Beating the Jets barely counts at this point but the Chargers remained on a roll with their fourth straight win. They get the Raiders and Chiefs next so they really should be 6-1 entering an Oct. 23 showdown at Denver. QB Philip Rivers is a leading MVP candidate so far and undrafted rookie RB Branden Oliver provided a boost against the Jets at an injury-depleted position.
2. Seattle Seahawks (3-1) | Previous Rank: 4
Yes, Russell Wilson benefits from the Seahawks’ running game and defense. But there’s little doubt he has become an elite QB. He demonstrated that again Monday night against the Redskins. Still, the defending champs again failed to show they can play at a high level on the road as well as at home, having three Percy Harvin TDs negated by penalties and ultimately doing just enough to get out of FedEx Field with a win.
3. Denver Broncos (3-1) | Previous Rank: 5
Peyton Manning surpassed 500 TD passes, and it only seemed like all of them came Sunday. He’s five away from Brett Favre’s NFL record of 508. The Broncos returned from their bye week and rebounded nicely from their pre-bye loss at Seattle. They’re playing well but they’re in chase mode in the AFC West, thanks to the Chargers’ strong early-season play.
4. Indianapolis Colts (3-2) | Previous Rank: 8
The Colts won a grind-it-out game against the Ravens despite QB Andrew Luck throwing two interceptions. He’d totaled eight TD passes in the previous two games but had only one against Baltimore. He had a 72.8 passer rating against the Ravens after two straight games above 120. The Colts have three straight wins and can take control of the AFC South race with a victory Thursday night at Houston.
5. Green Bay Packers (3-2) | Previous Rank: 9
They’ve won two straight games and are beginning, following a 1-2 start, to resemble the team they were expected to be all season. The Packers have totaled 80 points in their past two games and now have had a mini-bye following their lopsided Thursday night dismantling of the Vikings.
6. Dallas Cowboys (4-1) | Previous Rank: 10
How long will this prosperity last? Few would have expected a 4-1 start but the Cowboys are sticking to their formula of playing better-than-expected defense, running DeMarco Murray behind an outstanding offensive line and getting contributions from QB Tony Romo when needed. One issue now becomes whether Murray’s heavy workload will wear him down as the season progresses. Things get serious from here, with a game at Seattle this weekend followed by NFC East clashes at home against the Giants and Redskins.
7. San Francisco 49ers (3-2) | Previous Rank: 11
The speculation that Coach Jim Harbaugh has lost the locker room and will part ways with the organization at season’s end simply isn’t going away. He and the 49ers had better resign themselves to the fact that this will be a season-long melodrama. As long as the Niners play as well as they did the past two weeks, with wins at home over the Eagles and Chiefs, all will be fine. But now they must go on the road for their next two games, at St. Louis and Denver, and the issues potentially become more divisive if the 49ers stop winning.
8. Philadelphia Eagles (4-1) | Previous Rank: 12
It stood to reason when the season began that a 4-1 start would have provided the Eagles with an early cushion atop the NFC East. They’ve done their part but, instead, they’re tied with the Cowboys and have the Giants right on their heels. The Eagles have room to improve if they can find a way to get their would-be starting offensive line back on the field and get their running game going. They host the Giants on Sunday night with a chance to re-establish their superiority within the division.
9. Arizona Cardinals (3-1) | Previous Rank: 2
This is a solid, extremely well-coached team. But no team can overcome being down to its third QB four games into a season. Rookie Logan Thomas had a nice moment against the Broncos with his 81-yard TD pass but his 1-for-8 passing performance showed he isn’t ready to play. Drew Stanton now is subject to the league’s concussion protocol and the Cardinals continue to wait for Carson Palmer’s ailing right shoulder to heal with the necessary nerve response.
10. New England Patriots (3-2) | Previous Rank: 15
So which is the real Tom Brady in 2014? The efficient QB of Sunday night against the Bengals or the one who looked like a shadow of his former self six days earlier? The answer probably is something in between. Brady spent years elevating Patriots’ offenses with less-than-overwhelming talent around him. He probably can’t do that any more at age 37, at least not on a consistent basis. But he still can play well, especially when he receives the sort of help he received against Cincinnati. One can only guess that the Patriots by now are on to Buffalo.
11. Cincinnati Bengals (3-1) | Previous Rank: 1
Perhaps the biggest of many issues Sunday night for the Bengals was failing to stop a Patriots’ running game that generated 220 rushing yards. Now it’s the Bengals’ turn to try to generate a bounce-back performance after being the final NFL team to suffer a loss this season. Beating the Panthers at home this weekend becomes important given that the following two games are against the Colts and Ravens.
12. Baltimore Ravens (3-2) | Previous Rank: 6
The Ravens lost in Indianapolis to begin a stretch of two straight and four of five games on the road. Next up is a visit to Tampa. Beating the Buccaneers takes on added importance with the final two road games of the five-game stretch coming at Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.
13. New York Giants (3-2) | Previous Rank: 14
The offense has gotten in sync and the Giants have totaled 105 points while winning their last three games. They’ve scored at least 30 points in each of those victories. Last weekend’s debut of rookie WR Odell Beckham Jr. gives QB Eli Manning another attractive option in the passing game. The Giants now play two straight NFC East games on the road, at Philadelphia and at Dallas.
14. Carolina Panthers (3-2) | Previous Rank: 21
The defense regrouped and played better in the victory over the Bears after yielding a combined 75 points in consecutive losses to the Steelers and Ravens. The Panthers have held things together so far but now comes a difficult stretch of the schedule with games against the Bengals, Packers, Seahawks, Saints and Eagles over the next five weeks.
15. Pittsburgh Steelers (3-2) | Previous Rank: 23
It wasn’t elegant but they beat the winless Jaguars, as they needed to do, and picked up a game on both the Bengals and Ravens in the AFC North. Up next is a rematch with the Browns. The Steelers hung on to win the season opener in Pittsburgh but now must play in Cleveland, with the Browns managing to stay close in every game and win their share behind QB Brian Hoyer.
16. Buffalo Bills (3-2) | Previous Rank: 24
The QB switch from EJ Manuel to Kyle Orton paid immediate dividends with Sunday’s triumph over the Lions. This should be a very good week for the Bills, with the sale of the franchise to Terry and Kim Pegula expected to receive official and final ratification by the NFL owners Wednesday in New York. It would be an even better week for the team with a victory at home this weekend over the Patriots to take over first place in the AFC East.
17. Detroit Lions (3-2) | Previous Rank: 7
The kicking misadventures have hurt. The Lions are on their third kicker of the season after releasing rookie Nate Freese and his successor, Alex Henery. But now the problems could be bigger with WR Calvin Johnson and RB Reggie Bush slowed or perhaps sidelined by ankle injuries.
18. New Orleans Saints (2-3) | Previous Rank: 25
The overtime win over the Buccaneers kept the season from unraveling and now the Saints have their bye week to try to get things together. Nothing has been easy so far, and the offseason addition of free agent S Jairus Byrd will be remembered as money misspent in Year 1 with Byrd now on the IR list. But nothing is lost with the Saints only one game off the lead in the NFC South and no team in the division looking all that formidable.
19. Miami Dolphins (2-2) | Previous Rank: 19
It will be interesting to see if QB Ryan Tannehill and the Dolphins can sustain any momentum from their win over the Raiders in London. That was a bye week ago and an entire ocean away. The AFC East clearly is there for the taking, with the Dolphins having already beaten the Patriots once.
20. Cleveland Browns (2-2) | Previous Rank: 27
Who expected Brian Hoyer to still be starting at QB at this point? The bye week after three games once seemed like it might be Johnny Manziel time. But Manziel continues to sit and wait while the Browns remain competitive with Hoyer. They’re 2-2 and their four games have been decided by a total of eight points.
21. Kansas City Chiefs (2-3) | Previous Rank: 13
A two-game winning streak was halted with Sunday’s loss at San Francisco and now the Chiefs are on their bye week. They have played relatively well since their 0-2 start. In retrospect, the only unforgiveable result so far is losing the opener to the Titans by 16 points.
22. Houston Texans (3-2) | Previous Rank: 16
A nice fourth-quarter comeback at Dallas went to waste as the Texans lost in OT. Now they must regroup quickly to host the Colts on Thursday night. The Thursday night games mostly have been kind so far to the home teams. But it could be a tall order for the Texans to continue that trend, with the Colts playing well.
23. Chicago Bears (2-3) | Previous Rank: 17
A promising 2-1 start has given way to consecutive losses to the Packers and Panthers. WR Brandon Marshall has only six catches for 69 yards over the past three games after beginning the season with 13 catches for 119 yards in the first two games. He’s averaging only 9.9 yards per catch on the season.
24. Minnesota Vikings (2-3) | Previous Rank: 18
Rookie QB Teddy Bridgewater is expected to return to the lineup after missing one game because of a sprained ankle. That’s very good news for the Vikings after the Adrian Peterson-less offense failed to do much at all against the Packers with Christian Ponder at QB. If Bridgewater regains the form he had in his first NFL start, the Vikings could have a chance Sunday at home against the potentially shorthanded Lions.
25. Atlanta Falcons (2-3) | Previous Rank: 20
The Falcons have lost two straight and are below .500 for the first time this season. The offense has been productive thanks to the league’s second-ranked passing attack. Because of that, the Falcons are ranked third in the NFL in total offense. But they’re only 17th in rushing offense and the defense ranks 24th against the pass, 28th against the run and 29th overall.
26. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-4) | Previous Rank: 22
The offense certainly has functioned better with Mike Glennon at QB than it did with Josh McCown playing. But the Buccaneers allowed their chance to beat the Saints last weekend to slip away, and now they face a difficult game against the Ravens before their bye.
27. St. Louis Rams (1-3) | Previous Rank: 26
The Rams couldn’t beat the Cowboys or Eagles, and things don’t get any easier as they begin to face NFC West foes. The 49ers and Seahawks are up next, although both games are at home.
28. Washington Redskins (1-4) | Previous Rank: 28
They remained competitive Monday night but didn’t have enough answers for Russell Wilson and the Seahawks, and the descent toward another disappointing season continues. Now the return of Robert Griffin III is being eagerly anticipated, even though Griffin’s play before getting hurt was mostly unimpressive. The Redskins might catch a little bit of a break this week, however, with the Cardinals’ uncertain QB situation.
29. New York Jets (1-4) | Previous Rank: 29
Coach Rex Ryan finally made the move from Geno Smith to Michael Vick at QB in the second half last Sunday against the Chargers. But it didn’t help, and Ryan immediately pledged to go back to Smith this week. It will be interesting to see how Smith reacts to being pulled from the lineup, even temporarily. Will it motivate him or will his already uneven play unravel even further? The rest of the season promises to be about Ryan’s job as well as Smith’s.
30. Tennessee Titans (1-4) | Previous Rank: 30
Even a 28-3 lead against the Browns couldn’t get the Titans back into the win column. What will it take? A matchup with the Jaguars? Well, that’s what’s up next. Don’t stare directly at this game; it could cause irreversible eye damage.
31. Jacksonville Jaguars (0-5) | Previous Rank: 31
Blake Bortles’s second start wasn’t as smooth as his first, as he managed only 191 passing yards and threw two interceptions in Sunday’s loss to the Steelers. The prized rookie QB has one TD pass and four interceptions in two NFL starts. It’s all part of the learning process. That’s all that matters now because the losing certainly won’t stop.
32. Oakland Raiders (0-4) | Previous Rank: 32
Tony Sparano’s interim-coaching tenure begins Sunday at home against the Chargers following a bye week in which the Raiders fired Dennis Allen. Sparano has said all outcomes remain possible, including the Raiders reaching the playoffs. But the season has a playing-out-the-string feel to it with the names of potential candidates — Jon Gruden, Jim Harbaugh, Mike Holmgren — already surfacing in anticipation of the upcoming coaching search.
Around the NFL