INDIANAPOLIS -- With the league's three top teams -- Seattle, Denver and Cincinnati -- on byes, a lot of drama was removed from a light Week 4 schedule.
To a certain degree, blowouts replaced close games. Only four Sunday games were determined by a touchdown or less. Still, the drama in two of those games was the surprise story of the day.
Lovie Smith recorded his first victory as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' coach in dramatic fashion, getting a last-minute drive in Heinz Field to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers 27-24. Another big surprise was the beginning of the Teddy Bridgewater era in Minnesota. Bridgewater, making his first career start, outdueled Matt Ryan in a 41-28 victory over the Atlanta Falcons.
Here is what we learned in Week 4.
1. Colts in charge of AFC South: The AFC South is the Indianapolis Colts' free pass to their third straight playoff berth. Sunday's meeting with the Tennessee Titans was supposed to be a moderately tough test for the Colts. The Titans hired Ken Whisenhunt as coach, rebuilt their offensive line and assembled what they thought was a tough, 3-4 defense. But the only good thing you can say about the Titans' 41-17 loss in Indianapolis is that it was three points better than the Jaguars' 44-17 loss to the Colts.
The Colts own the AFC South. Their nine-game division winning streak is the best in football. If the Colts can win a Thursday night game in Houston in Week 6, they will be 3-0 in divisional games with the chance to have their second consecutive 6-0 season in the AFC South. That's an important luxury for the Colts, as dominating a division allows winning franchises to use the regular season to fix problems before the playoffs. If you go 6-0 in division games, you can be an average team outside the division and still maybe secure a No. 2 or No. 3 seed.
Despite back-to-back 11-win seasons, the Colts are still a work in progress. The passing game isn't a problem. Andrew Luck is having a Manning-Brady type of season. In four games, Luck has 13 touchdown passes, 1,305 yards and a 68.9 completion percentage. It's the running game that still needs to improve, even though Trent Richardson is more comfortable in the offense. Unlike last year, Richardson is getting more yards consistently after first contact.
"I'm having fun again and that's important," Richardson said. Fun doesn't totally show in the numbers. Against the Titans, he had 20 carries for 47 yards and caught four passes for 52 yards. "I know I take criticism for my average, but I feel so much better about my game," Richardson said.
The 2013 season was a disaster for Richardson. He had only one practice before he had to play his first game as a Colt and he struggled all season. He didn't have many players close to him. Now he does. Former Brown D'Qwell Jackson was one of the best leaders in Cleveland and he's now in Indy. Reggie Wayne is back from ACL surgery and sets a great example for Richardson.
"Last year was tough because I was studying the playbook and not my opponents," Richardson said.
2. Rodgers rights Packers: Many thought it was strange for Aaron Rodgers to spell out the word "relax" this week in trying to convey calm after a 1-2 start in which the Green Bay Packers averaged only 18 points a game. In truth, the Packers use these letters to spell relax -- C-U-T-L-E-R.
This is Jay Cutler's sixth year in the NFC North and he can't buy a win against the Packers. Sunday's 38-17 loss to Green Bay gave Cutler a 1-9 record against the Packers, including one playoff loss. His two interceptions Sunday gave him 19 in 10 games against the Packers in a Chicago Bears uniform. Cutler is a career 61.2 percent passer. Against the Packers, he's at 56.2.
The difference in the series is that Rodgers is usually at his best against the Bears and Cutler is off just enough to give the Packers the edge. Cutler's two interceptions set up easy second-half touchdown drives from the Bears' 35 and 11-yard lines. If you get into a shootout with Rodgers, you can't make mistakes. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the lowest Rodgers' Total QBR dipped to at any point during the game was 98.8.
This was only the second game in NFL history without a punt, the last being a 1992 meeting between the Buffalo Bills and San Francisco 49ers. Blink and Rodgers will beat you. It happened once again to the Bears and Cutler. Now at 2-2, Packers fans can relax.
3. Smith proved his point: Steve Smith, the former Carolina Panthers star receiver, caught seven passes for 139 yards and two touchdowns in the Baltimore Ravens' 38-10 blowout of the Panthers. The Panthers needed the $4 million of cap room from Smith's release, but his absence was probably the difference in this game. Sure, the Panthers did a decent job filling Smith's void with rookie Kelvin Benjamin and Jerricho Cotchery, but Smith comes up with bigger plays in bigger moments.
His play carried the Ravens on Sunday. The Ravens and Panthers had similar problems in their backfield. The Ravens cut Ray Rice after one week, and Bernard Pierce has been banged up during the first month of the season. The Panthers didn't have Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert because of injuries, then lost DeAngelo Williams and Richie Brockel with injuries.
Thanks to Smith, who had five catches and 122 yards in the first half, the Ravens coasted to victory. "Blood and guts, honestly, at the end of the day it's about your heart and soul and putting it out there," Smith said. "Guys got hurt. DeAngelo Williams got hurt. You're putting it out there. Blood and guts just means I'm going to go hard and I'm going to play my butt off. They knew that and they understood that. They game-planned for me."
Smith's move to Baltimore is becoming historic. Smith has 429 yards through four games, the most by a player who is 35 years or older.
"I had my fingers crossed," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said about what he expected from Smith this season. "You saw on tape where he was still getting out of breaks and then after he caught the ball, making those cuts and getting upfield and making tacklers miss, which has been his trademark."
Had they kept him, the Panthers might have had a better chance against Baltimore.
4. Steelers play down to Bucs: The Steelers continue to underachieve against teams under .500. Their 27-24 loss to Tampa Bay continued a trend from the past two seasons. The Bucs came to Heinz Field with an 0-3 record and Mike Glennon filling in for the injured Josh McCown at quarterback. It was bad enough the Steelers let the Bucs hang around in what turned out to be a one-possession game, but it was startling that the Steelers' defense allowed Glennon to drive 46 yards in 33 seconds to get the game-winning touchdown drive.
"After a performance like that, I think it's appropriate that we look within and look at what it is that we are doing," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said. "The bottom line is that we are an undisciplined group. We are too highly penalized. We are not going to win close football games being penalized in the manner in which we've been penalized over the first month of the season."
The Steelers had 13 penalties for 125 yards Sunday. For the season, they have 44 penalties for 387 yards. During the Steelers' glory years under Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and Tomlin, the Steelers had more talent than their opponents and could make a few mistakes and win. That isn't the case anymore. If the penalties, sloppy defense and inability to take advantage of a supposed easy schedule continue, the Steelers will be out of the playoffs for a third consecutive year.
5. 49ers win; QBs in danger: The 49ers saved their season, but a safety concern emerged in the late games.
After three sub-par performances, the 49ers pulled out a great win over the Eagles, 26-21. The game was strange in the sense the Eagles struggled to generate offensive yards. 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio deserves a lot of credit for totally shutting down the Eagles' running attack.
"The defense turned in a real gem," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said.
Colin Kaepernick had enough big runs to stay ahead of the Eagles. Had the 49ers dropped to 1-3, rumors of Harbaugh leaving for Michigan would have dominated the news. Plus, the loss brought the high-flying Eagles back to Earth after their 3-0 start.
But here's the safety concern. The 46-man active roster equation is out of date to a point in which quarterbacks are in serious danger. Last week, the Eagles were down to their last offensive lineman when they lost Jason Kelce to a hernia injury and Jason Peters to an ejection. The Falcons took it to another extent Sunday, when three Falcons linemen were injured. They had to use tight end Levine Toilolo at right tackle. Putting a tight end at right tackle is an open invitation for pass-rushers to pound quarterbacks and the Vikings got a few extra hard hits on Ryan.
Most teams keep only seven active offensive linemen on their 46-man active roster. The Eagles were sweating it the entire game Sunday because they were already down Kelce, Evan Mathis, Lane Johnson and Allen Barbre with either injuries or suspension. The Eagles had seven active linemen, but the quality wasn't there. LeSean McCoy had only 17 yards on 10 carries. As a team, the Eagles had only 12 rushes for 22 yards. Everything was in the hands of quarterback Nick Foles. For safety sake, the NFL needs to find ways of getting more blockers on active rosters.
New York Jets coach Rex Ryan insists he has no plans to bench quarterback Geno Smith, but Smith distractions may force his hand in the next few weeks. Smith was once again average to below average in a 24-17 loss to the Detroit Lions. After the game, Smith was caught on camera making a derogatory statement to a fan. Smith later apologized, but the situation is worsening by the week. ... Whether they fire or keep coach Dennis Allen, the Oakland Raiders' season officially became a disaster Sunday in London. The Raiders lost to Miami 38-14. Quarterback Derek Carr suffered an MCL knee injury and a high ankle sprain. The linebacking corps is depleted by injuries and the team is 0-4 with little hope of getting better. ... Matthew Stafford didn't have to rely so much on Calvin Johnson in the Lions' victory. Johnson was on and off the field because of an ankle injury and caught the only two passes on which he was targeted. Stafford completed 22 other passes to eight different receivers. ... As expected, Blake Bortles couldn't turn around the fortunes of the woeful Jacksonville Jaguars. They lost to San Diego, 33-14. Bortles put up good numbers -- 29-of-37 for 253 yards -- but the Jags aren't competitive.