Four Sundays into the 2018 NFL regular season, we have a pretty good sample size from which to draw initial conclusions. So, yes, it’s OK to start daydreaming.
The Los Angeles Rams are clearly the best team in football. No shock there: Sean McVay immediately lifted this franchise in 2017, and Les Snead owned the offseason with a series of high-impact acquisitions. So, the Rams’ bandwagon has been full for months …
… but it’s not too late to get behind some other early developments! Here are nine hype trains worth boarding:
1) Chicago Bears
If the Bears win the Super Bowl this year, they should give Jon Gruden his own float at the parade. The Khalil Mack trade will go down in sports history as a disaster for Oakland and a franchise-changer for Chicago. Yes, we’re only one month into Mack’s Bears tenure, but the domino effect is pronounced. Chicago already had a solid defensive core and one of the best defensive coordinators in the sport in Vic Fangio, but Mack is a difference-making, pass-rushing stud. Now, this defense is elite — a dominant unit that straight punishes foes. The Bears smashed Tampa Bay 48-10, and it wasn’t even that close.
But actually, the biggest takeaway from Sunday’s rout in Soldier Field came from the Bears’ offense — and specifically, the quarterback position. Mitch Trubisky emerged from his Blake Bortles-esque funk to look like a facsimile of Jared Goff. Entering this season, many of us thought Matt Nagy would lift his second-year quarterback the way Sean McVay did with Goff in 2017. In the first three games of the 2018 campaign, though, Trubisky posted the following numbers: 77.8 passer rating, 2:3 TD-to-INT ratio, 5.7 yards per attempt, nine sacks taken. Then on Sunday, Trubisky absolutely shredded the Buccaneers: 19 of 26 for 354 yards and SIX(!) touchdowns against zero interceptions, with one sack taken. How does 13.6 yards per attempt strike you? A 154.6 passer rating? Yes, the Bucs’ defense leaves something to be desired, but those numbers can’t be ignored.
Chicago sits alone atop the NFC North at 3-1. I wrote about this team’s Cinderella potential back in March, but this is next-level. If Trubisky keeps playing like this, the Bears are absolutely going to the playoffs. In fact, they could make a deep run.
2) Tennessee Titans
Tennessee just keeps answering the bell every single week. It’s beyond impressive — and a credit to first-year head coach Mike Vrabel. Marcus Mariota can’t feel his fingers? Or he’s going to stick a dagger in the heart of the opposition. And what’s most impressive is who the opposition is. The 3-1 Titans just knocked off the Jaguars and Eagles in back-to-back weeks. That’s two of the very best teams in the NFL, two teams many expect to be hit Championship Sunday for the second straight season. What we’re seeing from Tennessee is supreme toughness and resiliency. Again, I think this spawns straight from the new man in charge.
The game-winning touchdown pass from Mariota to Corey Davis sent Nashville into a frenzy and capped off a breakthrough performance (nine catches for 161 yards) for the No. 5 pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, but it was a play from earlier in the drive that grabbed my attention. With just over a minute remaining in overtime and the Titans trailing by three, Tennessee faced a fourth-and-2 at the Eagles’ 32-yard line. Send out the reliable Ryan Succop for a 49-yard field goal and possible tie? Naw. After a timeout, Vrabel pulled his kicker off the field and went for it. Mariota proceeded to hit Dion Lewis for a 17-yard gain, and the Titans went on to win.
“I felt like we deserved to win,” Vrabel said in the postgame. “Trust the players, and that’s what we did, and they executed.”
Just awesome. Vrabel’s stamp is all over this team.
3) Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals (3-1) are for real, folks. The offense is sensational. The defensive line is stout. But what happened Sunday in Atlanta tells you a lot about the fabric and character of this roster.
After watching the classy and popular Tyler Eifert suffer a gruesome, season-ending injury, the Bengals didn’t roll over. They were on the road against Matt Ryan, who was having a fabulous day. Yet Cincinnati, fresh off a Week 3 loss in Carolina, showed gumption and skill coming back to beat the Falcons in a 37-36 thriller.
When Andy Dalton hit A.J. Green with a perfectly placed ball to score the winning touchdown with just six ticks left, something became clear: These are not your older brother’s Bengals. This is a different Cincy team, one that can absolutely win the AFC North.
4) Baltimore Ravens
Speaking of impressive AFC North teams … Baltimore is 3-1 and looks like one of the most well-rounded groups in the league so far, ranking fifth in scoring offense and third in scoring defense. I picked the Ravens to win Sunday’s prime-time showdown in Pittsburgh because Baltimore is the better, more buttoned-up team. And John Harbaugh’s group did indeed prevail, 26-14, outgaining the Steelers 451-284 in total yardage. These Ravens demand your attention, starting with the resurgent quarterback.
Think the first-round selection of Lamar Jackson lit a fire under Joe Flacco. The 33-year-old quarterback sounded extremely confident when I spoke to him on my SiriusXM Radio show, “Schein on Sports,” right before the season kicked off. Now he’s off to his best start in years, with an 8:2 TD-to-INT ratio. He gave Pittsburgh’s secondary fits on Sunday night, piling up 363 yards and two touchdowns. Major credit to Ozzie Newsome and Co. for the offseason additions of John Brown, Michael Crabtree and Willie Snead — this revamped receiving corps makes all the difference for this suddenly-explosive offense.
5) New England Patriots
Yeah, I know it’s weird to feature the Patriots in a bandwagon-themed piece. But following the dispiriting Week 3 defeat in Detroit that dropped New England to 1-2, some people started saying funny things, like, “Is this the year someone else wins the AFC East?”
New England is not the same juggernaut we’ve seen in years past. Bill Belichick inexplicably let a lot of good players fly the coop in the offseason. But Sunday’s 38-7 beatdown in Gillette Stadium was a reminder that the Patriots are still the class of the division, and the Dolphins are still the Dolphins.
Maybe I can’t convince you to hop on the Pats’ bandwagon — if such a thing could even exist — but just let this serve as a reminder that this team’s obituary has been prematurely written far too many times over the past two decades of dominance.
6) Cleveland Browns
Yes, the Browns (1-2-1) lost in overtime, 45-42, to the Raiders in Oakland. I don’t care. There’s no doubt in my mind that Myles Garrett and Genard Avery forced a Derek Carr fumble that would have been returned for a game-changing touchdown … if not for an erroneous “in the grasp” call. There’s no doubt in my mind that Carlos Hyde picked up a first down, as originally ruled on the field … before it was somehow overturned. (I’m not quite sure what happened to the standard of clear-and-conclusive visual evidence.)
So, no, I’m not going to dwell on the defeat. This is a team on the rise. The Browns have their quarterback in Baker Mayfield — and exciting talent around him, on offense and defense. Get on board.
7) Josh Rosen
The box score won’t tell you the story; you had to watch the game. Rosen has it.
Thanks in large part to Phil Dawson’s faulty foot, Rosen’s first NFL start goes down as a 20-17 loss to Seattle. But Cardinals fans have to be quite enthused by what they saw from the No. 10 overall pick on Sunday. Rosen, who completed 15 of his 27 passes for 180 yards and a touchdown (with no picks), looked like the kind of guy you want to build a team around. Forget the stats. His receivers let him down, big time. It’s not hyperbole to say drops cost Rosen an additional yardage figure in the triple digits. And Mike McCoy’s play calling didn’t serve the rookie signal-caller as well as you’d hope.
But he made a number of high-level throws and flashed true star potential. With just a little help from his friends, Rosen’s going to be a stud.
8) Ezekiel Elliott
It’s not the Cowboys. Or Dak Prescott. Or Jason Garrett. It’s Zeke. It’s always Zeke. The only coaching staff in football that can stop Elliott is Dallas’. Elliott eats, and the Cowboys win. It’s that simple.
The third-year running back churned out a career-best 240 yards of offense in the 26-24 win over Detroit. Zeke repeatedly gashed the Lions on the ground (152 yards on 25 carries), and then, when Dallas needed chunk yardage with just over a minute remaining, he lined up in the slot and caught a 34-yard pass to set up the game-winning field goal.
Despite all their issues, the Cowboys are 2-2, just like the Eagles. Thanks to Zeke. It’s always Zeke.
9) Los Angeles Chargers
Missed kicks. Mind-numbing moments. Defense that allows C.J. Beathard to look like Joe Montana at times.
That’s the Chargers. That’s how they roll. But a win’s a win, and this L.A. team is 2-2 despite the fact that defensive dynamo Joey Bosa has yet to take a snap. Philip Rivers and the offense are playing great. Derwin James is not only living up to my Rookie of the Year hype — he’s operating as one of the most impactful and versatile defenders in the entire league.
It’s never easy with the Chargers, but I absolutely believe in these Bolts — especially when they get back one of the best pass rushers in the NFL.
Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.