And that includes the Indianapolis Colts, one of only nine teams since the 1970 merger to win their first 10 games. By that reckoning, the Colts belong to the upper 1 percent of all NFL teams to pass before our eyes in the past four decades. But they're vulnerable to a team that combines a strong running game with a crafty defense at the top of its powers.
Whether any such contender presents itself remains to be seen, but the candidates are numerous.
The much-improved NFC is wide open between seven teams, but Philadelphia is out of the game after lopping off Terrell Owens and limping through Donovan McNabb's hernia before his surgery. None of the remaining contenders is ahead of the rest.
The AFC cast is better known and almost as even. The Colts already have beaten the New England bugaboo this year, and the Pittsburgh Steelers are next on their docket. While the Patriots struggle with injuries and new coordinators for the offense and defense, they'll win the AFC East again and won't be out until someone beats them. The Steelers aren't perfect, but they can beat anyone with their defense and running attack.
The Denver Broncos are 8-2 with a strong run defense, and no team runs the ball better. They've got the fundamentals. Two 6-4 teams chasing them in the AFC West, the San Diego Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs, very much fit the same mold.
In particular, where the Bengals are concerned, the Chargers remain the most dangerous and most unfortunate team in the conference. The only NFL team to return all their offensive and defensive starters after last year's 12-4 season, the Chargers have crossed the country three times already, they've constantly played opponents coming off bye weeks and lost four times by a total of 12 points. Watch out.
The Bengals are strongly in the mix, despite showing again in their 45-37 home field loss to the Colts Sunday that they're not ready to beat the top teams. If that doesn't bode well for a deep playoff run, why complain about that now? Complain about it next year, by which time the Bengals should have fixed their deficiencies on the defensive front. For now, at least we're talking about the playoffs.
As the recipients of a huge favor from the Baltimore Ravens, who felled the Steelers Sunday afternoon, the Bengals remain tied with the Steelers on top of the AFC North, each with 7-3 records. The Bengals' offensive output against the Colts certainly convinced the football pundits they were looking at something special. Scoring four touchdowns and three field goals, the Bengals should have been able to beat anyone.
Of all this game had to tell us, certain aspects of the Bengals' defensive performance came down as the best news. Of course, Peyton Manning picked them apart for five touchdowns in his first five possessions, and not even the tawdriest Bengals teams of recent memory allowed 35 points in a first half. The Bengals lost this game because the Colts knew they were in for a shoot-out, they've got more guns than anyone else in the league and they came out firing.
But the Colts also gave the ball 24 times to the NFL's second-leading rusher, Edgerrin James, and he didn't kill them. And, really, it's been many years since such a good running back has produced so little in so many opportunities against the Bengals. The Bengals loaded up against the run and forced Manning to beat their big-play secondary.
James mattered only during one stretch, carrying nine times for 45 yards during a third-quarter touchdown drive right after the Bengals struck to within 35-34. Otherwise, they held James to 44 yards on 16 carries.
But as the Bengals go forward, it would be fun to see the offense progress beyond scoring and really develop the emphasis on controlling the football game, hogging the ball, eating the clock, keeping the defense fresh. Now that the Bengals are playing for stakes after 14 years on the sidelines, they would optimize their chances by playing to their strengths and away from their weaknesses.
The Bengals face equally tough fights for the AFC North title, on the high end, and a wild-card berth if the division doesn't go their way. Though they're positioned favorably, they have a couple worries. Nothing they can't handle, but they do need to be handled.
The division race will take shape in the next three weeks, as the Steelers walk into a buzz saw. Losing to the Ravens with consecutive games coming up against the Colts, Bengals and Chicago Bears couldn't have been the Steelers' best idea.
The Bengals begin closing it out with Baltimore Sunday, followed by the Steelers, Browns, Lions, Buffalo Bills and Chiefs. Under certain plausible conditions, the Kansas City game could come down as a head-to-head for the final AFC playoff berth. But the Bengals can prevent that by winning four of the next five. And if they actually solve the Steelers' mystique in the meantime, they become a serious factor.
If not, say the Bengals lose a couple and Pittsburgh wins the division, the wildcard race turns scary. Jacksonville, which won't catch the Colts in the AFC South, can almost count on the first wildcard spot, because something's gone terribly wrong if the Jaguars don't win five of their last six to finish 12-4. They've even got a nice shot at 13-3 if they can beat the Colts at home in three weeks.
The other five remaining Jacksonville opponents -- Arizona, Cleveland, San Francisco, Houston and Tennessee -- are a combined 12-38. Even if the Jags screw that up to wind up tied with the Bengals, Jax owns the tiebreaker with a 23-20 win against the local 11 on Oct. 9.
So if the Bengals can't top Pittsburgh in the division, they're playing for the second wildcard spot. That's where the Chiefs and Chargers enter the picture. If the Bengals let them.