The NFL will finish Week 3 with five undefeated teams. In the NFC, the Cardinals, Panthers, and Rams are all undefeated. The Raiders and Broncos are unbeaten in the AFC.

A good start might seem like any team could achieve, but historically starting 3-0 bodes well for a teams long-term chances in the season. Over the last five years a total of 25 teams have been undefeated by the close of Week 3, with 18 of them making the playoffs by year’s end. Four of them went on to appear in the Super Bowl. Outside of a wholly bizarre 2016, in which five teams started 3-0, but only one made the playoffs, the trend is fairly constant that starting strong means finishing strong.

Statistically speaking we’re going to see two of the remaining five undefeated teams miss out on the playoffs. Let’s break it down and try to work out who it might be.

 

Denver Broncos

Week 1: 27-13 win over Giants
Week 2: 23-13 win over Jaguars
Week 3: 26-0 win over Jets

Why the Broncos are contenders

It’s difficult to call Denver a “surprise” so far, because they’ve beaten bad teams they should have beaten. However, inside of the raw results there are signs of a team trending upwards in a big way.

Teddy Bridgewater is cementing himself as the team’s answer at quarterback and more importantly he’s not making mistakes. This is allowing a team, who frankly don’t have a lot of explosiveness on offense, to grind out wins. It’s a case of an offense not screwing things up for the defense, which is where the Broncos have really excelled. The team ranks in the top 5 of every defensive statistical category, and leads the NFL in stopping drives, with opponents only scoring on 10.3 percent of their possessions.

If this holds the Broncos will be playoff bound in the AFC West, something that nobody predicted.

Why the Broncos are pretenders

Without question Denver has had the softest cupcake start to the 2021 season. All three opponents represent some of the most dysfunctional teams in the league, and outside of the blowout win of the Jets, it’s not like these have been exceptionally convincing wins.

When the dust settles you need an element of explosiveness to win games in the NFL against elite teams, and thus far the Broncos haven’t shown it. This has been a fun start to the season, but the lack of big plays will begin to rear their head when up against teams who won’t crumble against Denver’s defense

Verdict: PRETENDER

 

Arizona Cardinals

Week 1: 38-13 win over Titans
Week 2: 34-33 win over Vikings
Week 3: 31-19 win over Jaguars

Why the Cardinals are contenders

The Arizona offensive principles are well known, with Kyler Murray being the perfect quarterback to happily throw 50 times a game when asked. Obviously there’s a ton of firepower on this offense, with the Cardinals averaging 34 points a game, but this season they’ve added a wrinkle with a solid defense.

As it stands the team is allowing 5.4 yards-per-play across both phases, good for 12th in the NFL. That isn’t wholly remarkable in isolation, but the team played two very strong offensive teams in the first two weeks of the season. Pair that with an offense in the top 10 in both passing and rushing, and you have a recipe for success.

Why the Cardinals are pretenders

I don’t blame you for being excited with this team after the first two weeks when they stuck it to two teams that have legitimate playoff resumes, but that game in Week 3 against the hapless Jaguars was far too close for comfort.

There’s also a worrying trend that the explosive pass rush we saw in Week 1 is slowing down, and generating far less pressure than they did against Tennessee. The question is whether this team has enough gas for the long haul, or how they’ll handle adversity when it strikes.

Verdict: CONTENDER (with a little trepidation)