What are the biggest surprises of the 2018 NFL season to date? Dan Hanzus takes a look at six of them -- and predicts whether the development will continue in each case.
The Browns are fun as hell
We all knew entering the season that -- on paper -- the Browns had the pieces in place to be competitive. This was never going to be a redux of 0-16. But who would have predicted the Cleveland Browns would be football's most entertaining team as we reach October? Cleveland has won, tied and lost (twice), and every game has gone down to the final possession. Myles Garrett and rookie Denzel Ward have been studs on defense, and Baker Mayfield has pumped life into the offense after being inserted mid-game against the Jetsin Week 3.
"I already told the defense this: I think Baker Mayfield is this generation's Brett Favre or John Elway, if you will," Ravens defensive coordinator Don "Wink" Martindale said Thursday. "This guy knows where he wants to go with the ball, and he's very accurate. He's got a quick release, and he's really playing well."
Some heady praise there, but you get where ol' Wink is coming from. Real talk? The Browns could be 4-0 right now. Sure, they could be 0-4, too ... but the one thing they haven't been is boring.
Joe Flacco's pride is a powerful thing
It's always fun this time of year to circle back to widely circulated/regurgitated football opinions of the summertime and see how they panned out. For the Ravens, it was this: Joe Flacco, 33 years old and three seasons removed from his last campaign with a 90-plus passer rating, was looming cannon fodder. The Ravens had selected Lamar Jackson in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft, and it was only a matter of time before Jackson displaced Flacco atop the depth chart.
Flacco has put all that on hold. The Super Bowl XLVII MVP has thrived; he's on pace to set career highs in passing yards per game, TD-to-INT ratio and passer rating. According to Next Gen Stats, Flacco's air yards per attempt has jumped from 6.6 last year to 8.6, and he ranks third among all quarterbacks in passer rating on tight-window throws (99.0). In other words, Flacco is passing downfield more regularly, and he's sticking the ball in windows at a percentage few other QBs can match. That sounds a lot like 2012 Playoff Joe Flacco, right?
Will he keep it up? There's a good chance he will. Two major factors working in Flacco's favor: A) He's not dealing with the knee and back issues of recent years; and B) Baltimore's wide receiver corps is far superior to what we saw last year. John Brown has emerged as a killer deep threat and is on pace for a 1,300-yard season. And don't forget tight end Hayden Hurst, the first-round pick who's expected to make his season debut in Week 5.
The Steelers ... kind of stink?
You have to go back 30 years to find the last time the Pittsburgh Steelers finished last in their division. From a record standpoint, that's where they sit right now, deadlocked with the Browns at 1-2-1. This is a team with issues on both sides of the ball. On offense, it's the lingering absence of franchise running back Le'Veon Bell, who could be back by Week 8, though that does Pittsburgh no good right now. James Conner is a nice player, but he has cooled after a hot start. He's no Lev Bell ... and we shouldn't have expected him to be. On defense, we're looking at a unit that hasn't been the same since Ryan Shazier's injury last December. Shazier won't be able to help them this year, so it's on Mike Tomlin and defensive coordinator Keith Butler to fix a defense that ranks 30th in yards per game entering Sunday. A matchup with the explosive Falcons presents a daunting challenge.
Will they figure it out? History tells us the Steelers will get this going in the right direction again, but there are no guarantees here. The AFC North is a much-improved division in 2018 -- maybe the best all-around division in football -- and Pittsburgh isn't going to waltz to 11-5 again. Getting Bell back will help, but the Steelers are doomed to also-ran status if some players don't step up on defense.
The Titans are an AFC power
If you don't jump on the Titans bandwagon now, it's probably not going to happen. Over the past two weeks, the Titans took out the Super Bowl-champion Eagles and AFC finalist Jaguars. They've done it with opportunistic offense and a defense that ranks amongst the NFL's best in several metrics. Tennessee's been especially stingy in the red zone, allowing a touchdown rate of 20 percent. If the Titans sustain that mark, it will be the lowest red-zone touchdown percentage allowed in a full season since at least 2000.
Are the Titans for real? Inconclusive. Marcus Mariota is coming off his best game of the season, but he's been banged up -- a recurring theme throughout his career. The running game is off to a slow start: Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis are at 3.0 and 3.3 yards per carry, respectively. The defense could also be due for a regression to the mean in red-zone D -- that would be problematic for a team that has a combined nine-point margin of victory in its first three wins.
The Bears are an NFC power
It's hard not to be on fire as a Bears fan after what happened last Sunday. Mitch Trubisky threw six touchdown passes in a 48-10 rout of the Bucs. The blowout showed us the ceiling of this Chicago team when it combines its suffocating defense with a first-round quarterback who can sling it. Of course, there was much hand-wringing about that first-round quarterback before Week 4, and it's too soon to say that Trubisky is now on some rocket ride to superstardom. But the Bears are fun ... it's been a long time since you could say that. And no conversation about the Bears right now is complete without discussing the impact of Khalil Mack, who is playing like a league MVP. "It's like the LeBron effect," Bears cornerback Prince Amukamaratold Dan Graziano of ESPN.com. "He just makes everybody better. When you see greatness like that up close, it just makes everyone else want to be great that much more." Praise doesn't get much higher than that.
Are the Bears for real? Why not? The defense is for real, so a lot of this comes down to how Trubisky develops. He doesn't need to be Year 2 Jared Goff for the Bears to play late-January football. He needs to be smart with the football and take proper advantage of the playmakers on his side. That might start with Tarik Cohen, who went nuts against the Bucs (174 yards from scrimmage) and could be the type of safety-valve player that a young quarterback dreams of.
Patrick Mahomes is unstoppable
Mahomes' "Monday Night Football" effort against the Broncos didn't measure up statistically to earlier performances this season -- but it was still Mahomes' most impressive moment yet as a pro. On the road in a madhouse, down multiple scores against a frothing defense, Mahomes never let the moment overwhelm him. In the fourth quarter, he was 13-of-16 passing for 153 yards, leading two touchdown drives in a thrilling 27-23 win. His left-handed first-down conversion to Tyreek Hill with Von Miller all over him is already the stuff of Chiefs and MNF legend. He is at or near the top in almost every relevant passing category, and somehow, it feels like Mahomes might be just scraping the surface.
Will he keep it up? Put it this way ... If this is who Mahomes is, the Chiefs will be contending for the Super Bowl on a regular basis for the next decade-plus. He's been that special. Taking a step back, Alex Smith and the Chiefs were similarly monstrous early last season before coming down to Earth. Will the same happen in 2018 with Mahomes? Teams will adjust. Mahomes will have to continue to evolve. There's no reason to think he won't.