We've gotten a few weeks into the 2018 NFL season. A few trends have emerged, and while it may be too early to make bold proclamations on the impact they have on the entirety of the year, these are the themes that have emerged in the first quarter of the season and are worth your attention going forward.
1. Roughing The Passer Penalties
We've seen it happen to Packers linebacker Clay Matthews on two separate occasions, both penalties that have fans of throwback, physical football craving for the good old days. The first penalty happened in week two against the rival Minnesota Vikings, and ultimately cost the Pack a win. Green Bay corner Jaire Alexander picked off Minnesota QB Kirk Cousins as he rifled the ball downfield before Matthews was able to lay the hit. Matthews comes in from the side and lands some weight on Cousins.
The second incident happened against Washington late in the third quarter, where Matthews drilled Alex Smith, but in what appears to be perfectly clean fashion. Matthews landed all his body weight on Smith. This is a hit that gets football fans excited, particularly those that enjoy the physical nature that's being weeded out of the game. Matthews expressed his displeasure with the call after the game saying, "Unfortunately, this league is going in a direction I think a lot of people don't like. I think they're getting soft." Look, the NFL is definitely erring on the side of protecting the QB. Quarterbacks drive ratings, and they are the main stars of the league. The last thing the league wants is another Aaron Rodgers injury.
The problem comes when we're getting these soft penalties that take the physicality out of football. Already there have been some hilarious tweets about how to properly sack the quarterback, including gently picking him up and laying him on a pillow and blanket. That may be hyperbole, but that's the direction the league is trending in. Another issue is that of defensive players getting hurt by trying not to land on the quarterback. This happened to Dolphins D-lineman William Hayes against the Raiders when he attempted to shift his weight off of Derek Carr when sacking him. Hayes tore his ACL and is out for the year. This is something we need to watch throughout the year, and hopefully the league can figure out a better way to call it.
2. Patrick Mahomes’ Dominance
Many were on the Chiefs QB's hype train before the season, myself included. But I had no idea he'd come out of the gate this hot, throwing 13 touchdowns and no interceptions, while leading KC to a 3-0 start. He's thrown more touchdowns in a three game stretch than anyone in NFL history, passing legends like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning on the way. He's flashed with creativity, arm strength, mobility and a better than anticipated level of field adjustment. Although he has a plethora of factors working in his favor (star-studded cast of weapons, innovate, offensive genius of a head coach, tremendous physical skill set), he has made the most out of these factors and that's why he's the hottest player in football right now.
Although there will almost surely be some bumps in the road to come as defensive coordinators get more film on him, he has rewarded the Chiefs immensely for trading up to draft him. A stretch to watch for Mahomes will be a three-week run in which KC takes on the Denver Broncos, who feature a top-10 defense, followed by a trip to Foxboro for a battle with Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, then finally a home match against the Jacksonville Jaguars, who are better equipped to stop the Chiefs offensive juggernaut than anyone. We'll see how Patty Ice performs then.
Journeyman QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, who has played for seven teams in his long career, is playing really good ball for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers right now. He's playing loose and free, and he recently became the first QB in NFL history to pass for 400 yards in three consecutive games. His ability to launch the ball downfield has made him a great fit in the offense, which features a great group of playmakers such as Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, O.J. Howard, Cameron Brate and Chris Godwin. Although the clock will surely hit midnight on Fitzpatrick's magical start to the season, the Bucs should ride him till the wheels fall off. Once that happens, the team can turn the reins back over to Jameis Winston. For now, it's just a blast to watch the guy have so much fun.
4. Only One Division Looks Locked Up
The inner division conflicts look like they'll be going on for awhile. No team looks unbeatable at this point in the season. The one team that looks like they'll have a clear path to the playoffs? The L.A. Rams. They are absolutely loaded on both sides of the ball, which would help them get through the NFC West regardless, but that's not the point I'm trying to make. The 49ers hopes were dashed as soon as the reports that QB Jimmy Garoppolo injured his ACL came out. The Cardinals have an O-line that can't block anyone, and they're trotting out rookie Josh Rosen behind that group. Stud running back David Johnson hasn't been able to get going either. Lastly, the Seattle Seahawks are dependent on Russell Wilson, who is great one week and ho-hum the next. It doesn't help that his offensive supporting cast is mediocre at best. The Rams should have this division locked up before anyone else in the NFL.
5. Unpredictability Reigns Supreme
The competition across the league has been phenomenal through these first few weeks. And it's been kind of bizarre at the same time. New England has lost twice, there's been two ties, Adrian Peterson is running like it's 2012, rookie quarterbacks everywhere are starting games, the list goes on and on. The NFL is always unpredictable but this year feels a little bit more so. It makes games more interesting on a week by week basis and will provide some intrigue down the stretch to see if these trends keep up. One thing that hasn't changed? Belichick is still one gruff dude.