We are now three weeks into the NFL season and several trends have begun to take shape. Teams are beginning to establish themselves as contenders while some are already starting to look ahead to next year. It may still be early, and teams can still turn it around, but the start to a season often sets the tone for the rest of the year. While teams like the Rams and Buccaneers have looked as good as advertised, a couple of teams have greatly outperformed expectations early in the season. If you had told me three weeks ago that the Chiefs would be last in the AFC West, while the Broncos and Raiders were both in first place and undefeated, I wouldn’t have believed it. And no one predicted the Carolina Panthers to be ahead of the Buccaneers in the NFC South, even this early in the season. So, how can we explain these phenomena? Is this just a mirage or are these teams showing us what we can expect for the rest of the season? Let’s dive into more detail for each of the Panthers, Broncos, and Raiders to see what has sparked this early success and whether they will be able to maintain it throughout the year. The teams are sorted by their current playoff odds, gathered from FiveThirtyEight.
Preseason Playoff Odds: 43%, 9–8 record
Current Playoff Odds: 70%, 11–6 record
Last season the Broncos were 5–11 and finished a putrid 29th in DVOA according to Football Outsiders. This season, they have a DVOA of 34.1%, good for fifth in the league. This turnaround has been sparked largely by a drastic change in offensive performance. With a new QB (Teddy Bridgewater) running the offense and several players back from injury (at least for a little while) the Broncos have surged from a 30th place finish in offensive DVOA to seventh place at this point. Perhaps at the root of this is the upgrade at QB. After using a combination of Joe Flacco(53.3 QBR avg.) and Drew Lock(48.7 QBR avg.) for the last two seasons, they added Teddy Bridgewater in the offseason, and it has paid immediate dividends. Bridgewater has posted a QBR of 77.8, good for fourth in the league. Bridgewater’s counting stats haven’t been overly impressive (just 780 yards and 4 TDs) but he has yet to turn the ball over and has completed 76.8% of his passes. In addition to the early offensive success, the defense has lived up to preseason expectations as one of the best units in the NFL (currently fifth by DVOA).
So, can they keep this up? Coming into the season, Denver had decent expectations behind a good defense and a known upgrade at QB, but this level of success has certainly exceeded those expectations thus far. However, it is worth noting that they have faced the easiest schedule in the NFL so far (based on DVOA). Their three opponents (Jets, Jaguars, Giants) are a combined 0–9 thus far. And those may be the three worst teams in the league, none of whom have looked very good on either side of the ball. And while Bridgewater has been effective, he hasn’t been asked to do much and has mostly been a game manager. In a division with three good to great teams (Raiders, Chargers, Chiefs), it is fair to wonder if Bridgewater can keep this offense in the game when the defense struggles against more efficient offenses. In addition, they have now lost two of their top receivers (KJ Hamler and Jerry Jeudy) and one of their best defensive players (Bradley Chubb). And on top of that, the special teams unit has been less than stellar, ranking just 26th in DVOA.
However, while the schedule has been easy, it doesn’t appear to be getting too difficult any time soon. Moving forward, Denver faces a schedule in the bottom half of the league in terms of difficulty. And while they are dealing with injuries, they have proven that they can be effective on both sides of the ball. And while the special teams have not been great, its worth pointing out that last year’s Super Bowl champion, the Buccaneers, had a special teams unit that also finished ranked for 26th in DVOA. So while there are some signs that this isn’t completely sustainable, it is totally possible this team could make some noise in the playoffs.
Las Vegas Raiders
Preseason Playoff Odds: 24%, 7–10 record
Current Playoff Odds: 62%, 10–7 record
Last season the Raiders finished at 8–8 and had a DVOA that ranked 19th. While this wasn’t horrible, it came on the heels of a 6–2 start. A late-season collapse pushed them down the rankings and they came into this season with fairly low expectations.
And while they have certainly exceeded those expectations, their DVOA is only 14th in the league at 5.5% (barely above average). While they have not perhaps been as good as their record, they have enjoyed one of Derek Carr’s best seasons thus far. Carr has posted a QBR of 60.3, good for 11th in the league. This actually continues a trend of decent seasons from Carr following a subpar start to his career. But perhaps the main reason for this early success can be found in some late game heroics and luck. Take the season opener against Baltimore. After falling behind by two touchdowns, the Raiders rallied to force overtime against the Ravens. In overtime, the Raiders drove the length of the field before Carr threw an interception on third and goal. However, their defense forced a fumble of Lamar Jackson on the ensuing drive, allowing them to still win the game. And in week 3 against a banged up Dolphins team, they blew a two-score lead before hanging on in overtime. In fact, they have faced a fairly easy schedule, particularly the offenses they have gone up against. Their only clean win came in week 2 against the Steelers, who have posted an offensive DVOA of -9.8% (24th in the league).
So while this 3–0 start is impressive and certainly bodes well for their playoff prospects, there aren’t a lot of encouraging signs. Their late game luck and overtime heroics, while incredible, are probably unsustainable. And their schedule thus far has been easier than most (at 22nd in the league), but more difficult times are ahead, as the face the eighth toughest schedule moving forward. While this team has been a lot of fun, no one part of their team has been better than about average and a lot of their success seems unsustainable. Playing in a tough division doesn’t make things any better and it should be interesting to see if they can maintain their success. Still, it is always good to be undefeated at this stage and makes it much more likely for them to push for a playoff spots.
Preseason Playoff Odds: 26%, 7–10 record
Current Playoff Odds: 53%, 10–7 record
Last season, the Panthers finished 5–11 and were ranked just 21st in DVOA (per Football Outsiders). Through their first 3 games this season, however, they have a DVOA of 40.1%, good for best in the NFL. This is largely due to a stifling defense that also ranks first in DVOA and have held opponents to just 10 points per game. Led by the impressive tandem of Brian Burns and Haason Reddick, the Panthers are leading the league in sacks and yards allowed. And while the offense hasn’t been quite as spectacular, a solid season from Sam Darnold has boosted the offense enough to win games. In fact, Darnold has played the best football of his career. In his first three seasons with New York, he posted an average QBR of 43.4, never finishing above 27th in the league. But in his first season with Carolina, he has a QBR of 66.5, good for seventh best among qualified QBs.
So, is this hot start sustainable? While the defense has been excellent, the quality of the offenses they have faced are fairly low. In fact, none of them rank above 21st in offensive DVOA. Though the defense has done what it should, it may not be able to sustain this level of play. And on the other side of the ball, the offense has been solid but not spectacular, and we have yet to see a sustained run of success out of Sam Darnold. And though it has not impacted them yet, the Panthers’ special teams unit is the second worst in the league by DVOA. To make matters worse, they lost Christian McCaffrey to an injury in their last game and they share a division with the reigning Super Bowl champion Buccaneers.
Luckily for Panthers fans, though, the schedule doesn’t get too difficult this year, ranking just 21st in the league moving forward, per Football Outsiders. And while the poor offenses they have faced may explain some of the defensive greatness, they have still performed above expectations and should continue to be a plus on that side of the ball. So, while there are some indicators of regression, the playoffs are not nearly as much of a reach as they seemed to be three weeks ago.