1.) Texans: They have been on the verge the past few years, but were unable to get past the Colts. With Peyton Manning out and the Colts struggling, Houston’s time has arrived in the AFC South. New defensive coordinator Wade Phillips made the biggest difference so far. The Texans have back-to-back road games in Baltimore and Tennessee the next two weeks.
2.) Titans: Another AFC South team could get in on the fun as a wild-card or even division winner if the Texans stumble. Again, it’s defense that has launched Tennessee into the picture. And the arrival of veteran quarterback Matt Hasselbeck filled a gaping hole in the offseason. The Titans finish the season at Houston on Jan. 1 in a game with potential division title ramifications.
3.) Lions: Coach Jim Schwartz and GM Martin Mayhew have elevated Detroit to contender in just three years. The Lions are efficient on defense and explosive in the pass game. They became the first team in NFL history this season to win consecutive games after trailing by at least 20 points. The Lions should be in the NFC North race most of the year; they play the Packers twice in the final six weeks, including a Thanksgiving Day game that is titillating for once.
4.) Raiders: New coach Hue Jackson is trying to turn back the clock to Oakland’s long gone era of intimidation. It was good enough to wax the Jets, but the jury is still out. The AFC West is so pathetic that the Raiders only need to split with San Diego to have a shot at the division title. The Raiders have only two difficult road assignments left – at San Diego in Week 10 and Green Bay in Week 14.
5.) 49ers: Under new coach Jim Harbaugh, the 49ers have already taken control of the sad-sack NFC West and their offense hasn’t hit its stride yet. Their biggest speed bumps will come on cross-country trips to Washington (Week 9) and Baltimore (Week 12). The Niners play three of their last four games on the road – but all against division foes.
6.) Bills: Detroit’s success notwithstanding, the Bills’ early performance might be the biggest turnaround of the season. Like the Titans, they’re attempting a worst-to-first climb. Beating New England in Week 3 was a statement game. The Bills have one rough stretch where they play four road games in five weeks, visiting Dallas, Miami, the Jets and San Diego. That could determine their fate.