Which 3-0 Teams are the Real Deal?

It’s an oft-repeated fact that if you start 3-0 in the NFL, your chances of making the playoffs jump up to 75%. But what is rarely mentioned is that this still means one-quarter of all NFL teams which start 3-0 still fail to reach the post season. With just three undefeated teams left in the NFL, we ask if they are they real deal, or if they are pretenders, the lucky recipients of an easy schedule and some lucky bounces.

Arizona Cardinals

The Arizona Cardinals currently sit atop the NFC West, after starting the season 3-0. Few would have been surprised to see either the Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers, or indeed both of these teams unbeaten after three weeks, but the Cardinals undoubtedly came as a surprise to many.

The team suffered some key losses in the offseason, through injury, suspension and free agency, and several commentators considered that the Cardinals would struggle to come close to their 10-6 record from 2013—a record which was still not good enough to see them into the playoffs.

Playing in a tough NFC West—still the best division in football—and with a more difficult schedule than average, most thought it would be a real uphill battle for the Cardinals to even top .500 by season end. Yet through 3 games, the Cardinals have looked, to some, like the best team in the NFC West right now.

At 2-0, the Cardinals had looked good in their wins, but the common refrain had been “but who have the beaten”. Most were withholding judgement on this team until they beat a real contender. That came in Week 3 when they faced division rivals, and early playoff hopefuls San Francisco. Though many fans in Arizona have considered this their biggest rivalry in the division, most in San Francisco consider otherwise. After all, the Cardinals have been a team the 49ers have dominated in recent meetings.

The Cardinals 23-14 win, then, somewhat silenced their critics, by actually beating a legitimate team, with a solid offense and impressive defense, and may have kick-started the rivalry many Cardinals fans have hoped these games could be.

The Cardinals struggled somewhat in the first half, failing to find the end zone through the first two periods. Their defense also looked sub-par, failing to stop the 49ers on two long touchdown drives. But in the second half, the Cardinals thoroughly dominated their division rivals, outscoring them 17-0. Even that score is misleading, however, as Larry Fitzgerald uncharacteristically coughed up the ball on the 5 yard line, preventing the team from putting the game to bed even earlier.

Some will argue that the 49ers sabotaged their own game, with a lack of discipline costing them big on multiple drives, including racking up 30 penalty yards on back-to-back plays during the Cardinals first touchdown drive, and a silly head butt by former Cardinal Anquan Boldin, which moved the 49ers back far enough to allow the Cardinals to block the ensuing field goal attempt. But I would argue that even these things showed an impressive poise and discipline on the Cardinals part which will serve them well down the line.

And all of that is without mentioning that the two of the Cardinals three wins have come without starting quarterback Carson Palmer, and with only limited involvement from several key players, including Tyrann Mathieu. Some will wish to play backup QB Drew Stanton’s solid performances as evidence of a brewing quarterback controversy in the desert. In truth, there is no controversy, Palmer is a better passer than Stanton, and you have to feel that Palmer would have done a better job of finishing early drives, and may have seen the game become a blowout early.

However, with an aging QB, knowing that Stanton is waiting in the wings should anything happen is certainly reassuring for Cardinals fans. When Stanton was signed shortly after Bruce Arians took over the team, they were clear that the team would be happy running with him as their starter. Of course, when Carson Palmer became available, the team named Palmer starter immediately, but seeing Stanton perform over 2 games has really demonstrated just what Arians and his team saw in the career backup.

The Cardinals will ride this win into their bye week, giving the team chance to heal up, and fully prepare for a very tough trip to Denver in Week 5, followed by a visit from the Washington Redskins in Week 6 and Eagles in Week 8. We would be surprised for the Cardinals to remain unbeaten after this, but fans can be hopeful that they can come out of this with at least a winning record—this series also includes a trip to Oakland in Week 7—but after that, have a very winnable series of games including the Cowboys, Rams and Lions.

If the Cardinals defense continue to perform as they have through three weeks—the team have given up, on average, just 15 points per game, the second fewest in the NFL—and their offense can continue to improve as they have through three weeks, and can continue to limit mistakes—Cardinals QBs have yet to throw an interception, and have been relatively disciplined on penalties and fumbles—then this is a team which should have a very positive record by seasons end.

After a 3-0 start, and with the type of wins they have recorded, a first return to the Playoffs since Kurt Warner retired very much appears to be on the cards for the Cards.

 

Cincinnati Bengals

The Cincinnati Bengals may just be the best team in the NFL right now. The 3-0 Bengals have faced some of the better teams in the NFL during their first two games, and absolutely dominated a hapless Titans in Week 3.

Andy Dalton appears to be the real deal, and has no difficulty moving the ball with, or without star wideout AJ Green on the field. Giovani Bernard has proven to be the workhorse back most hoped he would be, and has looked particularly special catching passes out of the backfield. Bernard already has 333 all-purpose yards, and three touchdowns and looks set to be one of the top performers in the NFL this year.

What is most impressive about the Bengals, however, is how rounded they seem. In building one of the most potent offenses in football, they have not neglected their defense.

In spite of facing high-flying offenses like the Atlanta Falcons and Baltimore Ravens, the Bengals have given up just 33 points total over their first three games, and have shut out opponents for a combined 7 quarters. Put simply, this is a team that is going places, and fast.

The team is firmly cemented atop the AFC North, a division that has produced multiple Super Bowl champions in recent memory. Although their 3-0 lead puts them just one game ahead of both the Ravens and Steelers, a win in their division, against the Ravens, and two wins in their conference really put them ahead of the pack.

What’s more, for Bengals fans, is just how straightforward their run to the playoffs appears to be.

Like the Cardinals, they have a bye in Week 4, meaning both teams can legitimately claim to be unbeaten in September, and like the Cardinals, this gives them a long week to recuperate and prepare for a tough road trip—to New England to face the Patriots in the Bengals case—and a tough run of games to follow including games against the Panthers and Colts.

However, unlike the Cardinals, we would not be surprised to see the Bengals emerge from even this unbeaten, given some decidedly average play by the Patriots recently, struggles finishing games for the Colts, and inconsistency for the Panthers.

After a 6-0 start, the Bengals would be just two wins away from a .500 season, and 4-5 away from locking up a playoff berth, with two-thirds of the season left to play. During the latter half of the season, they would have a second go around with the Ravens, who they handily beat, games against currently winless Jaguars and Buccaneers teams, and two games against Ohio rivals, the Cleveland Browns, who currently have only 1 win, and look very much to be the odd men out in the AFC North. Assuming just these gimme type games, the Bengals would have 11 wins, usually enough to secure a wildcard spot.

Put simply, it would take something really big and unexpected—like losing Dalton, Green and Bernard to injury—for the Bengals not to reach the playoffs at this point, and while it is a very long season, and anything can happen, if current form is any indicator, this is a young team with big things in their future.

 

Philadelphia Eagles

Of all three 3-0 teams, the Eagles are the ones who came closest to blowing it. After handily dealing with the Jaguars in Week 1, their next two games were won by a combined 6 points. A field goal was all that separated the Eagles from both the Colts and Redskins.

Though, by seasons end, the only thing that will really matter is the win and loss column, not the margins of victory, for Chip Kelly and the Eagles that both teams came so close beating them will undoubtedly weigh heavy on their minds.

The Eagles do not have a bye week until Week 7, but until then have a couple of very winnable games, against the St. Louis Rams and New York Giants, as well as a tough contest against the 49ers next week. The 49ers game will be particularly tough, given how much the Eagles rely on LeSean McCoy and how tough the team are to run against. The 49ers have traditionally struggled in the second half, while the Eagles have been somewhat of a comeback team, so the matchup will be interesting to watch. The Eagles have outscored their opponents 74-24 in the second half of games this year, meaning that this game could be an easy win for them, on paper at least, as long as they don’t fall too far behind too quickly.

However, the biggest concern for the Eagles is that unlike the other 3-0 teams, the Eages do not have a strong defense. Their high-tempo defensive play calling relies on simply outlasting their opponents, and trusting that their opponents offense will wear out before they do. So far it has worked, with their defense managing to outpace their opponents, keeping them on the field, and preventing them getting back into games—albeit by the smallest of margins.

Indeed, through three weeks, the Eagles offense have mostly relied on the same tactics—outgunning and outlasting their opponents.

However have not faced anyone with what would be considered a good, let alone elite defense.

In addition to the 49ers, whose run defense is amongst the best in the NFL, the Eagles also face a scary Cardinals defense, and the Seahawks, who many still consider to be the best defensive team in the NFL, in spite of recent struggles. All three of these teams have similar up-tempo defenses, but are usually much more disciplined, and much more successful than anything the Eagles have faced thus far, and will pose a very different sort of challenge for the team.

If the Eagles are not able to outgun these teams, wins may be very difficult to come by.

Whats more, several of Chip Kelly’s players have expressed concerns about their ability to keep up the sort of tempo over the course of the season.

“We’ve got to start taking care of our guys, taking care of our players,” Cornerback Cary Williams said of the practice and game day regiment Kelly has the Eagles running through. “A lot of guys coming in here had no legs. We’ve got to start taking care of our guys throughout the week in order for us to be productive and have more energy on Sundays. You’ve got to be smart, as a coaching staff and as players.”

However, with all of that said, in reality, the Eagles still seem to have an inside track to the playoffs, assuming they can keep their stars healthy.

It’s not that the Eagles are a great team—on the evidence of their first three games, they are little more than an average one—but compared to many of their rivals, their schedule is almost embarrassingly easy. Admittedly, two-thirds of their games against the NFC West will be tough, as will their Week 10 matchup against a stout Carolina Panthers defense, but otherwise, it seems their schedule was tailor-made for Kelly’s high tempo offense.

Without a doubt, they face some high scoring teams—teams like the Packers, Texans and Redskins will undoubtedly have no issues scoring points on the Eagles—but neither are they so defensively sound that they will be able to stop the Eagles completely from doing the same to them. All three of these games will be close, high scoring affairs, but the Eagles stand as good a chance of any of coming out with at least one, if not two wins here. The rest of the schedule sees the Eagles with a significant advantage almost every week. Teams like the Titans and Giants have been pretty hopeless most weeks, and the Cowboys and Rams, while full of potential, just have not delivered yet on any kind of consistent basis.

Furthermore, many of their opponents are teams which have been hampered by injury—The Rams are onto their third string QB, while both the Titans and Redskins are currently running with backups—which again plays into the Eagles favour.

Without question, the Eagles are the 3-0 team with the most questions about their performance so far, but given the softness their schedule, and relative weakness of the NFC East—affectionately called the NFC least by many fans—the Eagles may just be the first of the 3-0 teams to lock up a playoff berth, if they can win their division early.

Are they the real deal? We remain to be convinced, but do they have a very real shot at making the playoffs? You’d be foolish to rule them out.

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