ARENA: Four set apart from NFL pack

Published 11:45 pm Friday, August 29, 2014

Seattle, New Orleans, New England and Denver.

These are your contenders.

Say what you will about the parity in the NFL. Those four teams, right now, are far ahead of the game.

The Seahawks, our defending Super Bowl champions, certainly haven’t looked like a sluggish team resting on its laurels this preseason. Nay, instead they look hungrier than ever. They’re still bigger, faster and stronger than other teams in the league. The first team Seattle offense — remember, the supposed weak sister of the defense a year ago — had a streak of nine straight scoring possessions over Weeks 2 and 3 of the preseason. And for all the ballyhoo about the officials recommitment to calling defensive holding and how it would derail Seattle’s game, there is only one team this preseason that has yet to be flagged for that misstep. You guessed it … it’s like the Seahawks are toying with us.

The Saints, meanwhile, were 2-0 without the services of Drew Brees and Jairus Byrd, then got the two of them back and promptly controlled the Colts on their home field. We know what Brees is; Byrd, meanwhile, signed here this offseason after building a reputation as one of the two or three best safeties in football. New teammate Kenny Vaccaro looks like he wants to challenge Byrd in-house for that perch this preseason. New Orleans has a formidable pass rush and offensively, the Saints, for the first time in a couple of seasons, have speed to burn at receiver. The team is also running the ball as effectively as it ever has, a trend dating back to late last season.

New England is the quiet storm of this group, remarkable since it’s, well, New England. Tom Brady had an off-year, the Pats had a slew of injuries to its most important non-Brady players … and the team still went to the AFC Championship Game and hung with a much-better Denver team. Bill Belichick still has it. So does Brady. The Patriots didn’t mess around at all, likely recognizing that, aside from Denver, the AFC is as ripe for the picking as ever. Pairing Darrelle Revis with Brady and Belichick hardly seems fair, and New England also added Brandon Browner. Offensively, Rob Gronkowski is back … but so is Shane Vereen, so is Danny Amendola, and both of the team’s young receivers, Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson, are a year more mature. Julian Edelman returns.

And then there’s Denver. The Broncos may take a small step back offensively, but made defensive upgrades to counteract the likely regression from a record-setting season. Von Miller returns from injury and now has a familiar name to NFL fans across from him: DeMarcus Ware. Aqib Talib gives Denver a legitimate top corner. Barring an injury to Manning or Brady, Denver and New England should again face off in the AFC title game.