Four weeks of the 2021 NFL season are in the books with one undefeated team remaining: the Arizona Cardinals.
Last week, I wrote about this being the time of year when the statistics will begin to stabilize and the true makeup of a team will start to surface. After beating the Los Angeles Rams, the Cardinals look to have emerged as a team we need to take seriously.
I believed they were good from the start, but after what should’ve been a loss to Minnesota in Arizona and a somewhat pedestrian effort against Jacksonville, I was not sure just how good. At the same time, I believe the Rams are fine and would not rush to downgrade them in your handicapping. You can make a case that Sunday’s loss was a letdown after they had beaten the Buccaneers the week before. Turnovers are always critical, and Sony Michel’s fumble really opened the floodgates for the Cardinals.
What about the Miami Dolphins? So far they have supported my preseason belief that they are a fade team in 2021. The Dolphins had an incredible jump from a five-win 2019 to a 10-win season in 2020. They were plus-9 in turnover differential last season yet failed to make the playoffs. As we start to separate the haves from the have-nots, Miami looks like the latter, losing 27-17 loss to the Colts as 2.5-point home favorites. Note that while it was a very desperate Indianapolis team sitting at 0-3, it was also a team stinging from multiple injuries to some of its best players. For Miami to not even be competitive in that game tells us a lot.
The Chicago Bears got a much-needed win over the Detriot Lions at Soldier Field, evening their record at 2-2, probably helping coach Matt Nagy keep his job a while longer and treating the home crowd to a win in Justin Fields’ first NFL start. They did much of it on the ground with David Montgomery, who unfortunately had to leave the game late with a knee injury and now might miss four or five weeks. The scoreboard made it look like an impressive Bears win, and at times they did look good, but Detroit had its chances. The Lions are young and very susceptible to mistakes, but I also think they are likely to improve and continue to play hard for their fiery coach. On the other hand, I am not upgrading the Bears much, if at all. They still have plenty of flaws, are now without their best running back for a while and took advantage of a below-average team coming off of a heartbreaking loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
Two teams that still have me confused are the Philadelphia Eagles and the New Orleans Saints. The Eagles were a team I was ready to go against in the preseason, yet their first two games looked promising. They followed up in Week 3 with an awful loss to the Dallas Cowboys, who appear to be in one heck of a rhythm right now, by the way, and then they put up 30 points on a porous Kansas City defense in Week 4. Still, the Eagles have run the ball only 14 times total in their last two games. Nick Sirianni is a rookie head coach and play-caller, and the Eagles already have key injuries on both sides of the line of scrimmage — but which direction they are headed is still a tough nut to crack for me. Will Sirianni figure it out or is this going to get ugly, as I thought it might preseason? Maybe Philadelphia being an “Over the total” team is the best current assessment.
New Orleans, meanwhile, shook off the cobwebs in the second half against the New York Giants and took control of that game. With an 11-point lead halfway through the fourth quarter, did anyone expect Sean Payton to blow this one against Joe Judge and Jason Garrett? I gave the Saints a pass in their loss to Carolina because they faced a very difficult situation. Several coaches were out with COVID-19, all kinds of travel from Jacksonville to practicing in Fort Worth to suiting up on gameday in Charlotte. But not being able to close out the Giants in their first game of the year at the Superdome was a head-scratcher.
As the statistics for these teams become more and more representative each week, it should help one get a clearer picture of what we are dealing with. Watch the games and trust the numbers, but also be able to understand the numbers. Oftentimes, turnovers, special teams and key injuries can skew the analytics one way or another. Now after the first four weeks of the season, no matter the status of one’s position in a contest, it might be a good time to take a step back to see if or where adjustments to early-season assessments need to be made.
Based upon my own early-week assessments, here are a couple of Week 5 games I’m studying.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (-9) AT HOUSTON TEXANS
The Patriots, not surprisingly, played their best game of the season on Sunday night against Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. I am still not sold that this is much more than an average team, but rookie quarterback Mac Jones is gaining experience and adjusting to the NFL game every week. He should get a great opportunity this week to flourish against the Texans, who appear to be the worst team in the league. We know Bill Belichick’s history against rookie quarterbacks and he ought to be able to run circles around Texans coach David Culley. I made this line 11 in favor of New England, so laying less than double digits at this point looks to be a green light. Laying a big number on the road is not something I typically like to do, but the Texans look like a strong bet-against team for now — and maybe for weeks to come.
CLEVELAND BROWNS (+1.5) AT LOS ANGELES CHARGERS
We talk about the lack of maturity of the numbers early in the season, and I felt that the numbers for Cleveland’s defense were a bit skewed heading into Week 4 because of the Browns’ outlier performance against the Bears in Justin Fields’ debut. But the Browns showed that their defense is for real as they held a high-profile Vikings offense to seven points in Minnesota. And they did it without their first-round pick, cornerback Greg Newsome. The Raiders put up a pretty solid defensive effort against Los Angeles on Monday night, but their weakness remains in the secondary, and it got worse in that game due to injury. Cleveland’s secondary should be able to deal with coverage much better than Las Vegas. On offense, the Browns’ running game should have a great deal of success as it has all season. The Raiders don’t have a great running game, and the Chargers were able to stuff the ground attack. Before Monday night, Los Angeles had the worst run defense in the league. After Monday night, they still rank 29th. This could be a playoff preview, and in what might be Round 1, I’ll take the Browns.