Most of the NFL has completed the first quarter of their 2016 season, and a few teams have separated themselves from the rest of the league. The top of the AFC looks just like it did a year ago, but new favorites have emerged in the NFC.
The Denver Broncos and New England Patriots played in last season’s AFC Championship Game, and they could very well be headed for a rematch in January 2017. Denver ended their Week 4 matchup as the conference’s only unbeaten team, and New England is in first place with Tom Brady set to return from his suspension for Deflategate.
Following last season’s Super Bowl run, Denver wasn’t expected to experience the same kind of success in 2016. But the team has looked just as good, if not better, this season, getting off to a 4-0 start with two wins against playoff teams. The Broncos’ defense has continued to be dominant, and it doesn’t seem to matter who plays at quarterback. Trevor Siemian was more than adequate in the first three games, and rookie Paxton Lynch put up good numbers when he replaced the injured Siemian in Denver’s 27-7 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday.
New England was shut out at home for the first time in 23 years on Sunday, but the loss isn’t indicative of what’s to come. The Patriots went 3-1 without Brady, and they probably have the NFL’s best team now that they’ll be led by arguably the greatest quarterback in history. New England has reached the AFC Championship Game in five straight seasons, and the team has given no reason to believe they won’t continue their streak.
While the top two teams in the AFC last year are a combined 7-1, the teams that squared off in the NFC Championship Game a season ago are just 2-6. Following Week 4 losses to teams that didn’t make last year’s postseason, the Carolina Panthers and Arizona Cardinals both dropped to 1-3. There’s still time for them to turn it around, but they can no longer be considered the top favorites in the conference.
That honor belongs to the Seattle Seahawks and Minnesota Vikings, who met in the wild-card round of last year’s playoffs. Seattle continues to look like the team that’s been a Super Bowl contender ever since Russell Wilson arrived in 2012, and Minnesota enters their Week 4 game against the New York Giants on “Monday Night Football” with a 3-0 record.
The Seahawks have essentially become the Patriots of the NFC, winning at least 10 games in each of the last four years and making two Super Bowl appearances in the process. Ranking first in the conference in yards allowed, Seattle’s defense remains elite, and the team hasn’t allowed more than 18 points in any game. After a slow start, Wilson and the Seahawks’ offense is rounding into form, and it might only get better after their Week 5 bye when the quarterback recovers from the multiple injuries he’s battling.
Minnesota is the only NFC team that might have a better defense than Seattle. Even though they’ve played one fewer game than all but three teams, they still lead the conference with 15 sacks. The Vikings have shut down the NFC’s best quarterbacks, beating both Cam Newton and Aaron Rodgers. Sam Bradford might prove to be an upgrade over the injured Teddy Bridgewater at quarterback, and Minnesota could be on their way to a first-round bye as they go undefeated against the toughest part of their schedule.
The Pittsburgh Steelers appear to be the biggest threat to Denver and New England in the AFC. The Philadelphia Eagles, who are undefeated with a bye in Week 4, could soon prove themselves to be a top contender in the NFC.