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Are These Five Early Surprise Teams Contenders or Pretenders?

Several teams that were widely expected to miss the playoffs have instead burst out of the gates. Are they built to last?

It’s a tough time to be in the prognostication business. Each year, I pick every single NFL game and, sometimes, you finish a project like that feeling like the league may as well not play the season since you already cracked the code. This year, through three games, my expectation that many of the teams we’ll talk about below would struggle this year has me reeling. In my initial projections, I had the Raiders, Cardinals and Panthers all finishing last in their respective divisions. They are all currently 3–0.

But is this just a mirage?

That’s what we’re here to examine about each of the NFL’s five surprise teams so far. Are they for real? Are they riding a soft schedule? Have they benefited from some oddly fortuitous on-field occurrence? Are they, despite a soft schedule, going to maintain their grip on first place?

Join us on a spin through the proverbial desert, where we’ll discuss whether this crystal-blue pool and fully stocked ice chest we’re seeing through the heat and haze is coming upon us, or whether it’s destined to vanish, the product of some timely early-season mental trickery.

Denver Broncos Teddy Bridgewater Tim Patrick

Broncos (3–0)

Wins over: Giants (27–13), Jaguars (23–13), Jets (26–0)
Are they for real? YES

Teddy Bridgewater is not only playing good-enough football for the Broncos this year, he is playing like one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. He has the league’s third-best total quarterback rating and is sixth in expected points added per dropback.

Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur’s career has been strange in that way. Both with Case Keenum and Bridgewater, he’s been able to find a quarterback who can stretch the outer limits of his system despite a lack of pedigree coming in (relatively speaking). 

The real story here is obviously the defense, which hasn't truly been tested but came into the season as one of the most talented units on paper. The Broncos are fifth in Football Outsiders’ latest DVOA rankings, and while they have faced Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson and Daniel Jones, Vic Fangio’s track record gives us more confidence that their ranking will hold. A win over the Ravens would shoot the Broncos into a far more legitimate stratosphere, but at the moment, they have not fallen into the pitfalls of recent past, losing games to inferior opponents because of a lack of punch on offense.

Raiders (3–0)

Wins over: Ravens (33–27, OT), Steelers (26–17), Dolphins (31–28)
Are they for real? MAYBE

Derek Carr is certainly for real. It’s hard to overstate just how enjoyable it’s been watching him come into his own as a quarterback, which, as I’ve said before, is a strange thing to write about a 30-year-old. Carr took some massive shots against both the Ravens and the Steelers, with both coordinators’ assuming his penchant for grabbing at the safe throw was still true. In those games he began to resemble a more dependable veteran player who can rip teams apart with a well-timed deep shot. 

Gus Bradley has been able to schematically cover up for some of the team’s glaring weaknesses in the secondary, and their pass rush has performed so far above expectation that both Yannick Ngakoue and Maxx Crosby are among the league leaders for pass rush and run stop win rate, respectively. Ironic, isn’t it, that the year Jon Gruden reportedly tried to get Khalil Mack back, he finally found a combination of edge rushers who make the defense tick?

Bengals (2–1)

Wins over: Vikings (27–24, OT), Steelers (24–10)
Are they for real? NO

A Week 5 date with the Packers will be a measuring-stick game for the Bengals, but there’s a good chance they'll go into that one 3–1 with the Jaguars coming to town Thursday night. Now that the Bengals have flashed some competency, the beginning of their schedule looks far different than it did back in July, when I picked this team to finish dead last in its division (a trend that will continue throughout the early season, by the way, with games against the Lions and the Jets still lingering before the bye week). While I tried to be clear in some preseason writing that the “Ja’Marr Chase can’t catch” narrative seemed silly, the Joe-Burrow-is-hesitant-in-the-pocket narrative was worth keeping an eye on, mainly because the Bengals didn’t do much to upgrade their offensive line.

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What’s giving me pause and should prevent anyone from shifting the Bengals from no to maybe is that Burrow is still being pressured at an identical rate to where he finished the 2020 season (24%). At the moment, the Bengals are a respectable 12th in pass block win rate, and Burrow has been in the upper-middle-tier of quarterback efficiency. But their wins are against a Vikings team that missed a field goal in overtime and a Steelers team that looks completely punchless offensively. Further down we will get more excited about some teams that have beaten opponents with less-than-sparkling résumés, but Cincinnati’s roster doesn’t yet get the benefit of the doubt. This is especially true on defense. 

The Bengals are currently fourth in DVOA, which feels like an early-season anomaly. If it holds, Zac Taylor and defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo deserve some Coach of the Year love. But, with a second half of the season that includes dates with the Chargers, 49ers, Broncos, Ravens, Chiefs and Browns, do we think it will?


Cardinals (3–0)

Wins over: Titans (38–13), Vikings (34–33), Jaguars (31–19)
Are they for real? MAYBE

Kyler Murray is playing lights-out football right now, with the third-highest completion percentage above expectation in the NFL, behind only Bridgewater and Dak Prescott. Because of the presence of Murray, the Cardinals are never not going to be considered for real. While he is not yet on the level of Lamar Jackson as a singular game-plan destroyer, Murray is good enough that you should never discount his team against any opponent, which is a heady thing to say about a third-year player. 

My concerns with their record thus far are as follows: Their game management skills are still wonky. They nearly lost that game to the Vikings. And like a few other teams that got the first crack at last year’s unstoppable outside zone offenses, the Cardinals guessed right and walked into that matchup against the Titans with a bulletproof game plan, giving them the kind of single-game, nonreplicable edge that we may have otherwise tabbed as an offseason evolution for the unit as a whole. 

Let’s see how Arizona does with back-to-back games against divisional opponents. The NFC West is the best division in football, and it would still seem the Cardinals lack the overall heft to hang with the Rams or 49ers for four quarters. If we’re wrong about this, too? Look out.

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Panthers (3–0)

Wins over: Jets (19–14), Saints (26–7), Texans (24–9)
Are they for real? YES

The C.J. Henderson trade may end up being a stroke of genius that shows how committed the Panthers are to racking up wins while the schedule allows. The Panthers are currently the league’s No. 1 defense, and Sam Darnold, while not playing nearly as well as his predecessor in Carolina, is still an upper-middle-tier player with arguably as good a showing this year as Justin Herbert and Joe Burrow. 

Here’s why I feel safe with a yes call right now. The Panthers’ schedule is breaking incredibly favorably. The Falcons are going to be a nonfactor in 2021, and before their Week 13 bye week they have only two games against opponents with winning records (the Cowboys and Cardinals). The only hesitancy here is wondering whether offensive coordinators can finally figure out Panthers’ defensive coordinator Phil Snow, who has emerged as an early darling of the '21 season thanks to his Rolodex of pressure packages and fronts (a nice primer here). Joe Brady is also continuing his rapid ascent up the NFL coaching ladder, with a notable performance against a superior Saints defense in Week 2. 

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