Contender or Pretender? Week 3 Provides Clarity for NFL's Most Debatable Teams
Forty-seven games into the 2020 NFL regular season, few will likely dispute the notion that the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs, the unbeaten Baltimore Ravens, Green Bay Packers, Pittsburgh Steelers, Seattle Seahawks and Tennessee Titans and the remarkably talented New Orleans Saints are locked in as contenders.
Meanwhile, few will argue that the winless Atlanta Falcons, Denver Broncos, Houston Texans, Minnesota Vikings, New York Giants and New York Jets and the rebuilding Carolina Panthers and Cincinnati Bengals are playoff threats.
But what about everybody in between?
Let's look at middle-class teams that provided clarity with telling performances on the final Sunday of September.
Contender: Indianapolis Colts
It's become clear that the Indianapolis Colts' Week 1 dud against the Jacksonville Jaguars was a huge aberration.
While it's fair to lack trust in quarterback Philip Rivers based on his habit of throwing fourth-quarter interceptions, the Colts are one of the most talented teams in football across all levels. We already knew their offensive line was as stable as any in football, but the defense has emerged as an elite unit early this season.
Led by third-year star Darius Leonard and offseason addition DeForest Buckner in the front seven along with the unheralded but oft-unbeatable Kenny Moore II in the secondary, that D has surrendered a league-low 44 first downs all season. And in the last two weeks, they've given up just 18 points while registering six takeaways and five sacks.
The Indy D ranked fifth in terms of DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) at Football Outsiders entering Week 3, and that is likely to change for the better after Sunday's dominant performance against the New York Jets.
Rivers has also found his footing after a late-game gaffe cost Indy that opener against Jacksonville, and even without injured running back Marlon Mack, they have multiple high-quality options in the backfield. Throw in that head coach Frank Reich is quite simply great at his job and the Colts should be in the Super Bowl conversation entering October coming off back-to-back blowout victories.
Pretender: Los Angeles Chargers
A 1-2 Los Angeles Chargers team with major questions under center probably isn't considered by many to be a Super Bowl contender. But after taking the Kansas City Chiefs to overtime in rookie Justin Herbert's debut last week, there was room for some to wonder if a Bolts team with plenty of playmakers on defense could ride a hot young quarterback to its second playoff appearance since 2014.
But a notoriously erratic Chargers squad was again more Hyde than Jekyll in September.
That strong performance against Kansas City was sandwiched by a near-loss to the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 1 and an embarrassing defeat at the hands of the Carolina Panthers on Sunday. They had a chance to make that shaky opener against rebuilding Cincinnati look like an anomaly, but that's out the window after a stereotypically mistake-plagued performance against the clearly inferior Panthers.
The 22-year-old Herbert was responsible for two of L.A.'s four turnovers as it was evident the Panthers were better prepared for him following his surprise Week 2 start against K.C.
The Chargers are lucky they aren't 0-3, and the road ahead appears rockier—they travel to Tampa Bay and then New Orleans in the next two weeks—which means we could be burying Anthony Lynn's squad by Halloween.
Contender: Buffalo Bills
If not for a game-saving drive from the Buffalo Bills offense late in the fourth quarter of a thrilling Week 3 victory over the Los Angeles Rams, the jury would likely remain out on an evolving squad that has a lot of work to do in order to gain trust following two decades of fairly consistent ineptitude.
But the Bills are now 3-0 after passing a test of their mettle in their first real bout with adversity this season.
Before blowing a 25-point lead to the Rams, Buffalo had outscored its opponents 86-48 en route (seemingly) to a perfect September. Twenty-nine consecutive points from the Rams in the second half must have been utterly demoralizing for a relatively young team featuring a still-maturing quarterback, but the Josh Allen-led Bills offense responded with an 11-play touchdown drive to salvage the W.
It wasn't pretty, but it was revealing. High-quality, mentally strong teams frequently find ways to win even when the dung hits the fan, and Buffalo did exactly that against a solid veteran opponent Sunday in Orchard Park.
The Bills cut it a little too close in a three-point victory over the Miami Dolphins in Week 2 and showed us again Sunday they have to do a better job putting opponents away. But Allen finally looks like the real deal, and the Bills have the talent, the coaching and the spirit to earn their first playoff victory of the 21st century.
Pretender: Las Vegas Raiders
The 2-0 Las Vegas Raiders were big fat phonies, and they provided proof of that by laying an egg Sunday against the New England Patriots.
A too-close-for-comfort Week 1 victory in Carolina didn't mean much. And while a Week 2 win over New Orleans was encouraging, the notoriously slow-starting Saints didn't have superstar receiver Michael Thomas for the first-ever game at the Raiders' new venue in Vegas. A strong follow-up showing in Foxborough would have been a statement, but Las Vegas was instead hardly competitive in a 16-point defeat.
The Raiders turned the ball over three times and committed three times as many penalties as New England as familiar mistakes from previous seasons reared their heads. They found the end zone on just two of five red-zone trips, and quarterback Derek Carr completed just three passes that traveled 15-plus yards, bringing his September total to eight.
Carr is highly efficient but lacks home-run power, and a toothless defense has generated just two takeaways in three games.
The Patriots aren't clearly better than the Raiders on paper, but they dominated them Sunday. New home, same unreliable team.
Contender: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Tom Brady era couldn't have gotten off to a worse start two weeks ago when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers fell to a shaky-looking Saints team by a double-digit margin in the season opener. At that point, the 43-year-old Brady's decline was glaring as he threw two interceptions, took three sacks and completed just two of his seven deep attempts.
But Brady was more efficient as the Buccaneers hammered the Panthers in Week 2, and he showed off improved chemistry with a wide array of talented Tampa receivers, tight ends and running backs in carrying the Bucs to a second consecutive blowout victory Sunday over the Denver Broncos.
Meanwhile, a defense that held Denver to just 10 points has now generated six takeaways and 11 sacks in the last two weeks alone. Reigning NFL sack leader Shaquil Barrett is proving he isn't a one-year wonder, rookie defensive back Antoine Winfield Jr. has been a revelation, and they've shored up with veterans Lavonte David, Jason Pierre-Paul, Ndamukong Suh and Vita Vea in the front seven.
Do we need to see it against a stronger opponent than Carolina or Denver? Absolutely, but a team with game-changing talent on both sides of the ball and the most decorated player in NFL history under center gets the benefit of the doubt for now.
Pretender: Chicago Bears
Yours truly has 800 words over here on why the 3-0 Chicago Bears aren't for real, even if former Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles has performed enough magic in the past to give hope to those who realize Mitchell Trubisky probably isn't the answer at quarterback.
Foles gave the Bears a valuable jolt in relief of a benched Trubisky as they came back from a 16-point fourth-quarter deficit to defeat the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, but two of their wins have come via comebacks of 16-plus points in the second half. That's not sustainable, and it's worth noting that the schedule is about to become fierce after the Bears beat three teams with a combined 2020 record of 1-8 by exactly four points each.
Now they play aforementioned contenders Indy and Tampa, and they're about a month away from a hazardous run that pits them against the Los Angeles Rams, New Orleans Saints, Tennessee Titans, Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers in consecutive outings.
Foles has experienced some phenomenal moments in this league, but the 31-year-old has never been a consistently successful starter. His 6.5 yards-per-attempt average between 2017 and 2019 ranked 39th among 44 passers with at least 400 attempts during that stretch, and head coach Matt Nagy's quick September hook with Trubisky makes you wonder if a back-and-forth quarterback dilemma might plague the Bears all season long (they've yet to even officially commit to Foles for Week 4).
Toss in a lack of depth at the offensive skill positions and a scarcity of talent surrounding Khalil Mack relative to the state of that unit two years ago and it's hard to buy into the Bears despite their record.
Contender: New England Patriots
The 2020 Patriots are showing just how far quality coaching can get you. Bill Belichick is the best in the world at this, and he has a team that was gutted by offseason losses performing at an elite level entering October.
Are the Pats overwhelmingly talented at any position except the secondary? Nope. But Belichick is a magician, quarterback Cam Newton has a unique skill set and an MVP award on his resume, Stephon Gilmore is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, and the Pats simply know how to win.
They've shown us that in two easy victories over the Miami Dolphins and Las Vegas Raiders this month. And while they fell just short in a Week 2 defeat at the hands of the burning-hot Seattle Seahawks, that performance was an indication that they can keep up with anybody despite the fact they're without Tom Brady and fellow former key cogs Jamie Collins Sr., Kyle Van Noy, Dont'a Hightower, Marcus Cannon and Patrick Chung.
That slugfest in Seattle might have been convincing enough, but a blowout victory Sunday over the previously undefeated Raiders was the icing on the cake. Incredibly, the Pats are a contender again.
The Jury's Still Out
Not even pretending and certainly not contending but not out of it yet
These are the teams that have not played well enough to be contenders but simply can't be counted out.
Dallas Cowboys: Take away a miraculous comeback in Atlanta and they're 0-3. But the NFC Least contains no contenders, which leaves the top-heavy Cowboys in the hunt.
Detroit Lions: We would have written them off if not for a season-saving victory Sunday in Arizona. A talented Lions team isn't toast and has momentum at 1-2, especially in an expanded playoff field.
Jacksonville Jaguars: They've come back to earth following a shocking Week 1 victory, but they hung with the Tennessee Titans in Week 2, and it's too early to rule out Gardner Minshew II Magic.
Miami Dolphins: Like Detroit, they saved their season with an impressive Week 3 win. They're probably at least a year away, but with emerging talent and three wild-card spots, you never know.
Philadelphia Eagles: Quarterback Carson Wentz and the entire offense is a mess, but they're just half a game out of first place despite being winless. Again, the NFC Least...
Washington Football Team: Back-to-back deflating losses indicate the WFT isn't ready to compete, but have we mentioned their division is flaming garbage?
Technically contending and certainly not pretending but not locked in yet
These are the teams that have played well enough to contend but have a lot more to prove.
Arizona Cardinals: Sensational young quarterback Kyler Murray bombed in an ugly Week 3 performance, but they're on track to join the gang of contenders with one strong bounce-back effort or two.
Cleveland Browns: It has by no means been pretty, and they are by no means worthy of any of our trust. Still, they're above .500 for the first time since roughly the Civil War era.
Los Angeles Rams: A 2-1 start and a feisty performance in Buffalo has the Rams on the edge of the top echelon, but they've just lost so much talent recently that we're holding out.
San Francisco 49ers: They're mentally tough, well-coached and somehow above .500 despite substantial injuries on both offense and defense. But the schedule has been a joke, and it's fair to wonder if all the losses will catch up to them in a strong division.