Updated: Apr 29, 2020
By John Kaufman – NFL Analyst
(This is part one of an article which will cover the eight NFL teams currently in first place in their division. Today's article is about the AFC teams. Part two, which will cover the first place NFC teams, will be posted tomorrow, October 3.)
I can’t explain it any better than you can, good people, but somehow we are already one quarter of the way through the 2019 NFL season. I swear, the time it takes to get from Super Bowl Sunday to the opening kickoff of the following NFL season feels like trying to clumsily walk up the down escalator. Not only is it tedious and annoying, but let’s face it – you’re never getting to the top. Mercifully though, week one finally does arrive, but faster than Gardner Minshew can make you realize that you, too, have truly loved jorts all along, one fourth of the NFL season is already in the books. If there is a better example of Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity, well I sure would love to hear it.
Since we are exactly 25% of the way into this NFL season and we now have a decent sample size of data, let’s take a look at each of the eight teams currently leading their divisions. We’re going to put them under the microscope and, based upon how they’ve performed thus far, try to accomplish two things here:
1. We’re going to give them each a grade that explains what we’ve seen from them so far this year.
2. We’re going to decide whether we should swipe right or left on their chances to remain the division leader come season’s end.
So, when it comes to the four current AFC division leaders…
What Do We Think? What Do We Know? What Can We Prove?
(Report Card & Tinder style, this time.)
New England Patriots – 4-0 overall, 3-0 division record, 4-0 conference record
New England is undefeated and is in first place in the AFC East.
In other news, there are jerks on the internet, a beer at the ballpark costs about the same as a 27-inch HD TV, and by the time this sentence has ended, Disney will have remade The Lion King for a sixth time.
Look, I get it. I understand how shocked you are about New England’s success so far in 2019. It really came up outta nowhere and bit us all in the booty, didn’t it?
All kidding aside, what is surprising about this year’s Patriots squad is how incredibly good they are on defense. Pretty much since Tom Brady’s record-setting 2007 season, New England’s teams have been winning with explosive and efficient offenses. Their defenses, on the other hand, have done enough to help them win without ever being spectacular. This 2019 team is unbelievably impressive on the defensive side of the ball. Through the first four weeks they are giving up an unfathomable 6.8 points per game. They’ve yielded 972 total yards and allowed only one touchdown in their four games. The pace they’re on is record-setting, to say the least.
Now, schedule-wise they haven’t exactly been *cough, cough* tested yet, as so far they have faced a surprisingly bad Pittsburgh team, the Triple-A Miami Saskatoons (I think they used to be called the Dolphins when they were a professional team), a NY Jets team starring you (probably) at quarterback, and the Buffalo Bills without Josh Allen for roughly half of the game. Based upon their schedule it’s fair to say that this defense could be overrated. And unfortunately for us, we’re not likely to get a definitive answer any time soon considering their upcoming schedule. Next up for the Patriots is a road game in Washington, then they get the NY Giants at home, and then they’ll face the Jets for the second time. Their October 27 home game against Cleveland may be their first real test this year, but that doesn’t even occur until week eight. We’ve got a while to wait before we will actually know anything relevant about New England’s defense.
Defensively, New England has been off-the-charts amazing. But as we already pointed out, they haven’t played anyone yet. Still, you can only play the teams on your schedule and they have done that incredibly well thus far. They get an A- because they have performed well on offense despite the following issues they’ve faced:
1. They are down two starting offensive linemen – left tackle Isaiah Wynn and center David Andrews are both on IR. 2. Fullback James Develin and their 2019 1st round draft pick, N’Keal Harry, are also on IR. 3. Julian Edelman missed a little time with a chest injury. 4. Sony Michel runs like the football weighs 130 pounds when it’s in his hands. 5. Antonio Brown was a distraction, at least for the 17 minutes he was on their roster.
Despite all that they still found a way to win last week’s game on the road against the Buffalo Bills who absolutely shut the Patriots’ offense down. Brady hasn’t looked that bad in a game in a very long time, yet they got the W anyway. Great teams do that.
NEW ENGLAND’S CHANCES TO WIN THE DIVISION: SWIPE RIGHT
Miami is deeply submerged in the fish tank, Buffalo made the Patriots look as bad as ever and they still beat the Bills on the road, and the Jets can’t even play their franchise QB right now lest his spleen explode. (Boy, talk about sentences I never thought I’d actually have to type out…) I think it’s safe to say today that we can pencil in New England as the 2019 AFC East champions.
Cleveland Browns – 2-2 overall, 1-0 division record, 2-1 conference record
What a crazy, roller-coaster start to the 2019 season these Cleveland Browns have had. Just for a moment, imagine being a Browns fan a week before this season started. Suddenly, Marty McFly comes around the corner with his copy of the Grays Sports Almanac, sees you decked out in your Dawg Pound gear, and pulls you aside to slowly reveal to you how your beloved Browns’ season has begun. That exchange might go something like this:
Marty: So, you guys are 2-2.
You: Really? After all the offseason hype and all that? Well that kinda stinks.
Marty: Yeah, but you’re in first place in the division.
You: Dude, nice!!!
Marty: And you guys are 2-0 on the road.
You: Whoa! That’s incredible! I can’t remember the last time… oooooohhh crap. That means we’re also…
Marty: Yep, 0-2 at home, including a 30-point loss to Tennessee in week one.
Marty: What’s d’oh mean?
You: Oh yeah, The Simpsons aren’t a thing yet in 1985. Well don’t worry, Marty, you kids are gonna love it.
Marty: Can’t wait.
For Browns fans, the bottom line is that they must be ecstatic to be in first place in the AFC North thanks to their thumping of the Ravens in Baltimore. But the journey to get to first place has been anything but a comfortable ride. The Titans game was close until the fourth quarter, but the offense looked bizarre and lifeless that day. The win against the Jets tells you nothing, other than Luke Falk probably needs a hug or three right about now. And the home loss to the Rams was as disappointing as any, considering how well Cleveland’s banged-up defense played in that game. Once again it was the Browns’ offense that failed them.
But my oh my, did things ever coalesce against the Ravens. That was easily Cleveland’s best performance in all three phases of football. If the team that we watched clip the Ravens’ wings this past weekend shows up in San Francisco next Monday night, and at home against Seattle the following week, and then in New England two weeks after that, they’ll be in all those games. Maybe they even win them all. Or perhaps they drop all three. Only Marty McFly knows for sure. They certainly have the talent to play with just about anyone in the NFL. They simply have to go out and do it now.
The gap in performance between the Browns team that lost to Tennessee and the team that beat Baltimore is so wide, I think you could just about squeeze it into the Grand Canyon. It’s great that Cleveland turned things around in only four weeks. The fact that they had to improve by that much in the first place is the concerning part. However, Cleveland gets a B- because Defensive Coordinator Steve Wilks is doing some pretty nasty things to opposing offenses while dealing with injuries of varying degrees and lengths to four of the five starters in his secondary. (Cleveland’s base defense is a 4-2-5; they play with five defensive backs on basically every play.) Myles Garrett is second in the NFL in sacks with six, fourth in tackles for a loss with five, and sixth in QB hits with eight. He is a nightmare for opposing offenses to deal with. Considering all the injuries they’ve dealt with this year, Wilks’ defense gets an A+. It’s Freddie Kitchens’ offense that drags this grade down to a B-. In one try out of four Cleveland’s offense has showed us what they’re capable of. I need to see it more often and against more good teams. Then and only then will this grade improve.
CLEVELAND’S CHANCES TO WIN THE DIVISION: SWIPE RIGHT
Cincinnati’s season is dunzo. Pittsburgh has some serious issues to deal with regarding their pass defense, although Minkah Fitzpatrick’s arrival should certainly help them in that regard. But there’s simply no way I could comfortably pick them to win the AFC North with Mason Rudolph at QB unless I start to see marked improvement from him. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it won’t be easy and I need to see it to believe it. This division is going to come down to the Browns and the Ravens, and we just watched Cleveland go into Baltimore and shut down a very potent Ravens offense while also shredding their defense to the tune of 530 total yards. Cleveland has the tiebreaker over Baltimore and thus, the inside track to winning the division. Of course, they still have to play each other one more time this year, and it’s obvious that their week 16 matchup in Cleveland on December 22 will undoubtedly decide which team is going to be the AFC North champs. Maybe Marty will let us borrow the DeLorean so we can jump forward in time to that frosty Sunday at the end of the year, because I just don’t think I can wait for that game to arrive.
Houston Texans – 2-2 overall, 1-0 division record, 2-0 conference record
The good news for the Houston Texans is that they’re 2-2 and in first place in the AFC South.
The bad news for the Houston Texans is that the Colts, Jaguars and Titans are all 2-2 as well.
Houston is barely hanging on to first place thanks to a 13-12 home win over Jacksonville in week two. But if you’ll recall, Gardner Minshew lead the Jags to a game-tying touchdown with 30 seconds left in the game. Instead of kicking the extra point and perhaps going into overtime, Jacksonville head coach, Doug Marrone, decided to go for two and the win. The conversion failed, and here we are two weeks later with the Texans in first place in their division by the thinnest of margins. Had the Jags converted on that two-point try, Houston would be 1-3 with two home losses to those Jags and a Kyle Allen-led Carolina Panthers team. Suffice it to say that Houston’s division lead is precarious at best, and downright lucky at worst.
But as we all know, football is a game of inches. And to their credit, Houston’s win against Jacksonville is as much their success in stopping that two-point conversion as it was Jacksonville’s failure in not converting it. We should give credit where credit is due. Even if it is by the slimmest of margins, the Texans are currently in first place.
This is not a team without flaws, however. Houston’s offense is 22nd in the NFL in total yards, including a ridiculously low 26th in passing yards. They have been helped by a ground game that is 11th in total yards and is averaging an impressive 5.1 yards per carry. The Texans cannot be happy with the lack of production in the passing game. And they must be completely miserable that, when it comes to Deshaun Watson’s sack totals, they seemed to have picked up right where they left off last year. Watson led the NFL in 2018 by being sacked 62 (!) times, and already this year he’s the third-most sacked QB with 18. Don’t forget that this Texans team traded away two first-round picks and one second-rounder for left tackle Laremy Tunsil. Tunsil has been fine so far this year, but Watson is on pace to be sacked 72 times this season. If he gets anywhere near that total, I would be extremely afraid for his health.
On the defensive side of the ball, Houston is exactly average. They are 16th in total yards given up, which breaks down to 11th vs the pass and 17th against the run. They have given up 78 points on the season, or 19.5 per game. Those numbers are not bad at all, especially in today’s NFL. Coincidentally, their offense has scored exactly 78 points on the season, good for 19.5 points per game. Point differential is a fantastic way of measuring the quality of NFL teams. By this metric, Houston’s 2-2 record fits them perfectly well.
Perhaps Watson gets things going with his arm and Houston’s passing offense takes off. And perhaps the offensive line will improve and keep Watson upright more often, although it should be noted that Watson notoriously holds on to the ball longer than almost every other quarterback does. This can lead to big plays, but it leads to quite a few sacks as well – sacks which cannot be blamed on the offensive line. However, this team just doesn’t look right. They’re underperforming on offense and blandly average on defense. They’re lucky to be 2-2 right now, hence the D+ grade.
HOUSTON’S CHANCES TO WIN THE DIVISION: SWIPE LEFT
The entire AFC South is 2-2. Indianapolis had a misstep against Oakland, but otherwise they look extremely competent under head coach Frank Reich. Gardner Minshew has proved to be more than capable for Jacksonville while Nick Foles is out. As for Tennessee, well, they beat up Cleveland and Atlanta on the road and have dropped both division games they’ve played vs the Colts and the Jags. I wouldn’t even know where to begin trying to figure out that team. Regardless, Houston has not looked head-and-shoulders above their division rivals, so if I had to take Houston to win the AFC South or the field, I’m taking the field all day long. However, I would be remiss to not mention that we all buried last year’s Texans team when they began the season 0-3, only to rip off nine wins in a row. So it’s not like we haven’t seen them turn things around in a hurry. But that type of total 180 two years in row seems incredibly unlikely, so I’m swiping left on Houston’s chances to win the division.
Kansas City Chiefs – 4-0 overall, 1-0 division record, 3-0 conference record
It may be the most obvious statement to make in the world right now, but I’ve never been one to pass up on the low-hanging fruit: Kansas City is pretty darn good at this whole football thing. The Chiefs are undefeated in 2019 all while having to play three of their first four games on the road. And last week’s dramatic come-from-behind win in Detroit is the crown jewel of an already impressive season. Patrick Mahomes did not throw a touchdown pass, the Chiefs lost the turnover battle, and they were outgained by Detroit. And they still won. Just when it seems that we are running out of ways to be impressed with this team, they manage to dazzle us in some manner which we never expected.
Offensively, the Chiefs are just better than every other NFL team. There’s no argument to be made otherwise.
On defense, however, they have some glaring problems, hence the A- grade. Only the Dolphins have given up more total yards and rushing yards than Kansas City. The Chiefs are also 8th-worst in giving up scores to opposing offenses. So essentially, they bend and they break. That’s not the strategy you’re shooting for at any level of football, let alone in the NFL. And last weekend, Detroit ran for 186 yards (5.3 YPC) against them. If not for two red zone turnovers by the Lions, K.C. may very well be 3-1. They completely overhauled their defense this past offseason, acquiring cornerback Bashaud Breeland, safety Tyrann Mathieu, and defensive ends Frank Clark and Alex Okafor. As I mentioned above, these additions have not helped them stop the run at all. What’s more alarming is that this new group is actually worse in pressuring opposing QBs than they were last year. Per Bill Barnwell on ESPN.com, the Chiefs were getting pressure on 31.1% of dropbacks last year; this year they are down to 23.8%. This is a massive problem that Kansas City must solve if they want to win a Lombardi Trophy.
KANSAS CITY’S CHANCES TO WIN THE DIVISION: HOW MANY TIMES CAN I SWIPE RIGHT?
Look, while Kansas City’s defense is definitely a concern, in any one game their offense can simply outscore any other team in this league. So even if they don’t get their rush defense or pass rush figured out, they are the one team that could potentially overcome huge weaknesses on that side of the ball. Couple that with the fact that Denver is 0-4 and Oakland simply isn’t a threat whatsoever, which leaves the Chiefs with only the LA Chargers to be concerned with. I imagine that, given the choice to take either the Chiefs or the Chargers at even money to win the division, 100 people out of 100 would take the Chiefs. Count me in that group of 100 people, folks. I’m taking the Chiefs, too. Although I will be glued to my TV on November 18 when LA faces KC for the first time this year on Monday Night Football. That game should be spectacular.
(Part two of this article covering the four current NFC division leaders will be posted tomorrow, October 3, 2019.)
John Kaufman – Across the Board Sports