Sorting the NFL Week 4 Pile: Apologizing to Cowboys, Cardinals and Packers for doubting them


Let’s get to some early-season apologies:

I’m still unsure whether I need to issue an apology to Mike McCarthy — let’s see a full season and maybe postseason’s worth of game management before making that call — but this Cowboys team as a whole deserves a sorry for sure. I thought there was a chance Dallas could finish in the basement of the NFC East if the Cowboys couldn’t fix the defense and/or the offense looked like it did during the first four weeks of 2020. Yeah, the numbers were there, but it was mostly in garbage time. 

That’s not the case now: the Cowboys offense is clicking. After coming in ranked sixth in offensive DVOA, Dallas should only climb further with a 36-point outburst against the No. 1 ranked offense in football. The Cowboys caught some breaks in the game, including a fumble that was overruled by forward progress. But generally speaking Dallas was fantastic on offense. 

Ezekiel Elliott probably had his best game in two years, running 20 times for 143 yards, including a 47-yard scamper to set up a Dalton Schultz touchdown from Dak Prescott. There were some massive holes made by the Cowboys offensive line, sure, but watch Elliott’s highlights and you see a shifty, physical back with explosiveness fighting for extra yards and really seeing the field well. It was indeed “vintage Zeke” on Sunday.

Elliott’s 72 rush yards over expectation was the highest in Week 4 and the second highest of the season. Over his last two games, Zeke is averaging more than six yards per carry. This isn’t a cry for “balanced offense” — it’s simply a point that when the Cowboys are moving bodies in the run game and Zeke is eating, it makes Dallas’ offense as a whole exceedingly difficult to slow down.

Dak wasn’t asked to do much on Sunday: he only attempted 22 passes. But he completed 14 of them and four of those completions went for touchdowns, including a beautiful deep shot to Amari Cooper, who smoked poor newcomer C.J. Henderson down the right sideline. It was actually a difficult completion though. According to Next Gen Stats it was Dak’s most unlikely completion of the season. And it came with Cooper dealing with a hamstring injury.

As long as Dak and the offensive line stay healthy, this will be a dominant unit. The defense doesn’t even have full health right now and is still playing above expectations. DeMarcus Lawrence is missing but Micah Parsons is stepping up in his absence, moving all over the place, rushing the passer and doing things most rookies don’t do. Trevon Diggs is probably the leader in the clubhouse for DPOY right now. He’s got more interceptions than 27 (!!) NFL teams (!!). Dan Quinn’s addition has been a massive difference for this team. The Cowboys defense is tracking as “average to above average” which doesn’t sound complementary but when you take a unit from bottom tier to average and the other side of the ball is elite, it makes a massive difference in how a team performs over the course of the season. 

Put Arizona and Kyler Murray in a different division and they would have been popular choices to win the division. In the loaded NFC West? The Cardinals were certainly picked to finish last more often than first. The Rams added Matthew Stafford, the 49ers added Trey Lance and the Seahawks still have Russell Wilson

As good as Kyler was last year for stretches, it was the Cards limping to the finish and questions about Kliff Kingsbury’s in-game management which caused everyone to bail out on Arizona as a sleeper. Even the Kyler MVP chatter was kind of meh before this year — there was a post-hype factor in play here because of pre-2020 expectations that weren’t lived up to. 

Now, however, the Cards are 4-0. It’s the first time since 2012 — let’s ignore how they finished 5-11 that year! — and just the third time in franchise history Arizona’s come out this hot to start a season.

Murray leads the NFL in completion percentage (76.1 percent) after completing more than 75 percent of his passes for a third straight game and just hung 37 on a highly-regarded Rams defense, the most L.A. has given up since 2019. Arizona flexed on the Titans, Vikings and Jaguars to start the season. Sunday was different. A road game in the division as a 4.5-point underdog, against a very good defense and Kyler and Co. plopped 37 on Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey

DeAndre Hopkins — battling an injury — was fairly quiet, with just four catches for 67 yards. But that makes this performance more impressive: Chase Edmonds averaged 10 yards per carry, ripping off big run after big run, especially when the Cards were closing the game out. He and James Conner complement each other well. A.J. Green led the team in receiving and scored the first touchdown in this game. Getting a bunch of production from the veterans Arizona added this offseason only makes this team more dangerous.

Maybe they don’t hold on for the division title after this scorching start, but it sure seems as if Arizona is here to stay almost a quarter of the way through the season. 

Sorry, Jaguars

Oh wait. That’s not me apologizing. That’s Urban Meyer saying sorry.

Way back before the season began, I issued an Ice Cold Take (sponsored by Bud Light) suggesting the Vikings would be better than the Packers no matter whether Aaron Rodgers decided to return or retire. At the time, his return felt pretty far off, so the take felt a lot safer! Now it looks idiotic. 

Green Bay handled the Steelers on Sunday, winning 27-17 in a game that didn’t feel that close outside of Pittsburgh’s opening touchdown and Green Bay’s inability to find the end zone in the first quarter. In fairness to the Steelers, they may have gotten hosed by an offsides call on a blocked punt that would have flipped the game in their favor.

Certainly Joe Haden would agree.

I’m still not sure Pittsburgh pulls off a win regardless of what happens with that blocked punt, but it’s fair to say the Steelers would have been more competitive. Certainly, though, they got jobbed and deserve some apologies for what happened on Sunday. 

While we’re apologizing to the Steelers — and before we get back to the Packers — it’s probably worth pointing out we could be hearing some sorries from Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Canada. Or not sorries? I would bet if anything goes down with these two it won’t be polite and it won’t be public.

Ben threw his 400th touchdown on Sunday, but was largely unimpressive throwing downfield, missing multiple shots to JuJu Smith-Schuster. The “Blame Canada” situation could unfold because of the fourth-down calls. Ben was throwing short of the sticks and in some cases even short of the line of scrimmage. 

The biggest issue percolating with Pittsburgh right now is whether or not the Steelers should keep rolling with Big Ben at quarterback. Suggesting Pittsburgh plays Mason Rudolph or Dwayne Haskins right now is borderline heresy but Ben looks completely cooked. If the Steelers continue losing games, the coaching staff and front office may not have a choice.

Back to the Packers: they’re not unbeatable (see Week 1) but the division looks so bad right now it’s really hard to imagine them not getting upwards of 13 or 14 wins. Minnesota’s offense was quite lethargic against the Browns on Sunday. And Aaron Rodgers is starting to really cook a la last season.

Rodgers probably won’t end up producing at a similar clip to 2020 because the numbers were always just unsustainable. What impressed me was how the running game looked a little more diverse for the first time this season, thanks to A.J. Dillon coming in and grinding out some nice yards at the end of the game.

Many of us mocked the Packers for taking Dillon in the second round two years ago (guilty!) but if the plan was to move on from Jamaal Williams and not Aaron Jones — which ended up being the case — the Packers might have a really nice running back combo and a closer who can grind out yards when Green Bay is squatting on a lead, without giving Jones too many touches. 

A possible AC joint injury to Jaire Alexander is extremely concerning for the defensive outlook, but this team appears to have enough over the last couple of weeks to limit teams to the point where Rodgers can do his offensive damage. Doubting them to win the division was foolish and I’m excited to see it thrown back in my face come January. Or maybe November at the rate things are going.





Source link