There is a void at the top of the NFL right now. With Kansas City sputtering at 2-3 and failing to keep opponents from scoring more than 25 every single week, the power has shifted. Nobody knows who the top dog is anymore, and every team that had become so used to playing second or third fiddle to the Chiefs over the past several years is trying to claw their way into that open slot.
Buffalo, Tampa Bay, Green Bay, Cleveland, Baltimore, and the L.A. Rams are the usual suspects we expected to see near the top, but 2021 has brought two new contenders and both have big weekends ahead of them.
The Arizona Cardinals are the surprise team of the season thus far. We knew they would improve in 2021 after missing the postseason by one game in 2020. However, no one expected them to be the only undefeated team in the league after five weeks, with victories over teams like the Rams and Titans (don’t lie: we all thought they’d be better than they are). However, despite holding the best record in the NFL, the Cards are not widely considered the best team in the league, still. Many people, myself included, just believe the Rams had a bad day against Arizona in Week 4. Well, let’s see how Arizona does at the Cleveland Browns on Sunday.
Cleveland is probably the best 3-2 team in the NFL right now. They boast arguably the best offensive line in the league, a backfield with two of the top-10 running backs in football, and a defense that could make even the most battle-hardened quarterback’s timbers properly shiver. They are a complete roster that is bound to give anyone in the league a tough run.
The Browns are coming off a tough loss to the Chargers that saw Justin Herbert throw for four touchdowns, Mike Williams catch two of those, and Austin Ekeler add two more on the ground. The Bolts had no issues getting through the Browns’ gauntlet of a defense. The Cardinals have been a more effective unit than Los Angeles. The Cardinals rank better than the Chargers in yards per pass attempt and red zone TD percentage. Where the Browns might have an advantage though, is on the defensive line.
The Chargers are one of the best teams in the NFL at protecting their quarterback. While Arizona hasn’t allowed too many sacks this season, they allow sacks on over one percent more dropbacks than the Bolts. With Myles Garrett racking up 1.4 sacks per game this season, the Browns could place the Cardinals in several second or third-and-long situations and win the field position battle. While the Browns are 2-0 with an average margin of victory of 15 against teams outside the top-10 in QB sack percentage, the teams they beat were Houston and Chicago (while Matt Nagy was still calling plays), so it’s hard to predict a Browns victory when that’s their sample size.
All in all, this game should come down to the wire, and when the going gets tough in the NFL, it falls on the quarterback to lead his team to victory. I trust Kyler Murray far more than I trust Baker Mayfield. I’m not saying Mayfield is a bad quarterback, but he’s no Kyler.
Well I spoke a lot about Los Angeles’ last game there, but now it’s time to talk about their upcoming matchup. The Chargers are about to finish up a five-week stretch where they’ve taken on three division leaders (the Raiders were the division leader at the time) plus the Chiefs and Browns. That’s a terrifying gauntlet, and if the Chargers win on Sunday, they will have gone 4-1 in that stretch. That screams “best team in the NFL” to me. I love Buffalo. I love what they’re doing up there, but the Chargers also beat the Chiefs. While the Bills were taking down Miami, Washington, and Houston, the Chargers were competing against other top teams in the NFL. After this week, the Chargers schedule doesn’t get any easier, per se. They have to face the Patriots, Eagles, Vikings, and Steelers, but it’s a fair bit easier than what they’ve had to endure in weeks prior.
The question now is, “Can the Chargers contain Lamar Jackson and the Ravens’ offense?”
And I really can’t tell. All I ever heard coming into the season was how the return of Derwin James would make it nearly impossible for tight ends to produce against this Chargers’ defense. Here are the lines for every feature tight end the Chargers have faced this season:
Logan Thomas (WFT): 3 catches, 30 yards, 1 TD
Dalton Schultz (DAL): 2 catches, 18 yards, 0 TD
Travis Kelce (KC): 7 catches, 104 yards, 0 TD
Darren Waller (LV): 4 catches, 50 yards, 1 TD
David Njoku (CLE): 7 catches, 149 yards, 1 TD
The past three weeks have been pretty rough for the Chargers in terms of defending tight ends, and we can also put an asterisk next to that Week 2 performance because that was before Dalton Schultz really became a feature tight end in Dallas. He was still sharing snaps with Blake Jarwin at that point in the season. With how well Mark Andrews has done this season, it might be tough to stop Baltimore’s offense. I understand that Derwin James hurt his shoulder in the second quarter of that game against Kansas City in Week 3, and perhaps that explains his struggles in coverage, but if he’s healthy enough to play, I would expect him to continue nullifying tight end performance.
While James has still been a dominant presence in the run-stuffing department and has been pretty good at forcing turnovers, his coverage skills have taken a step back since the injury. In Week 1 against Washington, James received a 90.2 coverage grade. He was fantastic in his return to action this year, but those numbers have slowly dipped to the tune of a 64.3 PFF grade in total this season — solid, but not the elite numbers Chargers fans were hoping for.
The game this weekend is going to come down to how well the Chargers can move the ball against Baltimore’s defense. Can they keep up with Baltimore’s high octane offense? Well, that ginger-bearded Prince Harry look-alike Carson Wentz went absolutely bonkers on the Ravens last week, and the Chargers have a better quarterback, offensive line (Colts’ line is better when healthy though), overall threat at running back, and weapons…so, yeah. The Chargers will be fine. Expect this game to be another high-powered slugfest with the Chargers emerging victorious.