The Cleveland Browns have become part of the trendy three.
Along with the Buffalo Bills and Detroit Lions, the Browns have long represented the worst of the NFL, but this year is different. The three are off to a collective 8-1 start, with only the Browns having a loss.
As good as that is for the NFL, skeptics are everywhere. The thinking is that reality will eventually settle in and by the time the Lions host the Green Bay Packers on Thanksgiving Day, they and the other two will be hopelessly out of the playoff chase.
The Lions look like the most likely of the three to remain a playoff contender. They have a great young quarterback in Matthew Stafford and impressive talent at other areas, most notably receiver Calvin Johnson and defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh.
The Bills are the 2011 version of the Kardiac Kids with their dramatic, come-from-behind wins. Ryan Fitzpatrick has developed into a quality quarterback, and the offense has playmakers in running back Fred Jackson and receiver Steve Johnson.
The Bills might not surge ahead of the New England Patriots to win the AFC East Division, but they should follow the chase for a while.
Of the three the Browns appear to have the slimmest chance to be a playoff contender. Quarterback Colt McCoy is still dealing with on-the-job training, and there are enough issues at other areas to make Jim Mora say, "Playoffs are you talking playoffs!"
The Browns shouldn't be completely cast off as a pretender. There are legitimate reasons to think they could be in the mix well into the season.
For starters, the AFC North Division might not be as strong as it has been for a long time. The Baltimore Ravens appear to be the best of the four teams, but they showed some weaknesses in suffering a 26-13 loss to the Tennessee Titans.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are always in contention, but even the staunchest of their fans must admit that a blowout loss to the Ravens and an uninspiring performance against the Indianapolis Colts are reasons for concern. When was the last time anyone saw the Steelers get beaten up on both sides of the line of scrimmage, which happened last Sunday against the Colts?
The Cincinnati Bengals got a lucky win over the Browns to start the season but have since lost two straight. They might not be as bad as was predicted before the season started, but they aren't thinking Super Bowl.
Another reason is one that affects all four AFC North teams the weak schedule. Getting to play the NFC West Division is like a gift from Commissioner Roger Goodell. None of the four teams Seattle, Arizona, St. Louis and San Francisco are expected to make a dent in the playoffs. One team had to advance to the postseason last season, and that was Seattle with a 7-9 record.
For that matter, matchups with the four AFC South Division teams don't hurt the cause. The Colts aren't much without Peyton Manning. The Titans appear to be improved now that Vince Young is gone, but they'll need a "Music City Miracle" to be playing deep into January. The Jacksonville Jaguars may have the worst quarterback situation in the NFL, which is an immediate death sentence.
It's probably foolish to think of the Browns as a playoff-caliber team. The message throughout the organization seems to be let's see what we have this season, especially at quarterback, and make a major move in free agency and the draft next year. In addition to their first-round pick, the Browns also have the first pick of the suddenly-struggling Atlanta Falcons in 2012.
There's still the lack of a true number one receiver, and the offensive line remains an issue. The linebackers are decent but not great, and there's not much depth behind the starters. There has to be concern about an aging Sheldon Brown at cornerback.
Yes, talking playoffs for the Browns is foolish, but try telling that to win-starved fans that have seen two playoff teams since 1989.