Week 4 of the 2023 NFL season is now in the books and Sean Tyler is back to pick six more things worthy of discussion and dissection (while Shaun Blundell spends his bye week taking in the first of this season’s International Series games). But enough of the preamble. David Montgomery, Khalil Mack, Mac Jones, the Super Bowl favourites, Lamar Jackson and the battling Denver Broncos: you have my attention!
David finally slays his Goliath
Cast your minds back a couple of years to October 2021. Sealing a 24-14 win over the Bears at Soldier Field, Packers QB Aaron Rodgers ran in a late TD, then turned to the crowd and yelled “I own you! I still own you!” It was unnecessarily provocative but factually correct, as he’d just secured Green Bay a 20th win in 23 encounters.
That day, Bears RB David Montgomery was on IR but during his four years there, he lost all seven matchups against the Cheeseheads. But things are different now. In the offseason, he moved 400 miles due west to Detroit – another divisional foe – and on Thursday night, at Lambeau Field, the Lions won 34-20, their fourth straight win against Green Bay. Montgomery finally beat his old nemesis and while Rodgers himself was no longer there, I bet the taste of victory was no less sweet.
He was undoubtedly the workhorse of the game, carrying the rock 32 times – the most by any player this season – for 121 yards. He also rumbled into the paint for a career-best three touchdowns, from 3, 2 and 1 yard out, and had two catches for 20 yards for good measure.
Sure, his average (3.8 yards) suggests volume over efficiency but it was one hell of an effort, considering he missed last week’s game against Atlanta with a thigh injury and was questionable for this one. “To come out here with these guys and get the dub, that’s big for me,” he told reporters. “I can now tell my son that I beat the Packers!”
Another new experience for the former Iowa State man is sitting on top of the NFC North. Chicago never finished higher than second when he was there and the Lions haven’t won the division for 30 years. So after two big road victories (having won the season opener at Arrowhead), you can’t begrudge the 3-1 Lions – and especially Montgomery – their lofty perch. [ST]
The cream always rises to the top
Before the season, the four teams with the shortest Super Bowl odds were the Chiefs, Bills, 49ers and Eagles. Well, whaddya know: Kansas City and Buffalo are up at the top of the AFC standings at 3-1 while in the NFC, San Francisco and Philadelphia are the only two teams in the league with a 100% record.
After wobbly starts on the opening weekend, the Bills and Chiefs have rediscovered their mojo. Buffalo lost 22-16 to the Jets on the first MNF of the season but have since despatched the Raiders, Commanders and Dolphins while scoring 123 points. This weekend’s 48-20 destruction of Miami was a Josh Allen/Stefon Diggs masterclass, with Allen posting four passing TDs, an 11-yard rushing score and a perfect 158.3 passer rating. The main beneficiary was Diggs, who totalled 120 yards and caught three of those TD passes. Suffice to say, the Bills are looking scarily good right now and should put on a show for UK fans this Sunday.
The Chiefs also bounced back from an opening-day defeat to the Lions with wins over Jacksonville and Chicago, and then eeked out a 23-20 victory over the Jets in Sunday’s late game. They built a 17-0 lead, on the back of a 115-yard/1 TD rushing performance from Isiah Pacheco but two uncharacteristic INTs from Patrick Mahomes at least made it interesting. Nonetheless, the big red machine marches on and they currently sit where you’d expect: top seed in the AFC.
In the other conference, the Niners have looked imperious, scoring exactly 30 in wins over the Steelers, Rams and Giants before seeing off the Cardinals 35-16 this weekend. Unsurprisingly, the stars of the show were once again Brock Purdy (20 of 21 for 283), Brandon Aiyuk (148 receiving yards) and the irrepressible Christian McCaffrey. As well as rushing for 106 yards and 3 TDs, he also made seven catches for 71 yards and another tuddy. Run CMC’s 459 rushing yards this season put him almost 100 ahead of his nearest rival already.
Matching them win for win are the Eagles, carrying on from last season’s Super Bowl run with barely a blip, despite changing both offensive and defensive coordinators. After Ws over the Patriots, Vikings and Buccaneers, they needed OT to see off a spirited Commanders side this weekend. Luckily, AJ Brown (175 receiving yards, 2 TDs) was in the mood and Philly stay undefeated with a 34-31 victory.
So, there you have it. It’s a little demoralising for the other 28 franchises to see the usual contenders setting the pace already but if you had a flutter on one of them to go all the way, you’re probably feeling pretty chuffed so far. Let’s see if they can keep up the pace. [ST]
Lamar: last man standing in the North
The general consensus is that the AFC North is the NFL’s most competitive division this year. The Bengals had won back-to-back titles, signed Joe Burrow to a historically large contract and brought in Orlando Brown Jr to sure up the O-line. The Ravens signed Lamar Jackson to a mega-deal, picked up Odell Beckham Jr off the street and got all their guys back after two years blighted by injuries. With Myles Garrett and Za’Davius Smith in their ranks, Cleveland are by far the strongest of the four defensively and, as we like to say here at F10Y headquarters, “the Steelers won the offseason” so even their tails were up.
But a month is a long time in football and after just four games, it’s all starting to unravel for three of these teams.
Let’s get the big one out of the way first: the 1-3 Bengals are absolutely awful this season! At the bottom of almost every metric you can think of, the offense is (if you’ll excuse the mixed metaphors) clearly hamstrung by Burrow’s calf injury. He’s almost immobile in the pocket, which makes him a sitting duck. With just three TDs in four games, two outings with only a field goal to show for their efforts, including Sunday’s 27-3 loss to the Titans, and a suddenly leaky defense that let Derrick Henry rumble for 122 yards, run in a score and throw a TD pass as well(!), you can make a solid case for them being the worst team in the league at the moment.
So, to Pittsburgh, now 2-2. Kenny Pickett amassed 15 of 23 for 114 yards and an INT before leaving the field during their 30-6 loss at the Houston Texans with a knee injury. And their defense let the improving Texans rack up 451 yards of offense. For now at least, they contemplate life with backup Mitch Trubisky flinging the pigskin, which surely can’t be a good thing, can it?
And what of the 2-2 Browns? Their defense is, as expected, a force to be reckoned with but again, offensively, there are issues. Nick Chubb’s ghastly knee injury a couple of weeks ago left their running game severely weakened for the rest of the year and on Sunday, Watson was replaced by debutant Dorian Thompson-Robinson due to a shoulder injury. The rookie stand-in completed 19 of 36 for 121 yards, threw 3 INTs and his team scored just three points in a 28-3 humbling by Baltimore. Room for improvement there, for sure, but at least they have a bye week to help them reset.
The 3-1 Ravens are not without their own injury woes, with their left tackle and two receivers missing on Sunday. But they are at least the last of the four teams with a fully fit starting QB… and it’s Lamar Jackson. On Sunday, he ran in two TDs, threw for two more (both to Mark Andrews) and only had four incompletions all day. So it seems whoever’s missing from their ranks, Jackson can still carry the team on his back.
As expected, it’s been attritional and much of it hasn’t been pretty, with the Bengals sinking, the Steelers struggling and the Browns regressing. And unless something changes quickly, the AFC North already looks like its Baltimore’s to lose. So much for competitive. [ST]
Return of the Mack
The LA Chargers gave up at least 24 points in their first three games and Joey Bosa was sidelined for Sunday’s clash with the Raiders. So was rookie QB Aiden O’Connell – making his first start for Las Vegas in place of Jimmy Garoppolo (concussion) – going to get an easy ride of it? Not on your nelly.
Step forward 32-years-young Khalil Mack. The edge rusher posted double-digit sacks every year from 2015 to 2018 (with Oakland and Chicago), but his team needed him to wind back the clock and regain that kind of game-changing form. And boy, did he prove he can still bring the heat. Mack recorded all six of his team’s sacks, only one short of tying the NFL’s single-game record set by Derrick Thomas in 1990. In so doing, he joins Thomas as the only other player with multiple games with five-plus sacks. Mack now goes straight to the top of the current NFL sack race, joining (the other) Josh Allen and TJ Watt with half a dozen each.
Terrorising the team that drafted him back in 2014, Mack was a one-man wrecking crew who just couldn’t be contained. Coming off both sides like a heat-seeking missile, he also logged nine tackles, five tackles for loss, 10 QB pressures and seven QB hits, giving O’Connell a torrid debut. To say Mack’s sack attack was pivotal to the Bolts securing a 24-17 win is definitely the understatement of the week.
As HC Brandon Staley said afterwards, “He’d been close to having three monster games. Today, he put it all together. This guy’s one of the best edge players of his generation. He’s still that guy.” [ST]
The comeback kids
Those of you who watch Red Zone on DAZN/Game Pass will be familiar with the Witching Hour. That’s the point, late in the 6pm Sunday window, when Scott Hanson tells us, in his scariest Halloween voice, “it’s the time when wins become losses, and losses become wins”.
Well, you can tell we’re in October already because there was something spooky going on this Sunday. Take the clash between the Rams and Colts, for example. It all seemed plain sailing for Los Angeles, who took a 23-0 lead midway through the third quarter. But once Scott had delivered his line, the witches cast their spells.
A 35-yard TD pass from Indy QB Anthony Richardson to tight end Moe Ali-Cox and a 2-point conversion: 23-8. Then, a missed field goal by the Rams’ Brett Maher followed by a 1-yard rushing TD by Richardson: 23-15. A short TD pass to Andrew Ogletree and another 2-point conversion: 23-23! Frustratingly, once parity was reached, the teams traded punts, the comeback stalled and OT was needed. The Rams finally prevailed, with that man Puka Nacua getting his first TD of a standout debut season, but the Colts deserve a lot of credit for their supernatural 23-point comeback.
Then there was the game between the winless Bears and Broncos. Chicago had built up a 28-7 lead with less than half a minute left in the third quarter so again, enough for a first win of the season, surely? You’d have thought so but no sooner had “when wins become losses” been uttered, the momentum switched and the Broncos went on a stampede.
With 20 seconds left of Q3, Russell Wilson connected with Brandon Johnson for a 4-yard TD. The Bears punted their next possession away and Denver roared back on a 12-play, 70-yard drive that culminated in a Courtland Sutton score. The ensuing Chicago drive ended with a sack fumble of Justin Fields, which Jonathon Harris returned for six. The 21-point deficit was erased in about 8 minutes, and there was still time for the Bears to hand the ball over yet again after a failed 4th-and-1. One magnificent 48-yard play by Marvin Mims later, Denver were in field goal territory and Wil Lutz’s trusty boot secured an unlikely but very welcome 31-28 victory.
So, however big your team’s lead is going into the final quarter, assume nothing – and beware the Witching Hour! [ST]
Bill and Mac: most heinous
I usually prefer to focus on the positive and the impressive but sometimes, you can’t avoid the tales of woe. So let me introduce you to the main characters of my last observation this week: Mac Jones and Bill Belichik.
On the face of it, the Patriots’ 38-3 gubbing by the 3-1 Cowboys in the late window (what is it with teams scoring 3 points this week?!) wasn’t great. Dallas took last week’s disappointing loss out on New England, who now fall to 1-3. With CeeDee Lamb catching Dak Prescott’s one passing TD and fullback Hunter Luepke running in the only score on the ground, it was again the Cowboy’s defense that starred in this one. Leighton Van Der Esch scooped up the ball for a TD after Jones had the ball stripped out by Dante Fowler, and DaRon Bland jumped a cross-field pass for another pick six (the replacement for the injured Trevon Diggs bagged another INT too). But what makes this game all the more incredible is that it’s the worst defeat Belichick has presided over in his 29 years as head coach. Wow.
Now, you don’t lose by 35 points without several things going wrong and there are many directions in which irate Pats fans can point their accusatory fingers. Some will definitely be aimed at the sieve-like offensive line, and many more at their ineffective quarterback. Jones completed just 12 of 21 pass attempts for 150 yards and turned the ball over three times, leading to 18 points for the opposition, before he was hooked late in the third quarter. His replacement, Bailey Zappe, only competed four throws, which at least makes the news that Jones will start against the Saints this week slightly more palatable.
“We obviously didn’t do much of anything well enough to be competitive tonight,” Belichick said afterwards. “I think we’re a lot better than what we showed out there tonight, but that’s what we showed. That’s what it was. We’ve got a lot of work to do to perform better.”
As the other great mind called Bill (from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure) once said, “the only true wisdom consists of knowing that you know nothing”. So Bill B, forget the last 29 years and go back to the drawing board. [ST]