitions of the offseason: The New York Giants' 5-1 start has made Brian Daboll an early favorite for Coach of the Year honors. His defensive coordinator might just be the top assistant in the game through six weeks. Martindale enjoyed a nice day against the team that dumped him after last season, the Baltimore Ravens. He's also had a great run in a season that has been far more satisfying than the 24-20 win the Giants produced on Sunday. Martindale has been mixing and matching with this unit all season, as he's continually found ways to compensate for injured personnel and maximize the strengths of the players who actually are taking the field. On Sunday, he presumably leaned on his intimate knowledge of Baltimore's offense to scheme up creative ways to contain Lamar Jackson. The Giants didn't completely stop Jackson, but he had two costly turnovers late in that contest (an interception and a game-sealing fumble recovery) that led to New York winning the game. The Giants are one of the more confounding surprise teams of the season because they have one of the least talented offenses in the league. What they also have is a defense that has shown up every week, largely because adding Martindale is one of the best decisions Daboll made for this team.
3) Bill Belichick sets the record straight: Belichick was taking a lot of heat when his Patriots opened the year with three losses in four games. It's a different story now. Against the Browns on Sunday, Belichick tied George Halas for second place on the all-time wins list (with 324 victories) and he's found a way to win two consecutive games with his third-string quarterback, Bailey Zappe, playing in place of injured starter Mac Jones. Belichick obviously is dealing with far less talent than he had in the Tom Brady years. He's been ripe for ample criticism because of the way he's handled his offensive coordinator duties following the departure of Josh McDaniels (with assistants Joe Judge and Matt Patricia both contributing to those responsibilities). Belichick also is dealing with a far tougher AFC East, one that now belongs to the Buffalo Bills and also houses other rising teams in the Dolphins and Jets. But know this much: The man still knows how to coach. There's no way even the most optimistic New England fans would've bet on this team rallying after Jones and second-stringer Brian Hoyer were sidelined. They've done exactly that behind Belichick's leadership.
The Bengals wide receiver picked a great time to remind people of why he's so special. He had seven receptions for 132 yards and two touchdowns -- including the game-winning score on a dynamic 60-yard catch-and-run -- in his team's 30-26 win at New Orleans. Just as importantly, Chase cracked the 100-yard mark for the first time since the season opener. This dude is one of the league's most electric receivers and he's been contained by defenses designed to limit Cincinnati's big-play ability. It's good to see him getting loose again.
You actually can take just about anybody from the Eagles' secondary these days, with cornerbacks Darius Slay and James Bradberry playing at a high level, as well. Gardner-Johnson gets the love this week because of his two interceptions in Sunday's night win over Dallas. He fits perfectly in a defensive backfield known for its ball-hawking, and he brings the same swagger that defined his game in New Orleans. The Eagles create so much pressure -- and cause so many problems -- that it's not hard to imagine Gardner-Johnson enjoying more big days in the future.
There hasn't been much to like about the Seahawks defense this season, but Woolen is not part of the problem. The rookie cornerback already has four interceptions, closing out Seattle's 19-9 win over Arizona with a leaping pick of Kyler Murray. Woolen has crazy size for the position (6-foot-4, 210 pounds) and an obvious nose for the ball. If the Seahawks want to get back to playing stellar defense, they'll need to find a few more assets like this fifth-round steal.
The Chiefs' defense opened the season with a lot of encouraging signs about its potential. That optimism has shriveled some over the last couple of games. Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen threw for 329 yards and three touchdowns just one week after the Raiders lit this unit up on the ground (Josh Jacobs ran for 154 yards) and through the air (Davante Adams had 124 yards and two touchdowns on three receptions) in prime time. In fairness, the Chiefs are missing two key starters in linebacker Willie Gay and rookie cornerback Trent McDuffie. But the big plays and the suddenly soft run defense are still concerning, especially for a unit that started so strong.
This one is as much of a no-brainer as it gets. Anderson may have a new home after being traded to Arizona on Monday, but he left Carolina with a bad look. Interim Panthers head coach Steve Wilks had to kick Anderson off the sideline after the wide receiver had two separate confrontations with receivers coach Joe Dailey in Sunday’s loss to the Los Angeles Rams. There already had been reports about the Panthers shopping Anderson so maybe that played into the incident. Regardless, there are smoother ways to leave town.
San Francisco's defense doesn't look anything like the dominant unit that started this season, mainly because players keep getting injured. Cornerback Charvarius Ward was the latest defender to go down, as a groin injury ended his afternoon in a 28-14 loss to Atlanta. The defensive line played Sunday without Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead. The secondary didn't have free safety Jimmie Ward. Cornerback Emmanuel Moseley suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 5, and another cornerback, Jason Verrett, is still working his way back from knee surgery. This defense is exceptional when it's healthy. When it's not healthy, this team is ordinary.
One question answered by an unnamed front office source.
Has that vaunted Indianapolis Colts offensive line become overrated?
AFC GENERAL MANAGER: "No. (Left guard) Quenton Nelson has been the real deal and Ryan Kelly is a solid center. But losing (former left tackle) Anthony Castonzo and not being able to replace him has just been too much for them after losing Andrew Luck (Castonzo retired after the 2020 season while Luck retired prior to the 2019 campaign). Any team that loses a quarterback of that caliber is going to have issues up front because a top quarterback can clean up so many mistakes with their timing, ball placement, mobility and game management. When they had a quarterback playing at that level, they had somebody who could put the offensive line in great situations and also help the defense rest and play to its strengths. It's a big reason why the Colts played so well when Peyton Manning was there. You're usually morphing your roster from year to year based on your ability to either score points or stop people. A really good quarterback or an elite one can you help you manage the roster in a much easier fashion. When that player is gone and you've got holes to fill up front, it gets a lot harder."
A simple ranking of the top five candidates as I see them, which will be updated weekly, depending on performance. Here is how it stands heading into Week 7 (odds courtesy of FanDuel are current as of 4 p.m. ET on Oct. 17):
Weeks in Top 5: 6
Next game: vs. Packers | Sunday, Oct. 30 (Week 8)
Weeks in Top 5: 6
Next game: at 49ers | Sunday, Oct. 23
Weeks in Top 5: 4
Next game: vs. Steelers | Sunday, Oct. 30 (Week 8)
Weeks in Top 5: 6
Next game: vs. Browns | Sunday, Oct. 23
Weeks in Top 5: 5
Next game: vs. Seahawks | Sunday, Oct. 23
My slowly evolving Super Bowl pick, which also will be updated each week, depending on performances: Bills over Eagles.
Previous picks ...
- Week 6: Bills over Eagles
- Week 5: Bills over Eagles
- Week 4: Bills over Eagles
- Week 3: Bills over 49ers
- Week 2: Bills over Buccaneers
- Week 1: Bills over Packers