Biggest winners, losers from NFL’s first quarter

By David Kenyon
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Rams dominated the beginning of the 2018 NFL season, but the Pittsburgh Steelers highlighted the disappointments.

As the AFC North franchise dealt with the absence of Le’Veon Bell and the New England Patriots had another quiet start, the Patrick Mahomes-led Chiefs asserted themselves as the AFC’s team to beat.

On the other side of the league, Sean McVay’s revival of the Rams has continued in epic fashion. But while Los Angeles stands out as the class of the NFC, a defense-driven team in the Windy City has thrown a wrench in playoff discussions.

The season is young, so perceptions of early-year surprises could shift dramatically. Nevertheless, after four weekends of action, certain teams and players have emerged as winners and losers.

Winner: Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs

When the Chiefs decided to move on from Alex Smith, they were taking a calculated risk. The veteran had proven he’ll get teams to the playoffs, but they always flamed out. Patrick Mahomes, who Kansas City traded up to snag during the 2017 draft, offered promise of more. Well, the 4-0 Chiefs need to buy sunglasses in bulk because their future is so bright. Mahomes boasts the second-highest passer rating in the NFL, averaging an even 300 yards per game with 14 touchdowns to zero interceptions. KC’s defense is a mess, but Mahomes is already a superstar.

Loser: Pittsburgh Steelers

Pittsburgh’s four-year streak of 10-plus victories is in serious jeopardy. After a collapse in the fourth quarter led to a tie against the Cleveland Browns, the Steelers were an overturned fumble away from getting run out of their own building by the Chiefs. As the dust settled on Week 4, Pittsburgh was 1-2-1 with both the Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens at 3-1. Considering the struggles of the defense, the Steelers are facing a daunting climb to a playoff berth. At least Le’Veon Bell is expected to return in Week 7, right? Right?!

Winner: New Orleans Saints

New Orleans has a concerning, inconsistent defense, but there’s no worries about Drew Brees. The veteran, who is poised to break the NFL’s all-time passing record, is guiding another juggernaut. Alvin Kamara leads the league in rushing touchdowns, while Michael Thomas has grabbed the most receptions with 42 in four games. The Saints boast the No. 4 offense in the NFL. New Orleans has defeated the Browns, Atlanta Falcons and New York Giants to stand atop the NFC South. As long as the Saints navigate a tough upcoming stretch, they should return to the playoffs.

Loser: Arizona Cardinals

On the bright side, 2018 first-round pick Josh Rosen has replaced Sam Bradford and is officially the starter. That’s basically the only positive in Arizona right now. Offensive coordinator Mike McCoy has been a complete disaster, and the team’s usage of David Johnson is perplexing many NFL viewers, including former coach Bruce Arians. No offense has less production than the Cardinals, who’ve mustered only 208.5 yards per game while scoring 37 total points in four losses. Rosen has showed promise for the future, but 2018 will be a miserable year in Arizona.

Winner: Los Angeles Rams

Two years ago, the Rams had the most laughable offense in the league under Jeff Fisher. Sean McVay has turned Los Angeles into appointment viewing because of a high-powered scoring attack. In addition to leading the NFL with 468.5 yards and ranking second at 35 points per game, though, the Rams have a terrific defense. They’re one of five teams to hold opponents below an average of 17 points. Los Angeles’ plus-73 point differential is tops in the league. We’re not anointing the Rams the NFC champion, but they’re absolutely the favorite right now.

Loser: Atlanta Falcons

During the season-opening loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, familiar red-zone woes crushed the Falcons. Since then, the team’s biggest weakness hasn’t been an issue in the slightest. So, of course, something else is a problem. Injuries have left the defense extremely shorthanded, particularly in the secondary. Atlanta scored 73 total points against the Saints and Bengals, but those two opponents combined for 80 and both celebrated last-second touchdowns to beat Atlanta. Given the strength of the offense, the Falcons are a threat. At 1-3, though, their margin for error is thin.

Winner: Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens

The Baltimore front office provided a wake-up call to Joe Flacco when it selected Lamar Jackson in the 2018 draft. At the veteran’s current pace, this would be the most efficient season of his career. Flacco’s completion percentage has remained steady, yet the 33-year-old is averaging 7.3 yards per attempt — up 1.6 yards from 2017 — with eight touchdowns to only two interceptions. With the help of an elite defense ceding only 16.3 points per game, Flacco has made Baltimore a real contender again. And in the process, bought himself more time as the starter.

Loser: San Francisco 49ers

The injury bug has been unkind to the 49ers, and it’s not limited to Jimmy Garoppolo. Losing the prized quarterback to a torn left ACL, however, has ruined San Francisco this year. Garoppolo, who guided the Niners to five straight wins in 2017, finally had a full-season opportunity to start. Even if the team wouldn’t ultimately make the postseason, 2018 was supposed to be a critical year in his development and San Francisco’s future. Instead, the 49ers will be lumbering with C.J. Beathard under center as Garoppolo recovers from a serious injury.

Winner: Cleveland Browns

They won a game! A real, actual, regular-season game! Let the beer coolers open! Not only did Cleveland snap its winless streak, the Baker Mayfield era has begun. Though the reason for its start — a concussion to Tyrod Taylor — is unfortunate, the Oklahoma product has taken command of the offense. Taylor is a fine player, but Cleveland needs to let Mayfield develop as an NFL quarterback. The best way is allowing him to make the inevitable mistakes and learn from them. As long as a formidable defense plays well, the Browns will regularly have a chance to win. How about that!

Loser: Miami Dolphins

How can a 3-1, AFC East-leading Dolphins team be a loser? One enormous wasted opportunity. Entering the Week 4 showdown in New England, Miami had a chance to take complete control of the division. Edging the Patriots would’ve sent them to 1-3 and lifted the Dolphins to 4-0. Though not insurmountable, a three-game hole is a major obstacle for any club to overcome. Instead, Miami fell behind 24-0 in the first half and ultimately lost 38-7. The playoffs remain a possibility if Ryan Tannehill is healthy, but an AFC East title is unlikely.

Winner: Adrian Peterson, Washington

The veteran running back still has something to offer. Through three games, Adrian Peterson has collected 236 yards and three touchdowns. His 78.7-yard average ranks fifth in the league. Peterson put together a throwback performance in Week 3, racking up 120 yards and two scores to defeat the Green Bay Packers. Most importantly for Washington, the 33-year-old has settled a backfield that lacked a true run-first option to complement Chris Thompson. While it’s too early to call Washington the NFC East favorite, Peterson solidifies the team as a factor to unseat the Eagles.

Loser: Oakland Raiders

Jon Gruden is making the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Oakland’s $100 million man has already orchestrated several mind-numbing transactions, most notably sending Khalil Mack to the Chicago Bears. Then, two losses into the young season, Gruden said it’s hard to find a great pass-rusher. Sometimes, the jokes write themselves. Anyway, the Raiders trudged to a 1-3 start with an atrocious defense. Oakland has one of six units in the NFL allowing 400-plus yards per game. Until that changes, the Raiders will basically only be discussed because of Gruden’s presence.

Winner: Chicago Bears

Oakland’s loss is Chicago’s gain. Mack has enjoyed a sensational opening stretch, forcing one fumble in every game so far. The star edge-rusher has collected five sacks and highlights a defense that ranks third in points and fourth in yards allowed per game. Chicago has snatched eight interceptions, too. Amazingly, the Bears are a masterful Aaron Rodgers second-half comeback away from a 4-0 record. If Mitch Trubisky’s record day in Week 4 was legitimately his breakout game, Chicago has intriguing potential this season.

Loser: Josh Allen, Buffalo Bills

Josh Allen had a sensational game when the Bills shocked the NFL world with a 21-point victory on the road against the Vikings. Otherwise, he’s been dreadful. Better than Nathan Peterman, yet still a disaster. Allen tossed two interceptions in losses to both the Los Angeles Chargers and Packers. His pocket presence remains hypothetical, and accuracy is still a weakness even when provided time to throw. Allen really is a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get. Buffalo has many other problems beyond Allen, but he’s a glaring one.

Winner: Jacksonville Jaguars

If an offense can’t move the ball, it’s pretty tough to win. Jacksonville has issues of its own on that side, but Jalen Ramsey and Co. are a nightmare to encounter. The Jaguars boast league-best marks in both yards and points allowed per game. Jacksonville is 3-1, and the loss happened when the defense surrendered a season-low nine points. Can’t exactly blame the unit for that one! Blake Bortles’ occasional ineffectiveness and Leonard Fournette’s injuries are frustrating, but the Jaguars are clearly the team to beat in the AFC South and a Super Bowl contender.

Loser: Minnesota Vikings

Defense was supposed to be the Vikings’ strength. And after signing Kirk Cousins, they theoretically had upgraded the offense. Four weeks into the campaign, Minnesota is a great reminder that games aren’t won on paper. Since defeating the 49ers in Week 1, the Vikings were fortunate to tie Green Bay and lost to both the Bills and Rams. Minnesota has committed six turnovers while only forcing four, and the 9.2 yards allowed per pass attempt is the NFL’s third-worst mark. The Vikings still have time for a turnaround, but the opening quarter of the season was horrible.