Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we take stock of an eventful Week 4 around the NFL, with the ranks of the undefeated shrinking by two more teams ...
Maybe it's still a bit too early in the season for a legit changing-of-the-guard moment, but I know this much about the state of things in the NFC South at 2016's quarter pole: What the Falcons did to the Pantherson Sunday in the Georgia Dome didn't smell of anything fluky. It smelled of domination -- at least the first three quarters did -- and of one team imposing its will on another. This was a beating that could linger in memory for the defending NFC champions, and three-time division winner: Atlanta 48, Carolina 33, in a game that didn't really feel as close as the score indicates.
There's a point in almost every season when the defending NFC or AFC champion label can start to ring hollow, as if last year's history has little or nothing to do with current events. It seems like Carolina reached that juncture on Sunday, not to mention a distant second place in the NFC South. With two stinging losses in a row, the Panthers (1-3) have now tasted defeat three times in four weeks, after experiencing just two losses over the span of five months last season.
"I feel like this is a great statement win," Falcons running back Devonta Freeman said in a phone interview, amid the din of Atlanta's giddy winning locker room. "We're still No. 1 and lead our division (by two games). And they're (the Panthers) going to have to deal with us. You can't just come in here this year and think you're going to stop the run and then stop the pass. We're a two-dimensional team. You've got to stop the run and the pass against us, and it's hard to do that."
Not only did Carolina's once-proud defense not stop much of anything on Sunday, the Panthers didn't even stop to see what hit them. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan threw for a franchise-record 503 yards and four touchdowns on 28 of 37 passing, while Atlanta receiver Julio Jones toyed with Carolina, to the tune of 12 receptions for a club-record 300 yards, and a touchdown. No quarterback-pass catching tandem has ever done more damage in the 22-season history of the Panthers, and the Falcons punched out touchdown drives of 99, 98 and 92 yards -- only the second time in the past 15 years a team has posted three 90-yard-plus drives in a game.
"Both of those guys broke records, and that's almost expected because I feel like Julio and Matt are the best at their positions right now," said Freeman, of Jones and Ryan, who combined to produce the first dual 500-yard passing, 300-yard receiving game in NFL history. "I always tell people Julio is like a freak of nature at receiver. That's a grown man, now. When you mention (No.) 11, that's a grown man. He can do it all. He can run fast, he can run you over, he can make you miss, and he can run great routes."
It wasn't the bottom-feeding Oakland or New Orleans defense the Falcons demolished this week. It was the Panthers, whose defense is a big part of their winning equation these past three years, and that's what made Sunday's outcome all the more eye-opening. If you throw in Atlanta upsetting Carolina 20-13 at home in Week 16 last December, that's a 68-46 double whammy the birds have laid on Ron Rivera's team over the span of its past six regular-season games.
The Falcons apparently have a formula that works against Carolina, and the Panthers, facing a two-game deficit in the division, can only hope the Week 16 rematch in Charlotte means something in the NFC South race three months from now. At the moment, it's Atlanta that's in charge and on a three-game roll, in which it is averaging 42.7 points per game.
"That game was as much fun as I've ever had in the NFL," said Freeman, a third-year veteran who contributed a team-high 57 yards rushing on 13 carries, including a 13-yard first-quarter touchdown run that made it 14-0. "We went out there with great energy and we executed and took advantage of our opportunities. We made things happen on offense."
Against the Panthers no less, the very team that could have described itself the exact same way this time a year ago. But it's Atlanta's turn to ride that wave now.
» Cam Newton endured another steady dose of punishment against Atlanta, even if the Falcons didn't record eight sacks of the Panthers QB, as the Vikings did last week in Charlotte. But Newton left the game in the second half after absorbing a serious blow from Falcons linebacker Deion Jones at the goal line on a two-point try, and later was found to have a concussion that now merits monitoring as Carolina's Week 5 Monday night home game against division-rival Tampa Bay approaches.
Newton has always withstood a lot of pounding, but the Panthers are finding out first-hand how a Super Bowl trip only heightens the target a team wears on its back the following season. Opponents are definitely getting up to give Carolina and Newton their best shots, and it hasn't helped that the Panthers' early schedule has included quality opponents like Denver, Minnesota and Atlanta.
Bills breaking the pattern of futility
Zach Brown, the sneaky-good Bills inside linebacker who helped key Buffalo's 16-0 blanking of New England at a stunned Gillette Stadium on Sunday, estimates he was a mere lad of 3 the last time the vaunted Patriots were shut out at home. But I checked, and of course, that's not right. Actually, he had just turned 4 the month before the Jets held New England scoreless, 6-0, at old Foxboro Stadium in late November 1993 -- a lifetime ago.
Brown, who's now three weeks shy of 27, was everywhere on Sunday, amassing a team-best 18 tackles (he leads the Bills with 52 this season) along with one sack and two forced fumbles. He snuffed out the Patriots' most promising drive of the day, separating New England quarterback Jacoby Brissett from the ball at around the Buffalo 10, with the Bills leading 13-0 in the second quarter.
And he and his Bills teammates resoundingly sent the message that the bravado of Buffalo head coach Rex Ryan was on the money this time. Two weeks ago, Ryan boasted that all his 0-2 club needed was to step up in weight class and starting playing some of the premier teams in the league. Like, say, Arizona, who the Bills drubbed 33-18 last week at home, and New England, who they beat by 16.
"Nobody's laughing at Rex now," Brown said on the phone, minutes after Buffalo's most meaningful win in Foxborough since 2000, the year Bill Belichick took over as head coach of the Patriots. "But people still doubt us and say the Bills, they've only got two wins. But we say, bring on the best, and we're going to play up to their potential.
"We know we can play with anybody in the league. We think we're that good of a team. It's not being cocky. It's just being honest, and being confident. To be a good team, you've got to be confident. And to beat good teams, you've got to be confident. We knew we could play with anyone when we beat the Cardinals."
The Bills' swarming defense made Brissett look like the rookie third-string quarterback he is, sacking him three times and limiting the Patriots to just 1 of 12 on third downs and a mere 277 net yards. New England hadn't missed a beat without Tom Brady the past three weeks -- but now No. 12 can't return quickly enough on Monday, when his four-week suspension ends.
The Patriots hadn't been held scoreless anywhere since December 2006, when they were blanked 21-0 at Miami. And at 2-2, Buffalo may have a say in how things play out this season in the AFC East after all. Don't look now, but the Bills are in second place, just a game behind the Patriots (3-1), who still must travel to Ralph Wilson Stadium in Week 8 for the rematch. As confidence boosts go, they don't get any bigger in Buffalo than the one the Bills just got.
"It's a great feeling to win here," Brown said. "Everybody came in really excited, because for us, it's a real accomplishment to finish the first quarter of the season at 2-2, and shut them out. That hasn't happened to them in a long time. And it also might be one of my best performances ever as a pro. Now we've got to stay sound and keep going, and make sure we play Bills defense."
All of a sudden, that's no longer a punch line.
But let's not overreact to the dynasty's rare off day. If you would have told the Patriots they were going to go 3-1 in Brady's four-week absence, I'm pretty sure everyone wearing red, white and blue and the Flyin' Elvis logo would have eagerly signed up for that. After all, the Patriots seem to go 12-4 every season and claim the AFC East, so winning three of their first four games puts them on perfect track for the same-old, same-old.
Next week at Cleveland, when Brady returns to the lineup the conquering hero, this week's futility will probably be but a faint memory. In other words, nothing to see here, folks. Move along.
West Coast teams prevail on East Coast
The history is coming fast and furious for the on-the-way-up Raiders now. At 3-1, on the heels of Sunday's 28-27 thriller of a win at Baltimore, Oakland is off to its best start since its Super Bowl season of 2002, and is 3-0 on the road for the first time since 2000. Michael Crabtree, Oakland's go-to receiver, just logged the first three-touchdown game of his NFL career, providing the Raiders just enough cushion to hold off the comeback-minded Ravens (3-1) and knock Baltimore from the ranks of the unblemished.
It wasn't long ago that the Raiders never won in the Eastern time zone, but now they're 1-0 on Eastern time, and already 2-0 on Central, with wins at New Orleans and Tennessee. Three road wins used to be about what Oakland could muster over the course of two or three seasons, not four weeks.
Derek Carr is already a star, but he keeps getting better every week. The Raiders quarterback was money in the fourth quarter in Baltimore, completing 9-of-13 with two touchdowns and 104 yards when the game was hanging in the balance. What an icy cool customer David's little brother is turning out to be.
» Speaking of making the west-to-east swing worth their while, the Seahawks have to love it when MetLife Stadium shows up on their schedule. The site of the franchise's greatest triumph -- that Super Bowl destruction of Denver at the close of the 2013 season -- was again Seattle's happy place on Sunday, with Pete Carroll's guys besting the Jets, one of his former teams, 27-17.
Seattle was back to its finely-tuned-machine form against New York, and can you imagine how much damage Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson might be able to inflict when healthy? Wilson sprained an ankle in the opener, and saw his left knee get rolled up on in Week 3, but there he was, picking apart the befuddled Jets defense to the tune of 23-of-32 for 309 yards and three touchdowns.
The Seahawks' defense looks hungry again, the patchwork offensive line took a step of progress on Sunday, and now Seattle (3-1) has its bye week to rest up and recover. Maybe my pick to take the big confetti show in Houston in early February is going to prove prescient after all. I'm kind of already looking forward to that Atlanta at Seattle glamor-game showdown in Week 6.
» Nine interceptions in two games is ghastly, but the Jets have bigger problems than just Ryan Fitzpatrick's giveaway issues, and benching him in favor of Geno Smith or Bryce Petty or Al Woodall wouldn't solve much of anything at this point. New York's defense is getting shredded, and the team's running game isn't getting it done either. It's a collective failure by Gang Green these days.
One more stinker out of Fitzpatrick might prompt a switch for the sake of change, but if the Jets have any chance of winning at Pittsburgh and Arizona in the coming two weeks, chances are it'll be with the bearded veteran under center.
Rams, Cowboys, Texans steady at 3-1
The Rams are forcing me to change my mind about something that I've just taken for granted all these years. Namely that there is no such thing about winning "ugly," not when you haven't won much at all since 2003, and last made the playoffs (at .500) in 2004. In that case, it's just called winning, and Los Angeles has the right to ignore or even scoff at all adjectives being attached to its results.
A 3-1 record says plenty about what the Rams are this season, and for a franchise that hasn't started that well since 2006, squeaking out close victories like that 17-13 escape at Arizona is satisfaction enough. Style points be damned. The Cardinals (1-3) appear to have lost their identity, and home-field advantage, but the Rams appear to be comfortable with who they are these days. They can play some defense, lay some pads on you, and ultimately make a play or two on offense when it's timed for maximum impact.
At 2-1 in the NFC West, with wins against division-favorites Seattle and Arizona, the Rams don't have another division game until Week 15 at the Seahawks. Let's see if they can hang around and stay relevant for two and a half months, then really make something special of their renaissance season in L.A.
» Now I'm utterly convinced this young and exciting Cowboys team is headed for some kind of magic mojo this season if Dallas (3-1) can win a game in which the almost forgotten Morris Claiborne is turning in difference-making plays. As if Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott don't represent enough good fortune so far in 2016, the Cowboys dusted off their 2012 first-round pick, and he came up with both a game-swinging interception in the fourth quarter of a 24-17 win at San Francisco. Later, he had a fourth-down tackle that sealed the outcome.
» Houston (3-1) has built a comfortable two-game lead over the rest of the AFC South (the Colts, Jaguars and Titans are all 1-3), and the play-calling seemed improved with head coach Bill O'Brien taking over the duties for offensive coordinator George Godsey in the Texans' 27-20 win over visiting the Titans.
But first place or not, no objective observer can claim Houston has definitively solved its quarterback issues by throwing $72 million at Brock Osweiler. The ex-Bronco flashes talent on some plays, and makes you want to slap your forehead on others. His six interceptions and five touchdown passes in just four games aren't a sustainable trend line, and even victories in the league's weakest division can't camouflage that forever.
» And it doesn't help Osweiler make his case for being the big necessary upgrade in Houston when deposed Texans starter Brian Hoyer is still doing what he does, and by that I mean playing well enough to win a game or two in this league. Hoyer had a better day than Osweiler did, leading the Bears to a rare home win against Detroit.
Hoyer was a smooth 28-of-36 for 302 yards, with two touchdowns and zero picks in the Bears' 17-14 win. When's he's at his best, he can take care of the football and give a defense some problems. But a month into the season, Detroit and Chicago are both 1-3 and showing nothing that will worry anyone in Minnesota or Green Bay this year.
Turnovers costly for Browns
The Browns are going to put four quarters together one of these days and beat somebody, but Washington did enough to make sure Cleveland's luck didn't turn at its expense in Week 4. Somebody trying to beat Jay Gruden's team this season might want to put three guys on Washington tight end Jordan Reed, because to call him Kirk Cousins' favorite receiver doesn't do him justice.
The Browns actually played really well at times on Sunday, but once again found a way to turn back into the self-defeating Browns at the game's key stretches. Up 20-17 late in the third quarter, three consecutive turnovers doomed Cleveland, which now gets to trudge home at 0-4 and await Tom Brady's celebrated return.
More weather delays
Here's an idea for the league office to consider: Let's get back to scheduling Tampa Bay for those 1 p.m. ET Sunday kickoffs in the hope that the late-afternoon/early evening thunderstorm trend can be successfully navigated at Raymond James Stadium. Is there a new rule that says the Bucs can't finish a home game without a weather delay, having seen their losses to the Rams and Broncos interrupted in the fourth quarter the past two Sundays? It's bad enough getting beat, but to have to wait around for defeat must really stink.
Unlike the 37-32 loss at the hands of Los Angeles, this one could have been called when the storm first stopped play with 6:52 left in the fourth. The Broncos were up 27-7 at the time, and nothing changed after play resumed following a hour and twenty-six minute stoppage.
» Denver rolls on at 4-0, despite yet again having a quarterback issue to face this week. Starter Trevor Siemian left the game late in the first half with a left shoulder injury -- those seem to be all the rage in the NFL this season -- and was replaced by rookie Paxton Lynch, a first-round pick at No. 26. Naturally, being a Bronco quarterback, Lynch was able to smoothly operate the offense and keep the chains moving well enough to help Denver cruise to another win. The Broncos' Week 5 home date against red-hot Atlanta (3-1) just got a little more interesting, if Lynch is pressed into service in his first NFL start.
Breakfast at Wembley
Turns out embattled Jacksonville coach Gus Bradley got to keep both his job and his seat on the team's charter home from London, thanks to the Jaguars' much-needed 30-27 conquest of Indianapolis. (Take that, Joe Philbin and Dennis Allen). But I'll bet Bradley's blood pressure must have been spiking to Defcon 5 levels during that fourth quarter at Wembley, when the Colts scored touchdowns on three successive drives to turn a 23-6 Jaguars' lead into a three-point nail-biter.
Jacksonville finally showed the ability to make the plays that mattered and put an opponent away, and it had to be reassuring to see the Jaguars' offense show up to the level of execution we anticipated this season, including 136 very welcomed yards on the ground).
The Jaguars are starting to get the hang of this London gig, having won two in a row across the pond after starting 0-2 at their home away from home. Bradley "improved" to 13-39 in his three-year-plus Jacksonville tenure, but now with a Week 5 bye and a winnable game at Chicago in Week 6, the 1-3 Jaguars have an opportunity to steady themselves and still make something of their season after all. Feel free to exhale now, northeast Florida.
» If you're scoring at home (and I'll bet my butt you are, Patriots fans), the Colts are now a dismal 9-12 since taking the field for the 2014 AFC Championship Game, the blowout loss that of course gave birth to the Deflategate drama. Last year's 8-8 has led into this season's 1-3 start, and the Colts were practically a no-show in London until the fourth quarter arrived.
But while we're at it, what in the name of Norm Bulaich is Frank Gore doing on the sideline on that fourth-and-1? If Gore's not out there for that play, and the likely ball carrier, why is he on Indy's roster? If Colts coach Chuck Pagano has to sit next to always-excitable owner Jim Irsay on the long flight home, I'd suggest wearing his ear buds and a sleeping mask over his eyes.
» I'm a bit of a recent convert on this, but "Breakfast at Wembley" is starting to grow on me. I still wonder if it's wise of the NFL to knowingly cannibalize the time slots that both it and its TV partners use for their pre-game shows, but giving another game an exclusive national TV window is never a bad thing.
Strawberries and cream, anyone?
'Fins need turnaround, Bengals get one at home
At the quarter pole of the season, I see no discernible fix that Dolphins rookie head coach/quarterback whisperer Adam Gase has wrought on the Ryan Tannehill front. Miami's offense made exactly one play all night in that desultory 22-7 loss at Cincinnati on Thursday night, and that came on the Dolphins' opening drive. I know Miami has had a rugged early-season schedule, with tough road games at Seattle, New England and Cincinnati in September, but Tannehill is still very Tannehill-esque, playing hesitantly and inconsistently. And now, he's a turnover machine as well, with five picks and four fumbles.
Gase was hired to supposedly bring out the best in the Dolphins' 2012 first-round pick, but so far, Tannehill's game actually looks worse off under the former Broncos and Bears offensive coordinator. Miami's final 10 drives against the Bengals didn't even produce as much as a field-goal attempt. Miami, off to its second straight 1-3 start, is about to play four consecutive home games, with a bye mixed in there, so there will never be a better time for Tannehill to finally break through and establish himself as something more than an ongoing tease.
» That was a very solid 15-point reset win by Cincinnati against the Dolphins, because not only did it get the Bengals even at 2-2 and snap a two-game losing streak, it helped re-assert their dominance at home in Paul Brown Stadium after surrendering a fourth-quarter lead there against Denver last week. The Bengals need to get back to their "not in our house" ways, because after starting last season 4-0 at home, they had dropped four out of six at PBS, including the playoffs, before Thursday night's Miami game.
Prior to that 2-4 downturn, Cincinnati had been 17-3-1 at home dating from the start of 2013 on, but two losses to the Steelers, and one each to the Texans and Broncos had exposed their inability to protect their own turf, especially in high-profile games. Beating Miami wasn't a headline win. But it was a mandatory win.
Mini musings ...
Mark it down, Jim Schwartz will be a head coach again in the NFL next season, because the Eagles first-year defensive coordinator is going to significantly burnish his resume with his strong work in Philadelphia this year. Carson Wentz-mania is sucking up all the oxygen during the Eagles' surprise 3-0 start, and that's understandable because we all love the fresh-face angle. But don't sleep on the fact that Philly is winning first and foremost with a vastly improved defense that is giving up just nine points per game, which ranked first overall through three weeks. ... Those ultra-orange Dolphins color rush uniforms made me a touch nostalgic for those old creamsicle Bucs uniforms I grew up with in Tampa Bay from the mid-1970s on. And I really never thought I would miss those. ... Maybe some day the NFL will find a way to send two good teams to London for an international series game. Someday ... An NFL weekend without J.J. Watt on the field unfolded for the first time since the 2010 season, and I don't approve of that new reality. ... I was remiss not to give a rousing left-footed salute last week to the old man in Oakland, Sebastian Janikowski, the 17-year veteran kicker who booted a 52-yard field goal in a win at Tennessee. It was Seabass' 53rd career conversion of at least 50 yards, setting an NFL record previously held by Detroit's Jason Hanson. Given that Janikowski has been kicking in the swamp that is the Oakland Coliseum all these years -- with its last-in-the-league baseball infield to contend with at times -- is nothing short of remarkable. ... Given the Giants play at Minnesota on Monday night, then have to turn around and play next Sunday night at Green Bay, shouldn't Ben McAdoo's club just cut down on the redundant travel and stay all week and practice in Wausau, Wis., which is roughly halfway between? Come to think of it, McAdoo, the former Packers quarterbacks coach, would probably sign up for that.
Ridiculously cool football card of the week
I got to chat with the always likable Kemp for a while at an NFL spring owners meeting in Jacksonville in 2004, and told him I thought his side would have done better that year against incumbents Bill Clinton and Al Gore if they had flipped the ticket, making it Kemp-Dole instead of Dole-Kemp. He enjoyed the thought and said he had heard that sentiment a few times before, but added they lost as a team and he had to own his share of the defeat.
Kemp didn't do much losing in 1965, given the Bills won their second consecutive AFL title (alas, the franchise's most recent league championship), and he was voted the MVP of the league. In Week 4 of that season, the Bills beat the visiting Oakland Raiders 17-12 at old War Memorial Stadium (Did you know they filmed the baseball scenes of the 1984 movie "The Natural" there?), improving to 4-0 en route to a 10-3-1 regular-season record. Kemp completed a so-so 10 of 21 passes for 154 yards against Oakland, but among them was the game-winning 3-yard touchdown pass to Ernie Warlick in the third quarter. I'm guessing here, but I'd like to think Kemp favored running to his right as he threw.