Rams Up, Patriots Down? The NFL Is Cuckoo. My Biggest Surprises of the 2017 Season.

It’s been a goofy, mixed-up, upside-down NFL season.

We know this for many reasons, but let’s begin with this one:

The Los Angeles Rams have the league’s top offense.

The New England Patriots are ranked last in defense.

With four weeks of football are in the books, most NFL teams already have completed one quarter of of their schedule.

There’s been a lot of crazy stuff going on, and no I’m not talking about anthem protests or Presidential tweets.

Teams that were supposed to strongly contend for the playoffs, or even the Super Bowl, are reeling. Teams that were dismissed as non-factors before the season are moving on up.

Tyrod Taylor’s team has won more games than Tom Brady’s team.

The Kansas City Chiefs lost their top running back, Spencer Ware, to a season-ending injury — and got better because of it.

The team formerly known as the San Diego Chargers are now the Los Angeles Chargers, but they play in a 27,000-seat soccer venue in Carson, and can’t fill it up. And what they really are is the team with no home, because fans of “visiting” teams take over Carson on game day. The Chargers are the first franchise in NFL history to play all 16 games on the road.

Here’s my look at the 10 biggest surprises so far…

1. Despite averaging only 18 points per game, the Buffalo Bills are leading the AFC East with a 3-1 record. It’s all about the defense and clean football under first-year head coach Sean McDermott. The Bills are allowing a league-low 13.5 points per game. They are ranked third in red-zone defense. They have permitted only one touchdown pass, and intercepted six, and have held opposing quarterbacks to an awful passer rating of 64.5. The Bills have given up a touchdown on only 9.3 percent of their opponents’ possessions; that’s the league’s best rate. The offense has committed only one turnover, and Buffalo is No. 2 in turnover differential at plus 6. And that, my friends, is how a team quarterbacked by Tyrod Taylor has a better record than a team quarterbacked by Tom Brady.

2.  The Los Angeles Rams are 3-1, and they are doing it with a sensational offense that leads the league in scoring at 35.5 points per game. In only four games, first year head coach Sean McVay has transformed second-year quarterback Jared Goff from a bust to a polished thrower who ranks third in the NFL passer rating. The Rams have gotten points on 26 of 45 possessions, for the league’s best scoring percentage at 57.8%. Last season — Jeff Fisher’s last gasp as head coach — the Rams were last in the league in offensive efficiency, scoring on only 21.8 percent of their possessions. In Fisher’s five seasons as HC, the Rams never had a scoring rate higher 31.5 percent. Coaching matters.

3. More NFL teams are winning with defense. Through the first four weeks of 2016, nine NFL defenses were allowing an average of fewer than 20 points per game. Through four weeks this season, 13 defenses have a points-allowed average of less than 20 per game.  It isn’t just Buffalo. Carolina, tied for fourth for fewest points allowed, is 3-1 record despite averaging only 19 points per game and sitting near the bottom of the league with a minus 5 turnover differential … The Arizona Cardinals have one of the most anemic attacks in the league, having scored 6 touchdowns in 50 possessions (12%) but have survived to go 2-2 because of defense … Jacksonville is hanging in at 2-2 with a defense that leads the league with 18 sacks, ranks sixth in points allowed, and has turned 10 takeaways into 47 points … even the New Orleans Saints are getting into the act, giving up only 19.5 points per game to stay solvent at 2-2 … while the Pittsburgh Steelers have plenty of stars on offense, they’re only 18th in points per game and are riding  defense is No. 2 in the league in sacks and fewest points allowed (14.8).

3a. The Detroit Lions appear to be a legit contender to become the NFC’s top seed, and we know that Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford can sling it for a lot of yards. But the story here is the Detroit defense, rated worst in the league last season according to the advanced metric DVOA. But this year the Lions are giving up only 17.5 points per game, fourth-best in the league. The Lions have 10 sacks, and lead the circuit with 11 takeaways and in the highest percentage of points scored on turnovers.

4. The Adam Gase offense in Miami has scored 25 points in four games. That’s a league-worst 8.3 points per game. The Dolphins have two touchdowns on their 31 possessions. I guess Jay Cutler wasn’t such a good fit after all. Gase has earned acclaim as a creative offensive mind, but the Cutler experiment is damaging the coach’s cred.

5. Matt Ryan is turning the ball over at an alarming rate. As Atlanta marched to the NFC Championship last season, Ryan was intercepted only seven times in 16 regular-season games, and he never threw more than one INT in a game. But after a “clean” two weeks to start the 2017 season, Ryan was intercepted three times at Detroit, and  two more times the following week against Buffalo.  Last season Ryan has a splendid TD-INT ratio, with 38 touchdowns and 7 picks. Through his first four games this season, Ryan has as many interceptions as touchdown passes (5-and-5) and has lost a fumble. Considering that 26 percent of the points scored against Atlanta have come through ATL giveaways — and that the team is minus 4 in turnover ratio — the Falcons are fortunate to be 3-1.

6. The Patriots have a horrendous defense. Just horrendous. New England is giving up 32 points per game, which ranks 31st among the 32 teams, and is allowing a league-worst 468 yards per game. Here’s the stat that sums it up: on the path to winning the Super Bowl last season, the Patriots defense was the best in the league at preventing scores, with opposing offenses scrounging for points on only 26.7 percent of possessions. This season?  Patriots defense has yielded points on a whopping 49 percent of their opponents’  possessions — the  worst in the league. One more stat: in 16 games last season New England allowed only 27 offensive touchdowns. This year, opponents have scored 14 offensive TDs already in only four games.

7. Houston, you have a …. quarterback. Deshaun Watson. First some history. The Texans debuted in the NFL as an expansion team in 2002. Before Watson the rookie made his first start in Week Two of this season, 11 quarterbacks had attempted at least 100 passes for the Texans during the team’s existence. It’s kind of funny to look at a sad-sack list of names: Matt Schab, David Carr, Brock Osweiler, Sage Rosenfels, T.J. Yates, Brian Hoyer, Case Keenum, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Tony Banks, Ryan Mallett and Tom Savage. (Yes, Tony Banks!) Watson may break this evil spell. He’s off to a galavanting start,  throwing for seven touchdowns and rushing for two more. It’s early but Watson’s passer rating of 91.7 ranks higher than Ben Roethlisberger, Dak Prescott, Matt Ryan, Cam Newton, Andy Dalton, Eli Manning, Marcus Mariota, Carson Palmer, Philip Rivers and Joe Flacco.

8. Kareem Hunt is the NFL’s best running back. When the Chiefs lost Ware during the preseason, it caused some freaking out among the Arrowhead faithful. But Kansas City head coach calmly expressed confidence in his rookie back, Hunt. And Hunt has been amazing, helping propel the Chiefs to a 4-0 record by leading the league with 502 yards rushing and 659 total yards from scrimmage. Hunt has scored four touchdowns on the ground, two touchdowns through the air, and is averaging 7.4 yards per rushing attempt. And to think that he lasted until the 22nd pick of the third round in the 2017 draft, taken 86th overall.

8a. Last season Dallas RB Ezekiel Elliott became an instant star, and went on to have one of the greatest seasons by a rookie back.  Just for fun, let’s compare the production of Elliott and Hunt in the first four games of their respective NFL careers:

Yards Rushing

Elliott:  412,   103 yards per game, 3 touchdowns

Hunt:  502 yards,   125.5 yards per game, 4 touchdowns

Yards From Scrimmage 

Elliott:  456 yards, 114 yards per game, 3 total touchdowns.

Hunt:   659 yards,  164.8 yards per game, 6 total touchdowns

Yards Per Touch From Scrimmage 

Elliott,  4.6 yards

Hunt,  8.1 yards

9. The Tennessee Titans are soft. After an encouraging 9-7 record in 2016 in Mariota’s second season as the franchise quarterback, the Titans were touted as a likely break-out team in 2017. Maybe that will still happen, because Tennessee is 2-2 in the AFC South, tied with Jacksonville and Houston. But last week’s 57-14 mugging of the Titans by the Texans in Houston raised new doubts about the team’s toughness. The Tennessee defense is giving up 30.4 points per game.  Opponents have scored on 48 percent of their possessions. Opposing quarterbacks have a 103.9 passer rating, and have thrown for 11 touchdowns. The Titans are among the league’s worst in red-zone football … offensively and defensively. Mike Mularkey is in his third stop as a head coach; his overall record with the three teams is 29-48 (.377 winning percentage.) When Jeff Fisher looks at Mularkey’s weak record and job security, Fisher has to be jealous.

10. New York football makes no sense. Many pundits, and smart ones, picked the Giants to make it to the Super Bowl this season. And before the season, the Jets were a good bet to lose 15 or 16 games and end up with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 draft. Well, so much for that. The Giants are 0-4. They can’t stop the run. They’re scoring only 15 points per game. And the Jets have defied expectations by going 2 and 2. And in the tale of two New York quarterbacks, the Jets’ Josh McCown is having a better season that Eli Manning.

Thanks for reading…