Although Bill Parcells once said “You are what your record says you are,” that doesn’t quite hold in the early part of the season. At this time last year, the Falcons were undefeated under new head coach Dan Quinn and looked ready to rejoin the NFC’s elite. The Bills (2–1) had beaten two preseason darlings, the Colts and the Dolphins, and appeared poised to challenge the Patriots in the AFC East. And with two early-season division victories, the Cowboys (2–1) already had strong footing atop the NFC East. On the other side of the spectrum, the Seahawks, Chiefs, Texans, and Redskins all stumbled out of the gate, each losing two of their first three games.
Of course, Seattle, Kansas City, Houston, and Washington all made the playoffs while the Falcons lost eight of their final 11, the Cowboys won just two more games all season, and the Bills did what they always do: fade late to finish out of playoff contention.
This season, the undefeated Eagles, Ravens, and Vikings have started fast, while the Cardinals, Bengals, and Panthers are all in various stages of failed launch. But with only three games of information, the standings don’t give us enough context. So let’s take a closer look at the key stats, matchups, and schematic variables that tell us whether these teams are as good — or as bad — as their records say they are.
Are These Teams Good?
Philadelphia Eagles: 3–0, First in the NFC East
The Eagles traded their starting quarterback, Sam Bradford, a week before the regular season and decided to roll with the untested Carson Wentz, and so far the gamble is paying off. Philadelphia has won its first three games against the Browns, Bears, and Steelers by a combined score of 92–27, and Wentz has been the revelation of the young season. While Jared Goff sits on the bench in L.A., the second-overall pick has completed 64.7 percent of his passes at 7.5 yards per attempt, with five touchdowns and no picks for a 103.8 passer rating. The eye test backs up the numbers, too: He’s been calm in the pocket and has thrown with confidence, accuracy, and touch.
On the other side, the defense has been stout. Through three games they’ve given up just 27 points (fewest in the league), have six takeaways (tied for seventh), and racked up 10 sacks (tied for third). Along with Seattle, they’re one of two teams that has not given up a passing touchdown, and their opponents’ 213 rushing rushing yards is the second fewest in the league. Fletcher Cox (3.0 sacks) and Brandon Graham (3.0 sacks) fit perfectly into new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz’s 4–3 scheme: Cox can shoot forward with reckless abandon in this one-gap scheme, instead of playing back and manning two gaps, and Graham’s explosive athleticism makes him a great wide nine–technique rusher. In the secondary, free-agent pickup Rodney McLeod already has two picks.
What We Don’t Know: We didn’t see much of Wentz in the preseason, so there wasn’t much of a scouting report out there on him. Opposing defenses will adjust to his strengths and weaknesses and account for his tendencies, so it’s reasonable to expect an increase in mistakes going forward. Maybe he flourishes on quick slants over the middle, maybe he struggles diagnosing zone blitzes, or maybe he’s most comfortable moving to his right to escape pressure — whatever the case may be, opposing coordinators will work to take away plays or passes that he leans on and that get him into a rhythm. Philly’s offensive brain trust — which includes former pro quarterbacks in head coach Doug Pederson and offensive coordinator Frank Reich — will have him well prepared to stay ahead of the opposition, but it’s impossible to know how well the young passer will adapt to game plans specifically designed to take away his favorite throws.
What We Can Expect: Schwartz is an excellent defensive coordinator — he’s had a top-5 defense per Football Outsiders’ DVOA the last three years he’s coordinated — and has a ton of talent to work with, so there’s no reason to believe the early dominance by the Eagles defense is a fluke. Philly’s first two opponents (Cleveland and Chicago) are terrible, but the Eagles also just held the high-flying Steelers to their worst offensive showing since the first week of the 2013 season.
Add to that a special teams group that finished top-10 by DVOA the past two seasons, and Philly looks like a club that could have balance in all three phases. If Wentz can continue to run the Eagles offense with efficiency and adapt as defenses identify his vulnerabilities, expect the Eagles to be a legit contender in the NFC.
Baltimore Ravens: 3–0, First in the AFC North
Unsurprisingly, for the Ravens it’s all about the defense. Through three games, they’ve given up 44 points (14.7 per game, fourth in the NFL), have picked off five passes (tied for second), and gotten home for nine sacks (tied for seventh). Plus, they’re allowing just 4.5 yards per play, which is third behind only the Vikings and the Seahawks.
The offense is another story. They rank 24th in points (19.0 per game), 25th in total yards (324.3 per game), and 28th in yards per play (4.9). They’ve leaned way too much on Joe Flacco’s arm, too: They’re 26th in rushing yards (82.3 per game), 30th in rush yards per attempt (3.3), and have just one score on the ground.
Baltimore’s three wins have come by a combined 13 points, the third-lowest point differential for an undefeated team through three weeks in the past 15 years. In order to stay undefeated, the Ravens have had to rally from a 20–2 deficit against the Browns, who were playing with a backup quarterback, and they barely snuck by the Jaguars this week with the help of a blocked field goal late in the game.
What We Don’t Know: There have been a few, infrequent signs of life from the Ravens offense — Flacco has hooked up with Mike Wallace for three touchdowns, and he did hit 21 straight passes in Baltimore’s 19–17 win over the Jags — but the Ravens signal-caller has struggled with turnovers. He’s tossed four picks, taken six sacks, and lost a fumble. He’s only about 10 months out from an ACL tear, though, so it’s likely he has yet to regain full mobility and strength in his legs. As the year goes on and he starts to gain more confidence in his knee, we could see his accuracy and velocity downfield improve.
What We Can Expect: While clearly better than last season’s group that finished 20th in DVOA, the Ravens defense hasn’t exactly faced a murderers’ row in Buffalo, Cleveland, and Jacksonville. This group doesn’t look like it’s at the elite level that can carry an inept offense, so unless head coach John Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Marc Trestman can jump-start their run game, the Ravens’ lack of bite on offense is going to come back to hurt them going forward. Expect the Ravens to put up a fight in the AFC North, but they won’t stay ahead of Cincinnati and Pittsburgh for too long.
Minnesota Vikings: 3–0, First in the NFC North
The Vikings’ nightmare cluster of early-season injuries to Teddy Bridgewater, Adrian Peterson, and Matt Kalil hasn’t really mattered a whole lot thus far. A solid defensive group from 2015 appears to have taken a big jump forward this season and emerged as one of the league’s elite units. Everson Griffen is breaking out as a superstar pass rusher, Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks provide speed and versatility in the middle, and a deep secondary is anchored by a standout safety in Harrison Smith. The Minnesota defense has given up just 40 points (13.3 per game, third in the NFL) and 4.4 yards per play (first) while racking up 15 sacks (first), five interceptions (tied for second), and nine takeaways (second). A little more than one out of every four of their defensive series has produced a turnover. You can beat anybody with that kind of defense.
Given that they lost their top three offensive players, the offense hasn’t been as terrible as you’d expect. In two starts, Sam Bradford has looked passable as a point guard, completing 67.8 percent of his passes for 457 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions, and his 7.7 yards per attempt shows that he’s pushing the ball down the field, primarily to Stefon Diggs (20 catches, 325 yards, one TD).
What We Don’t Know: The Vikings have given up pressure on 45 percent of Bradford’s passing snaps, and in two games, he’s been hit 15 times (including six sacks) despite a game plan that gets the ball out of his hand quickly. That’s not the way to get your notoriously brittle quarterback through a full season.
What We Can Expect: Ultimately, whether it’s Bradford under center or it’s Shaun Hill taking his place, the Vikings offense will be limited. Their margin for error is bigger with Bradford running the show on offense — they’re more dynamic and defenses have to respect his ability to throw downfield — but this Vikings defense is the real deal, and unlike the Ravens, this group can carry Minnesota to the playoffs.
Are These Teams in Trouble?
Arizona Cardinals: 1–2, Tied for Third in the NFC West
No one expected the Cardinals to lose to the Tom Brady–less Patriots at home in the opener, but after destroying the Bucs in Week 2, everything looked like it was back on track for Arizona. Then came their loss to a supposedly reeling Bills squad: Carson Palmer threw four fourth-quarter picks in the face of near-constant pressure and a 17-point deficit, and the Cardinals now have us all confused.
Its record might not indicate it, but Arizona still has a solid defense. The Cardinals have allowed 21 points per game (tied for 12th in the NFL) and 4.8 yards per play (sixth), have accumulated eight takeaways (tied for third), and have given up just two passing touchdowns (tied for fourth). They need to make a few adjustments and clean up their run defense, which has given up 4.8 yards per carry (27th) and four scores.
What We Don’t Know: The Cardinals passed deep at an incredible rate in 2015. Bruce Arians’s “no risk it, no biscuit” philosophy asks a lot of the signal-caller — requiring accuracy downfield, great timing and chemistry with his targets, and the confidence to let it rip even when coverage is tight — and Palmer produced, finishing the year with 8.7 yards per attempt. Through three games this year, that number has dropped to 7.4, and his completion percentage has dropped six points. Palmer’s been much less accurate downfield; he tried seven passes 20-plus yards downfield against the Bills, three were picked off, and just one found its target.
What We Can Expect: There’s just too much talent and experience in Arizona to think this is anything but a slow start. Arizona put up a few uncharacteristic stinkers early on last year as well, most notably a 25–13 loss to the Landry Jones–led Steelers in Week 6. Expect the Cardinals to clean up their run defense and if they can’t get back to attacking teams down the field, they’ll turn their focus to feeding David Johnson and relying on Larry Fitzgerald’s incredible ability to get open in the short and intermediate range in the passing game.
Cincinnati Bengals: 1–2, Third in the AFC North
Someone in Cincinnati must have pissed off the NFL schedule makers. The Bengals opened their season with a narrow road win against a Jets team that won 10 games last year, followed that up with a close road loss to the Steelers, who also won 10 games in 2015, then fell to the defending Super Bowl champion Broncos at home on Sunday. In all likelihood, the Bengals aren’t as bad as their 1–2 record would indicate.
Still, there are some legitimate concerns: The normally stingy pass defense has clearly missed free safety Reggie Nelson, who left in free agency. They’ve already given up nine touchdowns through the air — they gave up just 18 in all of last season — and 247 passing yards per game (20th). They have only four sacks (tied for 21st), and opposing quarterbacks have accumulated a 95.5 passer rating (21st). That second number was 78.9 last season (fifth).
Also worrisome is that an offensive line that gave up just 32 sacks all of last year (tied for eighth) has already surrendered 12 (tied for worst in the league). That puts them on pace for 64 on the year, 10 more than the NFL-worst 54 sacks the Titans surrendered in 2015. Considering how often he’s running for his life, Andy Dalton has played remarkably well (65.2 percent completion rate, 8.2 yards per attempt, 89.0 passer rating), but if Cincinnati can’t clean up its protection, the Bengals will wind up getting Dalton hurt again.
What We Don’t Know: Dalton has just two passing touchdowns. The loss of offensive coordinator Hue Jackson to Cleveland, Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones to the Falcons and Lions, respectively, in free agency, and the loss of Tyler Eifert to injury seems to have badly damaged the Bengals’ red zone potency. After converting 65 percent of their red zone trips into touchdowns last year (tied for the fifth-best rate), they’re doing that just 30 percent of the time thus far (29th). Dalton needs to get Eifert (who caught 13 touchdown passes in 2015) back into the fold before we can really judge things. Eifert started practicing again last week so his return could happen in the next few weeks, but without him, Cincinnati’s red zone passing game has fallen off a cliff.
What We Can Expect: Cincinnati has seen serious regression on both sides of the ball in the early going. Don’t expect the Bengals offense to get back to the efficient, well-oiled machine that we saw last year; they’ve lost too much talent at receiver, and the departure of Jackson and his instinctive, creative play-calling abilities seems like a major factor. That said, Cincinnati’s defense will make adjustments, especially in the secondary, and the depth and talent they’ve built at cornerback will help them turn their pass defense around. They’ll ride their defense a little more, but the Bengals will contend in the AFC North again this year.
Carolina Panthers: 1–2, Tied for Second in the NFC South
The Panthers had a grueling early-season schedule, and it’s taken them only three weeks to double the number of regular-season losses they suffered in the 2015 campaign. Their defeats came in two tightly-matched games against the Broncos and Vikings, and in both, Carolina’s offensive line struggled to protect the reigning MVP. In those two games alone, Cam Newton was sacked 11 times and hit 20 times. He took several serious head shots against the Broncos and injured his ankle against the Vikings, so it’s a small miracle that he hasn’t been injured any worse. The league’s top scoring team from 2015 has still averaged 25.3 points per game (12th in the league), and a juicy slate of bad NFC South defenses the next three weeks — the Falcons, Bucs, and Saints — should help them right the ship offensively.
Defensively, Carolina hasn’t skipped much of a beat — despite starting a rookie, second-rounder James Bradberry, at cornerback. The Panthers have surrendered just 273.3 yards per game (third), 4.7 yards per play (fifth), generated six takeaways (tied for seventh), allowed 6.6 yards per attempt passing (11th), and 3.4 yards per rush (sixth).
What We Don’t Know: Newton has completed 58.3 percent of his passes, right in line with his career average, but has just five touchdown passes to offset his five interceptions. His yards per attempt (7.5) and passer rating (78.0) have dropped since last season, but all of that could — and should — be expected after facing off against two of the league’s best defenses in Denver and Minnesota. Newton’s numbers should improve over the next few weeks, but Carolina’s offensive line hasn’t shown yet that it’ll be able to give him the kind of time he’ll need to match last year’s explosive performance.
What We Can Expect: The Panthers remain the clear favorite in the NFC South — which, of course, isn’t saying a whole lot with how bad the division looks again this year. But while the preseason hype around the Panthers as favorites to win the NFC again has already faded, expecting dominant performances week-in, week-out like we saw as they went 15–1 last year was never very realistic. Their slow start means they face a tougher road to the top seed, but with the way they’re built — with one of the toughest, most physical defenses in the NFL and a creative, effective run game with Cam Newton under center — they’re the type of team that just needs a ticket to the postseason, and from there, anything can happen.