Breaking Down the NFL’s Biggest Surprise Teams + Week 6 Preview (2019)

The Colts and Jacoby Brissett are one of the biggest surprises so far in the NFL (Photo by Jeffrey Brown/Icon Sportswire)

Who is the biggest surprise through five weeks in the NFL? Based on preseason expectations and the results so far, you would have to narrow it down to a short list of about five or six teams.

The Indianapolis Colts stunned the Chiefs and gave them their first loss of the season, and improved to 3-2. Just over a month ago, it looked like doom and gloom for the Colts in the immediate wake of the Andrew Luck retirement announcement. The Buffalo Bills have gotten off to a 4-1 start by getting a road win at Tennessee on Sunday, and are in great shape to reach the playoffs at the moment.

The Oakland Raiders got a second consecutive win away from home, this time in London, when they jumped out to a big lead on Chicago and then were able to re-take the lead late. Finally, the Carolina Panthers won their third straight game with Kyle Allen at quarterback by beating Jacksonville in a high-scoring game. (San Francisco at 4-0 and the Detroit Lions, who had a bye this week, sitting at 2-1-1 would be the other candidates for biggest surprises of 2019).

Heading to Week 6, let’s take a look at the four teams who got big wins on Sunday, to assess their future prospects.

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Breaking Down the Four Surprise Teams Who Won on Sunday

Which of Buffalo, Carolina, Indianapolis, and Oakland have the best chance of the playoffs, and who could continue to surprise? To look into this question, we will break down each team by looking at their regular season win projection and playoff projections from our models. Also, as another historical touch, we will also compare them to the ten most similar teams since 2002 with the same record after five games, based on preseason win total projections, points scored, points allowed, and point differential.

Buffalo Bills (4-1)

TR projected wins: 10.4

TR Playoff Odds: 75.9%

Points For: 90

Points Allowed: 70 

Point Differential: +20

The Buffalo Bills have been doing it with defense, as they rank 3rd in the NFL in points allowed per game, behind only New England and Chicago. They have yet to surrender more than 17 points in a game, and have now won three different games where they scored 21 or fewer. Their schedule has not been too difficult so far, as all four wins have come against teams with losing records overall. That’s not going to change, though, because they still have the Miami Dolphins twice, a home game against Washington, and a home game against the Jets. If they can just win those four games, they will be in great shape to reach the playoffs in the AFC.

Buffalo only comes in at No. 20 in our predictive ratings. Our model has them at just over 75% to reach the postseason in the AFC, and the rest of the conference playoff contenders can look upon their schedule with envy.

The most similar teams to Buffalo are low scoring, good defensive teams that also started 4-1, and were projected for between 6 and 8 wins in the preseason. Those teams averaged a regular season total of 9.7 wins after a 4-1 start, though Buffalo almost certainly has an easier schedule strength going forward than those teams faced. Seven of the ten did reach the playoffs, a bit below our model projections for the Bills.

The most successful comparable start was the 2003 Carolina Panthers, who followed a 4-1 start by going 11-5 and then making a run all the way to the Super Bowl.

Carolina Panthers (3-2)

TR projected wins: 9.1

TR Playoff Odds: 42.8%

Points For: 129

Points Allowed: 107 

Point Differential: +22

The Carolina Panthers have rebounded after losing Cam Newton to a foot injury, and 23-year-old Kyle Allen has thrown five touchdowns with no interceptions in three starts. His passing numbers have come back to earth since the win at Arizona in Week 3, but the offense continues to surge. On Sunday, the rushing attack produced 285 yards, led by dynamic playmaker Christian McCaffrey. The defense had also been playing pretty well in recent weeks, until Jacksonville went for over 500 yards on Sunday.

Carolina has climbed to No. 12 in our predictive ratings, and they get a chance for early revenge when they play Tampa Bay in London next week. The Buccaneers were the last team to beat them this season, back in primetime on Thursday in Week 2. Carolina needs to win that one if they hope to keep pace with the New Orleans Saints for the NFC South title.

Carolina’s ten closest historically comparable teams were decent scoring offenses with a solid point differential after five games, who were projected to be middle-of-the-pack teams preseason (between 7 and 9 wins). They averaged a total of 8.7 wins over the season—a little lower than our projection—but half of them made the playoffs. The three most recent similar starts missed the postseason (2017 Lions, 2015 Giants, and 2015 Bills).

The most successful team to start roughly like these Panthers were the 2005 Seahawks, who surged to a 13-3 record and an NFC Championship.

Indianapolis Colts (3-2)

TR projected wins: 8.7

TR Playoff Odds: 43.5%

Points For: 113

Points Allowed: 115 

Point Differential: -2

The Colts got a huge win on Sunday night against the Chiefs and are tied with Houston for the AFC South lead. Our models have them slightly behind Houston in odds to win the division, 35% for the Texans versus 30% for the Colts. The Colts seem like the type of team that can be in every game, but also have little margin for error when it comes to earning wins. They are relying on the running game and offensive line more heavily in 2019, ranking fifth in rushing yards for the season, while ranking third in attempts.

The Colts are No. 19 in our predictive ratings, and are just above the league average at +0.4 points. They have a bye week next week, and then a key home game against Houston in Week 7 that will be a swing game in deciding the AFC South favorite as we approach mid-season.

Indianapolis’ ten most similar historical teams had a near-zero point differential after five games, and were projected between 6.5 and 8.5 wins in the preseason. They averaged 8.6 wins for the season, almost identical to where our models put the Colts. Three of the ten made the playoffs. Given the Colts’ position in the AFC South and a generally underwhelming AFC so far, Indianapolis’ playoff odds are higher than typical for a team with an 8.7 win projection.

The 2007 New York Giants show up on the similar team list, by the way, and that’s a team that relied on clutch play (8-1 in close games in regular season and playoffs combined) to pull one of the biggest upsets in football playoff history when they beat undefeated New England in the Super Bowl.

Oakland Raiders (3-2)

TR projected wins: 7.6

TR Playoff Odds: 21.9%

Points For: 103

Points Allowed: 123 

Point Differential: -20

The Oakland Raiders have now won at Indianapolis and defeated the Chicago Bears in London in consecutive weeks. That’s the good news. The bad news is that they are a team that has been outscored for the year. They also still rank in the bottom half in both offensive and defensive pass efficiency. Despite the results in the win column, Oakland has only moved up slightly, from No. 27 in our preseason rankings to No. 26 this week. So far, the Raiders are 3-0 in games decided by one score, and record in close games tends to even out over time.

The Raiders’ historically similar teams are those that have a winning record after five games despite also being outscored, among teams that were not projected to have a winning record before the season (preseason win totals between 5.5 and 7.5). They averaged 7.4 wins over the season (very similar to our projection) and none reached the playoffs. Two, though, did get to 10 wins but missed out on the postseason (2013 Arizona and 2010 Tampa Bay).

If Oakland can get to 10 wins this year, they have a very good chance of reaching the playoffs in the AFC. They will get Week 6 off returning from the London trip, but then have to go on two more tough road trips at Green Bay and at Houston, where we should find out quickly if they can really move into contender status.

Other Key News Heading Into NFL Week 6

  • Pittsburgh QB Mason Rudolph suffered a concussion in the third quarter on Sunday, where he appeared to be unconscious before he hit the ground after taking a hit to the head from Baltimore safety Earl Thomas. He was replaced by rookie Devlin Hodges for the rest of the game, and Rudolph’s status in the near future is uncertain.
  • Washington fired head coach Jay Gruden after falling to 0-5. Bill Callahan, who last served as a NFL head coach in 2002 and 2003 with Oakland, was elevated to interim head coach. Washington faces off with Miami this week in a game that could be a big factor in who gets the No. 1 overall pick in next year’s draft.
  • The Chiefs were decimated by injuries on Sunday as Sammy Watkins was unable to stay in the game, and star defensive lineman Chris Jones left with a groin injury. Offensive lineman Andrew Wylie also suffered an ankle injury and the team struggled to protect Patrick Mahomes all night.
  • Bills starting center Mitch Morse left Sunday’s game with an ankle injury and rookie tackle Cody Ford left the game and was evaluated for a head injury.
  • Tennessee Titans kicker Cairo Santos went o-for-4 on field goal attempts in the Titans’ 14-7 home loss to Buffalo. Facing a 4th and 4 at the Buffalo 35 with only 6:35 left in the game, and trailing by seven points, Titans coach Mike Vrabel opted for a long attempt. Going for it and trying to get the tying touchdown might have been the better move.
  • The New England Patriots’ defense continues to feast on bad offenses early in the season. They gave up only seven points to Washington and have now allowed 34 points on the season. That’s the fewest points allowed in the first five games since the 2005 Indianapolis Colts (29 points allowed).

Early Look-Ahead to Week 5 Key Matchups

Philadelphia Eagles at Minnesota Vikings

Philadelphia and Minnesota both got to 3-2 with wins in Week 5, and this sets up as a big game for both teams and their playoff hopes in the NFC. Minnesota has dominated opponents in their two previous home games this season, winning by a combined 62 points scored and 26 points allowed. Philadelphia has scored at least 30 points in each of its wins this year, and just won on the road at Green Bay two weeks ago.

Houston Texans at Kansas City Chiefs

This suddenly becomes a big game for Kansas City after suffering their first loss. Given New England’s schedule, the Chiefs cannot afford to fall too far behind the Patriots in the standings if they hope to have a chance to get home field advantage in the playoffs. The offense also scored only 13 points in Week 5, the lowest ever in a game started by Patrick Mahomes. Tyreek Hill started practicing last week and may return for this one.

Houston, meanwhile, has been wildly inconsistent so far, but are coming off scoring 53 points against Atlanta.

San Francisco at Los Angeles Rams

How big is this one for the Rams? They have lost two games in a row. If they want to keep their NFC West title hopes in good shape, they cannot afford a home loss to the 49ers. The 49ers crushed the Browns on Monday Night Football and are now a surprise 4-0 entering the matchup.

Until Next Week…

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