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Winners and losers from first quarter of 2014 season

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September doesn't decide much in the NFL. We know that the Oakland Raiders and Jacksonville Jaguars are lousy. Annual playoff bridesmaid Cincinnati looks ready to take the next step.

Beyond that, it's dangerous to draw many sweeping conclusions from the season's first quarter. My biggest takeaway is that fans of five franchises -- Arizona, Dallas, Houston, Cleveland and Detroit -- have a lot more to be hopeful about than expected.

The Cardinals have been ravaged weekly by personnel losses, but they are one of the best-coached teams in the league on both sides of the ball. Dallas' offensive line is carrying the team, and the defense isn't nearly as bad as expected. Houston has a generational player on defense and a soft schedule. Cleveland has only won one game, but it could easily be 3-0. The offense is surprisingly strong and the upcoming schedule is wildly easy. Detroit has quietly been as consistent as any team in the league.

Every team listed above won't cash in on its promise. That's just how the NFL works. But this is a league that is built around any given season, and fans of the teams above have reason to believe a little magic could be in store.

Here's a look at some of the other winners and losers from the last month:

Going up


Rookie quarterbacks: The sample size is tiny, but Teddy Bridgewater and Blake Bortles both provided a ton of excitement over the last two weeks. They look like they belong. Derek Carr was solid for Oakland before injuring his knee and ankle. There will inevitably be ups and downs, but the early returns are promising.

Chiefs and Giants resurgence: Kansas City and Big Blue owned two of the ugliest offenses in the league throughout the preseason and Week 1. Now they both look dangerous. Alex Smith has put together 12 straight solid quarters, out-gaining the Broncos in Denver before trouncing Miami and New England. Travis Kelce and Knile Davis are legitimate weapons.

Eli Manning's turnaround also came in a loss, to Arizona. His offensive line has played fantastically in the team's best two-game stretch since its last championship run. The NFC East looks a lot better than expected. Speaking of which ...

The fallacy of the transitive property: The Cowboys' defense was the worst in the league last year. The team lost talent in the offseason, including Jason Hatcher, DeMarcus Ware and Sean Lee. Thus, everyone assumed the Cowboys would be even worse this season, but that's just not how the NFL works. It's too random and has too many moving parts to be so predictable. Rolando McClain has been a revelation at linebacker, and new defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli has helped the entire group be greater than the sum of its parts.

The chances of seeing a defensive player win MVP: NFL Media's Brian Baldinger played with Bruce Smith and Reggie White. He says they couldn't singlehandedly take over a game quite as much as J.J. Watt has over the last month. I had Watt leading the MVP race halfway through the 2012 season too, and he's improved since then. He's the most fun defensive player to watch in my lifetime and is pushing the boundaries of how much impact one defensive player can have.

Baltimore's offensive line: Jim Caldwell is doing great in Detroit, but the Ravens don't miss him. Joe Flacco suddenly has pass protection and a strong running game ... led by Justin Forsett. Offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak and wide receiver Steve Smith have quickly turned Baltimore into a consistent, grinding offense that resembles Kubiak's old Texans teams.

Cincinnati everything: The Bengals have played just three games. They have been the most complete, consistent team in the league each time they stepped on the field.

NFL fans: Well, we made it through the ugliest month in recent league history. It can't get worse. Right?

Going Down


New England Patriots' offense: Former offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia couldn't be this valuable. Tom Brady has missed throws, but his offensive line has been an absolute disaster and the team has no outside threats at wide receiver. The usually consistent running game has grown stale. New England is dead last in yards-per-play behind Oakland and Jacksonville. The Patriots have endured ugly stretches under Belichick before, but nothing quite like this.

NFC South: No fan base here is happy, and no teams have a winning record. Carolina's vaunted front seven has been a shell of its former self. New Orleans can't win a game on the road, and its defense has regressed badly. Atlanta is a team similar to New Orleans in many ways, with an inept defense and a road game problem. Tampa has suffered a ton of injuries, and Lovie Smith hasn't improved the defense. Suddenly, this looks like the worst division in the conference, likely to only deliver one playoff team.

Class of 2013 quarterbacks: EJ Manuel was mercifully benched. Geno Smith plays just well enough to get the Jets beat and drive everyone crazy. For the second consecutive year, Mike Glennon could prove to be the most impressive from this class.

Philadelphia Eagles clarity: They are 3-1 despite three ugly games from Nick Foles, endless offensive line injuries, scant production from LeSean McCoy and very little pass rush. The offense disappears for 30 minutes at a time (or 60 in San Francisco), yet the unit ranks third in points per game and was two yards away from a 4-0 record. I can't decide if this is a good or bad sign for the Eagles' future, which makes them the perfect symbol of this last month.

The latest Around The NFL Podcast recaps every game from Week 4 and picks the best player in the NFL. Find more Around The NFL content on NFL Now.

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