Through the first three weeks of the young 2016 NFL season, only five teams are still without a loss. The Minnesota Vikings and the Baltimore Ravens have been sparked by veteran quarterback play, while the New England Patriots, the Denver Broncos and the Philadelphia Eagles have all started rookies under center. Who are the contenders, and who are the pretenders?
The Five Unbeaten NFL Teams: Contenders or Pretenders
New England Patriots: Contenders
The first game of 2016 was the first time the Patriots had started a season without Tom Brady at quarterback since 2001. Almost four weeks later, they are 3-0. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was the big story through two games, throwing for 496 yards, four touchdowns, zero interceptions, and a league-leading 119.0 QB rating.
But Garoppolo took a big hit towards the end of the week two game against Miami, and MRIs revealed a sprained AC joint in his throwing shoulder. Quarterback Jacoby Brissett, a third-string rookie, was slotted to start four days later in a Thursday Night Football showdown against the Houston Texans. The Patriots were once again in a world of uncertainty.
Now, a week removed from the Houston game, things are looking up again. Brissett, running back LeGarette Blount and the Patriots defense embarrassed the Texans 27-0 last Thursday in primetime. With Tom Brady waiting in the wings to return from a four-game suspension, everything looks in place for New England to make another Super Bowl push.
Baltimore Ravens: Pretenders
A year removed from an 0-3 start, the Baltimore Ravens are undefeated and looking to re-emerge as a perennial AFC power. But are they legit?
The signs say no. So far, the Ravens have beaten the Buffalo Bills by six, the Cleveland Browns by five, and the Jacksonville Jaguars by two. Those teams are a combined 1-8, and all of them have yet to accumulate 1,000 yards of offense this year. The defense has looked stout, but against who?
For one of the better passing offenses in the game, it has not been an ideal start. Speedsters Mike Wallace and Breshad Perriman have combined for just 15 catches and 265 yards through three weeks. Quarterback Joe Flacco has thrown four interceptions to just three touchdowns. His 77.4 QBR ranks 26th among qualified starters.
The Ravens have yet to play a winning team. Despite how the standings look now, they will fall to Cincinnati and Pittsburgh when the games get important down the stretch.
Denver Broncos: Contenders
After thoroughly beating the Panthers in Super Bowl 50, few thought a Peyton Manning-less Broncos team would make much noise in 2016.
But they have proved everyone wrong. The defense has once again been top-tier, showcased in a victorious, season-opening Super Bowl 50 rematch with Carolina. Led by Super Bowl 50 MVP Von Miller, the Broncos’ defense is top tem in nearly every major defensive statistic to start the year.
Perhaps the biggest story for Denver has been seventh-round pick quarterback Trevor Siemian. After beating out veteran Mark Sanchez and fellow rookie Paxton Lynch for the starting job, Siemian has delivered. His best performance came Week Three against Cincinnati, when he threw for 312 yards and four touchdowns in a 29-17 win.
The Broncos have barely missed a beat since their title run last season. With a well-rounded offense and a fearsome defense, Denver looks ready to continue to battle for the top spot in the AFC.
Philadelphia Eagles: Pretenders
So far, 2016 second-overall draft pick Carson Wentz has dazzled at quarterback, and the Eagles are unbeaten. The Wentzylvania t-shirts are already in production.
Wentz has made good choices with the football, minimizing his mistakes. On the other side of the ball, the defense has wreaked havoc on teams, most notably holding the high-powered Pittsburgh Steelers to three points last Sunday. So how could they be pretenders?
Like Baltimore, the Eagles have not played enough good teams. The Steelers are a playoff contender, but Philadelphia’s other two previous opponents, the Chicago Bears and the Browns, are both winless, and have a miniscule chance of even sniffing the postseason.
Both the offense and the defense have been good, but there are much taller hurdles to come in a competitive NFC East. Even if they reach the playoffs, Philadelphia’s chances against defenses like Carolina’s and Seattle’s are slim.
The Minnesota Vikings: Contenders
Once again, the Minnesota Vikings have been ravaged by injury. Star running back Adrian Peterson was just placed on the 8-week injured reserve, and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater’s season ended before it even began. Yet, they are 3-0. How?
The defense has been stellar. They have allowed just 40 points and 885 yards of total offense over three games. Led by veterans at every position, this is a defense that can stop teams in many ways, and can eliminate a team’s best option from the get-go.
Quarterback Sam Bradford has also been phenomenal since coming over in a trade with Philadelphia. He has not thrown an interception, and has a quarterback rating of 107.8. With very few options on offense, he has led the Vikings to victory over the fierce defenses of the Cardinals and the Seahawks. Stefon Diggs, one of the better big-play threats in football, has 325 yards on just 20 catches, and has gotten the better of two All-Pro corners, Patrick Peterson and Richard Sherman, so far.
The Vikings have already proven they can keep up with the best teams in the league. In what looks like it may be a down year for the NFC, the Vikings may finally reach their first Super Bowl since 1977.