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NFL 2017: After a quarter of the season, it seems we’re in the Twilight Zone

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Looking at results from the first quarter of the 2017 regular season, we appear to be entering a different dimension.

Washington Redskins v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jason Hanna/Getty Images

“There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone.” (Rod Serling)

In case you haven’t been following developments around the NFL—or even if you have—this definitely has been a strange first quarter of the league’s 2017 regular season. No, I’m not talking about national anthem protests or Antonio Brown brutalizing a Gatorade cooler. Let’s just say a whole bunch of things nobody ever imagined happening prior to the season have weirdly come to pass as NFL teams prepare for Week 5.

Perhaps the most talked about surprise around these parts has been the Pittsburgh Steelers’ consistently inconsistent offense. Few of the lofty expectations heard heading into this season have come to pass. As one of America’s Founding Fathers, John Adams, once famously said, “Facts are stubborn things.” And if we look at some of those key facts today, we find Ben Roethlisberger ranked in the middle of the pack at No. 13 among NFL quarterbacks, with a total quarterback rating (TQBR) of 54.9. Big Ben also ranks No. 13 as a passer with 957 total yards, while the Steelers’ offense currently is scoring a modest average of 22.5 points per game. But because the Black-and-gold defense has been stingy, surrendering only 14.75 points per game, Pittsburgh presently sits pretty with a 3-1 overall record and a 2-0 record in the AFC North.

But looking around the league, things aren’t any more hunky-dory elsewhere. The defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots are currently sitting at 3-2 after playing two games within the span of only four days. In the first game last Sunday, the Pats suffered a narrow 33-30 defeat at the hands of the Carolina Panthers in Gillette Stadium. In the second game on Thursday night in Tampa, New England escaped with an almost equally narrow 19-14 win over the Buccaneers.

In the Thursday night matchup, Tom Brady’s offense was able to produce only a single TD, along with four Stephen Gostkowski field goals. The Pats also had two turnovers in Tampa—one fumble and one interception. Bucs’ kicker Nick Folk is currently residing in Head Coach Dirk Koetter’s doghouse after missing all three field goals he attempted. Had Folk been able to hit only one of those field goals, the game likely would have gone into overtime, as Tampa Bay staged a last-gasp drive ending at the Pats’ 19-yard line as time expired on an incomplete pass to the end zone from Jameis Winston. Had Folk hit two of his three kicks, Tampa Bay likely would have upset the Patriots in regulation time. So don’t be surprised to see Mr. Folk get his walking papers as soon as the Bucs find a suitable replacement.

In the first four games of the season (not including Thursday night), the Pats had scored more points (129) than any other AFC team. But New England also surrendered 128 points in those first four games—more than any other AFC team besides the Indianapolis Colts. While Thursday’s result will help the Pats’ defensive stats somewhat, their showing so far in 2017 represents a significant dropoff for the team widely picked as favorites to repeat as NFL champions this season.

The Pats currently sit one-half game behind the AFC East Division-leading Buffalo Bills. As for the Bills, they’re 3-1 despite scoring only 73 points so far this season or 13.25 points per game. So even if the so-far-hapless 1-3 Cincinnati Bengals should rise up at Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday to whip Buffalo, the best that New England can do is to finish Week 5 in a tie for the division lead.

As for the NFC, anyone who picked the Los Angeles Rams—a team with a 4-12 regular season record in 2016—as the favorite to be leading the NFC West while scoring more points (142) than any other NFL team through four weeks, I’d like to borrow your crystal ball, ideally before the Sunday kickoffs.

When you post the current list of top-rated NFL quarterbacks on your screen today, you definitely have the feeling that Rod Serling ought to be standing in the foreground deadpanning the intro. The No. 1-ranked quarterback is Deshaun Watson of the Houston Texans, sporting a TQBR of 80.5 and—in the process—besting both Tom Brady and Matt Ryan by nearly a 14-point margin. Even stranger, the quarterback now sitting at No. 2 in the rankings—nearly 13 points ahead of Roethlisberger—is none other than Case Keenum of the Minnesota Vikings (remember him?).

If the early part of the NFL’s 2017 campaign will be memorable for anything, it might be the weird demise of some of the league’s household-name quarterbacks. Examples include Joe Flacco, who currently ranks No. 30 with a TQBR of 25.8; Jay Cutler at No. 28 (27.2 TQBR) and Andy Dalton at No. 27 (29.6 TQBR). As Dean Wormer said in Animal House after reviewing mid-term grades for Delta House, these numbers are more than just a little below par.

Okay, so you never thought those QBs were any good to begin with? Well how about Philip Rivers ranking No. 22 with a 45.9 TQBR or Drew Brees, just one notch above Ben with a 55.3 TQBR? As for some of the names currently ranking among the top-10, how about Carson Wentz, Marcus Mariota, Tyrod Taylor and Jared Goff?

So, what does it all mean? For the Pittsburgh Steelers, it looks like a golden opportunity—should they choose to take advantage. Considering that the improved Kansas City Chiefs are the only remaining undefeated team at the quarter post—and assuming that some of the league’s upstart teams inevitably will crash back to earth—it looks like a wide open field for the NFL team that can play up to its potential on a fairly consistent basis. And despite not quite being there yet, perhaps Pittsburgh is just the team to reach that goal this season.

Regardless of how things shake out, it seems evident now that Pittsburgh isn’t the only team whose quarterback isn’t hitting on all cylinders—nor the only team that seems to be suffering from a lack of preparation during the preseason. In fact, looking around the league today, those issues appear positively rampant. How else to explain the sub-par play of the league’s well-established players versus remarkable performances by a bunch of guys whose names we’re still struggling to spell?

Something quite odd definitely is going on thus far in 2017, and it’ll be interesting to see whether things normalize by the time December rolls around. Otherwise, we might be watching a Super Bowl 52 that features the Pittsburgh Steelers (of course) versus the L.A. Rams, Detroit Lions or just about any other NFC team that nobody ever expected to see there. With Halloween not far away, don’t be surprised to see DeShone Kizer disguised as Deshaun Watson and doing his best to scare off the Cincinnati Bengals.