Through four weeks of the NFL season, the league is starting to see the contenders and the pretenders. The San Francisco 49ers, Buffalo Bills, and Philadelphia Eagles certainly fall into the Super Bowl contender category while the Detroit Lions and Baltimore Ravens are establishing themselves as the top contenders in their respective divisions.
As for the pretenders? The New York Giants, Chicago Bears, and Las Vegas Raiders are certainly on that list. The Pittsburgh Steelers are trying to find their way on there, ditto with the Atlanta Falcons.
As the league is starting to separate the good teams from the bad, let's discover some trends we're starting to see with each team. Here's one thing we learned from each team after this week's games:
Michael Wilson is becoming a top weapon: Give credit to Wilson for continuing to progress in his rookie season, especially given Josh Dobbs wasn't on the team at the beginning of training camp. Wilson finished with seven catches for 76 yards and two touchdowns in his return to the Bay Area (played college ball at Stanford) -- matching his catch total from the first three games. Wilson is averaging 16.9 yards per catch and has 237 yards receiving through four games (162 the last two). The Cardinals passing game looks a lot better thanks to Wilson's development.
Does Kyle Pitts exist: Pitts had another subpar game in Sunday's loss to the Jaguars, finishing with two catches for 21 yards. He only out-snapped Jonnu Smith by six snaps and was out-targeted by Smith (who had six targets to Pitts' four). The Falcons obviously target tight ends since Smith had six catches for 95 yards to lead the offense. Pitts has just 11 catches for 121 yards in four games on 21 targets. Don't know how Pitts can get more involved in the offense at this point without a change at quarterback.
They're the best team in the AFC North: Baltimore flexed its muscle against its divisional foes, winning games on the road against Cincinnati and Cleveland. The Ravens were able to accomplish this with multiple starters out on both sides of the ball. Lamar Jackson has a 74.3% completion rate and a 104.2 passer rating, while also rushing for 220 yards and four touchdowns. The defense is top three in points and yards allowed, making a statement against the Browns offense Sunday (sans Deshaun Watson). This is the team to beat in the division after the first month of the year.
Josh Allen turnover woes appear to be behind him: Allen has just one turnover in the past three games after a highly scrutinized Week 1 with he threw three interceptions and fumbled twice. No surprise the Bills have won in convincing fashion in each of the past three games, outscoring opponents 123-33. In this stretch, Allen has completed 76.6% of his passes for 812 yards with eight touchdowns to one interception (125.8 rating), while also rushing for two scores. When Allen doesn't turn the ball over, he's an MVP candidate and the Bills arguably have the best offense in football.
Bryce Young had his best game, and the offense still didn't score: It's tough to watch the Panthers offense, but at least they can take solace in Young going 25 of 32 for 204 yards with a 93.2 rating. The Panthers still have problems getting the ball downfield and creating yards after the catch, which puts even more pressure on Young to perform -- especially with a poor offensive line. The offense didn't score a touchdown and only put up two field goals on nine drives. Some changes need to be made regarding the play calling.
The coach is a bigger problem than Justin Fields: Chicago wasted a strong performance from Fields as he finished 28 of 35 for 335 yards and four touchdowns to just one interception (132.7 rating). A team that is struggling on offense can't waste a performance like that, but Matt Eberflus did. Eberflus decided to go for it on fourth-and-1 in a tie game from the Broncos' 18, but kept the ball out of Fields hands as Khalil Herbert got stuffed. The Bears ended up losing the game and falling to 0-4. Eberflus doesn't appear to have control of his team on the field and in the locker room. Hard to see him in Chicago past this year.
Run defense has been a major disappointment: Joe Burrow takes the spotlight in Cincinnati because of his contract and his calf injury, but the run defense has been atrocious. The Bengals gave up 173 yards on the ground and 5.2 yards per carry to a Titans offense that dares a team to stop the run. The run defense has given up 170-plus yards in three of the four games this season and ranks 31st in rushing yards allowed per game and 30th in yards per carry allowed (5.1). This was a top-10 run defense last year, but can't seem to find its footing in 2023. The Bengals have multiple problems they need to address.
The bye week comes at the best time: A Week 5 bye isn't ideal for most teams, but the Browns could certainly use it after Deshaun Watson missed Sunday's game with a shoulder injury. Head coach Kevin Stefanski said Watson was medically cleared to go, but the decision was made by Watson to give himself a week to heal. The Browns could have used him after only gaining 166 yards of offense, averaging 2.6 yards per play, and turning the ball over three times. Watson should be healthy when he returns in two weeks, and the Browns can get the running game going again (93 yards and 3.7 yards per carry) as well.
Red zone issues weren't corrected: The red zone problems were mentioned last week, but they didn't improve against the Patriots in the blowout victory. Dallas went 1 of 4 in the red zone, one week after finishing 1 of 5. For those counting, that's 2 of 9 in the red zone over the last two weeks. The play calling in the red zone is baffling and the ineffectiveness of Tony Pollard down there is noticed (27 carries, 59 yards, two touchdowns). The Cowboys are 30th in the NFL in red zone conversion rate (36.8%), but first in third down conversion rate (51.6%). Utterly confusing indeed.
Rookie running back ignites running game: The Broncos only rushed for 97 yards, but 72 of them came from rookie Jaleel McLaughlin. After Jamaal Williams' injury, McLaughlin had 72 rushing yards on seven carries (10.3 yards per carry) and had a receiving touchdown. McLaughlin's 31-yard run has been the Broncos' only rushing play over 16 yards this season. Sean Payton has been slow with his rookies, but McLaughlin needs to play more going forward -- and may have to.
David Montgomery makes this team elite: Montgomery has been a battering ram for the Lions in the three games he's played in Detroit, showcasing what he brings to the offense in Thursday's blowout win over the Packers. He rushed for 121 yards and three touchdowns on 32 carries -- giving him 69 though three games. When Montgomery plays, the Lions average 395.7 yards per game. They can score without Montgomery on the field, but Detroit is more complete on offense when he's healthy. Montgomery's presence is why Detroit is the best team in the NFC North.
They have a good opportunity to get healthy: Green Bay has injuries on the offensive line an din the secondary, which has affected them through the first four games. Good news for the Packers is this. They have 11 days between the Week 4 game and Week 5 matchup with the Raiders (Monday night) than go on their actual bye in Week 6. One game in 23 days is a good opportunity to get Aaron Jones, Christian Watson, Elgton Jenkins, and David Bahkitari healthy. They need these guys for the rest of the year.
C.J. Stroud is making his receivers better: Stroud just continues to impress week after week, but his yards per attempt of 10.2 just demonstrates how in tune he is with offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik. Stroud found Nico Collins for 168 yards and two touchdowns this week, one game after getting five catches for 145 yards and a touchdown from Tank Dell. Stroud is seeing the whole field and trusting the matchups given to him. All of a sudden the Texans offense is good, something that wasn't even considered prior to the start of the year.
Shocking performance by the run defense: The Colts run defense didn't allow a 100-yard rusher all season, until Sunday. Kyren Williams had 25 carries for 103 yards and two touchdowns -- leading the 164 yards the Rams got on the ground. Over the last two weeks, the Colts have given up 350 rushing yards after only giving up 157 yards in the first two games. They need DeForest Buckner healthy and not on a snap count, as no one was able to fill the void.
Offense finally showed some progress: The Jaguars offense hasn't looked like the unit that finished last season, getting off to slow starts in games. They finally scored a first-half touchdown in Sunday's win over the Falcons, but still only had three offensive touchdowns in three games. The numbers weren't impressive (300 yards, 36% third down rate), but the four-minute offense in the fourth quarter was executed well, running 23 plays for 109 yards which led to two field goals and sealing the victory (Jacksonville went 3 of 5 on third down on two time-consuming drives). While it wasn't pretty, Jacksonville did enough late to show positive signs they can move the ball consistently going forward.
Isiah Pacheco finally got going: Pacheco wasn't much of a factor the first three games (155 yards, 4.4 yards per carry), but broke through in Sunday's win over the Jets. He finished with 20 carries for 115 yards, which included a 48-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. The Chiefs were explosive in the opening 15 minutes, accumulating 200 yards and 17 points, as Pacheco had five carries for 59 yards (he had just 15 first quarter rushing yards in the first three games). A good start for Pacheco ignited the Chiefs offense, which needs to happen more efficiently if they are going to get off to fast starts.
Offensive line failed Aidan O'Connell: Having a bad performance up front isn't going to help any rookie quarterback making his first career start. The Raiders offensive line allowed 15 pressures and five quarterback hits in the game, causing O'Connell to lose two fumbles and throw an interception. O'Connell was 1 of 5 for two yards under pressure while being sacked seven times. The Raiders didn't do O'Connell any favors by picking the game to have their worst performance on the offensive line all year, but some of that could be contributed to O'Connell's inexperience as well.
Khalil Mack proved he's still a game changer: Mack isn't the same player he was in his early days with the Raiders, but he tortured his former team to the tune of six sacks Sunday. With Joey Bosa out, Mack carried the pass rush with 10 tackles, nine pressures, six sacks and two forced fumbles. Mack didn't have a sack heading into Week 4, but now is tied for the league lead in sacks. Two of Mack's sacks occurred on third down, helping a struggling Chargers defense hold the Raiders to 17 points. If the Chargers can get the Raiders' version of Mack, the defense will be a force the rest of the way.
Puka Nacua is a future WR1: Nacua has been incredible through four games, catching nine passes for 163 yards and a touchdown in Sunday's overtime win over the Colts -- which included the game winner in overtime. The Rams blew a 23-0 lead, but they trusted Nacua in overtime when it mattered most. Matthew Stafford went to Nacua twice on their overtime drive, as Nacua caught both passes for 42 yards and the game-winning score on third down. Nacua leads the NFL in catches (39) and is second in receiving yards (503) -- the most receiving yards by a player in his first four career games. Cooper Kupp is coming back, but Nacua should still have a massive role in this offense.
The secondary is vulnerable: DeShon Elliott's absence against the Bills certainly depleted this unit, as Brandon Jones is used more for blitzing than in coverage. Kaher Kalou was the target Josh Allen sought, as he allowed 101 receiving yards and two touchdowns in the loss (mostly to Stefon Diggs). Justin Bethel appeared to have wanted help on the back end when he gave up his score, so not having Elliott played a factor. Regardless, the Dolphins are 25th in passing yards allowed and 27th in yards per attempt allowed. Good quarterbacks are going to expose this weakness, just like Allen did Sunday.
Cam Akers helped the run game: The Vikings rushed for a season-high 135 yards in Sunday's win over the Panthers, aided by Akers spelling Alexander Mattison with five carries for 40 yards. Mattison had 17 carries for 95 yards of his own, but having a No. 2 back like Akers to spell him led the Vikings to have a season high 6.0 yards per carry. The Vikings have rushed for 265 yards and 5.6 yards per carry the last two weeks, being in both those games (and winning one). The emergence of the run game could turn around Minnesota's season -- as Akers gets more touches going forward.
They have a quarterback problem: Bill Belichick will probably start Mac Jones next week, but he did bench him in Sunday's blowout loss to the Cowboys. Jones went 12 of 21 for 150 yards with two interceptions before being pulled in the third quarter. The decision making was poor and Jones probably should have thrown more than two interceptions based on how some of his throws into coverage looked. Jones has completed 63.7% of his passes with five touchdowns to four interceptions in four games as the patriots are 31st in the league in points scored. Belichick appears to be putting Jones on a short leash, even if he won't admit as such.
Offense still hasn't found its footing: Perhaps Derek Carr's shoulder injury had something to do with it, but the Saints had just 197 yards and nine points in Sunday's loss to the Buccaneers. They haven't scored over 20 points in a game yet and only eclipsed over 350 yards once (351 in the opener). The Saints are 23rd in the NFL in total yards per game and 25th in points per game, not what they expected after bringing Carr aboard. As for that shoulder injury? Carr was just 2 of 10 on passes of 10-plus air yards -- so it did affect his ability to throw the ball downfield.
The offense is an absolute mess: Forget about Daniel Jones and his struggles. This offense is poor when Saquon Barkley isn't in the lineup. Now add in an offensive line that seems to get worse every year (and didn't have Andrew Thomas in Monday's loss), a group that gave up 11 sacks in the blowout loss to the Seahawks. The Giants have a bunch of No. 2 and No. 3 wide receivers, along with a struggling Darren Waller. They also have a head coach frustrated with his quarterback. The offense has three points at home in two games. There isn't much more to say expect that it can't get any worse right?
Quick passing attack worked for Zach Wilson: The Jets decided the best formula for Wilson to succeed was to have him get rid of the ball quick, not allowing him to be chased outside the pocket. The result was 28 of 39 for 245 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions (105.2 rating). While Wilson couldn't bring the Jets back in the fourth quarter, he was 3 of 3 on his passes. The Jets had three possessions that ended with two punts and a fumble, but they were in the game to begin with thanks to Wilson being efficient. If Wilson plays like this going forward, they have a chance to win games.
A.J. Brown has been dominant since sideline discussion: Brown had a dominant game on Sunday, finishing with nine catches for 175 yards and two touchdowns -- including the go-ahead touchdown catch with 1:43 left in regulation. The Eagles -- who trailed by 10 at one points -- allowed Brown to get them back into the game and eventually give them the lead twice. In the two games since the sideline exchange with Jalen Hurts, Brown has 18 catches for 306 yards and two touchdowns in the two games since. He's played a huge role in the offense finding a spark the last two games, and why the Eagles are 4-0.
Top receivers feast on the secondary: Nico Collins was the latest No. 1 wide receiver to go off on the Steelers, finishing with seven catches for 168 yards and two touchdowns. The Steelers have allowed Brandon Aiyuk to go for 129 yards and two scores and Davante Adams to have 172 yards and two touchdowns. That's not good for any football team, but particularly embarrassing for a proud franchise like the Steelers. Might be time to move Minkah Fitzpatrick to free safety full time to start.
Christian McCaffrey is the best player on the best team: McCaffrey has been dominant all season, with Sunday's game arguably his best with the 49ers. He rushed for 106 yards and three touchdowns while racking up 71 receiving yards and a score (6.6 yards per touch). McCaffrey leads the NFL in rushing yards (459) and rushing touchdowns (six), while also leading the league in scrimmage yards (600) and scrimmage touchdowns (7). The 49ers are loaded on both sides of the ball, but this team has won 14 straight regular season games McCaffrey has played (out of 15) and he's scored a touchdown in 11 of those games (including a team record nine straight). He's the best player on this roster.
Devon Witherspoon made his case for defensive ROTY: Witherspoon has embraced the slot cornerback role well in Seattle, showcasing how special he is as a defensive back. The first defensive back in Seahawks history to have two sacks and an interception return for a touchdown in the same game, Witherspoon was part of the Seahawks' 11-sack barrage on the Giants. Seattle uses Witherspoon as a blitzer and trust him in coverage to make impact plays. He's a very good player and has a case to be the best defensive rookie in football this year.
Third down offense has significantly improved: Offensive coordinator Dave Canales has preached converting third downs, and the offense has done just that through four games. The Buccaneers have converted 47.4% of their third downs, good for fifth in the NFL (were 8 of 15 Sunday). Baker Mayfield has been ridiculous on third down, completing 31 of 39 passes for 322 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions for a 140.7 rating. Those numbers may go down slightly, but Tampa Bay is putting their quarterback in position to convert those throws.
Defense took advantage of hobbling Joe Burrow: Since Burrow hasn't been able to take off, the Titans feasted against a poor Bengals offensive line. Burrow only threw four passes of 10-plus air yards, was pressured 19 times, and hit nine times. The Titans had seven straight drives of holding the Bengals to 30 yards or less on each drive, as Cincinnati finished with just 211 yards on the night. This was the defense the Titans envisioned heading into the season, not the one that allowed 22.3 points over the first three games.
Sam Howell can bounce back from a bad start: One week after Howell had the worst start of his young career, he bounced back in a big way. Howell finished 29 of 41 for 290 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions, leading the Commanders on a 10-play, 64-yard drive in the final 1:43 of regulation to force overtime. Howell made a huge throw to Jahon Dotson from 10 yards out, showcasing his poise in the pocket and tremendous arm talent. Whether Howell is the long-term quarterback in Washington or not, there's enough intrigue to keep him around and let him develop.