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The NFL’s Week 4 Slate Will Finally Provide Contender Clarity

Somehow, through three weeks of play, we know less about most NFL teams than we thought we knew before the season began. Thankfully, three key Sunday matchups should give us much-needed insight into which nominal contenders are really playoff bound.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Quick: What do we really know about NFL teams in 2017? I think we can all agree that the Kansas City Chiefs are running the ball historically well, that the Falcons are still the best team in the NFC, and that the New York Giants are a complete disaster. But such is the mysterious nature of this season that basically everything else, including many things we considered certainties this preseason—are now unknowns.

For instance, before the season you probably assumed that you could take it to the bank that Week 4’s Jaguars-Jets matchup would be a tire fire visible from outer space. But not only are both teams coming off wins—yes, really—they’re coming off good wins: The Jaguars beat the Ravens 44-7, their second blowout win in the last three weeks, and the Jets beat a Dolphins team that made the playoffs last year. If you’re into easy jokes about predictably awful teams, as I am, it’s been a nightmare stretch so far. I don’t know what’s happening. I’m shook. At least we’ve still got the Browns.

The truth of the matter is that there’s going to be a lot of confusion every September from here on out: The 2011 collective bargaining agreement banned two-a-day practices in training camp, meaning that teams are now less prepared when September rolls around. When players are less prepared, they’re more prone to mistakes. Teams need enough time to see their players in action before knowing how to best use their resources. A general manager told me last September that savvy front offices and coaching staffs, knowing that early-season struggles will occur, now design position units to get better as the season goes along. They do that by collecting more raw, ultra-athletic players and continuing to develop them throughout the season. The upshot is that the smartest teams, like New England, are just getting started this month. Bill Belichick recently used a very apt analogy when comparing the impact of limited NFL practice time to only going to the driving range before golfing: If your offensive line can’t practice, it’s going to be bad, same as your putting.

But here’s the good news: This week features contests that are built to answer the questions that the first three weeks of the season haven’t, specifically about the position groups and units that have failed to contribute as expected. Three matchups, in particular, should provide the perfect tests to bring some much-needed on-field clarity to the murky NFL contention pool.

Patriots vs. Panthers

The Question: Are these teams Super Bowl contenders?

What We Can Learn This Sunday: Woooooah boy. The Patriots are 2-1 and often this season have looked positively Patriot-y. They’ve scored 36 points in each of the last two weeks, and Tom Brady is enjoying the best start to a season since 2007. Yet they could have easily lost to the Houston Texans last week, needing a last-second drive to win; they got dismantled by Kansas City in Week 1; and they still haven’t found a way to consistently pressure the quarterback. Their short-yardage game is terrible and their defense has massive holes, but the hits that Brady is taking might be as big of a long-term problem. He’s already been hit 19 times and sacked 10 times, and the New England media thinks it’s a big deal—probably because Brady is 40 years old and the Patriots should be trying harder to keep him healthy.

Belichick is still finding ways to prove that he’s the smartest guy in football, including on tape breakdowns:

The Panthers’ weak link thus far, meanwhile, has been an offense, led by Cam Newton, that should break out at some point. If that happens, that unit coupled with a defense that’s allowing the fewest yards in the NFL would position Carolina among the NFL’s elite. Newton has a rating below 70 so far, but he finally unlocked rookie Christian McCaffrey as a weapon last week, finding him for 101 receiving yards, a particularly impressive total considering that Newton historically hasn’t been fond of throwing to running backs.

Newton, who threw three interceptions last week, now gets to lead his offense against a Patriots defense that has been the worst in the league. Can New England’s inconsistent defensive line contain Newton? Can the underperforming Patriots pass defense—led by an underwhelming Malcolm Butler—pick off Newton a few times? Or is this the defense that is so bad that it rejuvenates Newton? When the ball is on the other side, can the Patriots offense keep Brady upright against a stacked Panthers defense? It’s only September, and neither of these teams is in its final form, but on Sunday, we’re going to know a lot more about which one is closer to getting there.

Rams vs. Cowboys

The Question: Are … uh … these teams good?

What We Can Learn This Sunday: I want to talk about Jeff Fisher for a second. Fisher, who went 31–45 in nearly five seasons coaching the Rams, never helped them build an offense that finished better than 21st in the league. Last season, the unit bottomed out and was dead last in the NFL in points. Now new Rams coach Sean McVay, who installed schemes that can be vaguely defined as “pro football plays,” has Jared Goff and the Rams scoring the most points in the NFL through three weeks. In case you missed it, Goff, the 2016 no. 1 overall pick, looked historically bad last season. The other quarterback Fisher had last season, who also looked terrible, was Case Keenum, who’s now with the Vikings and was last seen throwing for 369 yards and three touchdowns against the Bucs in Week 3 on his way to a 142.1 QB rating. Keenum isn’t going to become a star, and Sam Bradford will take back that job as soon as he’s healthy, but Keenum looks like a different player than the one who slogged through a brief Rams career.

Fisher is 59, so I don’t seriously think he’s going to get another head-coaching job (even though it’s been floated) — but I desperately want him to. I’ve often joked about what would happen if Belichick took over any team — would he, for instance, guide the Browns to the playoffs in two seasons? (Probably!) Fisher, we now know, is the exact opposite. After watching the Rams play under a new coach, I find myself wondering if Fisher could make the Falcons a low-scoring, dull team if he took over right now. We know so little about the NFL, but it’s nice to realize that some things are constants: Yes, yes he would.

So for the Rams, the questions are these: Was Fisher such a bad coach that he just made the Rams look like a talentless blob of a team? Or is McVay such a great coach that he took a talentless blob of a team and made it an offensive juggernaut? Or have the Rams just benefited from playing two horrendous teams, the 49ers and Colts, early?

It’s even harder to figure out what’s happening with the Cowboys, who’ve managed two wins against some bad teams (a win over the 2017 Giants is … not impressive) and suffered a blowout loss to a Denver team that looks inconsistent. Dak Prescott tied a career low for passing attempts in a full game last week against Arizona, with 18, but looked efficient with the ball in his hands, completing 72 percent of his passes. What worries me is that Ezekiel Elliott’s performance this season (3.5 yards per carry, down from 5.1 last year) has not been good enough to enable Prescott to turn into an efficient dink-and-dunk artist. The Cowboys’ current offense is not sustainable. Either Elliott has to start running like he did in 2016 or Prescott has to start slinging it more times per game. Either way, we’ve learned something crucial: The Cowboys are not going to be enough of an unstoppable offensive machine to allow them to play mediocre defense. They’re currently 19th in pass defense, a metric that must improve quickly; facing the league’s no. 1 offense this weekend will be a good test.

This isn’t college football, where we have to guess about the value of “good wins” and “bad wins,” because ultimately we find out in the playoffs how ready each team really is. But it’s notable now that I don’t know any more about the Cowboys than I did before the season started. When Dallas faces Los Angeles’s creative Wade Phillips defense (Wade Phillips revenge game!) that’s better than it’s looked, we’ll finally learn something real.

Raiders vs. Broncos

The Question: Are either of these teams as good as the Chiefs?

What We Can Learn This Sunday: Something odd happened last Sunday night — one of the teams the football world was sure was good looked so bad that doubts set in, and now we’re sure about one fewer team in the NFL. The Raiders lost 27–10 to an inconsistent Washington team that Oakland should probably beat and should certainly compete against. We know the Raiders offensive line is still good:

But we also know that the defense still needs to get bailed out by the offense: The Raiders are 24th in passing yards allowed this year, same as they were last year, making the offense’s sudden problems against Washington a concern that undermines our overall prior assessment of the team. And as a general rule, I don’t suggest that teams looking for an offensive confidence boost play Denver. Amari Cooper has 39 combined yards in his past two games, has six drops this season, and also lost a war of words with Josh Norman that he literally didn’t know was taking place. Oakland’s Week 1 win against the Titans looks as good as any win in the league this season, but the Raiders have to be an elite offensive force to compensate for their defensive holes. They tried to fix their defense, particularly in the secondary, with draft picks, but one of their top two picks, Obi Melifonwu, has been banged up, and didn’t play last week. Even when healthy, the defense still relies on the Raiders’ passing game to carry it to contention. Led by Aqib Talib, Denver has one of the best secondaries in the league. The Raiders’ receivers against the Broncos’ covermen will tell us quite a bit about the AFC West race.

Trevor Siemian, meanwhile, had his first rough game of the season last week, as the Broncos looked dreadful, scoring just 16 points in a loss against the Bills. Buffalo loaded up the box and begged Siemian to try to beat it with his arm, and he couldn’t pull off the trick. The point of having a good defensive team and a sturdy quarterback is the ensuing level of expected consistency. Defense is supposed to travel; a team like Denver isn’t supposed to play the Bills and give up 26 points. Raiders-Broncos is suddenly the something-to-prove bowl in the division, and the Broncos defense is once again looking to show that it’s good enough to lead the team to the postseason. It will get a chance to illustrate just that against a top-five offense on Sunday. At least we think it’s top-five. We still know nothing. But that’s about to change. We think.