The great thing about the NFL is that it provides for us even on weeks where it doesn’t deliver the craziness that we have come to expect. Week four was far tamer than its three predecessors. The biggest underdog that win was a Seattle team that was only a 4.5-point dog to the Lions, so it wasn’t the most shocking upset we have ever seen. But that game delivered a 48-45 defense-optional shootout that did nothing if not entertain us on Sunday morning (or afternoon depending on where you live). That is emblematic of this week. Most of what happened was expected to happen, but it was fun along the way. It also revealed more things to us about some of these teams and here are five takeaways that I got from this weekend of action.
Cooper Rush Has Salvaged Dallas’s Season
Most teams watch all hope for their season go down the drain whenever their starting quarterback goes down to an injury. Even if just for short time, having to play with a backup quarterback can derail both momentum and the vibe of the team. That can be disastrous, especially when it happens to a team like the Cowboys that came into the season with legitimate plans to contend for a playoff spot and even more. Most teams don’t have backup quarterbacks like Cooper Rush, though.
The 28-year-old is in his fifth season with Dallas and might be the most crucial part of their success so far this year. He has filled in admirably after Dak Prescott injured his finger in the season opener against Tampa Bay. Actually, adequately is a bit of an understatement. Rush is undefeated during his time as the Cowboy’s starter, winning three straight games which brings his career record as a starter up to 4-0 when you include a start from last season.
To put it frankly, that was not supposed to happen. Teams are supposed to get worse when the backup quarterback is forced to step in, not win three games in a row. Granted, those games were against the Bengals (who were still looking like a shell of themselves), Giants, and Commanders. It isn’t exactly a murderer’s row of opponents but it also is not a stretch anyone would have expected Rush to go undefeated in. But he has played well so far, throwing for 737 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions in those three games plus a little bit of garbage-time action in week one. That includes 223 yards and two touchdowns against Washington over the weekend in a game that Rush led his team to a comfortable win. Again, that isn’t the most impressive stat line but it is better than anyone would have expected.
Let me be clear, I’m not endorsing the idea at all that Rush is creating a quarterback controversy in Dallas. When Prescott comes back, hopefully fully healthy, he will be the starter. The Cowboys are not paying him $160 million over four years for him to ride the pine. What I am saying is that Rush has managed to prevent Dallas’s season from going down the toilet while Prescott is out. He also gives them the ability to make sure Prescott takes his time coming back and doesn’t rush back too soon and reinjure himself or underperform on the field. Rush has been the ultimate luxury for the Cowboys this year and if they end up making it to the playoffs then he deserves a whole lot of credit for stepping up big time during this stretch.
The Chargers Had a Much-Needed Bounce Back Game
Week four is very early in the season but it is not too early for a team to blow their season. That could have been the case for the Chargers on Sunday if they didn’t earn a 34-24 win over the Texans this week. I know what you’re thinking. Is beating the Texans really that impressive? No, it is not. But it didn’t matter who Los Angeles played this week, they needed to beat them to try to get the season back on track. After dropping a game to the Chiefs that was very winnable and getting blown out by the Jaguars, the Chargers desperately needed to get back in the win column.
That is exactly what they did on Sunday. And although it wasn’t a flawless victory by any means (letting Dameon Pierce run for 131 yards is not ideal), all that matters is that it was a victory. There were also some very encouraging signs to come from the game for Los Angeles. Austin Ekeler looked like the guy from last year that lit up the league and not the guy from the previous three games that stunk. He ran for a season-high 60 yards, which isn’t great but it’s a step in the right direction, averaging 4.6 yards per carry and scoring two touchdowns. He added another score as a receiver, which is the one area he had been producing in, to bring his season score total from zero to three. Ekeler’s continued success is going to be massively important for this team so Sunday was huge. Justin Herbert also looked much more comfortable with his rib injury and was far more effective as a passer. Some of that might have to do with using Mike Williams more. After recording just a single catch last week, Williams was back to his usual self, catching seven of 11 targets for 120 yards. The defense may still need some work because allowing 24 points to Houston is not the most promising work, but with the team racking up four sacks and grabbing two picks they are looking like a much more complete and competitive team than they were at this time last week.
The MVP Race is More Wide Open Than We Thought
While technically the conversation about MVP lasts the entire season, it sure seemed like we had all but settled on two guys before this weekend. Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen were head-and-shoulders above every other potential candidate before Sunday, and rightfully so because those two have been amazing. But something about where those two stand right now makes the race for the league’s top individual award seem more wide open.
Maybe it’s because the Bills lost their aura of invincibility by losing to the Dolphins last week or by finding themselves largely outplayed by the Ravens in the first half Sunday. Buffalo eventually won the game but Allen’s performance of 213 yards, a touchdown, and an interception wasn’t too impressive. He also added 70 yards and a score on the ground, so he did end up with a pretty productive outing. Jackson, on the other hand, had his worst game of the season, which is fair because the Bills have an incredible defense. But putting the team on his back and leading them to victory over a daunting opponent like the Bills is the type of MVP moment that Jackson needs to rack up if he wants to win the award again. He ended up with just 144 passing yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions while having his worst day as a rusher this year, which was still 11 carries for 73 yards.
It’s not like a player can’t have one bad performance and still win MVP; nobody expects these players to be perfect. It’s just this matchup presented the perfect opportunity for one of the two leading candidates to establish himself as the clear favorite and start to pull away from the pack. Yes, it is still early on and it is still very likely that one of those two guys ends up hoisting the MVP trophy at season’s end but we are certainly more ensure of that now. Other candidates have started to pop up and become more viable threats. Jalen Hurts is quarterbacking the last remaining undefeated team in the league. He’s fourth in passing yards and has rushed for four touchdowns. Patrick Mahomes had a fantastic game in primetime that I will talk about a little later and is always a threat to take home some hardware. Justin Herbert and Trevor Lawrence have had some impressive performances early on and are leading teams that figure to be in the postseason hunt later in the season. Maybe even Cooper Rush can enter the conversation (just kidding). There is also still a lot of time left in the season. Somebody, or multiple somebodies, will emerge as MVP candidates that we aren’t even thinking about right now. And while Allen and Jackson are still the favorites, the race for MVP isn’t nearly as much of a two-horse race as we previously thought.
Carolina and Matt Rhule are Heading for an Imminent Divorce
Somebody has to lose each week. In fact, multiple teams have to lose each week. Usually exactly half of the teams that are playing lose. It is the unfortunate nature of this sport. But somebody should let the Panthers know that they don’t always have to lose so depressingly. With their 26-16 loss to Arizona on Sunday, the Panthers are now up to three losses. Those losses have come to the Browns, Giants, and the aforementioned Cardinals. Those three teams are not very good. It will not be shocking if none of those teams make the playoffs. Carolina had the perfect opportunity to build off the momentum of last week’s win over the Saints by beating a Cardinals team that had been floundering. Arizona did not score a touchdown last week against the Rams and their only win was courtesy of an improbable comeback against the Raiders, who entered the week as the only team without a win. But Carolina did not take advantage of the situation in front of them and instead lost a game that they were actually favored in at home.
All these losses do is continue to advance the narrative that Carolina needs a new head coach. Rhule, who is in his third season leading the Panthers, is currently sporting an 11-26 record. Safe to say that is not great. It is not like Rhule inherited a team on the brink of success when he took over in Charlotte but he has certainly failed to improve the team at all during his tenure. If anything, the team has probably regressed under his leadership. It has become apparent that he is not getting the best out of his squad. Sure, Baker Mayfield is not the most desirable quarterback to work but there is no reason for him to be struggling this much in Carolina. His completion percentage, yards per completion, quarterback rating, and QBR are all at career lows so far. He also has thrown for just 74 yards and four touchdowns with three interceptions. But Mayfield is not the only player struggling. D.J. Moore has also been wildly ineffective this season. He has caught just 13 passes for 138 yards and a single score. This is a player that is coming off three straight 1,000-yard seasons. Christian McCaffrey is also failing to live up to expectations, recording just 270 rushing yards and one touchdown.
Is Rhule the sole reason that all those players, and more, are struggling? Of course not. He may not even be the main reason. But a coaching change is the simplest way for a franchise to signify that they are not pleased with the direction the team is heading in. And Rhule has not exactly earned the benefit of the doubt with the back-to-back five-win seasons he has produced. This was a make-or-break season for Carolina, and Rhule especially. A change of scenery for Mayfield was supposed to change things. A healthy Christian McCaffrey was supposed to change things. But nothing has changed. The Panthers are still a team that is far from being a contender without a clear path on how to get there. So, the one change that may actually happen is at head coach.
The Post-Tyreek Chiefs are Going to be Fine
If there was ever going to be a year that the might Chiefs fell off it was going to be this year. Some major concerns about the pass-catchers and defense had some people legitimately worried about Kansas City in 2022. People were predicting all kinds of wild things for them this season. From them missing the playoffs to them finishing last in the division. I even predicted them to go 10-7 this year, particularly because of the defense. And although they still have eight more wins until they surpass my expectation for them, I can admit that I was wrong about the Chiefs this year.
The defense has been a big reason for them looking so good so far. That unit looks much improved and is no longer the glaring weakness that it looked like previously. Oddly enough, the offense had actually been more concerning this season. The defense had played three great games, at times even overshadowing the offense. It was Patrick Mahomes and his side of the ball that were playing questionably, especially after last week’s shocking 20-17 loss to the Colts. Could it be that the loss of Tyreek Hill, who is absolutely thriving in Miami, is having a greater effect on the offense than it seemed?
Well, we can now say that the answer to that question is an emphatic no. Kansas City put on an absolute show on Sunday, beating Tampa Bay 41-31, and on Sunday Night Football no less. Mahomes, who had been his usual exceptional self this year, was on a different level against the Buccaneers. Maybe it was revenge for the embarrassing Super Bowl, but there was certainly something fueling him in the matchup. He threw for 249 yards and three touchdowns, including one of the craziest magician-esque plays you may ever see, on his way to victory over the legendary Tom Brady. He found a ton of success throwing to Travis Kelce (I know, what a surprise), as they connected nine times for 92 yards and a score. But Mahomes also completed passes to seven other players. The most promising sign was the inclusion of Marquez Valdes-Scantling who had his best game of the season, catching three passes for 63 yards. The free-agent acquisition was believed to be the replacement for Hill’s vertical field-stretching ability, so seeing him get a long reception over the middle was a welcome sign.
It isn’t just what the Chiefs did Sunday evening that is so impressive, it is who they did it to. The Buccaneers had allowed 27 points all season entering Sunday’s matchup. They were widely regarded as the best defense in the entire league, having allowed just three touchdowns in as many games. The Chiefs scored five times against them, including the first two rushing touchdowns allowed by Tampa Bay. That is the kind of dominant performance that sets a tone for the rest of the year. Kansas City now knows that it can score on anybody because it just hung 41 points on maybe the number one defense in the league. There is clearly nothing holding this team back, on offense at least, and they are ready to be at the top of the league once again.