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Not halfway into season and teams separating themselves

The waters have parted.

It's only Week 8 of the schedule, and already some teams have separated themselves from the pack. That's in the lead pack, and among the bottom-feeders.

Barring a wave of injuries, folks in New England, Wisconsin and Colorado, Cincinnati and Charlotte can begin budgeting for playoff tickets. And barring a total turnaround in performance, fans in Tennessee, Houston, Detroit and, egads, Baltimore can start thinking about the No. 1 overall draft selection.

It's difficult, even before we reach the halfway juncture, to project any outsiders forcing their way past the Patriots or Bengals in the AFC, or the Packers in the NFC.

Yes, the Seahawks could find that magic formula again, as they did in 2014 after a 3-3 start, and the Panthers have shown the kind of resilience and strong coaching required to be a contender. Arizona and Atlanta can be scary opponents, and somebody has to win the NFC East.

But the road to the NFC title as the temperatures plummet and the white stuff starts to fall will appropriately run through the Green Bay tundra.

The Packers are getting healthy coming off their bye as they head to Denver for a rare matchup of 6-0 teams, just the fourth time it's happened in NFL annals.

They've found ways to somewhat replace star receiver Jordy Nelson, and Aaron Rodgers' rapport with some of his younger targets will only grow through November and December. The running game is formidable with Eddie Lacy and James Starks operating behind an improving line.

And the defense has more than held its own, which might be all the Packers need.

"You definitely have to be very optimistic, knowing that we feel we haven't played up to our full potential as a team yet, but we're sitting here at 6-0," guard T.J. Lang says. "Obviously a lot of momentum on our side, a lot of confidence, and getting a couple key guys back for us this week is going to be huge."

The gap between the Packers and the rest of the NFC might not appear so huge in the standings, with Carolina at 6-0, Atlanta 6-1 and Arizona 5-2. The next two weeks might show it is should the Pack get through the Broncos and Panthers on the road before a four-game stretch within the division.

The AFC is even more clear-cut, even with three undefeated teams. As the Jets displayed last Sunday, just one mistake - Brandon Marshall's drop in the end zone that would have given New York an eight-point lead in the final quarter - is all the Patriots need. It was the first time the Patriots truly were tested, they didn't play particularly well, and they still won.

While this is not a Patriots club reminiscent of the 2007 version that went 18-0 before failing in the Super Bowl, it resembles last season's champions well enough to be considered a strong favorite over the Bengals and Broncos. Particularly if New England gets AFC home-field advantage.

Denver, with a terrific defense that has bailed out a struggling Peyton Manning and the offense, has become too one-dimensional. But there are expectations the 39-year-old Manning will return to form one more time, and the Broncos have a relative walkthrough in the AFC West.

Cincinnati has matched its best start, but might not have things so easy in the AFC North now that Ben Roethlisberger is returning to the Steelers. Of course, a win over Pittsburgh on Sunday would mean a 3 1/2-game lead in the division, and the Bengals already have established solid credentials in all areas. Enough so - particularly if Andy Dalton truly is the quarterback we're seeing now, not the postseason flop of the past four years - to book their place in the playoffs.

The playoffs are beyond reach for more teams than usual before the calendar turns to November. Most shocking is how Baltimore and Detroit have separated themselves in the wrong direction.

John Harbaugh's Ravens have been known for their ability in the clutch, their versatility and resourcefulness. They certainly have been resourceful this season in finding ways to lose, and the season-ending injury to pass rusher Terrell Suggs has taken down the entire defense.

Detroit is such a mess that it's firing coordinators and assistant coaches a week before its bye. There's nothing but negative karma around the Lions.

The Ravens probably aren't lost enough to wind up at the top of the draft, which would be a totally new spot for them. The Lions, Titans, 49ers and Texans have been very persuasive in their presentations for worst team in the NFL.

What's sad is how only Tennessee among those clubs had a losing record last season.

Talk about separation in the wrong direction.

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