The Brandt Report

Confidence rankings for undefeated: Patriots solid, 49ers shaky

Heading into Week 4 of the 2019 season, an astounding eight teams stand undefeated.

That's five more undefeated teams than at this point last year, and tied with 1996 for the second-most undefeated teams through the first three weeks of any season since 1930.

All of these teams should be feeling good, given that 73.8 percent of teams to start 3-0 since 1990 have gone on to make the playoffs. But this is the NFL, and anything can happen.

Which of the eight undefeated teams am I most confident in? I've ranked them below, separating them further into three categories: playoff locks, on the bubble and potentially too good to be true.

PLAYOFF LOCKS

What was old is new again. In each of the Patriots' three Super Bowl-winning seasons from 2001 to '04, when Tom Brady was still blossoming into the greatest quarterback of all time, their defense ranked sixth or better in points allowed. While the 42-year-old Brady of today is throwing the ball at a much more prolific clip than his younger self (his per-game mark of 303.7 yards this season is the second highest of his career), the defense is absolutely rolling, ranking first in points allowed and yards allowed while becoming the first team in the Super Bowl era to not give up a single offensive touchdown through the first three games of a season. Say what you want about the caliber of opponent New England has faced thus far (the Steelers, Dolphins and Jets are a combined 0-9), but the bottom line is, the Patriots are showing every earmark of being a dominant outfit yet again.

I cannot wait for the Chiefs and Patriots to face off in Week 14. Between now and then, it's quite possible that no one will stop Kansas City. The Chiefs have scored 25 points or more in 24 games and counting going back to last season, the longest such stretch in NFL history. Patrick Mahomes, meanwhile, is taking quarterback play to an entirely new level in his second season as the starter, following up on his MVP campaign by averaging nearly 400 yards and more than three touchdown passes per game. Impressively, Andy Reid and the Chiefs have compensated for the absence of injured receiver Tyreek Hill to the point that he hasn't really been missed, with players like Demarcus Robinson (10 catches, 215 yards, three scores on 12 targets), Mecole Hardman (six catches, 158 yards and two scores on 12 targets) and LeSean McCoy (196 yards from scrimmage and two scores on 36 touches) taking on increased roles. More good news for K.C.: New coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's defense already looks better than the leaky unit the Chiefs fielded in 2018, ranking 14th in the NFL in points allowed after finishing last season in 24th.

A tip of the cap to head coach Jason Garrett, who tied Jimmy Johnson in career wins with 80 when the Cowboys stomped the Dolphins in Week 3. Dak Prescott and the offense are in sync, and the defense is living up to its end of the bargain. Dallas is putting up the most yards (481.3) and allowing the fewest points (14.7) of any Garrett-coached team through the first three weeks of a season. When you combine the Cowboys' overall effectiveness with the Eagles' rash of injuries, the Redskins' general ineptitude and the lack of a track record for promising rookie Giants quarterback Daniel Jones, Dallas appears to be firmly on the path to becoming the NFC East's first repeat champions since Philadelphia in 2004.

The Rams are off to their second straight 3-0 start under Sean McVay. And yet, there are still some big questions that need answering about this team. 1) Will the reshaped interior of the offensive line gel? 2) Can running back Todd Gurley, coming off a season in which he was hampered by a knee injury, resume playing at a high level? (After 22.7 touches and 6.0 scrimmage yards per game in 2017-18, Gurley is down to 16 touches and 70.3 scrimmage yards per game in 2019.) If the answer to both questions is yes, the Rams should have a clear path to return to the NFC title game once more. Re-signing Dante Fowler and adding veteran Clay Matthews has significantly boosted the pass rush of coordinator Wade Phillips' defense, while the return to health of receiver Cooper Kupp has helped Jared Goff steady himself after the quarterback's disastrous performance in Super Bowl LIII. Though Goff has been inconsistent, Kupp has resumed being Goff's go-to pass-catcher, hauling in 74.2 percent of his team-high 31 targets for 268 yards and two scores.

ON THE BUBBLE

Buffalo fans have been teased before, but it feels like this iteration of the Bills is a legit playoff squad, especially when you consider that they should be able to count on getting three more wins out of their three remaining matchups against the Jets and Dolphins. (Buffalo already beat the Jets in Week 1.) Of course, this team could REALLY quiet doubters by beating the visiting Patriots this Sunday. For that to happen, the Bills will need Josh Allen to maintain the upward trajectory he's been on in his second pro season; the quarterback has improved on his rookie marks in completion rate (64.1, up from 52.8), interception rate (2.9 percent, down from 3.8) and yards per attempt (7.3, up from 6.5) while continuing to pose a threat on the ground (8.7 yards per carry with two rushing scores).

Since 1992, the Packers have enjoyed either Brett Favre or Aaron Rodgers as their starting quarterback. In that time, it's been rare that one could say the defense was carrying Green Bay's offense. And yet, that is the case through three weeks of the 2019 season. Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine's unit is absolutely flourishing, thanks to the additions of pass rushers Preston Smith (4.5 sacks) and Za'Darius Smith (3.0 sacks) and safeties Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage, along with the development of defensive tackle Kenny Clark and cornerback Jaire Alexander into top-tier players. It's fair to assume Rodgers and new head coach Matt LaFleur will eventually get the offense rolling again, and when that happens, we can expect the Packers to pull away in the highly competitive NFC North.

TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE?

The Niners are good enough to have beaten three losing teams en route to their first 3-0 start since 1998. They and the Patriots are also the only two teams in 2019 that rank in the top five in both offense and defense. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (69 percent completion rate, 8.8 yards per attempt, 96.3 passer rating) is starting to live up to the expectations placed on him when San Francisco traded for the former Patriots backup in October of 2017, while head coach Kyle Shanahan is running an effective offense, significantly increasing San Francisco's marks from 2018 in points per game (32.0, up from 21.4) and yards per game (421, up from 360.6). I was inclined to include the 49ers as a bubble team -- I'm just not ready to take the plunge quite yet, given that they reside in the NFC West, where the Rams and Seahawks will likely improve going forward. On paper, Seattle and Los Angeles are better teams than San Francisco, though we'll truly find out over the Niners' final six games, which includes road matchups in Baltimore, New Orleans and Seattle, plus home dates against the Packers and the Rams.

I really like what general manager Bob Quinn and head coach Matt Patricia have assembled in their second season together. This year's roster is more in line with Patricia's wavelength, and the talent is better suited for the defensive system he wants to run, than in his first year on the job in 2018. Credit should be given to the Lions for beating the Chargers and Eagles, two playoff participants last season. Matthew Stafford, meanwhile, is playing great thus far, improving in yards per attempt (7.8, up from 6.8 in 2018) and passer rating (97.5, up from 89.9). And yet, their point differential (plus-6) is easily the lowest among the undefeated teams. The NFC North is incredibly competitive, and it will be tough to make the playoffs while scrapping with Green Bay, Chicago and Minnesota on a regular basis. Also, the Lions have a real history of crashing and burning that they must contend with. Personally, I believe this roster is capable of bucking that historical trend, but we won't know for sure until we see them do it. We should get a better idea of this team over the next three games, against the Chiefs, Packers and Vikings.

Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.

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