Seeing Isn't Necessarily Believing in Upside-Down NFL

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterSeptember 25, 2018

Detroit Lions wide receiver Marvin Jones looks towards the stands after scoring on a 33-yard pass reception during the second half of an NFL football game against the New England Patriots, Sunday, Sept. 23, 2018, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Rick Osentoski)
Rick Osentoski/Associated Press

After three weeks of surprises, upsets and blowouts, the whole NFL looks like it has been turned upside down.

The Dolphins are in first place in the AFC East; the Patriots tied for last. The Bears are in first place in the NFC North, while the Vikings and Packers are coming off ugly losses. The Buccaneers? Where do we even start with the Buccaneers?

The Lions got pummeled by the Jets in the opener but beat the Patriots on Sunday night, and the Jets lost to the Browns, therefore the Browns must be better than the Patriots! No, there's no way that's right. But the Bills did wallop the Vikings, while the Jaguars beat the Patriots but lost to the Titans, which means...hold on while we grab some aspirin.

The tangle of upsets and up-and-down performances doesn't just cause a power-ranking migraine. After three weeks, it looks as though epochs are ending in New England, Pittsburgh and Green Bay, while unanticipated new powerhouses are sprouting up in unexpected locations, like Florida.

But despite the topsy-turvy standings, the NFL's gravitational field hasn't really flipped on its axis. There are simple explanations for most of what has happened through the season's first three weeks.

Once you get past the final scores and preseason perceptions, this season's surprises are a lot less surprising. The following guidelines will help you predict which hot-starting teams will fade, which slumping contenders will bounce back and which September storylines are likely to carry on through the season.

        

Watch The Weapons

The biggest disparity between the haves and have-nots this season is not in quarterback play but in the quality and depth of the offensive supporting casts.

Patrick Mahomes II has been phenomenal, but his 13-touchdown explosion has as much to do with Tyreek Hill's ability to turn shallow crosses into long touchdowns, Travis Kelce's one-handed catches and Sammy Watkins facing single coverage on every snap as Mahomes' convincing Brett Favre impersonation.

Tyreek Hill's ability to catch almost anything thrown his way has helped make a star out of Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City.
Tyreek Hill's ability to catch almost anything thrown his way has helped make a star out of Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City.Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

On the flip side, the Patriots' plug-n-play approach to their passing game has finally reached the point of diminishing returns, with Tom Brady unable to manufacture a passing game out of a collection of reclamation-project receivers and a bunch of rookies and role players at running back.

Many of the stunners in the standings can be explained, at least in part, by studying the receiving corps. The Buccaneers upset contenders each week because few teams can match up with DeSean Jackson, Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and a pair of talented tight ends. Joe Flacco and the Ravens are offensively competent because of their offseason John Brown/Michael Crabtree-led receiver upgrade.

The Cowboys offense is a tragicomedy because blocking tight end Geoff Swaim is their top receiver. Jimmy Garoppolo got hurt behind a depleted offensive line while waiting to throw deep balls to fullbacks and tight ends. The Eagles have to grind out their wins because most of their receivers and running backs are hurt. And so on.

Great receiving corps stay great unless injuries take their toll (defenses can't simply adjust to having to cover multiple threats). The Patriots and Eagles will get some relief when Julian Edelman, Alshon Jeffery and others return. The same can't be said for the Cowboys, who are in for a rough offensive season. None of this should be all that surprising, but sometimes we get so obsessed with quarterbacks that we forget that they need someone to throw to.

        

Throw Out Weird Blowouts

The Bills' 27-6 victory over the Vikings on Sunday was a solid win for a floundering team. It was also a little bit of a fluke. Kirk Cousins fumbled twice deep in Bills territory in the first quarter, and once the Bills built an early 17-0 lead, it was like the field itself was tilted in their favor.

Kirk Cousins made the Bills look like an NFL juggernaut with a pair of momentum-killing fumbles in Buffalo.
Kirk Cousins made the Bills look like an NFL juggernaut with a pair of momentum-killing fumbles in Buffalo.Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Sam Darnold became the greatest thing to hit the Big Apple since Hamilton after the 48-17 Jets blowout of the Lions in the season opener. It was a great effort, but it was also a turnover- and mistake-fueled avalanche of a game.

Throw out the final scores and think of results like these as simply upsets, not paradigm-shattering statements. Maybe the weaker team has a secret strength or the stronger a hidden vulnerability which we have not yet seen. But neither the Jets nor Bills became contenders after one surprising blowout.

Look closely at any lopsided win and you can spot the difference between the Rams marching up and down the field against hapless opponents and a team capitalizing on a few big plays to short-sheet a favored opponent. The first is a sign of dominance. The second is the kind of game that's forgotten in December.

        

Follow The Bouncing Ball

As the Bills-Vikings game illustrates, turnovers have a major impact on both early-season standings and our impressions of teams.

The Dolphins are plus-four in takeaways over the first three games, thanks to interceptions against the Marcus Mariota/Blaine Gabbert tag team, rookie Sam Darnold starting after a short week and Derek Carr heaving bombs into triple coverage.

The Dolphins don't appear to have a Jaguars/Rams-caliber defense, so they should fall back to earth once they face better quarterbacks. Then again, they play in a division with a pair of rookies, so they could also ride a turnover advantage straight into a winning season.

The Bears are plus-three in takeaways, with Khalil Mack and the defense creating eight turnovers while Mitchell Trubisky and the offense gave five of them back. Chicago will be a high-volatility team that ends up on both sides of upsets all year.

On the other end of the scale, the Lions are minus-four in turnovers, and it cost them in their first two games. The Raiders are also minus-four in that ledger. The Lions' turnover rate is likely to balance out. They have a veteran quarterback and a talented, experienced defense. The Raiders, though, with Carr and Jon Gruden reading different playbook chapters and the defense still wondering where Mack went, will keep losing turnover battles—and games—all season.

Wouldn't you hand the ball to Khalil Mack if he were chasing you down on the football field?
Wouldn't you hand the ball to Khalil Mack if he were chasing you down on the football field?Rick Scuteri/Associated Press/Associated Press

As the season wears on, fluky turnovers (tipped balls, rookie blunders) tend to even out while turnovers caused by great defensive play will keep pushing teams like the Jaguars and Rams up the standings. Right now, the random events are still sorting themselves out.

        

Stay Off The Quarterback Coaster

Rookie quarterbacks (Darnold, Baker Mayfield, like Carson Wentz and Deshaun Watson in 2016) often start off hot but fade as soon as opponents gather film on them, or they look great when they have the lead and good field position (Allen last week; Dak Prescott in 2016) but turn into rookies when forced to play from behind.

New starters, including Mahomes and Ryan Fitzpatrick, can also enjoy a short-term sugar rush until teams update their scouting reports (see Fitzpatrick's Monday night performance for evidence). Meanwhile, there's a whole tier of veteran quarterbacks—Matthew Stafford, Eli Manning, Flacco, Andy Dalton, Blake Bortles, etc.—capable of throwing four interceptions on one Sunday and bouncing back the next.

As a rule, never get too high on any quarterback except Brees-Brady types or too low on any quarterback except the Osweiler-Peterman class. As a tool for making sense of early-season craziness, never assume that a youngster has achieved MVP status or an established veteran is toast until you've seen a few months, not weeks, of evidence. Yes, that even applies to Mahomes.

        

Master The Obvious

Despite the disruption in the standings, the NFL is full of known commodities.

The Rams are great. The Cardinals are awful. Aaron Rodgers is playing hurt, and that hurts the Packers. The NFC South teams are all good enough to beat each other up. Brady is still Brady, the Steelers the Steelers, so they'll overcome their shortcomings to some degree. The Jaguars have a great defense but inconsistent offense. The Chiefs have a great offense but porous defense. And so on.

The upside-down appearance of the standings boils down to the handful of shocking games (Lions over Patriots, Jets over Lions, Bills over Vikings) we've already touched on, plus some injuries, a few turnovers, a trick play here and a Mack attack or 75-yard Buccaneers bomb there.

Ryan Fitzpatrick's willingness to throw often and deep has made the Bucs the second-highest scoring team in the NFL.
Ryan Fitzpatrick's willingness to throw often and deep has made the Bucs the second-highest scoring team in the NFL.Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

Still, we do need to adjust our perceptions and expectations a bit after three weeks. The Patriots are mortal. The Kirk Cousins signing wasn't as transformative as the Vikings hoped. The Bucs and Dolphins are more talented. creative and daring than anticipated. The Bears are going to be the raccoon that gets loose in your kitchen.

But these are adjustments, not revolutions. It's too early to declare the end of the Patriots era or book that Dolphins-Buccaneers Super Bowl just yet.

Rams-Chiefs, maybe. But not Dolphins-Buccaneers.

            

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier. 

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