Perhaps the most confusing point in the season is after Week 3.
There are only four possible records for teams to have, and any team that is winless or undefeated is somewhat self-explanatory (although there are certainly different levels to those records). The difficulty, however, is finding meaning and leverage in the muddle of 2-1 and 1-2 records by sorting out what we know to be true.
And, after three weeks of the season, we may not yet know all the absolutes like who will play in the Super Bowl or who will lead the league in rushing, but we certainly do know some things.
The easiest of these things to say with certainty is in regards to the quality of teams. We can often overlook the role coaching, scheme, team building, depth, and culture can play in the success or lack thereof for a team. The good news, though, is that these are often evident early in the season and can be ridden over time to yield winning bets and positive fantasy plays.
As such, here is a look at three “good” teams from the middle of the pack that excel in some or all of the areas listed above and three “bad” teams from the same group who don’t. The goal here is not to tout the 3-0 teams or pile on the 0-3 teams, but to expose the teams in between for who they truly are.
The Good Teams (who are not undefeated)
Despite being injured and undermanned, Philadelphia is two dropped passes away from being undefeated.
In what will be an important metric in this article, the Eagles have a negative point differential of just 2. If this sticks, this implies that over time they will have an opportunity to win more games than their current record indicates. If, as I suspect, this number will change for the positive over time, then they will be on pace to be an above .500 team.
This does, however, seem like a good place to point out that this article is not about predicting future success or guaranteeing playoff spots. Rather, it is about identifying teams that will continue to put fights throughout the season or teams that will be easier wins than they may seem to be.
In Philly’s case, they have a tremendously difficult stretch coming up that includes playing four of the undefeated teams in the next seven weeks, with the Vikings and Bear mixed in along the way. So although we may not be predicting them to roll through that schedule, we are pointing out that they may prove to be a tougher test than other 1-2 teams would be.
Let’s look at why.
I will grant you that Philadelphia’s secondary has looked shaky and that the defense in general has not stood up to the test, but unlike the other teams in this category, the Eagles have a quarterback who they planned on winning games for them this year.
At a closer look, Carson Wentz is actually playing at one of the highest levels in the league. His receiving core has consisted of a rotating door, such that Nelson Agholor leads the team in catches with 18, and besides Zach Ertz no one else is in double digits. In fact, the only other two players with double digit TARGETS are Mack Hollins and Miles Sanders.
Despite this, Wentz is averaging 280 yards per game and has thrown for multiple touchdowns in each start. This is with the Mile Sanders struggling to run the ball and Jordan Howard playing exactly as you would expect Jordan Howard to play (25 carries, 99 yards, 1 TD aka the Howard special).
As a team, Philly’s main concern is their defense, which has been stout in stopping the run but porous in letting up passing yards. To date (before their matchup with Green Bay) the Eagles have let up less than 60 yards rushing per game but almost 300 passing.
A good portion of this seems as though it is philosophy, and there are signs that Philly could turn is changing course to adjust. One week after semi-bottling up Matt Ryan (outside two throws that accounted for almost 100 yards and 2 touchdowns) the Eagles held Matt Stafford to just over 200 yards. Also, their Week 1 struggle against Case Keenum and Terry McLaurin is looking less pathetic now that McLaurin is a bonafide stud.
With the receiving core getting healthier and the defense adapting to a new plan, this team has the chance to take what could have easily been a 3-0 start and play like the former champions they are. They may not win every game, but we can find the lines that treat them by their record and not their ability.
I will do my best to not make this write-up a love letter to Kyle Allen, but boy did he make it tough with his Week 3 performance.
Watching this Carolina team with a capable quarterback is something to behold. I have written about it twice already this week, so I won’t spend too much time on it, but the playmakers were on display for the first time this season against the Cardinals.
To put into context what I am saying, there is only one player who has thrown a touchdown for the Panthers in their last five games: Kyle Allen. With an injured Cam Newton behind the helm, this offense became one dimensional and predictable.
With Kyle “Mini-Josh” Allen slinging the ball, though, Carolina showed they have a slew of speed and talent that opens up the field for the best running back in the NFL.
But like I said, I will try not to make this all about the quarterback, and with good reason. A lot of Carolina’s numbers point to a team that could easily have one or two more wins already.
Through Week 3, the Panthers have outgained their opponents by almost 300 yards in total offense and have limited offenses on the other side of the ball to 166 passing yards per game (!!!!) thanks in large part to the leap cornerback James Bradbury has taken. Plus with 12 sacks already and Brian Burns pressuring the quarterback at one of the highest rates in the league, this defense can make an opposing QBs life a nightmare.
In the all important category of point differential, the Panthers are +9, and while that may be due to their blowout of the Cardinals, it also speaks to their two one possession losses to the Rams and the Buccaneers.
But of course, in those two losses, the Panthers were playing with a disadvantage at quarterback. An injured Cam Newton was barely completing more than 50% of his passes, and his average yards per completion was a minuscule 6.3. In those games, he also had a total of three turnovers, which is the main reason the Panthers are at a minus 2 turnover differential on the year.
With a healthy, confident, capable quarterback, this Panthers team has an offense with weapons and a defense that can hang with anyone. They have a chance in any game they play, and that means we can win money on them every time they take the field.
Long live Kyle Allen.
Anyone in the Owl Hive knows that Indianapolis is neck and neck with Buffalo for the team who has won us the most money.
In fact, Indy is only a missed kick away from being undefeated themselves, and this past weekend Adam Vinatieri bounced back by going 5 for 5 on kicks in their dismantling (don’t look at the score) of the Atlanta Falcons.
What made this win more impressive was that it came without Darius Leonard in the game, which speaks to the Colts depth, coaching, and scheme. To be able to lose the best defensive player on your team (or at least top 2) and shut down a supposedly explosive offense says something meaningful.
But we are burying the lead here. For the majority of teams losing a franchise quarterback for the year is devastating and insurmountable. For the Colts, losing their franchise quarterback for forever has been just a minor speed bump along the road. Revitalizing an offense around Marlon Mack and a stellar offensive line has been seamless, and Jacoby Brissett has played his role perfectly.
With such a complete roster, Frank Reich’s talents as a scheme lord have been front and center. Whether it is the optimal usage that TY Hilton has enjoyed, the unstoppable ground game that has Marlon Mack third in the NFL in rushing, or the “no big plays” defense, this team has been coached up to be the best version of itself.
Later on, you will read about another AFC South team (hint: not in this section) and the fact that the Colts share their division with some less-than coaches and shaky rosters bodes well for a team that few had in the playoffs once Andrew Luck left town.
But, despite his absence, this team has an identity, it has a coach, and it has the depth to win any game it’s in. Now, that’s a good team.
The Bad Teams (who have won a game)
Here is a riddle: How can a team have the best wide receiver in the league, an explosive number two receiver, a top three quarterback, and a three time defensive player of the year yet still struggle to win games?
The answer: Because Bill O’Brien is the coach AND general manager.
The underlying numbers for this Texans team are not actually too bad, they are 14th in the league in scoring, scoring nine touchdowns in three games, while forcing their opponents to kick eight field goals in that same stretch.
What is troubling about those numbers, however, is the fact that Houston would be at the top of the league in offense were it not for poor play calling and a QB-offensive line combo that has been sacked 12 times and pressured at one of the highest rates in the league.
Given the talent on this roster, an innovative play caller would have no problem controlling the football and maintaining a lead while working down the clock. After losing Lamar Miller for the season, many thought this rushing attack would be lost, yet they are somehow ranked tenth in the league in rushing yards per game. Even with this fact, the Texans have lost the time of possession battle against their opponents so far.
And when we look at the games they have played, we see that they have a crisis of coaching.
In a Week 1 game that was tremendously mismanaged, Bill O’Brien saw his team score a go-ahead touchdown with 37 seconds left (on a play where Deshaun Watson got rocked...more on that later), only to allow the Saints to complete pass after pass and drive 35 yards into their territory for the game winning field goal.
In Week 2, the Texans came an inch and a bad call away from losing to Jacksonville, and in Week 3 they came from behind against the Chargers thanks in part to two blown coverages on their tight ends (who knew the Texans had tight ends?).
But perhaps the most damning of all future Texans thoughts is the almost guarantee that Deshaun Watson is going to be out or playing injured very soon. No quarterback has been hit at the rate he has since Andrew Luck’s first three years, and he ended up retiring before he turned thirty.
We never root for injuries, and if Watson does stay healthy this team could overcome its coaching to reach its potential, but given that we are in the business of probabilities, the most probable outcome is that the Texans lose some games they should win, Watson misses some time, and we clean up betting against them.
The Lions have a point differential of six points and somehow haven’t lost a game yet.
They have the talent of a good team, but the coaching of a team destined to be in close games all season, with a high chance that variance will stop favoring them.
To date, they have enjoyed the fruits of that variance on a week by week basis, which has resulted in their inflated record. In Week 1, they managed to tie a Cardinals team that has since been outscored by 24 points. In that game, Detroit managed to bungle a 17-3 halftime lead and blow an 18 point fourth quarter lead. As the game went to overtime, this was essentially a coin flip or worse for the Lions (given “momentum” and the fact that they were on the road) so escaping without a loss was fairly lucky.
Week 2 brought a Lions win against a quality Chargers team, but was made possible by the Chargers having two touchdowns called back because of penalty as well as Austin Ekeler fumbling as he reach out for the end zone on the one inch line. Had any of those been converted, the Lions would be facing a 17-6 deficit and a likely loss. Instead, they were able to march down the field with the score 10-6 and score a Long Kenny Golladay touchdown to win 13-10.
And finally, Week 3 saw the Lions go into Philadelphia and beat a depleted Eagles roster by seven. A quality road win for sure, but one that came against a squad that was not full strength and that saw JJ Arcega-Whiteside drop a would be game winning touchdown in the final minute. Between these three games, it is clear to see that the Lions are a couple of bounces away from a multiple loss season.
When we dig deeper into the numbers, however, the Lions are actually even worse than this may suggest. So far, their opponents have out gained them in total yards, rushing yards, and passing yards while getting six more first downs and converting at a higher rate on third downs.
On a player level, Kerryon Johnson has rushed for an average of 2.6 yards per carry while their leading receiver is Marvin Jones Jr. with 15 catches. In both categories their offense is yielding vanilla numbers for its best players while showing little innovation on a consistent basis.
Whether you look at the game scripts or the numbers, this Lions team is overachieving at a staggering rate, and we will be able to exploit that moving forward. Our first opportunity comes as the Lions host the Chiefs as 7 point underdogs, a number that our research tells us is much too low.
This isn’t a shock to anyone who has watched a Browns play this season, but this team is not playing well.
Watching them play the Jets, it was clear that Baker Mayfield does not trust his line and that Freddie Kitchens does not have an innovative bone in his body. This became doubly apparent as we watched (and won money) on the Rams beating them handily in Cleveland.
As I have touted on here many times, Warren Sharp is a must follow on Twitter (as am I), and one thing that has leapt off the page in his tweets is how inefficient and straight up bad the Browns offense is.
Per Sharp, in 11 personnel (meaning one running back, one tight end, and three wide receivers) the Browns have a 36% success rate and Baker Mayfield has a 76 rating. Out of 12 personnel (meaning one running back, two tight ends, and two wide receivers) the Browns have a 71% success rate and Baker Mayfield has a 101 rating.
Despite the clear benefit to using fewer wide receivers and giving more protection to Baker behind a bad offensive line, the Browns are running 93% of their plays with 3+ wide receivers.
If you want more of a visual, think of the four “and goal” plays the Browns had to tie the game against the Rams on Sunday Night. Lining up with three wide receivers, Baker Mayfield was pressured on each route, and no receiver was able to break open because he had already broken the pocket. In fact, this is such a problem that on one of the plays, Baker threw off his back foot out of the end zone just because he was anticipating the Rams defense bearing down on him.
Perhaps this coaching can be rectified, and maybe the Browns can find a way to improve their offensive line, but the more likely scenario is that they crumble under a difficult early schedule and Freddie Kitchens is exposed as a rash hire by an organization that does not have the infrastructure in place to be a “good” team.