A quarter of the 2018 NFL season is in the books. The Los Angeles Rams and Kansas City Chiefs are the only two undefeated teams left, while the Arizona Cardinals are the only ones who haven’t notched a tally in the win column.
With four weeks down and 12 to go, there’s plenty of time for reversals of fortune. But for now, a few players, teams, and moments stand out:
The player who actually deserves a big-ass prize to go with the hype
Patrick Mahomes, QB, Chiefs
Statistically, Mahomes had his worst game of the season in Monday night’s win over the Broncos. But gaudy touchdown numbers pale in comparison to the sheer force of will he showed getting his team past Denver’s defense. He still managed to throw one touchdown pass and run for his first NFL rushing score. Oh, and he hasn’t thrown any interceptions.
Others: Jared Goff, Khalil Mack, Drew Brees, Todd Gurley, Alvin Kamara
The offensive player a team can’t live without (non-QB)
Alvin Kamara, RB, New Orleans Saints
The Saints’ 3-1 start has been a little rocky, but it’s not because of their offense — or Kamara. The reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year leads the NFL in yards from scrimmage (611) and rushing touchdowns (five), and if you want to count rushing plus reception touchdowns, he leads there too (six).
Kamara has been asked to carry a heavier load in the run game during Mark Ingram’s four-game suspension, but he’s still making plays as a receiver. In fact, he became the first player ever to record both 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards in his first 20 games.
Basically, he’ll be whatever the Saints need him to be. So one week, he can put up 15 catches for 124 yards in an overtime win against the Falcons, and the next week he can rush 19 times for 134 yards and three touchdowns in a win over the Giants, all while pulling a Bo Jackson/Flipper Anderson and running into the tunnel. The Saints have a lot of weapons, but Kamara is their most versatile and he’s come up huge for them in all three of their close wins this season.
Others: Ezekiel Elliott, Todd Gurley, Michael Thomas
The most essential defensive player in the NFL
Khalil Mack, pass rusher, Chicago Bears
The 2016 winner of the award got traded by the Raiders before the season started and he’s playing the best football of his career with the Bears. Through four games, he has five sacks, four forced fumbles, and an interception he returned for a touchdown.
Given the amount of ridiculous offensive production there is in the NFL, Mack’s probably not an MVP candidate and that’s a shame. He has a history of getting better as the year goes on, so if that trend continues and he somehow manages to pick up the pace, there’s a good chance he could challenge the single-season sack record.
Others: J.J. Watt, Myles Garrett, Earl Thomas
The rookie offensive player who might beat out a QB for the award
Calvin Ridley, WR, Atlanta Falcons
On a team with Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu, it didn’t seem like Calvin Ridley would see many targets as a rookie. That’s been partly true, Jones has 46 targets, more than double Ridley’s 21 targets. But the rookie has made the most of the throws his way with a league-leading six touchdowns. No other Falcons player even has two.
It’s the most any player has caught through the first four games of a season since Julius Thomas had seven to start the 2014 season. A slow down is likely inevitable for Ridley, but he’s the easy choice for this award for the first quarter of the season.
Others: Saquon Barkley, Kerryon Johnson
The defensive rookie living up to his draft status
Derwin James, S, Los Angeles Chargers
Donte Jackson and Denzel Ward have more interceptions, and Darius Leonard has more sacks, but put the whole resume together and James is tough to beat.
His three sacks are a ridiculous amount for a safety and he’s made plays in the biggest moments. Like his hit on C.J. Beathard that forced a game-sealing interception in Week 4:
That’s Derwin James’ music. pic.twitter.com/0E0Rc77CYY— Dieter Kurtenbach (@dkurtenbach) September 30, 2018
He may not lead rookies in any statistical category at the end of the year, but nobody has made a bigger impact.
Others: Darius Leonard, Donte Jackson, Denzel Ward
The best coach who probably won’t win the award for it
Mike Vrabel, Tennessee Titans
Vrabel has done a terrific job with the Titans, getting them off to a 3-1 start — and that’s impressive enough for a first-time coach, let alone one who has had this particular quarterback situation for the first few weeks. Marcus Mariota was dealing with a pinched nerve in his elbow and couldn’t grip the ball right, while backup Blaine Gabbert is Blaine Gabbert.
Despite the inconsistent, often ugly offense, the Titans always seem to pull through when it matters most. Vrabel deserves credit for gutsy play-calling, and the team seems to respond well to him. Their late-game heroics and close wins might not replicate throughout the entire season, but it’s been enough to be in first place in the AFC South for now.
Others: Sean McVay, Matt Nagy, Andy Reid
The usually bad team that might actually be good
The Dolphins may have gotten trounced by the Patriots, but they had an impressive three-game stretch up that point. Even if they aren’t bullying teams, everyone is playing their part to help the team win. Ryan Tannehill has played well since returning from his ACL tear, new receivers Albert Wilson and Danny Amendola are fitting in, and running game has been efficient. On defense, the secondary is in sync, hauling in a league-leading nine interceptions.
If the Dolphins can rebound from their loss against the Patriots, the AFC East could actually be interesting.
Others: Chicago Bears, Kansas City Chiefs, Tennessee Titans
Most disappointing team ... that has FIVE primetime games
The Steelers were supposed to maintain their poise as perennial AFC powers, but they’ve woefully underperformed in that aspect. Pittsburgh sits at 1-2-1 behind a faulty defense and inconsistent Ben Roethlisberger. With the Ravens and Bengals surging to 3-1 records and the Browns being frisky, the Steelers legitimately might be the worst team in the AFC North.
Best moment of disrespect
Earl Thomas had every right to be mad in Week 4. His contract year — the season that would set him up for his final massive, long-term NFL deal, ended after only three-plus games due to a broken leg — his second in three seasons. The injury curtailed a season where he looked like the league’s top safety and, if the Seahawks are to be believed, was just moments away from being freed from Seattle’s rebuild via trade.
So many moments of Thomas’ 2018 leading up to that point saw him jerked around by the Seahawks, who refused to give him the contract extension he’d sought and declined to trade him when the Cowboys came calling with a reported second-round pick to offer. So when the injury cart slowly drove to the locker room with a hobbled Thomas in tow, nine months of frustration came out in a simple gesture.
Thomas earned every inch of that middle finger, and if that’s all the Seahawks got for costing their homegrown star millions of dollars, they got off easy.
The best arm in the NFL
Three words plus a hyphen: Patrick. Mahomes. Left-handed.
What more is there to even say?
Best leg in the business (non-kicker)
The most fun play
It seems like sacrilege to suggest, especially after Sunday night’s snoozer against the Steelers, but the Ravens’ offense might be ... fun? Baltimore has ripped off a handful of big plays to start the season, erasing 2017’s legacy of a borderline unwatchable team in the process. But nothing spoke to the team’s changing culture than a trick play that seemed ripped from the mind of Bill Belichick.
Tight end Maxx Williams lined up between the team’s center and left guard in a kinda/sorta legal formation that freed him up for a virtually uncontested catch-and-run of 22 yards. That gain would lead to a Ravens field goal and effectively drive the final nail in Pittsburgh’s comeback hopes.
Here it is. The Ravens lined up the TE at LG off the ball. So clever! Love it. pic.twitter.com/QmWL74w7Qa— Geoff Schwartz (@geoffschwartz) October 1, 2018
More importantly, it suggests this Baltimore team is different than its predecessors. It was less than four years ago the Ravens were complaining about the Patriots using wild formations to spark a comeback win in the playoffs (and then later stealing said controversial play for their own use months later). Now John Harbaugh is out here lining up tight ends next to his center and unveiling his personal brand of wackiness. That’s a Baltimore team we can get behind.
The most WTF penalty
There’s no debate. If your bad call is the only one to directly cost a team a surefire victory, it’s the worst call of the year.
La pénalité en question. Clay Matthews fou de rage après le match. Compréhensible pic.twitter.com/xsaCXeLxkL— NFL France (@FirstDownFR) September 16, 2018
Congratulations, referee Tony Corrente — and thanks for making this category so easy to figure out.
The coolest kick
The Seahawks are a shell of their former self. Russell Wilson is still around. The OL is still barely protecting him. But with Earl Thomas now out for the season — and surely leaving Seattle after — the entire Legion of Boom is no more.
So while they’re in the midst of an identity crisis, they have one player all fans can rally around: punter Michael Dickson.
Oh, and we don’t want to jinx it or anything but guess what: he’s been practicing dropkick field goals. Do we even dare believe we’ll see it in a game?
The most hot damn the NFL might be fun after all game
Rams 38, Vikings 31
What’s the NFL version of if you build it, they will come? If you schedule a game between two good teams on Thursday night, people will watch. In Week 4, it happened, when the Rams and Vikings staged a good ol’ fashioned shootout on Thursday Night Football.
Jared Goff and Kirk Cousins combined for nearly 900 passing yards and eight touchdowns in a high-scoring duel that we never wanted to end. Alas, it did late in the fourth quarter when the Rams’ pass rush, led by Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh, decided to send the Vikings back to Minnesota (or Wisconsin, if you’re the Bills) with a loss. The Rams stayed perfect and the Vikings fell below .500, but we won’t complain if we can see these two play again in January.
The game so bad it should have been on a Thursday or in London
Titans 9, Jaguars 6
We refuse to believe this was an NFL game played in the year 2018. But live by the Bortles, die by the Bortles. The Jags QB had a terrible game, throwing for just 155 yards on 34 attempts. To make things worse, they wasted a lot of touches on Corey Grant.
Most garbage coaching decision (dedicated to Chuck Pagano)
Colts coach Frank Reich is going get to saddled with it because of his decision to go for it on fourth-and-4 from his own 43 with less than two minutes left in overtime. It’s a gutsy decision, but a punt would have preserved a tie ... which sucks, but is still better than a loss, which is what happened when the Texans got the ball after that fourth down attempt failed.
But don’t let Bill O’Brien off the hook. Reich’s gutsy decision bailed out O’Brien’s terrible conservative approach that should have cost his team the game.
Jon Gruden’s most painfully unaware quote
“It’s hard to find a great [pass rusher]. It’s hard to find a good one.”
That was from September, when the Raiders were already 0-2.
It’s a safe bet that the Raiders wouldn’t be 1-3 had they found a contract agreement with Khalil Mack, the way most teams do with their star players, and not traded him to Chicago for some magic beans. But here we are. Gruden’s got a $100 million vote of confidence to lead this team charging into Las Vegas with a foundation of fullbacks and THIS GUYS instead of anything resembling a modern, competent NFL team.