By Steve Silverman
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With just four weeks left in the NFL regular season, it’s clear the Patriots, Steelers and Eagles are just where they want to be. They are at the top of their divisions and fighting for home-field advantage in the postseason.
While those teams are among the league’s elite and have little to worry about besides crucial injuries, there are five other first-place teams that are in a critical position at this point and have areas of concern as the home stretch beckons.
The Titans are in a battle with the Jaguars for first place in the AFC South, and there are a couple of things to like about this team, including the 1-2 punch at running back with Derrick Henry and DeMarco Murray and a defense that is especially good at stopping the run.
Henry has rushed for 629 yards with a 5.0 yards-per-carry average and four touchdowns, while Murray has 418 yards, 3.7 yards per attempt and five TDs. Linebacker Wesley Woodyard is a dynamic sideline-to-sideline player, and free safety Kevin Byard may be the best player you’ve never heard of, as he has six interceptions and 20 passes defensed.
Big Issue: Quarterback Marcus Mariota has looked good in spurts this year, but he has lacked consistency and has taken a step backward in his third year. Mariota has been sacked 19 times and has just a 10-to-12 TD-to-interception ratio.
Many expected Mariota to have the kind of year Carson Wentz is having for the Eagles. Mariota has the intelligence, athleticism and skills to raise his level of play down the stretch, and he must do that if the Titans have any hope of making noise in the postseason.
Kansas City Chiefs
There’s not a lot to feel good about with the Chiefs right now, as they blew a 14-0 lead last week against the Jets in losing 38-31. Coach Andy Reid’s team has lost six of seven after starting the season 5-0. They feel like the NFL version of the Titanic.
Quarterback Alex Smith had a sharp game against the Jets, as he threw for 366 yards and four touchdowns and added a 70-yard run. Still, the offense has often stalled since its impressive performance early in the season.
Big Issue: The Chiefs don’t have the speed on defense to keep up with most opponents. They rank 30th in yards allowed this season and struggle to get off the field. If pass rusher Justin Houston can’t get to the quarterback, a big play could result at the worst moment. Cornerback Marcus Peters has proven to be undisciplined and has become an embarrassment for the Chiefs.
The Vikings have had a brilliant season and have reeled off eight straight victories to take command in the NFC North. They have an excellent opportunity to earn home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.
Minnesota clearly has one of the best defenses in the league, and that’s not a surprise because that’s head coach Mike Zimmer’s specialty and that unit is largely healthy and incredibly cohesive. Everson Griffen has 12 sacks and is a game-changing payer, while Harrison Smith is a disruptive force in the secondary.
As good as the defense has been, the reason for Minnesota’s surge has been the shocking play of the offense with Case Keenum under center and wide receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs making big play after big play.
Big Issue: Keenum has been sensational since he has taken over from Sam Bradford, completing 67.5 percent of his passes while throwing for 239 yards per game with 16 touchdowns and five interceptions. However, can he keep it up down the stretch and into the playoffs?
Longtime Vikings fans, who have seen their greatest teams fall short, are holding their breath as they wait to see how the season turns out.
New Orleans Saints
After three years near the bottom of the league’s defensive rankings, the Saints have improved dramatically in that area, ranking 12th in yards allowed and showing an impactful toughness when the game is on the line. They have gotten a huge boost from defensive end Cameron Jordan’s 10 sacks and linebacker A.J. Klein’s impactful play and consistent tackling.
Quarterback Drew Brees has not had to do everything on offense by himself. He has plenty of help from power back Mark Ingram and versatile rookie Alvin Kamara. Those two have combined for 2,397 yards of total offense and 20 touchdowns.
Big Issue: Can the defense keep performing at a high level? If that unit runs out of gas, the Saints’ season will come to a sudden halt.
Los Angeles Rams
Jared Goff is one of the league’s most improved players, and his 20-to-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio has triggered a sensational season for the offense. Goff has received support from Todd Gurley, who has 939 rushing yards.
The team has responded to first-year head coach Sean McVay, and the Rams are a real threat.
Big Issue: The Rams have one of the league’s fastest and most athletic defenses. However, when it comes to size and strength, they get pushed around by bigger and stronger offensive lines. Los Angeles ranks 27th against the run.
Do the Rams have the physical strength to handle a battering that will undoubtedly come in the postseason? That question has not been answered adequately to this point.
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