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Wednesday, September 25, 2013
NFLN says: 3-0 Super Bowl contenders?

By Kevin Seifert

Smith, Cutler & Brees
Alex Smith, Jay Cutler and Drew Brees have led their teams to a 3-0 start.
The danger in getting excited about a 3-0 start is that pesky little thing known as "The Other Thirteen Games." Victories in the first three weeks can lead to a 15-1 season, as they did for the Green Bay Packers in 2011. Or they could mean a 2-11 finish and a fired coaching staff, as the Arizona Cardinals found out last year.

So let's keep our wits as we analyze the seven teams that have started this season 3-0. It has been four years since that many teams were still perfect after three weeks. The 2009 season offers another lesson in early conclusions: One of the seven (the New Orleans Saints) won the Super Bowl but two finished 8-8 and missed the playoffs altogether (the New York Giants and Denver Broncos).

So who is this year's version of the 2009 Saints? Are there any candidates to emulate the 2012 Cardinals? NFL Nation has some thoughts.

If there is anything to glean from the first three weeks of this season, it's the emergence of two early powerhouses. The Seattle Seahawks and the Broncos have outscored opponents by a combined 213-98, and their individual point differentials of 59 and 56, respectively, are by far the best in the NFL. (The next best is the Kansas City Chiefs at 37).

The Seahawks' path to Super Bowl XLVIII seems clear: Clinch home-field advantage at CenturyLink Field, where they have won 10 consecutive games, and book their ticket to New York. The Broncos, meanwhile, have scored the second-most points through three games in NFL history and only figure to improve as defensive stalwarts Von Miller (suspension) and Champ Bailey (injury) return to the lineup.

What about the rest?

Has Andy Reid built an instant Super Bowl contender in Kansas City, or will his Chiefs level off? Has Ryan Tannehill really developed into a championship-caliber quarterback for the Miami Dolphins?

Are the Chicago Bears for real after two fourth-quarterback comebacks followed by two defensive touchdowns in their victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers? The New England Patriots are fortunate to be 3-0, right? And has Sean Payton restored the Saints' magic? Let's take the pulse of NFL Nation.

Which 3-0 teams are legitimate Super Bowl contenders?

The Saints should definitely be considered as legitimate Super Bowl contenders, based on their offensive track record under coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees. Not only did they win the Super Bowl in 2009, but their offense was even better in 2011, when they finished 13-3 and set the NFL record for yards gained in a season (7,474). I don't expect an exact repeat this year, but I think that's closer to the norm than last year's 7-9 season.

Especially with tight end Jimmy Graham healthy again and back to being one of the most difficult matchups in the league. Clearly, however, the Saints need to improve a run game that has been practically non-existent to keep defenses honest and keep Brees upright.

Meanwhile, the Saints' young defense has been one of the biggest surprises in the NFL this year under new coordinator Rob Ryan. I still expect a few growing pains before the season is over. But they don't need to be dominant for the Saints to succeed. And I think they can continue to come up big in some big moments. Players are clearly responding to Ryan's energetic approach and versatile schemes. And they have some bona fide talent to work with in every unit -- including emerging young pass-rushers Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette. That was the biggest question mark heading into this season. If the defense can keep playing anywhere near this level, the Saints could run away with the NFC South title.

The undefeated Miami Dolphins are arguably the biggest surprise in the NFL.

But can the Dolphins be serious Super Bowl contenders? Let's temper those expectations. The Dolphins absolutely have playoff potential. This is a franchise that hasn't made the postseason since 2008. Ending that streak and having a winning season should be Miami's primary goals.

A 3-0 start is terrific, especially after beating the talented Indianapolis Colts and Atlanta Falcons in back-to-back weeks. But the Dolphins certainly have holes.

Depth is an issue in several areas and will be tested. Miami could be without several defensive starters -- defensive end Cameron Wake (knee), defensive tackle Paul Soliai (knee) and cornerback Dimitri Patterson (groin) -- against the New Orleans Saints on "Monday Night Football." The Dolphins also face issues such as pass protection (14 sacks allowed) and having the 28th-ranked rushing attack.

In addition to the undefeated Saints, Miami has tough games against the defending champion Baltimore Ravens (2-1), New England Patriots (3-0) and Cincinnati Bengals (2-1) before the end of October. The Dolphins cannot rest on their early success. They must continue to improve.

The health and production of second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill is the biggest key. However, the Dolphins have a lot to prove over the course of 16 games.

Miami has a perfect record, but it's far from perfect.

Judging strictly from the numbers, the Kansas City Chiefs are legitimate Super Bowl contenders. They are No. 1 in the AFC in scoring defense, No. 2 in the conference in scoring differential and, most importantly, tied for first place with a 3-0 record.

But it's another number, one that will be impossible to sustain, that's feeding the Chiefs' success and threatens to reveal them as pretenders once it begins its inevitable correction.

The Chiefs are leading the league in turnover differential at plus-9. They are one of two NFL teams yet to commit a turnover. That's a statistic capable of making a good team look great as long as it lasts. The trouble is, it never does last, at least not at this rate. Once their turnover differential starts to balance out, here is the advantage the Chiefs will lose:

The Chiefs have started 10 possessions on their opponents' end of the field. Their opponents have started one in Kansas City's territory, and even that drive began at the Chiefs' 49.

Such consistently favorable field position can make life easy for a team, and credit to the Chiefs for enjoying the ride while it lasts.

It won't forever. When it ends, the Chiefs will have to make their own way.

Their defense looks capable of doing that, but their offense needs a boost. When it doesn't get one, the Chiefs will suddenly look mortal.

This 3-0 team is better than the Bears squad from 2012, which started 7-1, and is a legitimate Super Bowl contender for a variety of reasons. The Bears have already scored three defensive touchdowns, but the major difference is the club is getting contributions from both sides of the ball and special teams.

Chicago provided evidence of that with quarterback Jay Cutler engineering back-to-back, come-from-behind victories over Cincinnati and Minnesota to start the season, before coming through in the clutch on the road Sunday, bailing out a struggling defense to clinch a victory against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Bears racked up nine defensive touchdowns last season, which tied for the second most in NFL history. But at this juncture last year, the unit had only one score, yet basically carried the entire team through its impressive first half.

Through the 7-1 start in 2012, skepticism existed because the Bears simply hadn't played good teams. This year, the combined record of the teams first three opponents is 2-7. But don't be fooled, this is a better Bears team.

Cutler is one of the main reasons for that. He's matured. He's accepted the coaching. He's putting in more time to sharpen his craft, while shedding the enigmatic gunslinger persona for a more controlled approach. His protection is better. The front office has surrounded him with more weapons and an offensive-minded coach in Marc Trestman, who is the architect of a system Cutler believes in.

If there has been one constant of Bill Belichick-coached Patriots teams since 2000, it's that they usually get better as the season progresses. Surely, there have been exceptions (2009 comes to mind), but there are no indications this year's team is headed down that path at this point.

The defense has exceeded expectations through three games, although a lingering question is how much of the unit's success is a result of playing weaker competition. Sunday night's game on the road, against the fast-starting Atlanta Falcons, should tell us more about the unit. And while the offense has struggled to find its groove, the return of tight end Rob Gronkowski should provide a boost and with Danny Amendola saying he envisions being 100 percent shortly, big-time reinforcements are on the way.

So if you're judging on the present picture, it's understandable that one would say this team isn't a Super Bowl contender. In a game against the Denver Broncos, right now, you would have to pick the Broncos. But this is about projecting what the Patriots could be, and at this point, there's no reason to think they won't evolve as past Belichick teams have. Many of those clubs have been Super Bowl contenders.