So I have learnt through several attempts that even a couple of lines per team soon adds up to a lot of work on a league wide survey post so I’m breaking this down into sections and still planning to hit each team as I work my way through this quick check now that every team is at least a quarter of the way through their season.
The Conference Leaders
The top tier of teams so far this season contains two teams who have made themselves stand apart by dint of their unbeaten records. Both the Kansas City Chiefs and the LA Rams have high flying offences with young quarterbacks and defences that are between suspect (Rams are injured and you can run on them) and plain bad (the Chiefs improved a little last week but still rank 28th by DVOA). We have a long way to go but right now these two teams are the front runners and everyone else is scrambling to keep up.
The Real Contenders
My next tier of teams contains a mixture of teams with one or two losses except for one team with three. The one loss teams include the Cincinnati Bengals, Chicago Bears, New Orleans Saints, and the Carolina Panthers. The two loss teams are the Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots, Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers, Jacksonville Jaguars, LA Chargers, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings, and Washington. The final team I’m throwing into the mix are the Philadelphia Eagles, which I’ll explain in context as there are some really interesting divisional battles going on here, which is how I’ll break this tier down.
The AFC East looks like it will come down to either the Dolphins or the Patriots, and with how the last two weeks have gone it looks like the Patriots will resume their usual place atop the division in the coming weeks. The return of Julian Edelman helped their offence and we have already seen glimpses of what Josh Gordon might be able to do with Tom Brady. The Dolphins have lost their last two games, which were on the road but they are also about to welcome the fearsome Bears defence and stopping Khalil Mack with two offensive linemen on IR and Laremy Tunsil in the concussion protocol will not be easy. I like a lot of what Adam Gase has done but the wheels could be coming off again for him, much as it pains me to say it although they still have plenty of team speed.
In the AFC North the Bengals have an offence transformed from last season and defence that is a work in progress and whilst not always pretty, they keep finding ways to win late. The Baltimore Ravens have looked good this year with an improved offence thanks to better receiving options and the usual defensive excellence but have dropped divisional games to the Bengals and Browns already. Finally, we have the Pittsburgh Steelers who are really struggling for a team who are usually contenders and have been in the headlines all year thanks to Le’Veon Bell’s holdout and problems on defence. It’s possible they will drop a tier but I have too much respect for the infrastructure and the competitiveness of this team to do it quite yet but they do not look good.
Right now, despite them having the same record as the Tennessee Titans, I’m only listing the Jaguars from the AFC South in this tier. This is for the simple reason that as Jekyll and Hyde as Blake Bortles has been, the defence is ranked third in defence by DVOA and I expect them to get back to the playoffs. Plus the Titans get a big demerit for losing to the Bills this week…
The LA Chargers are already two games back on the Chiefs in the AFC West and have made life difficult for themselves already, but their offence is ranked third in the league by DVOA and will get a real boost on defence once Joey Bosa gets back from injury so will be hoping they can stay in the race.
The NFC East is a division in flux right now and I have picked the first and third teams as they currently stand. Washington are 2-2 and stand atop of the division right now by dint of having one less loss through already having had their bye week. I can’t discount them as they are top of the division and they did beat the Packers in week three but they just got blown out by the Saints and they could easily slide down a tier but the state of the division might keep them in this tier. The other team I’m putting here are the Eagles who are off to a slow start thanks to injuries and things not quite working out. That said, they can get back to even with a win against the genuinely flawed Giants Thursday night and I can’t rule out them turning things round. It is worth noting however that they lost a lot of coaches on the offensive side of the ball in the offseason and this combined with the player injuries may have contributed to the slow start.
The Chicago Bears offence is ranked first in the league by DVOA and are spearheaded by Khalil Mack who has been on fire since being traded from Oakland. The offence has done enough for three wins and time will tell if their six touchdown performance in week four was Matt Nagy taking advantage of a predictable Bucaneers’ defence or if it was something of a breakout for Mitch Turbisky. They currently stand atop the NFC North but both the Packers and the Vikings are lurking one win back. The Vikings have had a strange up and down start to the season where the defence hasn’t quite looked the same as recent seasons but Kirk Cousins and new offensive coordinator John DeFillippo seem to be forming a good partnership even if the DVOA ranking is not living up to last year. I have faith that with average injury luck that Mike Zimmer will have them be competitive at the end of the year. Similar things should hold true for the Packers, as long as Aaron Rodgers is healthy they’ll be competitive at the end of the year, but they need to get some road wins under their belt as they’ve lost both games so far and have games against the Rams and Patriots on the horizon. It certainly looks like they have work to do to stay in with a chance in this competitive division this year but I wouldn’t rule them out just yet.
The NFC South looks like it is going to be between two teams this seasons. The Panthers may have needed a last minute field goal to win against the Giants on Sunday, but win they did to maintain their unbeaten record at home. The defence is uncharacteristically out of the top ten by DVOA but they look like a tough team who are setup to compete all year, even with Greg Olson battling foot problems. The New Orleans Saints have picked up where they left off on offence, helped this week by the return of Mark Ingram from suspension. The defence started slowly, but looked better against Washington on Monday and special mention should go to Taysom Hill who is doing a bit of everything for this team from read-option quarterbacking to special teams. Oh yes, and Drew Brees is really good and is now the NFL’s all-time passing yards leader!
And that’s it for this tier, the NFC West don’t get a mention and you’ll find out why in a second.
The Outside Chances and Earnt Respect
So this is where I’m going to separate the rest of the two win teams I can see might do something from those who won’t, which should make some sense once I run through them. Oh yes, and there’s the minor matter of the only three-win team I haven’t mentioned yet.
The Seattle Seahawks are another team like the Bengals who had three road games in their opening four and they may have lost their second home game against the Rams last week, but they made them work for it. The defence is still top ten by DVOA and although they have struggled on offence, they are just outside the top ten in the rush attack and that combination can make you competitive even if you are already three games back in the division. I’m concerned I’m over valuing past performance but they have a definite home advantage and I don’t expect them to go quietly into the night.
Dallas are not even one game back in the division but have not looked good. A combination of unimaginative play calling, injuries/decline in the offensive line and a lack of options in the passing game has hurt their offence but the defence had looked better and there’s an outside chance they can remain competitive in a poor division but they need to get their act together and I’m not convinced their coaching staff are setup to do that.
Jumping conferences, the Tennessee Titans are the first team that leaps to mind given they have three wins. The problem is that they have to grind all of those out, and just when I thought that Marcus Mariota and the offence are turning things round, they lay an egg against Buffalo. It is Mike Vrabel’s first year as head coach and with a defence just out of the top ten by DVOA and a special teams unit that is top five, he only needs the offence to come together a little better for them to push on. It wouldn’t surprise me if he can pull them up but I can’t predict it just yet.
The Houston Texans are only a game back from the Jacksonville Jaguars, but need to build on their two game win streak. The defence’s front seven look to be coming together but they look to have problems in coverage, whereas the offence looks okay until they get to the red zone. Bill O’Brien needs to stop getting Deshaun Watson hit so much and figure out a way to get into the end zone, but they could yet drag themselves into contention, which O’Brien has managed before with worse quarterbacks than Watson.
Finally a special mention in this tier are the Cleveland Browns who could credibly have been 5-0 this season, and have not lost by more than three points this season. They look to have finally found a quarterback in Baker Mayfield that this reboot of the franchise has never had whilst the defence ranks second in the league. For all the strangeness that seems to swirl around Hue Jackson, it feels like the Browns are going to be a difficult team to face all season.
The Special Cases
So I’m leaping down briefly to my first two 1-4 teams because whilst there are teams with more wins, I feel secure in saying there’s something extra about these two.
I’m surprised the Atlanta Falcons offence only ranks eleventh by DVOA as their problems are not on this side of the ball, but with the injuries up the spine of their defence they only have one win and need to be nearly perfect on offence as a result. It was a bad loss against the Steelers on Sunday and whilst I don’t expect them to go quietly, it’s going to be hard to do more than act as a spoiler with how they are looking at the moment.
I like where new head coach Frank Reich has the Indianapolis Colts heading even if they haven’t had the wins to back it upvso far. It doesn’t look like Andrew Luck has all the zip we’ve seen in the past just yet, but he’s looked good and the defence is thirteenth by DVOA. There was a lot of work to do on this roster so it’s probably a season early for them to be in contention, but I don’t think they’re far away and they’re just that bit ahead of where the next teams are.
I Just Don’t Know
I’m really not sure what record these teams are going to finish with and it seems like often we don’t know which team is going to turn up. The Denver Broncos have an advantage early in the season at home and have two wins as a result but the defence is not the same and I’m not trusting of the current coaching staff. The New York Jets have managed a couple of wins where Sam Darnold has looked really promising but he is very much a rookie quarterback and this team feels like they are in transition. The Buffalo Bills have a young quarterback who’s shown flashes and could be difficult to face in Buffalo but the roster needs work and who knows how they’ll finish? The Detroit Lions beat the Patriots and the Packers at home for their two wins but lost narrowly to the Giants on the road. They could drag themselves up a tier if they play well but I just don’t know with a first year head coach if they can make a nuisance of themselves or not. The up and down of the Tampa Bay Bucaneers’ offence got them two wins, but their defence ranks last in the NFL by DVOA and it’s easy to see how things could get rebooted in the offseason.
Finally, the Oakland Raiders sneak into this group because I don’t think they belong in the final group, and maybe Jon Gruden can turn it round but things are certainly not off to a good start and I’ve been wrong before.
It’s Going to be a Long Season
The San Fancisco 49ers were expecting to build on the promise they showed at the end of last season, but the set back of losing their stating running back in pre-season was compounded by a season ending knee injury to Jimmy Garoppolo and with one win it looks like a long season in purgatory until they can regroup.
The good news is that we have no winless teams this season, and the Arizona Cardinals look like they could have another young quarterback with the potential to play well if some of his receivers could reduce their drops. However, there is a lot of work to don on the roster and it looks to be a long season for their fans.
The final team of my lightening survey of the league are the New York Giants. They have one win but a defence that ranks twenty-fourth, two generational talents at offensive skill positions but a thirty-seven-year-old quarterback who hasn’t played well in two years and an offensive line that can’t protect him or make holes for Saquon Barkley. They may well be picking early again next year, and with the moves they made in the offseason this was not the plan.