Sunday, July 22, 2018
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Raiders, Falcons, Bucs, Texans and Bills: Contenders or pretenders?

It's almost Halloween — time to sort out the NFL contenders and pretenders. It's like dumping your pillowcase of candy on the kitchen table and separating the Reese's Peanut Butter Cups from the Necco Wafers.

As always, the Patriots are really, really good and the Browns are really, really Browns, even Brownsier than usual. Through seven weeks, the Vikings, Seahawks and Broncos are all firmly in the "contenders" category while the 49ers, Bears, Panthers and Jets are researching hotel rooms in Philadelphia ahead of April's draft.

Everyone else warrants more consideration. Let's look at a handful of teams, starting with the Bucs' opponent Sunday.

Oakland Raiders (5-2, first place in the AFC West)

A 5-2 record and quarterback Derek Carr's strong start have affirmed the Raiders' preseason status as up-and-comers. They lead their division, but don't jump on the bandwagon just yet. Their record masks some serious flaws.

The most significant flaw is the defense, which is allowing a league-high 6.7 yards per play (the league average is 5.5). Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, two teams have reached the playoffs after leading the league in yards allowed per play (1996 Vikings and 2011 Packers).

Oakland has allowed 42 explosive plays (passes of 25 or more yards and runs of 10 or more yards) this season, fourth-most. The offense, even with Carr and receivers Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree, hasn't been able to keep pace, as it has executed just 30 explosive plays.

The shortfall has contributed to a minus-4 toxic differential. Only 10 teams, including the Bucs, have a worse margin. Toxic differential adds a team's explosive play margin and its turnover margin. Ten of the top 12 teams in toxic differential last season reached the playoffs.

RELATED STORY: What toxic differential tells us about the Bucs

The Raiders also have benefited from a favorable schedule. The teams they've beaten (Saints, Titans, Ravens, Chargers and Jaguars) have a combined record of 14-21. They beat the hapless Jaguars 33-16, but the difference in their other four wins has been one score, and the difference in three of their wins is five points combined.

Perhaps the Raiders are finding ways to win. That would be a more convincing argument if there weren't other indications they're playing less like a 10-6 contender and more like an 8-8 pretender.

Verdict: Pretenders

• • •

Atlanta Falcons (4-3, first place in the NFC South)

The Falcons started 6-1 last season and collapsed, so it's fair to wonder whether their 4-1 start this season is another mirage.

There were signs last season that Atlanta was on the verge of regression. One of those signs was its plus-43 point differential after seven games. Based on that, the Falcons were playing like a four or five-win team, not a six-win team. They won four of those six games by six or fewer points.

The Falcons also had not defeated a quality opponent to that point. To get to six wins, they beat the Eagles, Giants, Cowboys (led by Brandon Weeden), Texans (led by Ryan Mallett/Brian Hoyer), Washington (in overtime) and the Titans.

Atlanta's 4-3 record this season is a more accurate reflection of its play. To arrive at a plus-30 point differential, the Falcons have won a couple of close games but lost a couple, too. The difference this year is they've gone on the road and beaten a quality opponent — the Broncos. They've lost two straight games, but the losses to the Seahawks and Chargers came down to officials missing blatant interference on late-game passes to Julio Jones.

With the Panthers unlikely to recover from a 1-5 start, the NFC South is wide open. If the Bucs beat the Raiders on Sunday, they'll battle the Falcons on Thursday night with first place up for grabs.

Verdict: Contenders

• • •

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-3, second place in the NFC South)

So what about those Bucs? They haven't been at least .500 after six games since 2011, when they started 4-2. That season didn't end so well — they didn't win another game.

This season's Bucs aren't that bad. If the 34-17 win over the 49ers last Sunday showed us anything, it was that Tampa Bay is capable of soundly beating inferior teams.

The Bucs, however, have much to prove before we can suggest they're anything more than mediocre. As is the case with the Raiders, the Bucs' record hides two warning signs: a negative point differential (minus-31) and a negative toxic differential (minus-6).

While the Raiders can blame their negative toxic differential solely on the number of explosive plays they've allowed, the Bucs have struggled to limit both explosive plays and giveaways. Tampa Bay has turned the ball over 12 times. Only four teams turned the ball over more often in their first six games.

The Bucs have made some progress in this department. Eleven of those 12 giveaways came in their first four games. Despite the improvement, Jameis Winston's interception rate of 3.8 percent remains the fourth-highest rate in the NFL. Tampa Bay's path to contention hinges on its continued care of the football.

Verdict: Pretenders

• • •

Houston Texans (4-3, first place in the AFC South)

The Texans in the offseason did the horror-movie equivalent of running up the stairs when they gave $37 million guaranteed to a quarterback with seven career starts. You understood why they did it — coach Bill O'Brien somehow managed 18 wins in two seasons with Ryan Fitzpatrick, Case Keenum, Ryan Mallett, Brian Hoyer and T.J. Yates as his quarterbacks — but you still winced.

Seven games into the Brock Osweiler era, the Texans' demise seems inevitable. By QBR, DVOA and every other conceivable acronym we use to measure quarterback performance, Osweiler has been brutal. He's not even good at being tall. In the fourth quarter Monday, the Broncos defensive line batted two of his passes. When you're 9 feet tall, you're supposed to be able to a.) step on your opponents or b.) throw over them.

Because the Texans play in the AFC South — two of their wins have come against division rivals — they'll remain in the playoff hunt. Their ceiling, however, is low. In losses to the Patriots, Vikings and Broncos, they've been outscored 85-22.

Verdict: Pretenders

• • •

Buffalo Bills (4-3, second place in the AFC East)

The Bills' run game kept them in contention last season and is thriving again. Buffalo leads the NFL in yards per rush (5.3) and rushes of 10 or more yards (33), is tied for the league lead in touchdowns (11) and is second in rushing first downs (57).

To crash the playoffs, the Bills needed a defensive turnaround. Coach Rex Ryan's solution was to hire his brother, Rob, whom the Saints fired in November. New Orleans allowed a league-high 29.8 points last season.

Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi's 214 yards on 28 carries Sunday showed the defense remains susceptible to big plays. It is, however, holding opponents this season to nearly four fewer points per game than last season.

An AFC wild-card spot could be at stake when the Bills meet the Raiders in Week 13. But with the Patriots on tap Sunday and the Seahawks in Seattle after that, Buffalo's situation feels volatile. We could be a couple of blowout losses away from seeing Rob go from walking the sideline to crushing beer cans on his forehead in the stadium parking lot.

Verdict: Contenders

Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected] Follow @tometrics.

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