For real now: Eagles, Panthers, Rams, Texans, Saints, Jets
By BARRY WILNER
Oct. 16, 2017
Six weeks of success, some of it relative, do not provide a harbinger for the rest of the NFL season.
Nonetheless, it's necessary to praise the work of the Eagles, Panthers, Rams, Texans, Saints and Jets. For now, they are for real.
Who expected that?
In the case of the Jets (3-3), that doesn't mean they are contenders for a playoff berth, possibly not even for a winning season. A look at their roster and offseason moves made folks wonder if Gang Green was about to tank the season to get a high enough draft choice to find their franchise quarterback.
Instead, after opening with two defeats they won three in a row and, perhaps most impressively, might have been a strange officiating reversal away from knocking off New England on Sunday and taking sole possession of the AFC East lead. They are an example of bold and passionate overachievement, something any sports fan can appreciate.
"We're just going to build off the game," cornerback Buster Skrine said of the 24-17 loss. "We lost the game. We give them all the credit. We're just going to build off it. Nobody's hanging their head.
"We're a confident team and we have good team chemistry. We stuck together that whole game despite what was going on in the second half. We grew as a team."
The chances of the other teams that so far have proved themselves beyond expectations certainly have grown. Here's who and why:
Despite some key injuries — yes, everyone seems to have those — Philadelphia has been, well, phantastic. This is an opportunistic bunch gaining momentum weekly. Already 2-0 in the NFC East, the Eagles' only loss was at Kansas City. No sin there.
Carson Wentz appears to be maturing week by week; some believe he is the best of the growing group of young quarterbacks in the NFL. The defense makes big plays, specials teams are as good as anyone's, and the coaching is spot-on. Everyone seems to fit Doug Pederson's system — coincidentally a similar scheme to what Andy Reid often used and often was criticized for in tough Philly.
Yes, they fell to Philadelphia and have lost twice at home, but we can dismiss that because road teams have won a majority of games this season and Carolina is 3-0 in away contests. These are not the blow-your-doors-off Panthers of 2015 who nearly went unbeaten through the regular season. They are more inconsistent than those NFC champions.
What they are is resilient, something they've learned well from two-time Coach of the Year Ron Rivera, who must be in consideration for another of those awards should the Panthers keep this up, especially in their rugged division.
Cam Newton lost his best target, tight end Greg Olsen, then has helped elevate the play of others (rookie Christian McCaffrey, Devin Funchess) to make up for it. Carolina has two supreme playmakers in LB Luke Kuechly and sackmaster Julius Peppers anchoring the best defense in the NFC South.
Other than the Jets, the revival of the Rams through six weeks is the most surprising. Then again, the combination of a new coach — Sean McVay, the youngest head coach in league history at 31 — working with a top overall draft pick in quarterback Jared Goff has been a revelation. Add in a standout runner in Todd Gurley and a ruggedly physical defense, and suddenly this relocated group might have some cachet in L.A.
"Our guys just embrace that mentality where you come into a stadium and they have this breakdown of, 'We're all we got. We're all we need,'" McVay said. "These players are mentality tough. That's becoming the identity that you hear us talk about all the time."
Take away the best defensive player in football — J.J. Watt might be the best player in the NFL regardless of position — and two of his sidekicks, Whitney Mercilus and the suspended Brian Cushing — and what do you get?
Looks like a contender in the mediocre AFC South, that's what. By far, Houston has displayed the most gumption in that division.
The Texans are doing it with offense, thanks to sensational, record-setting rookie QB Deshaun Watson. All DeAndre Hopkins needed to become an elite receiving threat was a quality passer. He now has it, and that could be the difference in their sector.
When they lost their first two games with a spotty defense, the Saints appeared ready for another losing record, perhaps enough to cost coach Sean Payton his job. Look at them now.
They've won three in a row with their dynamic offense rekindled as Drew Brees finds more and more weapons to throw to. The running game with Mark Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara is strong.
And on Sunday, New Orleans scored on three turnovers in sprinting far ahead of Detroit, then hanging on. Yes, these Saints can decide games with their defense at times, too.
Should this continue, it will make for quite a race in the NFC South.
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