A total of 26 teams around the NFL will wrap up the first quarter of their regular season schedules this week. Sadly, that’s just how quickly the season passes us by. Now that we have gotten through the early part of the year, there is a whole heck of a lot that has happened and some trends have started to take place.
Is Tom Brady in the midst of regressing as a quarterback in New England? Does he have that supporting cast to help his team remain viable contenders moving forward? What about the issues on offense in Green Bay or insane amount of penalties called against the 49ers thus far?
These are just three things to keep an eye on during Week 4 of the 2014 NFL season. As has been the case each and every week this season, here is the top storyline for each game this upcoming weekend.
New York Giants at Washington Redskins: Battle for Last Place
No matter what happens in the NFC East this week, whoever loses this game will be in last place and at least two games behind the Philadelphia Eagles in the division. Eli Manning and the Giants rebounded at home against the Houston Texans last week after losing their first two games of the season. Meanwhile, Washington couldn’t withstand horrendous defensive play and key penalties despite a stellar performance from Kirk Cousins against the Eagles in a disappointing three-point loss. This game could very well doom one of these teams. And that, above anything else, makes this a huge Thursday Night matchup.
Green Bay Packers at Chicago Bears: Can the Packers Offense Rebound?
Aaron Rodgers and Co. put up just 14 first downs and 223 yards against the Lions last week. It was one of the team’s worst overall performances under the Super Bowl-winning quarterback. It’s possible that a heavy reliance on Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb could have something to do with this. These two wide receivers have combined for over 62 percent of Rodgers’ pass completions through three games. In order for this unit to succeed, someone (anyone) outside of these two need to step up. That could potentially come in the form of Eddie Lacy, who is averaging just 3.1 yards per rush this season. If Lacy can help the Packers create some balance on offense, their issues in pass protection (nine sacks in three games) could be quieted and help build some momentum for the remainder of the year.
Buffalo Bills at Houston Texans: Both Teams Looking to Regain Momentum
Both Buffalo and Houston won their first two games of the season before falling in disappointing Week 3 performances. While neither team can be considered legitimate contenders in their division, this could very well be an important game for their wild card aspirations.
It could be said that Texans’ quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick had his first bad outing of the season last week against the New York Giants. He threw three interceptions and was asked to do a little bit more without running back Arian Foster in the lineup. In order for Fitzpatrick and the Texans offense to succeed moving forward, they are going to have to find consistency in the run game and keep the veteran in full game manager mode.
For EJ Manuel and the Bills, they didn’t perform too bad against a good Chargers team at home in Week 3. One of the primary reasons they fell 22-10 was the fact that Manuel simply couldn’t find his wide receivers in this game. The young signal caller completed just 7-of-20 passes to Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods and Mike Williams. He’s going to have to do a much better job finding holes in opposing team’s secondaries in order for the Bills to be considered legit playoff contenders moving forward. That’s simply not happening right now.
Tennessee Titans at Indianapolis Colts: Jake Locker’s Present (and Future) in Tennessee
— NFL (@NFL) September 23, 2014
Locker, who has struggled big time since a great Week 1 performance against the Kansas City Chiefs, is questionable after suffering a wrist injury against Cincinnati. His poor recent performance coupled with a history of injuries have led some to question whether Tennessee should just throw rookie Zach Mettenberger out there.
The issue here is that Tennessee is a pretty talented all-around team and it’s unrealistic to expect the first-year quarterback to keep it in contention for a postseason spot throughout the remainder of the season. In any event, Locker’s future with the Titans is more in doubt now than it has ever been before. And another poor game Week 4 (should he play) could start the Mettenberger era in Nashville.
Carolina Panthers at Baltimore Ravens: Early-Season Statement Games for Both Teams
Baltimore is coming off a solid win against an underrated Cleveland Browns team, while the Panthers were throttled at home against the Pittsburgh Seelers. Both teams need to prove that they are legitimate division title contenders at this early point in the season. And there is absolutely no better way to do that than against an opponent that has a lot to prove.
For the Panthers, it’s going to be about finding a ground game to support Cam Newton. DeAngelo Williams missed last week’s game against Pittsburgh with a thigh injury. Jonathan Stewart went down with yet another injury and and is likely going to be out for a few weeks. As head coach Ron Rivera indicated, it was a “severely sprained right knee.” The most damaging injury came to Mike Tolbert, who was placed on injured reserve with a designation to return on Tuesday. While Williams might very well return against Baltimore, there has to be a ton of concern here. Fozzy Whittaker and Darrin Reaves would be next in line if Williams can’t go.
Baltimore has a similar situation at running back. Bernard Pierce missed its game against the Browns last week and was replaced as the team’s primary ball carrier by Lorenzo Taliaferro, who put up 91 yards and a score on 18 attempts. Justin Forsett added 61 yard on the ground. It’s this type of balance that has Baltimore in the midst of a two-game winning streak after a bad loss to Cincinnati in Week 1. Simply put, Joe Flacco cannot be asked to shoulder the load. After all, it’s not a coincidence that he has attempted fewer passes (60) in the last two games combined than he put up in Week 1 alone.
Detroit Lions at New York Jets: Geno Smith and Michael Vick
A lot of people want to blame Smith for the Jets’ lack of success on offense over the past two weeks. While he definitely shoulders some of the blame, their game plan has been a complete disaster. There is absolutely no reason for Smith to attempt 43 passes with Chris Ivory and Chris Johnson playing good football in the running game.
For those of you demanding that Vick gets a chance in the not-so-distant future, answer me this. Do you really expect him to limit turnovers when tasked with throwing the ball 40-plus times? After all, the veteran averaged a turnover per 21.4 touches in 2012 and 2013 combined. He’s not the guy you want to throw out there to limit turnovers.
As it is, the Jets need to get back to the basics on offense if they want to stop a two-game skid and get back into the playoff conversation in the AFC. That’s likely going to be with Smith under center against a Lions defense that has played damn good football over the first three weeks.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Pittsburgh Steelers: Mike Glennon’s First Start of the Lovie Smith Era
After last week’s disaster against the Atlanta Falcons, the winless Buccaneers take their act to Pittsburgh with backup quarterback Mike Glennon now under center. It will be extremely interesting to see how the Buccaneers and their coaching staff respond with this second-year quarterback now starting for an injured Josh McCown. After all, it’s pretty obvious that McCown was Smith’s hand-picked option to start for the duration of the season.
But let’s be honest here for a second, McCown wasn’t taking this team anywhere. With Glennon, at least the Buccaneers offense has some upside moving forward. His strong arm should be beneficial to the likes of Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson on the outside, something that just never materialized with McCown under center. At this point, Tampa Bay is playing for pride more than anything. And Smith, now in his fourth game as the team’s head coach, needs to notch his first win.
Miami Dolphins at Oakland Raiders: Ryan Tannehill’s Present and Future in Miami
It’s becoming readily apparent that some within the Dolphins’ organization are not sold on Tannehill as either the short term or long-term option for the franchise. However interesting that might be, it could very well lead to a benching at some point in the not-so-distant future. There have even been rumblings, mainly from head coach Joe Philbin, that Tannehill might not even start against the Raiders this week. That’s a travesty in and of itself, especially considering Philbin and Co. refuse to look in the mirror for Miami’s issues on offense.
In any event, should Tannehill get the start on Sunday against Oakland, he will be on a short leash. A slow start and we may very well see veteran backup Matt Moore thrown under center. And to be perfectly honest, that won’t end well for anyone in South Beach.
Jacksonville Jaguars at San Diego Chargers: Blake Bortles’ First NFL Start
Bortles seemed to do more in one half of football than what we saw from Chad Henne during the first 10 quarters of the football season in Jacksonville. Coming in down 30-0 for Henne, who was benched at halftime last week, Bortles responded by leading three second-half scoring drives and energizing a fan base that didn’t have much to cheer for up until that point.
Now making his first NFL start against what has been a vastly improved Chargers defense on the road, it will be extremely interesting to see how Bortles responds. He has the talent and appears to be much further along in his development than we first anticipated, which could lead to a surprising performance from the Jaguars offense. I am really looking forward to see how he works with fellow rookies Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson in the passing game. The upside is really unlimited there.
Atlanta Falcons at Minnesota Vikings: Teddy Bridgewater’s First NFL Start
With Matt Cassel likely lost for the remainder of the season, Minnesota will turn to Bridgewater to make his first NFL start just four weeks into his professional career. Unlike Bortles in Jacksonville, the decision was made for Minnesota here when Cassel went down with an injury against the New Orleans Saints last week. The rookie responded by playing a pretty good game and keeping it close until a fourth quarter touchdown by the Saints.
Even without Adrian Peterson to share the backfield with, Bridgewater is in a good position to succeed. He will be making his first NFL start at home and has both Cordarrelle Patterson and Greg Jennings to rely on in the passing game. Unfortunately, the first-year signal caller will be without a primary safety valve in the form of tight end Kyle Rudolph for at least the next month. That’s going to hurt.
Philadelphia Eagles at San Francisco 49ers: Must Win Early-Season Game for the Home Team
San Francisco has not lost three consecutive games under Jim Harbaugh. It did lose two straight early last season, but responded with a resounding 35-11 win against the St. Louis Rams in Week 4. We are going to have to see that same type of performance this week if the 49ers are going to be legitimate contenders in the NFC West moving forward this season.
It’s not too hard to pinpoint what has led to the 49ers early-season struggles. They are averaging over 100 yards in penalties and simply haven’t game planned like a winning team in the second half of games thus far this year. Now going up against a bad Eagles defense, San Francisco is primed for a solid performance on offense. That’s only magnified by how well its passing game worked (when flags weren’t being thrown) against Arizona last week.
In addition to continuing that success through the air, San Francisco needs to commit to the running game. There is no reason for Frank Gore and Carlos Hyde to combine for two touches in the second half of a one-score game. With that said, look for a solid all-around performance from this team in Week 4. If not, Harbaugh’s squad could find itself in a hole that will be nearly impossible to climb out of as the season progresses.
New Orleans Saints at Dallas Cowboys: Statement Game for the Home Team
It’s really hard to make out what the Cowboys are going to be this season. They followed up a horrendous Week 1 performance against San Francisco with complete domination against the Titans on the road in Week 2 before not even showing up in the first half last week against St. Louis. Now fresh off an amazing second half comeback against the Rams, Jason Garrett’s squad is looking to continue the momentum. They will have to do it in front of a national audience on Sunday Night Football against an equally hungry Saints team that has lost two of their first three games.
What is the identity of the Cowboys right now? Are they a running team with DeMarco Murray or was that nothing more than a mirage with Romo seemingly struggling with rust early in the season? This is a question that should be answered when everything is said and done on Sunday night.
New England Patriots at Kansas City Chiefs: Is Tom Brady’s Regression Real?
Tom Brady is 1 for 13 on passes traveling 20+ yards in the air this year. Yikes.
— Sam Monson (@PFF_Sam) September 23, 2014
Tom Brady just isn’t a good quarterback right now. I may get a lot of flack for saying that about a guy that will likely receive a knighthood in New England, but it’s the honest truth. In addition to the statistic you see above, Brady has put up a 48.9 completion percentage when not targeting Julian Edelman this year. These are some disturbing trends for the Patriots heading into a Week 4 bout with a Chiefs team that is coming off a big win against Miami.
The larger issue at hand for Brady and Co. is the fact that the offensive line simply isn’t getting the job done in pass protection. Now in the latter stages of his career, Brady (who was never the most mobile) needs a clean pocket in order to have success. When that hasn’t happened, he seems to struggle with mechanics, which has led to a ton of accuracy issues for the veteran signal caller.
Even at 2-1, the Patriots don’t have the look of a playoff team right now. They need to get it straight in the passing game in order to be considered anywhere near a contender for the AFC title moving forward this season. Unfortunately, the well could be drying out for New England right now.
Photo: NY Post