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Who’s Contending — And Pretending — Among The NFL’s Top Teams?

maya (Maya Sweedler, copy editor): Astonishingly, with Week 4 almost entirely completed, we’re pushing on a quarter of the 2022 season in the books. This week’s action featured plenty of fun, including a shootout between the Detroit Lions and Seattle Seahawks, the Green Bay Packers taking down the New England Patriots in overtime and the Buffalo Bills and Baltimore Ravens showing us that their quarterbacks really can do it all. But as we look back at the first four weeks, and ahead to the next 14, we’re down to just one undefeated team: the Philadelphia Eagles. After a rain-soaked win over the resurgent Jacksonville Jaguars, the Eagles stand alone atop the league. So let’s start there! Are the Eagles the best team in the league right now?

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): (anyone gonna take the aff here?)

maya: (omg josh are you going neg?)

joshua.hermsmeyer: (iyam)

maya: (hehe @neil i think that’s your music!)

neil (Neil Paine, acting sports editor): 🎶 Fly, Eagles, fly … 🎶

In all seriousness, I don’t think they are quite the best. (They’re still third in our Elo ratings.) They haven’t even actually played like the best just this season: the Bills have a higher adjusted point differential, according to Pro-Football-Reference’s Simple Rating System

However, they are following a tried-and-true formula for quick improvement: Have an emerging young QB who is ready for takeoff (Jalen Hurts) and surround him with talent, including an increase in defensive spending. That formula doesn’t always work, but it’s as good as anything a team can throw at the wall.

maya: (UGH fine I’ll go aff)

neil: (sorry for bringing nuance, ugh)

maya: 🤣

I look at this Eagles team and see the most complete team in football. There isn’t an obvious weakness yet. Their defensive line is solid (they have the sixth-highest pass rush win rate), their secondary is young but has some real bright spots, and the team has built around Hurts in a way that’s paid off quickly.

Is Hurts perfect? No. I still see him trying to throw into traffic a bit more than I would want. But he’s making smart reads — he’s second in the league in completion percentage against zone defense, completing 78.5 percent of his passes.

dre.waters (Andres Waters, FiveThirtyEight contributor): I would say they’re the best team at the moment. But do I think they’ll be the best team by the end of the regular season? I would have to say no.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Eagles are NOT the best team in the league right now …  they’re the second best. The Buffalo Bills still have a slightly better combination of offensive and defensive efficiency. I also think it’s not really debatable that Josh Allen is better than Hurts at this stage.

neil: Wow, I love the spiciness of that take!!!

dre.waters: And, not for nothing, the Bills are working with a banged-up defense.

Ed Oliver, Jordan Phillips, Micah Hyde and Tre’Davious White were all out last week. And Jordan Poyer was battling an injury coming into the game.

neil: I do like the parallels between those two teams, though. Both have very strong defenses and offenses that can be explosive when needed. It’s not a coincidence that both teams overcame deficits of at least two touchdowns yesterday.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think that even though they lost, the Jaguars showed they belong. They are a dangerous team that is only getting better. And the Eagles showed more than they will probably get credit for by coming back to beat the Jags.

neil: I was feeling like eating crow for half-doubting the Jags early in that one.

maya: Side note — look at the Lions hanging out in the bottom right of Josh’s chart 💀. Unsurprising for a team that leads the league in points right now with 140 … and is last in points against, with 141.

neil: Yeah, that is funny about the Lions. With some exceptions, it seems like there has been a negative correlation between offensive and defensive success this season. The Lions and Seahawks might be the most surprising exemplars of that trend on the high-octane offensive end.

joshua.hermsmeyer: It’s amazing what happens when a bad defense forces you to be aggressive and pass the football. I think that dynamic explains a few teams’ positions in that chart!

neil: Doesn’t that beg the eternal question — if passing to come back is so effective, why not just start the game off doing that?

joshua.hermsmeyer: I was at the Ravens-Bills game yesterday, and at the half I said, ‘Oh no, the lead is too big. Now they will come out gunning with Josh Allen.’ It’s so perverse.

dre.waters: Neil, wouldn’t the simple answer be because you don’t burn enough clock passing the ball early in games?

neil: That was always the knock on the run-and-shoot offense. They couldn’t play ball-control when they needed it. Their defenses were always on the field.

maya: Yeah, a series of two-minute drives definitely isn’t doing a defense any favors.

dre.waters: Yeah I agree, Neil. How the Ravens normally win games is getting big leads and then pounding the run. But they just haven’t been that team on the ground this season.

Last season, the Ravens averaged 164.5 rushing yards through their first four games. This season, that figure is down to 142 yards per game.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Ravens had a time of possession advantage of more than 10 minutes at the half. It’s hard to win when you don’t score in the second half. But I’m not sure the early ball control helped.

maya: And it’s starting to show up in Lamar Jackson’s play-action numbers, I think. I was looking at which quarterbacks have the biggest improvements between straight passing and passing on play-action this season, and Lamar’s improvement in terms of yards per completion and completion percentage is very middle-of-the-pack.

(Interestingly — and small-sample caveat here, please, since he didn’t start the season — Jimmy Garoppolo has seen the biggest leap between play-action and non-play-action passes.)

So we got the second-best team in the league in Philadelphia. Let’s take a step back and look at the (checks notes) 11-5 NFC East. We’ve spent years making fun of this division, which currently has the best combined record in the league. Is this record reflective of the best division? And how did the NFC Least turn it around so fast?

dre.waters: WE’VE LEARNED THE COWBOYS SHOULD HAVE TRUSTED IN COOPER RUSH ALL ALONG!!!!!!

joshua.hermsmeyer: LOL

dre.waters: Before I get crushed for that take from two weeks ago, I have to clarify. The only reason I even suggested the team take a look at Skylar Thompson was because they were reportedly looking around. Which, of course, means THEY didn’t have full belief in Rush as a backup.

Now everyone can crush my take, LOL.

neil: Oh I think you were completely reasonable to doubt Rush at the time, Andres. Nobody is faulting you.

If anybody says they had Rush ranking fourth in Total QBR through four weeks, they are LIARS.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Rush is the first QB in Cowboys history to start his career 4-0, whatever that portends.

maya: Obviously it means the Cowboys are going to the Super Bowl, Josh.

neil: StaubachAikman … RUSH.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I am a hard no on the NFC East being the best division, but I am intrigued by how the Giants are doing their best to protect the team from Daniel Jones’s arm. He scored twice this week with his legs — and lined up at wide receiver! 

maya: Where is the GIF of Jones tripping over himself in the open field 80 yards into a breakaway?

Something’s in the water in New York (or, uh, New Jersey) — the Jets threw to Zach Wilson twice yesterday. I’m all for gimmick plays, especially when they score, but honestly … at a certain point, I think you have to stop asking your quarterback to do non-quarterback things.

neil: That Jets game was hilarious. Wilson and Kenny Pickett combined for three rushing + receiving TDs and only one passing score.

maya: Rush wasn’t the only surprising quarterback this week, though. The 2022 quarterback draft class was pretty unheralded, but with Pickett replacing Mitchell Trubisky in Pittsburgh yesterday and Bailey Zappe coming in for Brian Hoyer in New England, we saw two members make their NFL debuts, joining Malik Willis, who did some clean-up duty for Tennessee during a Week 1 blowout loss. Has anyone from the class of ’22 particularly impressed you? And is there anyone else we haven’t yet seen who you’re excited to see?

neil: Should I feel vindicated? I said this QB class might not deserve as much hate as it got. Then again, Pickett threw three Pick-Its. But Zappe had a higher passer rating than Aaron Rodgers. 

I was excited to see Willis get some play if Ryan Tannehill and the Titans struggled. But Tannehill has led Tennessee to back-to-back wins, so that change isn’t happening anytime soon.

maya: Never bet against Tannethrill. Personally, though, I’m looking forward to seeing Desmond Ridder play for Atlanta.

dre.waters: I’m with you, Maya. I like Ridder in Atlanta, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if we see Sam Howell in Washington sooner rather than later.

neil: This has to be the most uninspired stat line by a QB who’s won a game all season:

dre.waters: LOL

joshua.hermsmeyer: Zappe wasn’t crappy, and while I don’t have interest in this class, I know some folks who think Zappe was criminally underrated, so it was interesting to see him do well. Also: Does Bill Belichick have a type? Zappe looks a lot like Mac Jones.

neil: I said the SAME THING Josh! He looks like they literally just cloned Jones in a lab.

dre.waters: 🤯

If you showed me Zappe’s picture with no name, I honestly would have guessed Mac Jones …

maya: Wild. I will say, it seemed like Zappe benefitted a fair amount from a creative and effective run game yesterday. Or maybe the Packers defense just thought it was seeing double …

neil: I know the Packers are 3-1. But does it bother anyone that they needed overtime to beat the Patriots with their third-string, fourth-round rookie QB at home?

dre.waters: Kind of, Neil, but the Pats were getting production on the ground yesterday. But, I think the pick-six Rodgers threw late in the first half is really what got them going. Without it, I felt like the Packers were getting ready to pull away.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Neil, it seems bad. Rodgers said after the game that they can’t hope to consistently win like this, and I agree. On the other side, I know they say there are no moral victories, but the New England coaching staff can hold their heads high after playing Green Bay to a draw in regulation with a rookie third-string QB.

maya: It does bother me!!! After Rodgers’s last two MVP seasons, I would expect more than the 14th-best offense by total EPA from the Packers. But the team’s serious commitment to the two-back system definitely has its drawbacks, from a passing standpoint — through Week 4, Rodgers is averaging 6.24 yards per dropback, the fourth-lowest mark of his career.

neil: I guess we’ll reserve judgment till later in the season. But for now they should be glad the Giants exist, or we would call the Packers the most “meh” of the 3-1 teams.

maya: So let’s take a look at the teams by record. In addition to the Packers and Giants, that 3-1 group includes the Vikings, Cowboys, Bills, Dolphins and Chiefs. Any surprises, or is that about right?

neil: The Vikings and their victory on a U.K. double-doink special obviously are in that convo for most unconvincing 3-1 teams.

joshua.hermsmeyer: In the land of real football, it was fitting that the game came down to the kicker and the absolute chaos of random doinks.

neil: Oh Josh, please don’t tell me you are one of those “soccer is football” people.

dre.waters: Because football is the real football, right Neil? 🤣

neil: The plainly superior sport gets to call itself what it wants. There, I said it.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Honestly, I can’t vibe with a sport that has an indeterminate ending and a game clock that counts upwards. But I will grant that their sport is more football than American football.

maya: There are still two more games to play in the U.K. so save some of this for next week, when we get Giants-Packers at some ungodly hour.

neil: Maybe that’s what I am mainly salty about, LOL.

dre.waters: To be honest, starting the day with football was pretty cool for me. I just feel bad for those on the West Coast. They woke up and the game was already at halftime.

maya: I mean, fair. But let’s move on to the 2-2 teams! I find this group much harder to categorize — it ranges from the Chargers and Ravens to the Jets and Bears. Is anyone better than their record implies? Worse? And how do you evaluate the 2-2 Browns, Cardinals and Seahawks after yesterday?

joshua.hermsmeyer: Is Geno Smith elite?

maya: LOL so you know how I mentioned earlier that Hurts was second in completion percentage against zone coverage?

Well … Geno is first … by a MILE.

neil: Here are all the 2-2 teams, ordered from luckiest (compared with Pythagorean winning percentage) to unluckiest:

The Seahawks fit in that lucky category. 

dre.waters: The Cardinals might be the hardest team to get a read on, because if you watch them in the first half of games … it’s ugly. But in the second half, they seem to get some type of rhythm.

They’re averaging just 4.0 points per game in the first half, which is rough. Then in the second half and OT, they’re up to 18 points per game.

maya: The only explanation for the Bears’ record is that they are major beneficiaries of luck. Justin Fields attempted 11 passes in Week 2 and a season-high 22 yesterday. Choosing not to pass and then narrowly winning games is purely a function of luck.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I am broken by the use of Fields so far in his career. Maybe he’ll be one of those guys who only gets good after a change of scenery.

dre.waters: So Neil, you’re saying the Ravens aren’t bad, just unlucky?

neil: I still believe in the Ravens. In order to blow a 17-point lead to the Bills, you first have to build a 17-point lead over the Bills.

But really, Baltimore has been unlucky by Pythagorean win percentage for a while now. After outperforming in Lamar’s first year as starter, they’ve undershot each of the past three years. Make of that what you will.

(I also think the decision to go for it on 4th-and-goal was CLEARLY correct, but that’s another convo.)

dre.waters: I agree! If that’s your MO, then why would you switch it up?

maya: I’m intrigued by two teams at the bottom. We’ve discussed Jacksonville recently, and I think we’re all slowly climbing aboard the Duval hype train. But I’m surprised the Bengals are a half-game behind their expected win total! They seem to have fallen back into some really bad habits, particularly with quarterback protection, that undid them in 2020.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Ravens-Bengals game this week will be interesting … unlike the rest of the slate. Yuck.

neil: I agree that Joe Burrow and Cincy’s offense are struggling to find their footing early. But both of their losses were by a field goal, while both wins were by double digits. Granted, they haven’t exactly played too tough of a slate, depending on whether we are Cooper Rush believers.

dre.waters: We should all be Cooper Rush believers.

neil: Always have been, right? 😉

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Maya Sweedler is a senior editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Josh Hermsmeyer was a football writer and analyst.

Andres Waters is a freelance writer based in Connecticut. He is a data analyst at ESPN.

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