Sports

Klein ’20: Finding a favorite in the mediocre NFL

By
Sports Columnist
Thursday, October 26, 2017

This NFL season has been filled with chaos. Injuries have hindered a number of contending teams — Aaron Rodgers, J.J. Watt, Odell Beckham Jr., Julian Edelman, Eric Berry, David Johnson, Carson Palmer, Dalvin Cook and Sam Bradford all went down with lengthy or season-ending setbacks. These injures have left a few absolutely terrible teams, a few pretty good teams and a giant glut of middle-tier teams battling one another for the honor of a quick wildcard weekend exit from the playoffs.

In a year of such parity, it has been difficult for teams to separate themselves from that middle pack. The injury bug seems to hit every time a squad takes steps to reach championship contender status. With that being said, there are a few teams that appear ready for lengthy playoff runs — but is there one single “best” team in the league?

The Los Angeles Rams (5-2) have been possibly the NFL’s biggest surprise so far. After years of sub-.500 finishes, including last season’s disastrous 4-12 mark, and a move from St.Louis, expectations had never been lower coming into 2017. Yet Jared Goff has emerged as a solid, if not spectacular, NFL quarterback, with nine passing touchdowns to only four interceptions through seven games. Those numbers represent significant strides from his struggle-filled rookie year, when some eager critics declared him a bust. Running back Todd Gurley, meanwhile, has been one of the best offensive players in the league. He is on pace for 1,433 rushing yards, 11 rushing touchdowns, 670 receiving yards and seven receiving touchdowns. For the first time in quite a while, the Rams’ offense must be respected.

But even with all the excitement surrounding the Rams, there are still a few weaknesses that could doom this team. The receiving core continues to be a problem. Sammy Watkins has under-performed  and Robert Woods falls far short of being a legitimate number one wideout. Goff, while providing effective game management, still has not proven that he can take over games and be a star. The defense is fantastic and improving — they shut out the Arizona Cardinals last week — but the offense could start to stagnate.

The Philadelphia Eagles are another surprising team. They currently hold the NFL’s best record (6-1), and are showing no signs of slowing down. Quarterback Carson Wentz, also in the second season of his career, is an MVP candidate — he is on pace for 4,223 passing yards, 39 touchdowns and only nine interceptions. Last week’s contest against the Washington Redskins, in which he threw for four touchdowns on 268 yards and rushed for another 63, may have been his finest performance yet. LeGarrette Blount has been terrific so far, bulldozing defenders for a 5.0 yards per carry average, and tight end Zach Ertz is a breakout performer.

But the Eagles have similar issues as the Rams. For how long can they continue to exceed expectations? Left tackle Jason Peters and middle linebacker Jordan Hicks are both out for the season after leaving Monday night’s game with serious injuries. The loss of Peters is an especially tough blow for the Eagles — the nine-time Pro Bowler was a defensive mainstay and leader. Philadelphia will have to survive the injury bug (with Darren Sproles already on injured reserve) to hold their present position in the NFC.

Moving over to the AFC, the Kansas City Chiefs (5-2) were NFL darlings over the first couple of weeks, but have fallen back to earth since then. Rookie running back Kareem Hunt has already established himself as one of the league’s foremost talents. Through only seven games, he has already rushed for 717 yards on a brilliant 5.8 yards per carry average. Quarterback Alex Smith is on track for the best season of his career, with a sparkling 15 touchdowns and zero (that’s right, zero) interceptions. He is another MVP candidate.

At some point, though, the magic has to wear off for Smith. It would be an unprecedented achievement for a 33-year-old quarterback to have his best season by a wide margin in his 13th year.

Kansas City lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers and Oakland Raiders in their past two games. They need to defeat the Denver Broncos next Monday night before we anoint them as the best of the AFC.

It is no surprise, on the other hand, to see the New England Patriots (5-2) back around the top. After a few weeks of widespread panic about New England’s defense, Pats fans watched Sunday night’s demolition of the Atlanta Falcons with glee. The Falcons scored only one touchdown, which came late in the fourth quarter of the blowout. The Patriots suddenly look like themselves again. Tom Brady has been his usual self all along, throwing for 15 touchdowns and two interceptions. Wide receiver Brandin Cooks and tight end Rob Gronkowski have been as solid as expected. If Gronkowski can escape the regular season without injury, which is no small feat for him, the Patriots will enter the playoffs with a loaded offense.

If the defensive improvement holds up and the injury bug does not hit Brady like it did Aaron Rodgers and Carson Palmer, we have our Super Bowl favorites in Foxborough. The path in the AFC is clear. As much as it hurts to say it, New England is well on track to yet another championship.

George Klein ’20 can be reached at george_klein@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.