Three weeks into the NFL season, there are only two unbeaten teams left in the league: the Atlanta Falcons and the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Falcons still being undefeated can't be too much of a surprise; they were in the Super Bowl just last season, after all. How they've gotten to 3-0 is a bit of a surprise, as they've needed late blunders from the Bears (Jordan Howard dropped a game-winning touchdown pass) and Lions (Golden Tate was ruled to have been tackled about an inch outside the goal line on a replay review, leading to a 10-second run-off) in order to hang onto close victories, while they blew the Packers off the field in Week 2.
The Chiefs remaining among the ranks of the unbeaten comes as a bit more of a shock, especially considering they opened the season on the road against the defending champion Patriots. Defending Super Bowl champs were 12-1 in the Thursday night opener heading into that game, but the Chiefs won it by two touchdowns. Kansas City also faced the Eagles at home in Week 2 and the Chargers on the road in Week 3, and came away with solid victories each time.
It's instructive at this point of the season, being that there are only two unbeaten teams left, to do a bit of comparing and contrasting. Which of these two squads has been better so far? Which is more likely to perform better in the future? And of course, which team is likely to stay unbeaten the longest?
Working with such small samples, it can be foolish to draw definitive conclusions, but the information we've gained in the first three weeks of the season is all we have to work with right now. And based on that information, it is difficult to conclude anything but the fact that the Chiefs have been the better team thus far.
The Chiefs have gained more yards (1,192 to 1,164) and more yards per play (7.1 to 6.5) than the Falcons. They have scored more points (93 to 87) and more points per drive (2.74 to 2.58). And they have done so while facing what most would consider to be considerably tougher defenses. Pro-Football-Reference's Expected Points Added metric says that the Kansas City offense has been approximately a touchdown more valuable than the Atlanta offense through three weeks.
Breaking offense down into its component parts (passing and rushing) also showcases that the Chiefs have been the stronger unit. Alex Smith has the edge over Matt Ryan in completion percentage, touchdowns, interceptions, passer rating and QBR. He's even created more big plays than Ryan, completing six passes on throws at least 20 yards downfield to Ryan's two. Smith has more touchdowns on such throws than Ryan does completions. He's got a better passer rating under pressure (123.2 to 88.1), when kept clean (133.8 to 103.2), off play-action (142.0 to 103.3), and on straight drop-backs (126.0 to 97.5), per Pro Football Focus.
Devonta Freeman has been excellent through three weeks, racking up 277 yards from scrimmage and four total touchdowns while averaging 4.4 yards per carry. Tevin Coleman has done his usual terrific supplemental work as well, totaling 192 yards on 29 touches and adding a score of his own. They've been really good ... but Kareem Hunt has been otherworldly. He's been the single best player in the NFL so far this season. Hunt broke the NFL record for total yards in a player's NFL debut during that game agains the Patriots, while also adding three scores. He followed that up by totaling 109 yards and two touchdowns against the Eagles, and then added 184 total yards and a touchdown against the Chargers. He's scored a touchdown of at least 50 yards in each of his three NFL games, becoming the first player in history to do so. He's already got more 50-plus-yard plays than any running back has created in an entire season since Adrian Peterson in 2012. He's on pace to break the all-time NFL records for both rushing yards and yards from scrimmage, by a mile.
The symbiosis between pass and run in Kansas City is as good as it has ever been, much as was the case for the Falcons last season. Andy Reid seems to have full control of his instrument, creating massive lanes for his playmakers with funky design and misdirection and generally leaving defenses in confusion. The Falcons have pushed the ball down the field efficiently because they are just that talented, but it hasn't been quite as simple for them as it has been for the Chiefs thus far.
On the other side of the ball, things are a bit closer.
Kansas City has actually allowed more yards than Atlanta (1,107 to 992), and more yards per play as well (5.2 to 5.0). The Chiefs have allowed fewer points (57 to 66) and fewer points per drive (1.58 to 1.94), and have allowed their opponents to score a touchdown or field goal on a lower percentage of their total drives (30.6 percent to 38.7 percent), but Expected Points Added still finds that the Atlanta defense has been about 5.3 points more valuable than that of the Chiefs.
The Chiefs have allowed more rushing yards (335 to 255), but fewer yards per rush (4.3 to 4.8). They've allowed more passing yards (772 to 737) and more yards per pass (6.9 to 6.1), but thanks to their greater success at limiting touchdowns (2 to 4) and creating interceptions (4 to 1), they have a lower opponent's passer rating and QBR. Both teams are dealing with long-term injuries to important defenders, as Vic Beasley is out for several weeks with a torn hamstring, while Eric Berry is out for the season with a torn Achilles.
There are several metrics through which we can tease out each team's overall performance. Their record is the same, for example, but the Chiefs have the lead in point differential (plus-36 to plus-21). The Falcons were No. 1 and the Chiefs were No. 2 in ESPN's Football Power Index heading into Week 3, but the Chiefs seem likely to jump into the top spot as a result of this weekend's performances. Kansas City was also No. 2 in Football Outsiders' DVOA after two weeks, but considering they were behind only the Baltimore Ravens and that the Ravens were blown off the field by the Jaguars on Sunday morning, it also seems likely the Chiefs will take over the top spot in DVOA when those rankings come out on Wednesday. Atlanta was No. 9 in DVOA after two weeks and seems likely to remain somewhere in that range.
So, yes, the Chiefs have been better than the Falcons through three weeks. But we're not only interested in the past; we also want to know (or at least get a better idea of) what will happen in the future. Here's a look at the upcoming schedule for each team:
|7||at NE||at OAK|
|9||at CAR||at DAL|
|11||at SEA||at NYG|
Simply by virtue of their upcoming schedules, it sure seems like Atlanta is likely to stay unbeaten longer. First of all, the Falcons have a bye in Week 5, giving them one fewer chance to lose than the Chiefs over the next several weeks. Additionally, the Falcons play only the Bills and Dolphins over the next three weeks, while the Chiefs face tougher games against Washington, the Titans and the Steelers. And while the Falcons likely have the single toughest game on their schedule between now and the end of November (at New England in Week 7), the Chiefs have a slightly tougher slate overall. Their opponents in Weeks 4 through 12 currently have a combined 14-10 record, while the Falcons' opponents have a record of 12-10, thanks to the fact that the Dolphins and Bucs both had Week 1 byes and both appear on Atlanta's schedule over the next several weeks.
But who stays unbeaten for longer is not necessarily the indicator of who will be the better team. The first three games of the season would seemingly point us toward the Chiefs being the better squad for the balance of the season, but the first three games have also shown us a Chiefs offense that is wildly out of step with what we've come to expect over the last several years. How much you buy them as a better overall team than the Falcons likely comes down to how much faith you have that this is the "new normal" for them going forward. Kareem Hunt isn't going to keep scoring 50-plus-yard touchdowns every single week (I think) and Alex Smith likely isn't going to continue being the best downfield passer in football. Matt Ryan isn't going to throw three picks every week and Julio Jones isn't going to get completely shut out of the end zone all year. But if the Chiefs can go from being the above-average offense they've been during the Andy Reid Era to being an excellent one, that closes the gap significantly. If they continue playing the way they have during that same period of time on defense, they just might be the best team in the league.