It’s the ‘Who’s actually good?’ time of the NFL schedule


Bill Belichick has noted over the years that there is a reason it’s referred to as “midseason form.”

Most teams, certainly teams that have championship futures, don’t just roll out of training camp and play their best football.

Rather, it takes time on the practice field and in game competition for perceived strengths to be honed and apparent weaknesses to be addressed.

Teams go through transitions over the course of the long NFL season. (Not sure if you’ve heard, but cliché has it that a football season is a marathon and not a sprint. Although we now live in a world where marathons can be run in less than two hours!)

Heck, a year ago the Patriots themselves went through a few different phases on the march to a sixth Lombardi Trophy. There was the pre-Josh Gordon terrible 1-2 start that included back-to-back road losses that had plenty once again questioning New England’s long term viability.

Then, there were the December road struggles, including back-to-back losses in Miami and Pittsburgh, that had most of the world predicting a Super Bowl-less winter in Foxborough.

Somehow, though, over the course of the season and then a postseason run, Belichick’s squad came together to put it all together for another title. It was like solving a puzzle, the longer you work at it and as the pieces grow fewer the progress picks up.

“I would say last year we won the Super Bowl, I would say not with the most talent but because we were a team,” retired tight end Rob Gronkowski observed in a visit with WEEI’s The Greg Hill Show on Tuesday. “We gelled together. We figured out what plays worked for us. What plays could get us yards. What the defense, how to stop the other offense. And we all gelled together. It’s not like we were trying to make Hail Marys and make homeruns. We were just trying to move the ball inch by inch and wear out the other team. It’s because that’s what we needed to do. We found a way to win, we found techniques to win games.”

As the middle of the season arrives, that’s the ongoing process that 32 teams are now in. It’s about trying to figure out what they do well, what they don’t and how to adjust as the schedule chugs along.

And outside observers are left to assess and analyze each week which teams might actually have championship mettle and which are purely pretenders.

Locally, it’s pretty clear New England is among the NFL’s true contenders thanks to a defense that’s been dominant and a Tom Brady-led offense that’s been just good enough. Belichick’s squad has piled up six wins to lay the foundation for a late-season run to a No. 1 playoff seed, homefield advantage and, possibly, what would be a truly historic seventh Super Bowl title.

But finding many other teams that look like true title hopefuls right now is more challenging.

Who’s actually good?

In the AFC, the Patriots are the only team that’s won more than two games in a row.

Are the Chiefs the team that Patrick Mahomes led to a 4-0 start despite losing Tyreek Hill to injury or are they the squad that’s lost two straight games in the supposedly tough environment of Arrowhead Stadium, a team that can’t stop the run or protect its passer? Suddenly an AFC Championship Game rematch doesn’t look like a forgone conclusion.

Kansas City’s latest loss came at the hands of the next-big-thing Deshaun Watson and a potentially well-rounded Texans team that’s taking care of its recent business. But Bill O’Brien’s annual inability to get Houston over the hump is what it is.

Baltimore was as hot as any team to open the year behind Lamar Jackson’s Year Two Jump, but their four wins have come against the Dolphins, Cardinals, Steelers and Bengals. Talk about not playing anybody.

How about those 4-1 Bills, a team that took Brady to the wire in Buffalo? Is frenetic Josh Allen really ready to lead a team to the postseason, regardless of the early-season record built up playing a bunch of sub-.500 squads?

You name an AFC squad and the uncertainties surrounding that team essentially write themselves.

The NFC certainly seems to have more top-tier contenders, paced by a Jimmy Garoppolo-led 49ers team that like New England has utilized a dominant defense to build up a 5-0 start. While their Super Bowl worthiness may be in doubt well into January, San Francisco’s three games over the next month against the Cardinals (2) and Redskins give Kyle Shanahan’s team opportunity to continue to bank more victories.

The Packers (thank those refs!), Cowboys (Turmoil in Dallas? Never!), Vikings (run or pass?), Saints (a mere plus-6 point differential on the way to a 5-1 record without Drew Brees), Seahawks (Wilson is truly Dangeruss right now) all could very well be in line to ride the dream all the way to Miami next February.

Of course all are a losing streak away from being exposed and dispatched.

Whatever cliché you prefer, that time is coming. The rubber is starting to meet the road. The nuts need cutting. Mettle must to be proven. The bills (little b and big B) are coming due.

While it seems there are more questions than answers right now about most NFL squads – even the Patriots must prove they have enough offensive weapons and can continue to roll against increased competition in the coming weeks – now is the time when true cream should begin to rise to the top.

After more than a month of ups-and-downs in virtually every NFL city for a variety of reasons, some clarity could be on the horizon.

Teams should finally actually be rounding into midseason form.

Of course, as New England proved a year ago, midseason form and postseason form can be two very different yet still-successful things.