By the time Patrick Mahomes had dropped another 375 passing yards, Michael Thomas had opened a second cellular plan and Tom Brady had outlasted Aaron Rodgers, Sunday reinforced the unusual clarity at the top of the NFL.
Most years, halfway through the season is when we can start the process of determining the best teams in the league, when the picture is just beginning to come into focus. This year, after Week 9, the answer has arrived in vivid color. Championship Sunday is two and a half months away, but four teams have already defined themselves as obvious favorites to make it there. A quartet has risen to the top of the NFL, and it just happens to neatly fit into a pair of potential conference title games.
In the AFC, the New England Patriots have won six consecutive games behind their future Hall of Fame quarterback, including a victory over the otherwise unbeaten and spectacular Kansas City Chiefs. In the NFC, the New Orleans Saints have won seven consecutive games behind their future Hall of Fame quarterback, including a victory over the otherwise unbeaten and spectacular Los Angeles Rams.
Sunday, the Rams, Saints, Chiefs and Patriots became further ingrained as both the NFL’s best teams and favored participants in the conference title games. The Chiefs minced the Cleveland Browns, 37-21, scoring at least 30 points for the eighth time in nine games. The Saints beat the Rams, 45-35, but not before the Rams showed off their firepower in temporarily erasing a 21-point deficit. Playing without star tight end Rob Gronkowski and first-round pick Sony Michel, the Patriots outclassed the Packers, 31-17.
There is the class of the league. But it would be crazy to write anything in pen. This is the NFL. Surprises happen. Last season, everybody had the Patriots and Steelers ticketed for the AFC championship for months, and then the Jaguars showed up. A crop of teams this season could challenge the apparent supremacy of the Pats, Chiefs, Rams and Saints. But if any of the other 28 teams made an appearance on the season’s penultimate weekend, barring a serious injury, it would come as an upset. It’s rare that can be said so definitely at this stage of the season.
Those four contenders have arrived here in different ways. The Chiefs turned into a monster by placing first-year starter Mahomes, an athletic marvel with a bazooka attached to his right shoulder, at the center of Coach Andy Reid’s innovative, creative offensive machine.
The Saints have been on a mission since their gut-wrenching exit from the playoffs last January. They dealt a first-round pick to move up in the draft for pass rusher Marcus Davenport. Drew Brees is an MVP candidate, but the Saints are unstoppable because their offensive line mauls opponents and Thomas and Alvin Kamara are two of the best, most consistent playmakers in the NFL.
The Patriots rebounded from horrendous losses to the Jaguars and Lions while Coach Bill Belichick tinkered and tweaked in New England, like he always does. The moves included turning return specialist and disappointing wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson into a thumper of a running back.
The Rams splurged in the offseason to take advantage of one of quarterback Jared Goff’s final rookie contract years, creating a team with unmatched star power under the helm of boy-genius Coach Sean McVay. They added pass rusher Dante Fowler at the trade deadline, but their defense remains a question — the Rams have allowed 26.7 points per game the past seven weeks. They had not lost before the Saints knocked them off Sunday, but the loss had been weeks in the making.
Those four teams have separated themselves. What teams could challenge them in January? In the NFC, the obvious, yet overlooked, answer is the 6-2 Carolina Panthers. Cam Newton is playing as well as any quarterback in the league, completing a higher percentage of his passes than at any prior point of his career. Carolina is also best-positioned to steal a bye — the Panthers play the Saints twice in the final three weeks of the season.
In the AFC, the Steelers have overcome the absence of Le’Veon Bell by handing the ball to second-year workhorse James Conner behind a punishing offensive line. Under fire early this year, Coach Mike Tomlin has offered a reminder that he has a Super Bowl to his name and the second-highest winning percentage among active coaches with at least 30 games coached. The Texans, now 6-3 after an 0-3 start, have taken control of the AFC South.
The 6-2 Chargers were hard to take seriously until Sunday, when they handled the surging Seahawks in Seattle. Their only two losses came against the Chiefs and Rams. Until their victory in Seattle, they had only beaten dregs. They’ve maintained contact with Kansas City in the AFC West, and their pass rush will be scary once Joey Bosa returns, possibly next week. Also scary, in a different way, is their kicking game. Four kickers have combined to miss six of 22 extra points. Caleb Sturgis whiffed on two Sunday and was released Monday.
If there’s a sleeper that might crash its way into Championship Sunday, it’s a team that could follow the Jaguars’ model from last year’s playoffs. The Chicago Bears have a young, dominant defense, several blowout victories and an inconsistent quarterback with the odd knack for making crucial plays and randomly producing excellent performances. It’s hard to see Mitchell Trubisky playing for a trip to the Super Bowl, but just last January we watched Blake Bortles do it.
For now, though, Week 9 reaffirmed what the rest of the season had already told us. The Patriots, Chiefs, Saints and Rams are in one class, and the rest of the league can be sorted out behind them. There’s still another half of the regular season left, but it’s hard to see that changing.
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