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Is a New Group of Contenders Emerging in the NFL?

The Dolphins, Eagles, and Jaguars have all earned statement wins already this season, and they’re surging while some Super Bowl favorites stumble. Could one of these teams be the Bengals of the 2022 season?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

After spending the offseason speculating about which NFL team could make a Bengals-like leap in 2022, the first three weeks of the season have provided little clarity. That’s not because a candidate hasn’t emerged, though. Rather, there are too many to pick just one.

At the top of the list are the NFL’s only two 3-0 teams. The Philadelphia Eagles won their third-straight game Sunday with another electric display from the passing attack, while the Miami Dolphins pulled off another upset over an established AFC power after erasing a fourth-quarter deficit against the Bills. Both teams have followed the same blueprint to get to this point: Instead of moving on from maligned third-year quarterbacks, their front offices decided to invest in support systems around them. The Eagles traded a first-round pick for A.J. Brown this offseason while the Dolphins did the same to land Tyreek Hill. Those investments have paid off, and both quarterbacks are thriving while playing in offenses that simply ask them to distribute the ball to their respective play-makers. Young quarterbacks who blossom thanks, in part, to a reinforced receiving corps making plays downfield? That’s an easy comparison to what we saw in Cincinnati in 2021.

The same can be said of the AFC South–leading Jacksonville Jaguars after Trevor Lawrence outplayed a hobbled Justin Herbert in Los Angeles on Sunday. Like Joe Burrow a season ago, the former no. 1 pick has trimmed enough fat from his game in Year 2 to make the leap from promising rookie to legitimate top-10 talent at the position. That development in tandem with Doug Pederson replacing Urban Meyer, who just might be the worst coach in NFL history, has the Jaguars looking like the clear favorite in a bad division. We’re almost at the point where anything less than Jacksonville hosting a playoff game will feel like a disappointing result.

But it’s been only three weeks, and every season we see a handful of teams come crashing back down to earth after hot starts. Remember when the Panthers and Broncos got off to 3-0 starts in 2021 before falling almost out of the playoff race by Thanksgiving?

So let’s take a deeper look at these three early-season darlings and try to figure out why things are going so well right now, and how long they can keep this up.

Miami Dolphins

Sunday’s game against the Bills was supposed to be a referendum on Tua Tagovailoa—to determine whether he could keep up his hot start against a championship-caliber defense. But we did not see much of the polarizing quarterback in Miami’s 21-19 win. The third-year pro attempted just 18 passes and dropped back fewer than four times on all but one drive.

He had an efficient day overall, averaging 10.3 yards per attempt, and that included another clutch deep ball that helped decide the game—this one to Jaylen Waddle, after the speedy pass catcher split Buffalo’s two deep safeties on a deep post route. But while the narrative machine never stops, and the Tua discussion will continue to dominate coverage of the AFC-leading Dolphins, the big takeaway from Sunday’s game is the job of Miami’s first-year coaching staff.

Mike McDaniel deserves most of the credit for jerry-rigging the famed Shanahan offense around a quarterback who doesn’t want to be under center—which is a big deal. Traditionally, this system doesn’t function nearly as well from shotgun formations unless there is a major run threat at quarterback. And while Tua can move well, he has never been a factor in the run game. That McDaniel has been able to get the play-action game going from the gun is an early sign that he might have a bright future as a play-caller.

What stands out most about this offense is how McDaniel has created space for Tagovailoa, who has never been great in a tight pocket. Having two deep options in Waddle and Tyreek Hill naturally creates less congestion over the middle of the field, which is where Tua prefers to attack in the quick passing game.

And McDaniel’s heavy use of motion and play-action fakes has helped take the teeth out of opposing pass rushes. Tagovailoa’s quick trigger has also been a factor, but so far he’s been kept clean even when he’s had to hold on to the ball a little longer, as he did on the big throw to Waddle.

There will be plenty of time to celebrate McDaniel and this electric passing game throughout the season. So let’s take this opportunity to also steer some credit toward defensive coordinator Josh Boyer for his role in the win over Buffalo. Unlike other opponents who have tried to slow down Josh Allen, the Dolphins did not deviate from their typically aggressive approach. Miami crowded the line of scrimmage and sent a number of Cover Zero blitzes at the Bills quarterback early in the game. And while those weren’t very effective—Allen completed all but one of his passes and averaged 0.82 EPA when the Dolphins sent six or more rushers—that strategy did lay the groundwork for a far more effective second-half plan.

Boyer eventually dialed back on the blitzes while continuing to throw aggressive looks at Allen before the snap. But instead of sending pressure, the Dolphins backed off into zone coverage.

Allen, having seen so much pressure early on, continued to get rid of the ball quickly, but he was throwing shorter passes that allowed Miami to rally for tackles short of the sticks. The Bills quarterback just kept taking those easy completions, and while that led to a lopsided time-of-possession for Buffalo, it didn’t lead to a lot of points.

Boyer’s pragmatic approach led to a long day for the defense, but it was yet another example of Miami’s coaching staff pushing the right buttons in the second half of a closely contested game against playoff-level competition. McDaniel’s group has now squared off against three of the best coaches in the NFL in Bill Belichick, John Harbaugh, and Sean McDermott, and they’ve won each of those coaching battles decisively.

Yes, Buffalo was missing its entire secondary on Sunday, and the absence of starting center Mitch Morse cost the offense points multiple times (two botched snaps derailed promising drives), so I don’t think we learned too much about the AFC East race on Sunday. But we did learn that the Dolphins have a legit coaching staff and enough talent to compete with any team they will face in the playoffs.

Having passed the early-season gauntlet, the Dolphins’ path to the postseason doesn’t appear too daunting. They’ll take on the Bengals on Thursday, then six of their next seven games will come against teams that missed the playoffs in 2021.

After Sunday’s upset, the Dolphins have an 88 percent chance of making the playoffs and they’re now tied with Buffalo for the best odds of winning the AFC’s no. 1 seed, per FiveThirtyEight. Any team sitting in that spot has a shot at winning the Super Bowl.

Philadelphia Eagles

The “Jalen Hurts for MVP” hype isn’t going to slow down this week after another impressive statistical performance on Sunday. Hurts threw for 340 yards and three touchdowns while averaging just under 10 yards per attempt in a 24-8 win over the Commanders. And here’s the part that should terrify the rest of the NFC: He didn’t even play all that well. At least not by the high standard he set over the first two weeks of the season.

Ball placement was an issue for Hurts all afternoon—he consistently forced his receivers to adjust to off-target passes. It just didn’t matter because DeVonta Smith was doing his best impression of a young Randy Moss:

And A.J. Brown reprised his role as the league’s biggest bully at the receiver position:

Hurts’s performance didn’t hold this stacked offense back, though. In reality, it showed us just how ridiculously high the floor is for this unit. With the NFL’s best offensive line, one of its most electrifying receiving corps, and a run game powered by a legit threat at quarterback, there are just too many holes for opposing defenses to plug.

And I don’t know if we’re giving Hurts enough credit for helping make this unit what it is. Him providing competent quarterback play at a greatly reduced cost has obviously made things easier for general manager Howie Roseman, who has used that financial flexibility to aggressively build around his quarterback. But Hurts’s running ability has also reduced the degree of difficulty for head coach Nick Sirianni and offensive coordinator Shane Steichen. Because the QB has to be accounted for in the run game, the Eagles have been able to spread things out while still forcing the defense to allocate resources to the run box. That stretches the defense thin across the field, which opens up throwing windows for Hurts and rushing lanes in the ground game. Big plays are inevitable with a setup like that.

On the other side of the ball, the defense is creating the opposite environment for opposing offenses, as Carson Wentz discovered in a slapstick performance Sunday. The defensive line generated nine sacks, with four linemen notching at least 1.5 sacks on the day.

Philly’s Pass-Rush Dominance Was a Team Effort

Player Pass-rush snaps Pressures QB hits Sacks
Player Pass-rush snaps Pressures QB hits Sacks
Brandon Graham 18 5 5 2.5
Haason Reddick 28 5 3 1.5
Fletcher Cox 25 3 2 1.5
Josh Sweat 31 2 2 1.5
Javon Hargrave 29 3 1 1
T.J. Edwards 6 4 2 1

The Eagles did this while sending five or more rushers on just 13 of Wentz’s 55 dropbacks. After Sunday’s game, Philadelphia ranks third in sack rate when rushing only four, and its 2.7-second average time to pressure ranks ninth in the league, per TruMedia. That has helped protect a secondary that still has plenty to prove and a defensive coaching staff that can be a little too conservative and slow to react to matchup problems. But any coverage unit will look formidable behind a good pass rush, and barring injuries, the Eagles can bank on having that luxury for the rest of the season.

While it feels like the rest of the NFC’s top contenders are struggling to overcome obvious deficiencies—especially on the offensive side of the ball—the Eagles have no such problem and now have the best odds of winning the NFC’s no. 1 seed by a wide margin. Per FiveThirtyEight’s model, Philadelphia’s odds of finishing with the conference’s best record sit at 40 percent. The Bucs are the next-closest competitor, with an 18 percent shot.

I won’t fault you if you continue to question Hurts—even during his recent prolific outings, there have been plenty of shaky moments. But there isn’t a steadier offense in the NFL right now, and there isn’t a more complete team. Complementary football wins in January. If the Eagles keep this up, they could be playing even later into the calendar.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Quick: How many Jaguars players can you name off the top of your head?

Of course you know Trevor Lawrence. And receiver Christian Kirk officially became a Person of Interest the moment he signed a market-shifting contract in free agency. You’ve probably considered running back James Robinson for your fantasy team, and Travon Walker was the first overall pick in April’s draft. But after that? There just aren’t many established talents on the roster—at least not compared to Miami’s and Philadelphia’s—so it might require a bigger leap of faith to fully buy into Jacksonville as a legitimate postseason threat. But that will soon change if the Jaguars continue dismantling teams we expect to make the playoffs.

The AFC South leaders followed up a thorough beatdown of the Colts in Week 2 with an equally impressive road win over a banged-up Chargers team on Sunday. The 38-10 final was certainly aided by Los Angeles’s rotten injury luck—Keenan Allen, Corey Linsley, and J.C. Jackson missed the game, Joey Bosa and Rashawn Slater left it with injuries, and Justin Herbert was clearly hindered by the rib injury that limited him at practice all week—but good teams take advantage of such opportunities, and the Jags did so in convincing fashion. You can’t tell me that Urban Meyer doesn’t find a way to blow that game if he’s still in charge. This was a professional display, and it’s been a long time since we’ve been able to use that word when talking about the Jags.

Besides, the lopsided win isn’t the story here. It’s the continued ascension of Lawrence, who may have played the best game of his career against the shorthanded Chargers defense. He threw for three touchdowns for only the second time in his career, and his 0.26 EPA per dropback was the sixth-highest mark of the week. The second-year quarterback cleanly executed a game plan built on getting the ball out quickly—necessary when playing behind suspect pass protection and going up against one of the more formidable pass rushes in the league. Only Tom Brady had a quicker release time in Week 3 than Lawrence’s 2.4 seconds, per Next Gen Stats. And these weren’t rushed, stat-padding checkdowns. Lawrence was just getting through his progressions in an instant and consistently finding answers for whatever the Chargers threw at him.

After three games, Lawrence is tied for the league’s lowest sack rate at 1.8 percent. The play-calling has insulated him from some hits, but his quick reaction to pressure is really the secret sauce here. The 22-year-old has been sacked on just 6.3 percent of his pressured dropbacks, the third-lowest mark in the league behind only Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert, according to TruMedia. That Lawrence is starting to pop up on these lists with elite players at the position might be a strange, new feeling for Jaguars fans, but it’s one they’d better get used to.

We can’t give all the credit to Lawrence and the offense, though. The defense has been one of the main drivers behind this surprising 2-1 start, and the defensive line, in particular, has been the standout unit. The Jaguars managed to sack Herbert only once on Sunday, but the Chargers star was under siege constantly. The Other Josh Allen tallied 10 pressures on his own, which led the league for Week 3, per TruMedia. Walker had just three pressures but has flashed in any role the Jaguars have asked him to play—whether it’s rushing the passer or dropping into coverage. This defensive line is stocked with talent and the coaching staff is getting the most out of it.

Winning the line of scrimmage has been a theme in both of Jacksonville’s victories this season, but beating up on the Colts and Chargers offensive lines isn’t the most impressive feat. No matter how far Lawrence can push his development forward this season, the ceiling for this team will ultimately be decided by the defensive line’s ability to sustain this level of disruption against more formidable fronts. Jacksonville’s secondary has had some shaky moments—making Wentz look competent in Week 1, for example—when the rush hasn’t collapsed the pocket. And against stiffer competition, that back end could get exposed.

Really, though, inexperience is the main concern here. Lawrence has made the leap and is avoiding negative plays at a rate matched only by the best quarterbacks in the league. Pederson’s coaching staff is pulling all the right strings on both sides of the ball. And the defensive line gives the Jaguars the AFC South’s most dominant trench unit. Good quarterback play, coaching, and line play (on both sides of the ball) is a trusty recipe for winning football games. Jacksonville is going to do a lot of that over the next few months.