A quarter of the 2023 NFL regular season is in the books. Perfect time to take the temperature of franchises across the league, particularly those who've won two games and lost two games.
Twelve teams currently hold a .500 mark, including the entire AFC South. Of those dozen stuck in the middle, which ones are poised to make noise in the coming months? Which will fall by the wayside?
One team I'm having a really difficult time assessing in the moment: New Orleans. I still very much believe in the Saints -- IF Derek Carr's shoulder gets right. I don't have the medicals on that AC joint, though, so I'm in the dark. I also have mixed emotions when it comes to the Falcons and Browns.
That said, I have pretty strong feelings on the remaining nine squads in this category. So let's divide the majority of 2-2 teams into contenders and pretenders, Schein Nine style.
I lauded the DeMeco Ryans hire all offseason, imploring everyone to hop on the bandwagon. I absolutely loved Houston's aggressive approach in the 2023 NFL Draft, with the Texans securing a foundational piece on each side of the ball in No. 2 overall pick C.J. Stroud and No. 3 selection Will Anderson Jr. So, yes, you better believe I'm bullish on this upstart team that just pasted the Jaguars and Steelers in back-to-back weeks.
It's a brand new day in Houston. DeMeco has abruptly changed the culture, with an influx of talent significantly raising the Texans' floor. Stroud is slinging it at historic levels, showcasing his potent processing ability (S2 test be damned) and excellent efficiency (SEE: 6:0 TD-to-INT ratio) while valiantly operating behind an injury-riddled offensive line. Beyond the quarterback, Houston's getting substantial rookie contributions from Anderson, WR Tank Dell, LB Henry To'oTo'o and C Jarrett Patterson. Meanwhile, third-year pro Nico Collins is emerging as a potential WR1, while Ryans' young defense is showing plenty of promise, having just held both Jacksonville and Pittsburgh scoreless in the first half.
Houston is tough, together and brilliantly coached. This is a talented young team on the rise. All aboard!
I just referenced Houston putting it on Pittsburgh in Sunday's 30-6 shellacking. Kenny Pickett left that game with a knee injury that the Steelers are trying to manage this week. The second-year quarterback actually got hurt on a curious fourth-down call from much-maligned offensive coordinator Matt Canada. Don't take my word for it; just ask franchise icon Ben Roethlisberger. Furthermore, defensive stalwart Cameron Heyward is on IR, while fan-favorite TE Pat Freiermuth is dealing with a hamstring injury.
All in all, the vibes are off in Pittsburgh. And the rival Ravens are coming to town on Sunday. Feels like 2-3 to me. Could this thing spin out of control?
No. Because at the end of the day, the Steelers have one very big thing going for them: Mike Tomlin. His presence means Pittsburgh will win at least nine games. The Steelers have never finished below .500 under Tomlin's watch, and there's too much talent on this roster for Pittsburgh to break that streak in 2023. The Steelers might limp into their Week 6 bye with a losing record, but I trust Tomlin implicitly to rally the troops and surge back into the playoff picture.
Fifth-round rookie revelation Puka Nacua is one of the stories of the young season, posting historic figures in his first four games. On the other end of the career spectrum, veteran Matthew Stafford is healthy and the epitome of toughness, as evidenced by his gutsy effort in Sunday's 29-23 overtime win in Indianapolis. Stafford and Nacua connected nine times for 163 yards in that game, closing out the day with a 22-yard walk-off touchdown. This winning combination of youth and experience reflects the 2023 Rams as a whole.
Like Stafford, three-time Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald came into this season with a clean bill of health, and he's right back to his dominant ways, boasting a team-high 2.5 sacks. Rookie OLB Byron Young is right behind him, though, with a pair of sacks. The third-round pick has provided instant returns off the edge, with a team-high eight QB hits. In Year 2, Kyren Williams has taken control of the backfield, fresh off a 103-yard, two-touchdown game against the Colts. And now the offense's top weapon, veteran WR Cooper Kupp, is nearing his return from a preseason hamstring injury.
How do the Rams deftly balance a roster in varying states of development? Well, the coaching is truly elite. Head man Sean McVay is a stud -- and somehow still just 37 years old. Defensive coordinator Raheem Morris does a fantastic job on that side of the ball.
All offseason, I thought Los Angeles would win at least nine games -- but Kupp's injury spooked me, so I didn't include the Rams in my playoff picks. Regrettable. Even L.A.'s two losses (vs. San Francisco, at Cincinnati) had impressive elements.
I gulp as I write this blurb about an annually snakebitten team. Justin Herbert is already banged up. Joey Bosa, Derwin James and Austin Ekeler were just inactive. And Mike Williams is out for the year. And yet ...
... the Bolts still ooze talent. Sure, they could be 0-4. But they could also be 4-0. The Kansas City Chiefs have won the past seven AFC West titles, but they look vulnerable in the early goings of this season.
I know the Chargers history. I have questions about head coach Brandon Staley. But this QB is special. Keenan Allen is a certified stud. I choose to believe.
OK, admittedly, the Jaguars are testing my patience to begin this season. Four games in, I haven't seen a whole lot to place serious trust in. Everything has been a little ... off.
In August, I expected Trevor Lawrence to be a bona fide MVP candidate, lifting Jacksonville's offense to elite status. We aren't remotely there yet, with the Jaguars ranking 20th in scoring. That said, I remain quite intrigued by this roster, especially with Doug Pederson at the controls.
Remember: The Jags started off last season at 3-7. Then they came out of their bye week and proceeded to win six of their final seven regular-season games before pulling off one of the greatest postseason comebacks in league history. Don't give up on this team -- at least not yet.
Regular readers know I faded the Packers all offseason, anticipating a steep drop-off in the wake of Aaron Rodgers' departure. While Green Bay did win two of its first three games, the Packers beat the ghastly Bears and then forged a comeback victory over the Saints after Derek Carr left the game with an injury. The 2-1 start smelled fishy -- and then this past week's effort flat-out stunk.
Detroit stormed Lambeau Field last Thursday night and jumped out to a 27-3 lead in the first 30 minutes of play. With the Lions holding a 284-21 yardage advantage, the Packers were booed off the field at halftime. The first-half drive chart was awful. The feel was even worse. Sure, the Pack limited the cosmetic damage better in the second half, but they still lost by two touchdowns at home to the clear class of the NFC North.
The jury remains very much out on Jordan Love, who's completing just 56.1 percent of his passes in Year 1 as The Guy. In the young quarterback's defense, the injury-riddled offensive line hasn't been great. Neither has RB AJ Dillon or the defense.
I didn't believe in the post-Rodgers Packers entering the season, and they've done nothing to convince me otherwise thus far.
The 27-3 win over Cincinnati was thunderous and inspiring. The 27-3 loss at Cleveland was horrendous and alarming. Such is life with the 2-2 Titans, who are fittingly undefeated at home and defeated on the road.
Vrabel and Co. can drag you in the mud and win games on their terms -- especially when playing in their stadium. But there's just such a small margin for error with this team. And in 2023, with the state of this particular roster, I can't trust that approach to churn out more wins than losses.
But I think this team is a year away.
Richardson, who started just 13 games in college, needs more reps to iron out his understandable inconsistency. He flashes an explosive skill set, no doubt about it, but the 21-year-old just has to play the game more before routinely excelling at the highest level. Meanwhile, the Colts need more playmakers -- true difference-makers -- on both sides of the ball.
I like where this Steichen-Richardson operation is headed, but it's going to take some time to get there.
I can't believe Ron Rivera didn't go for two -- and the upset win -- at the end of regulation! The mighty Eagles were on the ropes! In their own building! But Rivera chose to kick the extra point and take the contest into overtime.
Predictably, that decision proved ill-fated, as Philadelphia escaped with a 34-31 win. Sadly for Washington, I think that game will prove to be a microcosm of the season: Close, but no cigar.
Young QB Sam Howell has been solid. The weapons are solid. The defense is solid. But nothing's spectacular. And if the coach is no longer "Riverboat Ron," Washington just doesn't have the juice to get over the top.