Analysis

First-Quarter NFL Review: Separating Contenders From Pretenders

Jalen Hurts

To quote the great Bill Parcells, “You are what your record says you are.” I heard this all the time in my formative years as a scout for Sean Payton’s Saints. As a Parcells disciple, he believed in dividing the season into quarters to evaluate the team’s progress against key performance indicators.

In this spirit, let’s look at all the teams from 4-0 to 0-4 to see where they stand at the (almost) quarter pole to sift out the contenders from the pretenders. Teams with the same record are listed in order of their point differential.

4-0: Philadelphia Eagles 

The NFL’s only undefeated team is feeling good, with Jalen Hurts and A.J. Brown amongst the Total Points leaders at their positions. In addition, the Eagles are in the top 10 in EPA per play on both offense and defense in terms of overall, on early downs, on late downs, in the red zone, and in the middle of the field.

3-1: Buffalo Bills, Kansas City Chiefs, Dallas Cowboys, Miami Dolphins, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings, New York Giants

Coming off a nice comeback win against the Ravens, the Bills have the top point differential in the NFL, and their only loss was to a 3-1 Dolphins team. The Bills are third in the NFL in EPA per play on offense and second in defense despite ranking 28th in the league on third- and fourth-down defense. If they can return to full health, they rightfully stand out as a Super Bowl favorite.

Like the Bills, the Chiefs have a healthy point differential despite playing three of their first four games on the road. Without Tyreek Hill, they have played 38% of their offensive snaps with two or more tight ends. The result? They lead the NFL in offensive EPA per play through the first month.

After the Bills and Chiefs, there is a significant dropoff to the rest of the 3-1 teams who all have outscored their opponents by single-digit margins. In fact, there are six teams with two losses but better point differentials than the Cowboys, Dolphins, Packers, Vikings, and Giants.

Each of these five teams has reasons for optimism or concern, depending on how you look at things. The Cowboys have won three straight despite being without their starting quarterback, while the Dolphins started with three consecutive wins before losing their QB. It will be interesting to see how they fare with Teddy Bridgewater against a schedule that doesn’t include another top-10 team in the SIS Strength of Schedule model until December.

Aside from Allen Lazard, the Packers’ lack of receiving options is well-documented. They are adjusting by increasing their usage of 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR) up to 31%, the second-highest rate in the league, while decreasing their use of 11 (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) to 51%, which ranks 27th. Expect more of the same going forward because they average -.13 EPA per play from 11 personnel, compared to .19 EPA per play from 12.

In the cases of the Vikings and the Giants, the early returns on new coaches seem to be strong, but it’s fair to say that they are each very fortunate to be 3-1 at this time. Remember how the Eagles were in the top 10 in EPA per play on both offense and defense in terms of overall, on early downs, on late downs, in the red zone, and in the middle of the field? The Vikings aren’t in the top 10 in any of those categories, nor are they in terms of Positive % (Success Rate). Meanwhile, the Giants’ offense has created negative EPA in all those categories, and their three wins have come against bottom-10 teams in the SIS Strength of Schedule model. Their schedule tightens up over the next month.

2-2: Jacksonville Jaguars, San Francisco 49ers, Cincinnati Bengals, Baltimore Ravens, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Cleveland Browns, Atlanta Falcons, Denver Broncos (Before Thursday Night), Chicago Bears, Arizona Cardinals, Los Angeles Chargers, Seattle Seahawks, Los Angeles Rams, New York Jets, Tennessee Titans

As mentioned earlier, the point differentials among the top-six 2-2 teams are better than many of the 3-1 teams’ point differentials, which is undoubtedly a positive sign. However, there is a dropoff for the remaining teams after the Falcons and Broncos (who are both about even in terms of points scored and allowed).

The Jaguars are one of the toughest teams to gauge as a contender, but their next three games are against three of the bottom-four teams in the SIS Strength of Schedule model, so they have an opportunity to position themselves to make the playoffs if they are for real. The Niners, Bengals, Ravens, Bucs, and Browns all entered the season with higher expectations, and have done enough through four games to still be in the mix as legitimate contenders.

Of the teams with negative point differentials, the two L.A. teams are surprises on the list, but this is probably mostly a product of their difficult schedules to start the year. Still, they can’t be happy with their performances offensively. The Chargers are 25th in red-zone EPA per play, and the Super Bowl champs are last in early down efficiency.

The Titans also had high expectations as two-time defending division champions, but there are signs of concern. They have faced three of the lowest-ranked teams in terms of schedule strength, and their red-zone efficiency, which tends to be volatile, is the only thing keeping them from being one of the bottom offenses in the league.

 

1-2-1: Indianapolis Colts (Before Thursday Night)

With one of the league’s worst point differential, the Colts have to dig out of a large hole in the AFC South. They might need to adjust their tactics on both sides of the ball. Going into their Thursday night matchup with the Broncos, they had used zone scheme runs at the third-highest rate in the league despite the second-worst performance on these runs. Likewise, they had played 61% zone coverage on defense and were 27th in EPA per snap.

1-3: Detroit Lions, Las Vegas Raiders, Carolina Panthers, Pittsburgh Steelers, New Orleans Saints, New England Patriots, Washington Commanders

The Lions have been fun on offense but rank last in defensive EPA per play overall, on early downs, late downs, in the red zone, and at midfield. On the flip side, the Panthers, Steelers, Saints, and Commanders are all at the bottom of the overall offensive leaderboard as they search for their QBs of the future.

On the other hand, the Raiders have primarily been derailed by poor performance in the red zone on both offense and defense, which could regress to the mean. And despite a mediocre start in all phases and an injury to Mac Jones, the historically slow-starting Patriots don’t play one of the top-10 teams in the SIS Strength of Schedule model again until December.

0-3-1: Houston Texans

Alabama DE Will Anderson is one of the best-looking pass-rushing prospects in years, but it will be hard for the Texans not to look long and hard at quarterbacks with the No. 1 pick, including Anderson’s teammate, Bryce Young, and Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud.

Matt Manocherian contributed to this report. 

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