With the new collective bargaining agreement limiting practice time, recent NFL seasons take a month or so to get rolling. Obviously that’s due to continuity i.e. gelling with teammates and re-acclimating to your team’s playbook.
Well we have a good set idea now. The Patriots at 3-0 are the Super Bowl favorites. Stop me if you’ve heard that before. The Vikings are the NFC favorite. It’s been awhile since we could say that. And, as everybody suspected, the Eagles are undefeated under rookie quarterback Carson Wentz heading into a bye week.
Yes, the Eagles are in first place. It’s not the only surprise of the young NFL season. Maybe the currently 2-1 Rams win the NFC West in the end, after all. Okay, maybe that’s a stretch.
On to the Week 4 Roundtable:
1. Carson Wentz and Doug Pederson are the first rookie quarterback-head coach duo to start 3-0 since Mark Sanchez and Rex Ryan in 2009, following their 34-3 beat down of the Steelers. Is it finally time to buy into the Eagles as contenders?
Robert Zeglinski: I think we have to point out that rookie duo of Rex Ryan and Sanchez pulled off two straight AFC title game appearances. Given the current outlook of the NFC, in that respect, there’s no reason to count out the Eagles. In fact, let’s compare these Eagles to those Jets. Philadelphia possesses a very strong defense that’s currently 2nd in the league in defensive DVOA i.e efficiency. The Jets also had a strong top unit. A strong complement of tailbacks in the backfield from Ryan Matthews and Darren Sproles with the Eagles to Thomas Jones and Ladainian Tomlinson in New York. Then the obvious gunslinging rookie quarterbacks. This is where the Eagles might have the advantage as Wentz seems to be much more apt to take over a game as a passer than Sanchez ever has or will. They certainly fit the mold of a team coming out of a nowhere. More stress worthy tests will come against the likely NFC favorite Minnesota soon, but there’s no reason to think Philadelphia can’t challenge for the crown.
Chris Hatch: Absolutely. Now, they did start off playing the Browns and Bears in weeks one and two, but anyone that rolls the Steelers 34-3 has my complete and full attention. Will Carson Wentz maybe have a few games where he doesn’t look like such a gigantic stud? Probably. But, do they seem like they’ve got a very real chance to hit 4-0 and potentially be in the driver’s seat of the NFC East? I would say so. One thing is for certain, however: they are going to hit a four-game stretch in mid-October where they play the Redskins, Vikings, Cowboys, and Giants all in a row and that will definitely separate the men from the boys. If that stretch doesn’t go well, I will tune in to watch Eagles fans cannibalize Carson Wentz.
Brian Hall: For now, it’s time to consider the Eagles as a serious playoff team, even if not a super bowl contender yet. The defense, especially the defensive line, has performed incredibly well thus far, and the offense is clicking on all fronts, whether because of Wentz under center or the scheme of Doug Pederson. They’ll have plenty of chances to prove that the early season success is for real; the Vikings and Seahawks will provide ample challenge for the offense, and the Cowboys’ offensive line won’t be nearly as easy to tear through as the Steelers was for the second half of last Sunday. But until the Eagles show any chinks in the armor, it’s time to seriously put them on your playoff radar.
Dan Soden: If I could quote Public Enemy…“Don’t believe the hype.” Wentz has been successful in part to his incredible memory/intelligence something that can set him apart from the other rookie quarterbacks. But eventually the Cinderella story will come to an end and reality will set in. Most likely come week seven when he gets a taste of the Minnesota Vikings.
2. The Seahawks and Texans are both 2-1, but Russell Wilson has been bruised and battered with injuries behind a poor offensive line. Meanwhile, JJ Watt re-injured his back and is now out for the season. Which injury is a potential bigger loss?
Robert Zeglinski: In the long run, both teams are still set to go for the postseason. Houston is by the most talented and complete team in the AFC South with the Colts, Jaguars, and Titans all flailing their arms around. In the NFC West, Seattle has the most pedigree and are apt to take advantage of a Cardinals team that might be on the downswing here. But if we’re talking championship contention and big picture, it has to be Russell Wilson. JJ Watt is the NFL’s best defensive player when healthy but the Texans will still easily win their division. Also, it’s not like Houston was going to challenge Denver, New England, or Pittsburgh in the playoffs even if he was present. Wilson plays behind one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL and only avoids disastrous career-ending punishment because he’s so elusive and magical working the pocket. Seattle better get the situation under control otherwise what started as an ankle that’s now a nagging knee will become the end of all Super Bowl dreams. The rest of the Seahawks roster is too talented to be brought down by an anchor such as this.
Chris Hatch: I think JJ Watt’s injury will prove to be a bigger issue long term. Russell Wilson has probably been doing keg stands of recovery water and remember that as has been scientifically proven: that miracle drug can cure concussions, ACL Sprains, and cancer (probably). In short, he’ll be fine. JJ Watt, however, will probably have trouble not re-injuring his back lifting the entire Papa John’s franchise onto his shoulders, Atlas-style. I think that JJ Watt is the arguably the most valuable non-quarterback in the league (*Author’s note: with apologies to Antonio Brown) and his loss will require that Jadeveon Clowney finally stop being a bust and do something for himself. I don’t know if that can happen. In the meantime, for JJ’s sake: paging Dr. Lindsey Vonn!
Brian Hall: Before watching Trevone Boykin play, I would’ve said Wilson was the bigger loss. But Boykin looked very good for the most part when he came off the bench against the 49ers, and the Seahawks offense hasn’t been overly effective up to this point. Meanwhile the Texans got ran over by a third string rookie who didn’t even need to utilize the team’s top target. Without Watt, arguably the best in the league at causing penetration up front, the defense is going to have a tough time getting any lasting pressure up front. Against a Colts team whose offense would be great if not for a lackluster offensive line and a Titans team that very much wants to run the ball, that’s a big deal.
Dan Soden: If Wilson’s injury continues to be an issue it will have a greater effect on the Seahawks than Watt on the Texans. Watt is one hell of a player, but realistically the quarterback means so much more to a team, especially one of Wilson’s caliber.
3. Why are the Patriots just an unstoppable Death Star following their beatdown of a decent Texans team with Jacoby Brissett? Are they the clear Super Bowl favorites?
Robert Zeglinski: Giving the Patriots any high draft picks for a quarterback not named Tom Brady is a complete fleecing at this point unless Bill Belichick comes in the trade as well. It’s always been Belichick. There’s a comfortable system in New England set in motion by Belichick that allows players to step in seamlessly and “Do Their Job.” It doesn’t matter whose injured, suspended, or exiled, the Patriots are always a force because Belichick and his staff have them ready to play. I guess you have that luxury of retooling and basically doing whatever you want when you have a first ballot Hall of Fame quarterback that you can continually build around. Maybe that’s too controversial to say though. Either way, it’s the coaching staff that’s made the Patriots the Empire and again, the clear Super Bowl favorites (with Denver and Pittsburgh).
Chris Hatch: One word: BillMFingBelichick. Somehow he continues to just plug, play, destroy and repeat. He’s like the Fast & Furious franchise. I can’t believe it’s still hanging around and making as much money as it is. Every time I think it’s dead, or finally gotten to a point where it’s dead in the water: boom! There it is again, completely dominating. And, yes, that does make Tom Brady Vin Diesel.
Brian Hall: I can’t think of a single coach that’s better at scheming to fit the players he has than Bill Belichick. He does more with a third string quarterback and a group of mediocre receivers than some coaches can do with a wealth of talent at those positions. Coming into Sunday I felt like the only three teams that looked Super Bowl ready were the Patriots, Cardinals, and Steelers. But with Arizona and Pittsburgh struggling mightily, that means it looks like a pretty clear path for New England.
Dan Soden: The Patriots are on such a roll that the only thing that could stop them now is a deep pass from Eli Manning with the Super Bowl on the line. I’d like to think of them as the clear favorites from the AFC, especially after the beating that the Steelers took and my lack of trust in the Broncos offense.
4. Who is less likely to return to the NFC title game, the Panthers or Cardinals?
Robert Zeglinski: Can I say both? I’ll say both. You will not see Carolina or Arizona playing in this year’s NFC championship simply because it’s so difficult to do in the NFL. Factors like roster and coaching turnover in addition to scheduling play too much into continual deep postseason runs. This isn’t even taking account these two teams’ respective slow starts. They may well get everything on track and make the postseason. But their counterparts like the Seahawks, Falcons, and Vikings all have less flaws and that will play a factor into January. Do you trust Carson Palmer? Can Carolina’s offensive line keep Cam Newton upright against elite pass rushing teams? I’m not sure the answers to those questions are something Panthers or Cardinals fans want to hear. But hey, while this may seem like a cop-out, at least take solace in the fact that we’ll have new football to watch.
Chris Hatch: I think I believe less in the Panthers. They haven’t shown an ability to keep Cam Newton off the ground. I still am a firm believer in the Cardinals defense even though they inexplicably got curb-stomped by Rex Ryan’s weirdly enjoyable Buffalo Bills team. Now, if only Newton would get hit hard enough that some of those hats would fall off.
Brian Hall: The easy answer is Carolina, because if Cam Newton plays like he did last Sunday at least semi-frequently this season, the Panthers will be hard-pressed to win a lot of games. However, Newton playing a game like last weekend is a rarity, and counting on winning by him playing poorly isn’t exactly a good strategy for an opposing defense. He should be fine, and his ability to make plays with his feet are what make the Panthers so dangerous. Meanwhile, Carson Palmer is now 36, and while he had a lovely renaissance season in 2015, he just isn’t as durable as the much younger, much bigger Newton. If both teams make it to the playoffs again this season, I’d take an offense led by Newton over one led by Palmer ten times out of ten.
Dan Soden: Right now it almost feels like neither team has a shot at getting there. Going into the season it felt like both teams had a legit shot to make it to the Super Bowl. I had a rematch of last year’s game slated for this year’s championship but with both teams looking like a dumpster fire I’m going to have to go option C and say neither team makes it to the NFC Championship game.
5. At this juncture, of the winless teams, who is the worst and who are they picking number one overall come April?
Robert Zeglinski: While I’m tempted to wallow in my sadness as a Bears fan, they’re not the worst team in football. They’re the most injured sure (Editor’s Note: probably), but that’s different. It’s clearly Cleveland which should be the least surprising answer ever. While Cody Kessler has looked fine as a young passer to this point, he’s certainly not necessarily grabbing the quarterback job by the reins by any means. There isn’t any name or quality player on the Browns defense save for Joe Haden, and Haden’s effectiveness as a corner is limited by a non-existent pass rush. All bright young offensive talent like Corey Coleman or Josh Gordon are either injured or in rehabilitation. Listen, you can believe in an offense that runs with Isaiah Crowell and Terrelle Pryor as the primary means of attack and a defense that can’t stop anybody, but I won’t. I’m not going down with that sinking ship. The most depressing aspect of this Browns season will then be when they select DeShone Kizer or Deshaun Watson in April and just add them to their failed quarterback Russian Roulette. Just think of all the potential All-Pros that were wasted away by the Browns. The cycle will continue with either of those college quarterbacks. Poor souls.
Chris Hatch: It’s the Browns. It kind of has to be the Browns, right? Like, I feel like this question should be named after them. The Chicago Bears look utterly miserable and moribund (*Author’s note: I think they should call this season, “Cutler’s Last Stand.” It has a nice ring to it, considering the massacre and everything) but there is a special place in the cellar for the Browns. I would assume that, when the time comes, they’ll probably spend that number one overall pick on a quarterback (assuming they don’t trade for Jay Cutler himself or something equally insane.) And they’re totally taking DeShaun Watson, right? I love Watson’s game, but feel like he’ll be doomed if he goes to the Browns.
Brian Hall: It’s very clearly the Browns, and because everyone is laughing about them passing up on a quarterback that actually turned into something that seems good so far in the pros, they’re going to continue taking quarterbacks until the end of time. If Lamar Jackson keeps putting up ridiculous numbers, they’ll take him (Editor’s Note: Jackson isn’t eligible but it would be very Browns to try and take him) and probably ruin his career before it gets started. Or they might settle for a more pro-style throwing player in Deshone Kizer. And probably ruin his career before it gets started.
Dan Soden: Out of the four 0-3 teams left the clear favorite to be picking first overall in April has to be the Cleveland Browns. I’m going to be different and say that the Saints will have the first overall pick in next year’s draft. They’ve been a team on the fence for some time now and as Drew Brees grows older it seems the team around him gets less and less competitive. I would also argue that they have the toughest division out of the four, but the Bears in the NFC North would disagree.
(Photos: USA Today, ABC, Getty, USA Today)