As coaches love reminding us, the NFL season is long.
After three weeks, we've still got a whole heap of twists, turns and loop-the-loops to go in the 2022 campaign.
Early season success isn't everything, but it provides an outline of what we could expect.
Over the past five seasons, leaders after Week 3 won their division 62.5 percent of the time. Fast starts have been an even heavier indicator of season-long success in the past three years, with 75 percent of leaders heading into Week 4 holding on to win the division -- five of eight teams in 2021.
Getting off on a positive foot gives the eight division leaders a leg up to open the season, but there will be stumbling blocks ahead, whether in the form of injuries or schedules stiffening as the weather grows colder.
Outside of the uncontrollable injuries that could completely derail a season, let's look at one question mark for each of the eight current divisional leaders that could prevent them from remaining on top.
NOTE: Current division leaders based on tiebreakers.
Can Mike McDaniel find a rushing attack to complement an explosive passing game?
The Dolphins have feasted on big plays through three weeks. The receiver speed masks all other ills, and Miami uses that asset with aplomb. But what happens when defenses begin to adjust, stop blowing coverages and limit Tua Tagovailoa, Jaylen Waddle and Tyreek Hill? Can the Dolphins become a chain-moving, clock-churning offense when needed? We expected McDaniel, coming from the Kyle Shanahan system in San Francisco, to elevate the ground game in his first season as head coach in South Beach. Hitherto, that hasn't been the case. Miami ranks 31st in the NFL in rushing yards, averaging 3.3 yards per carry (tied for 30th) with just 12 rushing first downs (tied for third worst). Neither Chase Edmonds (79 yards) nor Raheem Mostert (78 yards) has cleared the 100-yard bar through three games. To give an overworked defense some rest and keep opponents at bay as we drive deeper into the season, Miami needs to coax more out of the ground game.
Will the defense turn it around?
Through three games, Cleveland has given up 24 points to Baker Mayfield's Panthers, 31 points to Joe Flacco's Jets and 17 to Mitchell Trubisky's Steelers. That's not great, Bob. The secondary has gotten burned far too often, and the tackling has been moribund for stretches. Myles Garrett (whose status is in question after he suffered injuries in a one-car crash) has been a beast. Jadeveon Clowney played well in two games, but he missed Week 3 against the Steelers with an ankle injury. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah continues to develop into one of the most fun players in the NFL. But elsewhere, particularly in the secondary, Cleveland has been exposed. With more explosive offenses to come, the back end could be a crippling problem.
*(Tiebreak over Ravens, based on Cleveland's 1-0 division record.)
Can the secondary maintain its play against more potent offenses?
Well, well, well -- here we are, three weeks into the season, and Doug Pederson has his Jags playing like a playoff team. Raise your hand if you guessed Jacksonville would dismantle the Indianapolis Colts and Los Angeles Chargers, preseason darlings both, in back-to-back weeks. (No one did.) Watching the Jags, there aren't a ton of nits to pick. The offense is humming, Josh Allen has been a beast off the edge and the rookies have made a mark. The biggest area of concern I have is whether the secondary can continue to play at the high level it managed against opponents missing their top receivers (Indianapolis' Michael Pittman Jr. and the Bolts' Keenan Allen). Tyson Campbell has played tight in coverage but has given up big plays. Shaquill Griffin is already banged up with a hip issue, which could be a concern if it lingers. In their lone loss, the Jags allowed Carson Wentz his best game of the season. Sunday's test against the Eagles will say a lot about Pederson's upstart squad.
How long until the offense finds a groove?
The Chiefs' offense seems to be proceeding through this season a lot like how the Tom Brady New England Patriots operated for years, testing things out in September to figure out what works best. There were always bumps in the road early, then they'd get rolling as the leaves turned. It hasn't been pretty through three weeks for Patrick Mahomes and the K.C. attack, but they still manage to lead the AFC West, as usual. The Chiefs revamped their receiver corps this offseason to build in more mid-range targets that could take advantage of defenses deploying Cover 2 to slow Mahomes. It would have been foolhardy to suggest the change wouldn't come with some growing pains. As wonky as it's been at times, Mahomes still has generated eight touchdowns to just one interception (thinks to some INT luck). He also leads the NFL in passing Expected Points Added and is second in EPA per dropback, per Next Gen Stats. I trust Andy Reid to figure out what works best and scrap the rest as we move deeper into the season. If the issues remain as Thanksgiving approaches, then we can start to be genuinely concerned.
*(Tiebreak over Broncos, based on Kansas City's 1-0 division record.)
Will Jonathan Gannon's defense continue to evolve?
Even excited Eagles fans can admit they aren't quite sure whether to believe Gannon's defense is as hot as the start would seem to indicate. With a menacing front, improved linebacker play and a secondary that flies to the ball, Philly's defense has the potential to be a punishing unit. But which version is the true Eagle D? The one that got run over in Detroit, giving up 35 points to the spry Lions? Or the group that suffocated Minnesota and Washington? The run defense is the biggest question at this stage. If Philly continues to stonewall opponents, and Jalen Hurts and the offense continue to soar, the Eagles will be the most well-rounded team in the NFL.
Which Kirk Cousins shows up week to week ... and drive to drive?
This might be the most obvious concern among current division leaders. The perennially up-and-down quarterback has already started the roller coaster ride. He dominated the Packers in Week 1, then looked small the past two games. If not for Lionsy mishaps in Week 3, the Vikings wouldn't be sitting atop the NFC North. With plenty of weapons at his disposal, Cousins is capable of getting hot. The hope for Minnesota would be that as the QB continues to evolve in new head coach Kevin O'Connell's offense, the team's floor will settle into a higher position.
*(Tiebreak over Packers and Bears based on Minnesota's 2-0 division record.)
Will Tom Brady's offensive line hold up?
The biggest question for the Bucs entering the season is the same today. Tampa had question marks along the line before injuries began to pile up. Losing center Ryan Jensen in July was a massive blow that the club tried to paper over. Further injuries continue to deteriorate the unit, with Aaron Stinnie going down in August and Josh Wells heading to injured reserve earlier this month. Left tackle Donovan Smith, meanwhile, has been out since Week 1 but practiced on Wednesday. Tristan Wirfs remains a stud, and Shaq Mason has been solid, but concerns linger. Yes, Brady has missed a healthy receiver corps, but we expect those players back. Whether or not the line can keep the 45-year-old QB upright and open holes in the run game isn't so certain.
Will the offensive line continue to improve and jell?
Week 1 was an abject failure for the Rams' remade offensive line, with Matthew Stafford getting sacked seven times in a demolition at the hands of the Bills. The past two weeks have offered some optimism that the unit can improve. Stafford was sacked just once in each of the Rams' two wins, and L.A. opened more holes on the ground. Getting center Brian Allen (out since Week 1) back should be a boost. But L.A. will face better pass rushes than Atlanta and Arizona in the coming weeks. If the unit regresses, it could spell disaster for Stafford and Co.