The NFL season has reached the quarter pole, and we’ve seen pleasant surprises, severe disappointment and everything in between.
It’s only September.
The above is a common refrain when analyzing the first quarter of the NFL campaign. It’s a way to soften blows for fans of bad clubs, and to temper excitement of those for good ones. It’s also a myth.
Yes, technically it’s only September. The calendar doesn’t lie. However, September counts every bit as much as December, so while teams will rise and fall, it’s also true some are in tremendous position, while others are already dreaming of the draft.
So what have we learned through four weeks? Here’s 10 items:
1. New England and Kansas City are the clear favorites
The Chiefs and Patriots played sub-par games on Sunday. They both faced undefeated opponents in loud venues. They both won.
Kansas City and New England aren’t perfect. The Chiefs have a lousy defense. The Patriots have a limited offense. Ultimately, they are a combined 8-0 and rolling toward a Week 14 showdown at Gillette Stadium for the AFC’s first seed.
While the Chiefs and Patriots are the NFL’s top two teams, there are others to watch closely. The Green Bay Packers have a real defense and a two-time MVP at quarterback. The Philadelphia Eagles may have the league’s best roster when healthy. The Dallas Cowboys are loaded and are currently the NFC’s best. The New Orleans Saints are thriving without Drew Brees.
Still, for now, it’s New England, Kansas City and a big gulf.
2. Cowboys should have paid Dak this offseason
Jerry Jones made an enormous mistake this spring. He should have extended Dak Prescott. Now he’ll pay millions — maybe tens of millions — more.
Prescott could have been signed long-term before the Eagles paid Crson Wentz and the Los Angeles Rams inked Jared Goff. The Cowboys waited, and Prescott is massively outplaying both. Combine that with Dallas being a Super Bowl contender, and Prescott’s value is soaring each week.
If Prescott wants, he can gamble. Wait until after the season and take the franchise tag while Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes become the NFL’s richest men. The quarterback market will rise again, and Prescott will cash in with continued stellar play.
3. Trubisky is the looming question over Chicago
The Chicago Bears and their fans may not get answers to this question for some time. Doesn’t make it any less important.
Mitch Trubisky left early against the Minnesota Vikings with a left shoulder injury, landing awkwardly on the area. With Chase Daniel playing while Trubisky recovers, the Bears will rely on their defense and rushing attack. It’s the same plan as if Trubisky was playing. Says something, doesn’t it?
If the Bears are legitimate Super Bowl contenders, they’ll need him to play better upon returning. The question lingers.
4. Miami will have the No. 1 overall pick in 2020
The Miami Dolphins are on the clock.
Miami was throttled again on Sunday, losing 30-10 to the Los Angeles Chargers at home. The Dolphins have already played three games on South Beach and have been outscored 163-26. They have the worst offensive and defensive units in football.
There may be other winless teams, but nobody is challenging the Dolphins for the top pick. If there’s a sleeper, keep an eye on the Washington Redskins, who are utterly lost in all phases.
5. Vikings fixed the run game, but not Cousins
Minnesota hired Gary Kubiak and Rick Dennison this offseason to fix the run game. It worked. Unfortunately, the passing attack is still broken.
Kirk Cousins had another miserable day, this time being stifled in Chicago. Through four games, Cousins has yet to approach 300 passing yards. Far more often than not, he’s been a complete no-show. Case in point? Stefon Diggs has XX catches for XXX yards. For the year.
If Minnesota can’t get Cousins going, it’s not going to be the factor in should be come January … or late December.
6. AFC playoff picture will be wild throughout the winter
The only above-.500 teams in the AFC? New England, Kansas City, Buffalo.
Incredibly, there are seven 2-2 teams. Which ones are going to pull away or fade quickly? Impossible to say, especially with the North and South being relentlessly mediocre. Barring injury, the Pats and Chiefs will be the top two seeds in some order. The other four are completely up for grabs.
7. Green, Peterson should be hot commodities at deadline
The trade deadline is Oct. 29. A.J. Green and Patrick Peterson should be the big names moved.
With the Cincinnati Bengals and Arizona Cardinals each searching for their first victories, there’s no excuse to retain Green and Peterson, respectively. Green is in the final year of his contract while Peterson has this year and next. The former should command a mid-round selection, while the latter would likely bring in multiple picks, headlined by a first-rounder.
For the Bengals and Cardinals, the rebuilds are on. It’s all about stocking up on lottery tickets.
8. Houston still can’t block for Watson
The Houston Texans invested three first-round and a pair of second-round picks into their offensive line this offseason. In related news, Deshaun Watson has been sacked 18 times. Only Kyler Murray has been dropped more.
Last year, the offensive line allowed a league-high 62 sacks. It’s on pace to surrender 72 this season.
The New Orleans Saints notched six in Week 1. Seven days later, the Jacksonville Jaguars totaled four. Against the Los Angeles Chargers, Watson took two more. Against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, another half-dozen.
Watson has spellbinding talent. The Texans have a real shot to host and perhaps win a playoff game. The only offseason objective for head coach/general manager Bill O’Brien was to fix the offensive line. He failed miserably.
9. Quarterbacks are having a rough year with injuries
The NFL has done everything to keep quarterbacks upright. It’s not working.
Through four weeks, the eight signal-callers have been forced to miss time with injuries. Ben Roethlisberger (and therefore the Pittsburgh Steelers) and Trevor Siemian are out for the year. Drew Brees is out six weeks. Cam Newton (foot), Josh Allen (concussion) and Trubisky (shoulder) are without timetables. Nick Foles will miss 1-2 more months.
Every year, complaints are screamed about quarterback being overly-protected. Watch most games without a starting quarterback, and you’ll understand the league’s motives.
10. The NFL needs to simplify the rules, once and for all
Stop changing rules during the season. Stop adding qualifiers in the offseason.
We’ve already seen the NFL instruct officials to aggressively call holding, then roll it back after a particularly unwatchable affair between the Jaguars and Titans. We’ve also seen chaos ensue over pass interference and what constitutes “egregious.”
It’s confusing, it’s overkill, and it’s got to stop.
The NFL should spend the entire winter simplifying what a catch is, abolishing the ability to challenge pass interference and relaxing by-the-book interpretations.
It isn’t likely, but here’s to hoping.
Top 10 pleasant surprises thus far in 2019
1. Lamar Jackson, QB, Baltimore Ravens
2. Shaquil Barrett, EDGE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
3. John Ross, WR, Cincinnati Bengals
4. D.J. Chark, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars
5. Benson Mayowa, EDGE, Oakland Raiders
6. Terry McLaurin, WR, Washington Redskins
7. Clay Matthews, EDGE, Los Angeles Rams
8. Raheem Mostert, RB, San Francisco 49ers
9. Daniel Jones, QB, New York Giants
10. Tony Pollard, RB, Dallas Cowboys
“It should have been. I didn’t do anything. I didn’t contribute. I was shitty today, and it sucked.”
– Indianapolis Colts tight end Eric Ebron on his playing time being rolled back in a 28-21 loss
Ebron harkened back to his Detroit days with drops on Sunday. Still, every player in blue and white shared blame for a surprising home loss against the Oakland Raiders.
Indianapolis could have a full-game lead in the AFC South heading to Kansas City for a Sunday night showdown. Instead, the Colts are 2-2 and are part of a four-way tie in the division.
Joe Namath of the New York Jets was the first pro quarterback to throw for 4,000 yards in a season. Broadway Joe netted 4,007 in 1967, back when the AFL and NFL played 14-game seasons.
Nobody replicated the feat until 1979 (the season became 16 games in 1978), when Dan Fouts threw for 4,082.
How much has the game changed? Last season alone, 12 quarterbacks hit the threshold.
Info learned this week
1. Kitchens gets much-needed win over Ravens
The Cleveland Browns rescued their division dreams on Sunday. Freddie Kitchens saved his credibility.
Kitchens has correctly been under fire with Baker Mayfield and the offense scuffling. Against the Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland finally got rolling. The offense rolled up 530 yards and 40 points on the road facing a terrific defense, finally showing what the Browns can be, and in the eyes of many, should be.
If the Browns had been muffled again, the locker room would have been in jeopardy. With Odell Beckham and Mayfield off to slow starts, dissension and public questioning of Kitchens likely wasn’t too far off. Instead, the Browns get well, and now lead the AFC North at 2-2.
2. Falcons need to hit reset button after another ugly loss
Dan Quinn is a Vegas favorite for first coach fired. If things don’t change, some folks may have winning tickets to cash.
Quinn’s Atlanta Falcons were blown out at home by the Tennessee Titans, falling behind 24-7 in the first half before capitulating, 24-10. Matt Ryan was forced into 53 attempts and was sacked five times, continuing the trend of poor line play. With the defense putting Atlanta in a large hole early, it became easy for the Tennessee front to disregard the run and get after Ryan.
While the Falcons are dealing with injuries, Quinn has no excuse for being 1-3.
The Falcons aren’t a Super Bowl team, but they should be the NFC South’s best with Drew Brees sidelined. Instead, Atlanta is alone in the basement.
3. Rams can’t ask Goff to win games often
Jared Goff threw 68 times on Sunday. The Los Angeles Rams lost by 15 points at home to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Goff is a good player, but he’s not elite. Never has been. Watch Rams games, and he’s more product than prodigy, riffing off Sean McVay’s masterful ability to scheme. None of this is to crush Goff. Again, he’s a good player. However, the Rams aren’t running effectively and the defense was terrible on Sunday, allowing 464 yards and 48 points against. Few quarterbacks have any chance to overcome those numbers.
Last year, Goff put forth MVP numbers through the first 10 weeks of the season. Once Todd Gurley became compromised, Goff’s numbers fell. In the Super Bowl, he was the equivalent of a hood ornament. Something to look at, but not functioning.
If the Rams want to make a return trip, Goff must be a caretaker, not the driving force.
4. Panthers finding new life behind Allen, but Cam remains the man
The whispers will turn into open conversation.
Kyle Allen has started two road games and won them both. The Carolina Panthers owe plenty to him, but when Cam Newton returns, it’s his show.
Newton has no timetable for return from his foot injury, so Allen could have the job for the foreseeable future. Still, Newton is a former MVP. He’s the best duel-threat quarterback alive when healthy. Allen has shown ability, but Newton is the starter whenever he returns.
In the interim, Carolina is now in the thick of the NFC South race thanks to Christian McCaffrey, a punishing defense and Allen doing enough.
5. Jalen Ramsey’s trade requests took a hit on Sunday
The Jacksonville Jaguars won again. Jalen Ramsey had to have mixed feelings.
Ramsey wants to be traded. He’s also a competitive athlete who has poured the first 3+ years of his career into making the Jaguars a winner. Seeing Josh Lambo’s game-winning field goal split the uprights in Denver must have made Ramsey smile. It also must have made him realize he won’t be traded any time soon.
With the Colts and Texans losing on Sunday, the Jaguars are now part of a four-way tie in the AFC South. Jacksonville has the best defense in the division, and while the offense lags behind Houston and perhaps Indianapolis, Gardner Minshew’s magic continues to cast a spell on opponents.
In short, the Jaguars are in the hunt. Until they aren’t, Ramsey faces long odds of being dealt.
The Jaguars and Broncos have had memorable games at Mile High over the years. None more so than the 1996 AFC Divisional playoff, when the Jaguars pulled off an upset of epic proportions.
Fresh off a surprising road win over the Buffalo Bills, Jacksonville went to Denver as 14-point underdogs. Falling behind 12-0 early, it appears the Jaguars would be an easy mark. Instead, quarterback Mark Brunell and running back Natrone Means led the second-year franchise back, culminating in a shocking 30-27 victory.
The next year, Denver and Jacksonville once again met in the postseason as wild card combatants. The Broncos won this time around, vaulting them on a playoff run which ended in the organization’s first Super Bowl win.
The Buffalo Bills and Detroit Lions both lost home games on Sunday. Somehow, each finally earned respect in doing so.
Buffalo lost 16-10 to New England, but only allowed nine offensive points. Tom Brady was rattled and harassed all day, hitting18-of-39 throws for 150 yards with an interception. If the Bills play better in the kicking game — and if Josh Allen isn’t knocked out — perhaps the outcome is much different.
In Detroit, the Lions largely outplayed the unbeaten Chiefs. Kansas City lost three fumbles, but landed the game’s biggest play on a 100-yard scoop-and-score by cornerback Bashaud Breeland.
Even so, the Lions hung tough. Detroit took the lead in the final moments before Patrick Mahomes engineered a game-winning drive, culminating in a Darrel Williams 1-yard plunge with 20 seconds remaining. Matt Patricia’s group was down Pro Bowl corner Darius Slay and defensive tackle Mike Daniel (among others) but still played to within seconds of an upset win.
Detroit and Buffalo lost, but both proved they should be respected.