Weird things were the theme of week 4. Between the Bengals season circling the drain, the Texans dominating two weeks in a row, Saints QB Derek Carr playing with an AC sprain, the Commanders pushing the Eagles (again), and Patriots QB Mac Jones getting benched (alright that one wasn’t surprising), we had quite a bit on intrigue. What can we learn from this week’s games? Let’s find out in my week 4 takeaways for the 2023 NFL season!
TNF: Lions Show Changing of the Guard in NFC North
Blessed with elite QB play from Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers for decades, the Packers have owned the NFC North. Now that Jordan Love is under center, the division is wide open. Detroit made it a point to show GB that the Lions are the new alphas. Love is the main reason the Packers are overrated; his inaccuracy has sunk the team in each of their two losses. This time, his completion percentage was up, but he threw 2 picks. His best play, a bomb at the end of the 3rd quarter, shouldn’t have even happened, as the clock had hit 0:00 and the Lions were off guard. The play was not reviewable.
Lions QB Jared Goff had a poor start himself. After going without an INT for the 3rd-highest number of throws in NFL history, he now has a new streak: an INT in 3 straight games. This week’s edition led to a GB FG, but Detroit dominated the rest of the half. The game seemed over when the Lions held a 27-3 halftime lead, but teams hibernate in the second half against Green Bay for some reason. That was true in an 8-0 3rd quarter, but the Lions roared back to life. The defense smothered the Packers running game (27 yards), and a Quay Walker leaping penalty on a field goal enabled Detroit to score 7 instead of 3.
The Lions won easily, with the 34-20 road result not even close to commensurate with the gap between these teams. However, Detroit is starting to grow one potentially crippling weakness. The team’s rebuilt secondary, which has been playing well, is taking some hits. S CJ Gardner-Johnson was lost to a torn pectoral, and now the other safety, promising rookie Brian Branch, left this week’s game with an ankle injury. Reports are that his injury isn’t serious, and that’s crucial. Branch has been a stud against the run and pass, and losing him for any length of time would be a huge blow.
AFC South Surprisingly Competitive
Most people, yours truly included, thought the AFC South was going to be the Jaguars plus the also-rans. So far, I stand corrected, as all 4 teams are sitting at 2-2. The Jaguars rebounded as expected against Atlanta, and next week they’ll hold the distinction of being the first ever team to play back-to-back London games. With Trevor Lawrence at QB, Jacksonville is still the favorite to win the division. Tennessee is always going to be tough competition with Mike Vrabel coaching them. A week after a 27-3 loss to Cleveland, the Titans smothered the Bengals by the same score.
The other two teams, both led by rookie QBs, are more interesting cases. Houston manhandled Pittsburgh 30-6, looking like the vastly superior team. The win didn’t even feel fluky. QB CJ Stroud threw for 306 yards and 2 TDs, and he still hasn’t thrown an INT. So far, he’s easily the best of the rookie QB crop. This week, his weapon of choice was Nico Collins, who caught 7 passes for 168 yards and 2 TDs. Defensively, the Texans didn’t allow Pittsburgh to do much of anything, which has been their story for two consecutive weeks. That side of the ball was decent last year, and they seem to have taken another step forward in 2023.
Indianapolis has been involved in some wild contests. Losing to the Jaguars was expected, even if the manner in which they lost (leading and then blowing it) wasn’t. Beating the Texans was also anticipated, but based on what I said above, that victory looks much better in hindsight. Gardner Minshew then led the Colts to an upset over Baltimore, but Anthony Richardson returned this week. The raw rookie still has accuracy problems (11/25 passing) and fell in a 23-0 hole, but he also led his team all the way back before ultimately losing in OT. With RB Jonathan Taylor possibly returning soon, the Colts will be fun to watch.
Bills Trounce Dolphins in Heavyweight Clash Amid Damar Hamlin Return
Billed as the game of the week (see what I did there?), Buffalo and Miami showed their offensive prowess early. The first 5 combined drives ALL went for TDs, giving Buffalo a 21-14 lead. All the talk about Miami’s offense seemed to offend Buffalo, because they put on a clinic. QB Josh Allen played what I consider his finest (at least cleanest) career game, finishing 21/25 for 320 yards and 4 TDs. He also ran for a score and posted a perfect 158.3 passer rating. WR Stefon Diggs (6/120/3) torched poor slot CB Kader Kohou repeatedly. Pressed into service due to Jalen Ramsey‘s injury, Kohou never stood a chance.
That begs an important question: why did DC Vic Fangio not scheme up a better plan? Kohou covered Diggs on all 3 of the latter’s TDs, and Fangio never switched that assignment. Miami’s defense got torched all game long, and a week after scoring 70 points, the Dolphins surrendered 48. Buffalo figured out how to slow Miami’s attack, though Tua Tagovailoa (25/35, 282 yards, TD, INT) still played well. The Dolphins never got into the game in the second half, falling 48-20. As a silver lining, rookie RB De’Von Achane did it again, taking a mere 8 carries for 101 yards and 2 scores.
Maybe the regular season return of S Damar Hamlin gave the Bills an emotional lift. We’ve been following Hamlin’s story for months now, and week 4 was his first game being active in 2023. Though he played mostly on special teams, Hamlin simply appearing in the game was huge news. The man nearly died on the field, but he made it all the way back. That probably will get lost in the shuffle given the high stakes of the matchup, but Bills mafia certainly won’t forget their feel-good story.
Preseason Darlings Aidan O’Connell, Dorian Thompson-Robinson Make First Career Starts
With Jimmy Garoppolo and Deshaun Watson injured for the Raiders and Browns, respectively, two mid-round rookies got their first regular-season starts. To put it bluntly, their performances weren’t pretty. In Cleveland, Dorian Thompson-Robinson was surprisingly announced as the starter after it was determined late that Watson couldn’t play. The enormity of the moment clearly overwhelmed DTR, who went 18/36 for 121 yards and 3 TDs. Cleveland’s defense even seemed to lose the will to fight in a 28-3 loss, knowing that their QB had no chance to reach the end zone.
Aidan O’Connell showed a bit more promise for the Raiders. After a 3-and-out, his second drive went great; he went 64 yards and 8 plays, ending the series with a QB sneak TD. His next two drives were exactly the opposite. O’Connell lost fumbles on both of them, and the Chargers converted both into TDs. He actually fumbled a 3rd time, but a teammate recovered. The subsequent 3-and-outs were actually better outcomes. To his credit, O’Connell kept trying to fight back. Facing an injured Justin Herbert (who broke a finger on his left hand), the Raiders’ defense didn’t allow a Chargers point in the second half.
Alas, their effort was spoiled by rookie mistakes. O’Connell consistently held the ball too long, apparently not realizing that his tackles couldn’t handle Khalil Mack. The great LB sacked the QB of the team that drafted him SIX TIMES. Still, the Raiders were in the game late. Down 24-17, the Raiders needed a stop. The worst HC in football, Brandon Staley, called a QB sneak for Herbert on 4th and 1 at their own 34, which failed. However, his defense bailed him out with a pick by Asante Samuel Jr to seal the win. O’Connell (24/39, 238 yards), has a bit of potential, but he’s clearly got plenty to work on.
Bears, Panthers Now the Favorites for the #1 Overall Pick
All 4 of the league’s 0-3 teams played each other this week, giving us a great opportunity to see who’s the worst of the worst. Minnesota tried to stake their claim against Carolina with two more turnovers. This time, both were ill-timed Kirk Cousins INTs that sabotaged scoring drives. Fortunately for the Vikings, Cousins’ counterpart, #1 overall pick Bryce Young, still can’t lead a competent offense. Cousins only had to throw the ball 19 times and deliver 2 TDs to Justin Jefferson. LB DJ Wonnum took care of the rest of the scoring, returning a fumble for a TD to secure a 21-13 win.
Over in Chicago, the Bears looked to be playing their best game of the year by far. Much maligned QB Justin Fields shredded Denver’s horrid defense for 4 TD passes. Fields (28/35, 335 yards) had his best passing day as a pro, and frankly, Broncos DC Vance Joseph should be fired today as a result. Giving up 70 points to Miami is bad enough, but letting Fields look like Joe Montana is simply inexcusable. Down 28-7 in the 3rd quarter, Denver felt like the league’s very worst team. Then, Chicago played like Chicago again and let Denver back into the game.
The Bears’ defense, previously enjoying their finest outing, completely imploded. Russell Wilson (21/28, 223 yards, 3 TDs) led a ferocious comeback, eventually scoring 17 unanswered points in the 4th quarter to steal a 31-28 win. Denver certainly had help. Fields lost a fumble, which LB Jonathon Cooper returned for a game-tying TD. Next, Bears HC Matt Eberflus inexplicably went on 4th and 1 at Denver’s 18 instead of kicking a go-ahead FG. The run play went for no gain, and Denver took the lead. Finally, Fields tossed a poor INT to seal the loss.
Chicago showed more life this week than Carolina, but the Bears still feel inferior. The Panthers at least have a good defense, and there’s hope that Bryce Young can grow into the franchise QB the team desires. Fields is in his 3rd year now; he’s clearly not the guy, and he has no defense to support him. Meanwhile, WR Chase Claypool is fighting with the coaching staff, who responded by making the wideout a healthy scratch. Eberflus is trending toward losing his job at season’s end. If the Bears continue on this path and secure their second consecutive #1 pick, his time in Chicago will likely be over.