A couple of observations of the NFL at this quarter season mark. Most teams have played four games and we’re starting to get a sense of who these teams are (or aren’t)

1. Anyone who picked Seattle vs Denver for their pres-season Superbowl looks smart thus far

These teams are better than everyone else, and they are in vastly different ways. Peyton Manning is putting on a clinic for the NFL on high-octane offense production. He dropped 50 on Philadelphia with 26 minutes of possession. That means the Eagles had 33 minutes. Lets think about that. Here’s the Eagles TOP for the previous 3 weeks: 20, 19, 27. Other than the Redskins game, where the Redskins offense was so inept for the majority of it that the Eagles kept getting the ball, they’re almost averaging a 2-1 TOP differential. Peyton flipped that on them and, more importantly, did it in a way that didn’t destroy his defense’s legs. He’s the best quarterback in history and he’s here to show you why one more time.

Meanwhile the Seahawk’s don’t look pretty on offense, but this defense is very legit. No one has a secondary like them. They can physically play with any receiver group, and they still don’t have a full complement of pass rushers. 5 sacks against Schuab on Sunday, to go with 2 interceptions (one for the equalizing touchdown). They were down 20-3 (apparently with a 2% chance to win at one point) and came back on the road. They’re nearly unbeatable at home and if the NFC has to go through them there then look out. I’d feel more comfortable being Seattle at home in the playoffs than Denver where Peyton has shown a history of struggles in outdoor, late season situations.

2. Running is not dead in the NFL

If you think the age of the running back is dead in the NFL, rethink that philosophy. I had a friend tell me a little more than a year ago that he believed there would be a resurgence in the importance of running backs in the NFL. I kind of thought he was crazy, being a Vikings fan and in the midst of Adrian Peterson’s 2000 yard season, but here we are, four weeks into a new season, and the importance of a running game is so preposterously evident that it’s hard not to at least agree with his assessment. Look at the Giants and Steelers. Two teams who have thrived on strong run games and deep passing. Take out their rushing attack and these teams are hopelessly lost. Eli is an MVP quarterback with any form of a rushing attack, but without it he looks lost. Ben Roethlisberger’s is a scrambling magician, but when teams can just key up on the pass and stay disciplined on the back he looks like a petrified animal trying to elude captors. And it’s not just these teams (but they are the most salient examples).

New England has 14 rookies on their starting roster, and I a good chunk of them are receivers, but they continue to win because they show the ability to take the ball out of Brady’s hands and put it into Steven Ridley’s. Anyone looking at that game plan would have to scratch their heads, but Brady has shown a tremendous ability to operate out of play action. They use the run game to actually make defense back off of Tom Brady…. a hall of fame quarterback with multiple Superbowl rings and passing records! We could go down a list of teams that can and can’t run, and I think it’s a direct correlation to success in this NFL. The days of one guy carrying the rock 30 times are done, but the NFL requires a rushing attack in order for a team to be really successful.

3. The AFC is down this year

Sure the Broncos are juggernauts, but look past them and it’s hard to see any real challengers to that claim. Sure the Patriots are 4-0 and the assumption is that they’ll be better as the season goes, but with Wilfork, the premiere 3-4 nose tackle in the NFL, down for the season, its hard to figure them holding Peyton back when it comes to it.

Kansas City has probably the best hope against Denver, but while Alex Smith has been efficient and careful, he is also too careful. He doesn’t take many shots down field and eventually a defense is going to start forcing him to take some of those chances while playing for the 4th quarter. They may win those games, but with Peyton putting up 35 a game it’ll be hard for the Chiefs to keep up with him playing a conservative game like that.

The Colts and Titans are both solid teams, with serious long-term questions. Locker is now down and on IRDR (Injured Reserve – Designated for Return), which means that they’ll be winning defensive games for the foreseeable future (unless Fitzpatrick is back to his $50 million form). The Colts have a progressing offense, but are still inconsistent. They’re better, but again think of them against Peyton Manning and it’s hard to imagine them being able to withstand that assault.

The AFC North is…. woof.

So its Broncos or bust thus far… of course subject to change. I’d give the Colts and Chiefs best odds at rising up to rival them, but if Peyton continues to run like this, I can’t see them stopping short of NYC.

4. The Jaguars look worse than the 08 Lions

At times, it seems to me that the Jaguars are playing a different sport than the rest of the NFL. I like Gus Bradley and I think he’s a great hire for that team, but this is a horrendous start. They’re averaging less than 10 points a game. Yes the Buccaneers are only slightly above that at 11 PPG, but 31 points in 4 games is … ugly. Justin Blackmon is back this week, so that might help, but defensively they’re even worse than that. They’ve given up 129 points which is more than every team except the Broncos have scored and third worst in the league (Eagles and Giants ahead by a little). They’re Tanking for Teddy, or whoever is the best player available, but this team needs a massive infusion of talent across the board. I can’t honestly see too many people who should remain on this team through this year.

5. Biggest Surprise: 1-3 Atlanta Falcons

Look they’ve had a hard schedule thus far. At New Orleans, vs Rams, At Miami and vs New England, but this team is far too talented to be 1-3 right now and it starts from the running game (another team without a strong one underachieving! It all ties together!). Their leading rusher is Jacquizz Rodgers with 134 yards. They’re averaging 82 a game, which doesn’t look terrible, but there is just a woeful lack of presence there thus far which is keeping teams back against the pass. Matt Ryan has had a very nice start thus far, but has been unable to really take his shots and put up some big points. I would also say their offensive line is under performing thus far.

6. Pleasant Surprise: 2-2 Cleveland Browns

There are a couple of teams I didn’t think would have as good of a start (Kansas City, Miami, Tennessee) but the way Cleveland has finally started to capitalize on a solid defense wins this prize. I liked the staff hires in the off-season. Norv Turner is an excellent offensive mind and Horton is my kind of aggressive on defense. I will also admit that I felt the Trent Richardson trade was a little reckless, but with the running back position (not running game) devalued, they should be able to find a solid running back later than the 1st round (they have 1 2nd and 2 3rd round picks next year as well). They’ve also managed to secure two draft picks to make a play for a quarterback if Hoyer doesn’t continue to impress. That being said, he’s impressing. He’s playing like there’s nothing to lose, and there really isn’t. I’m not sure he’s the long-term answer, but he might make them less desperate to move up and could get a slightly better value down the road. He could also be the real deal. Too soon to tell, but the Browns being somewhat relevant is good for this league. They’ve been at the bottom for far too long.

7. Offensive line play is down…. but why?

I’m not sure I have a good explanation for this, but it seems to me that offensive line play is down thus far. This also ties into the lack of prominent run games. It could be a result of the lack of physical practices in the off-season, or maybe that today’s players are focusing on their pass protection, but it’s hard to point to a really good offensive line this year. The Texans are struggling because they have not be able to run the ball as effectively. The Vikings / Adrian Peterson are struggling (if you can call it struggling for All Day) due to poor blocking. Flacco just threw 5 interceptions – a career high – because he was being hit all day. Eli Manning has been hit all season and is turning the ball over like a machine. Go down the list and you see a wealth of poor offensive line performances.

I think San Francisco should have the best line, but they seemed unable to get going until this week, and maybe that is because they finally recommitted to a rushing attack. The Bears are improved, but show periods in which they revert to previous seasons. The Lions and Broncos seem to force defenses into limited blitz situations because they have so many weapons to cover.

Like I said, I’m not sure I have an answer here, but something about offensive lines and running games strikes me as off thus far.

8. Three teams we’ll find out a lot about in this next stretch of four games

Indianapolis Colts: Next 4 – Seattle, San Diego, Denver, Bye, (Houston)

I like the Colts and I think this is a playoff team, but if they’re really in it to win it, these next few games will be a good indicator. They’ve already knocked off the 49ers, and they’ll get the undefeated Seahawks next. At home they have a very good chance to win. They also get the Broncos at home, in Peyton’s return. The emotions will be running high and they are one of the few candidates to compete with the Broncos down the road.

Cincinnati Bengals: New England, Buffalo, Detroit, New York Jets

The Bengals dropped one to Cleveland and suddenly look stagnant on offense. The Patriots game plan better than any team in the league, and how they defend the Bengals will be very telling (I’m guessing rolling coverage on Green with some extra attention to the run game). Buffalo is an up and coming team that already knocked off their division foes. Detroit will test their defense and Rex Ryan will bring a high pressure defensive scheme in. 2-2 is reasonable in this stretch, but any worse could be trouble down the road, particularly with two games against Baltimore, and another against Cleveland still to come.

Dallas Cowboys: Denver, Washington, Philadelphia, Detroit

The Cowboys have slipped under the national radar recently, along with the rest of the NFC East (except for the Giants who are being talked about for all the wrong reasons). The next four games will be a good indicator if they are the class of this division or not. Washington and Philadelphia should be wins for this team, so 2-2 is a good expectation, with hopes to get a third at Detroit. It would also help to have a good showing against the Broncos, but I wouldn’t hold out hope for any team right now.

9. This Josh Freeman thing is getting ridiculous

How have they not cut him yet? If you’re an NFL GM whose not on the Buccaneers, why would you send them anything? Let me count the reasons. Firstly, the Bucs continue to show he has no value to this team by de-activating him on game day. Add in that Freeman has a career completion percentage of 58.2. It has been going down since 2011, when he was at his peak at 62.8. Last year was 54.8 and this year was 45.7. Finally remember that upon being benched, he began to pout. He refused to talk to the media, and I would not be surprised to learn that much of information leaking is coming from his camp. Oh and the odds of Freeman dropping his cap number for another team is very slim.

That being said, Schiano is looking very much like a tyrannical dictator. Kiffin was recently fired, shortly after everyone learned he was unaware of a players only meeting. Tampa Bay had a players only meeting to discuss issues with Schiano, presumably. Both of those stories show major rifts between players and staff. Whether or not Schiano is a good coach is hard to tell, and I think he reminds me of Bill Belichick time in Cleveland. You need to earn your stripes before you can command the disciplinary respect to do some of the moves Belichick does. Schiano is trying to just waltz in and have that respect without earning it.

Both parties need to walk away from this situation. Keep Freeman is useless to the team, useless to Schiano’s reputation with the remaining team, and has to be causing distractions for the rest of the team. Cut him.

10. Power Rankings

  1. Denver Broncos – As if there was another choice here?
  2. New Orleans Saints – Drew Brees and Sean Payton are clicking, and Rob Ryan has turned the defense around
  3. Seattle Seahawks – They’re not as flashy as 1 and 2, but this defense can hang with anyone and Wilson continues to do what he has to in order to win games.
  4. Kansas City Chiefs – Another good defensive team, but they have to start expanding their offense beyond 20 yards.
  5. Indianapolis Colts – Andrew Luck has been managing this team, but I would like him to start leading this team. Richardson needs to make an immediate impact.
  6. San Francisco 49ers – They’re better than they showed during those two weeks, and once they start running again it should open up areas for Kaepernick.
  7. Detroit Lions – Their defense still needs some work, but this offense is dangerous and difficult to defend.
  8. New England Patriots –  How much more can they lose? Wilfork is the defensive linchpin and is going to vastly change how that defense operates. They’ll be better once Gronk and Amendola return… if both can stay healthy.
  9. Chicago Bears The defense is still solid, and the offense looks under control. If Alshon Jeffery can start taking some coverage away from Marshall they will be tough to defend.
  10. Tennessee Titans – How they handle the weeks before Locker get back will be critical, but the defense is good. Chris Johnson needs to step up.
  11. Atlanta Falcons – They can’t run and their defense isn’t ready to carry this team but they have too much talent for their record right now.
  12. San Diego Chargers – Philip Rivers is looking like Rivers of old, but they seem to let up late.
  13. Miami Dolphins – Their defense looks good, but their offense is still inconsistent. For Mike Wallace to make an impact their running game needs to step up.
  14. Baltimore Ravens – The defense is improving quickly, but their offense is in trouble. They cannot run, and their pass protection has been suspect.
  15. Houston Texans – Schuab is on thin, thin ice if they drop under .500. J.J. Watt needs someone else to help him on defense.
  16. Green Bay Packers – Their defense is dreadful outside of Clay Mathews and he is not making a significant impact. They do still have Aaron Rodgers, so there’s always hope for a quick turnaround.
  17. Cincinnati Bengals – Better than they showed this week, but continue to have these kinds of games, just like division foes Baltimore.
  18. Buffalo Bills – EJ Manuel looks good, poised. He needs to start making more plays in the passing game, but the defense looks good enough for them to hang around.
  19. Dallas Cowboys – The talent is all there, but like every year they seem to lose focus.
  20. Washington Redskins – RG3 is getting healthy which should worry NFC East teams.
  21. Cleveland Browns – Hoyer is off to a good start, and with this defense he should be able to keep them close.
  22. Carolina Panthers – The Running game has improved, but Newton still needs more work. Their secondary is a mess, but the pass rush is good.
  23. Minnesota Vikings – If anyone could throw the ball it would be a different matter. Adrian rushes for 80 yards against 8 man fronts routinely. Scary good.
  24. Arizona Cardinals – Overachieving a bit.
  25. St. Louis Rams – Underachieving a lot.
  26. New York Jets – Defense has kept them in games, but NFL looks like it has figured Geno Smith out. Rushing attack needs to continue to carry load.
  27. Oakland Raiders – Terrelle Pryor might be good enough, but it really is up to him now. Run DMC just cannot stay healthy.
  28. Philadelphia Eagles – I had a feeling the defense wouldn’t be very good, but Chip Kelly is exasperating the problem by running a ton of plays that don’t result in immediate points.
  29. New York Giants – They can’t run and they can’t block and their defense isn’t as good as it used to be.
  30. Pittsburgh Steelers – See Giants, New York
  31. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – This is by far the ugliest / craziest situation I’ve seen in the NFL in a long time… like since Lane Kiffin was publicly called out by Al Davis kind of ugly / crazy
  32. Jacksonville Jaguars – Maybe the best team for England because they might not recognize that what they’re doing on offense isn’t really football right now.