ON FOOTBALL: First-place Eagles, Rams, Bills? Who knew?
By BARRY WILNER
October 06, 2017 12:23 PM
Chew on this: First-place Eagles. First-place Rams. First-place Bills.
Throw in the Redskins and — sit down for this one — the Jets, and maybe these teams are a lot better than prognosticated when the season kicked off.
One month into the schedule, NFL teams usually have found their identity. Not so for most of the league in 2017, with the specific exceptions of the Chiefs at the top, the Browns, 49ers and Chargers at the bottom.
There are only eight clubs with losing records through one-quarter of the season, and a gaggle of 13 at 2-2 — including three in the AFC South. The break-even teams include the Patriots, Cowboys, Raiders and Seahawks.
All of them were considered, and probably still should be, as playoff favorites.
The fascinating stuff, though, focuses on those surprises, including that first-place trio not even their staunchest fans could have predicted would be up front at this point.
Philadelphia bolted from the gate last season, winning three straight before stumbling to 7-9. This quick start has a different feel.
For one, Carson Wentz looks to have taken a major step in maturity as a quarterback. He doesn't try to force things, in part because of his comfort level with coach Doug Pederson's system. He also has more talent around him.
And more leadership with such veterans as Chris Long, LeGarrette Blount and Alshon Jeffery on board.
"Those are very helpful, beneficial, because they're a big impact to what we're doing and the success we've had this early part of the season," Pederson says.
"And the other thing, too, is these are veteran players who have been on, in Chris's case (and Blount's), on championship teams. They know how to work. They know how to practice. They know how to prepare. And that's what you want. You want those types of guys in and around your football team."
Philly has some defensive issues to settle, with a series of injuries in the secondary and to star DT Fletcher Cox. The Eagles have allowed 52 points in the fourth quarter.
While most of Los Angeles concentrates on the Dodgers or USC or UCLA, the Rams quietly have put together an offense that is outperforming its purported strength, the defense. LA's 142 points easily lead the NFL, and Jared Goff has been a revelation in his first full season as a starter. He leads the league in four key passing categories.
Yes, the revitalization of 2015 Offensive Rookie of the Year Todd Gurley has been huge — Gurley is second rushing with 362 yards and has scored seven touchdowns (four rushing, three receiving). There's also been an influx of veteran talent here: T Andrew Whitworth, LB Connor Barwin and WR Sammy Watkins.
New coach Sean McVay, at 31 the youngest in NFL history, has energized the offense with his schemes and aggressiveness, while passing on the praise.
"I think what good coaches do is they put their players in situations to have success, but ultimately, those players are the ones that are making those plays," McVay says.
"You feel fortunate to be a part of that and I think the players have done a good job, but I also can't say enough about our coaching staff. Everybody talks about Jared and what he's done, and he's done an excellent job.
"But I also think it's important to know how heavily involved (offensive coordinator) Matt LaFleur and (QBs coach) Greg Olson are in his development and those day-to-day things where he's got an ownership on what we're trying to get done."
The previous time the Bills made the playoffs, America was worrying about the Y2K virus. It's the NFL's longest postseason drought.
To say right now that Buffalo is on the verge of ending that streak is foolish. It's the third time since 2000 the team has been 3-1 or better. The Bills finished with losing records the previous two times.
Still, with a defense that has allowed the NFL's fewest points (54), and consecutive defensive masterpieces against Denver and Atlanta, the Bills shouldn't be dismissed.
If QB Tyrod Taylor remains efficient, outstanding running back LeSean McCoy stays healthy and productive, and the D continues to be dynamic, the Bills could have staying power.
Their performance in a loss at Kansas City was almost as impressive as their throttling of Oakland the previous week.
Undermanned and facing the league's only undefeated team, the Redskins were the better squad for much of the night.
Kirk Cousins, franchise-tag-be-damned, has elevated his game; he's been the NFC East's best QB so far. He's doing it with a so-so group of wideouts and a shuffling deck at running back.
Washington's defense has been the real discovery, though. A sieve for portions of last season, it has found a pass rush and, while not dominant, has been effective overall. But it's banged-up now, with top cornerback Josh Norman sidelined.
The Jets made regular appearances in late-night monologues and prognostications of 0-16 seemed not that farfetched.
Well, they've won their past two games, both at home, and head to 0-4 Cleveland with a shot at a winning record.
Their offense has been much more capable than anyone imagined, and they appear to have two studs at safety in rookies Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye.
If they manage to win six times with this roster — other than a matchup with the Chargers, the schedule is rugged — Todd Bowles should be coach of the year.
Even if Andy Reid goes 16-0.
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By BARRY WILNER
Updated: October 06, 2017 12:23 PM
Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.