On Sunday, they steadied the ship. No Week 4 game is a "must win," but the Packers and 49ers responded with terrific performances against quality opponents. Chicago's offense came out firing against the Packers, but Aaron Rodgerspulled off a vintage 2011 performance that should force everyone in Green Bay to R-E-L-A-X for a week. The Packers avoided an 0-2 start in the division and now force Chicago to try to pull off a win in Lambeau Field later in the year.
The 49erswin over Philadelphia was similarly true to their character. They gave up three return touchdowns but dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. They deserved to win by more than five points over the previously unbeaten Philadelphia Eagles, and their defense finished off the game.
One win does not turn a season around, but these games felt like a return to normalcy in the NFC. Here's what else we learned in Week 4:
- The Cowboys have changed their philosophy, successfully relying on a dominant offensive line, the NFL's leading rusher and a surprisingly stingy defense. They have won the last three games by running more than they have thrown. DeMarco Murray now has 156 more rushing yards than the next closest NFL tailback.
- With good reason, Sean Payton is widely regarded as one the NFL's best game planners and play callers. That said, his game management left a lot to be desired on Sunday. Coaches who refuse to go for it on fourth-and-short in the other team's territory are often forced to attempt fourth-and-longs in the fourth quarter. Payton lacked aggressiveness in the first few quarters and opted for a head-scratching fake punt instead of leaving the ball in Drew Brees' hands just when it appeared that the Saints had a chance to get back in the game.
- We expected the Saints to have one of the most explosive offenses in the league. Instead, they have shown a noticeable lack of big-play ability. Marques Colston has been one of the least effective receivers in the NFL. The offenses misses Mark Ingram, who is leading all NFL starters with 6.0 yards per carry.
-- Chris Wesseling
[Baltimore Ravens 38, Carolina Panthers 10
- We didn't see any blood or guts, but Steve Smith Sr. put on a show against his old team. He got lucky catching a tipped pass for a 61-yard score, but also made a number of tough grabs on his way to 139 yards. Smith's ability to catch vertical passes is an indictment on Carolina's playcalling from a year ago.
- With that said, the wide receiver position is the least of Carolina's problems. They were down to Darrin Reaves and Tauren Poole at running back after DeAngelo Williamswas injured again. The offensive line has been terrible blocking for the run and the pass. Cam Newton genuinely played a strong game from the pocket, made few mistakes, and tossed in a number of incredible third down throws. His running game and his pass protection let him down.
- The Panthers' defensive problems are just as acute. They just aren't the same without Greg Hardy and Thomas Davis. (Davis was inactive with a hamstring injury.) Carolina couldn't get any pressure on Joe Flacco without blitzing. They were pushed around in the running game and didn't tackle well. It's a bad sign when Justin Forsett is breaking tackles and gashing you.
-- Gregg Rosenthal
[Minnesota Vikings 41, Atlanta Falcons 28
- Teddy Bridgewater's first start ended prematurely due to an ankle injury, but what transpired before that has to have the Vikings excited. Bridgewater threw for 317 yards, averaged more than 10 yards per attempt and ran for a score. The Vikings look like a more dynamic outfit with their first-round pick at the helm. Bridgewater sprained his ankle, but told NFL Media's Omar Ruiz he expects to play against the Packers on Thursday.
- A rash of injuries forced the Falcons into unchartered territory. Center Joe Hawley, guard Justin Blalock and right tackle Lamar Holmes all went down, forcing the Falcons to finish the game with Levine Toilolo -- a tight end by trade -- at right tackle. It might not be a coincidence that Atlanta failed to score once Toilolo entered the starting lineup.
-- Dan Hanzus
[San Francisco 49ers 26, Philadelphia Eagles 21
- Minus three starters up front, the Eagles' patchwork offensive line was too much of a liability to overome. The offense didn't pass midfield until the fourth quarter. They had just two more first downs (five) than turnovers (three) late in the third quarter, while the 49ers tripled their time of possession. Right tackle Lane Johnson is eligible to return from suspension next week, but center Jason Kelce and guard Evan Mathis won't be back in the lineup until the second half of the season.
- After bizarrely sticking to a stubborn pass-heavy game plan in the first half, the 49ers finally recommitted to their grind-it-out offense for a 218-22 advantage on the ground. Between a dominant showing from Vic Fangio's defense and a vintage Frank Gore performance, it appears that coach Jim Harbaugh is returning to 2011-2013 philosophy.
-- Chris Wesseling
[San Diego Chargers 33, Jacksonville Jaguars 14
- Philip Rivers' center can't snap the ball correctly. His running game is absent and his pass protection is lackluster. None of it mattered for the third straight week as Rivers went deep early and often on the way to 377 yards and three scores. The matchup helped, but Rivers is playing as well as any quarterback in football. It's amazing how many plays he makes after avoiding pressure or while he takes a big hit.
- Bortles was picked off twice playing catchup in the second half, but he looked sensational for most of the game. He had only eight incompletions on 37 attempts and consistently moved the ball. He also made his usual handful of jaw-dropping escapes to create plays out of nothing. The Jaguars coaching staff looks ridiculous for playing Chad Henne for three games. Bortles makes Jacksonville so much better.
-- Gregg Rosenthal
[Tampa Bay Buccaneers 27, Pittsburgh Steelers 24
- Mike Glennon passed for 245 yards in the second half after the Bucs managed just 64 total yards in the first half. Glennon delivered a series of tough throws against pressure on a pair of late fourth-quarter drives. The clutch performance with the game on the line should ensure another start even if Josh McCown manages to avoid thumb surgery.
- The Steelers started the game in a fog, dropping a slew of passes and failing to protect Ben Roethlisberger. A spectacular catch by Markus Wheaton jumpstarted the offense, though, and they were clearly the better team for three and a half quarters of the game. Going over 400 yards of offense for the third time in this month, the Steelers had no business losing this game. They let a lesser team hang around and were burned in the end.
- Gregg Rosenthal wondered out loud if the 2014 version of Antonio Brown might be the best receiver Roethlisberger has had in Pittsburgh. Even with a dropped pass on a flea flicker that would have gone for a long touchdown, Brown was the best player on the field. Hines Ward might have been a better all-around player in his prime, but Brown is clearly the franchise's best playmaker at the position over the past decade. Brown extended to 20 his NFL record of consecutive games with at least five catches and 50 yards.
-- Chris Wesseling
[Detroit Lions 24, New York Jets 17
- Matthew Stafford showed us he doesn't need Calvin Johnson to thrive. With Johnson extremely limited by an ankle injury, Stafford carved up the Jets' awful secondary and cruised to another big passing day. He didn't turn the ball over and continued to show improved mobility with a fourth-quarter touchdown run. Stafford did it without any semblance of a running game, either.
- Rex Ryanannounced after the game that Geno Smith will remain his starter. It won't be a popular decision with Jets fans, who have just about had enough of Smith's inconsistent and mistake-prone ways. The crowd at MetLife Stadium began a chant for Michael Vick in the fourth quarter and booed when Smith returned to the field after an interception. Smith is just about out of rope -- he'll have to play well against the Chargers to keep his job.
- Golden Tate would have 100 catches in this offense if given the necessary targets. Tate regularly got separation from Jets defenders on his way to the fourth 100-yard receiving game of his career. It took a while, but the Lions finally found a true second banana to Megatron. Now they just need to get Johnson healthy.
-- Dan Hanzus
[Miami Dolphins 38, Oakland Raiders 14
- Ryan Tannehill enjoyed one of the finest afternoons of his three-year career, completing 14 consecutive passes at one point and taking a 146.5 passer rating into halftime. At one point in the third quarter, the Dolphins were averaging 11 yards per throw and seven yards per run against a reeling Raiders defense.
- The Raiders have lost 10 straight games going back to last season. NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport reported last week that it would take a meltdown similar to the Buccaneers' embarrassing Week 3 effort for the Raiders' brass to consider an in-season coaching change. Sunday's game reached that nadir, as the Dolphins scored 38 consecutive points after an impressive opening touchdown drive from Derek Carr. Owner Mark Davis made it clear last offseason that there would be no more excuses for Dennis Allen and general manager Reggie McKenzie. Among coaches with at least 36 games, only five in NFL history have a worse winning percentage than Allen's .222.
- The injury that ended Carr's game in the third quarter was announced as a high-ankle sprain and an MCL sprain in his left leg. The Raiders are entering a bye week, but there's no certainty that Carr will be ready to go in Week 6 versus the Chargers. The coaching staff will have to make a decision between Matt McGloin and Matt Schaub if Carr sits out.
-- Chris Wesseling
[Houston Texans 23, Buffalo Bills 17
- J.J. Watt already had six quarterback hurries and a pass defense before tearing out Buffalo's heart in the third quarter with an 80-yard pick off an ugly lob from EJ Manuel. What won't show up in the box score: Watt swallowing up blockers and destroying the pocket all afternoon to keep the Bills at bay through the air. Watt single-handedly kept Houston in the game and looms as an early favorite to win his second Defensive Player of the Year.
- Buffalo generated just six yards over its first three drives before leaning on the run to build an early 10-0 lead. Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller combined for 93 yards at 4.2 yards per rush. It wasn't enough to offset another skittish performance from Manuel, who threw away the game with a pick on Buffalo's final drive. Manuel averaged just 3.1 yards per pass over an outrageous 25 first-half throws. His wideouts spent most of the day in a fog before the second-year passer found Mike Williams for an 80-yard score in the fourth quarter -- even so, he still threw for just 5.1 yards per pass.
-- Marc Sessler
[Indianapolis Colts 41, Tennessee Titans 17
- Andrew Luck is rolling now. The Colts quarterback threw four more touchdowns on Sunday, giving him eight in the past two weeks. Luck averaged 9.6 yards per attempt, posted a passer rating of 123.3 and -- perhaps most promising for Indianapolis -- was not sacked. His lone blemish was a Wesley Woodyard interception late in the second quarter. Luck is currently playing at a level that few of his peers can match.
- Charlie Whitehurst wasn't the reason why the Titans lost. Whitehurst threw a touchdown pass, had the Titans' longest run of the game and committed just one turnover on an interception that really wasn't his fault. But don't expect to hear cries of a controversy in Nashville. Whitehurst should resume his role as Clipboard Jesus as soon as Jake Locker is healthy.
- Watching Reggie Wayne, you'd never guess he was nearly 36 and coming off a major knee injury. Wayne was open all day and finished with seven catches for 119 yards. Not bad for a guy playing his 200th career game.
-- Dan Hanzus
[Green Bay Packers 38, Chicago Bears 17
- Aaron Rodgers told Packers fans to R-E-L-A-X about the team's offense. On Sunday he put last week's frustrations at ease with a brilliant performance at Soldier Field. Rodgers was throwing strikes from the outset. He finished 22-of-28 passing for 302 yards and four touchdowns. The quarterback wasn't pressured all day and picked apart the Bears' secondary with the precision of a heart surgeon.
- Jay Cutler provided another Jekyll-and-Hyde performance. In the first half the Bears' signal-caller was on target and keeping pace with Rodgers. The Bears moved the ball at will. But Cutler is gonna Cutler. He threw a ball over the middle at the end of the half that was ruled just short of the goal line, costing a chance at points. In the second half, a frustrated Cutler began forcing passes. He had back-to-back interceptions that killed drives (one on a miscommunication). He was relieved by Jimmy Clausen for the final drive.
- It was a wacky game all around. There were zero punts (just the second time in NFL history). The teams combined for 854 yards of offense (Packers 358; Bears 496). The Bears attempted an onside kick in the second quarter (they weren't slowing Rodgers, anyway). And to wrap it up, the Packers had a short field goal blocked late in the game.
-- Kevin Patra