The 2018 NFL regular season has been one of the more interesting in recent memory, with a plethora of potential Super Bowl teams, four or five viable MVP candidates, and emergences of young players such as the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes and the Browns’ Baker Mayfield. Before the playoffs kick off, I am going to explore the top ten stories that have come from this regular season.
- Shocker of the Year
The most surprising team of the 2018 regular season isn’t the Chicago Bears, who have risen from the ashes of a 5-11 season in 2017, or the Indianapolis Colts, owners of a 4-12 record last season. This team is the Seattle Seahawks, a team that almost made the playoffs last season but win this title based on how they have reversed their trajectory. After four years of dominance, including two Super Bowl appearances, the Seahawks have seen their championship core erode and their win totals dwindle every year. Heading into the season, head coach Pete Carroll appeared to be on the hot seat, with quarterback Russell Wilson as the only healthy household name on the roster. Instead, the Seahawks have topped playoff teams such as the Chiefs, Cowboys, and Vikings and ride Wilson and one of the league’s best rushing attacks into the top wild card spot in the NFC. For a team that appeared to be heading toward a rebuilding season, the Seahawks have to consider this season a success.
- Year of the Rookies
The Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year conversations are more packed and contested than any year in memory. Rookies have busted onto the scene in 2018, with some not only the best rookies at the position but best players as well. OROY is likely to go to the number 2 overall pick in the draft, the Giants’ Saquon Barkley, who ranks third in rushing yards, fourth in touchdowns scored, and 13th in receptions. But quarterback Baker Mayfield, who has led the Browns from 0 wins in 2017 to 7 in 2018 in spite of the midseason firing of coach Hue Jackson, should be in the mix, as well as Colts offensive guard Quenton Nelson, one of the best interior linemen in the NFL. He has only played in six games, but the Ravens’ Lamar Jackson has lifted his team from a losing record to the AFC North division title and has played as well as any rookie quarterback. On defense, linebackers Darius Leonard from Indianapolis and Leighton Vander Esch from Dallas have tremendously boosted their much-improved defenses and were both Pro Bowl snubs. Defensive backs Derwin James of the Chargers and Denzel Ward from Cleveland would be worthy picks any other season. Good luck to anyone who has to vote on these awards, but given all the excitement these young players have brought to the league, it is a great problem to have.
- Most Valuable Player?
On paper, a quarterback with 50 touchdowns, over 5,000 yards and 12 wins should be a no-brainer to win MVP. But as much as Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes has set the league on fire in his first year as a starter, he has stiff competition for the league’s most prestigious award. 39-year-old Saints quarterback Drew Brees could take his first MVP honor, as well as the quarterback trio of Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck and Philip Rivers. But with Mahomes on-field magic and impressive statistics, it is difficult to imagine any of the other deserving candidates beating him it.
- End of the Patriots?
It is possible that Father Time has caught up to Tom Brady and the Patriots. This year’s Patriots team was a step down from the Super Bowl favorites of the past, with only Brady and corner Stephon Gilmore receiving Pro Bowl selections. New England has lost in upsets to Miami and Tennessee and could miss out on a first-round bye for the first time in almost a decade. Tom Terrific, usually a bona fide MVP candidate, isn’t on his A game, and his offensive weapons have diminished after the free agency departures of Danny Amendola and Brandin Cooks, the suspension of Josh Gordon, and injuries to tight end Rob Gronkowski. The Patriots have a strong shot to reach the Super Bowl again in a wide-open AFC, but their time as Kings of the AFC could be coming to a close.
- Mahomes Mania
Calling Patrick Mahomes the Steph Curry of the NFL is no hyperbole. In addition to having a striking resemblance to the superstar point guard of the Golden State Warriors, Mahomes has emulated Curry’s in-game heroics through no-look passes, wild fourth-down scrambles, and even left-handed desperation passes. Mahomes has thrived after only playing one game his rookie season and has led KC to the first seed in the AFC. His glamorous playing style has captured the attention of the league, but with the departure of top running back Kareem Hunt, the pressure will be on Mahomes’s right arm, legs, and possibly left arm to reverse Kansas City’s trend of playoff disappointments.
- State of the Cowboys
The Cowboys lived up to my preseason expectations, unseating the reigning Super Bowl champion Eagles as the kings of the NFC East. However, the road to the playoffs hasn’t been quite so predictable. I expected Dallas to look more similar to their 2016 13-win form than the 9-win 2017 form, but they opened the season with just three wins in their first eight games, including resounding losses to Carolina, Seattle, and Tennessee. From there, the Cowboys went on a tear that included a pair of wins against the Eagles, a Thanksgiving beatdown of Washington, and an epic, gritty upset of arguably the league’s best team, the New Orleans Saints. The reasons for this turnaround, and perhaps the most surprising parts of their season, are 1) the immediate and total impact of midseason acquisition Amari Cooper and 2) the emergence of the Cowboys as the NFC’s best defense behind linebackers Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith. One reason for concern is the Cowboys’ inability to put points on the board and run away from opponents, and Dak Prescott is off his Rookie of the Year-level from 2016. The Super Bowl window is open for the Cowboys, but with young stars Prescott and Elliott and defensive playmakers up to cash in with major contracts, the window to win with this core may not be as long as expected.
- State of the Ravens
Like the Cowboys, I had a bit of a midseason panic. There’s good reason, too- the Ravens lost to the Bengals, Steelers, and even the Cleveland Browns early. And despite a defense that is on another level from the rest of the NFL, the Joe Flacco-led offense lacked any explosive elements and rendered a playoff berth unlikely. Enter rookie Lamar Jackson, who has emerged as one of the league’s most dangerous rushers as well as a viable passer. More importantly, the Ravens have gone 6-1 since starting Jackson, have competed against and dominated top teams, and stole the AFC North title away from the Steelers. The Ravens should be viewed as a dangerous team in the AFC side of the playoff bracket, even with the rookie Jackson as the starter. Baltimore controls possession with a ground-and-pound offense that keeps their defense rested and ready to pounce, plus has a Super Bowl-winning coach in John Harbaugh and the element of surprise. The Lamar Jackson experiment may or may not work out long-term, but he has brought the Raven way back to Baltimore- great defense, strong coaching, and a top-tier rushing attack.
- Raiders Mess
New Raiders coach Jon Gruden wasted no time leaving his fingerprints on the Raiders, trading away superstars Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper to the Bears and Cowboys, respectively. Though they have notched a few surprising upsets against teams like Pittsburgh and Denver, Oakland is a laughingstock. Now they do not even have a city to play in next season, stuck between Oakland and Las Vegas. The short-term returns from the Jon Gruden hiring are slim, but at the very least, the Raiders are the most fun team to watch off the field.
- Point(s) Made
As evidenced by the loaded MVP field and record-breaking offensive performances, offense is thriving in 2018. The Rams and Saints, the best two teams in the NFL right now, are both the NFL’s best offenses, and the Chargers and Chiefs are not far behind. The Chiefs-Rams Thursday Night Matchup (one of the best regular season games I’ve seen) was a fast-paced touchdown-fest, and if that game is any indication, this postseason could be action-packed. But this offensive display makes the playoffs even more interesting, as the league’s best three defenses (Cowboys, Ravens, and Bears) are trying to play the immovable object to the offensive juggernauts’ unstoppable force. The Ravens could have the best shot of any of them, having held the Saints, Chargers, and Chiefs below 27 points.
- Crazy Finishes
Who doesn’t love a fantastic, nail-biting finish? Well, maybe the fan of the losing team, but for all the other fans tuning into games, the conclusions to regular season games have been must-watch TV. The Dolphins pulling off the Miami Miracle against the New England Patriots. Patrick Mahomes completing 4th and 9 to Tyreek Hill to fend off the Ravens. And, as mentioned earlier, the classic Monday Night Football matchup, Rams-Chiefs, that may have shown us the future of football. Here’s to many more great fourth quarters in January and February.
Most Valuable Player: Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs
Offensive Player of the Year: Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints
Defensive Player of the Year: Aaron Donald, Los Angeles Rams
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Darius Leonard, Indianapolis Colts
Coach of the Year: Matt Nagy, Chicago Bears
Comeback Player of the Year: Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts