NFL 2021/22: Lay Of The Land Through Week 4
Just how much has changed in the NFL through the first four weeks of the season?
Is the balance of power fundamentally different from what we'd been led to expect? In most cases, it’s too early to tell, especially since this NFL season is a 17-game journey instead of 16. There's added game on the schedule meaning that the regular season won’t conclude until the second weekend of January giving teams more time to rise or fall. An early-October powerhouse could well become a December lightweight, and vice-versa.
In assessing NFL championship contenders it's premature to suggest the league's power structure has significantly changed. However, what can be said is that a few fresh faces are injecting themselves into the conversation, while a few generally consistent organisations are finally enduring a moment of reckoning and regression.
The biggest story through four weeks of NFL action has to be the Arizona Cardinals whom the Stats Insider Futures model has assessed as the 4th favourite in the NFC, and who qualify for their 2rd franchise Super Bowl in 9.9% of simulations.
Sure, the Cardinals played mediocre games in Weeks 2 and 3 against the Minnesota Vikings and Jacksonville Jaguars, yet they looked like a Super Bowl team in road blowouts against the Tennessee Titans in Week 1 and most recently against the Los Angeles Rams in Week 4. Quarterback Kyler Murray played like an NFL MVP against the Titans and Rams and has now set a standard which will be tough for other MVP candidates to match.
Crucially, Murray’s speed and his improved instincts are minimising the flaws the Cardinals have across their offensive line. The 2019 #1 overall pick is displaying such mastery of his craft and the Arizona offence is benefiting from it, averaging an NFL-best 35 points per game so far. This is creating a dynamic we've previously seen with the Kansas City Chiefs over the past few years where their defence hasn't exactly been able to keep pace with its rampant attack.
Just below the Cardinals in Stats Insider’s NFC pecking order are the Dallas Cowboys who return to their first Super Bowl in 27 years in 9% of simulations. With Dak Prescott healthy Dallas are the easy choice to win the NFC East owing to Washington’s struggles on defence and with the Giants and Eagles both in rebuilding mode.
The Cowboy's impressive 3-1 start should mean they cruise to a division title so long as Prescott remains healthy and can maintain something resembling his outrageous and career-best 116.9 QB rating. With Prescott in this kind of form, it presents head coach Prescott Mike McCarthy with more than enough firepower to offset any defensive weaknesses in Texas.
In the AFC, the biggest story so far pertains to the Kansas City Chiefs who have struggled to a 2-2 start and whose defence has looked largely horrible. While they are still favourites for the Super Bowl with both the bookies and Stats Insider’s projections, they’ll have to improve sharply on the other side of the ball where only the Atlanta Falcons have surrendered more than their 125 points through four weeks.
Already this season the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens were able to run against them. Justin Herbert of the Chargers was able to throw against them while the struggling Philadelphia Eagles moved the ball consistently against them. Thankfully for the Chiefs they were able to get red-zone stops and minimise the damage against the Eagles this past weekend.
The overall outlook is alarming for the Chiefs who rank at or near the bottom of the NFL in many core defensive categories. If the pass interference penalties and weak performances from the defensive front aren’t addressed they'll remain in a dogfight with the LA Chargers and the Las Vegas Raiders in the AFC West which appears to be a much improved division.
Still in the AFC, the Buffalo Bills and Tennessee Titans host 23.2% and 5.4% chances of advancing to the Super Bowl and while neither has been dominant so far both should take advantage of having their respective divisions in disarray and should be able to repeat as champions.
Speaking of the AFC East the Miami Dolphins are a total mess while the New England Patriots don’t have high-end weapons to help quarterback Mac Jones. The Patriots are unable to throw the ball down the field and challenges defences. Jones throwing tonnes of check-downs and short passes might enable New England to control the ball, but that approach doesn’t enable the Pats to strike fear into the hearts of their opponents like it once did. It’s a new and much less potent era in Foxborough, creating a world in which the Bills get to roam free and roll to a division title.
In the AFC South, the Indianapolis Colts did beat the Miami Dolphins on the road, but that’s merely their first win of the season. The Titans have not impressed through four games, but they do have a head-to-head win over the Colts. Given how bad the Houston Texans and especially the Jacksonville Jaguars are, only a dramatic turnaround by the Colts might change the nature of this division race.
So far, neither the AFC nor the NFC has been shaken to its roots.
The preseason contenders in both conferences are still the foremost contenders. However, the Cardinals have become a problem for the Rams and 49ers in the NFC, much as the Chargers and Raiders have become a problem for the Chiefs in the AFC.
The Titans, Bills, Cowboys, Packers, and Buccaneers look like overwhelming favourites to win their respective divisions. The Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens are likely to wage an epic battle for the AFC North championship, and the NFC West is going to be must-see television all year long, regardless of the order of the standings.
Could the Buccaneers and Chiefs reunite in the Super Bowl? Sure they could, and it wouldn’t rate as a surprise however the rise of the Cardinals and the deterioration of the Chiefs’ defence – two separate plot points which demand attention – suggest that this NFL season will be anything but an orderly, linear procession for the top teams on the road to Super Bowl LVI.
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