Three weeks into an NFL season is just long enough to make us think that we know what teams are genuine Super Bowl contenders. However, the season is less than 20% over and there are a lot of things we don’t know quite yet.
There are a few teams that look like they could be good, but they're really just fooling you. To be fair, there’s every reason to think the Kansas City Chiefs and Baltimore Ravens are still the class of the league. We’re also starting to believe some of the hype with the Buffalo Bills, Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks, which admittedly, could still be a little premature.
While we feel pretty, pretty, pretty good about those teams, we're obligated to warn you about the six teams that appear to have gotten off to a fast start but whose kool-aid you shouldn’t drink just yet.
New England Patriots
In fairness, the early returns on the Cam Newton experience in New England have been rather positive. However, wins over the Dolphins and Raiders aren’t overly convincing and things are going to get a lot more difficult in the weeks to come. For instance, road trips to Kansas City and Buffalo are on the schedule between now and Election Day.
While Cam looks eerily reminiscent to his MVP form, there's still a big concern with his offensive weapons. While the Patriots lead the league in rushing, the ageless Julian Edelman is the team's only legitimate threat to a defense in the passing game. When push comes to shove and the Patriots have to play the top teams in the AFC, will Edelman out of the slot and a good running game be enough to overcome offensive juggernauts such as the Chiefs and Ravens?
After going to the AFC Championship Game last season and starting the year 3-0, everything seems to be going right for the Titans. However, Tennessee has won three games by a combined six points, requiring a late field goal from Stephen Gostkowski in all three games. Granted, there’s something to be said for the ability to win close games, so the Titans should feel good about that. However, they’ve won three close games against teams that have combined for only one win during the first three weeks of the season. At some point, things have to even out a little bit.
While they may have set themselves up well for a 12-4 season — if not better — the numbers say the Titans are closer to an 8-8 team. Teams aren’t stopping Derrick Henry, but they’re holding him to 3.9 yards per carry, which is a drastic difference from last year’s 5.1 yards per tote. Meanwhile, Ryan Tannehill has been a good game manager but nowhere near the level of the top quarterbacks in the AFC. With A.J. Brown sidelined indefinitely, the Titans are relying on Corey Davis to be their top receiver, which is asking a lot of a guy who’s been a disappointment thus far in his career. Despite the fast start, the Titans don’t appear to have the horses to keep it up for 16 weeks, especially now that they've been the first team this season to be hit by the coronavirus.
Following back-to-back blowouts of the Vikings and Jets, all seems to be forgiven for Indy losing to the Jaguars in Week 1. Of course, those wins, albeit convincing, have both come against teams that are still winless. In that sense, we can pump the brakes a little on the Colts giving up the second-fewest points in the league through three games. That might continue a little longer, but when they face the Ravens and Packers in November and the Texans twice in December, we’ll know more about the Colts defense.
On the other side of the ball, there have to be lingering questions about the offense after facing three lackluster teams. Even with a strong offensive line, the Colts are middle of the pack in the rushing department. Also, Philip Rivers has the same number of touchdown passes as interceptions after three weeks while his contingent of receivers is yet to stand out, especially with Parris Campbell sidelined for the season.
To be fair, the Colts are good enough to take care of business against bad teams, but that doesn’t mean they can match up with the AFC’s elite teams.
San Francisco 49ers
There were some questions after a rash of injuries hit the 49ers in Week 2, but everything is fine after a 36-9 thrashing of the Giants, right? Well, not so fast. The San Francisco defense is far from broken with Nick Bosa and Solomon Thomas out of the lineup. But they’re not the only players nursing injury. Plus, the team’s success is predicated on the defense being elite, not just above-average. Even with an adequate amount of depth, Bosa is the difference between a good defense and a great defense.
Meanwhile, we haven’t seen enough from the San Francisco offense to think that unit can make up for the defense dropping down a level or two from last year. Even if Jimmy Garoppolo returns, there are questions about the consistency of the wide receivers. The San Francisco backfield is also hurting with Tevin Coleman and Raheem Mostert injured. It all looks easy against the Jets and Giants, but San Francisco’s schedule from mid-October to mid-December is downright brutal. That’s when we’ll know if the 49ers have what it takes to make it back to the Super Bowl. For now, it’s fair to be skeptical.
In one sense, you have to give the Bears credit for getting to 3-0 with Mitchell Trubisky playing two and a half games. Frankly, it’s surprising that Nick Foles wasn’t the starter in Week 1. But even with Foles taking over as the starter moving forward, there’s a lot of fool’s gold in Chicago’s 3-0 start. They have three wins all by a margin of four points against teams that have combined for only one win. Needless to say, the Bears still have a lot to prove.
While the Chicago defense is good, that unit isn’t at the same level it was two years ago when the Bears won the NFC North. That means it’s on Foles and the offense to carry their weight. When you take away Trubisky’s running ability, the Bears are averaging a modest 4.2 yards per carry on the season. They also lost Tarik Cohen for the season, which is a massive loss for both the rushing attack and the passing game.
If you take away his Super Bowl MVP award and a few great playoff games with the Eagles, Foles has been an average quarterback at best and doesn’t figure to be good enough to take a somewhat limited Chicago offense to the level it needs to reach to keep up with the Packers in the NFC North.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Contrary to popular belief, Tom Brady isn’t going to solve all of Tampa Bay’s problems. They’ve earned double-digit wins over the Panthers and Broncos, but it’s going to take a lot more than that to make the Bucs a genuine contender in the NFC. The good news is that the Bucs have a manageable schedule for the next month to help them increase their lead in the NFC South. But Tampa’s schedule during the second half of the season is far more challenging and will tell us a lot about them.
Even with deep threats at his disposal, Brady is averaging less than seven yards per pass through three games. The Bucs are also struggling to run the ball consistently from one week to the next, averring just 3.8 yards per carry on the campaign. The Tampa defense also gave up 34 points against the Saints in Week 1, drawing questions about how they’ll handle quality offensive teams.
While there is a lot to like about the Buccaneers, nobody should assume that Brady makes them a serious contender to reach the Super Bowl out of the NFC.
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