One month into the 2018 campaign, the NFL's playoff picture remains blurry.
Outside of the dominant Los Angeles Rams, it requires little effort to poke holes into viable Super Bowl contenders. The Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots have each started 2-2. At 1-2-1, the Minnesota Vikings and Pittsburgh Steelers have failed to deliver on the defensive end.
Some of the strong defenses (Jacksonville Jaguars, Chicago Bears, Baltimore Ravens, Tennessee Titans) must overcome questionable offenses. The inverse is true for the Kansas City Chiefs and New Orleans Saints.
There's startlingly little distance between teams jousting for top-10 positioning in this week's power rankings and squads fighting to avoid a bottom-10 distinction. Although the San Francisco 49ers came close, Week 4 did not offer any seismic upsets on par with the Buffalo Bills and Detroit Lions stunning the Vikings and Patriots, respectively, in Week 3.
Let's dissect three teams in the ever-expanding middle tier to see if they can climb back into the championship scene.
NFL Power Rankings
1. Los Angeles Rams (4-0)
2. Kansas City Chiefs (4-0)
3. Jacksonville Jaguars (3-1)
4. Baltimore Ravens (3-1)
5. Chicago Bears (3-1)
6. New England Patriots (2-2)
7. Philadelphia Eagles (2-2)
8. Cincinnati Bengals (3-1)
9. New Orleans Saints (3-1)
10. Green Bay Packers (2-1-1)
11. Tennessee Titans (3-1)
12. Carolina Panthers (2-1)
13. Miami Dolphins (3-1)
14. Washington (2-1)
15. Denver Broncos (2-2)
16. Minnesota Vikings (1-2-1)
17. Pittsburgh Steelers (1-2-1)
18. Los Angeles Chargers (2-2)
19. Seattle Seahawks (2-2)
20. Dallas Cowboys (2-2)
21. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-2)
22. Atlanta Falcons (1-3)
23. Houston Texans (1-3)
24. Cleveland Browns (1-2-1)
25. Indianapolis Colts (1-3)
26. New York Jets (1-3)
27. Detroit Lions (1-3)
28. New York Giants (1-3)
29. San Francisco 49ers (1-3)
30. Buffalo Bills (1-3)
31. Oakland Raiders (1-3)
32. Arizona Cardinals (0-4)
Yes, the Eagles are 2-2. Other 2-2 teams fell further down the NFL's pecking order. Their top-10 status partially defers to last season's success and this year's expectations.
Then there's also the fact the defending champions suffered their first road loss without Carson Wentz and the other during the closing seconds of overtime.
After striking first with a field goal, Philadelphia had multiple opportunities to cement a Week 4 triumph over the Titans:
It's a disappointing start, but no there's reason to panic. No team is more stringent against the run, and the offense showed life with a returning Alshon Jeffery delivering eight catches for 105 yards and a touchdown.
Although an NFL-high five lost fumbles have swayed the pendulum, there's little predictive value in losing and recovering loose balls. A better bounce could make the difference between 9-7 and 10-6.
The sluggish start also hasn't hampered them much in the standings. The NFC East is the only conference without a three-win team, and the Eagles have yet to play any of their direct competitors.
They'll need to take care of business within the division. Outside of those six bouts, they have a handful of tough adversaries such as the Vikings (this Sunday), Jaguars, Carolina Panthers, Rams and Saints.
Sunday's NFC Championship Game rematch will help shed light on which team is more likely to rebound. Look for Philadelphia to turn the corner at home.
The "Le'Veon who?" jokes were fun while they lasted.
For the second time in September, James Conner posted fewer than 20 rushing yards in a losing effort. Ben Roethlisberger leads the NFL in passing yards (1,414) without his star running back, but only Kirk Cousins has attempted more throws.
According to ESPN's Jeremy Fowler, Bell could return as soon as Week 8:
That's not to blame Conner for Pittsburgh's 1-2-1 start. Roethlisberger has not looked in sync with Antonio Brown, who is still searching for his first 100-yard game after averaging 109.5 yards last season. The star wideout acknowledged their malfunctioning chemistry to NFL Network's Aditi Kinkhabwala:
Bell would bolster the offense back to an elite, well-rounded attack. Yet he won't fix a defense that has allowed 116 points in four games.
Opposing passers have mustered 8.1 yards per attempt and a 100.4 quarterback rating. Only the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Chiefs—both of whom engaged in shootouts with the Steelers—have surrendered more total yards than Pittsburgh's 420.5:
One could argue they have also had the misfortune of encountering red-hot offenses. That will remain the case when they face the Atlanta Falcons and Cincinnati Bengals, which registered 905 combined yards in Week 4's 37-36 encounter at the Georgia Dome.
With Baltimore and Cincinnati both off to 3-1 starts, the Steelers need to turn the corner before Bell returns.
Following a pair of road losses to the Denver Broncos and Bears, the Seattle Seahawks staved off calamity by tallying 284 rushing yards in wins over the Dallas Cowboys and Arizona Cardinals.
They're likely not in a celebrating mood. Earl Thomas, the last remnant of their secondary's fabled Legion of Boom, broke his leg during Week 4's 20-17 over Arizona, the NFL's last winless squad. Based on the recovery timetable and his parting gesture, the three-time All-Pro safety has likely played his last game with the Seahawks:
While Seattle has ranked fifth in passing defense, the NFC West squad has faced three bottom-10 passing offenses. The Broncos are not on that dubious list because Case Keenum compiled 329 yards in Week 1's win.
The Seahawks have unsurprisingly taken a hit without Thomas patrolling the secondary:
Any chance of them extending their streak of winning seasons to seven hinges on Russell Wilson. In a season where 17 quarterbacks have already accrued 1,000 passing yards, Seattle's signal-caller has posted 590 yards in the air over the last three games.
Per NFL's Next Gen Stats, he attempted just one incomplete pass 15 or more yards downfield on Sunday. While the offensive line doesn't afford him ample time to survey the field, Wilson must reignite their downfield attack in a stiff Week 5 test against the Rams.
A healthy Doug Baldwin should help, but losing Thomas hurts too much to envision a serious playoff push.