By Patrick Wareham
The New England Patriots, under the helm of the 39-year-old, two-time League MVP Tom Brady, sit at 7-2, looking primed to win the division for the eighth consecutive year and the 13th time in the past 14 seasons. The Miami Dolphins (5-4), Buffalo Bills (4-5), and New York Jets (3-7) all need strong surges in order to contend for a second Wild Card spot, as the division is all but locked up with the Pats matching up with only three teams above .500 in their seven remaining games.
At 5-4, the Baltimore Ravens have been relatively unimpressive to date, yet sit atop the standings in the North, half a game ahead of the Pittsburgh Steelers (4-5). The Cincinnati Bengals (3-5) have underperformed yet face a very favorable schedule ahead. The hapless Cleveland Browns sit at 0-10 and are trying to avoid becoming the second team ever to go 0-16. With key interdivisional games remaining, the North is toss-up between Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati.
The Houston Texans, despite being winless on the road, command the AFC South at 6-3. With road games against all three division opponents—the Titans (5-5), Colts (4-5), and Jaguars (2-7)—Houston will have to get past the reported tension between Coach Bill O’Brien and quarterback Brock Osweiler in order to lock up the team’s fourth divisional title in the past six seasons.
Undefeated on the road and bolting out to a 7-2 record, the Oakland Raiders are tied for first place in the division with the Kansas City Chiefs (7-2). Close behind is 2016 Super Bowl Champion Denver (7-3). With the Chargers the only team in the division below .500 (4-6), the West is up for grabs and the winner will be determined down the stretch as interdivisional games are yet to be played.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the season thus far has been the emergence of the Dallas Cowboys (8-1) and rookie QB Dak Prescott. “America’s Team” has won seven straight since a Week 1 loss to the Giants (6-3). Rounding out the division are the 2016 division champion Redskins (5-3) and Eagles (5-4). In order to win its second divisional title in three years, the Cowboys face crucial games against all three rivals.
After a surprising 5-0 start, the Minnesota Vikings, reeling from the losses of QB Teddy Bridgewater and RB Adrian Peterson, have dropped three straight to tighten up the divisional race. With the Lions (5-4) and Packers (4-5) on their heels, and the Chicago Bears (2-7) all but out of the picture, Minnesota looks to right the ship and compete for its first divisional title since the 2012 season.
The Atlanta Falcons sit comfortably atop the South at 6-4, due in large part to quarterback Matt Ryan’s sensational play. The Saints (4-5) are at this point in the season the Falcons’ greatest threat, followed by the Buccaneers (4-5) and this year’s biggest disappointment, the Panthers (3-6), who just one year ago stood at 15-1 and faced off against the Broncos in the Super Bowl. Thanks to Ryan who has been putting up MVP numbers, the Falcons should cruise to win the South.
The Seattle Seahawks, despite a shaky offense following the retirement of Marshawn Lynch, remain atop the West, posting a 6-2-1 record. Arizona (4-4-1) has not played to its potential, and after a strong start, the Rams have fallen to 4-5. San Francisco (1-8) has been abysmal and desperately looks to end a seven-game skid. Seattle, facing a favorable schedule with just one opponent in its final eight games posting a record above .500, should wrap up the West with ease.