With a few exceptions, the NFL standings look almost nothing like we expected through five weeks of the 2017 season. The defending NFC champion Falcons sit at 3-1 and are in prime position to challenge for another division title. Aaron Rodgers has been his usual self, slinging thunderbolts and crushing dreams, and has propelled the Packers to a 4-1 start. And even if no one expected Alex Smith to emerge as a legitimate MVP candidate, the 5-0 Chiefs are coming off a 12-4 campaign and have been to the postseason three times in the past four years.
A glance at the other one-loss teams around the league, though, reveals a different sort of group. The Panthers are only two years removed from a trip to the Super Bowl, but they cratered in 2016, and anyone who watched Cam Newton and that offense sleepwalk through a blowout 34-13 loss to the Saints in Week 3 couldn’t have predicted the subsequent explosion of points that would push Carolina to 4-1. The upstart Eagles are also 4-1 and boast a two-game lead in an NFC East that features two playoff teams from last season. And even with the Broncos returning so many key pieces from a ferocious 2016 defense, Las Vegas predicted that Denver would finish third in the AFC West during the preseason. Heading into Sunday’s showdown with the Giants, first-year head coach Vance Joseph and Co. are 3-1.
Philadelphia, Carolina, and Denver have raced out to three of the most surprising starts in the league, and with projected contenders in both conferences either failing to meet expectations or suffering an array of season-altering injuries, all three clubs are positioned to make a serious run at the playoffs. As the Eagles and Panthers prepare to square off in a doozy of a Thursday Night Football game, now is the right time to dig into which of these one-loss teams are most likely to stick around as contenders.
Before the season, the Eagles looked like a team that had made the right combination of low-risk moves to prompt a significant jump in 2017. Philly signed Alshon Jeffery to a one-year, $9.5 million deal in March to bolster a barren receiving corps; in doing so, it gave second-year quarterback Carson Wentz the type of no. 1 wideout rarely available on the sale rack. It pilfered defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan from the Ravens—and added another game-changing presence to an already terrifying front—in an April trade through which its only concession was moving down 25 spots in the third round of this year’s draft. And in August it pried cornerback Ronald Darby, a much-needed piece for a thin group of defensive backs, away from the Bills in exchange for a 2018 third-round pick and wide receiver Jordan Matthews, who was set to become expendable in a contract year.
Some of those moves have made their anticipated impact, like Jernigan breaking out as an absolute beast against the run. Yet the Eagles’ fast start has primarily been the product of a series of unforeseen developments on both sides of the ball.
Let’s start with the defense. After losing game-wrecking tackle Fletcher Cox to a calf injury in a 27-24 win over the Giants in Week 3, the Eagles’ pass rush hasn’t taken over games the way that it did in 2016. Philly ranks 25th in adjusted sack rate and has just 12 total on the season. Even without Cox and Darby (who went down with an ankle injury in Week 1), though, coordinator Jim Schwartz’s unit has been solid through five weeks. The healthy members of the front four have been excellent against the run, and free-agent cornerback addition Patrick Robinson has been a revelation on the outside. A first-round pick by the Saints in 2010, Robinson was treated as an afterthought when he signed a one-year, $775,000 deal in March. At this point, it doesn’t seem to matter whether he’s playing man or zone coverage in Schwartz’s defense. Robinson is dialed in, deflecting seven passes on only 22 targets.
Finding a gem like Robinson is the benefit of the Eagles hammering a single area of need during the offseason. With nearly every other spot on the defense manned by an above-average starter, Philly’s front office used its second- and third-round picks on cornerbacks (Sidney Jones and Rasul Douglas) and acquired three veterans by way of trades or free agency. With Robinson lining up on one side and Darby likely returning soon, the Eagles should have their short-term solutions at the position on lock. Combined with Cox coming back in the near future and banged-up contributors Rodney McLeod and Jordan Hicks returning to full health, this defense has all the pieces to be even more formidable moving forward.
More surprising than the defense’s ability to overcome setbacks has been the offense’s newfound effectiveness. In August the Eagles’ formula for success appeared to include Schwartz leading an otherworldly group and Wentz and Co. attempting to hold up their end of the bargain. Thus far, the reverse has been true. The defense has kept games within reach, but the offense has carried head coach Doug Pederson’s team.
The lack of quality offensive linemen around the league has been a widespread topic of conversation dating back to last season, and whenever the exceptions to that talent shortage have been brought up (typically the front fives in Dallas, Oakland, and Tennessee), the Eagles haven’t been mentioned. They should be. From left to right, Philly possesses one of the more complete units in all of football, and it’s played a crucial role for an offense that ranks sixth in Football Outsiders’ DVOA.
Left tackle Jason Peters continues to defy everything we know about aging and science. The 35-year-old, now in his 14th season after going undrafted in 2004, has been spotless all season, and the rest of his linemates haven’t been far behind. Wentz has been pressured on a paltry 32 percent of his dropbacks this fall, according to Pro Football Focus. That represents the 12th-lowest rate in the league.
Even more impressive is the job the line has done clearing lanes for what most initially considered a pedestrian group of running backs. The Eagles rank seventh in rushing DVOA and have ripped off an average of 4.5 yards per carry. LeGarrette Blount (another offseason addition that was made on the cheap, with a $1.25 million deal) has been a force while averaging 5.8 yards per rush attempt, while backs Wendell Smallwood and Corey Clement have thrived behind a blocking scheme that’s perfectly suited to their skill sets. Center Jason Kelce remains one of the most mobile linemen in the league, and the Eagles have done an excellent job of using that to their advantage.
Still, let’s be clear: The biggest reason to get fired up about this offense is the performance of Wentz. The best-case scenario for this year’s Eagles involved the 24-year-old passer taking major developmental strides. Wentz showed flashes of his potential in his rookie season, but the North Dakota State product crashed hard down the stretch, completing less than 57 percent of his throws over his final three games. And while accuracy issues have sometimes crept up for Wentz in Year 2, he’s more than made up for them with his lights-out play in high-leverage situations. His third-down numbers look like a misprint: He’s connected on 71.1 percent of his passes with six touchdowns, one interception, and a ridiculous 137.7 rating. That last number would have beaten out Tom Brady’s (127.7) for the best mark in the league among 2016 quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts, and his completion rate on the money down is equal to the figure Matt Ryan put up when he led the league (and won the MVP award) last season.
Wentz’s numbers aren’t inflated by a bunch of easy throws that fall short of the sticks on third-and-long, either. The Eagles have converted a staggering 39 of their 73 third-down attempts, a clip of 53.4 percent that’s easily the best in the NFL and 13.8 percentage points higher than league average.
Wentz’s best work came in the Eagles’ 34-7 throttling of Arizona last week. He completed 11 of 12 third-down throws, consistently sustaining drives and keeping his defense off the field, and often checked into the right play to make that happen. Philly ranks first in time per drive (three minutes and 16 seconds) and third in plays per drive (6.61). Wentz has lifted this team to a higher plane: The Eagles are playing not only like the NFC East favorite, but also as a hopeful for something more.
With Wentz’s stats in gut-check time, a solid offensive supporting cast, and a defense that’s likely to get even better as it returns to health, Philly should stay in contention for a division crown all season. This team’s 2017 chances depended upon its second-year quarterback and shrewd offseason acquisitions producing. So far, both have.
Improved quarterback play has also been central to the Panthers’ 4-1 record, but in their case it’s been more about Newton returning to his old form rather than finding a new one. The 2015 MVP got off a shaky start to this season that hit rock bottom when he threw three interceptions against a Saints defense that couldn’t stop a nosebleed through its first two games. After undergoing shoulder surgery this past spring and missing nearly the whole preseason, Newton’s arm strength looked diminished at times in September.
While Newton’s apparent bounce-back outing against New England’s porous defense (22-of-29 for 316 yards with three touchdowns) was met with reasonable skepticism, his Week 5 showing against the Lions, a 27-24 win, offered reason to believe he’s righted the ship. His sideline completion to wide receiver Devin Funchess on the Panthers’ first drive (below) was the type of throw—with a defender in his face, no chance to step up, and a tight window outside the numbers to target—that few other NFL quarterbacks could pull off. Newton made several wow throws in Detroit, including a 64-yard strike to tight end Ed Dickson and a gorgeous 31-yard dime to Kelvin Benjamin that went for a third-quarter touchdown.
When healthy, Newton has always had the ability to fit pinpoint throws into small spaces, but he hasn’t always had the time to showcase it. While Carolina has endured pass-protection issues throughout Newton’s tenure, he’s had the necessary time to work of late. It’s showed.
When his arm feels right and he’s given the quality of protection in the clip above, Newton becomes virtually impossible to stop. And the key difference between his numbers this fall and in past years isn’t how he’s throwing—it’s how far. Newton led the league in average air yards per target last season (10.3). This year that figure has dropped to 8.0, putting him squarely in the middle of the pack. The presence of rookie Christian McCaffrey is a major reason Newton is completing 68.3 percent of his passes, nearly 10 percentage points better than his career average. Carolina has proved exceedingly willing to set up McCaffrey with simple completions.
This is the sort of throw that wasn’t previously available to Newton in the Panthers’ playbook. Coupled with a defense that’s about as reliable as they come—especially with certified cyborg Julius Peppers, who already has 5.5 sacks in 2017, providing extra firepower in the front four—Carolina seems more like the contender of 2015 than the disappointment of last fall. Adding a new dimension to the offense by bringing more efficiency and consistency to the passing game could be the element that helps the Panthers keep pace with Atlanta in the NFC South.
Dealing with a team like the Falcons is one of the major hurdles that Carolina, Philly, and every other potential NFC playoff team has to face. Atlanta and Green Bay met in the conference championship game last January; as many of their fellow 2016 contenders have struggled, they’ve maintained their place atop the league’s pecking order. In the AFC, by contrast, the spot in the hierarchy directly beneath the undefeated Chiefs is there for the taking. That’s part of what makes the Broncos the surprise one-loss team most likely to continue its run deep into the season.
Denver ranked no. 1 in defensive DVOA for the second straight season in 2016, but it was expected to experience a slide on that side of the ball this year for two main reasons. First, mastermind coordinator Wade Phillips left town to join the Rams after the Broncos replaced head coach Gary Kubiak with Joseph; Phillips may be the best defensive mind in all of football, and even with all of Denver’s starpower on defense, losing that kind of influence figured to have a sizable effect. Second, a unit that finished 21st in rushing DVOA last fall made no notable moves to tighten up in that area. Through five games, though, neither one has been a problem.
The Broncos defense leads the league in rushing DVOA and is allowing a patently absurd 2.4 yards per carry. It’s completely stifled a handful of the game’s premier running backs, including LeSean McCoy and Ezekiel Elliott, and has looked borderline impenetrable. How Denver got to this point after surrendering 4.3 yards per carry last season is a product of both individual player development and a teamwide commitment to stopping the run.
Second-year defensive lineman Adam Gotsis has stepped into a starting role and been a force, racking up twice as many solo tackles (10) as he did in all of 2016. But what stands out most about Denver’s unit is its cohesion. An effective NFL run defense requires a coaching staff willing to devote bodies to the ground game and players willing to sacrifice for the collective gain. In a 16-10 victory over Oakland in Week 4, the Broncos showed both of those aspects in spades, consistently blowing up and occupying blockers and funneling the ball back to the free defender. Great defense often depends on a team knowing exactly what the opposing offense is trying to accomplish. Denver has shown a knack for identifying that all season.
Fielding a great run and pass defense at the same time isn’t easy. In most schemes, making a concerted effort to slow down one part of an offense comes at the expense of creating opportunities for another. Even if the Broncos put resources toward stopping the run, though, the group’s stable of standouts has demonstrated that it can more than compensate. Von Miller is still Von Miller; Denver boasts the best collection of corners in football; and even unheralded players like Shaquil Barrett are excelling.
Barrett’s emergence is a telling example of how the Broncos have sustained such a great performance on defense over the past several seasons. As the personnel has shifted and regression has threatened, new guys have ascended to take the place of departed or aging veteran stars. Barrett’s impact lessens the blow of losing DeMarcus Ware to retirement and Shane Ray to injury. Safety Justin Simmons, a 2016 third-round pick, has stepped up on the back end of the defense, thereby allowing Darian Stewart to play closer to the line of scrimmage and mitigate the loss of T.J. Ward. General manager John Elway and the front office continue to find inventive ways to replenish this unit, and the result is unmistakable. Just ask the Cowboys, who were held to 268 yards in a 42-17 loss in Week 2.
To go along with that defense, Denver has pieced together an offense that’s well-tailored to its personnel. No quarterback has used play-action on a higher percentage of his pass attempts than Trevor Siemian (29.6, per Pro Football Focus), and the Broncos have paired that with a potent running game led by the resurgent pair of Jamaal Charles and C.J. Anderson.
In a league in which little has played to script, both Carolina and Philadelphia have jumped to hot starts that seem sustainable. Still, while their Thursday matchup will indicate which of the two is better set up for the long haul, the Broncos look like the surprise one-loss team most likely to make a serious run. Someday, Denver’s defense will disintegrate and need more than a serviceable offense to form a contender. We’re not there yet.