IT FEELS LIKE THE 2020 NFL SEASON HAS ONLY JUST BEGUN, but we’re already a quarter of the way through. The NFL season always flies by. Each game is its own data point, fraught with 50/50 balls and a few key plays that swing the game, but sports are binary in the end. One team wins; the other loses, and pundits are left arguing somewhere in the middle.
Through four weeks of games, some clear trends are emerging, enough to begin to tell whether our preseason predictions and beliefs are on the right track. So what have we learned so far that we wish we had known before the 2020 season? Which established truths would have changed the way we viewed the NFL heading into the new year?
Let’s take a look at five clearly emerging patterns around the NFL that should shape the rest of the 2020 season ahead, plus five other trends that may not be so certain just yet…
1. Sean McVay and the Rams offense are back.
I’m not sure there’s a team I whiffed harder on this preseason than the Los Angeles Rams. I thought opposing defenses had figured Sean McVay’s offense out. And they had really — it’s just that McVay figured out those figurings and made his adjustments and has the Rams humming again. I rated this offense #19 heading into the season, but they’re #2 in DVOA through four weeks.
The Rams had become too predictable in their unpredictability. All that pre-snap motion that confounded defenses early had become reliable tells. Jet motion told defenses to expect a run in that direction, Todd Gurley was overfed, and Jared Goff made simple, obvious reads.
This year McVay has added even more pre-snap motion but the jet sweep is no longer a tell, with runs against the grain to keep the defense honest. The Rams dumped Gurley for a committee backfield and became the league’s run-heaviest team on early downs with the #1 DVOA rushing attack. McVay has also gotten Goff out of the pocket on the move where he looks more comfortable making reads, and the Rams have certainly benefited from vastly improved offensive line play and health. You can read more about Sean McVay’s offensive heat check from Rajan Nanavati.
The Rams are back, and they’d probably be the story of the NFC through a quarter of the season, except…
2. The Seahawks will let Russ cook.
I’ve been a Russell Wilson backer for years. I rate him near the top of my QB rankings every time despite his muted stats in an offensive system that, for years, has remained over-committed to the run behind a shoddy offensive line, only breaking the Russ glass in the fourth quarter when the game is inevitably still close. For years, NFL pundits have screamed at the Seahawks to #LetRussCook. And suddenly, with no real warning or significant coaching or personnel changes, Wilson has been unleashed.
Wilson is unquestionably the MVP through a quarter of the season. He’s thrown 16 TDs, more through four weeks than any quarterback in NFL history, while leading the league at over 75% completion. Literally overnight, Seattle has become one of the most aggressive, pass-heavy teams on early downs, letting Wilson improvise and chuck it downfield to D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett. Russ has the best deep ball in football and is averaging 9.4 yards per attempt, nearly a first down on every drop back.
At 4–0, Seattle is the NFC favorite even without much help from their defense or run game. This is not the Seahawks teams of old. They’re going to have to let Russ keep cooking all season, and the MVP is his to lose.
3. The NFC East is a dumpster fire.
We have a word for the NFC East in North Dakota: OOFTA.
This is really bad. The New York Giants rank dead last in offensive and overall DVOA. The Washington Football Team ranks bottom five in both areas and just benched last year’s first-round QB Dwayne Haskins for a somehow even worse option in Kyle Allen. Their only win has come against the Philadelphia Eagles, who ranked second to last in DVOA and barely hung on to get their first win against the San Francisco M*A*S*H unit.
Somehow that was enough to lead the division with the Dallas Cowboys their own version of awful. Despite Dak Prescott being on pace for literally 6760 passing yards, the Cowboys are a miracle onside kick away from an 0–4 hole that’s admittedly more like a tiny molehill in this wet fart of a division. The Cowboys defense has been terrible and the offense remains outdated and overcommitted to the run.
Dallas and Philadelphia have been plagued by injuries both on the offensive line and on defense. Maybe one of them can get healthy and give us a division champion over .500. But at 3–12–1 combined so far, the NFC East is not looking great.
5 Things We Learned in NFL Week 3
Drew Brees is broken, the Falcons and Eagles suck, and the Browns and Chargers are not necessarily what they seem…
4. Old quarterbacks will look old.
I listed New Orleans, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, and Indianapolis as four of my eight Super Bowl contenders without accounting for the fact that their quarterbacks are a combined 150 years old. Age before beauty, right?
Through four weeks, those old quarterbacks look… old.
Drew Brees has been the biggest offender. There are faint whispers of 2015 Peyton Manning with Brees unwilling and unable to attack downfield and no longer his accurate self on shorter throws either. Tom Brady was supposed to remove Jameis Winston’s mistakes but has already thrown two pick-6s, both of them on throws where he overestimated his arm strength and couldn’t make a throw. Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t gotten into a rhythm yet as the Steelers offense rates below average thus far. And Philip Rivers has yet to adjust to life in Indianapolis or find rapport with T.Y. Hilton as the Colts remain conservative and poor overall on offense.
Old quarterbacks tend to get worse as the season wears on and the hits take a toll on their bodies while the weather becomes more of a factor. If these quarterbacks are already looking average at best right now, what happens in a snowy January game with everything on the line?
There is one older QB who has been doing just fine, though. Aaron Rodgers is back in a big way and has the Packers looking like a bona fide Super Bowl contender. Apparently 36 is young enough but 38 and older is a bridge too far.
5. The AFC playoffs will be harder to crack.
Before the season, the NFC playoff picture looked brutal. The Cowboys and Eagles were supposed to battle for the NFC East. The Packers and Vikings were going to duke it out in the NFC North. The Falcons would push the Saints and Bucs in the South, and the West would be loaded.
Through three weeks, only one of those four statements has been true. The NFC East and North look like one-bid playoff divisions while it’s just the Bucs and Saints in the South, and maybe not even the Saints. The NFC West has been good, though the 49ers and Cardinals are faltering. Suddenly the NFC wildcard race is looking very open.
The AFC was supposed to be the open conference, but already we’ve got eight clear playoff teams with only seven spots. The Bills and Titans are unbeaten, while the Browns and Colts look like legit sleepers. We already knew the Ravens, Chiefs, and Steelers would be good, and the Patriots should be fine if they get Cam Newton and Stephon Gilmore back from COVID soon.
That’s eight deserving playoff teams for only seven spots, and it doesn’t even give a chance to sneaky Chargers and Jaguars teams or to an 0–4 but talented Texans squad that hit the reset button this week by firing Bill O’Brien. The Raiders still fancy their wildcard chances too.
Suddenly, the AFC playoff picture looks like a bloodbath while the NFC feels more like a church volunteer list waiting for signups, the stringed pencil tapping softly against the wall as crickets chirp. It already feels like the Seahawks and Packers are the only 1-seed contenders and the conference could have a sub-.500 division champ and maybe a fraudulent wildcard in the Bears simply by default of no other options.
Et tu, NFC?
5 Potential Truths to Wait and See about…
These five truths missed the cut because four weeks might be too soon. Let’s wait and see a little more before we make up our minds…
1. The COVID pandemic will sideline the season.
It looks bad right now. The Tennessee Titans get a couple new positive tests every day. The Patriots are short their best player on both offense and defense. Schedules continue to be threatened and rearranged.
But we did this dance early in the baseball season too, and now we’re near the finish line in the playoffs. The NFL will find a way to make this work as best it can. Be patient. There’s too much at stake here.
2. Josh Allen is here, and he is spectacular.
Allen has been awesome. His Week 4 game with 288 yards on 71%, two TDs, and no picks would’ve been his best game the last two seasons; this year it’s his worst. Through four games, Allen has 1326 yards, 15 TDs, and a single INT. His sack rate is down, and his completion percentage is up from 59% last year to 71% now. Allen is a legit sleeper MVP candidate.
Bills OC Brian Daboll has been fantastic, scheming Buffalo receivers open and letting Allen use his arm strength to give them a shot. But Allen still has a few serious brain farts each game that elite QBs don’t make, and he’s benefited by playing the third weakest defensive schedule by his guys making plays on 50/50 balls. The Bills defense and run game have not been good thus far, so that puts a whole lot on the QB. Allen has clearly improved in a huge way, but I need to see more from his decision making and against better defenses.
3. The Browns will finally make that playoff run.
I picked the Browns to make the playoffs, so this good start hasn’t been entirely shocking. Cleveland has an identity now. Bill Callahan has transformed the Browns offensive line into one of the best in the league, and Cleveland is dominating time of possession and gashing the defense in the run game while Myles Garrett makes big plays on defense.
All of that is good. But Garrett’s big plays have masked an average at best defense that nearly collapsed against Dallas, and that elite run game has hidden a pretty meh start from Baker Mayfield. What happens when the Browns can’t dictate the game they want to play? They rank #20 thus far in pass offense and defense. Cleveland won’t get to play Cincinnati and Washington every week. What happens against better opponents?
4. The Indianapolis Colts defense is impenetrable.
For the second straight week, the Colts have the #1 DVOA defense. Many pundits expected Indianapolis to be above average on that end, maybe even good, but no one expected this. The Colts defense flies all over the place with team speed no offense has caught up to yet, and DeForest Buckner has been a DPOY candidate addition at the heart of everything.
The Colts D is clearly good, but let’s see if they’re great. One can only be so impressed against the Jets, Bears, and Vikings. These are outdated vanilla offenses with quarterbacks that cannot take over a game or dictate the defense. Indy’s best test so far has been Gardner Minshew and the Jaguars, and they lost that game and forced a single incompletion. Let’s see how they hold up against a more modern and talented offense.
5. Dallas is cooked as a contender.
I’m not ready to bury the Cowboys quite yet. Dallas has been ravaged by injuries on its offensive line and around the defense and should get healthier as the year goes on. They’ll get much more from their cornerbacks soon and should get Sean Lee and Leighton Vander Esch back at linebacker eventually. The O-line won’t get La’el Collins back this season but looked much better last week with Tyron Smith and should gel with more time together.
Dallas’s defense has been brutal, but they’ve also faced the second toughest defensive schedule against the Rams, Falcons, Seahawks, and Browns. Hey, you know what’s a good salvo for a bad D? Six divisional games against bottom-5 offenses. The Cowboys face only one remaining opponent in the top-15 DVOA offensively. They have enough offense to stay afloat while the defense takes shape, and they’ll still be a playoff threat once they get there.
We’ve learned a lot through four weeks, but it’s still only one month. Let’s see how things look again as we head toward November.
After all, winter is coming… ■