Anyone who wrote off the Texans, Chiefs, Redskins and Bears when they slid to the bottom of the early NFL standings better have used pencil.
While those four teams don’t have championship-level talent, they’ve revived their fortunes and are making some noise.
Yes, all are 4-5 and have the kind of holes that make them virtual non-contenders for the Lombardi Trophy. But they’re revitalized and figure to be dangerous opponents down the stretch, with the Texans and Redskins still in the mix for titles in weak divisions.
“Our guys have to understand, ‘OK, how did we get to this point?'” Texans coach Bill O’Brien says. “Well, we’re doing these things this way, we’ve got to continue to do it that way. It’s all about hard work and putting the time in.”
Adds Chiefs coach Andy Reid: “I always felt like the sky’s the limit for this team, as long as we’re in the right mindset and ready to go.”
The mindset is pretty positive right now, even though Houston started 1-4, Kansas City 1-5, Chicago 0-3 and 2-5, and Washington 2-4. Then, the Texans snapped the Bengals’ unbeaten record this past Monday night in Cincinnati.
The Chiefs won handily at Denver, driving Peyton Manning to the bench. The Bears are 3-0 against the AFC West and bullied the Rams’ hard-charging defense last weekend. The Redskins have beaten Philadelphia, the supposed NFC East favorite, and hammered New Orleans last Sunday.
So what has changed and where are they headed?
HOUSTON — Almost quietly, O’Brien guided the Texans to a 9-7 record after their league-worst 2-14 of 2013. That success came with a revolving door of quarterbacks, and three have played this season; Brian Hoyer now is pretty entrenched as the starter.
With standout running back Arian Foster gone for the season, the ground game has ground to a halt. But DeAndre Hopkins has emerged as one of the NFL’s best receivers.
Far more significant has been the rebirth of the defense. J.J. Watt remains the best defensive lineman and probably the best defensive player on Earth. He’s getting plenty of help from Whitney Mercilus, Johnathan Joseph and Brian Cushing, who leads the team with 76 tackles.
“We’ve worked hard on tackling. We’ve worked hard on run defense,” O’Brien says. “I think you have to give the coaches a lot of credit. We’ve changed … the way we use some of our personnel. We’ve changed our scheme a little bit here and there. We’ve tried to adapt our scheme to some of the things our players do really well, and we have to continue to do that.”
Tied for the AFC South lead, the Texans finish with three intradivision games they probably need to sweep.
KANSAS CITY — After an opening victory, the Chiefs handed a game to the Broncos and went into a funk, losing four straight. They also lost their best offensive player, RB Jamaal Charles, for the season.
But there always has been faith in a defense led by Justin Houston, Tamba Hali and rookie cornerback Marcus Peters. Charcandrick West has been a suitable replacement for Charles. And tight end Travis Kelce has been terrific.
“Nobody wants to be pushed around or whatever, so you take a lot of pride in what you do,” Reid says.
The AFC wild-card race is muddled, and KC’s remaining schedule is weak. Plus division leader Denver is beaten up, with a hurting Manning benched this weekend.
CHICAGO — This turnaround might be the most stunning. The Bears looked inept in their first three outings, and their first three wins came by a total of seven points. Star running back Matt Forte has been sidelined, and top receiver Alshon Jeffery has played hurt.
And their quarterback is Jay Cutler.
In fairness, though, Cutler has ranged from steady to sensational in the past month, with his work in a comeback win at San Diego perhaps the best of his much-maligned career.
The defense has taken to the coaching of John Fox; Pernell McPhee and Lamarr Houston have benefited in particular.
A .500 record would be significant progress in Chicago. The Vikings and Packers are superior, and the other wild-card contenders are better than the Bears. Still, progress is being made.
WASHINGTON — A win Sunday against undefeated Carolina would be monumental. It would lift the Redskins into a tie for first in the NFC East, and they have four divisional games remaining.
To think Washington is even in that conversation is remarkable given how unimpressive this team has been in most areas. The run game should be far better than it has been, and the run defense is weak.
But quarterback Kirk Cousins can be a difference maker when he is on, and his receiving group is strong.
So is the coaching. Could owner Dan Snyder finally have hired someone, Jay Gruden, he will allow to be successful?
A victory Sunday would say a lot about Washington.
“We’re just trying to grow from a week-to-week basis and get better and better as the season progresses,” Gruden says. “We’ve got a different football team than we had last year — lot of different faces: rookies, veterans, different leadership.
“Overall, I like where we’re at, where we’re going.”
Republished with permission of the Associated Press.