This is the season for quarterback upheaval leading to magic. The Vikings have somehow turned Sam Bradford compelling. The Broncos, who made a habit of wild endings last year, are more interesting with Trevor Siemian behind center than they were with Peyton Manning. (Oh, and the defending champions are much better at passing without Manning, too.)
Watchability is a fickle, subjective and elusive quality in an NFL team. Not to mention meaningless. That notwithstanding, I present my courageous attempt to measure how much fun each team has been to watch during this young NFL season.
Change at the top
The Vikings rank first for the sheer improbability of it all, with their stadium putting them over the top. Subtract one franchise quarterback and one franchise great, then proceed to bum-rush quality teams weekly. Cordarrelle Patterson is making a bigger difference than first round receiver Laquon Treadwell. They swarm on defense with incredible athletes at every level. They are greater than the sum of their parts and that's what football is all about.
After a slow start, Ezekiel Elliott has quickly become of the most entertaining players to watch. Between him and Prescott, the Cowboys have two of the smoothest movers to enter the NFL in a long time. Elliott can get skinny to squeeze between two defenders, hurdle another with the form of an Olympian and then run over a final conquest. Prescott is an exceptional runner but his natural feel inside the pocket stands out even more. He looks like a No. 4 overall pick, not a fourth-round pick. Dallas has impressively dictated play despite being led by rookies. In a league starved for quarterbacks, he and Wentz represent what the future looks like.
The Broncos' defense has improbably doubled down on their dominance. Young stars come out of the woodwork every week, whether its Shane Ray or Shaq Barrett making DeMarcus Ware's injury an afterthought or Todd Davis running down in the middle. Wade Phillips gets the Broncos to play with the same joy that he still approaches football with. Derek Wolfe is making another leap and Von Miller is the NFL's Mariano Rivera, closing out any lead that his team hands him. The maturation of Siemian has also been fun to watch because he was such a blank canvas. He has far more raw talent than the game-manager reputation that proceeded him.
Denver and New England's act as AFC superpowers should be getting stale but both teams stay on top by constantly reinventing themselves. Next up comes Belichick's scariest creation yet: Post-Deflategate suspension Tom Brady.
It feels inappropriate to keep the Steelers out of the top tier. They have the best running back (sorry, David Johnson), best wide receiver (Sorry, Julio), and best deep-ball passer in football. (No Apologies. Ben Rules.) The injury to linebacker speedster Ryan Shazier (knee), however, makes this vanilla zone defense even less exciting. A Steelers team without a pass rush does not feel like a Steelers team.
Pittsburgh's rivals in Baltimore are the most surprisingly fascinating team. Their games are all close chess matches and they are so clearly building toward something greater. Like Bill Belichick, John Harbaugh is using the early part of the season to figure out what he has. He's learned that Terrance West is worth making his starting running back. He's learned that Dennis Pitta's comeback is real, that Brandon Williams and Timmy Jernigan are now among the best defensive interior duos in football, and that safety Eric Weddle is a problem solver. Harbaugh has learned Steve Smith still has incredible juice for his age and that Mike Wallace fits quite well as a role player, thank you. When Wallace is catching slants on third-and-long, you know this coaching staff is doing something right.
Matt Ryan and coordinator Kyle Shanahan are getting plenty of love this season, but the most fun player to watch on the Falcons remains Devonta Freeman. The holy Twitter wars between Freeman and Tevin Coleman truthers miss the point. It's acceptable for both players to be good. (Just don't try to convince me that Coleman has nearly the same rugged rushing skills that Freeman does. He changes direction at 90-degree angles while running at full speed.)
Seattle's defense is one group that doesn't need to change. The Seahawks' talented continuity is beautiful just how it is, and Russell Wilson is heating up just in time for this to be the pass-first offense he deserves. Throw in Frank Clark's pass rushing, Christine Michael's awakening, and Jimmy Graham's re-awakening and they are the NFC team to beat. ... The Raiders probably should be ranked higher. Watch them for their late-game heroics, fourth down guts, rookie running back Jalen Richard's slippery moves, Michael Crabtree's hands and for Marquette King making punting cool again. Ray Guy approves.
Middle of the pack
I'm addicted to Chargers games, which feels a little like my addiction to horror movies as a pre-teen. There is too much pain and bloodshed to truly enjoy them, but you can't turn off the television until the bitter end. Cornerback Jason Verrett is this team in a nutshell. He has played fantastic ball overall, been involved in a crushing play to lose a game (to T.Y. Hilton) and is now out for the season with a partially torn ACL. He was playing well with a torn ACL. No team has worse luck.
This is about as low as a team with David Johnson can be ranked, but it's been tough to watch Arizona struggle to recapture their 2015 form. They don't have any other speed other than go-for-broke. ... In Tyrod Taylor and LeSean McCoy, the Bills have two of the most elusive runners in football. Rex's defense has turned Zach Brown into Luke Kuechly for a month, all with Marcell Dareus returning from suspension and first-round pick Shaq Lawson on the way. Rex Ryan will live forever. ... This is a strange Packers team. They have the NFL's best run defense and Nick Perry is the best pass rusher on a team that includes Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers.
Failing their young quarterback
The title says it all. It's too upsetting to write more about.
There is nothing wrong with the Giants and Bengals, both 2-2. They both have proven too predictable. Rookie Sterling Shepard and a revived Victor Cruz make the Giants' passing attack dangerous, just not one that goes deep down the field much. Eli Manning is all about playing the percentages now. That's how Andy Dalton plays, too. It's effective, just not necessarily inspiring.
The Browns are as fun as 0-4 can be. Every game is close, Terrelle Pryor is a boss and the coaching staff is creative. Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson rank among the best backfield tandems in football. Cody Kessler has punched above his weight although Josh Gordon's setback and Corey Coleman's injury, means this could run out of steam. ... The Saints are ranked so low because they are a movie sequel with diminishing returns. With that said, it has been fun to see Nick Fairley get better with more weight and witness Michael Thomas' athletic catch of the week, which should become a sponsored segment.
Like Dante Hall, Chiefs return man/receiver Tyreek Hill plays like a character trapped inside this video game called life. Following Week 3's win over the Jets, Andy Reid's Chiefs team finally looked fun to watch. Travis Kelce runs wild, Marcus Petersplays with reckless abandon and safety Eric Berry is playing great again. Then the Chiefs punished America with that 44-13 loss in Pittsburgh, so I chose to punish them here.
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The Jaguars and Titans rank so low because hopes were so high. So much of what Mike Mularkey wanted is actually working. He just has the wrong formula. The Titans quietly have a strong offensive line and DeMarco Murray has exceeded expectations. But the year is 2016 and it's difficult to win with no speed in a conservative passing game. Marcus Mariota will get better, but hopefully he won't have to wait for the Mularkey era to end for that to happen.
Gus Bradley wants the Jaguars to play a similarly close-to-the-vest style that is not easy on the eyes. The big plays have vanished from the team's offense without a running game to replace it. Bradley's defense shows signs of life -- rookie cornerback Jalen Ramsey alone is worth firing up Game Pass alone.
We always hear about franchise's wasting the prime of a quarterback. The Lions and now the Dolphins are wasting Ndamukong Suh's prime. He's far from the problem in Miami. ... Washington and Chicago are two somnolent teams to avoid watching late at night. Their big-bodied backs, Matt Jones and Jordan Howard, are the best shots of caffeine on each team.