Column: Evaluating the surprise NFL fast-starters

Oakland Raiders wide receiver Amari Cooper (89) and quarterback Derek Carr celebrate after connecting on a touchdown pass against the San Diego Chargers during the second half of an NFL football game in Oakland, Calif., Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

We’re five weeks into the 2016 NFL season, which means that every team has played at least one-quarter of their games. With that in mind, we can finally start to assemble representative track records for each of the league’s 32 teams, and although conclusions about these teams can still fall victim to the extrapolation of small sample size, that’s just the nature of a 16-game season.  Generally, we have a feel for which of these teams are actually good.

As with any compelling NFL season, there are a few teams that have come out of the gates ready to bowl over expectations. Let’s examine these presumptive over-performers closely and figure out whether they’ll continue to win at this rate.

Oakland Raiders (4-1)

The Raiders’ offense roared to life last season behind the arm of young quarterback Derek Carr, some reliable offensive line play and a quality rookie campaign from wide receiver Amari Cooper. The offense provided hope that Oakland could potentially finish above .500 for the first time since the 2002 season when they went to a Super Bowl, and that offense has surpassed the hype.

Carr has thrown for 277 yards per game with 11 touchdown passes, as the Raiders have won four of their first five contests, including three wins on the road. Cooper has already notched 456 receiving yards, while veteran receiver Michael Crabtree has done the scoring with five touchdown grabs. Carr has thrown it well enough to overcome a pedestrian running game, head coach Jack Del Rio has shown trust in the offense by making aggressive game management decisions, many of which have been successful.

The defense, which was expected to be below average entering the season, has landed right on target. Oakland is allowing 27.4 points per game, while giving up a league-worst 452.6 passing yards per game. The Raiders are going to need to win shootouts, and although they’ve done that so far, their average margin of victory in four wins is three points. It’s fair to expect their close game proficiency to swing slightly back the other way, especially if Del Rio’s aggression begins to backfire.

Still, they play a relatively weak schedule the rest of the way, so even with some stout competition in-division they should be able to get to nine or 10 wins. An AFC playoff berth is looking likely.

Dallas Cowboys (4-1)/Philadelphia Eagles (3-1)

Both Dallas and Philadelphia have enjoyed great success behind the play of rookie quarterbacks, and they will likely be dueling for the NFC East title this season. In Dallas, fourth-round pick Dak Prescott has steered the Cowboys’ high-octane ground attack to a four-game winning streak, and in Philadelphia, second overall pick Carson Wentz has looked extremely poised in leading the Eagles to three comfortable wins to open the season.

Dallas is undoubtedly for real, and as star rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott continues to settle into his role behind the league’s premier offensive line, they may only get better. However, they will face an important decision in a few weeks when longtime quarterback Tony Romo returns from a back injury. Will they let Prescott keep the reins assuming he continues to win, or will they send him to the bench for Romo?

If Philadelphia had taken care of business Sunday against a mediocre Lions team, they would have joined Minnesota as the only teams with a perfect record, and they would have had full control of first place in the NFC East. The Eagles lost to Detroit 24-23, but they remain a pleasant surprise for those residing in Philadelphia. Wentz has been nearly flawless, and the defense has harnessed its individual talent into a hungry, opportunistic whole.

The winner of this division is anyone’s guess, but both the Cowboys and the Eagles have looked strong enough to claim playoff berths. Their track records surpass those assembled by potential NFC wild card competitors like Washington, Los Angeles and Green Bay.

Atlanta Falcons (4-1)

Had this hot start by Atlanta been matched by a similar one from division rival Carolina, this may have been a different story. The Panthers won 15 games on their way to a Super Bowl berth last season, but this year they have looked overmatched against similar competition, which includes a 48-33 loss to the Falcons last week.

As it currently stands, Atlanta is clearly the best team in the NFC South, and they hold at least a two-game lead over each of the other three division members. Matt Ryan, who had regressed all the way to below-average last season, has been arguably the league’s best quarterbacks so far, as he leads the NFL in passing yards and passer rating. Wide receiver Julio Jones has re-established his claim as the league’s best, with a 300-yard game to boot. The defense has found a pass rush, and done enough to win games, like the Raiders’ defense has.

Most impressively, Atlanta has won on the road at Oakland, New Orleans and Denver. That’s no easy feat. The Falcons have proven over the years to be quite difficult to beat at the Georgia Dome, so if they can continue to win on the road it’s easy to see the path to 11 or 12 wins. Carolina will likely find their way eventually, but it may be too late to take the division from Ryan and the Falcons.

Tyler Keating is associate sports editor for The Daily Campus, covering football and men’s basketball. He can be reached via email at He tweets @tylerskeating.