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Early season AFC playoff picture: Which surprise teams are for real?

A wild Week 3 in the NFL closed Monday night as the Dallas Cowboys beat the Arizona Cardinals, 28-17. Although just three games have been played by the majority of teams, the AFC looks to be a very hotly contested conference and the division races will be quite entertaining. There a few surprise teams so far, but will they be able to keep up their winning ways for the rest of the season?

Promising start in Buffalo

tre'davious white

Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News

The Buffalo Bills are 2-1, tied with the Patriots for the lead in the AFC East. Buffalo felled their division foe, the New York Jets, in Week 1, but followed that with a 3-9 loss to the Panthers. On Sunday, however, the Bills pulled off an impressive upset over the Denver Broncos, surrendering no passing TDs in a 26-16 victory. Buffalo looks like a team primed to surpass expectations, as many thought they would begin tanking after they traded two of their better players, CB Ronald Darby and WR Sammy Watkins, away for draft picks.

But, as long as Tom Brady is playing, the Patriots will remain the class of the division. The Bills will travel to Atlanta to take on the undefeated Falcons, a difficult test for a team trying to prove itself.

Wild, wild AFC South

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Gary Landers/AP Photo

The AFC South has long been one of the NFL’s worst divisions, but that may change this year. Without star QB Andrew Luck, the Indianapolis Colts are considered one of the league’s worst teams. But, behind newly acquired QB Jacoby Brissett, they played the Cardinals close in Week 2 before losing in overtime, and they “upset” the Cleveland Browns on Sunday. They have done this without starting CB Vontae Davis as well. With tough games upcoming against Seattle, Tennessee, Jacksonville, and Pittsburgh, the Colts will struggle, at least until Luck returns from injury.

The injury bug has bitten the Houston Texans, along with a number of other misfortunes. Starting CB Kevin Johnson and WR Will Fuller are out for a while. At one point, all three TEs on the roster were injured. MLB Brian Cushing has been suspended 10 games for using PEDs. LT Duane Brown has been holding out since training camp, crippling an already weak offensive line.

After receiving nearly all first-team reps throughout the offseason and preseason, QB Tom Savage was benched midway through the team’s first game in favor of rookie Deshaun Watson. That first game was a 28-7 pounding by the Jacksonville Jaguars, and Watson struggled mightily against a very good defense. Houston was able to beat the hapless Cincinnati Bengals in Week 2 and nearly beat the defending champion Patriots last week.

Watson has impressed at times during these past two games but has also made plenty of rookie mistakes. Cincinnati’s defense has been very bad, and New England’s has underperformed thus far, so Watson’s performance has to be taken with a grain of salt for now.

Houston can be an average team depending on Watson’s play, but they are nowhere near the Super Bowl contender they could be with a decent offensive line and experienced QB.

Cardiac Cats

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Tim Ireland/AP Photo

The Jacksonville Jaguars are a curious team. Each game they’ve played so far has been a blowout; a 28-7 victory over Houston, a 37-16 beating by Tennessee, and a 44-7 obliteration of Baltimore and their vaunted defense. QB Blake Bortles had arguably his best game as a pro last week, but he must show more consistency before Jacksonville can be considered a legitimate contender.

The Jags’ defense has been very good so far, with CB Jalen Ramsey proving himself to be one of the NFL’s premier defensive backs. The rest of Jacksonville’s schedule is rather soft, so they should have a good chance at winning the division.

After falling 26-16 to a good Oakland team, the Tennessee Titans handled the Jags and then put up 33 points on Seattle in a victory. QB Marcus Mariota has been impressive, even without major contributions from 5th overall pick WR Corey Davis. The Titans have been running the ball nonstop with their two-headed monster of DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry behind their stout offensive line, which may be a top-3 group.

Their defense leaves much to be desired however, and if they end up missing the playoffs, it will be because of a lack of defensive playmakers. Like Jacksonville’s, Tennessee’s remaining schedule is rather easy. When the Jags visit Nashville for the final game of the season on New Year’s eve, the division title could be at stake.

The best division in football

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Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

The AFC West could be the best division in all of football. The 3-0 Chiefs have the look of a serious Super Bowl contender. Rookie HB Kareem Hunt has been a stunning revelation. He has been one of, if not the, best offensive player through three weeks. Justin Houston and Marcus Peters anchor a solid defense. Alex Smith continues to be an efficient and mistake-free QB. After a signature win over New England on opening night, the Chiefs haven’t slowed up and should be in contention for home-field advantage in the playoffs.

The Denver Broncos continue to play elite defense, but they are slowed down by their inconsistent offense. QB Trevor Siemian has been passable thus far, but it remains to be seen if he can take a team deep into the playoffs. After a close call with the Chargers in Week 1, the Broncos dismantled the Cowboys, 42-17, only to fall to the Bills 26-16 last week. If they can become more consistent offensively, they may be able to challenge Kansas City for the division title.

The Oakland Raiders are a team on the rise, but until their defense solidifies, they won’t be able to get out of a tough division. Aside from their defensive line, which includes Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin, Oakland’s linebackers and secondary are suspect.

And, when the offense turns the ball over, like they did Sunday night against Washington, they won’t often win. With their elite offensive line and Marshawn Lynch behind it, they should stick to running the ball. This week they clash with Denver for their first divisional game, which should be a fantastic contest.

Many teams in the AFC have impressed thus far, but considering we’re only approaching Week 4, we can’t know for sure which teams are contenders and which are pretenders. Once divisional play picks up, the playoff picture will become clearer, and football fans everywhere should be very excited.