NFL 2018 Contenders or Pretenders: First Quarter Edition

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We’re now four weeks into the 2018 NFL season, and after a quarter in the books there’s been some surprising revelations in the form of winning football teams.

Last year’s 5-11 Chicago Bears now lead the NFC North at 3-1. The Tennessee Titans lead the AFC South after having beaten the Jacksonville Jaguars and Philadelphia Eagles. The Los Angeles Rams and Kansas City Chiefs are a perfect 4-0 behind explosive offenses. The Miami Dolphins have a better record than the New England Patriots. Nearly-fired Marvin Lewis has led his Cincinnati Bengals to first place in the AFC North.

While there’s been a lot of flash for some teams this season, is it legit or more of a mirage? That’s what I’m here to sort out.

Let’s examine the teams with a winning record following the first quarter of the season and discuss whether they’re legitimate contenders this season or just good ol’ pretenders.


Los Angeles Rams (4-0, 1st in NFC West)

Credit: NFL

There’s no team more complete in the NFL than the Los Angeles Rams, whose high-powered offense and imposing defense and solid special teams make them a recipe for success. Even as their defense struggles with some injuries, they have a top 3 unit that makes things even easier on their offense. Jared Goff is thriving in his third season — his second in Sean McVay’s offense — and they’ve looked unstoppable at times. And things will only get better with more experience in an innovative system that challenges defenses. The Rams are no doubt the best team in the conference right now. The only question is: Is there a team that can challenge them?

Verdict: Contender


Kansas City Chiefs (4-0, 1st in AFC West)

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Is there an offense more potent and explosive in the AFC than the Kansas City Chiefs? Second year quarterback Patrick Mahomes is thriving in his second year in Andy Reid’s offense and showing us just how threatening his weapons are. The only downfall of the Chiefs are their defense, which has given up 28, 37, 27, and 23 points in the first quarter. Right now, the Chiefs offense is carrying this team to victory. But can that last? We know that young quarterbacks typically come back to Earth pretty quickly. But even knowing that Mahomes can’t keep his brilliant stats up forever, there’s no denying that this kid is special and will take this team far. Now, let’s just hope the defense can find a way to contribute.

Verdict: Contender


Miami Dolphins (3-1, 1st in AFC East)

Credit: NFL

Who would have thought that after the first quarter of the season that the Miami Dolphins would not only have a better record than the New England Patriots but would be atop the AFC East? The Dolphins jumped out to a quick 3-0 start that shocked the football world, but we were reminded why this is the Patriots’ division after they routed Miami 38-7. Now, does that mean that the Dolphins are done? Not necessarily. But it bears focusing on the 3-0 start. The Dolphins beat the Titans, Jets, and Raiders. I mean, a win is a win. But right now it’s not enough for me to consider them an automatic bid to the playoffs. The Patriots brought them back to Earth — and shined a light on some glaring holes — and there’s no way you can convince me the Dolphins can withstand the Patriots for 12 more weeks.

Verdict: Pretender


Chicago Bears (3-1, 1st in NFC North)

Credit: NFL

Following Mitch Trubisky’s 6-touchdown performance against the Buccaneers, we saw exactly just how great Trubisky and this offense can be. There are so many weapons in an offense that is just four games into this thing. But, let’s be honest, the Bears defense alone is enough to make this team a contender. Khalil Mack has turned this Top 10 defense into arguably the best unit in the league, and they’re making life a living nightmare for opposing quarterbacks. Can you imagine what happens if their offense can consistently put together solid performances? The Bears certainly have time on their side. This offense will get better with more time and reps, and this defense will only get more dominant as the season goes on. Watch out, guys. The Bears might just be great.

Verdict: Contender


 

Baltimore Ravens (3-1, 2nd in AFC North)

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It’s usually safe to bet against Joe Flacco, especially in the regular season. But what the Ravens have managed to do this season is not only surprising but thrilling to watch. Baltimore’s offense is surprisingly efficient and fun to watch as Flacco is doing what fans have been waiting for him to do on a consistent basis. The offense can ball out, but the thing that might give them the edge in the AFC North is their defense. The Ravens look like a complete team, which is something that should give them an advantage in the competitive AFC. From everything the Ravens have shown me so far, I feel like they are a legitimate contender.

Verdict: Contender


Cincinnati Bengals (3-1, 1st in AFC North)

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When you take into consideration that Marvin Lewis was this close from being fired last season, it’s nothing short of remarkable what he’s managed to do with this Bengals team this season. Andy Dalton isn’t playing like the Andy Dalton that critics like to harp on — if anything, he’s the anti-Dalton. This Bengals offense is balling out with the rest of the NFL. Their only loss? A 31-21 loss dealt by a very talented Carolina Panthers team. The Bengals look like a legit threat to win the AFC North. I might not trust it entirely. But I’m going with it. Especially when you have Dalton tossing a perfectly-placed ball to AJ Green as the final six seconds ticked away. It feels like something special is happening. This doesn’t look like a fluke. Don’t be fooled, the Bengals might just be a legit AFC contender.

Verdict: Contender


Tennessee Titans (3-1, 1st in AFC South)

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The Titans have quietly jumped out to an impressive 3-1 start and currently sit atop the AFC South. Unlike the Dolphins, who you could argue faced opponents in its first three weeks that were subpar, the Titans have had convincing victories, including a divisional win over the Jacksonville Jaguars and the defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles. And this all with quarterback Marcus Mariota not having complete feeling in his fingers. But is this Titans team for real? Are they legitimate playoff contenders? Given that they play in the same division as the Jags and in the more competitive conference in the AFC, I’m still not entirely convinced the Titans can pull this off for three more quarters. Prove me wrong. Please.

Verdict: Pretender


Jacksonville Jaguars (3-1, 2nd in AFC South)

Credit: NFL

It’s amazing how much difference a year can make. Just last season, the Jaguars were shocking the league with one of football’s best defense and getting just enough play out of its offense to contend. Now, one year later, the Jaguars feel like a complete team that gets as much help from its offense as it does its defense. While their one blemish remains a 9-6 loss to division rival Tennessee, the Jags have proven that it was more “we can’t overlook any game” mentality than it is a telling reveal about the team. They’ve been my Super Bowl pick since before the start of the season. And given what I’ve seen, I have no reason to doubt they won’t contend for a title.

Verdict: Contender


Washington Redskins (2-1, 1st in NFC East)

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The Washington Redskins are the only divisional leader that I don’t feel confident has a chance to win their division. As far as complete teams go, I don’t feel especially confident. They’re in a division with the reigning Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles, who are currently struggling but I’m not sure will be struggling for the duration. Then you have the wild cards that are the Dallas Cowboys (who can’t decide if they want to be good or not) and the New York Giants (who are doing the same). The Redskins’ flaw falls on the offensive side of the ball. After signing Alex Smith, who lit up the league in Andy Reid’s explosive offense, Washington surely was hoping to see plenty of that this season. But instead, we’re left wondering whether Smith can rediscover the deep ball.

Verdict: Pretender


New Orleans Saints (3-1, 1st in NFC South)

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The NFC South is easily the most competitive division in the NFL, and as long as the New Orleans Saints have Drew Brees at quarterback, they’re always legitimate contenders for a playoff run. While the Saints offense continues to flash its explosive offense, which can get you in the air or on the ground, the Saints do have a flaw that teams are attempting to and nearly exploiting. Defense is the one flaw on a Saints team that has enough offensive talent to make them contenders every season. The defense is trying to give games at this point, most recently against the Falcons and Giants, where the offense saved the win. Yes, the Saints are flawed on defense. But with their offense, the defense just needs to be average.

Verdict: Contender


Carolina Panthers (2-1, 2nd in NFC South)

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The Carolina Panthers are coming off a much-needed, early bye week, which allowed some players to get healthy and allowed for some perspective in the NFC South race. While the Falcons can’t seem to buy a victory, the Buccaneers showed exactly what we thought they were after the Fitzmagic wore off. Right now, the Panthers sit in second place in the division while getting healthy for what’s sure to be a tough battle for the NFC South. While the defense has struggled in the red zone, the ground game has finally found its feet. Christian McCaffrey is proving that he’s exactly what the Panthers offense needed. Then there’s Cam Newton. And when the Panthers have Cam Newton, they always have a chance to contend. Sure, the Panthers are in need of receivers. But a guy like Cam can improvise just enough. It’ll be an interesting battle for the South.

Verdict: Contender


What are your thoughts? Who are contenders? Who are pretenders?




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