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Rick Zamperin: Separating the NFL’s contenders from the pretenders

Cincinnati Bengals safety Shawn Williams (36) watches as Kansas City Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt (27) leaps over defensive end Michael Johnson (90) for a touchdown during the first half of an NFL football game in Kansas City, Mo., Sunday, Oct. 21, 2018. AP Photo/Reed Hoffmann

Week 8 of the NFL season kicks off Thursday night in Houston where the Texans host the Miami Dolphins in a battle of 4-3 teams.

This week marks the halfway point of the pigskin season south of the border and it is the time of year where the contenders separate themselves from the pretenders.

The Los Angeles Rams (7-0), Kansas City Chiefs (6-1), New Orleans Saints (5-1) and New England Patriots (5-2) are the cream of the crop in 2018. I would add the Los Angeles Chargers (5-2) to that group but all five of the bolts’ wins have come against sub-.500 teams, so the jury is still out on whether they are the real deal.

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As hot as those clubs are right now, the New York Giants (1-6), Arizona Cardinals (1-6), San Francisco 49ers (1-6), Oakland Raiders (1-5), Buffalo Bills (2-5) and Indianapolis Colts (2-5) are ice cold.

Despite their 2-4-1 record, I refuse to put the Cleveland Browns in that group of struggling squads. The Browns have been in every game, except for one, this year and have gone into overtime four times.

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There is a gargantuan glut of teams that are at, or hovering around, the .500 mark. In fact, 17 of the National Football League’s 32 teams (53 per cent) are even in the win-loss column or sitting a game above or below the level.

The AFC and NFC North are two prime examples of the level of parity that exists in the league. Through seven weeks, first and last place in those two divisions is separated by one game.

Peyton Manning roasts Drew Brees as latter breaks all-time NFL passing record

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Peyton Manning roasts Drew Brees as latter breaks all-time NFL passing record – Oct 9, 2018

Apart from the NFL’s heavy hitters, there are two teams that are floating under the radar that I think can make some noise down the stretch: Carolina and Cincinnati.

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The Panthers (4-2), fresh off their incredible fourth-quarter comeback win over the defending champion Philadelphia Eagles, are home to Baltimore and Tampa Bay over the next two weeks and I see them getting to 10 wins, which should be good enough to earn a wildcard spot.

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The Bengals (4-3) will play five of their last nine games at home, including very winnable matchups against Tampa Bay, Cleveland, Denver and Oakland, and have their bye in Week 9.

Then again, it is the NFL, where parity — for the most part — reigns supreme.

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