It is a quarter of the way through the season for most NFL teams, with Week 5 beginning with the Patriots’ 19-14 victory Thursday night over the Buccaneers.
The 2017 season veered off script right from Opening Night, when the Kansas City Chiefs won at New England to deny the Patriots a run at a perfect year.
Week 5 arrives with the Chiefs as the league’s only unbeaten team, with the Buffalo Bills and Los Angeles Rams as division leaders, with the New York Jets at .500 and the New York Giants winless.
But which of these early-season surprises are for real and which aren’t?
Here’s a quick rundown:
Surprise No. 1: The Bills are good … The Bills weren’t supposed to be quite Jets-level pitiable. But after trading away wide receiver Sammy Watkins and cornerback Ronald Darby in August, General Manager Brandon Beane did feel compelled to publicly address the Jets-like allegation that the Bills were tanking the season. He said he was annoyed at the suggestion. Beane and the team’s first-year coach, Sean McDermott, have set a tone and changed the attitude. When they sent home defensive tackle Marcell Dareus from a preseason road trip to Baltimore, their no-nonsense approach was reaffirmed. The defense is legitimately good, with the Bills ranked first in the NFL in scoring defense and eighth in total defense. Quarterback Tyrod Taylor is carrying the offense, with tailback LeSean McCoy averaging only 3.2 yards per carry. The Bills are a team that is approaching respectability in a less-than-imposing division. But the Patriots remain the class of the AFC East, and it’s difficult to foresee the division producing another playoff team. Verdict: Not For Real
Surprise No. 2: The Rams are good … When Sean McVay was hired as the youngest head coach in modern NFL history, all he was being asked to do was to make the Rams relevant for something other than being an occupant of L.A. and to turn Jared Goff into a franchise quarterback. Both tasks were daunting. But McVay has Goff playing at a higher level than anyone could have imagined after his disappointing rookie season. He has the Rams playing an entertaining brand of football, and he is moving them toward relevance. Last weekend’s triumph at Dallas was impressive. If the Rams can beat the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday in Los Angeles, which seems entirely possible, they will be the team to beat in the NFC West. Verdict: For Real
Surprise No. 3: The Patriots can’t stop anyone … Did anyone really think that Coach Bill Belichick wouldn’t figure it out? It was an uneven performance by the Patriots on Thursday night. Quarterback Tom Brady had an uncharacteristic two turnovers, throwing an interception and losing a fumble. The Patriots had trouble protecting Brady and hurt themselves with penalties. But they played better on defense and barely held on to beat the Buccaneers, 19-14, when Tampa’s last-gasp drive ended with quarterback Jameis Winston’s pass falling incomplete at the goal line. Of course, the three missed field goals by Buccaneers kicker Nick Folk helped the Patriots’ cause. Maybe the Buccaneers should do something crazy like drafting a kicker in the second round. Verdict: Not For Real
Surprise No. 4: The Panthers are back … Carolina went from being the Super Bowl loser two seasons ago to being a non-contending, playoff-missing also-ran last season. The abrupt decision to part ways with cornerback Josh Norman hurt the defense, and quarterback Cam Newton simply wasn’t the same player that he’d been in his MVP season. The Panthers are back now. Newton is adjusting to a less reckless style of play, and he’s beginning to show signs of throwing the ball accurately after making a gradual return from shoulder surgery. Once the Panthers figure out how to fully and consistently utilize rookie running back Christian McCaffrey, they could be a very dangerous team. Verdict: For Real
Surprise No. 5: The Jets aren’t dreadful … They’ve already won two games in a season that was supposed to be all about positioning themselves for a top pick in the 2018 NFL draft and landing a franchise quarterback. But make no mistake: This is a talent-deficient roster, and this is a team that eventually will play to its expected level. Verdict: Not For Real
Surprise No. 6: The Eagles are the NFC East’s top team … Philadelphia actually wasn’t all that bad last season when offensive tackle Lane Johnson was in the lineup. He’s back, and the Eagles again are playing well with him. Quarterback Carson Wentz is making progress in his second NFL season, and the Eagles already have beaten the Redskins and the Giants. There’s no reason to think they won’t be a factor in the NFC East all season. Verdict: For Real
Surprise No. 7: The Giants are dreadful … They haven’t been quite as bad as it looks. Their past two losses have come on last-second field goals, including a 61-yarder by Eagles rookie Jake Elliott. But 0-4 is 0-4. The offense relies on wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. to be otherworldly and when he’s not, there are issues. The offensive line has struggled to protect quarterback Eli Manning, who is far from blameless. The defense has been a long way from dominant. The Giants won’t be this terrible all season. But the hole they’ve dug for themselves is probably just too deep. Verdict: For Real
Surprise No. 8: The Cowboys are mediocre … The offense hasn’t been awful. But it hasn’t been great, either. Quarterback Dak Prescott and tailback Ezekiel Elliott are finding out it’s not always as easy as it appeared as rookies. The offensive line has not been as overpowering as has become customary. The Cowboys probably can right themselves with a win Sunday at home over the Packers. But if that doesn’t happen, watch out. Elliott’s six-game suspension also could be enforced at any time if the NFL prevails in its attempt in federal appeals court to lift the injunction that he and the NFL Players Association were granted. It’s still time to believe in the Cowboys, for now. But it’s getting a bit tenuous. Verdict: Not For Real
Surprise No. 9: The Chiefs are the best team in the AFC West … The Broncos are good but still can’t be quite certain what they’ll get each weekend from quarterback Trevor Siemian. The Raiders have suffered two losses since a 2-0 start and are without quarterback Derek Carr for now. The Chiefs have game-breakers on offense with tight end Travis Kelce, wide receiver Tyreek Hill and rookie running back Kareem Hunt. Quarterback Alex Smith is playing like a league MVP candidate, and the defense is plenty good enough. Verdict: For Real
Surprise No. 10: The Browns are this bad again … How is it even possible? The Browns went 1-15 last season and might not fare much better this time around. Everyone wanted to talk about the talent they added to their roster, especially in the draft. But they have violated the first rule of roster construction: If you don’t have a quarterback, you do whatever you can to get one. The Browns passed over Wentz in last year’s NFL draft. They failed to find a way to trade for Jimmy Garoppolo this past offseason, then they passed on Deshaun Watson is this year’s draft. DeShone Kizer has thrown eight interceptions four games into his rookie season. If the Browns have the No. 1 overall choice in next year’s draft, will they pass over a quarterback again? Verdict: For Real
Around the League
Bell and the Steelers … It was a slow start to the season for running back Le’Veon Bell after he missed all of training camp and the preseason before signing his franchise-player deal. Bell didn’t have even a 90-yard rushing performance in any of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ first three games before logging 35 carries for 144 yards in last Sunday’s victory at Baltimore.
“I know he’s still kind of getting into it,” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said after that game. “I think that’s probably a better question for him: How did he feel? But I know when we’re out there and we’re grinding at the end or he’s getting something in the pass game, it looks like Le’Veon to me. I know his numbers haven’t been what everyone expects and what he expects. But the things that we’re asking him to do, to me, that’s what [No.] 26 does.”
The Steelers are 3-1 and atop the AFC North. But Roethlisberger said the offense can be better.
“We’ll take a win here however we can get it,” Roethlisberger said. “I still feel I personally didn’t make all the plays.”
Trevathan’s suspension … It’s impossible to know exactly what was said in Danny Trevathan’s appeal hearing before Derrick Brooks, the former NFL linebacker who is one of two appeals officers for on-field discipline jointly appointed and paid by the league and the union, reduced Trevathan’s suspension from two games to one for his hit on Green Bay wide receiver Davante Adams. Still, it’s difficult not to believe that the suspension should have been upheld at two games. Yes, there is supposed to be an element of escalating discipline and no, Trevathan is not someone with a long history in this area like, say, Vontaze Burfict. But Trevathan’s hit on Adams was about as egregious as it gets, and players should have been forewarned when the NFL’s rulemaking competition committee made flagrant hits a point of emphasis for this season and recommended ejections and suspensions for the worst violators. That’s the kind of hit that must be taken out of the sport, and a two-game suspension did not seem out of line.
Newton’s apology … Newton did the right thing Thursday night after saying decidedly the wrong thing Wednesday when he expressed that he found it “funny” to be questioned by a female reporter about pass routes. The apology that Newton issued on Thursday night via social media seemed sincere. He called his words “extremely degrading and disrespectful to women” and “extremely unacceptable.” He spoke of his two daughters and said, “The joke was really on me.” He concluded: “Don’t be like me. Be better than me.” Newton’s original comment was like something out of the 1950s, and it drew condemnation by both the league and the union. But the league said earlier Thursday that it planned no further action. Newton’s maturity level has been an issue in the past, as with his post-Super Bowl news conference. Perhaps it took intervention by others for him to do what he did Thursday. Whatever the case, he at least appeared to come to his senses.
The fact that the Tennessee Titans didn’t even consider signing Colin Kaepernick before adding quarterback Brandon Weeden this week behind injured starter Marcus Mariota and backup Matt Cassel certainly seems to reinforce the notion that the NFL has spoken on Kaepernick’s employment, at least for this season. …
The fact that Carr was doing some throwing during the Raiders’ practice Thursday seems to point to his absence probably being closer to two weeks than six. …
Robert Griffin III is so forgotten these days that there’s not even a sense of surprise or dismay when he’s passed over in favor of someone such as Weeden for a job. …
Much has been made of the NFL’s attendance issues this season, particularly in Los Angeles. But league spokesman Joe Lockhart said this week that stadiums leaguewide have been more than 90 percent filled, and added: “We’re on target for where we thought we would be. There’s no real concern there.” …
Lockhart also said there has been “no discussion” about returning the Chargers to San Diego. The real evaluation on L.A., in the NFL’s view, probably won’t begin until the Rams and Chargers move into their new stadium in Inglewood, Calif. As former Packers executive Andrew Brandt wrote on Twitter: “As I keep saying, to the NFL these are just speed bumps on the way to the Shangri-La in Inglewood.”
Games to Watch
Packers at Cowboys … It’s a rematch of the dramatic NFC semifinal last season that knocked the Cowboys from the playoffs. More importantly, it’s the Cowboys’ latest attempt to reestablish themselves as a top contender this season.
Panthers at Lions … Relatively quietly, both of these teams have put themselves in the conversation about which is the NFC’s best.
Seahawks at Rams … The Rams have a chance to declare unequivocally that they are for real.
Games to Miss
Jets at Browns … If the Browns fail to win at home against this team, just find them a lower league in which to play.
49ers at Colts … Andrew Luck says he’s going to play at some point this season. But it won’t be in this game. So avert your eyes.
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