It’s spooky season, the time for costumes to be worn and pumpkins to be carved. Likewise, it’s also the time of year when teams transform into buyers and sellers with the trade deadline in sight, but that’s not the only way to categorize the group of 32. From late October through the holidays, NFL teams will continue to separate themselves as contenders or pretenders. Differentiating contenders from pretenders can be tricky early on, but as time passes, the separation is clear. Let’s take an early look at where NFL division leaders currently sit and decipher whether they represent a contender or pretender. Call it trick or treat.
Buffalo Bills (6-1) – AFC East
One could make a strong argument that when this season is all said and done, the Bills will have displayed the best offense and defense. That’s quite a powerful statement, but for those who have watched the Bills perform at their best, it’s more than justifiable. It would be fair to formulate an argument as to why the Bills won’t finish as Super Bowl champions, but refusing to call them a contender would be silly at best. No franchise will be ecstatic to see Josh Allen and Von Miller on the opposite sideline late in the playoffs.
Baltimore Ravens (5-3) – AFC North
Call it a pun, but this team is scary. There’s no question that the Ravens are flawed, and the jury is still out on their ability to win late into the postseason, but nobody should feel comfortable in a matchup against this squad. At their best, Baltimore can beat the league’s best. Whether that level of play will show up consistently is the question at hand. Regardless, the Ravens are simply too talented on both sides of the ball to be labeled a pretender. A Lamar Jackson-led football team with a solid defense and head coach cannot be written off this early.
Tennessee Titans (5-2) – AFC South
The Titans have won plenty of battles with the standings, posting impressive records over the past two seasons. However, there’s plenty of evidence that Tennessee’s roster has fatal flaws that will hurt them down the road. There’s a clear ceiling on how far Ryan Tannehill can take this team in the playoffs. Not to mention, it’s fair to have reservations about their defense. The dominance of Derrick Henry may be enough to win the AFC South, but it doesn’t satisfy contender-like requirements in a talent-loaded AFC.
Kansas City Chiefs (5-2) – AFC West
Let’s not waste too much time here. The last time the AFC Championship Game wasn’t played in Kansas City, the pandemic was years away and Tom Brady was a New England Patriot. Four years can go by quickly, but that shouldn’t minimize the Chiefs’ success. As long as the duo of Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid is showing up on Sundays, Kansas City is worthy of being labeled a contender. After all, if they don’t deserve it, then who does?
Philadelphia Eagles (7-0) – NFC East
Football fans are well aware that the Eagles are off to an incredible start. There’s no doubt about that, but that doesn’t mean it comes without its critics. Looking at what the Eagles have encountered and what their schedule will feature in the future, it’s fair to say that they have a favorable route to success. The schedule is anything but brutal down the stretch, making Philadelphia appear as a lock for the NFC’s number one seed. If they can secure a first round bye, it’ll be a massive advantage. With that being said, it’s hard to call Philadelphia a pretender if they end up in the situation that was described above. The Eagles have been electric all season and have executed the assignments presented to them. A solid regular season should put this team in a contender’s situation and pay off down the road, even if its origins are questioned. At the end of the day, this team is tough, gritty, and on track to be a tough matchup for any of the other NFC contenders.
Minnesota Vikings (6-1) – NFC North
Close your eyes and cover your ears if you don’t trust Kirk Cousins, but something about this year feels different. Minnesota is off to a great start, yet it would be justifiable to say they haven’t played their best football yet. To put it simply, the Vikings have a plethora of weapons. Between athletes like Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen, and Dalvin Cook, the Vikings’ offense certainly doesn’t lack talent. With a first-year head coach at the helm, one can only assume that the offense will improve with time. If the squad truly does improve over time and refuses to shrink under pressure, they should hold on to the NFC North crown and find themselves in a favorable spot. As far as I’m concerned, the NFC is wide-open, and the Vikings have more than enough firepower to take down potential foes in the playoffs.
Atlanta Falcons (4-4) – NFC South
The Falcons leading their division through eight weeks is a great story, but it’s nothing more than that. The tale of the Falcons’ season has way more to do with an underperforming division than Atlanta establishing themselves as a contender. Atlanta is a country mile from earning a title like contender, but they deserve respect for what they’ve accomplished thus far. There were likely some who wondered if the Falcons would finish the season with the worst record in football. They’ve obviously shattered that expectation and consistently put themselves in positions to win games. However, it’s almost certain that the Falcons are closer to the teams at the bottom of their own division than the contenders across the league.
Seattle Seahawks (5-3) – NFC West
If you had told the average football fan that the Seahawks would be leading the NFC West through eight weeks, you probably would’ve heard a chuckle. Seattle had some of the lowest expectations in football, but has put together an immensely impressive start to the season. Despite what they’ve overcome, it would be premature and unwise to call the group a contender. Geno Smith has been solid thus far, but there’s no reason to believe that he can continue this success through the end of the season, let alone the playoffs. More importantly, the Seahawks have the disadvantage of some lurking giants awaiting to reclaim the division lead. Can the Seahawks outlast the San Francisco 49ers and the Los Angeles Rams? That hill seems too steep to climb. A great story doesn’t always correlate to a contender. Seattle is closer to success than most thought, but still has a long way to go before being considered as a true threat.