Here’s what I came up with, in addition to a few other teams that were considered, but just missed the cut for top 10:
Houston has gone from AFC South cellar dweller (2002-10), to playoff team (2011) to AFC favorites this season. Houston’s top tier defense has allowed just 56 points, good enough for first in the NFL. With a healthy Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson back this season, Houston has a competent passing game that can hold its own. As a team, Houston has put up 27 or more points in each of its first four games and has allowed 14 points per game and forced nine turnovers. One could argue Houston’s offense isn’t as great as Atlanta’s (and I would agree with you), but the Texan defense more than compensates for that.
2. Atlanta Falcons 4-0
Matt Ryan, A.K.A. Matty Ice, holds an early lead for the league’s Most Valuable Player. The signal caller has thrown for 1,162 yards, 11 TDs and only 2 INTs while completing nearly 70% of his pass attempts. The high-flying offensive attack, made up of Ryan and Pro Bowl-caliber wideouts Roddy White and Julio Jones, has put up a third-best 31 points per game. It’s not all offense in Atlanta, however, as the defense has forced the second-most turnovers (12) and allowed just three points to the 3-1 Chargers last week.
3. Baltimore Ravens 3-1
The loss to the Eagles in Week 2 doesn’t look too great on an otherwise solid 2012 resume, but there’s no doubt that Baltimore’s defense can still live up to expectations despite age. Ray Lewis, 37, is miraculously looking as strong as ever this season and there has officially been a timetable set for Terrell Suggs’ return this season.
As for the offense, quarterback Joe Flacco seems ready to handle the bulk of the offense. The coaches have put the offense in his hands and he has shown great promise in running Baltimore’s no-huddle offense thus far. An emerging Torrey Smith and Dennis Pitta should only help Flacco and his stride towards a Super Bowl appearance.
4. San Diego Chargers 3-1
As mentioned earlier, San Diego was shut down by Atlanta’s tough defense in a Week 3 matchup, but besides that game the Charger offense proved they can put points on the board against division rivals. In the other three games, all wins, Philip Rivers’ offense has put up 32.3 points per game and Rivers’ has posted a QB rating of 100 or better. The rushing offense has been inconsistent, but they have run for 100+ yards in each of the last three games and consistently should only get better with Ryan Mathews’ recent return to action.
5. Arizona Cardinals 4-0
Arizona is the third of the remaining undefeated teams. The most shocking of the three, too. The quarterback controversy of John Skelton and Kevin Kolb was sure to doom the Cards this season, but so far that has not been the case. Skelton’s injury opened the door back up for Kolb to retake the starting job and he hasn’t looked back since then. Arizona ranks 29th in rushing offense and 25th in passing offense, but the defense has kept things interesting.
As a team, the Cards have allowed just 15.3 points per game and forced 10 turnovers. Thanks to opposing offenses scoring four total touchdowns against them (3 passing, 1 rushing), the Cards have managed to pull upsets over such teams as the Patriots and the Eagles.
6. San Francisco 49ers 3-1
The Niners suffered a disappointing loss to Minnesota, 24-13, last week. But with that the only loss of the season, I think we can overlook that game considering Christian Ponder played a great game and the Vikes played near-perfect aside from Toby Gerhart’s two fumbles. San Francisco defeated division rivals Green Bay and Detroit in Weeks 1 and 2 with four TDs and zero turnovers from quarterback Alex Smith.
The stingy defense of the Niners finally broke out this past weekend with a 34-0 shutout of the New York Jets. San Fran forced four turnovers and put the ball in the end zone with a 51-yard fumble return TD from cornerback Carlos Rogers. Looking at the 49ers’ next four games, they very well could end up going into the bye week in the beginning of November with a 7-1 record.
7. Cincinnati Bengals 3-1
At 3-1, the Bengals have won three straight following its embarrassing 44-13 loss to the Baltimore Ravens on Monday Night Football’s season opener. Ever since that game, the Bengals have out-dueled the competition with 33 points per game and three multi-TD games from second-year quarterback Andy Dalton. What has impressed me the most, however, is probably the QB-WR tandem of Dalton and A.J. Green, both of whom are in their second professional seasons. Green has turned heads with his 428 yards and 3 TDs over the first portion of the season and Andrew Hawkins (15 Rec., 247 yards, 2 TDs) has emerged as a viable second option for Dalton.
8. New England Patriots 2-2
The Pats are one of two 2-2 teams on this list. Tom Brady has this Patriots offense ranked No. 1 in scoring and No. 6 in passing. Once again, it’s Bill Belichick’s defense that is holding the team back. With a new defensive coordinator (Matt Patricia) and a couple of young guns in the lineup (rookies Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower) it comes as no surprise that the Pats have allowed 28 or more points in back-to-back games. In fact, it’s the first time since 2002 that the Patriots have lost back-to-back games in general (upset against Arizona in Week 2 and against Baltimore in Week 3). The reason New England cracks the top 10 with a 2-2 record is partly because both teams they fell to are in my top 5. The other reason is because the Pats still have one of the top scoring offenses in the league, and that will not change this season.
9. Green Bay Packers 2-2
The replacement officials clearly took a victory away from the Packers last Monday night in Seattle, so I almost want to put an asterisk next to Green Bay’s 2-2 record. Aaron Rodgers (69.9 comp %, 1,064 yards, 7 TD, 3 INT) isn’t in his 2011 MVP form, but that doesn’t mean he’s having a bad season either. I expect the running game, led by Cedric Benson, to improve upon its current 25th-best as the season progresses. It’s the defense that I’ve been impressed with so far. Clay Matthews III has been playing out of his mind lately, sacking the opposing quarterback 7.0 times in four games. As a team they are 10th-ranked in overall defense, but sixth against the pass and have allowed just one TD on the ground. The unit as a whole has looked much more impressive (so far) than they did in 2011, and I don’t think they’ve reached their full potential quite yet.
10. Philadelphia Eagles 3-1
Philly is lucky to crack the list. Heck, they’re lucky to even be 3-1. They could just as easily have started the season at 1-3. To play as awful as they did on offense in the first two weeks of the season and to win by one point after a come-from-behind game-winning scoring drive at the last minute is what I call lucky. I usually avoid using that word when it comes to winning football games–in fact, I kind of hate when people say “they got lucky.” But I think it’s justified in the case of the Eagles.
Michael Vick combined for six interceptions, a lost fumble and four sacks in the first two weeks, producing five touchdown drives total. Sure, one of those two games came against the heavy-hitting Baltimore Ravens, but the other came against rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden in Cleveland…and he threw four interceptions in that game as well. Then came a 27-6 loss to Arizona. If Philadelphia had lost to New York on Monday night, they would have been nowhere near the top 10. I just can’t see myself leaving a 3-1 team that contained Baltimore’s offense and put up 191 rushing yards on the Giants off the list. That’s all.
Just missed (in no particular order):
Pittsburgh Steelers 1-2
By far the worst run game in the league. But Ben Roethlisberger has been having a great season and hopefully the return of Rashard Mendehall this week will improve the offense. The Steelers are still awaiting the return of James Harrison and Troy Polamalu on defense, however.
New York Giants 2-2
A loss to the Eagles on Sunday night has certainly hurt the Giants’ and may have cost them a top 10 spot. But I expect to see them back at it in the next couple of weeks. Never count Eli Manning and his two Super Bowl MVPs out of anything.
Chicago Bears 3-1
You would think a spectacular 34-18 victory over Dallas, a game in which the Chicago defense forced 5 Tony Romo interceptions and returned two of them for TDs, would be enough to crack the top 10. But the inconsistency of the offense throughout the first quarter of the season has them on the outside looking in, for now.
Minnesota Vikings 3-1
Minnesota has been a bit of a surprise, sitting at 3-1 in the NFC North right now. The team was unsure whether or not Adrian Peterson would be fully recovered from his ACL injury in time to begin the season on the field. Well, he was. And he’s produced 332 yards and 2 rushing TDs through four games. Oh and second-year quarterback Christian Ponder has been playing alright too (68.3 comp %, 824 yards, 4 TD, 0 INT).