The wacky 2017 NFL season once again provided us with plenty of fireworks, surprises and head-scratchers this week.
The Philadelphia Eagles extended their win streak to seven games, while the New Orleans Saints improved theirs to six. The roughed-up Washington Redskins delivered Sunday’s stunner in a road upset of Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks.
Young guns Carson Wentz and Jared Goff each lit up opponents for 51 points in blowout victories. Fists flew between players in both Jacksonville and New Orleans.
At roughly the halfway point of a tough-to-call season, here’s one thing I’m sold on, one team I’m still wondering about, and my biggest disappointment thus far.
Anyone unconvinced about the legitimacy of the Wentz for MVP talk need look no further than the Philadelphia quarterback’s performance Sunday against the Denver Broncos.
Not only did the second-year pro increase his league-leading touchdown total to 23 by tossing four more with no interceptions, but he did so without the services of his top target, tight end Zach Ertz. The Eagles put up those 51 points while making a previously top-ranked defense, led by future Hall of Famer Von Miller, look very pedestrian.
Wentz was masterful, repeatedly using his legs to extend plays before throwing with pinpoint accuracy. Yet his most impressive feature has been the ability to elevate his teammates. Season-ending injuries to running back Darren Sproles and left tackle Jason Peters haven’t derailed the Eagles, largely thanks to Wentz’s steadying presence. All of the quarterback’s behind-the-scenes work has translated into huge growth both individually and for Philadelphia as a team.
“He does everything the right way, puts in the hours, leads the guys, says and does all the right things,” said third-string quarterback Nate Sudfeld, who notes that Wentz reports to the facility at 6 a.m. each day during the week to watch film. “He’s kind of a freak of nature. He’s extremely athletic and strong for his size and has a really strong arm and velocity. But his preparation is second to none. … The coaches trust him a lot. He gets a lot of leeway and gets to implement a lot of the stuff that he wants to do. There’s a good chemistry there with him (and Doug Pederson).”
Sure, Tom Brady has an impressive body of work and could win the MVP almost every year. Drew Brees, Cam Newton and Alex Smith have led their teams to strong starts as well. But none have displayed the dramatic progress and consistency that Wentz has this season, and none – of course – can match the Eagles’ league-best 8-1 record.
Getting a clear read on Smith’s Kansas City Chiefs has proven challenging during the first half of the season. Andy Reid’s team opened the year with a 5-0 record and during that time looked like one of the best teams in football. The Chiefs are the one team that Wentz’s Eagles couldn’t beat. But since that 5-0 start, the Chiefs have lost three of their last four games.
It appears as if the secret is out on Kansas City. The Oakland Raiders, Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys all figured out how to neutralize rookie running back Kareem Hunt, who ranked among the early season favorites for rookie of the year. After topping the 100-yard mark in four of the first five games, Hunt has had a target on his back and averaged just 47.8 rushing yards in his last four contests.
Meanwhile, teams also have done a better job of keeping Smith in the pocket. He opened the year by completing 76.5% of his passes, but that mark was down to 61.5% during a 1-3 stretch in which opposing defenses mostly kept him contained.
The other secret that’s out: gobs of yards can be had on the ground. The Chiefs have given up 147.5 yards per game in the last four games, and 167.3 in those three losses.
Fortunately for the Chiefs, they remain in good position thanks to the 5-0 start. They lead the AFC West at 6-3, while Oakland trails at 4-5, and the Los Angeles Chargers and Broncos follow at 3-5.
The 1-7 Giants own this distinction. Sunday’s 51-17 loss to the Los Angeles Rams – specifically the 52-yard touchdown surrendered on third-and-33 – epitomized the dumpster fire of a season this has been for the Giants. This team entered the preseason projected by some to win the NFC East, or at least return to the playoffs. But things quickly turned ugly, with cornerbacks Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Janoris Jenkins both earning suspensions for violating team rules. Meanwhile, Eli Manning and Co. have been just as bad. The 28th-ranked offense has mustered just 16.1 points per game, and questions are flying around a possible move at quarterback.
The 2-6 Tampa Bay Buccaneers also have disappointed. Jameis Winston has dealt with a shoulder ailment and now will be kept out at least two weeks. But even before the injury, the third-year quarterback hadn’t taken an anticipated leap forward, and he remains out of sync with a talented receiving corps.
Dysfunction within the Cleveland Browns and Andrew Luck’s lost season with the Indianapolis Colts are among the other big disappointments, but no other team can match the Giants in this arena. It’ll be a surprise if Ben McAdoo makes it to a third season.
Follow Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones.
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