Cam Newton was sacked eight times by Mike Zimmer's crew in Week 3, failing to score on his final nine drives. Zimmer's team inspired the nation to ask: "What's wrong with Aaron Rodgers?" after Minnesota's Week 2 upset of the Packers. Facing the Vikings is what was wrong. In the last 12 quarters, the Vikings have taken on quarterbacks who combined for three MVPs and three Super Bowl MVPs. Those players have combined for one TD pass and five interceptions.
Monday night's win moved the Vikings to 4-0 and cemented their status as the story of the first quarter of the season. The victory was less flashy than the previous two, but that should only convince the football masses that this team is a true contender. Exactly one month after trading for Sam Bradford, Minnesota has established its formula. Mountain man Linval Joseph anchors the Vikings' run defense, freeing up the rest of their versatile front seven to get creative. A key special teams play is usually mixed in, along with timely third-down conversions from Bradford and a touchdown to tight end Kyle Rudolph.
The return of cornerback Xavier Rhodes in Week 3 to this loaded defense can't be overstated. In 29 passing plays matched up against Beckham and Panthers wideout Kelvin Benjamin, Rhodes held the pair to a combined three catches and 23 yards. He's another physical defender on a defense full of specimens like defensive ends Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter, safety Harrison Smith and linebacker Anthony Barr.
This formula will be tested in the coming months and the Vikings will inevitably go through some dips in performance. Their style of play invites close games and any poor Bradford week invites bad Twitter jokes. It says here that Zimmer's team will be ready to ride out the ups and downs. This show is ready for the big stage, with or without Adrian Peterson.
*Now on to the rest of the storylines off Week 4, winners and losers as we hit the quarter mark of the season. *
Quarter-mark stories that will have legs
1) When Brock Osweilerbolted to Houston in March, the quarterback situation in Denver looked darker than Gary Kubiak's well-coiffed mane. Fast-forward seven months, and the Broncos are getting better quarterback play than they did on the day Kubiak's hair was wetted with Gatorade. After 31 years in professional football, it's time Kubiak got the credit he deserves.
During last season's run to the Super Bowl, every other key member of the organization nearly drowned in praise, from executive John Elway to defensive coordinator Wade Phillips to the team's incredible defense led by Von Miller and the No-Fly Zone. Kubiak was an afterthought despite dragging a broken-down quarterback and a first-time starter to 12 regular-season wins and a title.
The Broncos are a more complete team in 2016 because their offense is Kubiak's now. The hybrid attack that catered to Peyton Manning's strengths is gone, and Kubiak is able to do what he does best: coach up quarterbacks in a balanced offense. Sunday's ho-hum 27-7 road win in Tampa showed off Kubiak's strengths.
One week after surprising the Bengals with a pass-happy approach behind Trevor Siemian, the Broncos were forced to adjust on the fly when Siemian was injured in what was a one-score game. Kubiak's first play call with first-round pick Paxton Lynch behind center: a vertical shot down the field. Kubiak wound up calling passes on Lynch's first nine offensive snaps, allowing the rookie to direct the two-minute drive like a veteran to close out the first half. That is having confidence in your player and preparation for the moment. It paid off: Lynch's first two complete drives as a pro totaled 25 plays, and both resulted in scores.
The Broncosare somehow fourth in the NFL in passing yards per attempt and fifth in points scored with a second-year pro drafted in the seventh round out of Northwestern taking most of the snaps. (They finished 21st and 19th in those respective categories last year.) This is incredible stuff, yet it still feels as if Kubiak is flying under the radar with a 4-0 team. The Broncos won last year with defense. Now they're winning with better balance, making them a threat to repeat no matter who's at quarterback.
Colts owner Jim Irsay shocked the football world when, instead of making a change, he doubled down on the tandem of general manager Ryan Grigson and coach Chuck Pagano last January, and the team looks worse than ever this season. Andrew Luck is holding together a deeply flawed roster that consistently fails to show up for the first half of games. Picked by many to go to the Super Bowl last year, the team is performing like one of the worst squads in football. The Colts gained 10 yards on Luck's first 20 dropbacks Sunday in London, and it left the quarterback unusually ornery after the game. The local coverage and fan reaction is starting to turn.
Grigson and Pagano are both signed with the Colts through 2019, while Saints coach Sean Payton's contract runs through 2020 in New Orleans. San Diego's fumblepalooza Sunday saved the Saints from an 0-4 record and gave Drew Brees one of the sweetest "revenge game" wins we've seen in a long time. But it's hard to get excited about the team's future when the quarterback turns 38 in January, the team is eating $40 million in dead money and Payton has shown little aptitude for turning around an annually depressing defense. This Saints season threatens to play out like a stale sitcom that still draws viewers out of loyalty to a golden era unlikely to ever return.
3) The NFL season has so many plot twists, we could already hand out an award for "Comeback Team of the Year." The two leading candidates are separated by 2,500 miles and will face off this week in Los Angeles.
Rex Ryan out-coached Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels Sunday, and Rex knew it. His newly installed offensive coordinator, Anthony Lynn, and Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor set the tempo with three long scoring drives to start Buffalo's win in New England. Ryan is coaxing sensational performances out of free-agent afterthoughts like Zach Brown and Lorenzo Alexander. This outcome wasn't just about the Patriots starting their third quarterback. Buffalo has dominated the line of scrimmage two consecutive weeks against two Super Bowl contenders (Arizona and New England). This all took place after Ryan fired offensive coordinator Greg Roman and the team sustained injuries that had most of us leaving his group for dead. That's when Ryan does his best work.
The Rams, subject to many a punchline after their Week 1 shutout loss in San Francisco, have improbably won three straight, including wins over the Seahawksand Cardinals. We don't blame Jeff Fisher for spiking the football in Bruce Arians' face, even if this current Rams winning formula is problematic. The Rams are dead last in yards per play on offense and continue to be plagued by bone-headed penalties.
Stories that should be getting more attention
1) Start the Aaron Donald for Defensive Player of the Year campaign now. If Donald keeps it up, keep him in mind for MVP. The Los Angeles defender is the best player on the field in every Rams game, destroying so many snaps where he never even shows up in the box score. Credit coordinator Gregg Williams for diversifying Donald's attack this year, using him at defensive end and on increased stunts around the edge. Donald's Pro Football Focus grade this year is more than double that of any other defensive player.
2)Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli deserves an award -- or, at least, one of those crazy contracts Jerry Jones hands out to Cowboys employees after a particularly productive month. The 3-1 Cowboys are 10th in football in points allowed, a remarkable achievement considering the injuries, suspensions and overall lack of pass-rush talent in their front seven.
Rookie Dak Prescott deserves a big assist here for the Cowboys' ball-control offense, which has controlled the ball more than 35 minutes per game, the second-best mark in football. The schedule also has helped, but the team is executing its 2014 game plan to perfection. Marinelli does it with teaching, not exotic blitzes. He coaches his players well to execute his relatively simple scheme with aggression, much like Wade Phillips does with superior talent in Denver.
3)Jimmy Graham is back. Not the Jimmy Graham who didn't quite fit in the Seahawks offense in 2015 or the injury-ravaged Saint from 2014. This is Peak Jimmy, a guy we weren't sure was ever returning. His emergence for Seattle the last two weeks with back-to-back 100-yard games is one of the most significant long-term developments in the NFC playoff race. Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson excels at touch passes and throwing up the seams, and Graham has shown he's ready to destroy single coverage again. He's making acrobatic one-handed grabs down the field and executing tough slants over the middle in traffic, showing impressive toughness. He's too physical for a cornerback to stop and too fast for a linebacker to handle. Adding Graham to Seattle's cohesive young wideout crew and running game gives this Seahawks offense a chance to be the best yet of the Wilson era.
Narratives that were busted Sunday
1) Yes, Matt Ryan has more options to target. No, he doesn't want to get in the habit of only getting Jones one catch for 16 yards. Sunday's 300-yard explosion by Jones decimated so many storylines from Atlanta's hot start. They excelled against a quality defense for the first time, and Ryan pushed the ball down the field far more than he did in the first three weeks.
Only Dak Prescott had attempted as few throws of 20-plus air yards in Weeks 1-3 among quarterbacks with three starts. But the Falcons' previous dink-and-dunk approach changed dramatically against Carolina, with Ryan strafing the Panthers and puncturing their reputation for preventing deep plays. In the first three weeks, Ryan completed just five passes to Jones that traveled 10 air yards or more; on Sunday, Ryan completed seven such throws to Jones for 258 yards. Ryan is clearly playing better this season, but it is remarkable to see just how open he's finding his receivers to be week after week. That takes total offensive cohesion and a play caller in Kyle Shanahan who is on a hot streak and ready to push his luck.
2) The Patriots can't win with just anyone at quarterback, at least not week after week. The Patriots are usually excellent at playing complementary football, but the team's defensive no-show in the first half of Sunday's loss to the Bills put too much pressure on rookie starter Jacoby Brissett to complete passes down the field. The step down from backup Jimmy Garoppolo to Brissett was significant, and the Patriots needed to play much better around Brissett to pull off another home win with him under center. Instead, their offensive line was overwhelmed in pass protection against a frenzied Bills front.
3) Enough with the "Raiders can't win on the East Coast" stories. They couldn't win on the East Coast over the last 15 years in large part because they didn't win anywhere over the last 15 years, especially on the road. Now that the Raiders have a quality quarterback with great weapons and late-game belief, they will win their share of games wherever they are played. (Including Mexico.) Teams that travel far to play the Raiders might be the ones that start making excuses about why they struggle so much going to the West Coast.
Biggest winners at the quarter mark
1) Atlanta Falcons: Coach Dan Quinn has experience with fast starts and hopefully will learn from last season's fade after 5-0. It would be a shame, however, if we didn't stop to admire the Falcons' offensive dominance while we can. They have gained 332 more yards than anyone else, a full game's worth for a mortal team. They have outscored every team in the NFL by 31 points. Matt Ryan is averaging 10.5 yards-per-attempt, an insane figure that bests anyone else in the league by just under two yards.
2) The NFC East's relevance: The division is finally earning all those prime-time TV slots this year. The Eagles, Redskins, Cowboys and Giants have combined for a 7-2 record against opponents outside NBC's favorite Sunday night option. With Carson Wentz, Sterling Shepard, Josh Norman, the Giants' defensive additions and the Cowboys' rookie class added to the mix, this division is infinitely more watchable.
3) The 2016 rookie class: It's not just about the Cowboys and the quarterbacks. From Jalen Ramsey to Su'a Cravens, Will Fuller, Hunter Henry, Joe Thuney and Ronnie Stanley, rookies are making instant impacts as high-quality starters all over the league. If you don't know these names yet, you soon will.
Biggest losers of the first quarter
1) Chargers fans: How much can one fan base take? With the team's future home still up in the air and Philip Rivers' prime running out, the Chargers are finding new ways to torture the loyal fans who have stuck with them. The weekly season-ending injuries have been as tough to take as the three late leads the team has blown. The Chargers coughed up a 17-point fourth quarter lead in Kansas City, gave up a late touchdown to lose to the Colts and somehow turned the ball over three times in the final seven minutes to lose a 13-point lead over New Orleans. The second-highest scoring team in the league could be 4-0. Instead, the Chargers are 1-3 despite outscoring their opponents on the season.
2) AFC South excitement: This was supposed to be the year the division finally came of age behind a quartet of promising young quarterbacks. Instead, the Jaguars and Titans are among the worst teams in football once again, while Blake Bortles and Marcus Mariotatake steps back in their development. Houston is sitting pretty, two games up with the best defense in the division, even without J.J. Watt.
3) NFC Championship Game participants: If anyone dared suggest in August that the Panthers or Cardinals would struggle to make the playoffs, the Twitter outrage would have been immense. But the NFL season plays out crazier than the craziest predictions and both teams, now 1-3, are learning how hard it is to stay on top.
The Cardinals are in a tougher spot than the Panthers. They already have two home losses and trail a division rival (Seattle) that has more proven staying power than the Falcons. The Cardinals talked all offseason about taking the next step to the Super Bowl, without remembering that every team starts over at ground zero.