Let’s try to make some sense of Week 4 that saw the Bills shut out the Patriots, the Rams beat the Cardinals to move to 3–1, the Chargers blow another game, and the two NFC Championship Game combatants from a season ago stumble send their starting quarterbacks in the concussion protocol, adding more uncertainty to their respective 1–3 starts. It’s going to be a long week in some places (Arizona, Carolina, Indianapolis, San Diego, Detroit, New York), and a few (Buffalo, Los Angeles, Dallas, Oakland, Atlanta) can’t wait for the next game to start. On to the madness...
Your resident “Wet Blanket of Reason” takes the temperature of the most intriguing storylines out of Week 4 of the 2016 NFL season:
Go crazy, folks:
Julio Jones is Mr. 300, and Matt Ryan isn’t dead yet: The numbers speak for themselves. Jones had 12 receptions on 15 targets for 300 yards and one touchdown in the Falcons’ 48–33 win over the Panthers. Jones had catches for 75, 53, 43, 32, and 22 yards. Ryan, who has taken his fair share of criticism the past few years, threw for 503 yards and four touchdowns while completing 75.7% of his passes (142.0 passer rating). So far this season, Ryan has completed 72.1% of his passes with a 10.5 average, 11 touchdowns, two interceptions and a 126.3 rating. Have to give a lot of credit to offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who has tweaked his scheme and made it a little more quarterback-friendly.
Carolina GM Dave Gettleman is on the spot: With the Panthers off to a 1–3 start, Gettleman will be taking a lot of heat for thinking his secondary would be just fine after the surprise off-season release of top corner Josh Norman. That unit has given up a plethora of big plays, especially in Week 1’s loss to the Broncos and Sunday’s game against the Falcons. Carolina has to improve a lot for this not to be viewed as one of Gettleman’s few mistakes, and possibly his biggest. And the Panthers may enter their next game without Cam Newton, who entered the concussion protocol after taking a high hit in Atlanta, so the defense will need to do more.
The Raiders are now for real ... for now: The Ravens weren’t really a 3–0 team, but the Raiders coming back to beat them on the road was a big-boy win, and at 3–1 (the franchise’s best start since 2002) with home games against the Chargers and Chiefs coming up, Oakland has a chance to position itself for a postseason run. The problem is that this young team has been so up-and-down, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Oakland lost to both San Diego and Kansas City. If the Raiders are for real, they need to show some maturity and win both games.
The Colts are a mess: After losing to the Jaguars 30–27 in London (after trailing 23–6 through three quarters), the Colts are 1–3 and two games behind the Texans in the AFC South. In that division, the season is far from over, but you have to ask yourself, where are the Colts better this season? The offensive line still can’t protect Andrew Luck, and the defense can’t stop anybody. Colts owner Jim Irsay should have moved on from GM Ryan Grigson and coach Chuck Pagano in the off-season, but he instead gave both four-year contract extensions, so neither is going anywhere. Good times in Indy!
What a collapse by the Chargers: And that’s saying something, considering the team we’re talking about. San Diego led the Saints 34–21 with the ball and 6:50 remaining at home. On the first play on their drive, Melvin Gordon fumbled. The Saints turned it into a touchdown. Then with 4:50 left, Philip Rivers hit Travis Benjamin on a short pass and Benjamin fumbled without much contact. The Saints scored to take a 35–34 lead. With a chance to win the game, the Chargers allowed a sack, fumbled (and recovered) the ball, dropped a pass and were intercepted. This marked the third time the Chargers have held a fourth-quarter lead this season only to give it up. That usually makes for a very hot seat for the coach, in this case Mike McCoy.
Maybe we should take Los Angeles seriously: After a season-opening 28–0 loss to the 49ers, most thought the Rams’ season was over. But they’ve reeled off three straight wins, including two against Seattle and Arizona, to lead the NFC West at 3–1. Still not sure what to make of a team whose scoring margin is minus-13, but it seems like the Rams are going to at least be in every game. And that will keep them competitive.
Denver faces a question under center: The Broncos will have an interesting quarterback decision to make after their rain-delayed 27–7 victory over the Buccaneers. Starter Trevor Siemian was knocked from the game with a shoulder injury and relieved by first-round pick Paxton Lynch. Lynch looked sharp, leading the Broncos to three scoring drives (of 47, 69 and 80 yards) in his first five possessions. Lynch was 14 of 24 (58.3%) for 170 yards and one touchdown before the weather delay. Siemian was 5 of 7 (71.4%) for 68 yards and a touchdown before his injury. It might not quite be Lynch’s time yet, but that day is coming.
The Jets are in trouble: After Sunday’s 27–17 loss to Seattle, New York is 1–3 and facing back-to-back road against the Steelers and Cardinals. Thanks in part to Ryan Fitzpatrick’s nine interceptions in the past two games, the Jets have their backs against the wall in October.
So is Jim Caldwell: The Lions are 1–3 after losing 17–14 to the Bears and backup QB Brian Hoyer (who threw for 302 yards!). Detroit has started the past two seasons a combined 1–8. It’s going to be a long week for the head coach heading into a matchup against an Eagles team that is coming off a bye.
Slow your roll:
Not sold on the Falcons as a whole: While Atlanta’s offense is humming and the defense did solid work against the Panthers, we’re not sure the Falcons are as good as their 3–1 record. That defense still has a lot of issues that need to be worked out. We’ll know if the Falcons are contenders or pretenders by the end of the month as they travel to Denver and Seattle and host the Packers.
Marcus Mariota isn’t the problem: For the second straight week, the Titans lost after having a chance to drive for a game-tying touchdown, and Mariota will be criticized for his underwhelming performance (13 of 29, 202 yards, an interception and a 54.1 rating). Mariota wasn’t great in the game, but who does he have to throw to? The Titans might have the slowest skill players in the league. And he’s playing for his second coach in as many season, which is never a good thing for a young quarterback. The kid needs a real chance to be successful, and the current situation in Tennessee isn’t it.
Texans’ tests to come: Houston is 1–0 without J.J. Watt and with coach Bill O’Brien calling the plays, but surviving the Titans didn’t tell us anything. The Texans have the Vikings, Colts and Broncos coming up. Those are real tests. At least now we know the Texans have tight ends after Sunday. They’ve got that going for them.
Rex is back: After starting 0–2, Rex Ryan and the Bills have revived their season with back-to-back wins, including a 16–0 victory at New England, the first time the Patriots have been shut out at home since 1993. Congrats, Rex, you beat the Patriots when they started a rookie third-string quarterback. Awesome. Now go win at the Rams, at home against the 49ers and at Miami before you face the real Patriots and Tom Brady in Week 8.
A look at the best and worst coaching decisions from Sunday.
The Jaguars elected to go for it on fourth-and-3 from the Indianapolis 39-yard line with 4:39 left in the third quarter. Leading 20–6 at the time, a lot of coaches would have elected to take a delay of game penalty and pin a punt inside the 10. Gus Bradley went for it, got it and the Jaguars ended up with a field goal that wound up being the difference in the game.
Dallas put the game on the back of rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott. After a slow start to the season, Elliott has come on of late and was the workhorse the Cowboys envisioned Sunday, with 138 yards on 23 carries (6.0 average) and a touchdown in a 24–17 victory over the 49ers.
Leading the Redskins 20–17 with 1:14 left in the third quarter, Browns coach Hue Jackson had fullback Malcolm Johnson lined up at tailback. He fumbled, and it turned the game around.
Protecting a 30–20 lead with 3:10 to play, the Jaguars allowed the Colts to score on a 64-yard touchdown pass. That just can’t happen. Ever.
49ers coach Chip Kelly called for a zone read play with QB Blaine Gabbert keeping the ball on first down with 2:53 left and San Francisco needing a touchdown. It predictably went for a one-yard loss. The 49ers would later turn it over on downs, falling to 1–3.
The Cardinals, with a 36-year-old starter in Carson Palmer, can’t just have Drew Stanton as the only other quarterback on the roster. Stanton, who entered the game having completed 54.4% of his passes with 12 touchdowns and 16 interceptions over a nine-year career, was terrible in relief after Palmer was taken to the locker room with a possible concussion. The backup was 4 of 11 for 37 yards and threw two interceptions as Arizona fell to 1–3 with their second early home loss.
Jeff Fisher challenged the first play after halftime in Arizona, a long pass to Tavon Austin. It was ruled incomplete on the field, and Fisher, a longtime head of the competition committee, has to have known the officials wouldn’t overrule the play. It was a waste of a timeout early in the second half. With about nine minutes left in the fourth quarter, Fisher tried another challenge that had no chance at success. He cost his team two timeouts when they needed to make a comeback.
Why didn’t Rex Ryan have two punt returners back on the Patriots’ final punt from deep in their own territory before halftime? A fair catch would have given the Bills a chance at a free kick from the New England 47 with two seconds left.
Everybody loves to hate the refs, but let’s take a closer look at how the zebras performed today:
– With the 49ers leading the Cowboys 14–0 with four minutes left before halftime, San Francisco appeared to have a big third-down sack, but the official called a controversial late hit on 49ers DB Jaquiski Tartt. Instead of punting, the Cowboys were given a first down and scored a huge touchdown before halftime. The call was highly questionable. Even if it was a little after the whistle, it was a lame shove.
– Josh Norman was called for a personal foul because he simulated shooting an arrow out of bow. It’s technically against the rules (the league views it that same as shooting as gun), but come on. That’s ridiculous.
On a Derek Carr-to-Michael Crabtree touchdown with 4:13 left in the second quarter, the Raiders had a fake bubble screen to WR Seth Roberts and a fade to Crabtree on the same side of the field. The Ravens’ defensive back jumped the bubble, which gave Carr just enough space to fit the ball in to Crabtree. Great play design by offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave.
A look at a previously unheralded player (or players) who popped this week:
Zach Brown, LB, Bills: Brown toiled in anonymity with the Titans for four seasons, but he was terrific against the Patriots with 18 tackles (13 solo), a sack and a key forced fumble when he knocked the ball loose from Patriots QB Jacoby Brissett deep in Bills territory.
17: Total tackles by Patriots CB Logan Ryan. It was a great tackling performance by one of the league’s surest at the position. But that was indicative of a) his poor coverage performance against the Bills and b) the bad tackling turned in by his defensive teammates.
133.5: Passer rating for Russell Wilson after completing 28 of 37 passes (71.9%) for 309 yards and three touchdowns in a Seahawks win. Not bad for a guy with a gimpy knee and ankle. Heck of a performance against a good Jets defense by a true gamer.
0: Yards gained by the Ravens with a first down at midfield and 1:02 remaining, needing a field goal to beat the Raiders. The plays: a drop by Chris Moore, a near interception thrown by Joe Flacco, an incompletion to Dennis Pitta, a hospital ball to Kamar Aiken.
The Steelers showed their 34–3 loss at Philadelphia was likely just an outlier, blasting the Chiefs 43–14 after sprinting out to a 29–0 halftime lead. For Pittsburgh, it was a perfect performance in all facets, including on the ground, where Le’Veon Bell returned from suspension to rush for 144 yards on 18 carries. Bell looked a little rusty to start but knocked it off, topping 100 yards with a 44-yard run inside the five-yard line in the fourth quarter. He was back to his shifty, elusive self and chipped in five receptions for 34 yards. The Steelers are 3-1 and have back-to-back games against the Jets and Dolphins before hosting the Patriots on Oct. 23.
The Chiefs head into the bye week licking their wounds, especially defensively. The cornerbacks got picked on, and they weren’t helped out by the pass rush. The offense couldn’t get anything going as Spencer Ware fumbled for the third time in two games and Alex Smith was intercepted to set up the Steelers’ first two touchdowns. After a 23-yard punt by Dustin Colquitt was basically another turnover, the Steelers converted to extend the lead to 22–0 and the rout was on.
It’s been said that the first month of the season is almost an extension of the preseason given the restrictions on practicing under the current collective bargaining agreement. The season really starts now, especially with some fairly important players about to come off suspension: Patriots QB Tom Brady and DE Rob Ninkovich, Bills NT Marcel Dareus, Cowboys DE DeMarcus Lawrence and 49ers OLB Aaron Lynch. The Cardinals, Panthers, Colts and Chargers are most on the spot because they’ve dug themselves a hole with 1–3 records. Can they make the necessary adjustments to reach the playoffs, or will this be a lost season for teams with so much promise?