- Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for ESPN.com.
Seven NFL teams have started the season 3-0, and if you’re a fan of one of them, good news! Your favorite team is probably going to the playoffs. Of course, every team expects to make the playoffs before the season, but banking three wins is a great way to start realizing those dreams.
At the same time, it’s hardly a guarantee that your favorite team will make the playoffs after starting 3-0. Since the league went to its current structure in 2002, 25 teams that started 3-0 failed to build on their hot starts to make it to the playoffs, with the 2018 Miami Dolphins the most recent example. Those failures came under a 12-team playoff system, but even if we expand things to which teams would have made it under the new 14-team system, 19 teams that started the season 3-0 finished things by watching the postseason on television.
Let’s run through the league’s 3-0 teams and discuss what has contributed to their hot starts. Given that just about every 3-0 team won’t finish the regular season 16-0, I’ll discuss what might not be sustainable and what could trip each team up in the weeks to come. I’m going to start with the 3-0 team that I think is most likely to miss the playoffs, a team not many people expected to be undefeated after three games, and work toward the team that is least likely. The playoff projections included for each team are from the ESPN Football Power Index (FPI).
Preseason playoff chances: 35.2%
Current playoff chances: 47.6%
Let’s start by being honest: It’s a miracle that the Bears are 3-0. By ESPN’s win expectancy model, Chicago is the league’s 25th-best team through the first three quarters of games this season, ranking just behind Philadelphia, Carolina and Washington. In the fourth quarter, the Bears unsurprisingly have been the league’s best team; their win probability added is 2.09, a full win ahead of that of every other team. The second-place Steelers are closer to 13th than they are to first.
I suspect that most of us can agree that the Bears are not rope-a-doping opposing teams and laying down for three quarters in hopes of toppling the Lions and Falcons in the fourth quarter. A closer look at what has happened on the field backs that up. In addition to all the passing touchdowns you’ve seen, the win over the Lions in Week 1 required the Bears to recover a comical Mitchell Trubisky fumble, Matt Prater to miss a field goal, Matthew Stafford to throw an interception at exactly the right time and an open D’Andre Swift to drop a game-winning touchdown with 11 seconds to go.
The win over the Falcons in Week 3 might have been more unlikely. Again, it required a missed field goal from the opposing kicker, this time an injured Younghoe Koo. Matt Ryan overthrew an open Olamide Zaccheaus twice, one of which would have resulted in a long touchdown. New quarterback Nick Foles, replacing Trubisky during the game, threw one touchdown pass on which two tacklers were within arm’s length of a jumping Allen Robinson as he made a catch and didn’t come close to bringing down the star wideout.
The peak was when Foles made a desperate throw on third down that somehow went through three would-be intercepting Falcons defenders and found Jimmy Graham. Graham fumbled, and when Anthony Miller recovered the ball, he fumbled, only to fall back on the football. Both Foles and Trubisky made some impressive plays during their fourth-quarter comebacks, but these wins required a breathtaking amount of luck and fortuitous timing. The Bears are the first team to implement the Martingale system for football with any success.
All of that is true, but it doesn’t really matter for this team. Nobody would argue that the Bears are on a level with the league’s top 3-0 teams, but at the end of the day, those wins are banked. Nine wins probably gets a team into a 14-team playoff, and even if the Bears revert toward preseason expectations and play something close to .500 football the rest of the way, a 6-7 finish probably gets them in as a wild-card team.
As an example, you might have noted that the Bears won each of their first three games by exactly four points. We don’t have win expectancy data going back through the 1960s, but there are nine instances since the merger in 1970 of teams that won their first three games of the season by four points or fewer. One of them is the Bears, and another is the next team on this list. Another is the 1976 Raiders, who were coming off a conference championship appearance and an 11-3 season. They went 13-1. The other six teams — a group that includes the 1991 Bears — followed their unlikely starts by going a combined 41-37 the rest of the way.
Despite the Bears’ record, I don’t see a significant reason to change what was our expectation of them heading into the season. They’re 17th in DVOA, a mark driven by their sixth-place rank on defense. The interceptions they caught in droves in 2018 and stopped picking up in 2019 have bounced back; after picking off only 10 passes in 2019, they have three in three games.
Rookie corner Jaylon Johnson, who I was worried might be the Achilles’ heel for this team, has looked like he belongs. Per Pro Football Reference, Johnson has allowed a passer rating of 67.4 in coverage so far this season. Kyle Fuller, who took a step backward last season after being an All-Pro in 2018, has allowed a passer rating of 33.6 on the other side of the field. Akiem Hicks’ absence hurt the defense in 2019, and he has terrorized opposing offenses for 3.5 sacks and seven knockdowns through three games.
The offense ranks 26th in DVOA, which helped lead Chicago to make its quarterback switch. I would love to believe that there was something coach Matt Nagy saw in Foles in Week 3 that led him to make the switch when he did, but the Bears just seemingly got sick of watching Trubisky and wanted to try something different. Trubisky’s three-game stint as the starter showed few signs of growth. The Lions dropped two interceptions in the opener, and then the 2017 No. 2 overall pick threw three actual interceptions in his two subsequent starts.
I have to be at least a little sympathetic for Trubisky on the pick that got him benched, given that it came on a mesh concept on which Graham appeared to be going for a leisurely stroll across the middle of the field and forgot that he was an eligible receiver. Trubisky’s passing numbers were middling, especially given that he played against three of the league’s worst pass defenses, but he did add 87 yards on eight rush attempts, an element Foles is unlikely to match.
Regardless of who plays quarterback for the Bears, they shouldn’t rank sixth in the league in passing attempts. The fourth-quarter deficits have forced them to throw, but ideally, this is a team that is going to win games with its defense. The formula for the Bears should look something like that of the 2017 Jaguars or 2019 Bills, who mostly asked the quarterback to stay out of the way and avoid trouble. I’m not sure how sustainable that formula can be deep into the postseason, but it seems like a better option than the football equivalent of starting your term paper in the middle of the night.
Preseason playoff chances: 56%
Current playoff chances: 71.8%
The Titans have been in even tighter games than the Bears, having won their first three games by no more than three points. Stephen Gostkowski hit game-winning field goals inside the final two minutes of each of the Titans’ first three games, though he took different routes to get there; after missing four kicks in the first 58 minutes of Week 1 against the Broncos, the longtime Patriots kicker hit five field goals early against the Vikings before adding a sixth with 1:48 to go for the Week 3 win.
Generally, the offensive formula the Titans have used since Ryan Tannehill took over for Marcus Mariota has continued to work. There’s a heavy dose of Derrick Henry, and though his yards per carry has dropped from 5.1 in 2019 to 3.9 in 2020, it’s because he hasn’t had any big plays. His longest play of the season went for 16 yards. Exactly half of his runs have been successes by Football Outsiders’s measure, right in line with his 51% rate from a year ago. Big plays are stubbornly inconsistent in the running game, and my guess is that Henry will have more of them as the season goes along.
Tannehill continues to thrive off play-action. The disparity isn’t quite as significant as it was a year ago, but he is averaging 11.2 yards per attempt off play-action and 5.7 yards without a play-fake attached. He has the second-highest rate of play-action passing yards this season (52.5%). ESPN sports analytics writer Seth Walder has crowned Tannehill the CPOE King for his ability to complete passes at a higher rate than expectation, and after a disappointing Week 1, Tannehill has succeeded, despite being without stud wideout A.J. Brown. He is completing 67.3% of his passes, 3.9% above the expectation of NFL Next Gen Stats.
Finishing drives, as you might guess from all those Gostkowski attempts, has not gone quite as well. It was going to be virtually impossible for the Titans to keep up their red zone success from a year ago. In 13 Tannehill starts, they converted an unreal 86.8% of their red zone trips into touchdowns, more than 14 percentage points ahead of any other team and nearly 30 points ahead of the league average of 58%. The scary thing is that the Titans haven’t dropped off all that much, as they are tied for seventh with a 72.7% conversion rate.
Where the offense has stalled is in the 20-yard window before the red zone. From the 21 to the 40, the Titans don’t have the room for the sort of shot plays on which Tannehill has made his money. As a result, they’ve been stymied on the edge of the red zone. It’s a small sample, but they are 3-of-12 on third downs and 31st in offensive EPA in that zone. Only the Cowboys — who are 0-of-7 on third downs in this zone and 17-for-33 everywhere else — have been worse on third down in that 20-yard split. Tennessee was also one of the worst teams in that area after Tannehill took over last season, so it seems like the one hole in the Titans’ offense at the moment.
Last year, the Titans cycled through four kickers who went a combined 8-of-18 on field goal tries to produce the worst accuracy rate since 1983. Gostkowski appeared to be on track to join them, and if they hadn’t guaranteed him more than $2 million to be their kicker before Week 1, they very well might have cut the 36-year-old after his first and only game. But he has gone 8-for-8 the past two weeks. If he can turn those failed attempts to get into the red zone into three points as opposed to zero, the Titans can be even more impressive on offense than they were a year ago.
It would help if the defense could hold up its end of the bargain. The Titans have gotten by through forcing six takeaways, but they’re allowing opposing teams to produce 5.8 yards per carry, the worst mark in all of football. Injuries have hit them at cornerback, but that shouldn’t impact the rush defense. Vic Beasley Jr., one of the team’s two key additions on the edge alongside Jadeveon Clowney, has played just 15 snaps after missing the first two games because of a knee injury.
The news that the Titans have become the first team in the league to deal with a coronavirus outbreak places a damper on their 3-0 start. Their game against the Steelers has been pushed back, possibly to Monday or Tuesday, and the team will be unable to practice until the facility reopens. It’s impossible to say what will happen or how the Titans will be impacted in the short- and long-term, given the unprecedented nature of this disease, but it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which this makes them better. At the moment, all we can do is wait and hope that the outbreak doesn’t spread.
Preseason playoff chances: 59.1%
Current playoff chances: 79.8%
Tennessee’s Week 4 opponents are also waiting for an update on when their game will be played. Mike Tomlin’s team has dispatched overmatched competition the first three weeks of the season, with the Giants, Broncos and Texans starting the season a combined 0-9. At the same time, though, the Steelers needed a red zone stop of Jeff Driskel in the fourth quarter to put away the Broncos in Week 2 and trailed in the fourth quarter against Houston in Week 3 before a James Conner touchdown run put them ahead with 6:30 to go. This offense is still a work in progress.
Through three games, the Steelers have had the league’s most inconsistent offense. They’ve gone three-and-out on an even 40% of their possessions, the NFL’s third-worst mark. Just 40.7% of their plays keep the offense on schedule to move the chains, which ranks 28th. Despite that, the Steelers rank 14th in offensive DVOA and 18th in points per possession.
How does a team pull that off? It takes its chances when they’re there. The Steelers hit two huge plays in the Broncos game, including an 84-yard touchdown catch by impressive rookie Chase Claypool and a 59-yard run by Conner to seal the game. The Steelers’ red zone efficiency doesn’t seem especially impressive at 50%, but that’s because they have ended two games with kneel-downs inside the opposition’s 10-yard line. Strip those out, and they’re above league average at 60%. Pittsburgh has also inherited the league’s best average starting field position and picked up a key safety in the Broncos game, turning that final Driskel drive from one that needed a field goal into one that required a touchdown.
I can’t imagine an offense with that sort of three-and-out rate succeeding over the course of an entire season. The best-case scenario is something like the 2017 Seahawks, who had a 40.7% three-and-out rate and ranked last in rushing DVOA but managed to be 14th in offensive DVOA and 11th in points per game. You might also recognize that Seahawks team as the only one of the Russell Wilson era to miss the postseason, a fate the Steelers cannot afford, given their limited time left with 38-year-old Ben Roethlisberger.
The good news is that Roethlisberger appears to be comfortable in his return from elbow surgery. His 2020 rate statistics look roughly similar to what he produced in 2018, when he threw for 5,129 yards and 34 touchdowns. The future Hall of Famer hasn’t hesitated to throw the ball downfield, as his rate of throwing passes 20 or more yards downfield is fifth highest in football. The only problem is that those passes haven’t often produced completions; he’s 3-of-14 on those passes, a completion percentage that tops only that of Mitchell Trubisky, Dwayne Haskins and Joe Burrow among three-week starters.
It would also help to get Pittsburgh’s weapons on the field at the same time. The offense was supposed to be healthier than it was a year ago, and it hasn’t suffered a blow quite like losing Roethlisberger in Week 2 for the season, but the trio of Conner and wide receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Diontae Johnson has been on the field together for only 32.6% of the team’s offensive snaps so far. The Steelers didn’t have star guard David DeCastro for the first two weeks of the season, and by the time he returned, they had lost right tackle Zach Banner for the year because of a torn ACL. Now they’re without utility lineman Stefen Wisniewski indefinitely after the journeyman suffered a torn pec. You have to figure that the offense will gel as it gets more time on the field as a unit.
The big name on the defense, surprisingly, has been interior lineman Tyson Alualu. The former Jaguars first-rounder has played about half of the snaps, but he has had a stunning impact in helping replace the departed Javon Hargrave. Alualu is never going to rack up huge numbers as a one-technique tackle and rotational defensive end, but he has three tackles for loss, three quarterback hits, a sack and two pass deflections in three games. That’s about what he produced across the entire season in 2019. The 33-year-old is probably not going to keep this up over an entire season, but he’s an under-the-radar player who is having a great start.
Otherwise, the Steelers are doing exactly what we would have expected on defense. Devin Bush, who was taken off third downs for most of the second half of 2019, has graduated into an every-down role in the middle of the Pittsburgh defense. T.J. Watt leads the league in quarterback knockdowns with 10, and Stephon Tuitt (eight) and Bud Dupree (six) aren’t far behind. They aren’t forcing turnovers or scoring at the ridiculous rate we saw a year ago, but Keith Butler’s defense ranks among the league’s best units.
Monday night’s blowout win by the Chiefs puts the Steelers atop the AFC North, and they can solidify their position over the next four weeks before a Week 8 bye. It’s unclear when the Titans game will be played, but the Steelers follow that with home games against the struggling Eagles and Browns before a road game against the Ravens in Week 7. If they can come out of that stretch 6-1 with a win over their rivals in Baltimore, they should be in control of the AFC North with a path toward a top seed in the conference.
Preseason playoff chances: 60.0%
Current playoff chances: 89.3%
I promise I will not use the word “cook” again in this section, but if you’ve paid any attention to the start of the season, you’ve seen Russell Wilson absolutely go supernova on the league over the first three weeks. In an era in which quarterbacks post staggering numbers in small samples, Wilson’s numbers look a lot like what Joe Burrow was doing in college a year ago. The former third-round pick has a passer rating of 139.0. He’s averaging 11.3 yards per attempt, he’s completing 76.7% of his passes, and he has thrown 14 touchdowns against just one interception, courtesy of a Greg Olsen drop. It would be 15 to one if it weren’t for DK Metcalf’s fumble through the end zone early in Sunday’s victory over the Cowboys.
Wilson’s is the third-best passer rating in NFL history through three games, trailing only that of Tom Brady’s legendary 2007 season and Randall Cunningham’s 1992 campaign. You can pick your stat, but by any measure, this is one of the best starts to an NFL season that we’ve ever seen from a quarterback. Wilson threw for 315 yards and five touchdowns against the Cowboys, and by most measures, it was his worst start of the year. It’s an unreal level of play.
What’s interesting about the idea of Russ finally getting to … throw a lot is that it’s maybe not quite as new as it might seem. Compared to recent Seahawks teams, he is throwing more frequently, but if you look a little further, it’s not so extreme. On early downs in situations in which each team has at least a 20% chance of winning by Ben Baldwin’s RBSDM site, Wilson’s Seahawks rank second in the league in pass frequency rate, trailing only the Chiefs.
In 2019, the Seahawks ranked 23rd in that category. In 2018, they were the most run-heavy team in the league in those situations by a considerable margin, which is how Wilson threw only 427 passes across 16 starts when the other quarterbacks who started all 16 games averaged more than 576 attempts, nearly 150 more than Seattle’s star passer.
In 2017, though, the Seahawks were the second-most pass-happy team in the league in neutral situations — exactly where they are after three weeks in 2020. They threw the ball 56.4% of the time in those situations, and though they are up to 60.6% in the same spots this year, that difference amounts to only a few plays over a three-week span. Through three weeks, Wilson is on pace to throw 549 passes, right in line with his season-long totals from 2016 (546 attempts) and 2017 (533).
In other words, though Wilson is throwing more than he did the previous two seasons, it’s really in line with how frequently he was throwing in 2016 and (more specifically) 2017. What’s different about this season is that when Wilson does throw, he has been devastatingly efficient. His CPOE is plus-9.7%, the best mark in football and way ahead of the plus-5% mark he posted from 2016 to ’19. Wilson’s completion percentage, touchdown percentage, total touchdowns, adjusted yards per attempt and passer rating would all be NFL records if he were able to keep this up over a full season.
I don’t think any quarterback on the planet is capable of playing as well over 16 games as Wilson has over his first three, and that isn’t a knock on him. He has had stretches such as this before — most notably a five-game run in 2015 when he completed more than 74% of his passes, threw 19 touchdowns without a pick and posted a passer rating of 143.6 — but sustaining it over a full season is tough. He could drop off and still comfortably be the favorite to win league MVP.
I’m not concerned about Wilson. Even if he regresses toward the mean, he’s still going to be great. However, there are some other issues that aren’t always going to go Seattle’s way. The Seahawks have scored touchdowns in all nine of their red zone appearances, which is not going to continue. Opposing kickers have missed three of their first eight extra-point attempts, and the Patriots and Cowboys failed on their two-point tries, which changed the late-game calculus and turned final drives that could have required only a field goal to force overtime into drives that needed a touchdown to win in regulation. The Cowboys also muffed a kickoff onto their 1-yard line to set up a safety, though Seahawks fans would rightly argue that Metcalf’s fumble was more damaging.
What I would be concerned about as a Seahawks fan, though, is that Wilson has been one of the most dominant quarterbacks in league history through three weeks, and this team still has been in tight games in the fourth quarter. When Brady got off to his hot start in 2007, the Patriots won their first three games by a combined 79 points. Cunningham and the Eagles won their three by a combined 49 points in 1992. The Seahawks have won by just 25, and their wins over the Patriots and Cowboys required last-minute stops to seal victories.
As good as the Seattle offense has been, the defense has been a problem. The Seahawks are 23rd in DVOA through three weeks, and it has required six takeaways to get them there. Jamal Adams was a force against the Falcons, but the Patriots picked on him in coverage, with Pro Football Reference noting that the safety is allowing a passer rating of 115.3 in coverage this season. He also left the Cowboys victory with a groin injury, and his status for Week 4 is uncertain.
Injuries are already a serious problem for this team. In addition to Adams, the Seahawks are unsure about running back Chris Carson’s status after a dirty tackle from Cowboys lineman Trysten Hill on Sunday, guard Damien Lewis was carted off with an ankle injury, and first-round pick Jordyn Brooks sprained his MCL. Pete Carroll’s team lost safety Marquise Blair and defensive end Bruce Irvin to serious injuries in the Patriots game, with Irvin tearing his ACL. He joins fellow lineman Rasheem Green on injured reserve.
The pass rush continues to be the biggest hole on the Seattle roster. The Seahawks were able to swing the game on Sunday when they created pressures with three-man rushes on third and fourth down against Dak Prescott, who was playing with two backup linemen, but the rush generally hasn’t gotten home. Despite blitzing at the league’s seventh-highest rate, the Seahawks rank 27th in both sack rate and pressure rate through three games. John Schneider is an aggressive general manager, so with Wilson playing at an MVP level and injuries already hitting the defense, I wonder if he’ll try to find a trade partner before the early November deadline to add a much-needed piece to this roster.
The hope is that the secondary coalesces and counteracts any sort of decline from the offense. That’s absolutely possible, and after games against the Patriots and Cowboys, the Seahawks get the Dolphins and Vikings the next two weeks. Seattle should hit its bye at 5-0 before the most important stretch of the season: a five-game run against the Bills, Rams, 49ers and a home-and-home with the Cardinals. With Wilson playing unbelievably well, no team is going to want to play the Seahawks anytime soon.
Preseason playoff chances: 61.3%
Current playoff chances: 81.3%
The Seahawks have raised their ceiling on offense by letting Russ cook. (We’re out of that section now!) The Bills, surprisingly, have done the same by letting Josh cook. Bills fans who expected Josh Allen to come good after struggling earlier in his career have every right to crow about what they’ve seen through three weeks. After taking a step forward in 2019 and improving his decision-making, he has taken an enormous stride this season. In 2018, Allen was a hindrance to the Bills’ chances of winning. In 2019, he was good enough to stay out of the way. In 2020, he is driving Buffalo’s success. This team would not be 3-0 without Allen playing as well as he has.
When I wrote about him before the 2020 season, there were two clear issues with what he did in 2019 and how that was discouraging for his chances of improving into a great NFL passer. In both cases, Allen has gotten much better, seemingly overnight.
Let’s start with accuracy, which was his biggest concern coming out of Wyoming. Last season, Allen’s CPOE was minus-3.7%, which was the third-worst mark in the league among passers with at least 400 attempts, ahead of only that of Jacoby Brissett and Gardner Minshew. Drops were part of the problem, but anyone who watched Allen had to admit that he left completions on the field. He usually made his way to the right receiver, but a combination of inconsistent footwork, indecisiveness and ball placement let him down pretty frequently.
Although Allen missed a pair of open receivers for touchdowns against the Jets in Week 1 as a product of footwork issues, his accuracy is undeniably better so far in 2020. His CPOE has improved to plus-3.7%, the eighth-best mark in the league among quarterbacks. He looks more comfortable in the pocket and has done a better job of repeatedly setting himself to throw before making accurate passes. On Sunday, when pressured by the Rams in the second half, we even saw him drop down and attempt some nearly sidearm passes to get the ball out before Aaron Donald & Co. could get home, often successfully.
The other big problem was that Allen wasn’t an effective deep passer. In 2019, on throws traveling 16 or more yards downfield, he ranked 29th out of 32 passers in QBR (67.0), 30th in completion percentage (37.1%), 30th in yards per attempt (9.9) and 26th in passer rating (74.4). His misses cost the Bills dearly at times, and his infamous throw to fullback Patrick DiMarco became the symbol of his panic when he needed a big play.
Right now, Allen is the only one laughing. Through three games, he has 14 completions on passes of 16 or more yards, more than any other quarterback. Last year, he had 36 such completions across a full 16-game schedule. He’s completing 70% of his deep attempts and averaging 20.6 yards per attempt, both of which rank in the top five. He has a 99.9 QBR on deep throws, trailing only that of Wilson and Jared Goff through three weeks.
Has he had help? Of course. The addition of Stefon Diggs has given the Bills one of the NFL’s best wide receiver groups, and after serving as an efficiency monster in Minnesota, Diggs is averaging 10.3 yards per target so far in Buffalo. It isn’t just Diggs, though; fourth-round pick Gabriel Davis stepped in for an injured John Brown on Sunday and caught four passes for 81 yards. Allen has thrown touchdowns to eight receivers so far this season in addition to scoring two as a runner.
Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, whose offenses in three prior stops as coordinator were uninspiring, has also put his quarterback in position to succeed. Allen’s play-action rate is way up, going from just over 22% in 2019 to a shade under 37% so far this season. Just as this has helped players such as Goff and Ryan Tannehill, the added play-fakes have made Allen’s life easier. He has a 152.3 passer rating with play-action through three weeks, falling to 108.9 without play-fakes.
Some Bills fans will take the idea of Allen getting help as a criticism or a slight, but it’s not. Every quarterback in the league needs the right infrastructure around him. Patrick Mahomes inherited the league’s best weapons and the best offensive coach of his generation. The Ravens reshaped their entire offense in Lamar Jackson’s image. The Texans gave Deshaun Watson a superstar wideout in DeAndre Hopkins and then … OK, bad example. The Bills have done a great job of building around Allen, but he’s flourishing to an extent I never would have imagined.
Is the conversation about Allen over? Has he proven after three games that he’s the guy Bills fans have been waiting to see since Jim Kelly? No. We’ve seen similar early-season hot stretches from guys such as Mark Sanchez in 2010 and Trubisky in 2018, and though fans of those teams wanted to use those runs as proof that their teams had franchise quarterbacks, that didn’t turn out to be the case. There’s no bar or number that Allen needs to hit to prove that he’s a star, and the win over the Rams erased some of the questions about his first two games coming against the Dolphins and Jets, but three games doesn’t totally change what we know about Allen from his prior 28.
What is also true, though, is that one bad game from Allen doesn’t erase or reset the progress he has shown through the first three weeks of the season. If he has a disastrous start against the Raiders on Sunday, he’ll still have the Bills at 3-1 with much better passing numbers than we saw from him in 2019. What he has accomplished so far shows that he has the ability to reach what appeared to be an impossible ceiling coming out of school and that he’s a lot closer to realizing that potential on a regular basis than I expected after last season. If he can be this guy week in and week out, the Bills have a credible case as one of the three or four best teams in football.
Green Bay Packers
Preseason playoff chances: 48.1%
Current playoff chances: 94.4%
Nobody was excited about the Packers heading into this season. The numbers suggested that they were an obvious candidate to decline. Vegas set their over/under in April at 8.5 wins, and that was before the Packers used their top two draft picks on quarterback Jordan Love and running back AJ Dillon. The question wasn’t whether Green Bay would fall off from its 13-3 record last season; instead, it was a matter of how far it would fall.
Well, there’s still 13 games to go, but the Packers don’t look like they’re about to collapse or combust. They are 3-0 and about to face a shell-shocked Falcons team at Lambeau Field, where they’re comfortable favorites to hit their Week 5 bye at 4-0. The Vikings and Lions might not prove to be stiff competition by the end of the season, but the Packers just went into the Superdome and won a shootout with the Saints without Davante Adams, who was supposed to be Aaron Rodgers’ only good receiver.
Remember the offseason, when we talked about how Rodgers had slipped and was playing low-risk, low-reward football? Well, through three weeks, he has been pretty rewarding. In addition to posting a passer rating of 121.1, he is averaging 10.1 adjusted yards per attempt, which would be his second-best mark over a full season after his MVP campaign in 2011. He’s taking shots 20 or more yards downfield nearly 21% of the time, which is the second-highest rate in the league, and he has a QBR of 99.7 on those throws. The scary thing is that his numbers would be even better if his receivers weren’t dropping 7.5% of his attempts, the highest rate in the league through three games.
The running game has also held up its end of the bargain. Despite losing Bryan Bulaga in free agency and Lane Taylor to a torn ACL and starting three offensive line combinations in three weeks to start the season, the Packers rank fourth in rush offense DVOA. Aaron Jones delivered the fourth-best fantasy performance by a running back in Packers history during the Week 2 victory over the Lions, topped only by his four-touchdown day against the Cowboys in October and a pair of Paul Hornung games from the 1960s.
In all, this offense has been on another level from anybody else in football. The Packers are averaging 3.77 points per drive, more than a half-point better than any other offense. ESPN has drive data going back through 2001, and no team has topped 3.2 points per possession in that time frame. It’s a small sample, but even if we look at every three-game sample from the past 20 years, only nine teams have scored more points per drive over a three-game span than Green Bay has so far. Five of those teams led the league in scoring, and two more finished second. None of those nine teams was the Packers, which means that we just saw Rodgers lead the best three-game offensive stint of his career on a points-per-possession basis.
Given that the offense can’t count on being this good for an entire season, teams are going to test the Green Bay defense. Mike Pettine’s unit ranks 28th in DVOA through three weeks, in part because it has been without star lineman Kenny Clark. The defense should improve, though, in part because it has been allowing teams to score 5.8 points per red zone trip, the eighth-worst mark in football. Red zone performance is mostly random from year to year, but Green Bay was the fifth-best red zone defense in terms of points allowed per trip a year ago. Getting Clark back would help matters, though that might not come until after the bye.
The other good news for the Packers is that their schedule is projected to get much easier. They’ve played what FPI believes to be the league’s 10th-hardest schedule through three weeks, but they’ll play the seventh-easiest slate in all of football the remainder of the season. With just two other teams in the NFC starting 3-0 (the other being the Bears), the Packers are favorites to come away with the top seed in the NFC, which is even more valuable in the 14-team format than it was under the 12-team rule.
As for Rodgers, he’s right up there in the MVP discussion after seemingly checking out of that conversation the past few years. I’m not sure if the Packers’ drafting Love lit a fire under him or made him a better player, but those seemed like plausible outcomes after draft day. Rodgers looks more comfortable in Year 2 with Matt LaFleur, and though the offense probably won’t remain on a record-setting pace, it’s telling that Rodgers has been able to dominate with one-and-a-half healthy weeks from Adams and the worst drop rate in football. Even if Rodgers falls back to his 2018-19 self the rest of the season, who would want to play this guy in the postseason?
Kansas City Chiefs
Preseason playoff chances: 93.9%
Current playoff chances: 99.4%
The Chiefs were near locks to make it to the postseason before the season, and after starting 3-0 by overwhelming the Ravens, they’re about as close to 100% as you can be after three games. The victory over Baltimore gave Andy Reid’s team a 62.6% chance of claiming the top seed in the AFC, an overwhelming edge for a team that might not really need any edges after winning Super Bowl LIV. The Chiefs had the sort of continuity and Patrick Mahomes-driven ceiling that most expected might play up after an offseason with limited practice time, and that has been the case through three weeks.
Even around what the Chiefs have done, though, a lot of things have already gone their way. Start with the AFC West. They were always huge favorites to win the division, but the competition has mostly dissipated. The Broncos and Chargers have already changed quarterbacks and been ripped apart by injuries, with Courtland Sutton, Von Miller, Jurrell Casey, Derwin James and Mike Pouncey all out for the season. The Raiders are 2-1 after their upset victory over the Saints, but their other games were a narrow victory over the Panthers and a blowout loss at the hands of the Patriots. With games against the Bills and Chiefs coming up, there’s a good chance that the Raiders will hit their bye at 2-3.
The Chiefs’ next three games are home against the Patriots and Raiders and a road trip to play the Bills on Thursday in Week 6. Win those three games, and the Chiefs could have a stranglehold on the AFC, especially if the Steelers slip over that stretch. After Week 6, the schedule clears up: Six of Kansas City’s next seven games come against teams currently ranked in the bottom quarter of the league in DVOA, and they have just one more game against a top-10 team (the fifth-ranked Bucs) in the final 11 weeks of the season.
One other way the season has bent in Kansas City’s direction: The Chiefs are healthy. They lost guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif and running back Damien Williams to opt-outs and are without the suspended Bashaud Breeland for the first month of the season, but they have no starters on injured reserve. The Chiefs have lost just three starter games to injury the first three weeks, with corner Charvarius Ward missing Week 2 and defensive end Alex Okafor out the past two weeks. Wide receiver Sammy Watkins was dealing with a concussion and neck injury after Week 2, but he was able to pass testing and return to the lineup for the win over the Ravens.
More than with any other team in the league, it seems like there isn’t an easy handle on how to even try to beat the Chiefs. We’ve seen teams pursue drastically different methods through three weeks. The Texans dropped two deep safeties, took away the big plays and forced the Chiefs to hand the ball to rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire. That didn’t work. The Ravens rolled out more man coverage, blitzed nearly 46% of the time and dared Mahomes to get the ball out to the right place at the right time before they hit him. He did.
Of the three teams that have played the Chiefs, the Chargers had the best philosophy, but I’m not sure it’s repeatable. They mixed in a pair of star edge rushers in Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa, blitzed just 7.4% of the time and trusted that their coverage would hold up. They held the Chiefs to 20 points on 10 drives, though they scored on each of their final four possessions to come back and win the game.
The Colts are the team that did the best job of stopping the Chiefs, with Matt Eberflus’ defense holding Mahomes to 13 points in an upset victory last season. The Colts blitzed at a below-average rate and got pressure 36.1% of the time when they didn’t blitz, the second-best mark for any team against Kansas City in the Mahomes era. Indianapolis held the ball for more than 37 minutes, went 4-for-4 on its field goal tries and slowed the Chiefs in the red zone, holding Reid & Co. to 13 points on three trips.
All of this is great advice, I’m sure, but every coach in the league wants to get pressure without blitzing and shut down the opposing offense in the red zone. There isn’t an easy or reliable way to do that against the Chiefs unless you have a pair of great pass-rushers, and only a few teams in the league can say that they do. (Sadly for opposing teams: One of those teams is the Chiefs.)
More realistically, the Chiefs will have a game or two in which they beat themselves. A more effective Ravens offense might have had better luck with their comeback on Sunday, given that they threw away four points on a missed field goal and extra point, lost an Edwards-Helaire fumble and failed on a fourth-and-1 handoff to Anthony Sherman. All of that is true, and playing against a team that went 14-2 last season, the Chiefs still seemed in control of the game for the final 55 minutes. If you thought they were the best team in football before the season, nothing has changed to make you think otherwise. If you thought another team was the best team in football heading into the season, well, I can’t wait to see that team play Kansas City.
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