NFL Quarterly Report: Patriots win three without Brady, Panthers struggling out of the gate

We’re essentially a quarter of the way through the season, with all but two teams now through their first four games of the season. As is typical in the NFL, there are some teams that have been surprising — both positively and negatively. Among the surprising teams are the Ravens, Eagles, Panthers, Rams and Cardinals.

One of the biggest stories entering the season was how the Patriots would do the first four weeks while QB Tom Brady was serving his Deflategate suspension. Most people thought they’d go 2-2 or 3-1 (I had them going 2-2). They’re 3-1 at the quarter pole, but they didn’t get there the way people expected. After beating the Cardinals, Dolphins and Texans — shutting out Houston — the Patriots got shut out Sunday at home against the Bills. Brady comes back in Week 5, getting a road game against the winless Browns — the only team in the league yet to get a win — in his first game of the season. The win over the Patriots put the Bills at 2-2, while the Jets and Dolphins are bringing up the rear in the division, each at 1-3. Even without Brady, the Patriots have been the best team in the AFC East, and they should only get better when their quarterback returns to action this weekend.

At 3-1, the Ravens are leading the AFC North, tied with the Steelers, who are coming off an impressive win against the Chiefs on Sunday night. The Bengals, who won the division last year, haven’t looked great so far this season but have a 2-2 record, so they’re staying in the division race while the Browns are 0-4, down to third-string QB Cody Kessler following injuries to QBs Robert Griffin III and Josh McCown. It’s looking like this could be a three-team race for the division, although I wouldn’t be surprised if the Ravens falls behind the Steelers and Bengals after their hot start.

Moving on to the AFC South, it’s not pretty. There’s a three-way tie for second or last, depending on your perspective, with the Colts, Jaguars and Titans all 1-3. The division-leading Texans are 3-1 and haven’t looked bad, outside of Week 3 when they lost to the Patriots 27-0. They took a hit this past week, however, when DE J.J. Watt was ruled out for the season with a back injury. That hurts a defense that played well in the first couple weeks of the season. Despite Watt’s injury, this should be the Texans’ division to win with the Colts having a poor defense and the Jaguars not looking like the breakout team some people thought they would be this year.

Despite having QB Trevor Siemian, who left Sunday’s game with a shoulder injury, being their starter, the defending Super Bowl champion Broncos are 4-0 and leading the AFC West, with the Raiders right behind them at 3-1. Oakland was a trendy playoff pick this year and they’re living up to the hype thus far. I’m still not totally buying into the Raiders, but they’re off to a good start. The Chiefs are 2-2 after losing to the Steelers this week. The Chargers, who had a bad loss to the Saints on Sunday, are at the bottom of the division, at 1-3. I still think this division will come down to the Broncos battling the Chiefs, but let’s see if the Raiders can stick around in the race.

The Eagles, who had a bye in Week 4, are perched atop the NFC East with a 3-0 record. Rookie QB Carson Wentz looks like the real deal under center, even doing well in a tough matchup with the Steelers in Week 3. Dak Prescott, another rookie quarterback, is having similar success with the Cowboys; he has them at a 3-1 record. The Giants and Redskins are each 2-2 at this point. This is still a tight race all around, with all four teams at .500 or better, but as of now it appears the rookies are making Philadelphia and Dallas the teams to beat in the division. The question is can they keep it up all season?

After beating the Giants on Monday Night Football, the Vikings are 4-0, which is particularly impressive when you consider that QB Teddy Bridgewater suffered a season-ending leg injury in preseason and RB Adrian Peterson suffered a season-ending injury in Week 2.  The Vikings traded for QB Sam Bradford when Bridgewater went down, and he has done a good job leading the team so far. The Packers, who were on a bye this week, are 2-1 but have looked inconsistent on offense in their three games. The Bears and Lions round out the NFC North, each at 1-3. The Vikings and Packers were the best teams in the division last year and that appears to be the case again this season. I still think the Packers will win the division, but the Vikings could stick around the playoff hunt throughout the season.

The Falcons lead the NFC South with a 3-1 record, which is kind of a surprise but not as big of a surprise as the Panthers, who lost again in Week 4 to drop to 1-3 after the first quarter of the season. QB Cam Newton, who left Sunday’s game with a possible concussion, is not playing like his MVP season of 2015. In four games, he has 6 TD passes and 5 interceptions. The defense has also been a disappointment, giving up 48 points to the Falcons this week. The Buccaneers and Saints are also 1-3, meaning both the AFC and NFC South divisions have one team at 3-1 and the other three teams at 1-3.  Unlike in the AFC South, I don’t expect the current division leader to hold on all season. Assuming Newton doesn’t miss much time with the possible concussion, I expect the Panthers to get better in the coming weeks.

The Seahawks are 3-1 to put them at the top of the NFC West, which is to be expected, but the fact that they’re tied with the Rams was definitely not expected. After being shut out by the 49ers in Week 1, the Rams have won their last three games, including handing the Seahawks their only loss so far, to give something for their fans to cheer about in their first season back in Los Angeles. The Cardinals, who won the division last year with a 13-3 record have already matched that loss total this year, going 1-3 in their first four games. QB Carson Palmer left Sunday’s game early and entered the concussion protocol, and he has already been ruled out for Thursday night when the Cardinals visit the 49ers in a battle of 1-3 teams. The Rams are another team that I don’t expect to keep up this hot start so it looks like the Seahawks should win this division, with the Cardinals — who many picked to repeat as division champs this year — getting off to a slow start.

Four weeks down, 13 to go in the regular season. So there’s still the majority of the season left to turn things around for underperforming teams like the Panthers and the Cardinals so they shouldn’t be panicking yet, but they also don’t want to fall too far behind because pretty soon they may be thinking that “it’s getting late early,” as Yankees C Yogi Berra once said.

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