1. The NFC North is wide open
By Danny Kelly
At the quarter mark, parity is alive and well in the NFC North.
Detroit is in the driver's seat for the moment at 3-1, but there's no team in the division with a losing record. The Packers apparently remembered how to play offense this week and sit at 2-2. Right with them, a Bears team that has flashed some brilliance on both sides of the ball also sits at 2-2. A rejuvenated Vikings team seems to have found new life under rookie Teddy Bridgewater, and is also at 2-2 with a minor upset over the Falcons this week.
I would guess that when most people picture the Lions, they have Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson, Reggie Bush and a prolific, wide-open passing offense in their mind's eye. Through four games this year, though, it's evident that Detroit is intent on altering its identity to feature a balanced offense and strong, fundamental defense. The Lions went into this week's game second in Football Outsiders' Defensive DVOA metric, and were holding opposing teams to a league-low 267 yards per game, 15.5 points per game (fourth), 4.6 yards per play (second), 3.4 yards per rush (seventh), and have held opposing quarterbacks to a 77.4 rating (fourth). That includes keeping the Packers under 10 points last week.
Detroit kept this style of play going in a winning effort this week, holding the Jets to 17 points, frustrating Geno Smith all day. The Lions picked him off, forced two fumbles -- recovering one -- and limited Smith to 209 yards passing on 33 attempts. On offense, even with Johnson severely hobbled and limited, Stafford went 24 of 34 for 293 yards and two touchdowns. He focused in on Golden Tate (eight catches for 116 yards), but threw touchdowns to rookie Eric Ebron and return specialist Jeremy Ross. Even against a tough Jets front, they rushed 27 times and picked up 88 yards.
Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay's offense, which took a beating in the media this past week for ineffectiveness and anemia, answered their critics as they exploded for 38 points in a blowout win in Chicago. Rodgers was masterful as he threw four touchdowns on 22-of-28 passing (78 percent), leaning on Jordy Nelson (10 catches, 108 yards, two touchdowns) and Randall Cobb (seven catches, 113 yards, two touchdowns). This was the kind of performance that the Pack's offense needed, and they'll undoubtedly look to build on it going forward.
Offensive breakout notwithstanding, there are still major concerns about Dom Capers' defensive unit, which, going into this game, was worst in the NFL in rush defense (176 yards per game). The Packers gave up an absurd 235 yards rushing to the Bears in this one and in total gave up 496 yards of offense to Jay Cutler's group. That's slightly sobering, though Green Bay got the job done with two crucial picks of Cutler in the third quarter.
When it comes to the Bears, I remain convinced that they can beat anybody when they're clicking on offense. As noted, Cutler threw two crucial picks, but this offense and its collection of weaponry remains dangerous heading into the second quarter of the season. Cutler is the definition of a gunslinger, and has Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Martellus Bennett and Matt Forte at his disposal. Also at his disposal is Marc Trestman, who has done a good job of designing plays like this: an Alshon Jeffery fake end-around switch back that confused the hell out of the Packers' defensive backs and linebackers.
Bottom line for the Bears is that their offense has been strong and their defense has been better than expected, but they're in for a dogfight in a tough NFC North division.
Even the Vikings, who after three weeks looked like afterthoughts, found new life this week with a quarterback change. Teddy Bridgewater got his first NFL start and led the Vikings to big win over Matt Ryan and the Falcons. Bridgewater threw for 319 yards on 19-of-30 passing and added 27 yards and a touchdown rushing the football.
Bridgewater's presence also seemed to spark the Vikings' run game, and Minnesota ran roughshod over Atlanta, to the tune of 241 yards and four touchdowns on 44 attempts. Bridgewater hurt his ankle late in the game but X-rays were negative. If he can return quickly and continue to make that Vikings offense more dynamic, Minnesota is yet another contender in the wide-open NFC North.
2. San Francisco gets much-needed win
By Danny Kelly
The Niners went into their matchup with the Eagles badly in need of a big win after enduring rumors and intrigue this week surrounding Jim Harbaugh's hold on his team, the locker room and his job.
The San Francisco defense came up big for Harbs, suffocating a previously explosive Eagles offense to the tune of 213 total yards and 3.8 yards per play. The Eagles, who led the NFL in rushing last season, could only manage 22 yards on 12 rushes. Nick Foles looked out of rhythm and out of sorts all game, throwing two picks while passing for 195 yards on 21 of 43 attempts (48 percent). Could this be a jumpstart for a San Francisco defense that has struggled early on this season?
As for the Niners' offense, the run game clicked on all cylinders as they went for 218 yards on 42 attempts, but the passing game was a mixed bag. Colin Kaepernick continued to flash with brilliant plays, only to contrast them with ugly throws and poor clock management.
Kap went from making a brilliant improvisational throw like this ...
... to completely missing a dropping Malcolm Jenkins for what ended up being a pick-six.
Kap showcased his ability to throw an absolute dime down the sideline to Anquan Boldin on a big third-down play, but then frustrated coaches with a delay of game penalty and a poor decision to take a timeout later. He missed Michael Crabtree on a wide-open slant for what would have been a touchdown, drawing the ire of analysts on Twitter, then on the next play, escaped pressure, ran left, threw across his body and put a bullet right where only Stevie Johnson could get it for a touchdown.
With four games in the books, the Niners are 2-2, and despite a long line of distractions, have positioned themselves well for the second quarter of the season. If the defense can springboard off of this dominating performance and Kaepernick can get back to consistent play as a passer, San Francisco will remain a contender in the NFC.
3. Are the Steelers good or not?
By Eric Sollenberger
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers shocked the Steelers in Pittsburgh, pulling together a game-winning drive to cap off a last-minute 27-24 win. The Steelers were heavy favorites, and for good reason: they blew out the Panthers on the road last week, and Tampa Bay had lost its last game by 42 points.
The Steelers had their opportunities to put the game away, but they couldn't capitalize due to penalties and poor execution. Ben Roethlisberger looked downfield for a wide-open Antonio Brown on a couple of occasions in the second half. The first pass may have been overthrown by just a couple of feet, but the second was about 8 yards too long. Those two passes, along with a bad punt by former LSU punter Brad Wing, put the Buccaneers within 50 yards of a win on their final drive.
And front of Tribune-Review sports section on Bucs-Steelers ... pic.twitter.com/RNZXVja93O— Greg Auman (@gregauman) September 29, 2014
The Steelers are an average football team, and they'll continue to be wildly inconsistent from game to game. Pittsburgh will win and lose games based on turnovers and penalties, and if the Steelers commit 13 penalties for 125 yards like they did Sunday, they can lose against any team in the NFL.
Random quarter-pole awards
By Ryan Van Bibber
Most disappointing team: New Orleans Saints
The last time the Saints played the Cowboys, they set an NFL record with 40 first downs in the game, on their way to a blowout win. Dallas turned the tables this week, dropping the visiting Saints, a popular pick for the NFC Championship this year, with a 38-17 win. Everything is wrong with the Saints right now. Sean Payton is letting his punter make key fourth-down throws instead of Drew Brees. The defense can't tackle, much less stop anyone.
Super Bowl we'd like to see: Arizona Cardinals vs. Cincinnati Bengals
We'll see what happens over the next 13 weeks of the season before we start worrying too much about what happens in January. But the two most exciting teams in the NFL right now have to be the Bengals and the Cardinals, who both had the weekend off.
MVPs so far: J.J. Watt and Philip Rivers
Rivers threw three more touchdown passes this week, giving him nine on the season, tied for the third-most in the NFL. It's not the counting stats that matter here, though. The 3-1 Chargers run everything through Rivers, who can make explosive plays as well as manage that offense to chew up the clock. They have to with Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead on the shelf.
It's hard to believe that J.J. Watt had his first career pick-six on Sunday. In fact, that was his first regular season interception (he had one in the playoffs in 2011). He also has a receiving touchdown on the season, another career first. Set aside his offensive production, and his defensive play alone would get him some MVP votes. It's scary to think what this team might look like with a healthy Jadeveon Clowney on the other side.
Rookie of the quarter: Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Panthers
Congrats, Kelvin Benjamin, you get the coveted SB Nation first quarter rookie award. Sammy Watkins was supposed to make the biggest impact of any offensive player drafted this year. We've seen flashes of what he can do in Buffalo's stunted passing offense, but Benjamin has been the first to emerge as a true No. 1 receiver. He has 329 yards on 21 catches, to go with three touchdowns as Cam Newton's favorite target.