By SIMON BRADY
Through a quarter of this NFL season, the games have advised NFL fans one thing above all: Expect the unexpected. Week 4 was no different, as last Sunday was highlighted by a few thrilling upsets in the 1:00 window of games. The defending super bowl champion New England Patriots, defending NFC champion Atlanta Falcons, and Dallas Cowboys, who had the league’s best record a year ago at 13-3, all fell on their home field last Sunday. These were critical losses for proud NFL franchises, who are now challenged to adjust and bounce back moving forward.
Carolina Panthers (3-1) defeat New England Patriots (2-2) 33-30
As nine point underdogs, 2015 MVP quarterback Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers came into Gillette Stadium and shocked the New England Patriots with a 33-30 victory. Newton had struggled through the first three weeks, and it looked as if it would get worse before it got better, considering it was announced star tight end Greg Olsen’s his foot injury would require surgery last week, and he’d miss 6-8 weeks. Newton put on a clinic against a New England defense that has struggled mightily all year, completing an efficient 22 of 29 passes for 316 yards, finishing with an outstanding 87.3 quarterback rating (QBR).
Quarterback Tom Brady and the Patriots offense continued to shine Sunday, scoring at least 30 points for the third time this season against a stellar Panthers defense. Brady is tied for 1st in the NFL in touchdowns among quarterbacks with Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers at 10. He also leads the league in total passing yards, and is second in total QBR behind Houston Texans rookie QB Deshaun Watson. Brady went 32 of 45 passing for 307 yards and two touchdowns Sunday. He’s also protected the ball all season, yet to throw an interception through four weeks.
On the flip side, the Patriot defense was horrid was last Sunday. The Panthers were only forced to punt once all game, and gave up 456 total yards to a team that could only muster 9 points vs the historically anemic division rival Buffalo Bills a couple weeks back.
The secondary is the biggest area of concern for the defensive unit. Poor communication and confusion on the backend left Panthers receivers wide open all day. Receivers Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess combined for 11 catches for 174 yards. On nearly all those receptions, there wasn’t a Patriot defender in sight.
The secondary was also responsible for the most crucial penalties late in the fourth quarter. Cornerback Stephon Gillmore had an illegal hands to the face penalty on critical a 3rd down on the Panthers final drive of the game, negating a sack that would’ve given the ball back to Brady and the Patriot offense with a chance to win the game. The penalty gave the Panthers an automatic 1st down, and with a few more positive plays later put place kicker Graham Gano in position to hit the game winning field goal as time expired, which he nailed from 48 yards out.
On top of the porous secondary, the Patriot front seven failed to get a consistent pass rush last Sunday. Newton was very comfortable in the pocket all day, only taking two sacks all game. Young defensive end tandem and former Arkansas Razorback standouts Detritus Wise Jr and Trey Flowers have been impressive for New England at times, but this defensive line still isn’t generating nearly enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Patriots fans had reason to be optimistic the past week when it was announced that star linebacker Dont’a Hightower would return from knee injury he suffered a few weeks back. However, Hightower’s health was clearly still hindering him, as he was on the field for a limited amount of snaps Sunday, unable to make a big impact.
Thus far the Patriots are ranked dead last in defensive efficiency, and on pace to finish as the worst defense statistically in NFL history. The lack of execution and discipline from this unit is appalling for a Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia led defense. The Patriots take on a high powered offense tonight in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a challenge for a reeling defense that needs to improve quickly in order for New England to get back on the winning path they’re used to.
Meanwhile, the Panthers improve to 3-1 and sit atop the NFC South along with the Atlanta Falcons. Carolina is faced with another challenge Sunday, as they take on Matthew Stafford and the Detroit Lions, also at 3-1.
Los Angeles Rams (3-1) defeat Dallas Cowboys (2-2) 35-30
In similar shocking fashion as New England’s loss, the Dallas Cowboys fell at AT&T Stadium to the Los Angeles Rams 35-30. This Rams team seems to be completely rejuvenated replacing former head coach Jeff Fisher with former Washington Redskins offensive coordinator Sean McVay. At age 31, McVay is the youngest coach in modern NFL history. Many doubted the hiring given how youthful McVay is, but thus far he’s done a fantastic job with his new team.
Second year quarterback Jared Goff has enjoyed a successful season to this point. Sunday he threw for an impressive 255 yards on 21 of 36 completions and two touchdowns. After a relatively pedestrian rookie campaign for the first overall pick of the 2016 draft, Goff has responded in a big to start his sophomore campaign.
Young star running back Todd Gurley also had a tough season last year, rushing for just 885 yards and 6 touchdowns. Like Goff, Gurley is back to playing his best football after a significant sophomore slump. He ran wild on the Cowboy defense Sunday, rushing for 121 yards on 23 attempts. He also had 7 catches out of the backfield for 94 yards, including a huge 53 yard touchdown reception which gave the Rams a lead they’d hang onto to for the remainder of the game.
Lastly, the Rams also shined in special teams last Sunday. Place kicker Greg Zuerlein went for a perfect 7/7 on field goals, and added two extra points to cap off an excellent day. With Goff and Gurley both clicking, and Zuerlein proving to be a reliable threat once the Rams get into plus territory, this offense has plenty to feel good about as they fully take command of first place of a relatively weak NFC West at 3-1.
The Dallas Cowboys now find themselves standing second place in the NFC East, following a Philadelphia Eagles win over the Los Angeles Chargers. Second year quarterback and running back tandem Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott had a solid day. The two combined for 416 total yards and five touchdowns. However, the Cowboys were able to generate very little offense in the second half, scoring just 6 points.
Down five with 1:55 left in the fourth quarter, Prescott and the Cowboys had one last shot to steal the win. With a couple completions to tight end Jason Witten, wide receiver Beasley, and the aforementioned Elliot, the Cowboys were in plus territory at the Rams 48 yard line. Unable to move the ball on the first three downs, the Cowboys had one final shot on a 4th and 10 to extend the game. Prescott found Elliot on the completion, but Elliott only gained 9 yards and the Rams took home the win, forcing the Cowboys to turn it over on downs.
Although the offense failed to convert when it mattered most, it’s the Cowboy defense that needs to be the main focus of improvement going forward. Luckily for Dallas fans, star pass rusher David Irving and starting linebacker Anthony Hitchens both return this week. But this unit with some holes, particularly in its secondary where it lost three starters this offseason, has a daunting task this Sunday as they take on the red hot Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay Packers, who have 10 days rest having played on Thursday night a week ago.
Buffalo Bills defeat Atlanta Falcons 23-17
Lastly, the previously undefeated Atlanta Falcons fell at home to the Buffalo Bills from brand new Mercedes Benz stadium, 23-17. Both teams now stand solidly at 3-1, and the Bills are solely in 1st place in the AFC east, something even most Bills fans didn’t think possible four weeks into the season.
The star of the Bills offense was tight end Charles Clay, who was responsible for 112 of quarterback Tyrod Taylor’s 182 total passing yards. Shifty running back and Bills top offensive weapon LeSean McCoy helped Buffalo control the ball, totaling 86 yards on 20 rushes.
Defensively, veteran safety Micah Hyde was the star for Buffalo. Hyde picked off defending MVP, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan twice, including one with 3:27 left in the 4th quarter that would help secure the big road win for Buffalo.
Ryan and the Atlanta offense had a great shot to win the game on the final drive in which they got all the way to the Bills 10 yard line. Ryan methodically led the Falcons offense down the field, driving for a total of 65 yards in 12 plays. On the game deciding 4th and 1 from the Buffalo 10 yard line, Ryan’s pass intended for receiver Taylor Gabriel was incomplete, and Buffalo sealed the signature victory in the defending NFC champions house.
Although the Falcons are still in a good spot at 3-1, with Carolina at 3-1 and Tampa Bay at 2-1 breathing right down their neck, their division is no guarantee. The Falcons have a bye this upcoming week, while the Bills try to grab their third straight win Sunday win as they travel to play the 1-3 Cincinnati Bengals.
The Bills have now beaten arguably the NFL’s best defense in the Denver Broncos, and the NFL’s best offense in the Falcons in the back to back weeks. It’s still early and a lot can change, but these types of upset victories are something the Bills haven’t proven they’re capable of in the past. Because of this, NFL fans need to have the Bills on their radar moving forward this season.
Simon Brady can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org