Last week I talked about why power rankings shouldn’t be taken so seriously, and now comes a reminder about what I said last week about the third week of the season: You can safely judge which teams are likely to miss the playoffs but not more than that.
It’s the fourth week of the season in which you learn more about which teams are heading in what direction. That’s because the fourth week is when most teams have finished one-fourth of their season. So when you look at Football Outsiders DVOA rankings, even after the third week, you aren’t going to get a clear picture of where teams are really headed.
But there are a few observations we can make about teams who started 3-0 and 0-3 and where they are most likely headed, based on what we can gather about them this season. We can do the same with teams who are ranked high in offensive or defensive DVOA, even before Football Outsiders starts taking strength of schedule into account after Week Four.
So let’s examine certain areas and ask ourselves where teams are likely headed.
Denver: Playoff bound. Barring a rash of injuries, I don’t see the Broncos rapidly declining. They return too much talent on defense and those players they’ve had to replace, the ones that have stepped into the lineup haven’t hit their ceilings yet. On defense, there is still plenty of room for Shane Ray and Todd Davis to grow. On offense, the same can be said for Trevor Siemian, Max Garcia and Michael Schofield.
New England: Playoff bound. The Patriots are the hands-down best team in the AFC East. They have the best coach in the NFL. And they aren’t at full strength yet. I don’t see the Patriots going undefeated, but their playoff spot is secure unless another team in the division gets red hot.
Minnesota: Possibly playoff bound. The thing about the Vikings is that their defense is playing at a high level. The Vikings lead the NFL in sacks and are doing an excellent job at forcing turnovers. Their issue is the offense, but it isn’t really the quarterback (Sam Bradford is playing at an acceptable level). It’s the lack of a good running back, the lack of a top wide receiver (though Stefon Diggs has been solid) and, most of all, it’s the lack of a good offensive line. The Vikings’ win over the Packers was crucial toward winning the NFC North, but they need to go at least 5-1 to ensure the division.
Philadelphia: Maybe playoff bound. Carson Wentz has been a great find for Philadelphia, but the defense has been terrific, too. You don’t hold a team like the Steelers to three points without great defensive play. One of the overlooked offseason moves the Eagles made was naming Jim Schwartz their defensive coordinator. That’s the guy who made the Bills a top-five defense in DVOA in 2014, only to be sent packing when Rex Ryan came along and wanted to run a 3-4 defense, not the 4-3 Schwartz prefers. We know what’s happened in Buffalo, so what Schwartz has done with Philly’s D can’t be underestimated. As for the Eagles’ playoff hopes, that all depends on their division play and they haven’t played anyone in the NFC East yet.
Baltimore: Remains to be seen. While the Ravens have been fine on defense, they are winning ugly against weaker teams. Plus we don’t know yet how the rest of the division (other than the Browns) will take shape. The tougher part of the Ravens’ schedule will arguably come in the second half of the season, when they get two games against Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, plus the Eagles, Cowboys and Patriots. If the Ravens can win enough games in October, though, they should at least be in position for a wild card berth.
Cleveland: Starting 0-3 in the AFC North means your playoff path is almost gone. I’m not counting on the Browns beating Washington this week and, even if that does happens, they get the Patriots in Week 5 and that’s when their hopes are definitely gone. (BTW, the Browns were not going to turn their fortunes around this year if they had drafted Carson Wentz. He may have helped, but the Browns are coming off a lot of years of bad offseason moves and it’s going to take more than the right quarterback to overcome that. It’s fine to be skeptical about the Browns’ long-term future, though, because Jimmy Haslam is a bad owner and bad owners mean bad franchises.)
Jacksonville: It would be easy to write off the Jaguars after three weeks, but the AFC South is a weak division this year and the Texans losing JJ Watt for an extended period makes the division that much more up for grabs. However, if the Jaguars can’t get it done against Indianapolis in Week 4, they can forget about a playoff trip.
Chicago: The Vikings have one of the best defenses in the NFL. The Packers are playing well defensively and their offense seems to be getting on track. And the Bears are banged up going into their first NFC North game against Detroit. A Week 4 loss and the Bears won’t go to the playoffs.
New Orleans: On one hand, the NFC South race is far from settled. On the other hand, one of the Saints’ losses came in the division against the Falcons. They desperately need a win against San Diego in Week Four, because an 0-4 start is too difficult to overcome, especially when you follow that with a three-game run against the Panthers, Chiefs and Seahawks.
Teams ranked ahead of Denver in defensive DVOA
Before I look at the teams, one thing to keep in mind is that, while Denver’s defense is coming off a strong season and beat three teams that were playoff contenders last year, what happens if the Broncos beat Tampa Bay and the three teams the Broncos have played all lose in Week 4? Answer: The Broncos will have beaten four teams who are 1-3 to start the season. On one hand, it may be true there would be more factors involved for those teams than their records. On the other hand, it’s why you shouldn’t fall into the trap of looking at last year to determine who the Broncos have beaten. It’s a new season and what happens this season is what matters.
Now let’s look at the defenses who are currently ranked ahead of Denver in defensive DVOA (keeping in mind DVOA is not yet accounting for strength of schedule) and ask ourselves if these defenses belong in the conversation of the NFL’s best defense.
Seattle: Yes. Say what you want about the Seahawks’ opposition, but the offense is banged up and Seattle’s offensive line is not good. The defense is doing more of the heavy lifting at this point.
Philadelphia: Yes. See above for what Jim Schwartz has done.
Minnesota: Yes. See above for how well the team has been at rushing the passer and forcing turnovers.
Kansas City: Maybe. The Chiefs’ DVOA is currently skewed by the six interceptions they had against Ryan Fitzpatrick, but they weren’t good early against San Diego and Houston’s offense doesn’t look that good. Now, if the Chiefs hold Pittsburgh to single digits this Sunday, we may have to reconsider.
Baltimore: Maybe. The Raiders have a very good offense, so if the Ravens hold them in check, they may enter the conversation. But I suspect the strength of schedule going into DVOA after Week Four will bring the Ravens down a few notches.
Carolina: Maybe. The Panthers have only faced one good offense (Broncos) so far, but could help their case against the Falcons, who have a good offense, too.
Arizona: Not likely. It’s true the Cardinals weren’t helped against the Bills when the offense kept turning the ball over, but the Cardinals have some issues on defense and I wouldn’t expect them to be ranked ahead of the Broncos once DVOA accounts for strength of schedule.
Houston: Not likely. This all goes back to the Texans losing JJ Watt and not likely to have a player who can become a game changer on defense.
San Francisco: No. Their DVOA is skewed by the opening-season shutout against the Rams. After Week Four and schedule come into play, the Niners will fall back to earth.
Green Bay: Maybe. The Packers have done some good things on defense. The Lions’ score may indicate otherwise, but Detroit is playing well offensively. I like the Packers’ chances of being in the conversation better than I do the last three teams I went over.
My expectation is that, as long as the Broncos defense plays well against Tampa Bay this Sunday, they’ll move up in DVOA. But it wouldn’t surprise me to see Seattle, Minnesota and Philadelphia rank ahead of the Broncos, even if the Eagles have a bye week.
Top 10 teams in offensive DVOA
Keeping in mind that strength of schedule has not been factored into DVOA yet, let’s look at the teams who rank high in offensive DVOA and ask if they are in the conversation of having the best offense in the NFL.
Oakland: Possibly. The Raiders opened against two teams that aren’t good defensively, then didn’t do so well against the Titans. But if they do well against the Ravens, it’s time to consider them a top offense.
Atlanta: Possibly. The last two teams the Falcons faced aren’t good defensively. Let’s see what happens when they face the Panthers.
Detroit: Maybe. It’s hard to judge the Lions, who put up the points against the Colts, but didn’t do that well against the Titans, then turned around and put up the points against the Packers. (Or maybe I’m not giving the Titans defense enough credit, even though the Titans aren’t ranked in the top 10 DVOA.)
Philadelphia: Possibly. As long as the Eagles keep avoiding turnovers, they have to be considered one of the better offenses. Their first real test comes Oct. 23 against Minnesota.
Dallas: Possibly. They are running the ball so well and Dak Prescott isn’t turning the ball over. But we’ll know a lot more when they play Green Bay Oct. 16 and Philadelphia Oct. 30.
New Orleans: Maybe. They pass the ball well, but they don’t run it as well. And the Saints are the perfect example of why having a top offense doesn’t guarantee you a playoff run if your defense isn’t playing well.
San Diego: Maybe. They did move the ball well against the Chiefs but haven’t faced a good defense since. Check back when they face the Broncos Oct. 13.
Cincinnati: Not likely. One would understand that the Bengals would have trouble against the Broncos, but they didn’t do that well against the Jets or the Steelers and neither of those teams have defenses that are as good as the Broncos.
Green Bay: Possibly. Let’s not forget that the Vikings are in the conversation for having the best defense in the NFL.
Denver: Possibly. The Broncos have moved the ball well in all three games (that includes the opener against Carolina) but turnovers have been the biggest issue.
With offense, it’s harder to tell who is going to settle into the conversation of having the best offense in the NFL. It wouldn’t surprise me if those that settle into the top five include at least one team that has a weak defense. We’ll see what happens once DVOA accounts for strength of schedule.
But the bigger question to ask is this: Which teams are in position to be in the top 10 in offensive and defensive DVOA? If you look at those currently in both, it’s the Packers and the Eagles. However, the Broncos rank 11th in defensive DVOA and, if adjustments knock a couple of teams down the list, the Broncos could move up into the top 10. And if the Broncos avoid turnovers against Tampa Bay and keep moving the ball well, they’ll likely improve their position in offensive DVOA.
If the Broncos settle into the top 10 in offensive and defensive DVOA, nobody should complain if the Broncos aren’t ranked No. 1 in defense. After all, being in the top 10 in both categories means the Broncos are more balanced on both sides of the ball, puts them in a position to possibly move into the top five in one or both, and bodes well for the team’s goal of returning to the Super Bowl.