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Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press
Twenty-six of the NFL‘s 32 teams have completed the first quarter of the 2020 regular season. And while we’ve got plenty to learn about each team and many of the league’s players over the course of the next three months, it does feel as though the initial four-week stretch is the most educational portion of each campaign.
On the final Sunday of that stretch, plenty became apparent—some good, some bad, some brutal.
Here’s a rundown of the top lessons the league offered us on a dozen-game Sunday to truly open October football.
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Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press
You’re allowed to doubt the Cleveland Browns. They’ve teased us before, and none of us owe them the benefit of the doubt following 17 consecutive non-playoff seasons.
But this Browns team is different. It’s more talented than the 2019 edition that let everyone down. It’s better-coached, as well, and much more disciplined. Cleveland is 3-1 for the first time since 2001, and it’s riding a three-game winning streak for just the sixth time in the last decade.
By no means are the Browns worthy of leapfrogging the Kansas City Chiefs in anyone’s power rankings, but the fact is the production is finally matching the talent on that roster. Odell Beckham Jr. and Myles Garrett are transcendent game-changers when they’re at their best, and that was the case as the Browns put up a second consecutive double-digit-point victory Sunday over the Dallas Cowboys.
The Browns have now scored more than 30 points in three straight weeks. They’ve got the requisite top-end talent on both sides of the ball to compensate for back-seven defensive shortcomings and the depth on offense to survive injuries—like the one top back Nick Chubb suffered Sunday—or off days from evolving quarterback Baker Mayfield.
Cleveland is too good not to grab one of the AFC’s seven playoff spots, especially considering Freddie Kitchens is no longer around to do more harm than good. They’re no longer a punchline, and their next two opponents, the Indianapolis Colts and Pittsburgh Steelers, should proceed with caution.
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Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press
The 2018 Indianapolis Colts defense was incredible down the stretch in coordinator Matt Eberflus’ debut season before it lost plenty of luster in a disappointing 2019 campaign. But the front office went out and added veterans DeForest Buckner and Xavier Rhodes to support centerpieces Darius Leonard and Justin Houston in 2020, and thus far it’s paid off in a major freakin’ way.
Three weeks in, that improved unit ranked first in DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) at Football Outsiders, and that’s unlikely to change after Indianapolis limited the Chicago Bears to just 11 points, 16 first downs, four third-down conversions and 269 total yards in a Week 4 victory at Soldier Field.
In a season that has featured more offense than any campaign in league history thus far, the Colts have surrendered just 14.0 points per game.
Buckner and Leonard are playing at All-Pro levels, Rhodes has completely revived his career after struggling with the Minnesota Vikings in 2019, Houston is up to 3.5 sacks, and Khari Willis has taken a big step forward at safety. Leonard did miss the second half of Sunday’s game due to a groin injury, but he was originally questionable to return so there’s hope that won’t keep him out long-term, and the Colts D didn’t miss a beat without him.
Throw in the always-steady Colts offensive line and this is the most support Philip Rivers has enjoyed in years. If he can keep it together under center, the balanced Colts will be good enough to make a run in December and January.
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Jason Behnken/Associated Press
It’s (relatively) easy to baby a rookie quarterback by installing conservative game plans that limit his risky throws. That’s exactly what we saw from the Denver Broncos with second-round pick Drew Lock in 2019.
But in the same division, the Los Angeles Chargers have let rookie No. 6 overall pick Justin Herbert loose in place of the injured Tyrod Taylor over the last three weeks, and that’s made it a lot easier to conclude that the Oregon product has the ingredients to become a franchise quarterback very soon.
After completing 20 of 25 passes for 290 yards, three touchdowns and one interception in a high-scoring loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Herbert now has a 102.2 passer rating and a superb 8.7 yards-per-attempt average entering the second quarter of the 2020 campaign.
More critically, he was 4-of-5 with three touchdowns and a pick on deep passing attempts in Tampa. He also entered this weekend as the league’s highest-rated third-down passer before completing five of six passes for 112 yards and a touchdown under those circumstances against the Bucs.
He was the 14th-highest-rated quarterback in the league in terms of DVOA entering Week 4, and that ranking should only improve moving forward after he held his own against one of the fiercest defenses in the NFL.
At the very least, the starting job in L.A. should be Herbert’s, both right now and for years to come.
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Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press
In a salary-cap crunch this past offseason, the Minnesota Vikings got younger and cheaper at the wide receiver position when they traded veteran Stefon Diggs to the Buffalo Bills and then essentially selected his replacement, Justin Jefferson, in the first round of the NFL draft.
And while Diggs has delivered thus far for the 4-0 Bills, Vikings fans have to be thrilled with Jefferson’s early progress in Minnesota.
In a season-saving victory Sunday over the Houston Texans, the 21-year-old LSU product was a contested-catch machine en route to his second 100-yard performance in as many weeks. Quarterback Kirk Cousins completed all four of the deep passes on which Jefferson was targeted, giving him eight deep receptions on nine targets this season.
He and Diggs are the only players in the NFL with eight 20-plus-yard receptions this year. And altogether, he’s caught 80 percent of the passes thrown his way for a yards-per-reception average of 21.8, making him one of the most efficient and productive wideouts in the league through four weeks.
So yeah, Vikes general manager Rick Spielman isn’t shedding too many tears over Diggs’ success in Buffalo. That trade is looking like a win-win.
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Brian Blanco/Associated Press
The Arizona Cardinals were the Cinderella of the 2020 offseason, and those on their bandwagon likely breathed a sigh of relief when they didn’t look like an offseason champion turned real-world dud during the first two weeks of the 2020 campaign.
But after outscoring their opponents 54-35 in back-to-back victories to kick off September, the Cardinals have surrendered 57 total points in consecutive losses to the Detroit Lions and Carolina Panthers.
The Lions and Panthers, who are a combined 1-5 in their six games against opponents not named after perching birds, often moved the ball quite easily against an Arizona defense that remains a weakness. Rookie top-10 pick Isaiah Simmons has been a ghost on that side of the ball, All-Pro pass-rusher Chandler Jones has just one sack in four weeks, and Patrick Peterson and Byron Murphy Jr. have both struggled in coverage.
Offensively, sensational sophomore quarterback Kyler Murray was a liability with three interceptions in the loss to the Lions, while focal-point back Kenyan Drake, who has yet to hit the 90-yard mark on the ground this year, gained only 35 yards on 13 carries against Carolina.
This team still has plenty of work to do in a damn tough division. If it’s struggling against foes like Detroit and Carolina, it could be in trouble when the Seattle Seahawks, Los Angeles Rams and New England Patriots come knocking in five of the last 10 regular-season games.
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Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press
Only one team in NFL history has started 0-4 and gone on to make the playoffs, which means we can essentially eulogize the winless Houston Texans following their Week 4 loss to the previously winless Minnesota Vikings.
And what does that say about Bill O’Brien‘s future? You might figure the head coach will get a break simply because Houston drew such a brutal first-quarter schedule. But while nobody expected the Texans to run the table against the Kansas City Chiefs, Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers and Vikings, 0-4 with an average margin of defeat of 11.5 and no margins within half a dozen points is unacceptable.
This Texans team is supposed to be capable of hanging with fellow reigning division champs like Kansas City and Baltimore and playoff contenders like Pittsburgh and Minnesota. Its franchise quarterback, Deshaun Watson, is the second-highest-paid player in NFL history, and it has a tied-for-league-high 10 players making at least $10 million per year.
O’Brien risked it all by trading DeAndre Hopkins for David Johnson and some draft capital, and he opted to let D.J. Reader go. Hopkins was the most productive receiver in the league entering Sunday’s action, Reader has performed at a Pro Bowl level with the Cincinnati Bengals, and Johnson is averaging just 3.9 yards per attempt.
Barring a miraculous turnaround, this will be yet another season in which the Texans fall well short of a deep playoff run despite oodles of talent. It’s time to move on and find a proper general manager—and then allow said general manager to hire a new coach.
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Jose Juarez/Associated Press
It’s hard to believe because the Atlanta Falcons have suffered three epic collapses in the last few years, one of which came in the Super Bowl and the others of which came in back-to-back games last month, but Matt Patricia’s Detroit Lions might rival Atlanta when it comes to choking artistry.
The Lions have held double-digit leads in all three of their losses this season and five consecutive defeats dating back to last year, which, according to Elias (h/t ESPN’s Michael Rothstein), is an NFL record.
On Sunday, Detroit led the New Orleans Saints 14-0 and then somehow surrendered 35 consecutive points at home against an opponent that was missing its top receiver and its top tight end.
Despite plenty of talent, especially on offense but also in key spots defensively, they’ve now lost 15 of their last 17 games overall and are 10-25-1 under Patricia. Juxtapose that with predecessor Jim Caldwell’s solid 36-28 record in Detroit and a franchise inevitably low on patience should prepare for sweeping changes.
Mentally weak, poorly coached teams underperform and choke on the regular. The Falcons have proved it’s very difficult to break those habits.
I’ve lost all trust in the Lions, and I’d urge you to join me.
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Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press
On Sunday, without the league’s only $16-million-per-year back, Christian McCaffrey, the Carolina Panthers rushed for 168 yards and two touchdowns in a victorious 31-point performance against the Arizona Cardinals. That moved Carolina to 2-0 this season sans McCaffrey and 0-2 with him.
Meanwhile, with the NFL’s second-highest-paid back, Ezekiel Elliott, healthy and fully active, the Dallas Cowboys dropped to 1-3 in a loss to the Cleveland Browns. Alvin Kamara is arguably the hottest back in the league, but the Saints would have fallen to 1-3 Sunday had they met a competent opponent (i.e. not the Detroit Lions).
Few would argue the New York Jets would be any better than 0-4 even if Le’Veon Bell were healthy, the freshly paid Kenyan Drake has done little to help the 2-2 Cardinals, and David Johnson’s Houston Texans are also seeking their first win of the year.
Current NFL rushing leader Dalvin Cook played a key role in the Minnesota Vikings’ Week 4 victory over the Texans. But they were 0-3 prior to that contest, and the season-saving win likely wouldn’t have occurred if not for the passing game coming alive.
The position simply doesn’t impact the game enough, shelf lives are too short, and injuries are too frequent. Three of those 12 highest-paid backs were already hurt before Austin Ekeler went down in yet another Los Angeles Chargers loss on Sunday.
And so I’ll say it one more time: Stop throwing away money on running backs.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012. Follow him on Twitter: @Brad_Gagnon.