Welcome to the latest edition of the Sunday Recap, a weekly column dedicated to thoughts on the previous day’s NFL action. Here are the top storylines from yesterday’s games.
No Need to Panic, but Carolina and Arizona’s Struggles Aren’t Surprising
The most shocking development of Week Three was the performances of the two NFC finalists from 2015, Carolina and Arizona. I’m not sure which result was more surprising. I thought the Panthers were a lock to win at home against Minnesota. I expected the Vikings to keep it close because–and I think it’s safe to say this now–they have an elite defense; but Carolina has been so dominant at home since last year that I figured it would be foolish to pick against them at Bank of America Stadium. As for Arizona, I expected them to be in for a battle against a desperate Buffalo team as well, especially since they had to make a cross-country trip to play a 1:00 game. But did I think that the Bills would win in a rout? Hell no!
After losing on Sunday, Carolina and Arizona now sit at 1-2 through the first three weeks. However, since no other team in their respective divisions is undefeated, neither team has much to be concerned about in terms of winning their division title at this point. With that said, these two teams that many envisioned playing deep into January have obviously seen their Super Bowl prospects drop.
Contrary to popular sentiment, this actually isn’t all that surprising. The writing was certainly on the wall for Carolina in particular to regress before the season started. For starters, the Panthers led the league in turnover margin last year. Usually teams with great quarterbacks, which the Panthers might have in Cam Newton, tend to produce above average turnover margins on a yearly basis. However, turnovers are unpredictable in a lot of ways, particularly with regard to recovering fumbles. For that reason, it was unlikely that Carolina would continue to dominant the turnover battle like they did last year. And through three games in 2016, their TO margin is a mere -2.
Another reason why Carolina was poised to take a downturn in 2016 was their schedule. After facing the league’s easiest slate in 2015, we’ve seen already how a more difficult schedule can change our perception of teams. The Panthers came up short in Week One against Denver, who I’d argue is still the best team in the NFL, and then were beaten handily by a Vikings team that looks even better than the team that won the NFC North title a season ago. Carolina’s schedule loosens up a little bit over the next few weeks, yet road tilts at divisional foes Atlanta and New Orleans still won’t be easy.
Arizona’s decline was a little bit harder to project coming into the season, yet the signs were still there. In my preview of their upcoming season, I noted how the Cardinals struggled mightily against the NFL’s best teams. As evidenced by their loss to the Patriots in Week One, Arizona’s struggles against elite teams remain an issue.
In addition, after leading the NFL in many of the most important statistical measures used to evaluate quarterbacks, Carson Palmer was bound to decline. Even though he’s revived his career in Arizona under Bruce Arians, Palmer has historically been a very turnover-prone quarterback. So how did he throw so few last year? Simply put, he got lucky. Palmer not only benefitted from the third-most dropped interceptions last year, but he had the largest discrepancy between his expected and actual interception rate, as measured by Football Outsiders. Moreover, Arizona’s passing scheme relies heavily on deep passes that tend to have a higher probability of getting intercepted. So even if Palmer wasn’t lucky in 2015, the system that he plays in alone would set him up for a spike in his turnover rate in the long-run.
Of course, Palmer was atrocious against the Bills, throwing four picks in a performance reminiscent to his horrible performance in the NFC Championship game against Carolina. Yet even though the Panthers and Cardinals look weaker than their 2015-selves thus far, neither fan-base should be too concerned. Carolina still has one of the league’s best defenses and Cam Newton, for those who may have forgotten, didn’t look anywhere near his MVP-self through the first three games last season. Arizona, meanwhile, still has a lot of weapons offensively and is pretty well-rounded on defense. I’d simply write their five turnover performance in Buffalo off as a fluke.
In short, there is a lot of football left to be played, which means there is no reason to think that Carolina and Arizona won’t both be around come January. It just appears that the signs of regression anticipated by some before the season are holding true to start 2016.
Let’s Not Mince Words: The Eagles are Legit
Through two games, the Philadelphia Eagles were ranked number one in Total DVOA (Football Outsiders’ primary efficiency metric and, in my view, the best measure out there used to assess the strength of football teams). This alone was a good sign. According to Aaron Schatz, the last thirteen teams to rank first in the NFL in DVOA through Week Two averaged 12.5 wins and made the playoffs.
There was only one caveat: Philadelphia hadn’t played anybody. Sure, they beat the Browns with ease in Week One and then blew out the Bears on Monday Night in Week Two, but those teams are already looking ahead to next year’s draft. How much could be said about Philadelphia’s impressive stats when they hadn’t played a team remotely playoff-worthy?
All that has changed now after the Eagles’ rout of Pittsburgh. It’s hard to pin-point what stood out the most. Was it Philadelphia’s defense, which held one of the NFL’s best offenses to a mere three points and 4.6 yards per play? Or was it Carson Wentz and the Eagles offense, which averaged 7.7 yards per play and averaged ten yards per pass attempt? Call me wishy-washy, but the answer is simple: Both stood out. After having what I would call a “good” defense in 2015, the Eagles have been stingy in 2016, particularly against the run. In particular, Fletcher Cox, who tallied two sacks yesterday, appears on track to make the Pro-Bowl already.
Of course, even though I’d argue it’s been the Eagles defense that has set the tone for their 3-0 start, Wentz and the Eagles offense will receive most of the praise. It’s warranted, though: The most noteworthy statistic through Philadelphia’s first three weeks is the fact that Wentz has yet to turn the ball over. Combined with a stingy defense, Wentz looks poised to be the latest rookie quarterback to take a team to the playoffs in his rookie season.
Other Things That Stood Out in Week Three…
Is Minnesota the Best Team in the NFC?
I’ve already recapped how Carolina, who were just beaten by the Vikings, and Arizona are not as good as they were a year ago. Plus, despite winning in Week Three, both the Packers and Seahawks have looked shaky at times to start the season.
Does this mean that the 3-0 Vikings are the best team in the NFC? Even though I think they’re offense still leaves a lot to be desired (through no fault of their own, though–injuries to Bridgewater and Peterson are incredibly unlucky), the Broncos and Seahawks have showed the NFL in recent years that defense-driven teams can still thrive in today’s pass-happy NFL. And, without question, Minnesota’s defense is so good that there is no limit to what they can accomplish this season.
I still believe the Packers will win the NFC North. Their schedule is easy and I think Aaron Rodgers and the Packers passing offense will continue to find their rhythm as the season goes along. With that said, the Vikings are currently the best team in their conference because their defense is great enough to consistently win close, low-scoring games. In short, they are the Denver of the NFC.
The Redskins Defense Saved Their Season
Washington’s defense came through with two crucial interceptions of Eli Manning to knock New York from the ranks of the unbeaten. How crucial was this win for the Redskins? I’ll put it to you this way: Saying it was an important early-season game would’ve been an understatement. A loss to the Giants simply would have ended Washington’s playoff hopes. A three game deficit in the NFC East would’ve been insurmountable for the Redskins, who now must confront an undefeated Eagles team and a good Cowboys team that may get better once Tony Romo returns if they want to repeat as NFC East champions.
Even though the Redskins managed to save their season on Sunday, there is still cause for concern. Washington will be erratic throughout the course of 2016 because Kirk Cousins seems to have lost his “You Like That!” magic from last year. His stats against the Giants looked fine, but Cousins missed numerous wide-open receivers throughout yesterday’s game. He may have avoided the game-changing interception that plagued the ‘Skins against the Cowboys, but I’m still not high on Cousins as the season progresses.
Here’s One Video to Sum Up the Jets’ Embarressing Performance Against Kansas City
Fantasy Heroes & Zeroes
Hero: Marvin Jones (32 points)
In the wake of Calvin Johnson’s retirement, I wouldn’t have expected a Lions receiver to lead all players in scoring in a given week. Go Marvin Jones!
Zero: Carson Palmer (5 points)
I would’ve expected Palmer to torch the Bill’s defense after Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Jets passing offense had a field day against them in Week Two. So much for that logic.
Hero: Chiefs D/ST (32 points)
Yeah…forcing eight turnovers will usually get your defense a lot of points in fantasy.
Zero: Ryan Fitzpatrick (-3 points)
I’ll say this about Fitzpatrick: He may have infuriated anyone who started him this week, but the man went down swinging.
Hero: Aaron Rodgers (26 points)
Now there’s the baaadd man!
Zero: Randall Cobb (3 points)
Rodgers and most of the Green Bay offense had a great day. But where was Cobb in all of this? Very disappointing day for him given the Packers’ offensive output.
Best Call(s): Washington & Los Angeles pulled off road upsets
Many people had little faith in both the Redskins and Rams this weekend (except for me), but both pulled off surprising upsets.
Worst Call: Having Carolina as a lock to beat Minnesota
So much for Carolina being unbeatable at home. Credit to the surging Vikings.
Records This Week
Straight Up: 11-4 Spread: 12-2-1 Over/Under: 9-6 Locks: 3-1 Best Bets: 9-3
Monday Night Prediction
Spread: NO -3 Over/Under: 53.5
’16 DVOA: ATL (23) < NO (17)
Public Betting: NO 64%
Neither team inspires much confidence, but I have to think that the Saints, who are desperate for their first win, should take care of business at home in primetime. With that said, I’ve noticed that underdogs in division games have provided nice value this year. Though they have only gone 1-1-1 so far, underdogs in games against a divisional foe went 7-2-1 against the spread through the first two weeks. In short, Atlanta should keep it close.