Gregg Rosenthal catches you up on everything you need to know as we turn from Week 4 to Week 5.
Offense sells. The first quarter of the 2018 season has been defined by galactic passing numbers, exploding scoreboards and precarious leads. No one complained Thursday night in Los Angeles when Jared Goff and Kirk Cousins matched each other dime for dime. No one complained Sunday when quarterback showdowns like Wentz vs. Mariota, Carr vs. Mayfield, Ryan vs. Dalton and Watson vs. Luck all ended in fireworks.
The Chiefs and Rams bookending Week 4 with prime-time thrillers was fitting because they are the league's standard bearers this season. They are the last two undefeated teams and are leading the way in an NFL where offensive creativity is contagious. NFL Research confirmed that passing records have been set through four weeks in completions, completion percentage, passing touchdowns and passing yards. Scoring has never been higher through four weeks. Passer rating is at 94.7, more than three points higher than the previous record, which was set in 2013. Joe Montana once owned the highest passer rating of all time; now his career mark (92.3) would be lower than the league average.
It's uncomfortable to watch offense win all the time. But there is also something intoxicating about watching so many of the schematic innovations arriving from the college game, scrambling the collective brains of NFL defensive coordinators. Six years after read-option plays during the rookie seasons of Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson and Ryan Tannehill were viewed as a passing fad, teams like the Chiefs and Bears are making far more heretical spread concepts staples of their offense. Hiring an Andy Reid disciple (or someone who worked for one) is the quickest route to upping your team's entertainment value, as fans of the Eagles, Bears and Colts now know.
Chase Stuart of Football Perspective made a compelling case that Week 2 was the top passing week statistically in NFL history, and Week 4 has passed it. The average Week 4 quarterback topped 300 yards in his game, and many teams, like the Bears, Vikings and Colts, scored by the truckload without much help from the running game.
So many long-held precepts of "winning football" are being questioned in this pass-happy era, and the teams that fail to innovate with the times are being left behind.
The explosion in passing production would win my award as the most delightful trend of 2018. With that in mind, let's hand out some other awards at the quarter mark of the season.
The Cleveland Browns are a handful of plays away from being 4-0. Or 0-4. Or 1-1-2. You get the idea.
After a quarter of the season that didn't settle much of anything, the endlessly fascinating Browns are the perfect avatar for a league with little separation in the standings or on the scoreboard. Cleveland's 45-42 loss in Oakland on Sunday had all the earmarks of a typical 2018 banger: crooked passing numbers where all roads lead to overtime.
There's no telling where the Browns go from here, but they are utterly incapable of playing a boring game. That's progress. The Chiefs, Rams, Colts, Bears, Titans, Saints and Falcons all deserve honorable mention for consistently spicing up Sundays, a long list of watchability all-stars that speaks to how engrossing the first quarter of the season has been overall.
While the winless Cardinals got some consideration for this award, at least they've played nail-biters in back-to-back weeks. The average margin of victory in Buffalo's games this year is 24.5. The second half in all of four of their games has amounted to extended garbage time, even during the team's shocking trouncing of the Vikings in Week 3.
Alvin Kamara is an alien. He proved over the last four weeks that he doesn't really need a tag-team partner at running back like Mark Ingram, because there's no one else who can do what Kamara does. (Not that the Saints won't love to have Ingram back from suspension this week.)
Kamara leads the NFL with 611 yards from scrimmage, somehow ranking third in receptions and seventh in rushing yards. He can line up wide as a wide receiver and destroy a linebacker in coverage, and he can run over a defensive tackle near the goal line when he needs to. As dynamic as Todd Gurley is or as much potential as Saquon Barkley has, there isn't a running back in football I'd take over Kamara. Although, as non-QB MVP candidates go, Chicago has one, too, which brings me to my next category ...
It's not too early to say Bears general manager Ryan Pace hit home runs with his two biggest acquisitions this offseason. First-year coach Matt Nagy has modernized the Bears' offense enough to make George Halas' tombstone blush. And the aggressive price to acquire former Raiders pass rusher Khalil Mack on Sept. 2 looks like a bargain in retrospect. Mack is the first player since Robert Mathis in 2005 to have a sack and a forced fumble in four straight games. Mack provides stout run support, and his 17 hurries lead the NFL, an example of how his relentless effort doesn't always show up in the stat sheet.
On Sunday, Mack helped extinguish Fitzmagic with a forced fumble, and he later caused Jameis Winston to throw an interception by hitting his arm as the Bucs quarterback threw. Mack is able to shine in part because he has so much help around him, with defensive tackle Akiem Hicks and safety Eddie Jackson playing at a Pro Bowl level. The Bears learned what it was like to play with a lead on Sunday after Nagy's creative attack helped Mitchell Trubisky locate wide-open receivers on the way to six touchdown passes against Tampa.
Best story that's already over: Fitzmagic.
This edition of Fitzmagic was too beautiful to last. The Bucs had four first downs in six first-half drives on Sunday, ending with Ryan Fitzpatrick's fifth interception of the season. Coach Dirk Koetter had seen enough, wanting to get Jameis Winston some game snaps as the team headed into a Week 5 bye. This came a week after the Bears drove Sam Bradford to the bench by picking him off twice and recovering one of his two fumbles in what could be an ignominious end to the former No. 1 overall pick's career as a QB1.
Fitzpatrick may get another chance eventually, but Koetter said Monday that Winston will be the starter for the Week 6 showdown with the Falcons following the bye.
Koetter was elevated to the head-coaching job in Tampa to develop Winston. Koetter knows he's running out of time, and it doesn't make a difference who is at quarterback if defensive coordinator Mike Smith's group plays at this level. The Bucs sat Brent Grimes in the second half of the game, a reminder that there are plenty of fine names on the unit: Jason Pierre-Paul, Gerald McCoy, Vinny Curry, Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander among them. It doesn't compute that Tampa's defense is this woeful, even with such a young secondary.
There is enough talent here, especially on offense, for the 2-2 Bucs to rally. Assuming that this team is done would be just as foolish as assuming they were going to stay atop the league when they were 2-0. Winston needs to cut down on his mistakes and play less like a rich man's Fitzpatrick, or the rest of the season could be similarly messy.
Mike Vrabel's group has managed to win a game started by Blaine Gabbert with a heavy dosage of Derrick Henry running the wildcat and a cornerback named Dane Cruikshank finishing as their leading receiver. They won a game in Jacksonville without scoring a touchdown and beat the defending Super Bowl champions on Sunday after trailing 17-3 midway through the third quarter.
Sunday's victory should convince the rest of the AFC of Tennessee's upside. Finally healthy and looking comfortable in new coordinator Matt LaFleur's system, Marcus Mariota recorded the second-highest graded game of his career on Sunday, according to Pro Football Focus, an assessment that sounds about right. On a day that saw Dion Lewis and Henry combine for 24 rushing yards, the Titans attacked Philadelphia's sneaky bad secondary all afternoon. Mariota threw for 344 yards despite at least four dropped passes. Mariota also led the team with 46 yards rushing, including a 17-yard run that set up the game's decisive moment in overtime.
Mariota was allowed to be the hero on Sunday because his coaching staff trusted him. Vrabel passed on a potential 49-yard field goal to tie the game in overtime in favor of going for it on fourth-and-2. Mariota rewarded that trust. It was the third fourth down Mariota picked up that drive, including a bullet on fourth-and-15 to Taywan Taylor. Veteran Rishard Matthews begging off the team last week could prove to be a blessing in disguise. Corey Davis looked every bit like a true No. 1 receiver on the way to 161 yards and the leaping, game-winning touchdown. Taylor needs to be a big part of the weekly game plan, too. The Titans' defense is undeniably playing tougher under Vrabel, led by stalwart defensive tackle Jurrell Casey. If Mariota can play anywhere close to this level moving forward, Tennessee is ready to become an AFC contender. Speaking of which ...
Style points are silly to argue about at this time of season. A case could be made for the Chiefs, Jaguars, Titans or even the Bengals as the AFC's best thus far, but the Ravens are the most complete team. The defense is greater than the sum of its parts, with second-year cornerback Marlon Humphrey making the leap backed by a terrific safety tandem in Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson. They may be the toughest team to pass on in football, and that was before cornerback Jimmy Smith returns from suspension this week.
The offense is versatile, with Joe Flacco playing better than he has in at least four years. The expected return of first-round tight end Hayden Hurst next week adds to the number of weapons Flacco can dial up on any given play. The Saints could really use slot receiver Willie Snead. The Cardinals could really use deep threat John Brown. The Raiders could use Michael Crabtree. It appears that outgoing general manager Ozzie Newsome finally found the right mix of pass catchers, just in time to ensure that coach John Harbaugh gets off the hot seat.
Not only have the Falcons lost linebacker Deion Jones and safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen to injured reserve, they have lost three games in the most excruciating fashion possible. The Week 1 loss in Philadelphia was a sequel to the horror movie that ended last season. Back-to-back last-second losses at home to the Saints and Bengals revealed that coach Dan Quinn has no answers presently on defense.
Since 1940, teams scoring 36-plus points at home with no turnovers were 402-2 before the last two weeks. After the Falcons' misadventures in Weeks 3 and 4, those teams are 402-4.
Worst trend: Setting up for long field goals.
In his final two drives of Sunday's loss to the Seahawks, Cardinals rookie quarterback Josh Rosen completed seven of nine passes for 122 yards and his first NFL touchdown. Those totals included three certified dimes, a stretch that assuredly had Cardinals fans dreaming off a last-second win and plenty of fun years ahead. However, after putting his team in position at the Seahawks' 33-yard line with 3:45 left in the fourth quarter on Sunday, Rosen's coaching staff stopped trying to win. Cardinals coach Steve Wilks called for three straight runs up the middle, and Phil Dawson pushed a 45-yard field-goal try to the right, just like he pushed a 50-yard attempt to the right to close out the first half.
Wilks took the air out of the ball and the stadium. He trusted a 43-year-old kicker instead of his new franchise quarterback, who was doing everything possible to have his new-franchise-quarterback moment. By playing so conservatively, Wilks allowed plenty of time for the Seahawks to drive for a game-winning field goal of their own.
The Seahawks similarly went out of their way to make it harder on their kicker, running only two plays for 6 yards in the final minute before lining up for Sebastian Janikowski's 52-yarder. Seabass bailed head coach Pete Carroll out by making the kick, but that doesn't mean the strategy makes any more sense. Setting up for long field goals when there is plenty of time to get closer or (gasp) try to score a touchdown has been a curious strategy since Carroll's coordinator Brian Schottenheimer's father Marty was coaching in the league. It makes less sense now than ever, when the array of "safe" passing plays available to a coach are vast. The teams that continue to run three times up the middle instead of trusting their quarterbacks are playing a style of football stuck in the past, one that could eventually drive its practitioners to extinction.
No team is running away and hiding in the NFC East, so the Eagles' 2-2 record isn't such a setback. More importantly, there are a lot of indicators trending up. Carson Wentz looked even more like himself in his second game back, and Alshon Jeffery immediately changed the dynamic of the team's offense on Sunday in his return from offseason shoulder surgery. The eventual returns of Darren Sproles (hamstring) and Corey Clement (quad) will add versatility to the team's backfield. Jordan Matthews could wind up being a key role player for the team again. While the secondary is a concern, Fletcher Cox is playing at a Defensive Player of the Year level on a defensive line that still ranks among the league's best. Despite the two losses and sputtering start on offense, I don't feel any differently about this team's long-term potential.
Something just isn't right. The defense is consistently sloppy and can't rush the passer. Ben Roethlisberger said after Sunday night's loss that he's "not on the same page with anybody" after the team ran 23 plays for 47 yards in the second half against Baltimore. Antonio Brown is not making big plays and is becoming increasingly agitated. Next weekend's matchup between the 1-2-1 Steelers and the 1-3 Falcons has to be the most compelling and meaningful October game between one-win teams in a long time.
Lynch is on pace for 1,200 rushing yards after his 130-yard breakout game against the Browns on Sunday, but numbers don't tell the story of how hard Lynch has run every time he's touched the ball this season. Lynch is a throwback, a bucking bronco who improbably looks as good as he did in 2014. There's something so right about watching Lynch run wild in a Raiders uniform on the infield dirt in Oakland, a viewing pleasure that should not be taken for granted.
Most underrated 2017 rule change: Shortening overtime.
Shortening overtime from 15 minutes to 10 prior to last season was an under-the-radar rule change that continues to provide major benefits. For one, the Colts' defense simply didn't need to be on the field for more than 90 snaps on Sunday. That game needed an ending.
More importantly, the abbreviated period has led to a lot of fascinating strategic decisions concerning clock management, fourth-down attempts and the moral complications of playing for a tie. Making overtime any shorter would be unfair to the team that loses the coin toss, but having 15 minutes encouraged conservative groupthink and exposed players to more hits. Ten minutes is just right -- and the new rule has been getting a workout, with six overtime games in four weeks.
Best WORST NFL problem: Roughing-the-passer penalty controversy.
If the outcry regarding the uptick in roughing-the-passer penalties is the worst issue the NFL had to deal with in September, well, that doesn't sound so bad. After a tumultuous decade where one league controversy has often replaced another, the hand-wringing about making the game too safe feels manageable. The league certainly wants to officiate the roughing-the-passer penalties more clearly, and the lack of such controversial calls in Week 4 was probably not an accident. (NFL.com reporter Judy Battista notes there were only five roughing calls this week entering Monday night's game, less than half of the average in Weeks 1-3.)
But it's worth considering all the stories that aren't being told. All's quiet on the catch-rule front. Ratings are holding steady in a climate where that is increasingly rare. "Thursday Night Football" has produced some of the best moments of the season. Football in Los Angeles is beginning to take hold, at least for the Rams. And after the NFL pressed pause on a potential National Anthem policy, there has been greater focus on all the work players are doing in their communities.
This is not to suggest that the NFL doesn't face enormous challenges, including the inevitable ones that are unforeseen. But the focus over the first quarter of the season has largely been on the product on the field, and the product has been compelling. Anyone denying that can't see or has an agenda.