After four weeks of play, there are currently 23 teams either in first place or within a game of the top spot in the division. That marks the most such teams in the first four weeks of a season in NFL history.
"We're 3-1 through the first quarter of the season and we've played some tough games," says head coach MIKE SMITH of the Atlanta Falcons, who are tied for first place in the NFC South. "I like where we're at and I like the way our guys have never quit. It's a good start but there are a lot of things we've got to get corrected."
All 32 teams know there's room for improvement. And, while not every club has gotten off to a hot start, nothing is a given in the NFL. Since 1990, when the current 12-team playoff format was adopted, 87 teams (36.3 percent of the 240 playoff clubs) have advanced to the postseason after starting the season 2-2 or worse. There were four such teams – Arizona, Dallas, Green Bay and San Diego – last season, including three division winners (Arizona, Dallas and San Diego).
"It's good to have back-to-back wins and get to 2-2," says St. Louis Rams head coach STEVE SPAGNUOLO, whose team is now tied for first place in the NFC West after an 0-2 start. "The first quarter of the season is over and we're ready to move on. There's a lot of football left. The goal is to win the division. We've got a long way to go before we do that, so we've got to take it one week at a time."
In five of the past nine seasons, a team that has started 2-2 or worse has advanced to the Super Bowl. And three of those clubs – 2001 New England (1-3), 2003 New England (2-2) and the 2007 New York Giants (2-2) – went on to win the Super Bowl.
So, entering Week 5, while it certainly helps to be near the top of the standings, don't count anyone out.
Some of the key games this weekend:
KANSAS CITY (3-0) at INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (2-2) (Sunday, CBS, 1:00 PM ET)
The NFL's last remaining unbeaten team – the 3-0 Kansas City Chiefs – will travel to Lucas Oil Stadium this Sunday to face the defending AFC champion Indianapolis Colts. Indianapolis was last year's final unbeaten club, starting the year with 14 consecutive victories.
"We're three games into the first quarter of our season and we've got to do everything we can do to be a little better each day," says Chiefs head coach TODD HALEY. "We're trying to show improvement every day and I'm trying to get all these guys to understand that's important."
The Colts are led by quarterback PEYTON MANNING, who tops the league with 11 touchdown passes and a 112.2 passer rating. Last week, Manning threw for 352 yards and passed Pro Football Hall of Famer JOHN ELWAY (51,475) to move into third place all-time with 51,493 career passing yards.
"Peyton keeps a lot of defensive players up at night," says Kansas City linebacker DERRICK JOHNSON. "He's the best quarterback in the league. He's got a tremendous arm and he's a smart guy. He doesn't make many mistakes. So when he does make a mistake, we have to capitalize on it."
Since the AFL-NFL merger, the earliest point in a season in which there were no undefeated teams was after Week 4 in 1970.
Indianapolis will look to bounce back after dropping a 31-28 decision at Jacksonville last week when the Jaguars' JOSH SCOBEE kicked a 59-yard game-winning field goal, the third-longest game-winning field goal as time expired in NFL history.
"We're a .500 team, but I don't believe that's who we are," says Colts head coach JIM CALDWELL. "We just have to continue to get better and become the team we know we can be. We have to be one of those teams that continually improves as the year continues. We have the opportunity to do so. We just have to come out and go right back to work and put it all together."
GREEN BAY PACKERS (3-1) at WASHINGTON REDSKINS (2-2) (Sunday, FOX, 1:00 PM ET)
Two teams tied for first place will meet when the Green Bay Packers visit the Washington Redskins.
The Packers enter with a 3-1 record, tied with the Chicago Bears atop the NFC North. The Redskins are 2-2 and tied with the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles for first place in the NFC East.
"That's 25 percent of the season down and we're in the driver's seat," says Washington linebacker BRIAN ORAKPO.
Green Bay defeated the Detroit Lions in Week 4 by a score of 28-26. Packers quarterback AARON RODGERS led the charge on offense by throwing three touchdown passes while cornerback CHARLES WOODSON returned an interception 48 yards for a score, becoming the third player in NFL history with at least 10 interception-return touchdowns. He also is the only player in league annals to record an interception-return touchdown in five consecutive seasons.
"These are the types of wins that we need," says Woodson. "It's going to be a long season, and they're not all going to be blowouts. You've got to win some close games, and this was a close one. We won."
The Redskins are coming off a hard-fought division road win, beating the Eagles 17-12 at Lincoln Financial Field. In his return to Philadelphia, Washington quarterback DONOVAN MC NABB led his new team to victory.
"This defines team," McNabb said to his teammates in the locker room postgame. "Despite whatever happened the last couple of weeks, this right here shows how tough we are. This is something we can feed off of into the rest of the season. We are number one in the NFC East, and we're going to stay there."
MINNESOTA VIKINGS (1-2) at NEW YORK JETS (3-1) (Monday, ESPN, 8:30 PM ET)
On Monday night, Minnesota Vikings quarterback BRETT FAVRE will return to New York to face the red-hot Jets.
Favre played one season with the Jets, passing for 3,472 yards and 22 touchdowns in 2008. He needs one touchdown pass and 74 yards to become the first player in league history with 500 passing TDs and 70,000 passing yards.
"You look at his body of work, it's impressive," says Jets head coach REX RYAN of Favre. "He led the team to nine wins and one game out of the playoffs (in 2008). We were happy to draft MARK (SANCHEZ), but if we never got Mark, I definitely would've tried to recruit Brett Favre. It worked out for Brett and the Jets. We got a guy that's going to be the quarterback here for the next 10 years and Brett's a great player."
Sanchez, who guided the Jets to the AFC Championship Game last year as a rookie, ranks fourth in the NFL with a 105.3 passer rating, throwing eight touchdowns and zero interceptions. Last week, he threw two touchdown passes as the Jets rolled to a 38-14 victory at Buffalo.
New York also utilized a rushing attack that gained 273 yards on the ground in Week 4 as running backs LA DAINIAN TOMLINSON (133 yards, two touchdowns) and SHONN GREENE (117) both went over the century mark.
"It was really a great, great game for our team," Ryan says about the victory in Buffalo. "We challenged all three phases to try to win their particular group and to keep our focus."
The Vikings are coming off a bye week and will look to build on their victory in Week 3. Running back ADRIAN PETERSON ranks second in the league averaging 130.7 yards per game (392 yards, three games). The fourth-year pro from Oklahoma has rushed for 4,876 yards in 49 career games and needs 124 rushing yards to become the fifth player in NFL history to reach 5,000 rushing yards in his first 50 games.
"It's important the team has a fresh attitude and fresh outlook coming out of the bye," says Minnesota head coach BRAD CHILDRESS. "I'm just looking for the guys to come back with the right mindset and be ready to work and improve."