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The Contenders and Pretenders of the 2013 NFL Season

Ryan GoldContributor IIOctober 16, 2013

The Contenders and Pretenders of the 2013 NFL Season

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Week 7 of the 2013 season is nearly upon us, and several teams have established an identity, for better or worse. We'll take a look at the wins and losses of every team now that they have all played at least five games.

    With the NFL schedule more than 25 percent complete, it's time to separate the pretenders from the contenders and find out which teams are jockeying for a playoff position.

    Here they are in alphabetical order. 

Arizona Cardinals (3-3)

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    Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

    The Cardinals have defeated Detroit, Tampa Bay and Carolina, while falling to St. Louis, New Orleans, and most recently, the 49ers. They are in much better shape offensively than last year and that is largely due to the quarterback upgrade from 2012's "All Back-up Squad" to Carson Palmer. Now Larry Fitzgerald finally has a competent guy throwing him the ball for the first time since 2010.

    The defense finished a surprising 12th in total defense last year. By drafting cornerback/return specialist Tyrann Mathieu, the Cardinals have a formidable duo with him and Patrick Peterson. Now that linebacker Daryl Washington has returned after a four-game suspension, they are an even stronger unit.

    Verdict: Pretender. With Seattle and San Francisco in the same division and at least one game ahead in the standings, Arizona is facing an uphill battle the rest of the season. There are still questions at offensive line and running back, but with 2012 AP Coach of the Year Bruce Arians leading them, things are looking up compared to years past.

Atlanta Falcons (1-4)

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    Julio Jones' pass-catching ability will be sorely missed.
    Julio Jones' pass-catching ability will be sorely missed.Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

    The Falcons have been bitten hard by the injury bug this year with running back Steven Jackson having missed three games and wide receiver Roddy White hampered with ankle and hamstring issues. After the Monday night loss to the Jets, the Falcons lost wide receiver Julio Jones for the season. While the team has underperformed as a whole, these injuries have prevented the Falcons from becoming the offensive juggernaut that many expected.

    They are giving up 26.8 points per game, and while that's not horrible, they don't intimidate anyone either: hello Sam Bradford's 352 yard, three-touchdown performance in Week 2, and Ryan Tannehill and Geno Smith's late-game heroics in Weeks 3 and 5, respectively. The defensive side has also suffered season-ending injuries to defensive end Kroy Biermann and linebacker Sean Weatherspoon.

    Verdict: Pretender. Not only are the Falcons no longer dominant at home (losing three out of their last four regular-season games dating back to last season), but they are also ravaged by injuries and their defense digs them into a deep hole every game. The Falcons are a long shot to compete for even the wild-card spot at this point.

Baltimore Ravens (3-3)

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    Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

    After a tough opening loss to the Broncos and Peyton Manning’s record-tying touchdown performance, the Ravens won ugly against the Browns, dominated the Texans, suffered a disappointing loss to the Bills, rebounded against the Dolphins and on Sunday, they lost to the Packers 19-17.

    Without Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, the defense has undergone some changes, but they are still tough to run against; they rank eighth in the NFL with 98.2 rushing yards per game allowed.

    Verdict: Contender. Joe Flacco’s touchdown to interception ratio (7-8) is troubling, but they are hanging tough in every game since Denver. They have fewer playmakers on offense and defense thanks to injuries, free agency and retirement. However, this team limped into the playoffs last year, and we all know how that ended.

Buffalo Bills (2-4)

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    With E.J. Manuel injured, the Bills' hopes of reaching the playoffs might be dashed.
    With E.J. Manuel injured, the Bills' hopes of reaching the playoffs might be dashed.Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

    After nearly defeating the Patriots in Week 1, the Bills had a come-from-behind win to beat the Panthers in Week 2, then a humbling loss to the Jets, followed by a win against the Ravens. In a Week 5 loss to the Browns, they lost quarterback E.J. Manuel for several weeks. This past Sunday, Buffalo fell to Cincinnati in overtime. 

    Buffalo's defense is one of the league leaders in takeaways—they are tied for the most interceptions with 10, and they are third in the NFL in sacks with 21. Even though they are generating turnovers, the Bills rank in the bottom half of the league in yards allowed.

    Verdict: Pretender. Without Manuel, the quarterback position becomes a huge concern. Thad Lewis, the newly appointed starter, was banged up in their last game, leading the Bills to sign Matt Flynn. Flynn is a journeyman, who is now on his fourth team in two years since cashing in on one huge statistical game as a Packer. Running back C.J. Spiller has been hobbled all season, but veteran and fellow running back Fred Jackson has been productive.

    It seems unlikely that the Bills will be getting Manuel back any time soon, and without him, their run for a wild-card spot appears over.

Carolina Panthers (2-3)

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    Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

    The Panthers played the Seahawks tough at home in Week 1, coming up on the short end of a 12-7 game.  After that, they lost on a last-second touchdown to the Bills and then thrashed the Giants 37-0 before their early bye in Week 4. After a humbling loss to the Cardinals, Carolina demolished the Vikings in Week 6.

    Quarterback Cam Newton has decent passing numbers—1,127 yards, a touchdown-interception ratio of 9-5 and the running game is a strong suit behind DeAngelo Williams and Newton, but the Panthers rank 27th in passing yards. Steve Smith is at the end of his career, and besides tight end Greg Olsen, no other receiver has stepped up. Their defense is ranked in the top 10 in both rushing and passing yards allowed, despite being hit hard with injuries.

    Verdict: Pretender. In a tough division with New Orleans 2.5 games ahead, there is no room for error if Carolina hopes to be in the postseason discussion.  At 2-3, it does not appear that the Panthers will challenge for a wild-card spot, let alone the division title.

     

Chicago Bears (4-2)

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    David Banks/Getty Images

    The Bears opened the season 3-0 and new head coach Marc Trestman was the toast of the town. Since then, Chicago lost two straight, receiver Brandon Marshall vented his frustration with their recent slide and then Chicago rebounded with a victory last Thursday against the winless New York Giants.

    The defense is getting older and has already lost defensive tackles Henry Melton and Nick Collins, as well as linebacker D.J. Williams for the season. Although they're winning games and the turnover margin, they are giving up a ton of yards in the process. Their window for making a long playoff run might be closing.  

    Verdict: Contender. The team is buying into new head coach Marc Trestman’s system and the results are apparent—the Bears are third in the NFL in total touchdowns. Jay Cutler has played well overall, but he needs to stay healthy and avoid head-scratching turnovers that have doomed this team the previous years. They have yet to face Green Bay and have a home game against Detroit to settle the pecking order of the crowded NFC North.

Cincinnati Bengals (4-2)

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    Geno Atkins leads the Bengals' underappreciated defense.
    Geno Atkins leads the Bengals' underappreciated defense.Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

    A playoff team in three out of the last four years, the Bengals have come a long way from being the "bungles" of old. This team is young, talented, hungry and balanced across their offense and defense.

    Cincinnati lost their opener to Chicago and a Week 4 matchup against a streaking Cleveland team. They have defeated Pittsburgh, Green Bay, New England and Buffalo.  

    Verdict: Contender. Several NFL.com experts picked them to not only win the AFC North but to go deep into the playoffs. Receiver A.J. Green and defensive tackle Geno Atkins are two of the best in the NFL at their positions and carry the offense and defense, respectively. With Cleveland and Baltimore sporting 3-3 records as well, the Bengals have a chance to separate themselves even further with a November 10 game at Baltimore and then a November 17 home game against Cleveland. It's looking like the playoffs for four out of the last five years, and three straight, in Cincinnati.

Cleveland Browns (3-3)

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    Matt Sullivan/Getty Images

    Things were looking bleak for the Browns before they traded running back Trent Richardson to the Colts for a 2014 first-round pick. Long-suffering fans were questioning the direction of the organization as it appeared that management was ready to give up on this season already. At that time, I would have advised Cleveland fans to send one letter a day to the Browns front office like Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption until they understand your frustration.

    The Browns then made a surprising turnaround and went 3-0 since the trade before the untimely loss of quarterback Brian Hoyer to a torn ACL, just as their offense was finding a groove. The offense has sputtered without Hoyer, as the Browns lost to the Lions this past Sunday, but their defense remains the anchor of this team. 

    Verdict: Contender. The Bengals currently have the better record, but the Browns have beaten them once already. They also get to face the Ravens at home. It is unfortunate that they lost Hoyer, but Brandon Weeden has guided them to victory before. Willis McGahee might still have a few good years/runs in him left, Josh Gordon is emerging as a No. 1 wide receiver, Jordan Cameron is a stud tight end and the defense is solid.  If they are still in the playoff hunt towards the end of the season, this legendary video will need an update. Cleveland fans are awesome.

Dallas Cowboys (3-3)

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    Will Tony Romo be able to quiet the doubters this year?
    Will Tony Romo be able to quiet the doubters this year?Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

    Dallas has defeated the Giants, Rams and Redskins, while falling to the Chiefs, Chargers and Broncos.

    In what is probably a make-or-break year for head coach Jason Garrett, the Cowboys appear to have all of the ingredients of a playoff contender. The offense is loaded with talent at all of the skill positions, and the defense has a good mix of veterans and exciting newcomers. That last sentence would be applicable from 2006 to the present team, and yet, this team constantly underachieves; they have only made the playoffs once in the last five years.

    Having said all that, the NFC East is the most underachieving divisions in football with seven combined wins from all four teams. Injuries to defensive end DeMarcus Ware and running back DeMarco Murray are not believed to be too serious, but as long as they're out, it allows their division rivals a chance to get back into the playoff picture. At the end of December, however, it would not surprise me if Dallas is the one left standing.

    Verdict: Contender. The division is up for grabs. It's time for Tony Romo to earn that new contract.

Denver Broncos (6-0)

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    Manning is on a record-setting pace for yards, completions and touchdowns.
    Manning is on a record-setting pace for yards, completions and touchdowns.Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    The Broncos have the highest scoring offense in the league, dismantling the Ravens, Giants, Raiders and Eagles before they edged out the Cowboys, 51-48, in Arena League-esque fashion. This past Sunday, they were a record 28-point favorite, but Jacksonville played them tough in a 35-19 Broncos victory.

    Their defense will get Von Miller back this week from his substance-abuse suspension, and even without him and the injured Champ Bailey, the unit has looked solid.

    Verdict: Contender. No surprise. If Manning continues this record-setting pace, then book this team for a No. 1 seed in the playoffs. Their two games against also undefeated Kansas City will be must-see TV, with the winner earning division bragging rights. 

Detroit Lions (4-2)

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    Reggie Bush has given Matthew Stafford and the Lions a new dimension to their offense.
    Reggie Bush has given Matthew Stafford and the Lions a new dimension to their offense.Matt Sullivan/Getty Images

    The Lions easily dispatched the Vikings in Week 1 and then were edged out by the Cardinals in Week 2. In Week 3, Detroit finally snapped their 0-21 streak in Washington and followed that up with a strong offensive and defensive performance against Chicago. Two Sundays ago, without star receiver Calvin Johnson, the Lions fell to the Packers. With Johnson back in the lineup, Detroit regained their mojo to defeat Cleveland on the road in week six.

    Johnson is unquestionably the best wide receiver in the league, and adding running back Reggie Bush brings another dimension to their offense that the Lions have lacked in years past. Controversial, but dominating defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh has played his way into defensive player of the year conversations as he leads the Lions defense.

    Verdict: Contender. They appear more like the team from 2011 when they made the playoffs last, rather than the typical Lions of old that would receive a high draft pick the following year. The Lions are 2-1 in their division and are currently in the driver’s seat, but with Chicago and Green Bay right behind them, they cannot afford to slip up if they want to win the division.

Green Bay Packers (3-2)

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    The Packers will be without linebacker Clay Matthews for a few weeks as he recovers from a broken thumb.
    The Packers will be without linebacker Clay Matthews for a few weeks as he recovers from a broken thumb.Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    The Packers began 2013 the same way their 2012 season ended: with a bad loss to the 49ers. After a convincing win against the Redskins, Green Bay collapsed against the Bengals, squandering a 30-14 lead, eventually losing 34-30. Coming off their early bye in Week 4, the Packers defeated the Lions in Week 5 and the Ravens this past weekend.

    Injuries are mounting up on both sides of the ball as they lost Clay Matthews for a month, but the unit will regroup without him. On offense, the Packers placed receiver Randall Cobb on temporary IR, with his return possible after Week 12. Fellow receiver James Jones also hurt his knee in the same game as Cobb, and although his injury is not as serious, Jones' status for their next game is uncertain.

    Verdict: Contender. Aaron Rodgers, despite injuries to his wide receivers, still has the offensive weapons to provide Green Bay with mismatches against any defense in the league. Running back Eddie Lacy is finally giving the Packers the running threat they have lacked for years. Once their secondary is healthy, this team could challenge for the NFC’s top seed.

Houston Texans (2-4)

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    Bob Levey/Getty Images

    Come-from-behind wins against the Chargers and Titans created an exciting start to the Texans season, but a lopsided loss to the Ravens, a late-game collapse against the Seahawks and abysmal performances to the 49ers and Rams has justifiably worried their fans.

    Verdict: Pretender. Some fans have started to burn the jersey of their starting quarterback, while others have crossed the line and harassed Matt Schaub at his own house. Shaub's struggles have been well documented, but the team essentially has returned the same personnel that won two playoff games the past two seasons. Running backs Arian Foster and Ben Tate form a formidable one-two punch, receiver Andre Johnson is still a play maker and the defense is one of the toughest in the NFL. They still play the Jaguars and Colts twice each, so there's some hope. But the quarterback position is too integral to a team's success, and the Texans lack that stability.

Indianapolis Colts (4-2)

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    Trent Richardson and Andrew Luck are hoping this is the beginning of a beautiful and successful relationship.
    Trent Richardson and Andrew Luck are hoping this is the beginning of a beautiful and successful relationship.Donald Miralle/Getty Images

    The Colts have defeated the Raiders and Jaguars as most people would have expected them to. The fact that they also annihilated the 49ers on the road and defeated the Seahawks in impressive fashion has garnered a lot of attention. Indianapolis fell to the Dolphins in Week 2, and this past Monday night, they suffered a surprising loss to the Chargers.

    The Colts defense has been a strong suit defending the pass, where they currently rank fifth in the NFL, but they are next-to-last in run defense.

    Verdict: Contender. Quarterback Andrew Luck and one-month-old Colts running back Trent Richardson are ready to take back division bragging rights from the free-falling Texans. The Colts have beaten two of the strongest teams in the NFC and are looking for some consistency in the AFC so they can make their second consecutive playoff appearance.

Jacksonville Jaguars (0-6)

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    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    Jacksonville has yet to win a game. The Jaguars have been outscored 198-70 in their losses to the Chiefs, Raiders, Seahawks, Colts, Rams and Broncos. Despite being a record underdog according to oddsmakers, Jacksonville gave Denver their toughest test of the season and made Peyton Manning appear human as he "only" threw for 295 yards and two touchdowns.

    They rank 25th in passing yards and last in the NFL in rushing and passing yards allowed.

    Quarterbacks Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne have combined for three touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Neither one is a long-term solution. A Tebow rally didn't help either, either, but signing him wouldn't make the situation any worse, and at least they'd sell more tickets.

    Verdict: Pretender. The Jaguars face the strong possibility of having the No. 1 draft pick in the 2014 draft. That's about all that their fans can cheer for at this point.

Kansas City Chiefs (6-0)

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    Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

    Alex Smith’s career resurgence continues in Kansas City where Andy Reid has guided the Chiefs to triple the amount of wins from 2012 already. Having running back Jamaal Charles behind Smith has given Reid the versatility of a leading rusher (sixth in the NFL) with pass-catching ability (second most receiving yards amongst running backs).

    The defense leads the league in sacks with 31 (they recently had 10 against the Raiders) and is tied for first in interceptions with 10.

    Verdict: Contender. Even though the Chiefs are playing with house money because of their early success, they have Super Bowl aspirations now. They could challenge the Broncos for the AFC West crown and storm into the playoffs. It’s still premature, but Week 11 of this season could possibly have two 9-0 teams facing each other, to the delight of the NFL and the fans.

Miami Dolphins (3-2)

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    Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

    Besides the Chiefs, the Dolphins have to be in the conversation for biggest surprise in the AFC. After beating the Browns, Colts and Atlanta to start the season at 3-0, the Dolphins stumbled recently by losing their last two to the Saints and Ravens and had a bye in Week 6.

    The offense, defense and coaching staff is trying to find an identity, and it doesn't appear yet that they are ready to take the torch from the Patriots as the team to beat in the AFC East, but that day may be coming.

    Verdict: Contender. With tough wins against the Browns (yeah, that’s right) and Colts, and their losses to two quality teams, the Dolphins are no longer a pushover. Other than the unnecessary uniform update (seriously, where's the orange?), the Dolphins are looking good this year. 

Minnesota Vikings (1-4)

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    Adrian Peterson can't do it all for the Vikings.
    Adrian Peterson can't do it all for the Vikings.Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

    The Vikings lost their first three games by a total of 15 points and had to go to London to get their first victory. After their bye in Week 5, Minnesota was blown out by Carolina.

    Medical marvel Adrian Peterson is still capable of putting this team on his back, as long as quarterback Christian Ponder, Matt Cassel or recently signed Josh Freeman can be a decent game manager. Early indications were that it would be Cassel’s job to lose, but after his dreadful performance against the Panthers and Freeman getting caught up to speed with the team’s playbook, ESPN's Ben Goessling reports that the Vikings are starting the former Buc.

    Verdict: Pretender. The defense hasn't been able to hold onto a lead as the Lions, Bears and Browns came back to defeat them. The Vikings will rely on Peterson once again to carry them, but they’re still looking up at the other three teams in the NFC North, and they are on the outside looking in for the playoffs.

New England Patriots (5-1)

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    Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

    The Patriots had a come-from-behind victory in Week 1 against rookie quarterback E.J. Manuel at Buffalo and then held serve at home against another rookie, Geno Smith, in a close game against the New York Jets. Then they defeated the hapless Buccaneers and Falcons before losing in remarkable fashion to the Bengals, where they failed to score a touchdown. Recently, the Patriots had the most memorable comeback of the season, besting the Saints 30-27 on a touchdown pass with five seconds remaining.

    Tight end and safety blanket Rob Gronkowski’s status on when he will finally make his debut has become an annoying soap opera, as he seemingly should be back any day, or week, or month now. Along with "Gronk," a healthy Danny Amendola and the resurgence of their running game, the Patriots offense can be prolific once again.

    Verdict: Contender. Brady has a new cast of wide receivers around him and has clearly been frustrated with them at times as they have run incorrect routes and dropped several passes. The defense lost anchor Vince Wilfork a few weeks ago and recently announced the unfortunate news that linebacker Jerod Mayo will also miss the rest of the season, per ESPN's Mike Reiss.

    Despite their injuries on both sides of the ball, this team should easily capture the AFC East and host a playoff game before facing the juggernaut offense of Denver or the dominating defense of Kansas City.

New Orleans Saints (5-1)

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    Tight end Jimmy Graham is a mismatch for most teams.
    Tight end Jimmy Graham is a mismatch for most teams.Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport

    Now that Sean Payton/"Frankie Muniz at age 49" is back on the sidelines, he and Drew Brees have put Bounty Gate behind them and are lighting up defensive backs like it was 2011. The Saints ripped off their five wins against the Falcons, Bucs, Cardinals, Dolphins and Bears before losing this past weekend to the Patriots on a late Kenbrell Thompkins touchdown catch.

    Rob Ryan has come over from Dallas to be the new defensive coordinator, and so far, his defense has been stingy, giving up an average of only 17.16 points per game.

    Verdict: Contender. If the defense can match the offense as far as reliability, the Saints will be a scary team in the postseason. They have been so successful passing the ball that their rushing numbers aren't impressive, but they haven't had to rush the ball to win. It will be interesting to see how the weather affects their offense in the coming months, but as for now, they can't be stopped.

New York Giants (0-6)

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    The way Eli Manning has played this year, he's a shadow of his two-time Super Bowl MVP self.
    The way Eli Manning has played this year, he's a shadow of his two-time Super Bowl MVP self.Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY

    Turning the ball over six times and still almost beating Dallas was rough, but encouraging. Losing the "Manning Bowl" so decisively was upsetting. Getting shut out by the previously winless Panthers was pathetic. In their last three games, the Giants have been throttled by the Chiefs and Eagles and then lost a winnable game against the Bears.

    The Giants have a two-time Super Bowl MVP in Eli Manning, a healthy stable of stud wide receivers and a strong defensive line, and yet, this team has played poorly every week.

    Verdict: Pretender. The Giants have a number of problems to correct before they can be considered a contender. Eli Manning is a human turnover machine (15 interceptions and two fumbles), they don’t have a running game or an offensive line and their defense and special teams have been awful.

New York Jets (3-3)

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    Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

    After stealing victory from the jaws of defeat thanks to a dumb personal foul in Week 1, the Jets almost beat the Patriots on the road in Week 2. In Week 3, the Jets narrowly defeated the Bills, and in Week 4, they were blown out by the Titans. In Week 5, they won impressively at Atlanta but lost a home game to the Steelers recently to land back at .500.

    Rex Ryan’s defense has a whole new cast of characters than he did from the 2009 and 2010 playoff seasons, yet they are proving to be a force to be reckoned with as they rank 12th and second in allowed passing and rushing yards, respectively.

    Verdict: Contender. Rookie quarterback Geno Smith is going to make rookie-esque mistakes like his three interceptions against the Patriots and his re-mixed version of the "butt fumble" against the Titans. The coaching staff believes in him, and even a healthy Mark Sanchez never had Smith's athletic upside. If Smith learns how to manage the offense, it's not inconceivable that the Jets could make a run at the wild-card spot.

Oakland Raiders (2-4)

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    John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

    After a near upset road victory against the Colts in Week 1, the Raiders had an unimpressive win against the Jaguars, lost to the Broncos (who doesn't?) and Redskins by double digits, before beating the Chargers in Week 5 and then losing to the Chiefs in Week 6.

    Verdict: Pretender. Quarterback Terrelle Pryor has provided a new level of excitement to Raider Nation for the first time since 2008 when they drafted Darren McFadden. Unfortunately for Oakland, Run DMC is renewing his yearly membership on the Raiders’ injury report as he nurses a hamstring injury.

    The defense has kept them in games, and with Pryor, they finally have an offensive weapon that teams have to account for. The Raiders have the misfortune of having the only two undefeated teams—Kansas City and Denver—in the same division, but the future looks bright.

Philadelphia Eagles (3-3)

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    Chip Kelly is trying to bring his offensive philosophy to the NFL, with mixed results so far.
    Chip Kelly is trying to bring his offensive philosophy to the NFL, with mixed results so far.Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

    The Eagles opened up this season with a surprise win at Washington, unveiling the latest NFL fad, Chip Kelly's hurry-up offense from Oregon. Since then, the Eagles have not had a lot to cheer for—losing three straight to San Diego, Kansas City and Denver, before back-to-back wins against the Giants (but losing Michael Vick to injury) and Bucs.

    Verdict: Pretender. Despite the fact that they are tied for first place with Dallas in the NFC East, the Eagles are in worse shape going forward. According to Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk, Vick will likely sit out Week 7 with a hamstring injury, and with Nick Foles under center, this offense is not as dynamic. The Eagles defense has struggled to stop every team they've played, giving up an average of 29.83 points per game. Even when completely healthy, this team will not challenge for a playoff spot unless their defense vastly improves.

Pittsburgh Steelers (1-4)

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    Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

    After losing their first four games to the Titans, Bengals, Bears and Vikings, the Steelers welcomed a Week 5 bye and then followed that up with their first win of the season against the Jets.  A key AFC North clash with the Ravens this Sunday could get them back in the playoff race.

    Verdict: Pretender. It hasn't been this bad for fans of the Steel City in a long time. Injuries to the offense and defense have been partially responsible for the Steelers’ slow start, but the lack of a running game (31st in the NFL in yards) and the defense’s inability to stop the run (22nd in yards allowed) are the two biggest problems.

    The Steelers are looking up in the standings at Cincinnati, Cleveland and Baltimore. It's rare for this team to be a basement dweller in the AFC North, and it's not something fans or Pittsburgh management will tolerate for long.

St. Louis Rams (3-3)

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    Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

    The Rams’ three victories have come against fellow "pretenders" Arizona, Jacksonville and Houston. Their three losses have been to Atlanta, Dallas and San Francisco. The problem with St. Louis is their mediocrity—they don't rank higher than 18th in yards for or against. Sam Bradford is an average quarterback, and despite the organization's best efforts to draft him an elite receiver, it appears that he will be without one this year as well.    

    Verdict: Pretender. Being in a division with Seattle and San Francisco does not provide the Rams with much room for error, and although there are plenty of games left for them to prove otherwise, it’s unlikely that they will capture a wild-card spot. Not making the playoffs is disappointing, but so is the fact that there isn't a Jeff Fisher "Stache Promotion" this year.

San Diego Chargers (3-3)

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    Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODA

    The Chargers have had a roller coaster season so far.  In Week 1, they collapsed to the Texans in overtime after leading 28-7. They also lost dramatically to the Titans as Jake Locker scored a go-ahead touchdown with 34 seconds left two weeks later. San Diego's other loss was to the Raiders, and that game was never close. Their three wins came against the Eagles, Cowboys and impressively over the Colts this past Monday.

    Verdict: Pretender. Philip Rivers’ career resurgence (1847 yards, TD-INT ratio of 14-5) is a nice story, but the Chargers are below average in rushing yards and yards allowed. The schizophrenic start to their 2013 season will most likely doom them in the end, especially with the Broncos and Chiefs sporting 6-0 records in the AFC West. The Raiders are also ahead of the Chargers in the division thanks to their head-to-head tiebreaker. Enough said.  

San Francisco 49ers (4-2)

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    Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

    Beating Green Bay for the third time in a row (including playoffs) was a strong start to the season, and losing at Seattle is nothing to be embarrassed about, but getting thumped by the Colts at home in Week 3 was a surprise. Perhaps it was also a wake-up call as they've responded with three wins in a row over the Rams, Texans and Cardinals.

    Verdict: Contender. San Francisco has struggled passing the ball, but they are tough enough in every other facet of the game and are giving opponents headaches. Fiery coach Jim Harbaugh, quarterback Colin Kaepernick and the stellar 49ers defense—especially once Patrick Willis is healthy—will carry this team well into January.

Seattle Seahawks (5-1)

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    Seattle's defense, especially at home, has been tough all season.
    Seattle's defense, especially at home, has been tough all season.Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

    The Seahawks defeated the Panthers, 49ers, Jaguars and Texans before suffering their first loss two Sundays ago to the Colts. This past weekend, they toughed out a win against the Titans.

    Quarterback Russell Wilson and running back Marshawn Lynch lead a potent offense that will only get better once wide receiver Percy Harvin is healthy. The defense is intimidating and has arguably the best defensive backs in the league in Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Brandon Browner and Kam Chancellor.

    Verdict: Contender. They have the best home-field advantage, including an 11-game winning streak dating back to last season at CenturyLink Field. If they are the top seed in the NFC for the playoffs, Seattle fans might want to look into New York hotels during the first weekend of February.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-5)

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    Coach Greg Schiano's seat might be heating up as the Bucs continue to freefall.
    Coach Greg Schiano's seat might be heating up as the Bucs continue to freefall.Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

    If it weren't for the aforementioned bone-headed personal foul against the Jets in Week 1, the Buccaneers could be in drastically different shape at this point of the season. Instead, they've gone into a tailspin, losing their next four games to the Saints, Patriots, Cardinals and Eagles, with a bye sandwiched in between Weeks 4 and 6.

    Turmoil off the field resulted in the Bucs trying to trade quarterback Josh Freeman and then eventually cutting him two weeks ago. Head coach Greg Schiano has tried to shape this team into players that he trusts, but he might be fracturing an organization with his tactics. Don't forget, this is also the coach that told his defensive players to play hard at the end of last year’s game against the Giants when Eli Manning kneeled down in victory formation.

    Verdict: Pretender. Although they have a tough defense featuring "Revis Island," it's the offense that has kept this team from winning. Running back Doug Martin and receiver Vincent Jackson are studs, but the offensive line has not been encouraging. They have the worst passing offense in the NFL, and while it's likely (nowhere to go but up) that quarterback Mike Glennon improves that number, the Buccaneers have dug themselves into a hole too deep to become relevant this year.

Tennessee Titans (3-3)

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    The Titans are eagerly waiting for Jake Locker to return from injury.
    The Titans are eagerly waiting for Jake Locker to return from injury.Don McPeak-USA TODAY Sports

    Had it not been for an amazing comeback by the Texans in overtime in Week 3, the Titans would have started the season 3-0. Quarterback Jake Locker injured his hip in a Week 4 victory against the Jets, but with Ryan Fitzpatrick at the helm, the Titans have lost close games to the Chiefs and Seahawks; hardly an embarrassment.

    Verdict: Contender. Even with Locker out for a few more weeks, this team has been competitive in each game. The defense has been a bright spot, especially defending the pass, where they rank 10th in the NFL in yards against. Winning the division isn't out of the question; the Titans will get their chance to make a statement as they play the Colts twice in 17 days in a few weeks.

Washington Redskins (1-4)

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    Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

    Disclaimer: I’m going to call them the Redskins because that’s their name right now, despite the growing controversy to change it.

    The Redskins were stunned by the Eagles' uptempo offense in week one, clobbered by the Packers in Week 2, and edged by the Lions in Week 3. In Week 4, they defeated the Raiders on the road before heading into their bye week. This Sunday night, the Cowboys pulled away late in the game and gave Washington their fourth defeat of the season.

    While the offense has been near the top half in passing and rushing yards, the defense has been one of the worst units in the league in both passing and rushing yards allowed.

    Verdict: Pretender. Living in the D.C. area has afforded me the privileges of listening to Redskins fans constantly complain about the state of their team. Some claim RGIII was rushed back too quickly and he’s still shaking off the rust. Perhaps there's some truth to that, but he's been cleared by the team's medical and coaching staff, and he's worked tremendously hard this offseason to be ready for the full 16 games. His one "preseason" game just so happened to be the Monday night game against Philadelphia. He is starting to show flashes of his old self five games in, running when he needs to and taking what defenses are giving him.

    Even though this team was 3-6 last year before ripping off seven straight wins to secure the NFC East, and is only 1.5 games back of Dallas and Philadelphia, there are too many question marks on defense to think that this team can win the division again.

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