Contender or Pretender? A Look at the NFL’s .500 Teams

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We’re six weeks into the NFL season, and the elite are starting to separate themselves from the pack. As the standings shake out for the season, those teams in the middle of the pack are still looking to cement themselves as they jostle for playoff position. 

Eight teams sit at 3-3, right in the middle, with their seasons ready to go one way or the other. A contender doesn’t necessarily mean they’re a Super Bowl contender, just a team that will be in the playoff mix at the end of the year. Let’s get started.

Atlanta Falcons: Contender

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The early returns on Desmond Ridder have been poor, but I still believe in Arthur Smith and this group of skill position players in a weak NFC South. Contrary to preseason expectations, the Falcons defense is the unit making me hang onto my stock. Atlanta ranks fourth in the NFL in total defense through six weeks, and they’re the third-best unit in football on third down. Jessie Bates has been a superstar in the Falcons’ secondary, and their linebacker group led by Kaden Elliss has been stellar as well. 

Cincinnati Bengals: Contender

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Joe Burrow looks healthy again, Ja’Marr Chase is always open, and all is right in Cincinnati. After what seemed like a nightmare start to the Bengals’ season, Cincinnati won two straight and sit at 3-3, right in the middle of the playoff picture. Each unit shined in the last two weeks for Cincinnati, with their offense rolling over the Cardinals and their defense stifling the Seahawks. Last Sunday’s win over Seattle was impressive, as the defense held the Seahawks offense to just three points in four second half red-zone trips.

Houston Texans: Contender

Stroud throws 2 TD passes, defense makes late stops to lead Texans over Saints 20-13 | AP News

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I’m buying all of the Houston stock after six weeks. The Texans have so many unexpected bright spots, none shining more brilliantly than C.J. Stroud. As a rookie, Stroud has already been playing like one of the 10 or 12 best quarterbacks in the league, showing elite processing ability and anticipation right from the jump in his young career. Nico Collins is enjoying a breakout season at receiver, and DeMeco Ryans has this defense punching far above their weight this season. The Jags are still the class of the AFC South, but I expect Houston to battle for a wild card spot down the stretch.

Indianapolis Colts: Pretender

Indianapolis Colts' power rankings roundup Week 1: A new hope

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Anthony Richardson’s season-ending shoulder injury is a massive bummer, as the rookie was playing good football to start his career. The Colts still would’ve been pretenders either way. The Indianapolis defense has been a bottom-10 unit in football, both in yards and points this season. I don’t trust the offensive weapons to prop Gardner Minshew up enough for the offense to keep its current pace. The schedule is not bad, but the Colts can’t keep up in a crowded AFC.

Las Vegas Raiders: Pretender

Raiders vs Rams Week 14 preview: Will Las Vegas face Baker Mayfield at QB? - Silver And Black Pride

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I don’t see where the Raiders fit in in a muddy AFC playoff picture. The Vegas defense has performed above expectation due to Maxx Crosby putting together a Defensive Player of the Year caliber season. The offense has not held up its end of the bargain. Las Vegas is putting up just 16.7 points per game this season, and I don’t trust the defense to keep up their production, even with Crosby wreaking havoc week in and week out.

Los Angeles Rams: Contender

Los Angeles Rams Scores, Stats and Highlights - ESPN

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I struggled with where to put the Rams on this list, but I ultimately trust Sean McVay and this offense to get them into the playoffs. Cooper Kupp has hit the ground running since returning from injury. Puka Nacua continues to produce opposite him. The defense has been solid, despite their lack of talent, and in a weak NFC, fine might just be good enough. The schedule isn’t friendly; the Rams have meetings with the Cowboys, Ravens, and Browns ahead in addition to their second game with the mighty 49ers, but the Rams should be fine.

New York Jets: Pretender, unless…

New York Jets | National Football League, News, Scores, Highlights, Injuries, Stats, Standings, and Rumors | Bleacher Report

The Jets, somewhat miraculously, sit at 3-3 despite Zach Wilson at quarterback. It’s a testament to their incredible defense. This Jets season feels like a repeat of last year, with a great defense buoying a poor offense and hoping that’s good enough to squeak into the playoffs. The problem is, the defense has slightly regressed from the best-in-the-league caliber squad of a year ago to just a great unit, and I’m not sure that’s good enough. The Jets need to try to make a move to upgrade the quarterback position short-term in order to compete in a division with two of the AFC’s top teams.

Washington Commanders: Pretender

Commanders preview: A new era of Washington football kicks off with high anticipation - WTOP News

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The Commanders are one of those teams that always leaves you wanting more. Their defense has been awful, ranking 29th in total defense and 30th in scoring defense, despite having arguably the most talented front four in the NFL. In the secondary, first-round rookie Emmanuel Forbes was benched last week after brutal showings against Philadelphia and Chicago. The Commanders’ offense has been fun to watch but is extremely erratic under the leadership of Sam Howell. Howell has flashed traits of a franchise quarterback but still needs to develop some down-to-down consistency and eliminate the negative plays from his game for this to be a more consistent unit.

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