By the time Patrick Mahomes had passed another 375 meters, Michael Thomas had opened a second mobile plan and Tom Brady had left Aaron Rodgers behind. Sunday intensified the unusual clarity at the top of the NFL.
For most years, mid-season, we can start identifying the best teams in the league when the picture just starts to focus. After the ninth week, the answer has arrived in bright colors. 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 fits in with a couple of potential title fighting games of the conference.
In the AFC, the New England Patriots have won six consecutive games behind their future Hall of Fame quarterback, including a win 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 win over the otherwise unbeaten and spectacular Los Angeles Rams.
On Sunday, the Rams, Saints, Chiefs and Patriots were firmly anchored both as the best teams in the NFL and as participants in the conference title games. The Chiefs hacked the Cleveland Browns (37-21) and scored at least 30 points for the eighth time in nine games. The Saints beat the Rams 45-35, but not before the Rams showed their firepower by temporarily extinguishing a 21-point deficit. Without Rob Gronkowski and Sony Michel, the Patriots played the Packers (31-17).
There is the class of the league. It would be crazy to write something in a pen. This is the NFL. Surprises happen. Last season everyone had bought the Patriots and Steelers for the AFC Championship for months, and then the Jaguars appeared. A group of teams this season could challenge the apparent superiority of the Pats, Chiefs, Rams and Saints. However, if 26 other teams were present on the penultimate weekend of the season, it would be a serious injury if she did not seriously injure herself. It is rare that this can definitely be said at this stage of the season.
These four candidates have arrived here in different ways. The Chiefs transformed themselves into a monster by placing the first starter Mahomes, a sporting prodigy with a bazooka on his right shoulder, at the center of Coach Andy Reid's innovative, creative offensive machine.
The saints had been on a mission since leaving the playoffs in January. They gave a first round to come in the draft for the pass rusher Marcus Davenport. Drew Brees is an MVP nominee but the Saints are unstoppable because their offensive line is adversary and Thomas and Alvin Kamara are two of the NFL's best and most consistent playmakers.
The Patriots recovered from the terrible defeats against the Jaguars and Lions as coach Bill Belichick tinkered with and improved New England as he always does. The moves included the reverse specialist and the disappointing long-distance receiver Cordarelle Patterson.
The Rams went down hard in the offseason to benefit from quarterback Jared Goff's last rookie contract years, forming a team of unrivaled star power under the leadership of boy genius coach Sean McVay. They added pass rusher Dante Fowler at the close, but their defense remains a question – the Rams have allowed 26.7 points per game over the last seven weeks. They had not lost before the saints had beaten them off on Sunday, but the loss had been weeks ago.
These four teams have split up. Which teams could challenge them in January? In the NFC, the obvious but overlooked answer is the 6-2 Carolina Panthers. Cam Newton plays just about every quarter in the league and has a higher percentage of his passes than at any earlier point in his career. Carolina is also poised to say goodbye – the Panthers play saints twice in the last three weeks of the season.
In the AFC, the Steelers have proved despite the six games of Texans as the clear number three behind New England and Kansas City. They overcame the absence of Le'Veon Bell by handing over the ball to James Connor in the second year behind an offensive offensive line. Coach Mike Tomlin, who caught fire earlier this year, recalled that he has a Super Bowl and the second-highest win percentage among active coaches with at least 30 trained games.
If there is a sleeper who could enter Sunday's championship, this is a team that could follow the Jaguars model from last year's playoffs. The Chicago Bears have a young, dominant defense, multiple wins and an inconsistent quarterback with uncommon abilities to make crucial games and perform at random. It's hard to see Mitchell playing Trubisky for a Super Bowl trip, but we watched Blake Bortles last January.
For the time being, week 9 has confirmed what the rest of the season has already told us. The Patriots, Chiefs, Saints and Rams are in one class, and the rest of the league can be sorted behind them. There is still half of the regular season left, but it's hard to see that change.
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