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Tuesday, October 3, 2023

NFL Week 4: Five Overreactions

As the season reaches what used to be the quarter pole after NFL Week 4 (the first quarter of the season now inconviently finishes at the end of the first quarter of teams’ fifth game), only two undefeated teams remain. There is also a pair of teams still in search of their first victories.

That leaves a mosh pit of 28 teams with records ranging from 3-1 to 1-3, with no division embodying parity quite as well as the AFC South, where four teams are tied for first and last a 2-2. Technically, that’s not true. The Tennessee Titans are last at 2-2 on the basis of not having played a divisional game yet. The other three teams in the division are all 1-1 against each other.

There is a clear best team in the NFL (see the overreactions below). There will also be clubs in the 14-team playoff bracket that are there simply because there are slots in the bracket that must be filled.

So let’s overreact to NFL Week 4!

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5. International games continue to be a blight on the schedule

The first of five regular-season to be played outside the U.S. was played on Sunday. The London Jacksonville Jaguars beat the Atlanta Falcons 23-7 at Wembley Stadium in London and will remain in the U.K. to face the Buffalo Bills on Sunday.

The NFL International Series is a case of an idea making more dollars than sense. In a 17-game NFL schedule, teams play eight or nine home games and eight or nine road games. But wait! Let’s play some of those games at neutral sites in Europe! Brilliant!

Who cares it if upsets competitive balance? It matters that teams give away home games to “grow the product” internationally. But the NFL is far from alone in this trend among the four major North American sports.

Major League Baseball decided playing in Australia, Asia, Europe and in a cornfield in the middle of Iowa was fantastic stuff. The NBA exports regular-season games, as does the NHL. Who cares if we’re piling several thousands of travel miles on bodies that already spend an inordinate amount of time in airplanes? There’s money to be made!

Reality: Top-tier European soccer leagues export games to the U.S. every year. The difference is that they are exhibition games. That is very different from games used to help determine the championship of said leagues.

International games are here and they’re a reality. But let’s not pretend the NFL isn’t exchanging the integrity of the schedule for a bag of shiny beads and trinkets.

4. The New York Giants fooled a lot of us

The New York Giants are 1-3 and have been outscored in national prime-time games by a combined 92-15. Big Blue has a minus-8 turnover differential and Daniel Jones has been sacked 22 times already.

Speaking of Jones, he leads the NFL with six interceptions — one more than he threw in 16 games last season. His offensive line isn’t protecting him and Jones is making bad decisions. The pick-six deep in Seattle territory in the third quarter on Monday night sealed New York’s fate in a 24-3 loss.

Red-zone completions are difficult because the field is so much tighter. Dropping back and never looking off the intended receiver? In the red zone? Jones might as well have just handed the ball to Devon Witherspoon.

New York was a playoff team last year, reaching the divisional round, and because it’s New York, that led to five prime-time slots. The Giants go to Buffalo for a Sunday night game on Oct. 15 and host the Green Bay Packers on a Monday night in December. So that should be fun.

Reality: The Giants defense hasn’t created a turnover in four games while the offense ranks 31st. It’s shaping up to be a long, dreary season in the swamps of New Jersey.

3. The Cincinnati Bengals are a mess offensively

The Cincinnati Bengals are off to a 1-3 start and are 31st in the NFL, scoring 49 points in those four games. That’s a field goal better than the Giants, who … well, yeah.

Joe Burrow’s calf injury coupled with the poor play of the offensive line is a perfect storm that has reduced the Cincinnati offense to a shell of itself. The Bengals are last in the league, averaging just 236 yards per game — the only NFL squad below the 250 mark.

The offensive line lost 68% of their pass blocks in Sunday’s 27-3 loss to the Titans … and that was an improvement from their win over the Los Angeles Rams on Oct. 1.

With an immobile Burrow, defenses are teeing off on him in the pocket, knowing the quarterback lacks the ability to escape and make a play.

Receiver Tee Wiggins was hurt on Sunday and may miss time with a rib injury. That can’t help an offense that is already sputtering. Cincinnati’s season is on life support and won’t get a bye to help Burrow recover until Week 7.

Reality: This situation is exactly as bad as it looks. The Bengals have a minus-45 scoring differential, 15th-best in the AFC and ahead of only the Denver Broncos (minus-50). Cincinnati 0-2 in the division and 0-3 in conference games, so tiebreakers are off to a poor start.

2. The San Francisco 49ers are the best team in the NFL

In the instant-reaction age of media, it’s almost inconceivable that a team could start 4-0 with less attention than the San Francisco 49ers. That should change as they host the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday in a prime-time battle, but the 49ers have taken care of business in the early going.

San Francisco is No. 2 in total offense and No. 5 in total defense, has committed just one turnover and Brock Purdy is proving to be fairly relevant in his return from elbow surgery. The second-year quarterback is completing 72.3% of his throws, averaging 9.1 yards per attempt with five touchdowns and no interceptions.

Meanwhile, Christian McCaffrey (more on him in a bit) has 600 combined rushing and receiving yards to go with seven touchdowns.

No, San Francisco hasn’t faced a gauntlet of Super Bowl contenders, but what it has done is take care of business like it should, avoiding stubbing its collective toe against the likes ot the Steelers, Rams, Giants and Cardinals.

Reality: It’s too early, of course, to make a definitive declaration. But a plus-67 scoring differential and only one game within a single possession speak to how the 49ers have methodically steamrolled through their schedule thus far. The matchup with Dallas on Sunday night is must-see TV because the Cowboys already have one stubbed toe sustained in Arizona in Week 3.

1. Christian McCaffrey is the early leader in the MVP race

What delicious irony it is that Christian McCaffrey of the 49ers is piling up MVP-type numbers in an NFL where we’ve been repeatedly told that running backs no longer have value.

The 27-year-old is in his first full season in San Francisco and leads the NFL with 459 rushing yards, six rushing touchdowns, 98 touches, 600 yards from scrimmage and seven total touchdowns.

McCaffrey is averaging a career-high 5.7 yards on 80 carries (also the most in the NFL) and has caught 18 of 21 targets out of the backfield (and elsewhere in formations).

There was a great deal of offseason discussion about the role and value of running backs in today’s pass-heavy league. Teams are reluctant to give large second contracts to players at the position because of the inherent physical pounding the position induces.

McCaffrey is certainly proving to be a valuable commodity in 2023.

Reality: Running-back valuation is a very real issue, because no position ages more poorly. The NFL’s contract model exacerbates the problem, as the league tends to pay players in the future for what they did in the past. But given that performance-based salaries would never fly with the players’ union, the situation is — as they say — what it is.

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