By David Helman
FOX Sports Dallas Cowboys Writer
We’re early in the season, but it’s starting to feel fair to wonder just how much separation we’re going to see in 2022.
Three weeks are officially in the books, and already we’re down to just two unbeaten teams. Everyone is going to sing the praises of Miami and Philadelphia this week, and rightfully so. The Dolphins and Eagles have worked their way to 3-0 in impressive fashion, and they deserve their placement on top of the league.
Good luck with everything else. We can reasonably guess that about a half-dozen teams are pretty good. Beyond that, the middle of the league is a dumpster fire you’d need an extra degree to sort out accurately. Here’s my best stab at it, with the thankful caveat that it’s all bound to be turned upside down by this time next week.
1. Miami Dolphins: This is the second week in a row a Dolphins win seemed improbable. But 3-0 is 3-0, and no one in the NFL has a better résumé than Miami, with impressive wins over Baltimore and now Buffalo. Last week we saw them do it with their ludicrous speed on offense. This time around, give credit to a defensive front that sacked Josh Allen four times and pressured him into plenty of early throws – including a decisive misfire on fourth-and-goal with 1:49 to play. The Dolphins have shown they can win multiple ways, and they just took down the top dog. Plus, they introduced us to the Butt Punt. Feels like more than enough to claim the top spot.
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2. Philadelphia Eagles: The Eagles have a fair claim to the No. 1 spot, and I can hear Philly Twitter firing up the angry takes as we speak. But the bottom line is that the Dolphins have two wins that are better than anything on Philly’s résumé. Let’s not argue, though, because this team looks legit. The Eagles’ receiver corps looks terrifying, and it’s helping Jalen Hurts boost his level of play to MVP-caliber in the first month of the season. And even if the offense doesn’t continue to show up at this high a level, a defensive front that’s capable of getting nine sacks in a game is a nice thing to fall back on.
3. Buffalo Bills: We’re not going to penalize the Bills too much for losing a division road game in a literal sauna — especially when you remember that Buffalo’s injury report was roughly a mile long last week. The Bills ran 90 plays to Miami’s 39, and they were a goal-line stand away from taking the lead with under than two minutes to play. They’re not going to go undefeated, but the Bills should be fine.
4. Baltimore Ravens: Look, I get it. It’s totally asinine to project a player’s season-long pace after three games. But it’s hard not to be curious about Lamar Jackson‘s final 2022 stat line after watching him rush for 100 yards in a second consecutive game – and that’s in addition to racking up 749 passing yards in less than a month. Four takeaways by the Ravens’ defense helped make sure the effort wasn’t wasted the way it was last week.
5. Kansas City Chiefs: The Chiefs’ offense wasn’t spectacular in this loss to the Colts, but it was hardly the main culprit. Make sure you’re paying attention to special teams, where Kansas City missed an extra point and a field goal, failed to convert on a fake field goal and muffed a punt that set Indianapolis up on the Chiefs’ 4-yard line. If you fail that miserably in the kicking game, don’t be surprised if you get yourself beat.
6. Los Angeles Rams: We are not in the business of apologizing for one-sided road wins in the NFL — especially if those one-sided wins come within the division. The Rams’ defense looked lights-out in holding Kyler Murray to fewer than 5.5 yards per attempt. The Cardinals drove within sight of the end zone three times in the second half, and they came away with two field goals and a turnover on downs. Matt Stafford and the offense weren’t amazing, but you don’t have to be when the defense holds the opposition without a touchdown.
7. Green Bay Packers: Just grab your win and get the hell out of town. Aaron Rodgers vs. Tom Brady didn’t come close to living up to the hype, but no one in the Packers’ organization should give a damn. Yes, the Buccaneers were very short-handed, but Rodgers continues to find guys he can lean on, be it Allen Lazard or rookie receiver Romeo Doubs. That’s what’s going to matter in the long run — that and grabbing an all-important NFC win. It could come in handy for tie-breaking purposes.
8. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The good news for the Bucs is we know exactly why this is happening. Few, if any, teams in the league are dealing with this type of bad injury luck. Tom Brady was working with a makeshift offensive line and a receiver corps he cobbled together out of backups. Hopefully for Tampa Bay, some of those missing starters return soon. But it’s going to be scary relying on the defense to do everything until they do.
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9. Minnesota Vikings: This felt like one of those games the Vikings were destined to find a way to lose. You know the kind. Credit to Kirk Cousins, then, for overcoming a frustrating start to the second half and leading Minnesota on two fourth-quarter touchdown drives to beat the Lions. It’s also worth noting that the Vikings’ defense allowed two scoring drives to open the second half — and then nothing the rest of the way.
10. Jacksonville Jaguars: You had our curiosity, Jags, but now you have our attention. Jacksonville rag-dolled the Chargers, whom many considered to have one of the most talented rosters in the league. Yeah, Justin Herbert was limited by a rib injury. So what? Herbert’s injury had nothing to do with the Jaguars running up 413 yards and 25 first downs on the Chargers’ defense. No one outside Duval County thought the Jags would be relevant in 2022, but Trevor Lawrence and this defense are changing that idea with a quickness.
11. Cleveland Browns: Playing most of this season with a backup is underlining just how talented this Browns roster is. Cleveland’s defense was on its game, the Browns’ rushing attack dominated and Jacoby Brissett got the ball to his playmakers. That’s a formula that can beat most teams when it’s working.
12. Dallas Cowboys: Speaking of backups, is anyone in the NFL having a better September than Cooper Rush? This Cowboys team was left for dead when Dak Prescott broke his thumb, and all Rush has done in Prescott’s absence is complete 65% of his passes with no turnovers in two straight wins.
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Smart, effective quarterback play combined with that ferocious pass-rush? Not a bad combination.
13. New York Giants: The Giants would be doing themselves a huge favor if they could find some plays to lean on other than “hope Saquon breaks a tackle” or “let Daniel scramble his way out of trouble for the fifth time tonight.” Improved offensive line play would go a long way toward fixing that, as the Giants’ inability to protect Jones loomed large in Monday’s loss to Dallas.
14. San Francisco 49ers: The selling point on Jimmy Garoppolo is typically that, while his ceiling might not be very high, his floor also isn’t very low. That didn’t look like the case on Sunday night, when Jimmy G stepped out the back of his own end zone in a terrifying tribute to Dan Orlovsky. If All-Pro left tackle Trent Williams is out for any substantial length of time, this offense has the potential to be a rough watch.
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15. Arizona Cardinals: Kyler Murray‘s athleticism is always going to give the Cardinals a chance. Even in a game the Rams controlled throughout, Arizona was an onside-kick recovery away from having a chance to tie the score in the final minute. The problem is that Murray’s supporting cast doesn’t meet him halfway very often. The wait for DeAndre Hopkins to return from suspension feels like a long one.
16. Los Angeles Chargers: This is the madness of the L.A. Chargers. In the same game when Justin Herbert provided arguably the play of the day — a scrambling, twisting, 54-yard strike to Jalen Guyton — the Chargers also got run off their own field by Jacksonville. Yes, Herbert played through a rib injury, and yes Joey Bosa left the game early. But at a certain point it just feels like excuse-making. The Chargers aren’t going to win every game, but they’re too talented to get embarrassed like this.
17. Cincinnati Bengals: Let’s not get too excited about a win against the Jets, but at least the Bengals were able to get into the win column without much drama. They didn’t allow a touchdown, and Joe Burrow was upright long enough to make the necessary plays in the passing game.
18. Detroit Lions: Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Detroit had two opportunities to kill off a Minnesota rally in the fourth quarter. The Lions failed to convert a fourth-and-short on the first, and they followed that up by missing a 54-yard field goal. Choose your culprit in a disappointing loss: an offense that couldn’t close out the game, or a defense that surrendered two painfully easy touchdown drives in the fourth quarter.
19. Pittsburgh Steelers: Mike Tomlin said Thursday night that it’s not time to turn to Kenny Pickett, but that’s not going to stop the speculation. Mitchell Trubisky looked good enough in the first half against Cleveland, but the offense went into a shell after the break. Trubisky had only one completion of longer than 15 yards after halftime, and four of the Steelers’ six second-half possessions covered fewer than 10 yards.
20. Indianapolis Colts: Nothing matters as much as the end result, especially when you’re talking about the Chiefs. This Indianapolis offense is still a work in progress, as the Colts had to take advantage of every break to eke out a last-second win. But Matt Ryan looked a lot more dangerous with his top receivers back in the lineup, and the Colts can now claim one of the marquee wins of the young season. Just like we all thought after their disastrous start to the year.
21. Denver Broncos: You can almost feel a competent offense somewhere inside, struggling to get out. For brief moments on Sunday night, Russell Wilson looked like the guy we remember — most notably on the go-ahead touchdown drive, when he completed four passes for 58 yards and used his feet to pick up a key first down. Still, eight of the Broncos’ 13 possessions covered fewer than 10 yards. This is currently a very flawed team. But it helps to have a defense as dominant as Denver’s looks to be.
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22. New England Patriots: As is always the case when a quarterback gets hurt, all focus shifts from the Patriots’ loss to Baltimore to the status of Mac Jones‘ sprained ankle. Jones wasn’t great on Sunday, throwing three interceptions, but New England’s chances of staying competitive look a lot bleaker if he’s forced to miss time.
23. Chicago Bears: If you’re going to play ugly, you might as well win. For as much as people talk down on the Bears, they do find themselves at 2-1 with favorable-looking games on the horizon. Chicago managed to run for almost 300 yards on the day, which is an insane stat in the NFL. But Justin Fields and that passing attack still look like a total nightmare.
24. Tennessee Titans: It’s a definite theme for Week 3: The moment you write a team off, that’s when they strike back. It wasn’t a perfect 60 minutes from the Titans, as they were outscored 12-0 in the second half of their win against Las Vegas. But they never trailed, and they finally got their run game and play-action going to a competent level. In the end, 1-2 feels a heck of a lot better than 0-3.
25. Carolina Panthers: Sigh of relief, Panthers. Sunday’s commanding win against New Orleans didn’t just put them in the win column for 2022, it also snapped a nine-game losing streak dating back to last November. Hopefully for Carolina, recently acquired receiver Laviska Shenault can continue to make that kind of impact.
26. New Orleans Saints: That frantic fourth quarter in the season-opening win against Atlanta is starting to look more and more like fool’s gold the deeper we get into the season. The Saints continue to struggle on third down, and they continue to lose turnover battles in a big way. Even the typically strong defense stunk on Sunday, allowing a backbreaking 67-yard touchdown to Laviska Shenault due to poor tackling.
27. Washington Commanders: For all the talk about Joe Burrow’s offensive line, Carson Wentz has been sacked the same number of times through three weeks. Wentz is perfectly capable of hurting his team’s chances to win all on his own. Combine that with leaky protection and it’s a recipe for disaster.
28. Atlanta Falcons: They might not be contenders, but this Falcons team has some weapons. Cordarrelle Patterson had 150 all-purpose yards, Kyle Pitts finally broke out after two lackluster weeks and first-round pick Drake London scored his second career touchdown — this one for the game-winning points against the Seahawks. If you’re not going to be good, it’s at least nice to have some fun pieces.
29. Las Vegas Raiders: This team has too much talent to be ranked so low, but what exactly are you supposed to do with the league’s only 0-3 team? You’ve got to be impressed by the Raiders’ ability to consistently play well for half the game. But to this point, two strong halves of football have eluded them. Last week they were outscored 29-3 after halftime by Arizona. This week they fell behind 24-10 before rallying back in a losing effort against Tennessee. Yes, there’s talent. But the results speak for themselves.
30. Seattle Seahawks: This one kind of defies all football logic. The Seahawks ran more plays, gained more yards, had more time of possession and won the turnover battle — but managed to lose to the Falcons. It’s fair to point at a defense that forced only one punt all afternoon, though it’s also fair to note that the final pass of Geno Smith‘s day was an interception in the Atlanta red zone.
31. New York Jets: This is why last week’s win against Cleveland felt so big. This is a young, developing team playing in a stacked conference. The Jets played it close for a quarter against the Bengals, but they didn’t score a touchdown in a game that felt like it was over by halftime.
32. Houston Texans: This was a golden opportunity for a first win of the season, as the Bears look like they’ll be battling the Texans for a top-five pick next spring. Chicago managed to sneak away with a win after a late Davis Mills interception, and now it’s fair to wonder when that first Houston win is going to come.
David Helman covers the Dallas Cowboys for FOX Sports. He previously spent nine seasons covering the Cowboys for the team’s official website. In 2018, he won a regional Emmy for his role in producing “Dak Prescott: A Family Reunion” about the quarterback’s time at Mississippi State. Follow him on Twitter @davidhelman_.
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