Written after just four rounds of the 2023-24 NFL season, it would be hasty to draw too many definitive conclusions of how the campaign looks set to shape up.
But we do have evidence – whether it’s offense, defense, or strategic subtleties – that helps us get a certain feel for which franchises are in the ascendancy and which are failing to deliver out on the field.
Picking apart the data generated thus far, here’s a deep dive into the stats that can help inform your bets and your fantasy drafts in the weeks ahead.
Bills Living Up to the Hype
After an inauspicious start in New York, the Buffalo Bills have bounced back in style with some eye-catching displays.
Wins over the Raiders and Commanders were taken as a given – albeit the 28- and 34-point margins of victory were impressive, but it was the 48-20 triumph against the Miami Dolphins that really set tongues wagging.
Central to that was another virtuoso display from Josh Allen, whose start to the campaign has been so good he has now become one of the favorites to be named MVP.
So far this term, the 27-year-old leads the way in pass completion % of all quarterbacks, and what’s more, he does so having made more than 130 attempts – putting him in the upper echelons of the most hard-working QBs in the game.
Any quarterback worth his salt needs a premier offensive line in order to thrive, and the emergence of Dalton Kincaid – whose 88.2% catch rate is elite – and James Cook as pass targets has helped to ease some of the load on Stefon Diggs.
It’s early days, but Diggs is averaging around 100 receiving yards per game – that’s the kind of level he’d love to get close to replicating across the entire season, while Gabriel Davis also continues to impress as an alternative target.
With an October schedule that could be described as challenging but by no means insurmountable, the Bills could have broken the back of postseason qualification before we’ve even reached halfway – noteworthy stuff indeed from Sean McDermott’s men.
At +800 in the NFL odds for 2023/24, it’s they and the 49ers (+600) who arguably appear to be the standout picks amongst the top-tier franchises right now.
Ravens Shut Up Shop
As human beings, we are naturally drawn to the creativity and peacockery of touchdowns, lengthy pass completions, and ingenious offensive play.
Stout defending rarely gets the pulse racing, and while the jury is out on whether you can win the Super Bowl these days without a prolific offense, a solid defense can certainly take you deep into the playoffs all the same.
That continues to be the thought process of John Harbaugh, who took the Baltimore Ravens to the postseason in 2022-23 having shipped just 315 regular season points – only the Bills and 49ers had a tighter defense.
The Ravens are up to their old tricks this term too, conceding an average of just 14.5 points per game in the early going of the season.
This is a unit-based success, rather than one brought about by individuals, although Roquan Smith (who ranks 7th in the NFL for combined tackles) and Patrick Queen (19th) can be pretty pleased with how they have started their campaign. Then you have guys like Rock Ya-Sin, who has given up just 22 yards in passes targeted at him.
Such a heavy focus on the defensive aspects of the game means that Lamar Jackson now has do the bulk of the heavy lifting offensively, but on the flipside, these Baltimore Ravens are incredibly tough to beat – as the Bengals and Browns have found out to their cost already this season.
Variety is the Spice of Life for the Dolphins
It’s fair to say that the old adage ‘defense wins championships’ can be kicked to the curb.
The winner of nine of the last ten editions of the Super Bowl has amassed 23 points or more in the big game, with a healthy 60% of those Super Bowl showpieces ending with the victor running home 30 points or more.
The Chiefs scored more points than any other franchise in the 2022 regular season, while in 2020 Tampa Bay amassed 492 regular season points despite finishing second in NFC South.
So if offensive strength is one the key portents of future success, the Dolphins – even accounting for their defeat to the Bills in Week 4 – will surely be looking to improve upon their wild card efforts of 2022.
Chief to that is the variety that Mike McDaniel and offensive orchestrator Frank Smith have at their disposal. Smith’s playbook features passing lanes to perhaps the NFL’s finest receiving corps in Tyreek Smith and Jaylen Waddle, while the rushing qualities of Raheem Mostert and De’Von Achane provide Tua Tagovailoa with an abundance of options.
Tagovailoa is currently trending with his best yards-per-pass ratio in his short NFL career so far, and while there is likely to be a regression of that as more attempts are made, it’s still a marked improvement from the 25-year-old. After four rounds of games, he also leads the way in yards gained.
While Hill, Waddle and Mostert remain the stars of this Dolphins offensive unit, the emergence of Tagovailoa and Achane to new heights offers Miami a whole new dimension of attacking options. They may be easy to play through and score against, but that offense could yet take them all the way to the Super Bowl… even if it doesn’t it will be fun watching them try.
Young Guns Blazing in AFC South
Of all NFL’s various divisions in the class of 2023, the AFC South is one of the more befuddling to fathom out.
The Jaguars were expected to be the franchise that broke out from that pack, with the throwing arm of Trevor Lawrence finally starting to live up to the hype.
But of the quartet, you could argue that it’s the Houston Texans who have shown the most promise in the early skirmishes of the campaign – and it’s their own young quarterback who has caught the eye.
Much was expected from C.J. Stroud, the second pick of the 2023 Draft, but as Lawrence showed in his rookie year, the transition from college to big-time football is not always as smooth as expected.
But Stroud, the Offensive Rookie of the Month for September, has taken to the NFL like a duck to water. The difficulty for him now is that such promising early performances will paint a target on his back, so expect the heat to be turned up on the Texans’ QB in the weeks ahead.
That may lead to an even heavier workload for Dameon Pierce, who has been Houston’s premier rush merchant so far this term and who represents a budget running back option for fantasy gamers week in, week out.
Stroud’s connection with Nico Collins and Tank Dell has caught the eye too, and the combined presence of that trio and Pierce – who are all aged 24 or under – confirm that the Texans could be a team to watch in the future.
As for the here and now, they’ve already beaten the Jaguars on the road and handed a 24-point thrashing to the Steelers, so their youthful exuberance is cause for cautious optimism.
Even though it’s early days in NFL 2023-24, this is shaping up to be another outstanding season of elite football.