The first quarter of the NFL season is in the books and predictably some fan bases are overestimating their team’s chances while others are pressing the panic button far too early. Judging a team’s potential in October has always been a mistake, but that does not stop fans and pundits alike from speculating on whether teams are playoff bound or out of contention. Do not be fooled – the featured matchups this week are all opportunities for teams that have winning records to add a statement win to their resume, but we have a long way to go before playoff conversations.
Two teams that seem capable of running out of steam after a loss are the Houston Texans (3-1) and the Dallas Cowboys (3-1). The Texans travel to Dallas this week to face the Cowboys this Sunday at 1:00PM Eastern time. Both teams are operating with fragile rosters as they move into Week 5, the Texans with an already-injured Arian Foster at running back and Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback, and Dallas with its porous defense and a still-recovering Tony Romo.
Romo has been very good the last two weeks after starting off the season far below his standards. In the offseason Romo underwent back surgery and it was clear in his first two weeks that the quarterback was not 100%, throwing for 229 yards per game and two touchdowns to three interceptions. In his last two weeks, Romo, who is still not practicing fully, has been far better, averaging 240 yards per game with five touchdowns to just one interception. In these last two games, Romo has posted Total Quarterback Ratings (QBR), a statistic that maxes out at 100, of 99.1 and 96.0, the 2nd and 9th best games by a quarterback this season.
The Dallas Morning News reported that while on a conference call this week, Texans coach Bill O’Brien told reporters he thinks Romo looks healthy. “I think he’s playing really well,” O’Brien said. “He’s played at a high level in this league for a long time.”
Houston will hope their defense, led by all-pro J.J. Watt, can cause Romo some discomfort in the pocket and keep the game close until the end. The Houston defense, which ranks sixth in the league in points per game allowed, is actually below average at defending the run and the pass. The team has made up for it early this season by forcing takeaways and getting stops in the red zone where it counts. Houston is second in the league at forcing turnovers and only gives up touchdowns in the red zone 42.86% of the time. Dallas should have the upper hand in this game, but costly Romo turnovers could be just enough for Houston to sneak away with a win.
Following the Cowboys-Texans matchup is a battle between two of the league’s most efficient teams, as the Arizona Cardinals (3-0) travel to Denver to take on the Broncos (2-1) at 4:05 PM Eastern time.
The Broncos enter the contest coming off a bye week and remain Football Outsiders’ most efficient offense by projected defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA). This stat not only measures yards, but how effective and important those yards were, when they were earned, and what the score was at the time. Even putting DVOA aside, the Broncos pass the eye test as the league’s best and Peyton Manning has been spreading the ball around masterfully to drive down the field. Manning will hope to get Demaryius Thomas more involved this week as the wide receiver has been limited to just 13 catches and one touchdown in his first three games.
The Cardinals enter the game on top of the NFC West on the strength of their third-ranked defense by DVOA. They are the best team in the league at stopping the run, and they will be facing a Denver team that has had very little success running the ball in their three games, averaging only 3.2 yards per carry and 75.3 yards per game.
This game will come down to Arizona’s ability to slow down Peyton Manning and help defense turn into offense. When asked about what he can do, defensive end Calais Campbell told azcentral.com reporters, “I’ve got to bat some balls, put pressure in his face, make him uncomfortable in the pocket.” If early on the Broncos are firing on all cylinders, expect this to be a long afternoon for the Cardinals.
The final matchup of the day on Sunday pits the Cincinnati Bengals (3-0) against the New England Patriots (2-2) on Sunday Night Football at 8:30 PM Eastern. Last week, the Patriots were run ragged by the Kansas City Chiefs and this week they hope to rebound against one of the league’s strongest teams.
All week, discussion has circulated around the Patriots and whether their run might be coming to an end. While it is still too early to call it one way or another, what is apparent is Tom Brady’s lack of options in the passing game. For more than a year now, Brady has been working the underneath routes because his team has lacked a deep threat. This year, defenses are keyed into the quarterback’s strategy, and not only is New England struggling to create big plays, producing only eight plays of 20 yards or more, but Brady is struggling in the short game.
This week it gets no easier as Cincinnati comes to town boasting a 47 point margin of victory in three games and the league’s highest defensive DVOA. In their three games, Cincinnati has forced six interceptions, has sacked the quarterback seven times, and has limited opposing quarterbacks to a 56.9 quarterback rating.
Nose tackle Domata Peko sees an opportunity for the Bengals, telling Fox News reporters, “it’s a good chance for us to go out there and put it on tape and show the whole nation this Cincinnati team is real.”
Cincinnati is also doing it on offense too, using a combination of size and speed in the running game in Giovani Bernand and Jeremy Hill, who together have combined for 106 yards per game and 5 touchdowns this season. The running game has also opened up big passing plays, and the Bengals have one of the most explosive wide receivers in A.J. Green. New England is a home underdog for the first time in a long time, and for good reason, but fans should never count out Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.