We’ve seen three full weeks of regular-season games and just saw a wild Thursday-night shootout to kick off Week 4, so now we can safely say that this year will be defined by offensive explosions … everywhere but Dallas and Seattle. Some of it comes down to rule changes, some of it is dumb luck, and a lot of it is increasing quarterback talent and smarter schemes. The NFL record for touchdowns through three weeks was broken easily last Sunday, and you can expect the four-week record to fall this weekend. In 2018, a high-powered offense is a requirement to compete. You’re either putting up 30 points a game with modern, aggressive schemes, or you’re, well, bad.
Let’s take a look at this week’s top matchups.
Patriots vs. Panic
One of the most disappointing things about New England’s season is that the team should be on the forefront of this new offensive revolution. I’ve written many times about how the Patriots have, over the past two decades, been the pioneers of dozens of NFL trends, small and large. And whenever they weren’t first, they were still quick to adapt to however the league was changing. They contributed to the modern popularity of the slot receiver, for instance. In an era when constant reinvention is almost a prerequisite, New England’s offense has reinvented itself more than any other team’s.
Somehow, there’s an offensive boom happening, and the Pats haven’t been part of it. The league has produced more big plays through the first three weeks than in any of the past 20 years. Ryan Fitzpatrick just became the first quarterback in NFL history to pass for 400 yards in three straight games. This is the juiced ball era of football, and the fact the Patriots are not putting up 40 points a game is not just mystifying; as an observer of the sport, I find it kind of sad.
The reason for New England’s muted attack is a near-total lack of weapons. The Patriots shipped Brandin Cooks and a fourth-rounder to Los Angeles for first- and sixth-round picks in the offseason. First-round running back Sony Michel doesn’t look like he’s ready to contribute, whether that’s because of his August knee procedure or another factor. Rex Burkhead is on injured reserve with a neck issue. Rob Gronkowski is not himself right now; some think he’s lost a step. We know he was almost traded to Detroit. He was also involved in a very strange ice-shaker controversy when his brother, promoting a product, called into Boston radio station WEEI and revealed Gronkowski was frustrated with the Pats offense. Newly acquired Josh Gordon wasn’t ready to play last week. Julian Edelman is serving a PED suspension.
What is especially strange is that the Patriots had months to fix their weapons problem. Even if all of these players were healthy and roaring, it still wouldn’t be an elite group of weapons for Brady in a league where there’s an arms race for offensive talent. If the Patriots don’t get significantly better on offense this season, they will be an outlier in a bad way. There are about 10 quarterbacks at the moment who look like Tom Brady, and zero of them are Tom Brady.
Now, I fully believe the Patriots will right the ship and make the playoffs. They will start generating double-digit-point wins because Belichick is smart and Tom Brady will, at some point, take advantage of the bad defenses this league has so generously provided him. Sorry if you’re looking for deeper analysis, but we have about 18 years of evidence that suggest it’s as simple as that. But it will be worrying if the undefeated Dolphins, one of the early-season darlings, beat them and sit three games ahead of them in the AFC East race. Ryan Tannehill has now won 10 of his past 11 starts, and he’s making throws you’d expect a good quarterback to make:
Early leader in the clubhouse for best throw of the weekend. Tannehill to Stills makes that a pretty regular occurrence. pic.twitter.com/aJmP15Bky5— Travis Wingfield (@WingfieldNFL) September 23, 2018
But the absolute breakout star of Miami’s season has been third-year Baylor product Xavien Howard, now considered a top-tier cornerback.
He’ll have to lock down one of the Patriots’ offensive weapons Sunday. That is, if they even have one.
Eli Manning vs. Drew Brees
Last week, the Saints “held” Matt Ryan to a 148 passer rating, the highest ever for a quarterback in a loss. New Orleans has put up 40 points in two of its three games, while also allowing 37 or more in both of those games. Even in a league with weekly shootouts, few teams will play more than the Saints.
On Sunday, the Giants, who have not scored 30 points in a game since 2015, will have to keep pace with Drew Brees. Last weekend, New York put up 27 points against one of the weirdest teams in the NFL this season, the Houston Texans, and it led to this:
Could the Giants quarterback of the future be ... Eli Manning?— Ralph Vacchiano (@RVacchianoSNY) September 27, 2018
My story on ageless QBs and why a future contract extension for the Giants’ Super Bowl hero can’t be ruled out. ... https://t.co/X9NEXBF2Cg pic.twitter.com/yJnagx21Hq
I’m as big into nostalgia as the next guy, so if Manning can turn back the clock this season, I’m all for it. But his air yards have dropped dramatically over the past decade; his arm strength isn’t near what it was. He averaged more than 9 yards per throw in four straight seasons … the last being in 2013. In 2014, his average was 8.3, then 7.9 in 2016, and then 7.3 last year. This year it’s 6.6. Brees, meanwhile, has averaged 7.3 yards, has not thrown an interception this season, and is completing 80 percent (!) of his passes. If Manning can win a shootout with Brees, or even take part in a shootout, then more power to him. That would be a fun game. Odell Beckham Jr. is one of the best players in football, but even he can’t turn the Giants into a Saints-like offense. I’m skeptical the Giants have the firepower to keep up. And no, Manning is not the quarterback of the future.
Fitzmagic vs. Khalil Mack
Ryan Fitzpatrick is reportedly receiving the number of practice reps typical of a starting QB, so he’ll probably start over Jameis Winston, who’s returning from a three-game suspension. You know what else suggests this? The fact Fitzpatrick is off to a historically good start to the season, and the Bucs offense is the league’s best, averaging more than half a yard per play more than anyone else in football. The Colts have thrown 14 more passes than the Bucs this season and have basically half the passing yards. Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, and O.J. Howard make up one of the most dangerous offensive trios in the league, and, through three games, the Bucs are averaging 1.3 yards more per catch than any other squad.
Most of the time, you can’t pinpoint a matchup between one defensive player and a quarterback. The opposing offense can scheme a defensive player out of the game, roll plays away from him, and otherwise minimize his impact. But not the Bears’ Khalil Mack, who is such a disruptive force that he can seemingly wreck a game from anywhere, against any scheme. That is why Sunday’s game should be wonderful: It’s between two of the most dominant forces through three weeks—one who we expected and one who was once branded the “king of Easter egg hunts.” Look at what Mack has been able to do:
Khalil Mack has recorded a sack and a forced fumble in all 3 games this season.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) September 23, 2018
The last player to record a sack and forced fumble in 3 straight games? Khalil Mack, who did it from Week 12-14 in 2016. pic.twitter.com/yGsnsoy6hx
The Bears are the NFL’s fifth-best defense by yardage. Fitzpatrick already has the record for most consecutive 400-yard games, but if he extends that streak, it will be his most impressive feat yet. When the Bucs play the Bears, history could collide. Who saw that coming?
Texans vs. Disaster (and the Colts)
Hello, Bill O’Brien:
The Texans have Deshaun Watson and Will Fuller and run play-action less than 31 of 32 NFL teams, per Sports Info Solutions— Rivers McCown (@riversmccown) September 27, 2018
One of my worst mistakes this offseason was hyping up the AFC South as one of the best divisions in football. I was not alone; this was a popular Ringer take. It was also stunningly incorrect. I mistook “interesting” for “good,” and I also mistook a bunch of good players in one spot for being a good team. This is the same mistake we make with the Chargers every season.
In Houston, Deshaun Watson has started half as many games he did last season. The percentage of plays he’s thrown a touchdown on has dropped from 9.3 percent to 4.7. That speaks to just how unsustainable that mark was—Aaron Rodgers’s career mark is 6.4 percent, the highest of any active player—and of how magical Watson looked a year ago. This time around, almost nothing has gone right for the Texans. They are 0-3, and their only positives are an easy upcoming schedule and the perhaps misguided belief that they must be better than they’ve played. After facing the Colts on Sunday, they’ll play an actually bad Cowboys team and a probably bad Bills team. If they are going to save their season, or if O’Brien is going to save his job (for the time being), it has to start this weekend.
The Colts have their own problems, although they’re nowhere near as dire. Indianapolis has won a game, but its offense is deeply weird. Andrew Luck’s average yards per attempt is fewer than any quarterback not named Sam Bradford. Look at this:
Andrew Luck's percentage of passes that traveled 15 or more yards through the air:— JJ Zachariason (@LateRoundQB) September 26, 2018
Both of these quarterbacks need to climb back to the elite of the sport. We miss them! Thank god we have Fitzpatrick.