The NFL is a quarter of the way into its season and nothing is how it was supposed to be.
The Patriots were supposed to be undefeated. The Chiefs were supposed to be chasing the Raiders. The Bills were supposed to be the Bills, which is to say the same team that hasn’t reached the playoffs this century. As for the Rams, they were supposed to be the Ewes. So much for pre-season prognostications.
The defending Super Bowl champion Patriots invested $65 million in cornerback Stephon Gilmore to shore up their suspect pass defense, while the Bills refused to pay him and also jettisoned their other starting corner, Ronald Darby, and decided to start over. So what has been the result?
The Patriots are last in the league in pass defense and 31st in scoring defense, allowing 32 points a game. The Bills have allowed only 13.5 points per game and are first in scoring defense and fourth in net yards per opposing pass attempt, have seven takeaways and have allowed only four touchdowns, which is the fewest by two. Talk about role reversals.
Are the Bills for real? We’ll soon find out but understand this, that defense is. They’ve already beaten defending NFC champion Atlanta as well as the Denver Broncos, and their only loss came to the Carolina Panthers, 9-3. They didn’t put up those defensive numbers playing the Blind Sisters of the Lake. More significantly, those same Panthers hung 33 on the Patriots.
Buffalo’s remodeled secondary has permitted only one touchdown pass while Gilmore has given up three times as many all on his own in New England. Do we think there is a connection? Bills’ fans do.
What appears to give those fans hope is that the 4-3 defense Buffalo is playing gambles less than the one Rex Ryan was running and it’s anchored on the back end by newly added safety Micah Hyde, who already has three picks on a team that leads the AFC with a plus-6 turnover ratio.
Bills’ quarterback Tyrod Taylor has always been underrated, in my mind. He’s done more with less for several seasons than one could reasonably expect but it was difficult to tell because there were so many breakdowns on defense and so few playmakers on offense that to some he seemed to be the problem. He wasn’t and now he’s playing with a defense that is a problem for opposing quarterbacks he’s 3-1 because of it.
Does that mean the Bills can unseat the Patriots as AFC East champions? Way too early to say because their depth remains questionable so if injuries hit they’re in trouble. But even in a league that has tried to outlaw defense, a stout one travels well. Time will tell if it travels all the way to the playoffs but for now don’t bet against it.
Conversely, the Patriots have to put up over 30 a game just to survive their own defense. They were 2-2 at this point but should have been 1-3 with three home losses. They beat the Houston Texans on a last-second scoring drive led by Tom Brady but he got away with a fumble and a dropped interception during it before he threw the game-winning pass. That’s living on the edge.
The other new face worth paying attention to is the surprising L.A. Rams, who were 4-12 a year ago but 3-1 going into the weekend. Unlike the Bills, this has been more a story of offensive growth than defensive prowess, although the addition of Wade Phillips as defensive coordinator has uplifted the Rams on that side of the ball too.
The real improvement though has been with 22-year-old quarterback Jared Goff, who in his rookie season was like a ball in tall weeds. Lost. Literally.
Goff lost all seven starts in 2016 and had many mumbling he might be a first-round bust. Well, not this year and new head coach Sean McVay has to get the bulk of the credit since he’s the one training him and calling the plays. A month into the season only the Chiefs’ Alex Smith and Brady have a higher quarterback rating and that is a credit to McVay, Goff and also G.M. Les Snead, who went out and signed two former Pro Bowl linemen, left tackle Andrew Whitworth and center John Sullivan, to give Goff more protection and brought in former Bills’ wide receivers Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods to add to his weaponry. The former gives the offense explosion and the latter a reliable receiver who, as Snead told Talk of Fame this week, is the kind of guy Goff can rely on to be where he’s supposed to be when he’s supposed to be there.
More importantly, the addition of Whitworth and Sullivan has provided added running room for one of the league’s best young backs, Todd Gurley. With Gurley battering teams on the ground and Phillips’ defense battering opposing quarterbacks with a young front seven anchored by recent first-round picks Aaron Donald, Robert Quinn and Michael Brockers, there is less pressure on Goff. All he’s had to do is not lose games, which for a quarterback is far easier than having to win them.
Might the Rams and Bills be the upstarts of the season? With 25% of the schedule played, the early returns say maybe so, which is the best anyone can hope for at this juncture of what is looking to be a season of surprises.
The Chiefs are the only undefeated team left, the 3-1 Eagles look ready to make a run at Dallas in the NFC East, no one knows what to make of the Patriots (although Bill Belichick’s jewelry collection has you thinking he’ll figure out something) and the Lions are acting like a team with hopes of ending a 60-year championship drought.
On the flip side, the Giants and Chargers are 0-4 and their seasons are already DOA. A lot of things will change between now and the halfway point, but their death notices will not.