The halfway point of the 2023 NFL season has arrived. Per usual, the hard salary cap and expanded postseason is doing what they are designed to do. Only a handful of teams have records so bad that a No. 1 overall draft pick is more likely than playoff football. The Chicago Bears, Arizona Cardinals, Carolina Panthers, New York Giants and New England Patriots, will likely not see mid-January football, but the rest of the league is in the mix through nine games.
Of the 32 NFL teams, 27 have a feasible chance at the postseason. Those who actually watch the games know that teams with only three wins at this point of the regular season have a long road to extend their seasons into mid-January. While the Super Bowl winner is not clear in the first week of November, an honest observation of the league reveals a maximum of nine championship contenders.
None of them are historically great teams. Due to that hard salary cap, the best teams in the NFL all have glaring weaknesses. There are no undefeated teams through nine weeks because at some point in the 2023 regular season, the contenders have not been able to overcome their shortcomings.
Fortunately for those teams, they share that problem with the rest of the NFL. Super teams have been outlawed by restrictions to player compensation. The fact that America’s most profitable sports’ league limits what can be paid per team to the players — the NFL’s majority Black workforce that drives the revenue to the detriment of their own health — means that consistently bringing in cheap young talent is the only way to consistent victory.
As difficult as roster construction is in the NFL, four teams have done it well enough to separate themselves from the pack. They pay the big quarterback salaries, but still have the talent in all three phases to play championship-level football. The Baltimore Ravens, Kansas City Chiefs, Philadelphia Eagles, and Cincinnati Bengals have separated themselves from the rest of the league through three games.
Two strong NFC opponents, two Raven beat downs
The Ravens have not lost a game since Oct. 8. In that time they have pounded two likely playoff teams. Two weeks ago, they beat the Detroit Lions by 32 points. The Lions had not lost by that many points since Halloween 2021.
It was a long flight for the Seattle Seahawks to get to Baltimore and they played like it in Week 9. After the Ravens went up, 14-0, the Seahawks drove down the field on their next drive. It ended with them kicking a field goal, and they did not score the rest of the game. The Ravens won, 37-3.
Of course, the Ravens should not have allowed the final score to get within one possession against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 8, but Joshua Dobbs has shown a knack for keeping undermanned teams in games throughout this season. But as the health of the roster has improved throughout the year, the Ravens have been dominant. Per DVOA, the Ravens were the second-best team ever through eight games since that stat has been recorded. They only trailed the 2001 Eagles.
The Ravens’ defense has not allowed 25 or more points in 2023. Combine that with Zay Flowers proving to be a dependable target, and the Ravens’ rushing attack gobbling up yards, this is the clearly the best Ravens team since their top seed-2019 season.
The Chiefs’ only objective is to get the job done
A repeat of the 2018 Chiefs’ offense will likely never again happen. It is improbable that a quarterback at Patrick Mahomes’ level will start his career with a wide receiver as good as Tyreek Hill. A 50-touchdown season from Mahomes is highly unlikely while the rest of the NFL is hellbent on limiting his big plays.
The Chiefs built a 21-0 lead against the Miami Dolphins in Week 9 in Germany, and their final score during that stretch was a fumble return to the end zone. They did not score again for the rest of the game.
During the third quarter, the Dolphins scored on two of their first three drives. That would be it for offense for the rest of the day. The Chiefs entered the game with the fifth-best defense in the NF, per DVOA. When the Dolphins’ explosive offense was driving in the final seconds of the game, the Chiefs’ defense forced a game-clinching turnover.
Joe Burrow can move and the Bengals are again contenders
Following the Bengals’ 24-18 Week 9 win against the Buffalo Bills, NBC’s Melissa Stark asked Burrow what he can do that he could not in the early weeks of the 2023 season. Burrow responded, “Run.”
He has not dwelled on his lower-body injury from earlier this season, but it hampered the Bengals. Their 2020 No. 1 overall draft pick is their best player. He played through his calf injury early in the season, because even while stationary, Burrow is still far better option at quarterback than backup Jake Browning.
However, a stationary Burrow is not a good enough quarterback for the Bengals to even trudge their way into the playoffs as a seventh-seed. They lost three of their first four games. A few days into November, the Bengals are currently on a four-game winning streak. During that span, Burrow has passed for 10 touchdown passes and two interceptions. Anyone who has watched Burrow play in recent weeks as the Bengals have turned their season from disappointment to contention, is well aware that his mobility has returned.
Barring injury, the Eagles will be the troll of the NFL postseason bridge
As predicted, the NFC is by far the weakest NFL conference in 2023. While the AFC has several championship contenders, it is a stretch to believe the NFC has two. Injuries have resulted in three consecutive losses for the San Francisco 49ers As frequently as injuries occur in the NFL, it is unlikely that the 49ers will be at optimal health at the end of a 17-game season.
Even if the Eagles are forced to limp their way into the NFC Championship Game, they appear to be the team in the conference best equipped to tough out that battle. At one point on Sunday, Jalen Hurts appeared done with a knee injury, but a timeout was called and he did not miss a play.
The Eagles lost Dallas Goedert to what ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported is a forearm fracture. Defensive backs Darius Slay and James Bradberry finished the game after getting shaken up. It took every morsel of healthy effort the Eagles had to narrowly defeat the Dallas Cowboys, 28-23.
Through nine weeks, the Eagles have the best record in the NFL at 8-1. The Chiefs may be the defending champions, but any team with thoughts of defeating the Eagles in winter 2024 had better be ready to battle the best overall team in the league.
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