Buying or Selling Each Division Leader as 1st-Place Finisher

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistOctober 22, 2020

Buying or Selling Each Division Leader as 1st-Place Finisher

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Last year, each NFL division leader through Week 6 finished in the top spot, a foreshadowing of the final standings. With injuries, the effects of COVID-19 on scheduling and only one team from the previous season currently in first place, we'll likely see change this time around. 

    The Dallas Cowboys have several injured players, including quarterback Dak Prescott, who's going to miss the remainder of the season following ankle surgery. Yet, at 2-4, they lead the NFC East after an embarrassing 38-10 Monday Night Football loss to the Arizona Cardinals. That division remains wide open.

    Among the most intriguing races, the NFC West could have a competitive finish with all four teams at or above .500. Meanwhile, the AFC North has three teams with winning records. 

    Based on the remaining schedules and roster strengths and weaknesses, we're going to buy or sell each first-place team as a division winner for the season.

AFC East: Buffalo Bills (4-2)

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    Buffalo Bills wide receiver Stefon Diggs
    Buffalo Bills wide receiver Stefon DiggsJeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

    The AFC East comes down to a two-team battle between the Buffalo Bills and the New England Patriots, who've won the division for 11 consecutive seasons.

    The Miami Dolphins (3-3) announced rookie first-rounder Tua Tagovailoa will start in place of quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick following their Week 7 bye. He's going to take his lumps because of inexperience. At 0-6, the New York Jets won't come close to a division title. 

    Buffalo has yet to play New England, so the Patriots (2-3) can erase the Bills' 1.5-game lead with wins in head-to-head matchups. Buffalo is looking to win its first AFC East crown since 1995

    The Bills dropped to 4-2 after consecutive losses to the two squads that played in the last AFC Championship Game—no shame in going down to the undefeated Tennessee Titans and reigning champion Kansas City Chiefs.

    Although Josh Allen has struggled in the last two games, his ability to use his legs should pose a threat to New England's 16th-ranked run defense. If the Bills can at least split their season series with the Patriots, they should maintain a lead in the standings.

    Verdict: Buy

AFC North: Pittsburgh Steelers (5-0)

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    Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and head coach Mike Tomlin
    Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and head coach Mike TomlinGene J. Puskar/Associated Press/Associated Press

    The Cincinnati Bengals will go through rough stages with rookie quarterback Joe Burrow. He's played well, but the team's offensive line ranks 31st in pass protection, per Football Outsiders. At 1-4-1, this squad isn't going to climb out of fourth place. 

    Both the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens (5-1) have crushed the Cleveland Browns (4-2) by 31-plus points in head-to-head competition.

    The Steelers and Ravens could go down to the wire for the division crown. Each team has two games left against the NFC East—arguably the worst division. Pittsburgh hasn't matched up against the lowly Bengals yet, though. 

    Of course, the head-to-head matchups between the Ravens and Steelers will be huge. But the Tennessee Titans, a common opponent, could play a factor in splitting hairs between the two clubs. 

    We saw the Titans beat the Ravens in the AFC Divisional Round earlier this year. In a couple of aspects, Baltimore has taken a slight step back early this season.

    Quarterback Lamar Jackson has completed less than 60 percent of his passes and thrown for just one touchdown in three out of six contests. The defense allows 4.6 yards per rush attempt (ranked 20th), which doesn't bode well for a matchup with running back Derrick Henry. In Week 11, the Ravens may fall to the Titans at home. 

    Because of the Steelers' second-ranked run defense, they can handle the Titans and Ravens—two-run-dominant squads.

    Even though Pittsburgh lost inside linebacker Devin Bush for the season because of a torn ACL, the front seven has enough talent to stifle ground attacks. T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Vince Williams have recorded a combined 29 tackles for losses. Robert Spillane flashed with six tackles, one for loss, in place of Bush last week.

    Verdict: Buy

AFC South: Tennessee Titans (5-0)

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    Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill
    Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan TannehillWade Payne/Associated Press

    Regardless of what happens between the Tennessee Titans and Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 7, the former should win the AFC South.

    The Houston Texans pushed the Titans to overtime but lost and dropped to 1-5 along with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Neither team has a good chance at a division title.

    The Indianapolis Colts' sixth-ranked scoring defense could potentially slow down the Titans, but they don't have the offensive firepower to overtake Tennessee.

    Although running back Jonathan Taylor looks like a budding playmaker, the Colts (4-2) rank 26th in rushing yards per game. Quarterback Philip Rivers threw multiple touchdown passes for the first time this season against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 6.

    Rivers has seven touchdown passes and six interceptions, which shows a continuation of his turnover-prone 2019 campaign (20 interceptions). Over the last two terms, his efficiency as a passer has taken a sharp decline while Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill has continued to perform at a high level under offensive coordinator Arthur Smith.

    The Titans' 5-0 start coupled with a potential season series sweep over the Colts will put them in a position to win the AFC South.

    Verdict: Buy

AFC West: Kansas City Chiefs (5-1)

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    Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes
    Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick MahomesBrett Carlsen/Associated Press

    The Los Angeles Chargers pushed the Kansas City Chiefs to overtime in rookie quarterback Justin Herbert's first start. However, at 1-4, the Chargers would need an extended midseason win streak to claim first place in the division.

    The Denver Broncos (2-3) lost key starters in defensive tackle Jurrell Casey (bicep), wide receiver Courtland Sutton (ACL and MCL) and offensive tackle Ja'Wuan James (COVID-19 opt-out) for the season. Edge-rusher Von Miller could recover from ankle surgery and return late in the campaign, but he's not close to rejoining the team yet. Don't expect an AFC West title for this squad.

    The Chiefs won't steamroll through the AFC West, but they're still the best squad in the division despite their loss to the Las Vegas Raiders (3-2). Going into Week 7, Kansas City is 1.5 games ahead of the second-place Silver and Black, so it would take more than another head-to-head victory for Vegas to reach the top spot.

    The Raiders would need some help to win the division. The Chiefs' schedule doesn't provide much of it. They only face three clubs with winning records in their last 10 games. If Kansas City holds up against lesser competition, Vegas has little margin for error. That's a lot to ask of a club that's finished with a winning record just once since 2002.

    Verdict: Buy

NFC East: Dallas Cowboys (2-4)

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    Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott
    Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel ElliottRon Jenkins/Associated Press

    The NFC East may send a division winner with a non-winning record to the playoffs. At 2-4, the Dallas Cowboys lead the group.

    The Cowboys beat the New York Giants (1-5), but they've allowed the most points through Week 6, giving up at least 34 points in each of their last five contests. According to NFL Network's Jane Slater, players haven't bought into head coach Mike McCarthy's staff while the coaches say the players are "improvising a bit" on the field. 

    Along with the disconnect between players and coaches, the Cowboys lost quarterback Dak Prescott for the season after his ankle surgery. They won't have offensive tackles Tyron Smith (neck) or La'el Collins (hip) for the remainder of the year either. Four-time All-Pro guard Zack Martin is in the concussion protocol

    The Arizona Cardinals sacked Andy Dalton three times Monday, and the Cowboys offense scored a season-low 10 points. Dallas' once-explosive aerial attack may trend downward for a few weeks with the rash of injuries amid a transition from Prescott to Dalton under center. 

    The Cowboys' issues on both sides of the ball leave the door open for the Philadelphia Eagles, who could pick up some momentum as their players recover and return to the field.

    Quarterback Carson Wentz hasn't had a relatively healthy wide receiver corps through the first six weeks. On the bright side, the team expects DeSean Jackson (hamstring) to suit up Thursday, per ESPN's Adam Schefter.

    Alshon Jeffery (Lisfranc surgery) has been at practice over the last month and could rejoin the team soon. Running back Miles Sanders will miss only 1-2 weeks with a knee injury. Jalen Reagor (thumb) and Dallas Goedert (ankle) can return to practice from injured reserve this week. Zach Ertz will miss 3-4 weeks with a high ankle sprain.

    At 1-4-1, the Eagles can make a late run for the NFC East crown as they welcome their offensive weapons back.

    Philadelphia can avenge a Week 1 loss to the Washington Football Team (1-5), who've switched from Dwayne Haskins to Kyle Allen at quarterback and haven't won a game since the season opener.

    Verdict: Sell

NFC North: Chicago Bears (5-1)

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    Chicago Bears edge-rusher Khalil Mack
    Chicago Bears edge-rusher Khalil MackNam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    The Chicago Bears lead the division, and the Green Bay Packers (4-1) have wins over the Minnesota Vikings (1-5) and Detroit Lions (2-3). The top two teams have clearly separated from third and fourth place.

    Bears quarterback Nick Foles has led a steady offense that doesn't fall behind early as it did with Mitchell Trubisky under center. 

    Yet we shouldn't buy into the Bears as the projected winner of the NFC North. At some point, the offense has to produce more points. The unit hasn't put more than 23 on the scoreboard with Foles as a starter.

    In Week 3, Foles lit up a bottom-tier Atlanta Falcons defense with three touchdown passes. Since then, he's thrown for just one score in each of the last three outings. He doesn't have a complementary ground attack with Chicago's 28th-ranked rushing offense.

    The Bears defense has stifled its opposition, holding five out of six opponents to 23 points or fewer. In a matchup against the Packers, Chicago could give up some ground to Aaron Rodgers, who threw for 13 touchdowns and zero interceptions in the first four weeks of the season. 

    Last week, Rodgers hit a rough patch against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But even if the Bears limit the Packers signal-caller, Foles hasn't shown he can capitalize on offense.

    Verdict: Sell

NFC South: Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-2)

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    Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady
    Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom BradyJason Behnken/Associated Press

    We'll exclude the Atlanta Falcons (1-5), who recently fired head coach Dan Quinn, from this discussion. They've put themselves in a hole that's too deep.

    The Carolina Panthers have looked impressive even without Christian McCaffrey over the last four games—going 3-1 in that span. On the flip side, their offense ranks 23rd in scoring and the star running back isn't a lock to return in Week 8, per NFL Network's Mike Garafolo

    Furthermore, the Buccaneers have a decisive victory over the Panthers. Running back Ronald Jones II ranks fifth leaguewide in rushing (472). He could exploit Carolina's run defense that's allowed 117-plus yards in five out six games and nine touchdowns (tied for 28th).

    The New Orleans Saints beat Tampa Bay head-to-head in Tom Brady's Buccaneers' debut, but he's hit his stride in recent outings, throwing for eight touchdown passes and just one interception over the last three weeks. In his first two games, his TD-to-INT ratio was 3-3. 

    Also of note, the Saints have a tough four-game stretch between Weeks 12 and 15, going on the road for three consecutive games before coming back home to play the Kansas City Chiefs. New Orleans faces the Denver Broncos, Atlanta Falcons and Philadelphia Eagles on its road trip. Despite the sub-.500 records of those clubs, the Saints' travel miles could play a huge factor in an upset or two.

    Brady will carve up the Saints pass defense that's allowed the second-most touchdowns (15) as Tampa Bay avenges its loss to New Orleans. The Buccaneers don’t have a late-season road trip that raises any concerns either.

    Verdict: Buy

NFC West: Seattle Seahawks (5-0)

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    Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson
    Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell WilsonStephen Brashear/Associated Press

    Realistically, every team in the NFC West still has a legitimate shot to win the division. They all have records at or above .500.

    However, the San Francisco 49ers (3-3) have several injuries. According to head coach Kyle Shanahan, running back Raheem Mostert will "most likely" go on injured reserve with a knee injury. The same goes for second-string center Ben Garland (calf), who filled in for Weston Richburg. The latter isn’t expected to return until about Week 12 as he recovers from a torn patellar tendon and offseason shoulder surgery.

    Richard Sherman (calf), Nick Bosa (torn ACL), Dee Ford (neck), Solomon Thomas (torn ACL) and K'Waun Williams (sprained ACL) are all on injured reserve. Williams could return in Week 8, per The Athletic's Matt Barrows, but the others are not set to return soon. The 49ers may fall below .500 within the next four weeks as they face the New England Patriots, Seattle Seahawks, Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints without key players.

    The Arizona Cardinals' 4-2 record seems hollow. They opened the campaign with an impressive road win over a relatively healthy 49ers squad, but since they've defeated the Washington Football Team (1-5), New York Jets (0-6) and the Dallas Cowboys (2-4).

    Furthermore, quarterback Kyler Murray has struggled a bit in recent weeks. He's thrown for fewer than 190 yards in two of his last three outings and completed just 37.5 percent of his passes against the Cowboys. The Cardinals will have a second-half letdown this season. 

    The Los Angeles Rams (4-2) have only beaten a vastly underwhelming NFC East—all four of their wins are against clubs in that division. They've lost to solid competition.

    The Buffalo Bills jumped out to a 28-3 lead on Los Angeles and ended up almost losing before closing the deal 35-32. The 49ers physically dominated the Rams in the trenches last week.

    The undefeated Seattle Seahawks don't have statement wins against top-notch competition, but the Patriots field a top-10 defense, and the Miami Dolphins have the fourth-ranked scoring defense. Yet Russell Wilson looks like the front-runner for league MVP with 19 touchdown passes and just three interceptions.

    Seattle hasn't played a division game yet, but as Wilson "cooks" with a relatively healthy roster, the Seahawks will eventually put a stronghold on the top spot in the NFC West.

    Verdict: Buy