Oh how the tables have turned for some teams just four weeks into the 2014 NFL season. The Carolina Panthers, New York Jets, and Tennessee Titans all exhibited impressive starts to their early campaigns; however, with their week four games in the books, each team looks far different than they did after week one in a very negative way. On the flip side, teams such as the San Diego Chargers, who play in the most offensively productive division in football, look well into their ideal midseason form after just a quarter of the season, having taken down the reigning Super Bowl Champion Seattle Seahawks in convincing fashion.
Not to mention the ongoing controversy surrounding Adrian Peterson, Ray Rice, Ray McDonald, and Greg Hardy with the entire conflict headed by commissioner Roger Goodell (who must answer some lingering questions for himself), but the NFL is in a very delicate state at the moment in terms of league-wide policies. The recent string of events within the National Football League has taken a disturbing toll on the victims of the incidences, but the teams that either employ these players or not have also suffered immensely from this horrific distraction. With ongoing complexities through just four weeks of the 2014 season, let us take a look at who is hot and who is not.
Hot: Dallas Cowboys
Most could have assumed that the Cowboys’ offense would be keeping them competitive in a lot of games this season. But I bet few would have guessed that defensive coordinater Rod Marinelli would have his defensive unit playing that role in Dallas at all.
Despite the high octane offense of the Cowboys headed by Tony Romo, the Dallas defense has looked the part in being an effective unit to stop powerful offenses such as the New Orleans Saints. However, we should go ahead and give credit where it is due with this team. Tony Romo has looked much different than the quarterback we saw in week one against San Francisco. He has been accurate, efficient, and poised in the pocket. But perhaps the biggest difference on this team right now has been the emergence of DeMarco Murray. Currently leading the NFL in rushing yards and attempts, Murray looks as good as any running back in the league right now, weaving in between opposing defenses and breaking the first instance of contact more often than not.
The Dallas Cowboys look very different this season compared to recent years. And their current three-game winning streak should make other teams aware that they came to play this season. Only time will tell if they continue this hot streak.
Not: Washington Redskins
When Robert Griffin III goes down presumably for the season, one would think that the Redskins should lose all hope in making the playoffs, right? Wrong.
Kirk Cousins is a very capable quarterback who, in fact, fits the profile of the offensive scheme in D.C. far better than RGIII. Cousins has two very talented deep threats in DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garçon as well as a bull-rushing halfback in Alfred Morris. But to say that the defensive side of the ball for the Redskins needs some improvement would be quite the understatement. While the front seven is headed by Brian Orakpo, Ryan Kerrigan, and Jason Hatcher (all of whom know how to create havoc for offenses), the secondary is practically non-existent. Honestly put, losing DeAngelo Hall for the season does not make the Washington defense any worse than it already was. This puts an enormous amount of pressure on Cousins (who was not expected to start at all this season) and the rest of the offense to put up immense amounts of points, a task much easier said than done.
As the Giants, Eagles, and Cowboys have each emerged to be forces in the NFC East, it seems as if the Redskins are destined for the cellar of the division unless changes are made much sooner rather than later. If not, the fans will be in for a rough campaign, and head coach Jay Gruden might take some jabs for it.
Hot: Arizona Cardinals
Even with Drew Stanton starting at quarterback for more games than Carson Palmer this season, the Arizona Cardinals look like a very tough opponent this season.
While the offense will not blow you away, the potential that still accompanies it is very intriguing. Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, and young wideout John Brown have formed an impressively effective receiving core, while Andre Ellington possesses an ability to dominate both the pass and the run game from the backfield. But to put things in a better perspective, this Arizona defensive unit deserves a lot of applause. Allowing just fifteen points per game this season, the Cardinals seem to put themselves in a position to win night in an night out. After their week four bye, Arizona will head to the Mile High City of Denver, which will be a significant test of this team’s potential going forward this year in arguably the toughest division in all of football. If they make it out of Denver in convincing fashion win or lose, everybody better watch out for the Cardinals, because they will be hungry for more.
Not: Carolina Panthers
Most people wrote off this resilient group over the offseason, and I would be lying if I had not done the same. And after four weeks, it is safe to say that the 2014 campaign for the Carolina Panthers is in full limbo.
Yes, we did not expect them to be as good as they seemed in weeks one and two. But at the same time, I do not think we expected them to look as poorly as they did in weeks three and four. After giving up just twenty-one points combined to the Lions and Buccaneers, the allegedly stout Carolina defense surrendered a displeasing seventy-five points to the Ravens and Steelers. And to add insult to injury, the front seven has only recorded one sack through the last two games. For a team that prides itself on its defensive reliability, the statistics for the past two weeks have been unacceptable. On a more positive note, Kelvin Benjamin has looked the part as a potential big-time receiver for the Panthers’ future. However, offensive coordinator Don Shula’s efforts to make Cam Newton more of a pocket passer has drastically limited the offense’s variation accompanied with the numerous injuries to the committee of running backs.
Though they are down right now, the NFC South is still wide open. If the Panthers can get back to the roots that won them games one and two of the season, there would be no reason to think this team cannot go far given the poor performances of their division rivals. But in order to accomplish that, the Panthers need to make changes very fast.
Hot: Cincinnati Bengals
Including the Arizona Cardinals, the Cincinnati Bengals sit as one of only two undefeated teams that remain in the National Football League.
Numerous questions regarding ultimate success surrounded Andy Dalton after he was inked by the Bengals to a nice, expensive contract extension this offseason. However, he has been very impressive thus far. Even with the absence of Marvin Jones and the lingering injuries of A.J. Green, Dalton has looked the part, moving the ball down the field with a necessary level of consistency. Giovani Bernard and rookie Jeremy Hill have teamed up to create a very effective and creative duo of halfbacks that work well in the pass and the run game. And as expected, Cincinnati’s defensive unit has proven to be a tough group to move the ball against this year.
It seems that every season, the Bengals look like a tough team to beat. But that trend has always changed once the playoffs roll around. Marvin Lewis’s group looks like it has an extra-large chip on its shoulder this year, and the Bengals’ claws are out in full form.
Not: Oakland Raiders
The firing of head coach Dennis Allen is the first step for the Oakland Raiders towards becoming a competitive team in the NFL.
Through four games this year, Oakland looks miserable, giving up over one hundred points in that span. It seems that even the addition of top prospect Khalil Mack and veterans such as Justin Tuck and Lamarr Woodley cannot help this defense get out of its recent woes of inadequate production. On the offensive side, Derek Carr seems like he has the potential to be solid quarterback in the league. But his recent injury has put some of the offensive reliability in doubt moving forward. Likewise, the Raiders’ committee of injury-prone running backs headed by Maurice Jones-Drew and Darren McFadden has continued to underwhelm. Oakland needs a full-on makeover, and it starts with the head coach. Adding a proven leader with some success could help this team take a big leap in the right direction. But until then, the Raiders are not ready to strike fear in their opposition.
Hot: Baltimore Ravens
Joe Flacco, meet Steve Smith, Sr. He is going to be your security blanket and you will love him.
Indeed, that claim is beyond true, as Steve Smith, Sr.’s production has far exceeded that of the other receivers on the Baltimore Ravens. The fact that John Harbaugh’s ground game has also been shifted to “running-back-by-committee” has also made Steve Smith, Sr. an even more prominent piece to Baltimore’s offensive scheme. In addition, the defense looks like it has regained its life just a few years removed from losing one of he greatest linebackers in Ray Lewis. This group also needs to receive praise for the resilience that they have had in their success through the entire Ray Rice controversy. Owner Steve Bisciotti still has several questions to answer regarding the conflict. But the Ravens have done a good job of fighting through the adversity the past few weeks.
With the Ravens, Bengals, Steelers, and now the Browns (who have not looked all that bad), the AFC North could be a very tough division to get to the top of the pile.
Not: New York Jets
They say defenses win championships, and that is very true. However, they also say offenses win games. And correct me if I am wrong, but you do actually have to win games to win championships.
The New York Jets have a very talented front seven, but the same cannot be said for the secondary, which has been absolutely shredded by opposing offenses this year. On the other hand, the addition of Chris Johnson has had its glimpses of productivity. However, it has also shown some unfortunate ineffectiveness. Chris Johnson’s speed is incomparable. But Chris Ivory has proven to be the superior back, hitting the holes harder and generating a solid burst of speed in the secondary. Furthermore, the former bulldozer back Bilal Powell is now buried on the depth chart behind the two. Lastly, the addition of Eric Decker has not helped Geno Smith’s maturity in his sophomore year. Smith always seems to show a flash of talent when the coaches need a reason to keep him on the field, but his level of inconsistency has been beyond disappointing for Jets’ fans, and unless you have a receiver that will go get the ball himself, you will not get much help on that end for Geno Smith.
No matter how poorly the Jets have played, the rest of the division looks just as bad. So if the Jets can turn it around in a reasonable time frame, no one should count them out given how bad the rest of the division has played this year.
Written by Alex Floch, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
I am currently a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Growing up in a sports family, I have formed a distinct love for the industry. I enjoy writing about sports in my free time and hope to one day be able to pursue it as a career.