Taking a spin around the NFL to get you ready for Week 4:
The big questions
Who, exactly, are the Falcons and Steelers?
Look, the Atlanta Falcons are 3-0, and the Pittsburgh Steelers are 2-1. All things considered, they’re in good shape. But a closer look reveals potential causes for concern from two legitimate Super Bowl contenders.
We'll start with the Falcons, who with a win over the Buffalo Bills would become the fourth Super Bowl runner-up in the past 35 years to start the ensuing season 4-0, according to the Elias Sports Bureau's research. That's good! But take a look at their two road wins. They easily could have lost to the Chicago Bears (if not for two drops on potential game-winning passes), and they easily could have lost to the Detroit Lions (if not for Golden Tate's potential go-ahead score falling a half-yard short). The Falcons' defense hasn’t been great, and their offense, predictably, has somewhat regressed to the mean.
Then we have the Steelers. Six of their past seven regular-season games have been decided by seven points or fewer, and the Steelers are 5-1 in those games. That is not a sustainable rate. Not when their offense has been so uncharacteristically mediocre through three games. Ben Roethlisberger has yet to throw a touchdown pass 15-plus yards downfield, after leading the NFL with 16 of them last season. Le'Veon Bell has yet to reach 100 yards from scrimmage in a game, and Martavis Bryant has hauled in only seven of 18 targets.
Now the Steelers travel to face the Baltimore Ravens. Big Ben has lost his past five starts in Baltimore, with a 44 Total QBR in those games, according to research from ESPN Stats & Information.
Will the games be exciting again?
Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady each led jaw-dropping, game-winning drives. The Bears upset the Steelers in overtime. Two of the NFL’s worst teams, the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills, beat quality opponents. The New York Giants scored 24 fourth-quarter points but lost to the division-rival Philadelphia Eagles on a 61-yard field goal. And Falcons-Lions was determined by an overturned call with a 10-second runoff.
All that in the middle of an unprecedented Sunday and Monday with regard to national anthem demonstrations following derogatory comments by President Donald Trump. What about this week? On paper, Rams-Cowboys, Panthers-Patriots, Lions-Vikings, Steelers-Ravens, Titans-Texans, Raiders-Broncos and Redskins-Chiefs sound intriguing, and hopefully other surprises are in store.
The NFL could really use another week like the previous one.
Are the Rams the best team in the NFC West?
No way, right? ... Right? Well, the Los Angeles Rams -- 4-12 last season and below .500 for 10 consecutive seasons -- lead their division with a 2-1 record. Granted, their two wins came against the Colts and 49ers. But their offense finally looks respectable -- dare I say dominant -- under 31-year-old head coach Sean McVay.
A Rams team that has finished last in the NFL in yards each of the past two seasons and in the bottom 12 in the NFL in offensive DVOA each of the past 10 seasons, now leads the NFL in points. Second-year quarterback Jared Goff leads the NFL in yards per attempt. Star running back Todd Gurley leads the NFC in yards from scrimmage. Plus, four Rams receivers already have caught at least nine passes.
Now look around the division. The 49ers (0-3) are in the beginning of a long rebuild. The Arizona Cardinals (1-2) are reeling from the long-term loss of running back David Johnson. The Seattle Seahawks (1-2), a popular Super Bowl pick, are having real issues on offense. Still, the Rams have to show they can continue this offensive surge through long stretches and against quality opponents. They'll have a big test Sunday on the road against the Dallas Cowboys.
Said Gurley: "It's an opportunity for us to go up against a great team and see what we are, see how far we came."
Numbers that matter
185: Tom Brady's career regular-season win total. He enters this week's matchup with the Carolina Panthers only one win from tying Brett Favre and Peyton Manning for the most regular-season wins by a starting quarterback in NFL history. In his 18th season with the New England Patriots, Brady already is the all-time leader in wins by a quarterback including the playoffs, with 210.
16.6: That, believe it or not, is Andy Dalton's Total QBR through the first three weeks. It's the worst mark in the NFL. Dalton ranks 24th in completion percentage (61.3), 24th in yards per attempt (6.5) and tied for 30th in touchdown-to-interception ratio (0.5). He was better last week in Green Bay, though, going 21-of-27 for 212 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions. He needs a good performance Sunday in Cleveland.
1: The number of teams to start a season 0-4 in the Super Bowl era and make the playoffs, out of 157. That distinction belongs to the 1992 San Diego Chargers, who went from 0-4 to 11-5 and won the AFC West. Five teams enter this week with an 0-3 mark: the New York Giants, Cincinnati Bengals, Los Angeles Chargers, Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers. The Bengals (on the road against the Browns) and Chargers (hosting the Eagles) are favored to win Sunday.
90: Mark Ingram's snap count. That's 29 more snaps than anybody else in the New Orleans Saints' backfield, one of fantasy football's biggest mysteries heading into the season. Ingram leads the Saints with 28 rushing attempts and leads the team's running backs with 60 snaps on passing plays. Alvin Kamara has 51 snaps on pass plays, and Adrian Peterson has compiled only 11 in that situation.
208: The number of scrimmage yards Kansas City Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt needs Monday night -- against the Washington Redskins -- to compile the most by a player in his first four career games. Hunt, a third-round pick out of Toledo, already has an NFL-leading 538 scrimmage yards this season, with 401 on the ground and 137 in the air. Former Lions running back Billy Sims set the record in 1980.
What we'll be talking about after Week 4
Cam Newton has the NFL’s third-lowest Total QBR, and J.J. Watt is without a sack through three games for the first time in his career. But the two superstar players, both coming off major surgery, are just fine. And they should show that against tough opponents this week.
Watt and his Houston Texans face the division-rival Tennessee Titans and their strong offensive line. But Watt, coming off back surgery, already has notched 14 quarterback pressures, according to Pro Football Focus, and he leads the Texans with four quarterback hits. The sacks will come soon enough.
Newton, coming off rotator cuff surgery, has thrown for only 566 yards and has run for only 46. But his arm still looks really strong, and his mobility isn’t lacking. This week, he faces a Patriots defense that has allowed an NFL-leading 95 points and recently struggled against rookie Deshaun Watson.
Giants, Bengals and Chargers have a pulse
They're all 0-3, but they should get off the hook this week and get their respective seasons on track (somewhat). These teams are too good to fall so far so early.
The Giants, on the road against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, finally started to get something going offensively in Sunday's fourth quarter, with Odell Beckham Jr. starting to look like himself.
Dalton should be able to bounce back against a Browns defense that has the second-worst efficiency in the NFL, especially with the Bengals winning five in a row and 10 of their past 13 against the Browns.
The Chargers, hosting the Eagles, have lost 11 one-possession games the past two years, by far the most in the league. There’s too much talent on that roster to not turn that trend to their favor.
The best one-two punch is in Minnesota
Fans are starting to get a real understanding of just how good Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs are. Thielen (299) and Diggs (293) rank second and third in the NFL in receiving yards. Their 592 combined yards are nearly 100 more than that of any other duo this season (Brandin Cooks and Rob Gronkowski of the Patriots are next at 494, with Bryant and Antonio Brown of the Steelers following at 489).
Diggs, a fifth-round pick out of Maryland in 2015, has four touchdown catches, already tying his career high. Thielen, undrafted out of Minnesota State in 2014, has hauled in 19 of his 24 targets. Thanks to Thielen and Diggs -- and Dalvin Cook, who is second in the NFL with 288 rushing yards -- the Vikings rank second in offensive efficiency this season, 21 spots ahead of where they ranked last year.