All right, so what do we make of the Bills at this point of the season?
They're in a four-way tie for first place in the AFC after six weeks. But we found out last year how quickly a season can come unraveled. They're a .500 team, but they've been below average on both sides of the ball.
You can give Chan Gailey credit for keeping their spirits high after the New England and San Francisco debacles. But overall, the coaching has been weak. The defense has been brutal and Ryan Fitzpatrick hasn't improved. Really, you finally decide to throw down the middle of the field and you use Brad Smith to do it?
But there's one thing you can always count on: The mediocrity of the NFL — what some like to call parity — is your best friend. It's particularly true of the AFC, which is clearly the weaker of the two conferences this season.
Six weeks into the season, only two AFC teams are above .500. Two! The AFC is 9-19 in matchups against the NFC, which has won the last three Super Bowls and four of the last five. Not one of the AFC divisions has a winning aggregate record in inter-conference games against their National rivals.
It's hard to know just which teams stand above the rest nowadays. Underdogs won 10 of 14 games outright last week. Just when you're ready to anoint a team, it lays an egg. Heading into last week's games, a lot of people would have picked Houston and San Francisco as the Super Bowl favorites.
The Texans lost to Green Bay, 42-24. Gee, do you think Wade Phillips' defense misses linebacker Brian Cushing a little bit?. One week after a record offensive performance against the Bills, the Niners got smashed by the Giants, 26-3. Do you suppose the defending Super Bowl champs might still be the team to beat?
On Monday night, the Chargers were leading the Broncos at the half, 24-0, and ready to take a two-game lead in the AFC West. Then they did their best Bills imitation, giving up 35 unanswered points — at home — in the second half of a perplexing 35-24 defeat.
If Bills fans are looking for a ray of hope, try this: There's a good chance that 9-7 will be good enough to get into the playoffs this season. In fact, if the slugs from the AFC continue to lose two-thirds of their crossovers against the NFC, you can pretty much bank on it.
The AFC is a monument to mediocrity. The bottom six teams in league passer rating are all in the AFC. And that doesn't include the Bills, who are ranked 23rd. Nine of the bottom 11 rushing defenses are in the AFC. Ten of the bottom 12 in points allowed hail from — everyone together now — the AFC!
Really, how many AFC teams can you point to with assurance and say, “That's a 10-win team for sure.”? I say two: The Texans and Patriots. Try not to dwell on the fact that the Bills face them in consecutive road games after Sunday's home game against the lowly Titans.
Despite the loss of Cushing, Houston looks like the class of the conference. And the Pats are too good to lose seven games. Their three losses are by a combined four points. They have Aaron Hernandez back. The defense is better than last year, despite the often clueless play of the secondary.
The Ravens are 5-1, but they're in trouble. Ray Lewis, their emotional leader, is done for the year with a triceps injury. Star cornerback Lardarius Webb is gone with an ACL injury suffered Sunday. Terrell Suggs is still out with an Achilles injury. Haloti Ngata has a sprained knee.
Dallas gashed Baltimore for 227 yards rushing Sunday, the most the Ravens have allowed since moving from Cleveland in 1996. They struggled to beat the Chiefs, 9-6. They barely beat the Browns. Joe Flacco has leveled off. How good are they, really? I could see them falling to 8-8.
People act as if the Steelers are still some physically dominant team. They've lost to the Titans and Raiders. The defense has been average. They're dead last in the NFL in yards per rush at a paltry 3.0 a carry.
The Bengals made the playoffs a year ago and seemed like a team on the rise. The last two weeks, they've lost at home to Miami and given up 21 points in the fourth quarter of a 34-24 loss to the Browns. Andy Dalton has thrown nine interceptions, or one more than Fitzpatrick.
The third-best team in the AFC might be Denver, which has Peyton Manning back on top of his game. Manning has thrown for 300 yards in four straight games. Don't forget, the Colts won at least 10 games his last nine years before his injury. You'd be silly to bet against Manning's team reaching double-digit wins if he stays healthy.
Bills fans have plenty to fret about, from Marcell Dareus getting run over to Fitzpatrick not making throws down the field to the speed receivers not making an impact. I'm guessing Buddy Nix's renewed infatuation with Shawne Merriman hasn't sent fans dancing into the streets.
But the good news is the sorry state of the conference, which is filled with impostors. It shouldn't be that hard to finish sixth out of 16 in the AFC. Of course, that makes it even more astonishing that they could have gone 12 straight seasons without making the postseason.
Before the season, I figured 10-6 would be the borderline for the playoffs. Now it looks as if nine wins will be the cut line. Hey, if Bill Belichick keeps trying to out-think himself, maybe 8-8 will be good enough to win the division!
Some readers are understandably curious about my absence from the Bills beat the last two weeks. I'm currently staying in Rhode Island to be with my mother, who is suffering from cancer. I returned to writing part-time this week and I will come back in a full-time capacity when my circumstances permit.
I have been surprised and touched by the outpouring of love and support from friends and readers over the past two weeks. It's a comfort to be reminded that we all value family above all else in our lives.