Which 3-0 NFL Teams Will Still Miss the Playoffs? Ranking the Broncos, Raiders, Rams, Cardinals & Panthers
Chris Unger/Getty Images. Pictured: Raiders QB Derek Carr
There’s no better way to start the season than 3-0. But for all the analytics and advanced metrics, sports are painfully binary in the end — you either win or you lose, and that’s that.
Only five NFL teams have managed to win all three of their games so far: The Broncos, Cardinals, Panthers, Raiders and Rams. Not exactly the lineup of teams anyone predicted! So are all five headed for the playoffs?
Since the 1970 merger, 75.8% of all teams that started 3-0 went on to make the postseason — that’s 175 of the 231, per NBC Sports.
Since the league expanded to 32 teams, though, that number has dropped below 70% — and it’s down to two-in-three since 2013, with only 30-of-45 such teams hitting the playoffs. That’s only 66.7%, and while that’s still pretty good, it also means that one-in-three of these unbeaten teams flying high will still watch the postseason from home.
It should be noted that all seven 3-0 teams made the expanded playoffs last season. That included the terrible Bears, who stumbled to 8-8 after a midseason six-game losing streak but got the new 7-seed via tiebreaker. Chicago would have missed the playoffs every other season in NFL history.
Perhaps the expanded postseason gives these teams more of a cushion, but with five 3-0 squads in 2021, the math suggests that one or two of them could still miss the playoffs. So which one will it be?
Last week, we gave hope to some of those terrible 0-2 teams. Now it’s time to dash some dreams for the 3-0 teams.
Let’s rank the five unbeatens’ playoff chances from safest to most vulnerable, complete with their betting odds to make or miss the postseason, including the implied probabilities based on our Betting Odds Calculator.
Tier 1: Looking Pretty Safe
According to books, the Rams have the third-best odds of any team to make the playoffs, behind only the Bills and the Bucs — the latter of which Los Angeles dispatched with ease this past week.
The Rams look like the best team in the NFL so far.
Sean McVay looks like he just got out of jail, trading in Jared Goff for a real quarterback in Matthew Stafford. The offense looks rejuvenated and is firing on all cylinders, ranking first in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA. Stafford is spraying the ball all over, stretching the field both vertically and horizontally. And DeSean Jackson has added a needed speed threat while the Rams are beating defenses with both scheme and talent.
McVay’s Rams won 10, 9, 13 and 11 games over the past four seasons, and the last time the offense looked this good, the team went all the way to the Super Bowl. LA usually starts the year out hot, so opposing defenses will catch up to this offense some, but the Rams are already in great shape.
They won their biggest game of the season against Tampa Bay and are already 3-0 with the Giants, Lions, Texans and Jaguars still on the slate. Those four matchups alone should get LA to seven wins, which means that going only 3-7 against the rest of the schedule is likely still good enough to make the playoffs.
The rest of the schedule is tough, though. Six games against the NFC West are no picnic and there are late road trips to Green Bay, Minnesota and Baltimore.
The Rams are also not invincible. The defense allowed tepid Bears and Colts offenses to move the ball up and down the field before stalling in the red zone. The unit also relies heavily on Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey without much help around them. Still, this defense looks at least average, and that’s more than enough when the offense is good.
The Rams are still plus-odds to win the division, as high as +110 at BetMGM. They look a tier ahead of the competition thus far, so taking them to win the NFC West is probably a better play than betting them to make the playoffs. The only serious threat to the Rams is that they’re so reliant on Stafford, Donald and Ramsey that a key injury or two could derail things in a hurry.
Stay healthy, and they look safe.
Tier 2: Looking Playoff Bound
I backed the Broncos all preseason and even picked them as my worst-to-first division winner, so it’s not like I’m backing off the team now after a 3-0 start.
Denver looks even better than I could have imagined.
The defense has been terrific, of course. This was my No. 1 defensive unit on paper entering the season, and the Broncos look the part so far even with some injuries. Von Miller looks healthy again, terrorizing opponents even as Bradley Chubb ails. And rookie corner Patrick Surtain Jr. looks like a star in the making — he and Kyle Fuller complement an already-great group of safeties to make this the best secondary in the league.
The Broncos’ defense gives them a high floor that should make them competitive in almost any game.
What’s surprising is how awesome the offense has looked thus far.
Teddy Bridgewater has never played this well in his career. He’s confidently hitting his receivers up and down the field, and Tim Patrick is breaking out next to Courtland Sutton while Jerry Jeudy is on the mend. The Broncos rank fifth in defensive DVOA but also seventh in offensive DVOA, and they’re fourth in just passing offense.
If the offense is really this good, the Broncos aren’t just a threat to make the playoffs — they can win a game or two once they get there.
Of course, there are reasons to not go all-in just yet.
The biggest is the awful schedule Denver has looked so good against. The Giants, Jaguars and Jets are a combined 0-9 right now, with the Jags and Jets looking like the two worst teams in the NFL. The Broncos’ DVOA numbers do take opponent into account, otherwise they would rank second overall instead of fifth, per Football Outsiders. But it’s fair to wait for the Broncos to prove it against better competition.
Then again, there’s not a ton of better competition on the schedule. Baltimore and Pittsburgh are up next, both far less intimidating than expected. Denver still faces three NFC East teams, too, plus Detroit and Cincinnati late. That should be at least five more wins in seven, which already takes the Broncos to eight wins and the brink of the playoffs.
Six games against the AFC West will be tough, but the hot start, great defense and improving offense combined with a Charmin-soft schedule should put Denver squarely in the playoff mix.
With implied odds around two-thirds in such a tough division, though, there’s not a ton of betting value here.
By almost any measure, the Raiders are the worst of the five unbeaten teams. They rank 14th in Pro Football Reference’s Simple Rating System — basically league average. And Football Outsiders ranks them 14th in DVOA with an estimated 1.9 wins, rating them 14th in offensive DVOA and 18th in defensive DVOA.
Those metrics scream “average.”
With 32 teams, a perfectly average NFL team would finish 16th or 17th in these rankings, right where the Raiders are at. So why are they 3-0 instead? That’s easy — they beat a Steelers team that doesn’t look good and won two coin-flip games in overtime, against opponents that don’t look particularly great.
On one hand, the Raiders beat three teams many had as AFC playoff contenders. No one expected Vegas to go 3-0 against the Ravens, Steelers and Dolphins. On the other hand, those teams look undeniably worse now than they did a month ago. The Steelers just got dominated by the Bengals. The Ravens should’ve lost to the Lions. The Dolphins were shut out a week ago.
Is it really that impressive to go 3-0 against average competition? No, but it doesn’t have to be.
Wins count as wins no matter how you get them, and three wins against potential playoff competition are very valuable. The Raiders are 3-0 against the AFC with a head-to-head tiebreak against three wildcard contenders. It’s a serious leg up.
The Raiders are certainly fun. Derek Carr has played like an MVP candidate with 1,203 passing yards so far, putting him on pace for an absurd 6,817 yards. Already the Raiders have a quartet of 200-yard pass catchers in Darren Waller, Henry Ruggs, Bryan Edwards and Hunter Renfrow. The run game has been poor with Josh Jacobs hurt and the offensive line struggling, but the defensive line has surprised with Yannick Ngakoue and Solomon Thomas already looking like great additions.
Some regression is in order. Carr won’t throw 400 yards a game all season. His ankle is banged u, and backup Marcus Mariota is also injured. Any games with third-string QB Nathan Peterman will not go well. The defense is still largely untested, too — especially the pass D, which was terrible the last few years.
The Raiders look better than expected, but not a ton. They still look mostly average, able to hang with most teams and look good against bad ones. The difference is that this particular average team is already 3-0.
The Raiders still play the entire NFC East. Dallas looks tough, but those other three games are soft, and Vegas also hosts Chicago and Cincinnati. Win at least four of those and they’re up to seven wins, and in the AFC, that might be two away from a wildcard berth.
Remember, the Raiders own a key win and a tiebreak against the Ravens, Steelers and Dolphins — three teams the Raiders might compete against for a playoff berth. The AFC South sure doesn’t look like it’ll have a wildcard. The AFC East is looking like Bills or bust. Only the AFC North has a likely wildcard team, with the Browns and Ravens looking likely.
That leaves three playoff spots for the AFC West, and that’s six of the games left for these Raiders. If they can win even a couple of those games, they should be in good shape. Go 1-5 or winless in the division, and they’re in trouble. But even the forgettable Raiders teams the last two years went 4-2 and 3-3 in the division.
If nine wins make the AFC playoffs, the Raiders only no longer need to play .500 ball to get to the postseason. Just 6-8 does the trick! Average or not, the Raiders are better than 50/50 now to make the playoffs, likely at the expense of another AFC West rival. That makes them solid value at +100 at FanDuel.
VERDICT: Lean Raiders +100 to make the playoffs at FanDuel
Tier 3: I’m in Danger
In many ways, the Cardinals are the Raiders of the NFC.
Like Vegas, Arizona is a surprising 3-0, one of those wins in overtime. Two of the wins came against Vikings and Titans squads expected to compete for the playoffs but aren’t looking particularly good so far. And, just like the Raiders, the Cards aren’t even the only 3-0 team in their own totally loaded division.
The numbers like Arizona much better than Vegas.
The Cardinals rank second in the NFL in SRS and fourth in DVOA. They also rank top-eight in both offensive and defensive DVOA. Like the Raiders, the Cards have overachieved in large part to their quarterback performing like an MVP candidate. Kyler Murray has been awesome. He’s averaging just under 10 yards per attempt and has thrown seven touchdowns and ran for three more.
The offense should regress, though. Arizona has been unsustainably great on third and fourth down and in the red zone, numbers that are typically fairly random, and they’ve been out-of-this-world awesome defensively on late downs. The Cards have also been the beneficiary of great turnover luck so far. Those numbers will all regress to the mean and make Arizona far less efficient.
The Cardinals still can’t run the ball or stop the run, either.
This is still a flawed team that still looks like the worst in its division on paper. And coaching is still a major problem. Kliff Kingsbury has started out just fine before, but teams always catch up and he has never finished a year well. Just look at these horrible numbers from the last seven Kingsbury seasons:
Kliff Kingsbury stans: savor these first trimester wins.
They’re his calling card.
How does he FINISH?
'14: lost 4 of 5
'15: lost 4 of 6
'16: lost 6 of 8
'17: lost 6 of 8
'18: lost 5 of 5
'19: lost 7 of 9
'20: lost 6 of 9 (1 win by Hail Mary)
2014-16 with PATRICK MAHOMES
— Matt Mitchell (@olboyunclemitch) September 13, 2021
Kingsbury has repeatedly been exposed in the past, and this Cardinals attack is still succeeding mostly because of Murray’s heroics, not by scheme or coaching. Look at the other coaches in the division: Sean McVay, Pete Carroll and Kyle Shanahan. The Cards still have to play six division games, starting this week, and they enter every one of them with a serious coaching deficiency. That’ll even out a hot start in a hurry.
Heck, Arizona just started 5-2 and missed the playoffs one year ago.
The schedule is not easy, either. Arizona does get Houston and Detroit, but those are the only two easy wins left. The Cardinals could be an underdog in all six division games and still have to play Cleveland, Green Bay, Dallas and Carolina. Even games against the Bears and Colts come late in the season, when both teams should be more dangerous. The Cardinals probably need at least five wins from those games. It’s doable, but won’t be easy.
The Cards are like the Raiders, but the division and schedule are tougher, and the NFC is typically tougher to get into. Besides, the odds aren’t the same — the Cards are an implied 57% to make the playoffs, and that overrates their chances. That’s closer to what I’d make them to miss the playoffs, which makes Arizona serious value at +125 at BetMGM.
VERDICT: Bet Cardinals +125 to miss the playoffs at BetMGM
The Panthers are the least likely 3-0 team to make the playoffs and the only one of these five teams that’s still an underdog to make the postseason.
While the Cardinals are like the Raiders, the Panthers are more like the NFC version of the Broncos. Like Denver, Carolina is winning with defense first, and has also done it against a pretty soft schedule. Two of the Panthers’ wins are against the lowly Jets and Texans, and it’s hard to know how valuable that Saints win is just yet.
The Panthers defense has been even better than the Broncos, though. Carolina ranks first in overall DVOA, first in defensive DVOA as well as first in both passing and rushing defense. Pretty good. Shaq Thompson has been a revelation, Brian Burns leads a ferocious pass rush and the secondary has really surprised, led by corners Donte Jackson and rookie Jaycee Horn.
Unfortunately, Horn will miss most of the season injured, and newly-acquired replacement C.J. Henderson is a serious step down. The Panthers were a sleeper top-10 defense, but maintaining this level of dominance all season is very unlikely — after all, you don’t get to play the Jets and Texans all season.
Horn isn’t the only key injury. Christian McCaffrey is hurt, too, and that’s a worrying sign this early. Running backs don’t matter in the NFL — unless, of course, you build your entire rushing and passing attack around them. Rookie RB Chuba Hubbard is not much of a replacement. And Sam Darnold has looked decent at times but still has much to prove too.
Unlike the Broncos, the Panthers’ offense does not look reliable or anything close to great.
Carolina still gets to face the entire NFC East, but the schedule is tricky. Games against the Cowboys, Eagles and Vikings over the next three weeks — potentially without McCaffrey — could drop the Panthers right back to 4-2 or even 3-3. They still have to travel to Buffalo and Miami, with Tua Tagovailoa likely healthy, and have a brutal closing stretch against the Bucs, Saints and Bucs again, the final two games on the road.
Carolina might need to be 9-5 entering that home stretch to feel good about its chances.
The path is there.
The NFC East probably gets one playoff berth. Minnesota is the only wildcard candidate in the North. And if they can beat the Eagles and Vikings in October, the Panthers will put some real distance between themselves and the competition. Even if the NFC West grabs two wildcards, that still leaves one other spot. Carolina is in solid position to stay ahead of Minnesota, Philly and/or New Orleans for it — but it could all go sideways the next few weeks.
The books are right to make Carolina an underdog to hit the playoffs. Things are looking up after a 3-0 start, but the Horn and McCaffrey injuries are serious blows. If you do like Carolina, you’re better off just betting the Panthers in these upcoming games against Philadelphia and Minnesota.