Three Undefeateds Remain After Three Weeks: Where Will They Finish?
Week 3 has come and gone in the NFL, and while I’m sure many (if not most) of you have 3-0 fantasy teams to boast, only three of the 32 NFL teams remain undefeated after three weeks. Let’s see what’s going right for those teams, and figure out if the good times will continue.
Green Bay Packers
Review: The Packers opened the season on Kickoff Thursday with a win over the Saints. Keep in mind that New Orleans failed from the one-yard line in the waning seconds, so this one was a very close game. In Week 2, the Packers rode a 16-point third quarter to a win over the Panthers on the road. Green Bay followed that victory up with another road win, this time in Chicago against the rival Bears.
The positive: Aaron Rodgers is playing like the best quarterback in the league, taking advantage of whatever openings the defense gives him. Whether it’s touchdown passes to Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson or Jermichael Finley, Rodgers isn’t afraid to use everyone in the offense to capitalize on defensive weaknesses. He does it while keeping good care of the ball, and the Packers’ 8:1 TD:INT ratio is easily the best in the league. Five other teams have thrown just one interception this year, but none have been able to do it while averaging more than one passing TD per game. Throw in Rodgers’ 8.9 yards per attempt average (tied for third in the NFL), and you realize that this is an aggressive offense that throws the ball all over the place without making mistakes.
The negative: The defense is going to have to play a little better against the pass. The Saints were on the verge of scoring 40 points in Green Bay as the Packers had no answer for Drew Brees. Then, rookie Cam Newton managed a 400-yard passing game the next week, though with three interceptions to their credit, it’s not like the defense played awful by any regard. High passing yardage totals on defense are a byproduct of posting a lot of points on offense to some extent; I get that. But this is a unit that teams like the Saints and the Lions can potentially attack in the postseason. Do I think it’s a fatal flaw right now? Of course not. However, it’s the only thing that needs some improvement heading into Week 4.
Outlook: The Packers play Denver at home this week in what should be an easy victory, then take a trip to Atlanta in what could be a preview of a playoff matchup (if the Falcons get things together quickly). The team then must face the Rams and Vikings before a bye. By the time they get that week off, this team should be 6-1 at the very least, and there’s a good shot they’re undefeated. In fact, with a road game against an underwhelming Chargers team right after the bye before home games against the Vikings and Buccaneers, the Packers could enter a Thanksgiving showdown in Detroit with a 10-0 record. Consider them Super Bowl favorites right now.
Projected Finish: 14-2, No. 1 seed in the NFC, repeat trip to the Super Bowl.
Review: The Lions dominated a solid Tampa Bay team in Week 1 in a game that was much more one-sided than the 27-20 final score indicates. Detroit then blew out the Chiefs at home in a game that looked for all intents and purposes like the best team in the league against the worst team in the league. After heading into halftime of Week 3’s Vikings game down 20-0, the Lions rallied to win in overtime and completely demoralize division foe Minnesota in the process. The lesson: don’t ever count the 2011 Lions out of a game. Ever.
The positive: It’s no accident that this is the Lions’ first 3-0 start in over 30 years — this is the best Lions team I can remember seeing. Matthew Stafford to Calvin Johnson is clearly the best QB-WR tandem in the league right now, The passing offense has topped 300 yards in each game, and the Lions clearly aren’t afraid to use the passing game to set up more of the passing game. The defense has gotten to play a couple replacement-level QBs the last two weeks (Donovan McNabb, Matt Cassel), but give them credit for being the only defense in the league to average less than one passing TD per game over the first three weeks. While the Packers are allowing massive amounts of passing yards in shootouts, the Lions rank fourth in the league with just 188 passing yards allowed per game. Again, they’ve enjoyed the McNabb-Cassel combo, but still. Throw in just one rushing TD, and the defense has given up only three TDs in three weeks. This group isn’t just good; it’s elite.
The negative: Throwing the ball all over the place is fun and leads to some exciting wins, but at some point you need to have some kind of success running the ball. Neither Jahvid Best, Jerome Harrison, Keiland Williams or Maurice Morris is averaging over three yards per carry this season. Best is obviously the team’s top runner, and he should be posting solid totals with the Lions ahead so much in the first two weeks, but that’s not the case, as he’s averaging less than 50 rushing yards per game. The team is obviously going to face some defenses talented enough to take away a large part of the passing game. What then? We knew losing rookie Mikel LeShoure in the pre-season would be a big blow, as he seemed like the perfect kind of back to grind out wins when needed. Best is a great all-around talent, but that’s not his game. The loss of LeShoure hasn’t shown up on the scoreboard yet, but it will.
Outlook: The Lions faced their first big test in Minnesota, and after overcoming a 20-point halftime deficit, I’d say they passed with an A+. They have a big game in Dallas this week against a Cowboys team coming off a gutty win. Home games against the Bears, 49ers and Falcons precede a trip to Denver before a bye week. Six wins by the bye seems realistic, seven seems doable if everything breaks right. Things get tougher in the second half, as trips to Chicago, New Orleans, Oakland and Green Bay (in Week 17) loom large. It’s going to be hard to keep this team out of the playoffs with their combination of quality defense and passing prowess. What they do when they get there is anyone’s guess.
Projected Finish: 10-6, No. 5 seed in the NFC and a double-digit favorite in San Francisco in the Wild Card round.
Review: In the conference that has long belonged to the Patriots, Steelers, Colts and, to a lesser extent, the Ravens and Chargers, the team with a one-game lead on everyone for home-field advantage is the Buffalo Bills. A trip to Kansas City seems easy in retrospect, but they were heavy underdogs in the game against a team that still had Eric Berry and Jamaal Charles. The Bills would go on to fall behind big at halftime of each of their next two games, then pull out wins against the Raiders and Patriots at home in exciting fashion. Week 3’s win against division bully New England felt like it could be the turning point of a franchise that’s long been a laughing stock.
The positive: The Bills can score points with the best of them, trotting out a quarterback (Ryan Fitzpatrick) and running back (Fred Jackson) that no one really wanted yet are two of the better players at their position in the league. Fitzpatrick is averaging three TDs and one INT per game, while Jackson is among the league leaders in rushing, averaging just over 100 yards per game (while adding about 40 more per game through the air). And all this with what was thought to be one of the worst offensive lines in football. We all thought last year that this offense could be something special if they could just get the offensive line fixed, and somehow they have (at least, through three games). The Bills are the least sacked team in the league (along with the Raiders), with just two allowed this season. The Bills! They’re also second in the league with 5.6 yards per rush. Give Chan Gailey a ton of credit, as the Buffalo offensive line is the unsung hero of the first three weeks of the season.
The negative: This team isn’t going to score 34 points or more in every game, and the defense doesn’t look particularly capable of carrying the offense if they experience an off-day. It’s been pretty easy to run the ball against the Bills, with the team allowing 4.7 yards per carry. They aren’t sacrificing run defense to get pressure on the quarterback by any means, as they’ve only recorded two sacks this season, last in the NFL. Steve Johnson looks like he may be nagged by his groin injury long-term, and while Scott Chandler, David Nelson and Donald Jones have each taken turns looking like impressive fantasy commodities, I don’t trust them to carry this passing offense should Johnson miss extended time. The success of the Bills feels like it hinges on the offensive line’s ability to not turn into a pumpkin at midnight.
Outlook: Winning the New England game was huge for this team, as any game against the Patriots has meant an automatic loss in recent years. They face the Bengals in Cincinnati this week, the Eagles at home the following week, and then the Giants in New Jersey before a bye. After the bye, they get the Jets twice and the Patriots in New England (Week 17) as well as games against the Chargers, Cowboys and Titans. They’re still not quite a playoff contender, and it’s quite possible their performance against the Jets in those two games will determine their fate, especially if the AFC North gets a Wild Card.
Projected Finish: 9-7, miss playoffs by a game.
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