We are a quarter of the way into the 2016 season -- well, we will be, after Monday night's Giants-Vikings game, I suppose -- and I'm seriously foaming at the mouth with the storylines that have unfolded.
Sunday was wild, as usual. But will some of the zaniness have staying power?
In this edition of the Schein Nine, we take on the signature moments and burning questions of Week 4 while taking a glance into the crystal ball.
1) Are the Dallas Cowboys legit contenders?
Don't minimize Dallas' win in San Francisco. Yes, Blaine Gabbert is terrible at football, but this game said a lot about the Cowboys.
In a week filled withDez Bryant distractions, Dallas came out and played with poise on the road. Dak Prescott has it. That's another interception-free game for the fourth-round selection. Zero picks in his first 131 passes -- that's a rookie record. Prescott does everything well and everything right. Meanwhile, the Cowboys' first-round pick, Ezekiel Elliott, continues to prove his immense worth, ripping San Francisco with 138 yards and a touchdown on the ground.
The focus was great. The kids were superb. But I was as (or more?) impressed with two other areas that should give Dallas fans legit hope: The Cowboys' offensive line is the best in the business, and on Sunday, Dallas' defense was clutch.
The 'Boys maul people up front. Dak and Zeke understandably get the headlines, but we aren't having this conversation without the consistently excellent play of the O-line. With starting left tackle Tyron Smith (one of the best blind-side protectors in football today) and left guard La'el Collins both sidelined by injuries, the Cowboys still had their way with San Francisco's defensive front. (See: 194 yards on 39 carries.)
The Cowboys' defense will never be confused for the 2000 Ravens, but the unit was clutch and opportunistic against the Niners -- just like it was in a tight road win at Washington in Week 2. Morris Claiborne's fourth-quarter pick was gigantic, akin to how Justin Durant saved the game against the Redskins.
Toughness? Resolve? Clutch play? Room for improvement? Ability to deal with adversity? Your 2016 Dallas Cowboys.
2) Are the Carolina Panthers legitimately in trouble?
This is the Carolina team I expected last year, when -- immediately following the Kelvin Benjamin injury -- I projected the Panthers to finish 6-10. Of course, that team threw it in my face with a 15-1 rampage through the regular season. A month ago, I thought the Panthers would take a step back in 2016 -- but still win double-digit games and claim a fourth straight NFC South title. Sunday's 48-33 loss at Atlanta -- a game that was even more one-sided than the final score indicates -- was a snapshot of what's plagued this team. The offensive line is horrible. Carolina can't run. And letting Josh Norman go was a huge mistake -- something that was an easy first guess.
And now Cam Newton, banged around with that porous offensive line all season, is in the concussion protocol. That's a major deal.
We've just entered October, and Carolina's already two games behind Atlanta -- with the Falcons now owning a head-to-head win. Troubling? Yeah, I'd say so. This team is wobbly.
3) Can the Atlanta Falcons' offense sustain?
I talked to Matt Ryan this August on my SiriusXM Radio show, "Schein on Sports," and he was of the believe that Atlanta's offense would be back to its dominant form, able to beat you in multiple ways.
The Falcons' stud receiver had 12 catches for a cool 300 yards, capped by a 75-yard catch-and-run touchdown that essentially sewed up Atlanta's win over Carolina. That's flat-out incredible. I featured Jones in my Schein Nine this offseason on indispensable offensive players -- and I think he is the most talented receiver in the game today. Ryan and Jones have a fantastic rapport that is so fun to watch.
And they don't force it.
A week ago, Jones caught one pass as a total non-factor -- yet the Falcons still won by double digits. That was a game when Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman dominated. Those two have become a legit 1-2 punch at running back. And as predicted in this space, free-agent signings Mohamed Sanu and Alex Mack have made an immediate impact on the field, helping to change the culture after last season's collapse.
Play-caller Kyle Shanahan deserves kudos for putting it all together -- the OC and Ryan are on the same page in Year 2. I thought this offense would be explosive this season. It's better than I imagined. As of Monday morning, the Falcons rank first in scoring, total offense and passing offense -- while coming in at sixth in rushing offense.
Atlanta still has defensive flaws. But Ryan and Co. will keep this team in the conversation all year.
4) What's up with the Arizona Cardinals?
Heck if I know.
Against New England, I think the Cardinals were guilty of reading their press clippings. They got plain outplayed and outcoached.
Against Buffalo, I think the Cards were guilty of not showing up on defense. And Carson Palmer couldn't throw it to the right team.
Sunday against the Rams, it was another bad brew of bad Palmer. The Cardinals had many opportunities to seal the game on offense or make a play on defense. But they blew it. At home. To Jeff Fisher, Case Keenum and the Rams.
I have nothing to believe in any more.
And now Palmer's health is a question, with the veteran in the concussion protocol. Not ideal, with the quick turnaround this week -- Arizona hits the road for a "Thursday Night Football" showdown at San Francisco. Loser drops to 1-4 -- and dead last in the NFC West.
5) Should the New York Jets bench Ryan Fitzpatrick?
Only if they want to have a chance to win.
And that comment has nothing to do with Geno Smith, Bryce Petty, Christian Hackenberg, Richard Todd, Joe Namath or whoever else is waiting in the wings. Look, the quarterback is straight-up losing games for the Jets. Fitzpatrick has nine picks in his last eight quarters. The stench of Week 17 -- when Fitz tossed three picks to bury Gang Green's playoff hopes last season -- hangs over the team, too.
The Jets have talent, but this season is starting to go down the drain. New York is 1-3, with these three games on tap:
New York has an issue -- and it wears No. 14. The problem with Ryan Fitzpatrick is that he's Ryan Fitzpatrick, and simply not very good.
6) Did Le'Veon Bell's return change everything for the Pittsburgh Steelers?
Yes. Yes, it did.
When you get bludgeoned by Philadelphia, welcome back arguably the best running back in football, and then absolutely destroy the usually rock-solid Chiefs on "Sunday Night Football," there is a conclusion to be drawn.
Sure, Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown provided dazzling domination of their own against K.C. Roethlisberger, the future Hall of Famer, served up about as perfect a performance as a QB could have, completing 22 of his 27 passes for 300 yards and five touchdowns.
But the presence of Bell -- who racked up 178 yards on 23 touches -- officially gives Pittsburgh the best "Big Three" in the NFL. And it makes the Steelers AFC North favorites.
7) Are the Oakland Raiders a changed team?
Derek Carr makes some incredible "wow" throws, doesn't he? He's special. And the connection with Michael Crabtree was unstoppable in the tight win at Baltimore.
M&T Bank Stadium is one of the toughest venues to play in, with rabid fans and a tough, buttoned-up home team. When Baltimore came back on Sunday, momentum was clearly on the side of Joe Flacco and Co. History would've told you that the Ravens would find a way to win and the Raiders would find a way to lose.
Jack Del Rio's team punched history in the face. And John Harbaugh's team suffered after a rare mistake by the Ravens coach.
With just over 13 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter and the Ravens down by two, Harbaugh accepted an unnecessary roughness penalty on third down that allowed the Raiders to then extend what would become a touchdown drive. Yes, Harbaugh obviously was looking to push the Raiders back out of field-goal position, but ... "Looking back on it, it wasn't the right decision." Those aren't my words -- they're Harbaugh's, from his postgame presser.
Still, the Ravens did end up taking the lead with under four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. No matter. Carr swiftly drove Oakland 66 yards on four completed passes, the last of which went to Crabtree for the receiver's third touchdown of the day. Then the Raiders' defense hung tough and stymied Baltimore's two-minute drill, with safety Reggie Nelson delivering a vicious blow to break up a fourth-down pass that would've put the Ravens in field-goal range.
At the end of the day, the Raiders had a brilliant, statement-making, pulsating win. Next stop? Playoffs.
8) Are the Detroit Lions beyond repair?
Chicago's roster is devoid of talent. In the first three games of the season -- all multi-score losses -- the Bears looked like an expansion team. Apparently, all they needed was a date with Detroit.
In the 17-14 loss at Chicago, the Lions lost the turnover battle 2-0, they were outgained by 145 yards and they committed 10-plus penalties for the second time in three weeks.
How does Jim Caldwell hold a job?
9) Can the Denver Broncos win with Paxton Lynch?
Denver is 4-0 because Wade Phillips' defense is simply incredible and Gary Kubiak has done a masterful job setting up a culture of winning in Denver. I clearly overlooked both of these things when I predicted Denver would miss the playoffs at the beginning of the season. I hope Trevor Siemian is OK after leaving the Broncos' pasting of the Bucs with an AC joint sprain on his non-throwing shoulder. He's been such a pleasant surprise, and his spectacular showing in Cincinnati still rings in my head.
But Lynch has great tools (albeit raw ones). He also has that same culture and defense supporting him. In relief duty on Sunday, Lynch guided Denver on three scoring drives in just over one half of work. Not too shabby for your NFL debut. I think Lynch has a higher upside for this year and next year than Siemian. It'll be interesting to see how this plays out going forward, but the Broncos will be in good shape with either youngster under center.