For a decade, the AFC North was a chase for second place. Peyton Manning and Indianapolis had a stranglehold on the division, in spite of Houston's desperate, annual efforts to make a run. That, of course, changed last season when Manning was injured. The Texans made their first-ever postseason and beat Cincinnati before losing in the AFC Divisional round.
Now, with Manning gone to Denver, Indy is once again on the verge of becoming a dominant offense under Rookie of the Year candidate Andrew Luck. Houston -- despite not re-signing pass rusher extraordinaire and former No. 1 pick Mario Williams -- is surprisingly one of two undefeated teams remaining in the NFL. All-Pros Arian Foster and Andre Johnson continue to excel, while quarterback Matt Schaub is having a career year after having missed eight games in 2011.
Then there is second-year defensive end J.J. Watt, whose superb play as a rookie helped make Williams expendable. Watt leads one of the league's best defenses with a league-high 8.5 sacks, and he ranks first in tackles for loss and quarterback hurries.
Elsewhere in the AFC, the return of Pittsburgh running back Rashard Mendenhall off a surgically repaired knee proved eerily similar to the post-surgery resurgences of Adrian Peterson and Jamaal Charles. The fifth-year man instantly provided the running threat that Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers offense was lacking with fill-ins Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman, who combined for an average of fewer than 2.7 yards per carry. Helping his team win on the road against a stout Philly defense, Mendenhall totaled 81 yards and a touchdown on just 18 carries. No surprises here though, after what he told me recently. Assuming he does stay healthy, Pittsburgh instantly becomes a contender in the AFC once again.
When St. Louis drafted Cincinnati running back Isaiah Pead in the second round this past April, the hype eclipsed any talk of seventh rounder Daryl Richardson. However, over a quarter of the way into 2012, Richardson is not only getting the reps over Pead, but he is also in a virtual time-share with Rams stalwart Steven Jackson. The dynamic speedster from Abilene Christian is averaging 4.7 yards per carry while providing a quality receiving option for the surprising 3-2 Rams.
Robert Griffin III has been sensational for Washington thus far, but his Week 5 concussion against Atlanta only validates the growing concerns that his running game leaves him too vulnerable. Through Week 4, RG3 was the league's top rushing quarterback with a stellar 234 yards, drawing comparisons to last year's Rookie of the Year, Cam Newton. But Griffin isn't the 6-foot-5, 245-pound juggernaut that Newton is. He will likely have to walk a fine line: He is an incredibly talented scrambler in the open field, but the NFL does not reward running quarterbacks over the long term.
Speaking of elite signal callers, the Week 5 duel between Peyton Manning and Tom Brady lived up to the hype. Manning, who is now just 4-9 all-time versus the Pats, threw for 345 yards and three touchdowns, quelling concerns about his neck for the second straight week. In the past two weeks combined, he has thrown six touchdowns with no interceptions. Brady, meanwhile, was classic Brady, spreading the ball around for two passing TDs and even running one in himself. New England, after a shaky start to the season, is now 3-2 with perhaps its stiffest competition yet approaching in Week 6: a road game in Seattle.
Things have gotten really, really bad in Kansas City. When struggling quarterback Matt Cassel went down with an injury in the Chiefs' Week 5 loss to Baltimore, his own fans began to cheer. Arrowhead Stadium has long prided itself on being one of the league's best and most loyal fan bases, but Sunday was the ultimate low point, showing a complete lack of respect and class. Chiefs fans should remember that Cassel's backup is this guy.
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