- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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It's too early to fully sort out the pretenders from the contenders, but it's worth investigating.
Mike Martz's play calling and Lovie Smith's defense have the Bears leading the NFC North with a 3-0 record. The Buccaneers won their first two games, and even though they are no longer selling out home games, they are moving in a positive direction. Two potential playoff teams have to come out of the scrap heap of the league's two West divisions.
Let's play a quick game of contender or pretender.
Chicago Bears (3-0): A true contender needs three things: strong home-field advantage, a great quarterback and some ability to win on the road. The Bears have all three, putting them in the contender category. Sunday night will be another major test of their ability to win on the road. If they can beat the Giants, the Bears would be 2-0 in their two NFC East road games after chalking up a Week 2 win at Dallas. If Chicago beats the Giants, it has a good chance of going 4-4 or better on the road. Barring something unexpected, such as a devastating injury, the Bears' 3-0 start puts them on track for a possible 10-win season or better.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-1): After the Bucs' 2-0 start, a buzz started going through the Tampa area that the Bucs could beat the Steelers in Week 3. It didn't happen. Steelers fans grabbed enough of the empty seats in Raymond James Stadium, and Charlie Batch led the Steelers to a 38-13 victory. The Bucs will show significant improvement, after going 3-13 last season, but they aren't a contender yet. The Bucs have the benefit of four home games against teams that lost 11 or more games last season. A road win over the Carolina Panthers (Week 2) gives Tampa Bay hope for moving to third in the NFC South. The road schedule will be the Bucs' downfall. Their remaining nondivisional road games are against the Redskins, Ravens, Bengals, Cardinals and 49ers. That smells like a 3-5 road record at best. Still, the Bucs have a good chance to get to seven wins and show progress.
Kansas City Chiefs (3-0): Todd Haley, Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel have turned the Chiefs into opportunists. As I stated before the season, two or three teams afforded the luxury of playing 10 games against AFC West and NFC West teams will inflate their records above their talent level. The Chiefs stepped forward early to qualify as one of those teams. Their 3-0 record came against teams with a combined record of 1-8, and it's clear the Chiefs have an easy schedule. With a base of solid coaching and more dedicated players, the Chiefs have a chance to get to eight or nine wins. After the bye week, they face a reality check in Indianapolis against the Colts. The Chiefs are likely to go 1-3 against that division (AFC South), but if they can go 4-2 in the AFC West, their nondivisional schedule is easy enough to allow them to pull off five more wins. With a break, they may get to 10, making them a contender by virtue of the schedule.
Seattle Seahawks (2-1): Someone has to win the NFC West, even if it's a 7-9 team. Crowd noise should allow the Seahawks to be 5-3 or better at home, but winning on the road has been impossible for the Seahawks. Their road record has dropped a game a year since 2007, reaching 1-7 last season. Sunday's trip to St. Louis will determine if the Seahawks are going to be a 1-7 road team again, or worse. If they can't beat the Rams on the road, the Seahawks' only real chances to pick up road wins are in Oakland and Tampa Bay. Somewhere, the Seahawks will have to pick up three road wins to get to nine victories and justify calling themselves contenders.
From the inbox
Q: With the NFL taking such a hard stance on on-the-field conduct (group celebrations, taunting), is there much talk about penalizing tacklers who deliberately step over ball carriers or blockers on the ground after a play is over? I see this all the time, even players who go out of their way to walk forward to do this to another player.
Brian in Saranac Lake, N.Y.
A: Any act that borders on taunting or trying to show up a downed offensive player gets an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Clearly, the act of stepping over a player isn't going to get a penalty. Bodies are tangled up after plays, and that is a natural act. But if the defender makes a motion toward the downed offensive player that is unnatural, a flag will be thrown. If you've seen some that haven't resulted in flags, that's just a matter of the player being out of view of the officials.
Q: Can you explain to me why Dwight Freeney's spin move is so effective? I would think a simple push while he's spinning would throw him completely off balance. Maybe I don't understand the physics involved, or maybe players are worried about some ridiculous block in the back penalty, but I just don't get it.
Dave in Austin, Texas
A: First, he's low to the ground. Knowing that most offensive tackles are 6-foot-5 or taller, Freeney has a distinct advantage in being able to stay below the pad level of the blocker before the play. The spin makes it even more impossible to stop. You have to realize, Freeney has several moves that can confuse the blocker and set up the spin. He's just that good. ESPN's Sport Science explains Freeney's move.
Q: I say that even though the Browns have very little talent, their coach has less. He has made bad calls, has failed to make game adjustments, and he holds grudges against players. The fans of Eric Mangini say he has nothing to work with and his process is working. I'm not seeing it. What do you think?
John in Canton, Ohio
A: Let's be honest. The team is going to lose a lot of games this season, which should lead to a coaching change after the season. The big problem is Mangini has the type of team he wants. He got all of those linebackers, who are interchangeable in defensive packages, but as you saw in the Ravens game (Week 3), those linebackers aren't athletic or fast enough to get to the quarterback. The team is void of top-flight pass-catchers because Mangini traded them away. The quarterback position is in clear transition. It's going to be tough for the Browns to win more than one game before November. I can see them going 0-9. As for the future, I think it's bright. I'm a big believer in Mike Holmgren. Next year, he'll get a quarterback, and it appears to be a good draft for quarterbacks. He has a good offensive line to have the quarterback operate behind. He might go for a defensive coach such as John Fox to work on that side of the ball.
Q: Charlie Batch has been with the Pittsburgh Steelers since 2002. In '05, he got two victories, and in '06 when Big Ben had the appendectomy, he started the season opener, threw for three TDs, and led the team past the Dolphins. Even though he's been somewhat injury plagued in recent years, Batch has proven himself to be a serviceable backup, and I've heard he knows the playbook better than anyone on the team (including Big Ben). So why is it that all we heard about before the season began was the QB battle between Byron Leftwich and Dennis Dixon?
Simon in Grantville, Pa.
A: The reason you heard about a Leftwich-Dixon battle is that Mike Tomlin and the coaching staff picked those two players to compete for the job, with Leftwich having the huge edge. Remember, the Steelers traded for Leftwich after Roethlisberger was suspended, figuring he could help out for four games and get them through the suspension. I think those who know Batch are happy he did so well in the Tampa Bay game Sunday. Batch is a good guy. He grew up in Homestead, Pa., just outside Pittsburgh, and he probably will stay with the organization after his playing career is over.
Q: I was wondering what you think of this potential trade: Steve Slaton to the Skins for Albert Haynesworth. The Skins get a speedy complement to Clinton Portis and a potential back for the future, and the Texans get another guy to put pressure on Peyton Manning. Slaton seems to have fallen out of favor and Haynesworth should be happy about playing in a 4-3 next to Mario Williams. What do you think?
Andrew in New Orleans
A: Nice try, but Redskins coach Mike Shanahan seems to be locked into getting nothing less than a second-round choice for Haynesworth. As a backup running back, Slaton wouldn't garner value. No trade. But let's look at the possibility of the Redskins giving up a draft choice for Slaton. That would work. He's played for offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan when Kyle was in Houston, and Slaton would add some needed speed to Washington's backfield.
Q: Are both Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews MVP candidates? The Packers are 2-1 and some might argue that Matthews is a legitimate MVP candidate, along the lines of Lawrence Taylor. What do you think?
Scott in Arlington, Va.
A: It's too early to handicap the MVP race, but there will be no doubt Rodgers and Matthews will be in the hunt in the end. Matthews has all of the looks of a linebacker who will get around 15 sacks. Rodgers will throw for more than 4,000 yards on a team that will either make the playoffs as a wild card or NFC North champion.
Q: What are the chances of Vincent Jackson being traded before the Oct. 19 deadline?
Susan in Minneapolis
A: Odds are down to about 5 percent, and I would say there is a zero percent chance the Vikings will get him. The only trade I could see happening is the Chargers deciding to give Jackson to the Redskins for a third-round pick. It looks like Jackson is going to sit out a long, long time.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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