NFL superlatives through three weeks, and what they mean
By Zach Miller
God, I missed football. We’re three weeks into another crazy season, and it’s all that anyone could’ve hoped for and more. Wide receivers are going crazy, middle-of-the pack teams are looking like they’re rising into the top tier, and teams that have dominated for years now look like their obituaries are already written. Welcome back, NFL. Here are a few quick overreactions to the first three weeks.
Best team: New England Patriots
This was a close three-team race between the Pats, Cardinals, and Packers, but the Patriots have done this before, which gives them an edge. These look like the three best offenses in the NFL, but the Cardinals have never looked this good before, which puts them clearly as a regression candidate. Carson Palmer is playing out of his mind, Larry Fitzgerald looks like he went back in time seven years, and their offensive line is playing well for the first time in years. Too many things have come together at the right time for them, and we can reasonably expect their level of play to come back to earth somewhat. Meanwhile, the Packers already have injuries all over their offense. Right tackle Bryan Bulaga is out at least a month, while Eddie Lacy is battling minor injuries and preseason breakout candidate Davante Adams has ankle issues. Aaron Rodgers could make a top-ten offense out of a Division II team, but injuries hold them back from their full potency. The Patriots, though, have both the track record and the health, at least so far. They are banged up slightly along the offensive line, but rookie interior linemen David Andrews and Tre’ Jackson have performed adequately, which is all Tom Brady needs. He is playing his best football in years, and their skill position players are in midseason form. Obviously an injury to Gronk or Brady would set this team back immeasurably, but unless the unthinkable happens the Patriots offense looks unstoppable.
Defensively, the Cardinals probably have the edge with their fearsome secondary, with the Patriots in second and the Packers in third. The Cardinals are deep and well coached, but they have not really been tested on defense yet. The Patriots have a great front seven but questions in the secondary, while the Packers have simply invested too much in their offense over the years to pour resources into their defense the way other teams have. Look, this is just nitpicking, because these are clearly the best three teams so far, but through a revitalized Brady and a pissed-off Belichik, the Pats look like the class of the NFL once again through three weeks.
Best Non-Quarterback, Offense: Julio Jones
Apologies to Gronk and Antonio Brown here, because they have each been dominant and position-defining in their own right, but Jones is the obvious pick here. He has firmly staked out his claim to the title of best receiver in football; so far, he has brought everything Brown has, along with an extra five inches and forty pounds. Jones lines up everywhere and does everything for the Falcons, running routes like Brown and making contested catches like Dez Bryant. His combination of size, athleticism, precision, and hands can’t be rivaled in today’s NFL. He has been completely uncoverable, and although three games does not make a season, he looks like he could conceivably threaten season records for targets, catches, and receiving yards. Brown has not gotten enough attention, mostly because he’s just picking up where he left off from last year, but he is a one-man offense in his own right. Without Big Ben he will be hard pressed to keep up his current level of play, but being the second best behind Jones right now holds no shame. Speaking of no shame, it’s everyone’s favorite 6’6” toddler, Rob Gronkowski! His usage will never match that of the best wide receivers, but Gronk is so clearly the best tight end in football that he deserves mention anyway. The Patriots’ four tight end sets on the goal-line work simply because Gronk is possibly the best red zone weapon in NFL history. He is shattering NFL touchdown records by the game, and although he won’t get the stats Jones and Brown will, he means as much to his offense as any non-quarterback in the league.
Best Coach: Wade Phillips, Defensive Coordinator, Broncos
Fun fact: coaches include coordinators. This escapes a lot of people who simply want to give awards like this to the head coach of the team that most surpasses expectations, but that doesn’t take into account personnel changes and improvements. Wade Phillips took a defense that finished top-10 last year and lost Rahim Moore and Terrance Knighton, changed the scheme to a 3-4, and made it into maybe the best defense in the NFL. The Broncos are allowing the least yards per game and the third-least points per game(tied with Arizona). They are second in the NFL in takeaways and tied for third in sacks. Simply put, they went from a good defense to a great one after Wade Phillips took over.
Comeback Player: Larry Fitzgerald
Where did this come from?! Everyone thought he was done after his terrible season last year, but not only has Fitzy been better than he was last year, he’s been one of the best receivers in the NFL. Adrian Peterson also has a claim here, but Fitzgerald has looked like his prime self after years of basically irrelevance.
Best Rookie: Marcus Mariota
That was fast. Mariota, supposed to be a project, has only been one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL through three weeks. He obviously will struggle, as all rookies do, but he looks decisive, poised, and accurate so far, in a way that originally was thought to be years away. Apologies to Amari Cooper, who also looks ahead of his already fast schedule to becoming one of the best receivers in the NFL. He’s just always open.
A Few Good Men: Jamie Collins, Aaron Donald, and J.J. Watt
Donald and Watt look like they are in a class by themselves at the top of NFL defensive players. They are tied for the league lead with 8 tackles for loss, while Donald has 3.5 sacks and Watt has three. They are simply otherwordly and cannot be blocked with one man. Jamie Collins has also been a downright terror, calling the plays for the Patriots defense while doing literally everything once the play starts. He has proven that he can not only stuff the run, rush the passer, and drop into coverage, but that he’s one of the best linebackers in the league at all three.
Biggest Disappointment, player and team: Andrew Luck and the Colts
There’s a reason there was a disclaimer at the beginning of the article that this involves overreaction. Luck and the Colts will be fine. Luck is still one of the best players in the NFL and the AFC South is still a dumpster fire that the Colts will likely come out on top of. That being said, their struggles are both predictable and sad. Luck is still young, and turnovers happen, but there’s also a reason that they’re happening, namely the terrible team around him. General Manager Ryan Grigson gets far too much credit for building this team; he made the most obvious pick in decades by selecting Luck first overall, and after that his good moves have been few and far between. The defense is awful and cannot really stop anyone, while their offensive line is mediocre at best and a sieve at worst. They invested far too much in skill positions over the years, with limited results. T.Y. Hilton is a star, but Andre Johnson looks over the hill, and they spent a first round pick on Phillip Dorsett, who currently occupies the fourth spot on their depth chart. Luck simply cannot buy enough time in the pocket, and his turnovers are skyrocketing. Not all of it is his fault; he cannot make every single play for this team all the time and single-handedly win them a Superbowl. The team around him needs to step up, and if it cannot, it’s the responsibility of the front office to make positive changes that they just haven’t made so far. The combination of turnovers and porous defense is enough so the Colts are almost doomed already. There just doesn’t seem to be a way that they can win in the playoffs as currently constructed and given who built this team, the blame for their struggles lies directly at Grigson’s feet.
In case you missed it, Chuck Pagano’s postgame speech on Sunday was hilarious. He deserves to be fired right away. Belichick is in his Gillette Stadium office cracking up at this one. Thank God for Andrew Luck at least trying to save that mediocre franchise. Biggest win of your life? You beat the Titans in week 3, what happens in the playoffs?