The NFL season is a long, arduous campaign that slogs across 22 weeks. Four months from now, when postseason games are happening, we’ll hardly remember the results we’ve spent the last few weeks obsessing over. Drawing firm conclusions about any teams based on three-week sample sizes is probably a foolish endeavor. But that’s exactly what we’re here to do.
Look, we all know a championship-level team when we see one. You put up 70 points in a game, no matter who the opponent is, and, yeah, I’m going to crown you. You drop a game to a team coached by Jonathan Gannon, and I’m crossing you off my list of possible Super Bowl winners. And if you have Patrick Mahomes or Josh Allen at quarterback, then you get to cut the line and walk straight into the club. I’m sorry. I don’t make the rules.
So what do you say we narrow the list of 32 teams down to a select few that have a shot at hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in Las Vegas next February? Let’s not waste time on the obvious cases. Instead, we’ll focus on the 10 teams with the current best odds to win it all, according to FanDuel Sportsbook, and tier them around one simple question: Can this team win the Super Bowl?
Note: We’ve left out the Bengals, who currently have the 10th-best odds to win the Super Bowl, for two reasons: (1) I’ve already weighed in on this team’s outlook as Joe Burrow recovers from a nagging calf injury, and (2) they have yet to play their Week 3 game, so nothing has changed since then. We’ve replaced them with the Jaguars, who had the next-best odds.
Tier 1: One of These Teams Is Winning the Super Bowl
Kansas City Chiefs, Super Bowl odds: +600
Granted, it came against a Bears team that spent the week fighting a multifront PR battle, but the Chiefs offense finally resembled the Chiefs offense on Sunday, putting up 34 first-half points and cruising to an easy 41-10 win. Patrick Mahomes, who tossed three touchdowns and averaged over 8 yards per attempt, made a few ridiculous throws downfield, but this was a relatively chill outing for the NFL’s best quarterback. The offense played well for a full game for the first time this season, and Mahomes didn’t have to do too much to light up the Arrowhead scoreboard.
Mahomes also got help from his defense, which has been really solid through the first three weeks of the season. The Chiefs rank second in defensive expected points added, eighth in defensive success rate, and fifth in points allowed, per TruMedia. In seasons past, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo largely had to make do with bit parts, but this year the front office supplied him with a young, fast unit that has just enough star power to hang with even the most talented offenses. There isn’t any one thing that’s driving the Chiefs’ defensive success, either, which bodes well for them the rest of the season. They can play man or zone coverage, they can blitz or rush four, they can drop two safeties deep or play with zero back there, and their performance stays the same. It’s not a surprise that the offense is rounding into form after an uneven start, but the defense has the makings of a championship unit as well—and I’m not sure anyone saw that coming.
These are the Chiefs we’re talking about. Of course they can win a Super Bowl. They’re in the damn game every year. This is probably the best version of Mahomes we’ve seen to date, and this is looking like the best defense he’s played with in his football career.
San Francisco 49ers: +600
Since they added Christian McCaffrey to the starting lineup last October, the 49ers have not lost a game in which they’ve had a quarterback with a working elbow. Teams that don’t lose tend to compete for Super Bowls, so any 49ers skepticism is based around the idea that Brock Purdy could turn into a pumpkin in the near future. Here’s the issue: Purdy has already looked pretty pumpkin-ish these past two weeks, and it hasn’t stopped this team from scoring at will.
On Thursday, Purdy put up one of the more polarizing performances of the season in a 30-12 win over the Giants. Depending on whom you ask, it was either a poised performance against a blitz-happy defense or definitive proof that Purdy is little more than a system QB and a product of what’s around him. I can understand both viewpoints: Purdy did beat the Giants blitz for a handful of big plays. The throws required anticipation, touch, and poise in the face of pressure:
Another cover-0 blitz, another Purdy TD beats it. Wink, keep it up sweety. You're doing great with these blitz packages. pic.twitter.com/IubONn4eLB— Rich (@richjmadrid) September 22, 2023
But there were far more plays in which Purdy simply had to execute an extended handoff, and then one of his more talented teammates took care of the rest. Even with that low degree of difficulty, Purdy still found ways to put the ball in harm’s way.
Purdy’s performance through three weeks has been a Rorschach test for QB evaluation. You’re seeing either a patient distributor who can make a play when called on or a mediocre talent who’s elevated by the best supporting cast in the NFL. I lean toward the latter, but I don’t think it matters. This offense looks unstoppable—provided the key pieces can stay healthy.
Maybe there’s an expiration date on an offense built around an explosive run game and a short passing game that prioritizes yards after the catch. Maybe, when the schedule gets a bit tougher, the defense will feel the absence of DeMeco Ryans, who served as the Niners defensive coordinator before taking the head job in Houston. But there are no signs of any of that happening yet. This team looks too talented to fail, and I won’t bet against talent.
Buffalo Bills: +950
Listen, we’re all guilty of Week 1 overreactions, so I will give us a collective pass for the Bills panic that erupted after Buffalo’s loss to the Zach Wilson–led Jets. Since laying that egg, Buffalo has outscored its last two opponents 75-13, which includes Sunday’s 37-3 destruction of Washington. The Bills now own the league’s second-best point differential—behind Miami, which just beat a team by 50 points—and they’ll be playing said Dolphins this Sunday in a game that will decide the early AFC East lead. It’s been quite the turnaround in terms of vibes.
Josh Allen’s play has been the driving force behind this little win streak, but the play of Buffalo’s revamped defense is what has caught my eye. Sean McDermott has taken more ownership of the unit following the offseason departure of defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, and the changes he’s made are evident. While last season’s defense was certainly effective against bad quarterbacks, the best passers in the league had very little trouble carving up Frazier’s static looks. This year, there’s a bit more depth to the unit. McDermott is dialing up blitzes and simulated pressures (four-man rushes designed to look like blitzes) that keep quarterbacks guessing. Commanders quarterback Sam Howell never got comfortable on Sunday. He was sacked nine times and threw four interceptions. His second pick, right before the half, is a good example of the kind of chaos the Bills have been able to cause.
Micah Hyde's first interception since January 15, 2022 (playoffs vs. the Patriots). A.J. Epenesa right in Sam Howell's face pic.twitter.com/0YqzrlxgMd— Alaina Getzenberg (@agetzenberg) September 24, 2023
This is one of those simulated pressures I mentioned above. From Howell’s perspective, it looked like a blitz off the left edge, so he threw to the flat, where he thought he had a receiver uncovered.
But Howell didn’t see Micah Hyde rotating down from a deep safety spot, and Hyde, who missed most of last season with a neck injury, jumped the route for an easy pick.
The defense is healthy and playing well—two things we couldn’t say late last year. Allen has chilled the hell out these last two weeks and is back to playing like the NFL’s second-best quarterback rather than like a golden retriever chasing cars. This is the Bills team we expected to win the Super Bowl last year.
Miami Dolphins: +1000
Excuse my language, but I need to get this out of my system.
THE DOLPHINS SCORED 70 FUCKING POINTS. In an NFL game! Against an NFL defense!
The Dolphins beat the Broncos by a wider margin than Alabama’s win over Middle Tennessee State on the opening weekend of college football. Nineteen NFL teams have scored fewer than 70 points all season, meaning the Week 3 Dolphins alone would rank 13th in points scored. This is madness!
It’s not the first time we’ve seen Mike McDaniel’s offense throttle a helpless defense, but it is the first time we’ve seen it throttle a helpless defense in this manner. Miami racked up 350 rushing yards and averaged more than 8 yards per attempt. Rookie running back De’Von Achane rushed for 203 yards alone. And while Tua Tagovailoa was as efficient as ever, this wasn’t the deep passing show we’ve grown used to watching in Miami. This isn’t a passing map that screams 70 points:
Don’t take that as a knock, Dolphins fan. This is a good thing. We’ve still seen games in which Tagovailoa was capable of carrying most of the load—in the Week 1 win over the Chargers, for instance. But Miami’s ability to score 70 points without an overly prolific performance by the quarterback is a positive sign for the evolution of this team.
I don’t have any evidence to back this up—because it never happens—but I’m going to say that any team capable of scoring 70 against an NFL defense can win the Super Bowl.
Tier 2: Good Enough to Make a Run at It
Philadelphia Eagles: +700
Because the Eagles have yet to play in Week 3 at the time of this writing, I’ll keep this one short. Philadelphia is coming off a Super Bowl appearance and is sitting at 2-0 to start the season, so the answer is obvious: The Eagles can certainly win a Super Bowl.
But we’ll need to see more out of the passing game before that can happen this season. All of the other pieces of last year’s NFC-winning puzzle seem to be in place: the dominant pass rush, the overpowering offensive line, the opportunistic defense. But the passing game has sloughed through two tight wins against blitz-happy defenses who’ve been looking to snuff out the Eagles run game. Jalen Hurts has been content to throw quick, short passes to beat that pressure. And that’s been enough to pull out wins against the Vikings and Patriots—two teams that will have to scratch and claw just to stay in the wild-card race—but they need to start producing some explosive pass plays if they’re going to get back to where they were a year ago.
The concern is that Philly’s offense is being led by a first-year play caller in Brian Johnson, who took over for Shane Steichen in the offseason, and through two weeks the young coordinator hasn’t been able to find answers for the defensive looks the Eagles are getting. He may be capable of finding them, but we’ll have to take a wait-and-see approach. Fortunately, with Todd Bowles’s Buccaneers defense up next on the schedule, we won’t have to wait too long.
I’m not counting this team out, but check back in a month or two. We’ve seen more accomplished quarterbacks struggle to adapt to new defensive strategies—even the guy in Kansas City went through those growing pains—so there’s no guarantee that the passing game will fix itself over the next 15 weeks. If Hurts doesn’t play like the MVP candidate he was a year ago, we may have to adjust our expectations.
Baltimore Ravens: +1300
Typically, losing to Gardner Minshew is enough to disqualify any team from Super Bowl contention, but I will make an exception for the Ravens. So much had to go badly for the Ravens to find themselves on the wrong side of a 22-19 overtime loss in Baltimore on Sunday, starting with the team’s growing list of injuries.
If the Ravens can get healthy and make it back to the playoffs, the team we see then won’t resemble the one we saw on Sunday. And even this lesser version of Baltimore would have beaten the Colts if not for a blatant missed face mask call that would have allowed the Ravens to kneel out the clock … or a missed pass interference call on fourth down in overtime with the Ravens on the edge of field goal range.
Even with the benefit of the whistle, Indianapolis still needed its kicker, Matt Gay, to make four field goals of at least 53 yards to win the game—in a rainstorm. A loss to a young Colts team at home looks like a terrible result for a team with Super Bowl aspirations, but the game told us very little about what the Ravens could be this season.
Outside of more ball security issues, Lamar Jackson was mostly brilliant again on Sunday. The Ravens couldn’t get their deep passing game going, but that’s not out of the ordinary during a rainy game. Plus, Baltimore was without Odell Beckham Jr., the team’s resident field stretcher, and it lost Rashod Bateman to a hamstring injury during the game. Jackson is playing like a QB capable of winning an MVP award, and Mike MacDonald’s defense looks like a top-five unit. That’s a good recipe for a Super Bowl run. The Ravens have a chance.
Tier 3: Probably Not Going to Happen
Dallas Cowboys: +1000
This was the game every Mike McCarthy skeptic was waiting for. The Cowboys, heavily favored against a winless Cardinals team, managed just 13 points in a double-digit loss in Arizona. The Cardinals ran for more than 200 yards, and Josh Dobbs looked fairly competent against a defense that had been among the league’s best coming into the week. Losing Trevon Diggs to a season-ending ACL injury this week had already lowered Dallas’s ceiling, and after Arizona ran through Dallas on Sunday, we’ll need to make some significant adjustments to our expectations.
The defense should be fine. The Cardinals offense came in with a creative game plan built around the QB run game, and while things were certainly ugly early on, the Cowboys eventually adjusted. What I’m more concerned about is an offense that could not work its way through Jonathan Gannon’s rudimentary coverage schemes. Dallas was without three starters on the offensive line, but that’s no excuse for what we saw on Sunday. Dak Prescott could not push the ball downfield, and the film shows that he wasn’t provided the opportunity to do so. This scheme looked like what we saw from McCarthy toward the end of his tenure in Green Bay: static, lacking imagination, and failing to get receivers open.
This is certainly a playoff team, but without a top-shelf offense, the Cowboys won’t make it very far in January—no matter how good the defense is. Dallas has enough talent to produce a top-shelf offense. But coaching is another matter.
Jacksonville Jaguars: +3000
The Jaguars are no strangers to early-season losses to bad Texans teams. It’s been their thing for the past few years, and they overcame a particularly ugly showing against Houston last year to eventually make the playoffs. So maybe we shouldn’t overreact to Sunday’s 37-17 loss to the winless Texans. But, um … I kind of feel like we should overreact!
It’s not just that the Jaguars lost to a bad team. Or that they’ve now lost two in a row and very easily could have dropped the season opener in Indianapolis. It’s the performance of the offense, which ranks 30th in EPA per play, that should have all of Duval County worried. It’s not difficult to figure out the root of the problem: The Jaguars can’t run on early downs and they’re not getting receivers open on third down. The first part is a talent issue. The offensive line isn’t very good, and this isn’t a backfield that will elevate it. Cam Robinson’s return from a four-game PED suspension should help, but Jacksonville’s problems extend far beyond the left tackle spot. As for the third-down issue, that’s related to scheme. Offensive coordinator Press Taylor, who took over the play-calling duties this season, isn’t doing nearly enough to spring his receivers open, which has forced Trevor Lawrence to pass into an unsustainable amount of tight windows.
There’s been talk that Doug Pederson could take over the play-calling, which would help in both cases. Pederson’s offenses have always been built around productive run games that keep his quarterbacks out of obvious passing situations. If he can get the Jaguars’ early-down run game going a bit, that should reduce the load on Lawrence. The young QB can certainly carry an offense—but the best teams in the NFL don’t ask nearly as much as the Jags are asking of the 23-year-old.
This roster still has far too many holes to fill for this to be their Super Bowl year.
Tier 4: Definitely Not Going to Happen
Cleveland Browns: +2400
Even before Nick Chubb’s season-ending knee injury, Cleveland would have gone in the “no” column here. This offense just isn’t viable without the star running back at the center of it. Not with Deshaun Watson doing stuff like this seemingly every week:
This is some Carson Wentz stuff from Deshaun Watson. You can’t do this. pic.twitter.com/wjNmipRvA6— Charles Robinson (@CharlesRobinson) September 24, 2023
Watson overcame that blooper to have a solid game in a 27-3 win over the Titans, but the Browns will need more than “solid” to even challenge for a playoff spot. You don’t pay $230 million guaranteed for “solid.”
Even if Watson continues to play poorly, Cleveland should stick around in the postseason race thanks to a defense that’s off to a historic start—even if it has come against two bad quarterbacks and an injured Joe Burrow.
The three best single-game defensive performances in the NFL this season, based on success rate:— Sheil Kapadia (@SheilKapadia) September 24, 2023
1. Browns in Week 1
2. Browns in Week 3
3. Browns in Week 2
What a start to the Jim Schwartz era in Cleveland.
New defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz is getting the most out of a stacked Browns depth chart. And while Schwartz mostly earned his reputation as a conservative play-caller in Philadelphia, he’s taking the opposite approach in Cleveland, where he’s dialing up pressure and using Myles Garrett as a roving menace that every offense has to account for. Tennessee (wisely) took extreme measures to deal with him on Sunday:
That unit has been dominant. It leads the NFL in both EPA allowed and success rate, and the gap between them and second place is wide. But no other part of the team is even close to that good. There was a time when a dominant defense and solid offense were enough to get a team deep into January. That’s no longer the case, so we’ll keep Cleveland outside the group of legit contenders.
Detroit Lions: +2200
The Lions, seemingly everyone’s favorite playoff sleeper, are off to their best start in years after a 20-6 dismantling of the Falcons on Sunday. That’s not all that surprising, but what is surprising is how they’re going about it. The Lions’ offseason hype mostly focused on the offense, which finished as a top-five unit a season ago and figured to be even better after adding first-round back Jahmyr Gibbs. But that group has been largely mediocre to start the season, ranking 15th in EPA per play and 11th in success rate. Comparatively, the defense ranks 17th and 12th in those two stats, per TruMedia. This is a far more balanced—and mid—team than we all expected.
So what’s changed? Well, Ben Johnson’s run game, which was the talk of 2022, just hasn’t been very good on early downs. Defenses deserve credit for making things tougher on Detroit’s offense: They’re loading the box and committing extra numbers to the run game. That’s helped boost Jared Goff’s early-down production—he’s averaging 0.71 EPA per dropback on play-action calls on early downs—but he’s finding himself in more third-and-long scenarios, which have never been situations he’s thrived in.
The Lions have run it just fine when they’ve been in shotgun, but that’s not a formation Johnson and head coach Dan Campbell want to live in. This roster was built for power running from under center, which helps to set up the play-action pass. Right now, Detroit just can’t get its under-center run game going:
Lions Run Game, Under Center Vs. Shotgun (via TruMedia)
It doesn’t really matter which running back is getting the ball, either. David Montgomery, a free-agent signing this offseason, isn’t creating enough explosive plays, which is hardly a surprise. And while Gibbs can do that, he’s an undersized back who isn’t consistently picking up the tough yards on a down-to-down basis. Detroit’s two-headed backfield has been inefficient and unreliable.
Lions Running Backs on Early Downs in 2023 (via TruMedia)
For the Lions offense to be successful enough to enable a postseason appearance, it’ll have to figure out its run game issues on early downs, where Detroit ranks 30th in success rate and 29th in EPA per attempt. If that doesn’t happen, it will be up to Goff to carry the offense and a league-average defense. What could go wrong?