We’re not even a quarter of the way through the NFL season, which seems like a healthy benchmark to make some premature judgments about the trajectory of teams who are only just beginning to hit their stride. I’m leaving out the two clear favorites, one from each Conference, which are the Broncos and Seahawks, but there’s a huge number of teams whose current record has been influenced by the confluence of one or two weird plays or mistakes, so there’s an especially great opportunity here to make some hastened, sweeping denouncements and flatteries alike, so let’s get to it:
The “Everyone Betray Me!!!” Division
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
I wrote at the beginning of the season that I thought this year’s Bucs team would resemble the ’09 and ’10 Jets that were talented enough to drag a mediocre Mark Sanchez to two straight playoffs and, subsequently, AFC Title games. I didn’t see the Bucs as a contender to win the NFC, but I saw them as at least able to claw their way into the playoffs on a just-good-enough 10-6, but it turns out that Josh Freeman is more capable of destroying a team’s season than I originally gave him credit for. After their Week 1 abomination in New York, word came out that the Bucs had held a postgame meeting in which Freeman’s captaincy was voted upon and subsequently stripped, and then it came out that the meeting had actually occurred BEFORE the game – before Freeman even went out and laid that Week 1 egg, his team had said “Nope, no, you are not our guy at all.” AND THEN it turned out that not only was Freeman’s captaincy stripped via a PREGAME vote, but that the VOTE WAS PROBABLY RIGGED BY THEIR HEAD COACH. Congratulations, Buccaneers, you’ve won this year’s New York Jets Award for Outstanding Display of Turmoil and Incompetence!
Important to note is that despite how badly Freeman has played and despite their 0-3 record, my early estimation that the team would be good enough to overcome his stink has very nearly come through. They’ve controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, with Doug Martin rebounding after a tough Week 1 (against a Jets D-Line that was probably a little underrated at the start of the season), we know about their talent at wide receiver (even if Josh Freeman apparently still has no idea), and their secondary has shut down two straight solid passing attacks – the strength of the rest of the team is evidenced by the fact that despite Freeman’s seemingly boundless ineptitude, the Bucs are a few stupid penalties away from being at least 2-1, and they outplayed the Patriots for a huge part of the game in their 20 point Week 3 loss, in which Mike Glennon was seen repeatedly warming up on the Bucs’ sideline.
If you happen across a Bucs fan who has just emerged from a four week coma and desperately asks you how Josh Freeman’s season is going so far, just reply “Mike Glennon was seen repeatedly warming up on the sideline…” That’ll do.
My preseason feeling that the NFC South would be the best division in football hasn’t changed, which is bad news for an already 0-3 Bucs team that has only gotten one divisional game out of the way.
The Verdict: Doomed
New York Giants
So, how’s the football season going in the State of New York? In a Week 3 victory over the Bills, the Jets had more penalty yards than the Giants starting quarterback and running back combined had yards from scrimmage.
I’ll let that sink in for a moment.
Wondering whether the Panthers 38-0 drubbing of the Giants, one of the more shocking NFL results in a while, says more about the Panthers or the Giants? The Panthers lit up the Giants for 38 points, and they’re STILL ranked 32nd, dead last, in the league in passing yards. Their defense threw a shutout, and they’re still middle-of-the-pack in most defensive categories. The Panthers lost to the Bills in Week 2. That should clear things up for you.
The Giants are an absolute disaster, and there really hasn’t been any reason or catalyst behind their rapid decent to utter foulness other than a weak offensive line. One of the great coaches of all-time, one of the best passing attacks in the league, and a running back generally regarded as one of the most talented, and a passable defense, and the result: 38-0. 0-3.
I picked the Giants to win the NFC East, mostly for the reasons I just listed, and as Oakland Coliseum-y as their season has been so far, that division is horrendous. It’s hard to imagine the door closing on the Giants before they’ve amassed 9 or 10 losses, so don’t panic just yet, Giants fans. Put in some tape of the Redskins and the Eagles and breathe a huge sigh of relief.
The Verdict: Presently Dead, but with serious resurrection-as-zombie potential.
The ‘THEY ARE WHO WE THOUGHT THEY WERE!!!’ Division
I had them on the cusp but out of the playoffs at around 8-8, and through three weeks they are on the fast track to that mediocre finish. I understand that Chip Kelly runs a unique offensive system and that he has the perfect personnel on offense to run that system, but at what point does defensive personnel have to dictate how you run your offense? The Eagles don’t have the talent on defense to handle the workload that comes with having an offense that gets on and off the field in a hurry, and so far this is killing them. The numbers paint a pretty clear picture – the Eagles are giving their opponents too many opportunities to score against a defense that isn’t any good:
Eagles Total Defense: 30th
Eagles Defensive Yards/Drive: 29th
Eagles Offensive Time of Possession: 32nd
Not helping matters is that Michael Vick is deteriorating rapidly from “Talented Guy with Enormous Shoulder-Chip” to “Talented Guy Who Can’t Get Out of His Own Way,” which is where we’ve become accustomed to seeing him. He was smothered by Kansas City’s defense in Week 3, and he must like Andy Reid as much as he says, because he kept giving the ball to Andy’s team like it was a warm bun cake for the new neighbors.
Like the Giants, the Eagles will benefit from being in a weak NFC East, but I don’t see the upside on defense, at quarterback, and on the sideline that the Giants have.
The Verdict: Doomed
This is a team that is old and, with a few exceptions, talentless. Period. I know they’re the Steelers, I know they’ve had a lot of success in the last ten years, I know about Antonio Brown and Big Ben, but they’ve done such a good job at keeping their weakening roster, particularly on defense, upright and passable in the last three years that it’s been a sudden shock to many observers to see this team look as bad as it does this year.
The big issue with the near-complete lack of playmakers on the team (I know, I know, Antonio Brown), and with the front office’s inability to get younger on defense and replace the offensive skill players that they’ve lost, is the annihilation it is going to cause to their star quarterback. Roethlisberger, who can’t stay healthy as it is, is looking at a season in which the ball will be in his hands more often because they’re going to play from behind a lot/don’t have a running back, which means that your injury-prone leader, who is the only reason that anyone is going to go see the Steelers this year, is going to have a lot of opportunities to be pummeled, and considering the state of their offensive line, he is going to be pummeled a lot of times. What is the over/under on starts for Big Ben this year? Give me under 12.
Is it at least starting to become more apparent how really, really weird it was for the Steelers to let Mike Wallace go without a fight?
The Verdict: Doomed
The Who Are You? Division
Ryan Tannehill, who are you?! The Dolphins are a team playing in a down division, a division with a stumbling front-runner, that could easily sneak into the playoffs. They have two big benchmark games coming up at New Orleans and at home against Baltimore, but both are winnable considering how the Dolphins have been gameplanning their offense. Neither Baltimore nor New Orleans have a scary secondary, and Mike Wallace running 70 yard deep outs to open the middle of the field for Brian Hartline has been a pretty formidable scheme so far for the Dolphins, and Lamar Miller has actually looked solid at running back – remember, this is no longer a league where you need a star back to go far in the playoffs, and Lamar Miller’s numbers so far, if projected out over 16 games, look plenty on par with the James Starks and Ahmad Bradshaw’s of the world.
Donnell Ellerbe and Nolan Carroll are having monster seasons on the defensive side of the ball, but the overall team numbers on both offense and defense leave a lot to be desired. I don’t think this is a great team, and the carpet could come sweeping out from under them at any moment, BUT: If they split the upcoming Saints/Ravens set, they’ll head into their bye at 4-1 with winnable games still coming against the Bills, Chargers, Bucs, Steelers, Bills again, and Panthers – if they run the table in just those games, that puts them at 10-6.
The Verdict: Alive and Sneaky
Jay Cutler, who are you?! We all saw the defensive performance last night in Pittsburgh, which, thank god for it, if you’re the Bears, because the Steelers were somehow crawling back into the game by the fourth quarter. The Bears are 3-0 and haven’t looked particularly wonderful in any of their three wins, with the Minnesota game being the ominous one for the Bears. The Vikings are roaming around in the NFC sewer, and it took a last-second touchdown to beat them in Chicago – this was after the last-second home victory in Week 1 against Cincinnati – and with two still coming against both Detroit and Green Bay and one each against New Orleans, Baltimore, and Dallas, I am going to assume that the Bears are going to fall on the whoopee cushion fairly quickly, here.
Chicago’s defensive touchdown-performance was great Monday night, but there’s room for a conversation about the ratio of luck/skill that goes into scoring defensive touchdowns, but some other of Chicago’s defensive numbers through three games:
Total Defense: 25th
Pass Defense: 24th (Christian Ponder, Andy Dalton, Ben Roethlisberger…ahem)
Their current trajectory seems too unsustainable to get overly excited about the 3-0 start.
The Verdict: Steep Decline Forthcoming
Matt Schaub, who are you?! This is a 2-1 team that should be 0-3, and the numbers are pretty ugly. Does Matt Schaub look to anyone like a guy who can win 3-4 straight playoff games? Also, Arian Foster is sounding more and more like a lunatic every week, and so who is going to feel comfortable sitting him down and telling him that Ben Tate has nearly matched his yards-total in half as many carries and so he’s probably going to have to play some more? Have fun with that, Gary!
Four of the Texans’ next five games are against Seattle at home, at San Francisco, at Kansas City, and at home against Indianapolis. Have fun with that too, Gary! When you look at their schedule, it really is some fantastic luck that Houston was able to mount those comebacks against the Chargers and Titans, because they could easily be staring down the barrel of 1-7.
They’ve given up a ton of points, but is it possible, with J.J. Watt and Brian Cushing both healthy, that the Texans defense is actually its biggest weakness? In short, no. The Texans are 24th in the league in Points/Game Allowed, which sounds awful, but they’re 2nd in Total Defense, 2nd in Rush Defense, and 9th in Pass Defense, which tells you that the offense is turning the ball over a ton (-3 TO Differential) and punting the ball away to strong opponent field position.
The Verdict: Another Playoff One-and-Done
The Sneaky Contenders
The Bengals were my preseason Super Bowl pick, and through three games, they look like as complete a team as there is in football. Andy Dalton has responded well to added pressure this year, Giovani Bernard has been slotted in at running back to take an increasing share of the load from a lagging Benjarvus Green-Ellis, and the defense has been stellar, led somewhat surprisingly by Vontaze Burfict and Terence Newman, with even a little Pacman Jones sprinkled in (though Pacman was arrested over the weekend, making his status the rest of the way a little unclear – relatedly, whoever took the “under” on 4 games before a Pacman Jones disorderly conduct related incident hit the jackpot for like the eighth year in a row). Geno Atkins has been basically dormant through three games, but I look for that trend to continue for about as long as it takes for Cleveland to come to town, which incidentally will be this week.
They never should have lost that tough Week 1 game in Chicago and they bullied a weak Pittsburgh team in Week 2, but Week 3 was the showcase game against the Packers. They went through a stretch in the first half in which they turned the ball over on four straight possessions (remember when I wrote about how disciplined they looked in the preseason? Dammit), but their defense, despite feeling thoroughly Freeman’d at that point, still played tough, holding Aaron Rodgers to a field goal on three of four straight possessions in which he had a short field. They sacked Rodgers four times and picked him off twice (and really should have had a couple more), Bernard had his best game on the same day in which he also had his highest percentage of the workload this season, and Andy Dalton only turned the ball over twice, which I’m told is a new record for ginger quarterbacks.
This is a team that could have buckled after their Week 1 choke-job, but they’ve rebounded extremely well. The NFC North is way, way down across the board, despite the Ravens big win against Houston this week. I’m not backing off the Super Bowl pick quite yet.
The Verdict: Contender
I love the Lions. We knew about their talent on offense, but they’ve actually played passable defense through three games against strong offensive opponents. Their numbers don’t blow you away, but the +3 TO Differential is nice, and their secondary, led by DeAndre Levy and Chris Houston, is having a monster start to the year. Speaking of monsters, Ndamukong Suh. Suh, for all his talent, represents everything that could go wrong for this Lions team as the season progresses. The team still has a reputation as being undisciplined and reckless – led by Suh – and we saw with the Lions last year and with the Bucs through three weeks this year that guys on defense who, in this newly policed NFL, try to be hit-men, will cost their team games.
They have trouble running the ball despite having one of the best-looking offensive lines in football, and I don’t think you can count on Reggie Bush to play 16 games anyway, but some of the wrinkles that they’ve added to their passing game almost make up for their inability to run. They have two big receivers in Johnson and Burleson, and they run a lot of quick screens and wide receiver slants, impossible routes for corners to cover against a guy like Johnson, to get short yardage over the middle, and this has opened the long plays for both Burleson and Johnson in the same way that a strong running game would. Remember when Sanchez won all those playoff games and we started to wonder if we overvalued Matthew Stafford as the best quarterback from the 2009 draft class? Neither do I. Burleson especially has had a huge impact in the early going, and word came down just now as I am typing this that he was in a car accident this morning and broke his arm, which would be a huge loss for the Lions and a blow for Burleson himself, who’s spent this year rebuilding his stat-sheet.
The Verdict: Almost There and Rising Quickly
Kansas City Chiefs
That’s right, I said it: Three weeks into the season, the Kansas City Chiefs are a sleeper contender. There was a pretty significant Chiefs bandwagon before the season started, and I was on it, predicting them to get in as a Wild Card, and the bandwagon has grown exponentially through three games. I wrote about it a little earlier in the week, but the defense has been remarkable, led by Poe and Flowers, and the team is a little bit of a throwback to some of the early-mid 2000s Conference Champions (Ravens, Seahawks, Early-Roethlisberger Steelers) that had a passable quarterback, one or two strong receivers, an All-Pro running back, and a strong defense. It’s the makeup of the anti-contender of the last 5 years, but they’re making it work. 3-0 and they haven’t even played the Raiders or Chargers once yet. 3-0 and Andy Reid hasn’t drowned in a euphoric stupor at the bottom of a vat of barbecue sauce. Things are going about as well as they possibly could for Kansas City so far this year.
Still left on their schedule: the aforementioned two each against San Diego and Oakland, plus Buffalo, Cleveland, Tennessee, the Giants, and Washington. They could win just seven out of those nine cupcake games and get to ten wins.
The Verdict: Almost There and Rising Quickly
Next Week on How Good Are They?: Patriots, Falcons, Ravens, Titans, Panthers, and Colts