Week 4 of the NFL season is here, bringing highs, lows, and everything in between. And each Sunday, throughout the day, The Ringer staff will be celebrating the insane plays, admonishing the colossal blunders, and explaining the inexplicable moments of the NFL season. Welcome to Winners and Losers. Which one are you?
Winner: Emmitt Smith 2.0
Bryan Curtis: For a few years now, the Cowboys have maintained a vision of team building that’s both unique in the current NFL and kind of nuts: They’ve tried to turn their offense into an anachronistic, 1990s runapalooza. The Cowboys spent three no. 1 picks on offensive linemen; they used a top-five pick on a running back; and they paid everyone a fortune. The plan went like this: Hand the ball off and the running lanes would open like a freeway when a motorcade comes through. Win time of possession, conjure visions of the days when John Madden waxed poetic about Nate Newton, etc., etc.
Just about everyone in Dallas agrees this is … not the most obvious way to win in the modern NFL. But, today, despite playing without their no. 1 wide receiver, left tackle, and left guard, the Cowboys realized their strange dream. They’re 3–1, so who’s going to argue?
The running game got untracked, as they say in sportswriting, on the Cowboys’ second possession of the third quarter. On first-and-15, Zeke Elliott ran off right tackle for 23 yards. A plain recap doesn’t do Elliott justice. Watch the run: Elliott starts right and moves through a giant Jaws of Life gap opened by Doug Free and Zack Martin. Elliott begins to stutter step and cut left when he reaches the second level. Finally, he lowers his head and carries safety Antoine Bethea for a few Emmitt Smith–esque bonus yards.
The rest of Elliott’s gains on the drive looked like this: 1, 4, 4, 17, and 1 — the final carry falling into the end zone and giving the Cowboys their first lead of the game. Elliott got up, jogged to the back of the end zone, and did a little dance. Smith never danced, though that might have been for lack of talent as much as some phony definition of “class.”
Two drives later, Elliott went left and got loose for 26 yards. Again, two Cowboys linemen created a huge hole (this time, it was Travis Frederick and Ron Leary). Again, Elliott didn’t outrun anybody — much like Smith would, he got contacted, got the better of the encounter, and managed to land on the tackler (this time, it was Rashard Robinson). Troy Aikman noted on the broadcast that Smith, too, compiled much of his yardage late in the second halves of games. (Elliott finished with 23 carries for 138 yards.) On that drive, Elliott got stoned twice inside the 5-yard line, leaving room for improvement.
Here’s the spot to say: This won’t work every week! The Cowboys’ big-time success started when 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman got injured and carted off the field. A defense with more talent than the Niners’ figures to do what the Giants did in Week 1: put a lot of guys around the line of scrimmage and dare Dak Prescott to make a play against one-on-one coverage. But as a strategy to get through a Romo-less stretch, handing off the ball and hoping your defense makes a stop or two ain’t bad.
The only false note for Dallas came during the final two-minute warning. Fox’s cameras caught Elliott leaving the bench and running onto the field to help inspire the defense. Any connoisseur of the run-first, ’90s Cowboys knows Smith never would’ve done something so goofy. That was Michael Irvin’s job.
Loser: Recency Bias
Danny Kelly: I mean, how in the hell are you supposed to bet on this stuff? Pittsburgh came into the game on the heels of a 34–3 drubbing at the hands of the Eagles, who’d made Ben Roethlisberger look like a husky version of Blaine Gabbert. Against Philadelphia, Big Ben completed a little more than half of his passes (24 of 44), failed to find the end zone, threw a pick, and lost a fumble as the Steelers put together their worst offensive performance in three years. Things weren’t supposed to get any easier this weekend as they played host to the Chiefs’ top-rated pass defense per Football Outsiders DVOA — you know, the one that picked off Ryan Fitzpatrick six times last weekend. (For reference: The Ravens had six interceptions … in all of 2015.) But since football is mostly uncontrollable chaos and there’s no way to predict anything, Roethlisberger absolutely lit Kansas City up, tossing four touchdowns before halftime as the Steelers raced out to a 29–0 halftime lead.
It doesn’t really matter what happened in the second half — but after adding another passing touchdown in the third quarter, Roethlisberger finished the day with the same amount of passing scores (five) as incompletions. The Steelers take on the hapless Jets next week, while the Chiefs are on a bye. So there’s at least one thing we can tell you with confidence: Kansas City won’t be playing another football game until October 16.
Winner: The Steamrolling Atlanta Falcons
Kevin Clark: The first two Falcons victories were easy to explain. They went out west to beat a young Raiders team coming off an emotional win over the Saints. Explained. Then they beat a Saints team that is terrible and can’t play defense. Explained.
Sunday was different. They rocked the defending NFC champion Panthers 48–33 — and established themselves as the best offense in the NFL through four games. Julio Jones had 300 receiving yards — which is, uh, holy shit. (That’s the technical term.) Matt Ryan looks like he’s capable of doing this all season — he’s got a career-high passer rating, the offensive line is improved, running backs Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman are helping carry the load, and Ryan even has some non-Jones options that he’s molding into legitimate threats. Rookie Austin Hooper had a 42-yard touchdown reception and Aldrick Robinson, last seen playing badly for Washington, had a 35-yard score as well.
Yes, there were defensive lapses: They allowed 23 fourth-quarter points and made backup Derek Anderson look good after he came on in relief of an injured Cam Newton. But it’s hard to leave this game thinking that the Falcons are anything short of a serious threat. Next week they visit Denver. The week after that? Seattle. If Ryan and Jones are able to connect like this against those teams, we’ll have to start asking how this historically good offense will perform come January.
Loser: The Cardinals, Literally
Shea Serrano: The Cardinals were supposed to be the best one of the best teams in the NFL this season. The reasoning was sound, too. They’d been successful in recent years (10 wins in 2013, 11 wins in 2014, 13 wins in 2015), Carson Palmer got his first-ever playoff win last season (and he beat Aaron Rodgers in doing so), their secondary is tough, their receiving corps is tougher (and ageless — shout-out Larry Fitzgerald, who is 200 years old and still unstoppable in one-on-one coverage), and running back David Johnson is maybe the toughest of all. But so far, 2016 has been mush for them. They’re 1–3 now, with their most recent loss coming via the Los Angeles Rams, who I didn’t even know were still in the NFL. So the Cardinals are literally Losers right now, as in they just lost, but they’re also Losing, which is maybe worse.
Winner: Paxton Lynch’s Face
Shea Serrano: With a little over three minutes left in the first half of the Broncos-Buccaneers game, Denver quarterback Trevor Siemian got smushed into the turf during a sack and injured his left shoulder. It was a sad thing because injuries are sad, but it was a not sad thing because it meant that Paxton Lynch got to play. He threw for 170 yards and a touchdown as Denver won 27–7 to stay undefeated. There are things to be said about what happens with the Broncos quarterback situation from here — they traded up aggressively in the 2016 draft to get Lynch, which means they hope for a big future with him; Siemian had been really good in his first three games — but that’s for later. What’s for now is this: Have you ever even looked at Paxton Lynch? His face and his hair and also his facial hair are all so much fun.
I like Paxton Lynch because he looks one of the Three Musketeers. I like Paxton Lynch because he kind of looks like Skeet Ulrich, back when Skeet Ulrich was someone you wanted to look like. I like Paxton Lynch because he looks like he’s the second-best member of a boy band. I like Paxton Lynch because he looks like he definitely has a favorite combo meal from Jack in the Box. I like Paxton Lynch because he looks like Shia LaBeouf right before he started to go crazy. I like Paxton Lynch because he looks like the comic relief guy in a movie about a high school kid who transfers to a new school and has trouble fitting in. I like Paxton Lynch because he looks like a more fun Tim Tebow. I like Paxton Lynch because he looks like he falls asleep with all of his clothes on at least twice a week.
Winner: Le’Veon Bell
Danny Kelly: Bell hit the field for the Steelers for the first time since last November, and Pittsburgh used him like a hybrid running back–receiver throughout the first half. They lined him up both outside on the wing and inside in the slot, splitting him out of the backfield to exploit mismatches in coverage while keeping DeAngelo Williams behind the quarterback. As a receiver, Bell caught five of his six targets for 34 yards — all in the first half — as the Steelers hinted at an interesting future that sees their two backs often on the field at the same time. Williams was great in Bell’s absence both this year and last, so it makes sense they’d want to keep both of their options in the lineup.
With the Steelers winning 29–0 at halftime, Bell got a chance to knock the rust off as a runner with a heavy workload in second-half garbage time. He rushed for 105 yards on 12 carries in the second half and finished the game with an easy 144 yards on 18 carries at 8 yards per tote. Whether he’s taking handoffs from Ben Roethlisberger or on the receiving end of one of his passes, Bell wasted no time in letting us all know that superstar running backs still exist.
Winner: Terrelle Pryor, Jumpman
Micah Peters: Before the Browns played the Redskins on Sunday, Terrelle Pryor (who only recently moved to wide receiver) had this to say about Washington cornerback Josh Norman: “I’m 6-foot-5, 230, I’m not worried about no corner talking about me.” It read equal parts I fear no man and — given that Pryor has a good seven inches on Norman’s last assignment, Odell Beckham Jr. — I ain’t one of your lil’ friends.
Pryor made good on that assertion when Browns QB Cody Kessler threw him a short fade in the red zone and the Browns wideout dunked on Norman.
AND THEN HE THREW UP THE LEBRON POWDER.
Thanks to a late fumble by Duke Johnson, Sunday was a just moral victory for Pryor. Because one of the untenable laws of nature is that when given the opportunity, the Browns can and will Browns (and did so to the tune of 31–20, Washington). But maybe — just maybe — if they let Terrelle Pryor play every position, or chucked it to him on every play, or let him coach the damn team, the Browns wouldn’t Browns quite so hard.
Loser: NaVorro Bowman
Bryan Curtis: This is how the injury happened: NaVorro Bowman was lined up on the left side of the defense, a few steps to the right of rookie corner Rashard Robinson. The Cowboys snapped the ball. Bowman took exactly two steps backward, before planting his right leg and starting toward the line. Dallas’s Cole Beasley made a motion in Bowman’s direction, but never touched him. By then, Bowman was lying on his back and grabbing his left leg. The dreaded word “noncontact” was uttered in the broadcast booth. Bowman’s sock was taken off so the doctor could have a look at his leg. Soon, Bowman was seen leaving the field on a cart.
A few hours before, Bowman was going about the business of being — as the 49ers’ website called him on second reference — “the defensive leader.” When San Francisco got blasted by the Seahawks last week and people started wondering why Colin Kaepernick wasn’t in the huddle, it was up to Bowman to stick up for Blaine Gabbert.
But everything Bowman had done this year was colored by a “will that leg really hold?” state of uncertainty. After all, Bowman tore every ligament imaginable in his left knee in the NFC championship game in January 2014 (no link, not ever). Earlier this week, Bowman told our very own Robert Mays that he couldn’t even get up to use the bathroom after the injury. He missed all of the next season. Last year, Bowman came back and started every game. “It’s not on my mind as much as last year, and that’s the main thing,” he said this summer. He told Mays he no longer had to think about the knee giving out every time he made a tackle.
Dr. David Chao, practicing his craft on Twitter, said Bowman’s injury today looked like a “fairly classic” Achilles rupture. Noncontact is really the wrong word here. This one hits just about everybody.
Loser: England, the Country
Claire McNear: Consider, for a moment, the long-term ramifications of Sunday’s game between the Jaguars and Colts at London’s Wembley Stadium. I don’t mean how Jacksonville’s 30–27 win helps or hurts (hint: It’s the second one) the league’s stated goal of playing in the U.K. in order to continue “building the NFL’s fanbase” abroad. What I mean instead is: Consider the societal butterfly effect of what occurred.
Think about the well-meaning and otherwise perfectly nice fans who went home today believing that Blake Bortles is the greatest quarterback in England. Think about the simple, statistical fact that they are right. Think about the little English babies who are being conceived right this English second between damp English sheets in the afterglow of the Jaguars’ meek English victory. Think of the not entirely low odds that those babies will be named after Blake Bortles, champion of Wembley. Think of the fact that a small army of Blake Bortles Wellingtons and Blake Bortles McIlhenrys and Blake Bortles Leihamptonshires will spend most of the next century wandering the world and wondering why — why Andrew Luck played like Blake Bortles, why Blake Bortles played somehow competent(ish), why no one stopped their fathers from purchasing leopard-print suits, why the NFL was allowed to bring this game into their parents’ homeland. But mostly just why.
Winner: The Russell Wilson and Jimmy Graham Show
Sean Fennessey: Shortly after Christine Michael caught a pass from Russell Wilson to cap a four-play, 61-yard drive that gave the Seahawks a 24–10 lead over the Jets, Fox went to commercial to the soothing sounds of Nirvana’s “Breed,” the fourth song on Nirvana’s Nevermind. Kurt Cobain sings:
Great song, and a savvy pick. Seattle, grunge, domination, pain, power chords — get it? Reminds me of Dangeruss turning off the hate machine and hurling the ball into uncommonly tiny spaces to all the right faces. The Seahawks are 3–1, having surrendered the fewest points of any team that has completed four games. They have a still-great-when-injured Russ, and they have Jimmy Graham, who finally looks like the tanker truck that hauled in 16 touchdowns in 2013 for the Saints. The key play in that scoring drive before Cobain wailed was a silly 24-yard catch along the sideline that perhaps only Graham, Julio Jones, and Luke Cage could have reeled in.
So, here we find ourselves examining the NFC West, once the mightiest division in football — and now, apparently, a joke. Rams: no. Niners: no. Cardinals: probably no. There is no competition. The Seahawks appear to be competing for Best of NFC with the Eagles and Still Unproven Carson Wentz (birth name), as well as the Vikings and We’ll See About Sam Bradford This Time (legally changed name). I’ll take the Hawks, Happily Married Russell Wilson, and the Soon-to-Be-Starring-in-a-Marvel-Netflix-Series tight end.
Loser: The Groundbound Jets
Sam Schube: Football’s a physical sport; most dudes wind up on or near the ground after every play. But most players fall down because someone pushed, tackled, or cold-cocked them. The Jets? They fall down differently: They eat shit in the open field, tripping over their own ankles, waving helplessly as spirals arc over their heads. After receiver Brandon Marshall hit the turf a second time, the announcer joked that he’d have a 100-yard half — if not for the constant Chaplin-on-a–banana peel act. Calvin Pryor got a mouthful of grass as Tanner McEvoy sprinted past him for a 42-yard touchdown reception. Ryan Fitzpatrick dove for the turf neck-first multiple times, because they don’t teach sliding at Harvard. “When you fall down, get back up,” the old saying goes. At a dispiriting 1–3, the Jets seem likely to stay down.
Winner: Rex Ryan, Gainfully Employed
Claire McNear: How close was Rex Ryan to getting fired after the Bills’ Week 2 loss to the Jets at home? Did he need a “miracle”? Was he “looking up a steep hill”? Was his coaching career “on life-support”?
Life-support Ryan, meet Week 4 Ryan, who managed to shut out the Patriots in a 16–0 win at Foxborough, hand New England its first loss of the season, and bring the Bills back to .500, and blah blah blah blah, whatever, Rex Ryan is not unemployed, guys. Would you have believed any of this two weeks ago? Seriously — take a journey through hot seats past and tell me: Has anyone ever been fired-er than him with so few actual firings?
Ryan, who once reportedly cried in the locker room after his Jets lost to the Seahawks, summed things up this year in a training camp rant: “Here the fuck we are. That’s who the fuck I am.” Maybe what Ryan really meant was: Being here — amazingly, improbably, enduringly — is who the fuck he is.
Loser: Poor Bene Benwikere
Micah Peters: With a little over four minutes left and the Falcons’ lead cut from sizable to manageable by a one-handed Greg Olsen TD, Carolina was, like, right there, sort of. If you were a Carolina fan, you might’ve even allowed yourself to feel hope.
Julio Jones picked up a short screen pass and bullied Bene Benwikere into oblivion while taking it 75 yards to the house. The resulting stat line is the kind of thing that makes you shout “BULLSHIT” at Madden, as if it could actually talk back to you: Jones had 300 yards on the day (there have been only six 300-yard receiving games ever), and Matt Ryan put up 503 yards; both of which were franchise records.
So really, singling out Bene Benwikere as the lone loser is unfair. That designation goes to the entire Panthers defense.
Loser: The Very Bad Lions
Kevin Clark: The Bears are likely the worst team in the NFL — and the Lions just made them look like champs. Detroit didn’t show any flashes of life in the 17–14 loss until Andre Roberts returned a punt 85 yards for a touchdown … with two minutes left. And the problem wasn’t just a lack of urgency: The Bears’ defense is terrible, but Matthew Stafford couldn’t muster a touchdown, and he threw two awful interceptions, both of which looked like they were intended for the defensive back.
And sure, the Lions being bad isn’t exactly a huge surprise. If you haven’t noticed, there are a whole bunch of bad teams in the NFL. Which means there’s an opening for slightly less bad teams — hello, Ravens! — to beat up on the worse ones, accumulate some wins and maybe sneak into the playoffs. The Lions were a nice candidate to pick up a few garbage wins on their way to a 10–6 record. They had the talent. Now, they are 1–3, and the focus shifts from “Can they be a sleeper?” to “Is Jim Caldwell still employed?”
Ryan O’Hanlon: Unless you live in San Diego or Louisiana, you probably didn’t watch the Saints play the Chargers because … well, you must’ve had something better going on, right? There’s only one detail you need to know about this game anyway: It’s not that Philip Rivers is still a side-arming wizard who can stop time and put up numbers even if you take away his entire supporting cast. It’s not that the Chargers fumbled the game away in the fourth quarter, either. And OK, sure, there were 139 plays run, 620 total offensive yards accrued, and 69 points scored, but forget all of that and focus on what’s important.
John Kuhn, who plays for the Saints and now rumbles around like a gaudy butcher from the Renaissance era, gained 12 total yards and scored three touchdowns. Through three games, he’s touched the ball on nine plays and crossed into end zone glory four separate times. Let this be a reminder: Whether it’s your recent transition from dairy into almond milk in order to lower your cholesterol intake but still hit your protein quota, the quantity-over-quality running back–drafting strategy you employed during last month’s fantasy draft, or the 106 combined rushing and receiving yards you posted on Sunday as the Saints starting running back — none of that matters.