It was Stealers Wheel who famously sang, "Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right. Here I am, stuck in the middle with you."
And at the quarter mark of the NFL season, we have several teams, well, in the middle. But not necessarily in a bad way. For many, 2-2 equals hope. 2-2 says you are in the mix. 2-2 means all expectations from the offseason and training camp are within striking distance.
Not every 2-2 is the same, of course. And some are downright confounding. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have alternated between dispiriting losses and massive wins, with Sunday’s 55-40 victory over the Rams being the latest result. Meanwhile, the New York Giants are suddenly 2-2, with Danny Dimes reinvigorating what had been a moribund club. And then there’s the AFC South, where EVERY team is in the thick of the division race at 2-2.
All in all, there are 13 2-2 teams in the NFL today. How do they stack up against each other? That’s a good question!
Below, I rank the 2-2 teams I believe in most, Schein Nine style. Apologies to the Buccaneers, Giants, Raiders and Vikings, who didn’t make the cut. (My last name rhymes with 9, not 13.)
1) Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles’ heart and toughness and brilliant coaching and championship fabric were all on display last Thursday night in Lambeau Field. To me, Philadelphia’s 34-27 road victory over the Packers was the biggest win of the first quarter of this season. 1-3 is a dark place in the NFL, especially for a team with high hopes and a brutal upcoming road stretch (back-to-back-to-back visits to Minnesota, Dallas and Buffalo in October). But Doug Pederson’s team was clutch in prime time — Carson Wentz threw three touchdown passes, and the Eagles found the run game, racking up 176 yards and two scores on 33 carries.
With a well-rounded and deep roster, Philly came into this season with high hopes. It’s been a wild ride in the first quarter: The Eagles could easily be 4-0 or 0-4, based on the ebb and flow of the games, so 2-2 feels fair. In recent years, this has been a well-run organization you could bank on. And I will do just that, with Wentz due to get deep threat DeSean Jackson back soon. With the Cowboys’ loss at New Orleans, Philadelphia’s only one game out of first place in the NFC East.
2) Cleveland Browns
Let me first say that I’m not a believer in Freddie Kitchens as a head coach. There’s been way too much stuff going on with his Browns, and Kitchens’ appointment always felt like an overreaction and a shotgun marriage.
That said, back in August, I picked the Browns to win the AFC North because they are the most talented team in the division. It showed in Sunday’s encouraging 40-25 win at Baltimore. Nick Chubb gashed and pounded the Ravens’ defense to the tune of 165 yards and three touchdowns on 20 carries. And I remain a huge believer in Baker Mayfield’s talent, accuracy, leadership and fire. Anyone who says the 2018 No. 1 overall pick is overrated is simply searching for attention. That passing attack is loaded. And I haven’t even mentioned the Cleveland defense, which has played extremely well over the past three weeks, despite dealing with injuries. Myles Garrett’s a bona fide Defensive Player of the Year candidate with six sacks, and his supporting cast looks much improved under first-year coordinator Steve Wilks.
Kitchens cost Cleveland the Rams game in Week 3. The 30-point loss to Tennessee in Week 1 was an absolute mess. But here they are in Week 5, right in the thick of things. I called 10-6 in the preseason. With the Browns 2-2, that final tally’s certainly still in play.
3) Los Angeles Chargers
The annually snake-bitten Chargers have had nothing but bad luck in the first quarter of the season … and they’re 2-2. (Yes, wins over the Dolphins do indeed count.) This team is still loaded with talent, and now that Melvin Gordon has completed the most pointless holdout in memory, the Bolts have some sizzle back in the fold to offset the injuries to Hunter Henry, Derwin James, Justin Jackson and more.
L.A. has the players and the coach to be a threat in the AFC. This is a well-rounded roster, with an offense that ranks fifth in yards and a defense that ranks ninth in points. I expect January football for Philip Rivers and Co.
4) Houston Texans
It’s tough to rank the Texans this high immediately following a frustrating home loss to the Panthers. The O-line woes popped up yet again, as Deshaun Watson was sacked six times and pressured a whole lot more. Since the beginning of last season, Watson has been sacked an NFL-high 80 times — 21 more than the next-most-sacked quarterback in that time span. This, of course, severely compromises the electric Watson-DeAndre Hopkins connection, as the All-Pro receiver managed just five catches for 41 yards against Carolina. Houston’s defense came to play on Sunday, but this is not the game-wrecking unit that we’ve seen at times in the past.
But I still think Houston is the team to beat in the AFC South. And I still think Bill O’Brien’s Texans will get better as the season goes along.
5) Baltimore Ravens
I really like the Ravens. I just think they are the second-best team in the AFC North. I really like Lamar Jackson. I just think he’s the second-best healthy quarterback in the division.
In the preseason, I had Baltimore ticketed for 9-7. One big concern I had was the defense, which lost a whole bunch of talent during the offseason to free agency. And the Ravens certainly haven’t fielded a vintage unit on D over the past two weeks.
The organization is great and the team is tough. Baltimore should end up being around the playoff bubble, at least.
6) Indianapolis Colts
I’m not going to downgrade Jacoby Brissett after his underwhelming showing in the 31-24 home loss to the Raiders. First of all, Brissett had been terrific in the first three weeks of the season. Secondly, he was playing without injured receiver T.Y Hilton. And he’s not the only star who’s currently on the shelf — reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year Darius Leonard has missed the past two games while in the concussion protocol.
Frank Reich is such a good coach that I find it quite difficult to bet against his Colts. He puts his players in positions to succeed, plain and simple. But the feel remains eight or nine wins.
7) Jacksonville Jaguars
Minshewmania!!! Can it last? Who knows? But we are at a stage where we have to talk about Minshew keeping the job — even if/when Nick Foles returns to action — until he turns into a pumpkin. Through four games (with three starts), Gardner Minshew has completed 69.4 percent of his passes for 905 yards, seven touchdowns and just one pick, giving the sixth-round rookie a 106.9 passer rating. There’s something fun about this guy, and it’s more than the mustache and the overall 1970s style. Minshew can make every throw and comes up in the clutch — whatever "it" is, Minshew has it.
Meanwhile, Leonard Fournette was remarkable in Sunday’s 26-24 comeback win in Denver, with a career-high 225 yards rushing on 29 carries (a healthy 7.8 yards a pop). The defense is still capable of great things, and Doug Marrone is a heckuva coach. Marrone deserves so much credit for keeping this team together during the Jalen Ramsey trade-request saga — and the flu/back/baby week that left him sidelined for the pulsating road win.
What’s working against Jacksonville? Well, the AFC South is an absolute dogfight, with all four teams vying for the crown. And again, there’s the question about Minshewmania’s staying power.
8) Carolina Panthers
Oh, hey: The Panthers have a quarterback who can complete the forward pass again! Second-year passer Kyle Allen has energized the entire team, filling in for the obviously compromised (and consistently inconsistent) Cam Newton and guiding Carolina to two straight wins. Christian McCaffrey is an absolute superstar — and prototypical modern running back. In the 16-10 win at Houston, McCaffrey piled up 93 rushing yards and 86 receiving yards, breaking a whopping 11 tackles (per Pro Football Focus) on his 37 total touches. The defense is flying around and making plays, as well, having just held a third straight offense to fewer than 300 total yards.
The season looked totally over after two weeks. But Allen gives the Panthers new life, especially in the NFC South, where the Dan Quinn-led Falcons have rolled over.
9) Tennessee Titans
Will anyone ever be able to figure out this Titans team? Imagine saying before the season that the Titans would blow out Cleveland and Atlanta on the road during the first four games of the season, yet still sit at 2-2.
I really like the Titans. I like their toughness. I like Mike Vrabel. I like their defense and Derrick Henry. And they get stud left tackle Taylor Lewan back from suspension this week. Of course, the biggest question mark just happens to be at the game’s most important position.
Marcus Mariota’s good has been great. His bad has been unwatchable. The brutal "Thursday Night Football" effort against Jacksonville wasn’t all his fault — the offensive line didn’t help matters, and give credit to the Jaguars’ swarming defense. I’m rooting for Mariota to maintain consistency, but I have to see it to believe it.
Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.
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