Tonight, we will have the distinct misfortune of squandering an otherwise perfectly good evening by watching the Denver Broncos (0-3) do battle against the New York Football Jets (0-3). Even though there’s an expanded playoff field this year, these teams will mainly be competing for their dignity, and those of us who subject ourselves to this sordid affair surely have none.
But we may still have our senses, and many of us fully expected the Jets to be abysmal throughout their bid for Trevor Lawrence’s services. And they’ve lived up to their billing; they have had a positive (>50%) win probability on less than one percent of their plays this season. Furthermore, they are one of the worst 0-3 teams of the past five years based on net EPA, which is the sum of their EPA on their offensive, defensive, and special teams plays. Their net EPA (-57) is second-worst behind only the 2019 Miami Dolphins (-116) who lost their first three games by a combined 123 points.
But as these franchises have shown, you can’t win them all, so it should be unsurprising that we have thus far misjudged some other teams. For example, I did not expect the fearsome hydra of Mitch Trubisky and Nick Foles to pilot the Chicago Bears to a 3-0 start. I also did not foresee the Falcons falling asleep at the wheel. Despite having a positive win probability on 66% of their plays, Atlanta’s slapstick comedy routine has them sitting at 0-3 heading into Week 4.
Since some teams are not what their records would lead us to believe, it might be interesting to examine the best 0-3 teams and the worst 3-0 teams of the past five seasons.
Worst of the best
|Team||Net EPA||Eventual Record|
|2020 Tennessee Titans||7||TBD|
|2020 Chicago Bears||8||TBD|
|2017 Atlanta Falcons||14||10-6|
|2016 Baltimore Ravens||16||8-8|
|2020 Seattle Seahawks||16||TBD|
This list is headlined by the 2020 editions of the Tennessee Titans and the aforementioned Bears, both of whom have had all their games decided by four points or fewer. This is highlighted by the fact that Tennessee has had a positive win probability on just 52% of their plays – a precarious figure. Chicago has fared far worse (37%) and Mitch Trubisky and Nick Foles rank 36th and 38th, respectively, in Passing Total Points per snap.
The presence of the Seahawks is far more interesting. They owe most of their success to Russell Wilson, who ranks first in Passing Total Points (38) and third on a per-snap basis. However, their defense is a shadow of its former self, ranking third-worst in defensive EPA allowed (8) among the 24 teams to start 3-0 since 2016.
Best of the worst
|Team||Net EPA||Eventual Record|
|2018 Houston Texans||-10||11-5|
|2017 San Diego Chargers||-17||9-7|
|2020 Atlanta Falcons||-18||TBD|
|2016 New Orleans Saints||-18||7-9|
|2019 Denver Broncos||-22||7-9|
With the blooper reel that has been Atlanta’s season still fresh in our minds, it’s likely no surprise to see them here. Their offense has been mediocre (-3 EPA), but their defense ranks in the 13th percentile in net EPA allowed out of 160 team seasons since 2016.
Of note is the presence of the 2016 Saints, whose offense ranked in the 81st percentile in EPA (14) over the same time frame, but whose defense was third-worst in EPA, making them the quintessential 7-9 Saints team.
The 2018 Texans are also an oddity, as they spent just 8% of their snaps with a positive win probability, the third-worst among 24 teams to start 0-3, but were easily the best team from a net EPA perspective.
Ranking 2020’s 3-0 squads
You’re likely curious about the legitimacy of the four 3-0 teams who have yet to be mentioned, so here’s a quick leaderboard:
|Team||Net EPA||Rank (since 2016)|
|Green Bay Packers||48||5th|
|Kansas City Chiefs||26||15th|
It may mean nothing, but it’s worth noting that the Packers rank higher than two Super Bowl-winning teams: the 2019 Chiefs and the 2016 Patriots.
The Chiefs have started 3-0 each of the past four seasons and the 2020 iteration has been the worst statistically: 2019 (40 Net EPA), 2018 (27), and 2017 (26) were all better starts by net EPA. That said, this is easily the best their defense has looked during that timespan and Patrick Mahomes isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
The Bills also started 3-0 last year, but this year feels different because of the way Josh Allen has played. From a Passing Total Points perspective, the third-year quarterback has taken a huge leap from last year (23rd on a per-snap basis) to this year (sixth). However, the defensive unit has regressed significantly through three games. Last year they allowed -45 defensive EPA; this year’s unit has contributed relatively net zero in that regard. This is somewhat discouraging considering the fact they’ve played the Dolphins and the Jets.
This exercise is in no way intended to be an exact science and should not be interpreted to predict future performance, especially considering strength of schedule does matter. It does, however, help us conceptualize if teams are living up to their record or not.
Based on these numbers, the Packers, Steelers, and Chiefs appear legit, whereas the Bills, Titans, and Bears (especially the Titans and the Bears) should be approached with caution. 3-0 is quite the head start and it wouldn’t be surprising to see all six of these teams make the playoffs, but this should serve as a gentle reminder that 3-0 does not a Super Bowl champion make.