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Armando Salguero: Best AFC Team? Best In NFC? Where NFL’s Best Stand At (Almost) Halfway Point

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After his team finished off a sweep of the Indianapolis Colts in its third overtime game of the season on Sunday, Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel was asked his thoughts on leading the AFC South.

“I think that there’s a way to have a lead in the football game and a lead in anything in life,” Vrabel began, “and still be aggressive, still come to work and still improve.

“We’re a long way off and I hope that doesn’t get written about. We’re going to concentrate on coming back here and going on a road trip and getting some rest. That’s the biggest thing, we have to get some recovery.”

Sorry, Mike, it’s going to get written about.

The Titans are a long way from being what Vrabel envisions as a finished product, and the season is a long way from its inevitable culmination. But we’re starting to see teams rise in such a way as to suggest they’re going to play deep in January.

The season is nearly at its halfway mark — it would be exactly at the halfway point after eight weeks, were it not for the added 17th game — and winners are simply showing their mettle.

In the AFC, the Titans, Baltimore Ravens, Buffalo Bills and perhaps even Las Vegas Raiders (maybe) are stepping to the fore as the dominant teams.

In the NFC, the Arizona Cardinals, Los Angeles Rams, Green Bay Packers, Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Buccaneers are laying claim to the top playoff seed.

So who’s the best in each conference now?

It says right here the Titans are the AFC’s best team while the Packers are the class of the NFC.

That’s just one man’s opinion, obviously. But a counter-argument against either of those teams is hard to make.

The Titans are going to win their division, barring a slew of injuries or a seismic collapse. They lead the AFC South by three games and also enjoy having beaten the Indianapolis Colts, the second-place team, twice already.

And while that’s a compelling argument for dominating their division, Tennessee’s argument for being the class of the conference is also well founded.

Because the leaders of the AFC East, the Buffalo Bills, winners against the Miami Dolphins on Sunday coming off their bye week, already lost to the Titans. And the Kansas City Chiefs remain a dangerous team, despite the 3-4 start, but they also lost to the Titans.

That game was shocking in how uncompetitive it seemed, with Tennessee winning by 24 points.

That still might not separate the Titans from teams such as Las Vegas or Baltimore, both of which are 5-2. And both those teams have something special about them in that they fight for each other and play together and overcome rough patches in games as well as circumstances.

But the Titans have that in abundance too. They can trail 14-0, as they did Sunday, and not bow.

“I just think that’s this whole thing about not being a front runner,” Vrabel said. “You know what I mean? You’ve probably been a part of some teams where you go down 14-0 and guys are bitching and complaining trying to start fights on the sidelines. I never worry about that stuff.

“These guys are confident in their abilities to make plays and come back. You don’t want to be in that position, but if you find yourself in that position, there’s only one. If we put ourselves in that position, we’re the ones that have to get ourselves out.”

The NFC seems to have better teams and definitely more of them.

This is a statement of how good that conference is now: The New Orleans Saints beat Tampa on Sunday, but they weren’t mentioned among the conference’s best teams a few paragraphs ago.

How can that be?

Well, Sean Payton is among the NFL’s best coaches and perhaps the league’s best offensive mind. But he just lost quarterback Jameis Winston to a “significant” knee injury.

And although Payton’s weathered such a crisis in the past when Drew Brees missed games, four of his next six opponents are the Titans, Bills, Cowboys and a rematch with Tampa in Florida.

Good luck with that.

The Cowboys, winners over Minnesota with backup quarterback Cooper Rush throwing for 325 yards on Sunday, will have it easier in the NFC East.

The Cardinals and Rams have each other to contend with in the NFC West, but both are relatively healthy if Arizona losing J.J. Watt can be considered healthy.

And then there’s perhaps the league’s best team at the moment: Green Bay.

The Packers have won seven consecutive games. They’ve done this with a patchwork lineup.

Their best cornerback hasn’t been playing.

The best offensive lineman hasn’t been playing.

Their best wide receiver, second-best receiver and third-best receiver missed a Thursday night victory over previously unbeaten Arizona.

They’ve also had bouts with COVID.

And still the Packers keep winning.

They do not make excuses. Indeed, they get kind of ticked off when they hear talk of extenuating circumstances for them winning — you know, like, Watt didn’t play for the Cardinals.

“How ’bout instead of making excuses for why we win,” linebacker Preston Smith tweeted after the Arizona victory, “maybe it’s because we’re just (bleeping} better.”

No argument.

Follow on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero

Written by Armando Salguero

Armando Salguero has covered the NFL since 1990 for the Palm Beach Post, Miami Herald and ESPN. He was a 2016 Associated Press Sports Editors Top 10 columnist. He is a Pro Football Hall of Fame selector and AP All-Pro team voter.

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