We’re about to round the one month mark in the 2021 NFL season, and damn it’s been good so far. If you’re a fan of chaos then the season has been kind, with the Rams being better than anyone expected, the Chiefs being worse, the Broncos and Panthers surprising everyone — and the Jaguars ... well, still being the Jaguars.
We’re largely past the “shock and awe” section of the season, and now we’re moving into where the season gets tough. Coordinators have enough film to start really scheming for opponents, injuries are starting to become a part of the NFL experience, and we’re getting a better sense of which players are destined for breakout years, and who might be wanting to put it all behind them.
These are the questions I want answers to this week.
No. 1: Are the Broncos and Panthers actually good?
I’m being reminded every single week that I’m not giving the Broncos enough credit. Trust me I’ve read the comments and feel your seething dislike. Sorry, but I’m not just going to put too much stock into a team that’s beaten the Giants, Jets and Jaguars — even if they’re 3-0.
It’s an almost identical situation in Carolina, where the Panthers are also 3-0, at least partly because of their competition, which was comprised of the Jets, an injury-ravaged Saints, and the Texans.
Both teams are solid. I mean, you can’t go 3-0 in the NFL without talent, but this is the week where the rubber hits the road. Denver plays the Ravens, Carolina takes on the Cowboys. Both are 2-1 teams with the only blemish on their record coming against another really good team. There is no doubt Week 4 marks the first real test for each of these unbeaten surprises who were each 5-11 last year.
While I won’t magically swing in the other direction and declare either team “Super Bowl contenders” if they win on Sunday, how these teams perform is almost more important than the final score. If Denver and Carolina can hang with these talented opponents we can start to take them more seriously for the rest of the season.
No. 2: What does the NFC West look like when the dust settles?
Damn I’m excited to see how all this plays out. In Week 4 we have the Cardinals and Rams facing off in a battle of the division’s undefeated teams, while the Seahawks and 49ers meet to determine the rest of the pecking order.
Really the focus is, and should be, on Arizona vs. Los Angeles. Two of the league’s best offenses butting heads to see whose defense breaks first. I think everyone has this penciled in as a Rams win, especially off that big victory against the Buccaneers — but don’t sleep on the Cardinals. They really could push Matthew Stafford and co, especially if Chandler Jones and the pass rush gets back on track.
One of these teams will finish 4-0 to start the season, giving them a significant leg-up on the way to a playoff berth. No matter what happens we’re going to either see if the Cardinals are built to make a postseason push, or if Stafford and the Rams are truly the Super Bowl contender so many are buying into.
Of course, there’s also San Francisco and Seattle to factor in. The 49ers are coming off a brutal narrow loss to the Packers, but the Seahawks are in serious danger of finding themselves in the divisional cellar — which isn’t something we’ve been able to say for a long, long time. There’s a lot at play here too, and that’s going to make it interesting.
No. 3: Will any of the rookie quarterbacks start to look like NFL quarterbacks?
It’s been a brutal, horrible, rotten, no-good start to 2021 for teams relying on rookies to start. The Jaguars, Jets, Bears, Patriots and Texans — all of whom are starting 1st year passers, are a combined 3-12 to start the season.
Everyone knows you can’t hang a loss entirely on the quarterback, but the amount of mistakes, bad play, and disappointment generated by the rookies is overwhelming. Trevor Lawrence has had a few flashes of brilliance, but far more more bad ones. Mac Jones is throwing the ball a whole lot, and it’s not achieving much. Justin Fields has barely had a chance while the Bears goofed around with Andy Dalton. David Mills and his island of misfit toys are trying to get through the season. And Zach Wilson, well, he has good hair. That’s the nicest thing I can say.
Year one for a rookie is all about growth and adaptation. What’s discouraging about this group is that they’re not progressing at all right now. In fact, in most cases they’re getting worse. I just want to see some development, any development to feel a little better about all this.
No. 4: Can the Chiefs stop the bleeding?
Dropping back-to-back games, Kansas City now finds itself in last place in AFC West and in need of a spark to get back on track. That should be relatively easy Week 4 against the Eagles, but if the drop this game there are major issues.
The odds-on favorites to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl, the Chiefs are struggling so tremendously on defense that not even Patrick Mahomes’ greatness can dig them out — and he has been far from perfect in 2021.
Kansas City is tied for last in the NFL in points allowed, giving up 95 over the last three games. They’re on par with the Lions, worse than the Jaguars, Jets and Falcons in this area. That is really, really bad.
If the Chiefs want to have any hopes of getting this back on track they have to win against Philadelphia, and if that doesn’t happen and they fall to 1-3, well, it’s going to be approaching the time where we can write them off. I’m dying to know what happens.