We're back with my weekly rewind column -- piping hot reactions from the world of professional football. Like most of you, I'm blown away that it's already October, which means that the NFL season is already 1/4 over! Just a month in, some teams have sealed their destiny (welcome to LA, 0-4 Chargers!) and some teams are brimming with optimism (the AFC East leading Buffalo Bills?). But the truth is, as much as I might think I know what's happening, there are dozens more Shyamalan twists still to come. Let's dig into what we know so far.
Biggest Winner – Houston Texans
Nuk Hopkins and the rest of the Texans who have suffered through putrid quarterback play the last few years are over the moon at the performance of Deshaun Watson thus far. And given Watson’s brilliance, the boneheaded decisions of Bill O’Brien might be quickly forgotten – remember that O’Brien made Tom Savage the starter over the guy leading the NFL in Total QBR. Houston hung 57 on the Titans, the most points ever scored by the franchise, thanks in large part to the aforementioned Mr. Watson. But it wasn’t just the future Rookie of the Year who showed out – Houston racked up 173 rushing yards, Will Fuller V snagged two touchdowns in his first game back, undrafted rookie linebacker Dylan Cole (not a Friday Night Lights character, I promise) recorded a pick-six and a sack… hell, even Shane Lechler punted the living crap out of the ball (61 yard average) the two times he was even called upon to do that. Sure, the Texans probably feel like they should be 3-1 after letting one get away in New England Week 3, but they feel like a far superior team to the rest of the crap in the AFC South.
Biggest Loser – Dallas Cowboys
Everybody and they mama had the ‘Boys pegged for regression this year after everything seemed to go perfectly for them in 2016. And though they’re only 2-2, it’s easy to look at their two wins as pretty meaningless right now: a drubbing of the lowly Giants and a win over the mediocre Cardinals. They’ve got a division winner’s schedule to contend with the rest of the way, including dates with Green Bay, Kansas City, Atlanta, Oakland, and Seattle, in addition to their five remaining divisional games. And while there’s little shame in losing to the Rams this year, that was a very winnable game. Dallas was up 24-16 at halftime – at home – and proceeded to get outclassed in the second half, with LA bottling up Zeke and the rest of the offense. And with Sean Lee still day-to-day with hammy issues (not an injury that disappears quickly), their defense will be hard-pressed to slow down A-Rod and the Pack next week. They seem likely to hit their Week 6 bye down two games to the surging Eagles. At least the Prescott-Dez connection seems to be improving, but that’s a small positive to take from a pretty negative game for the Cowboys overall.
Sleeper Awakens – A.J. Derby, Denver Broncos
If you didn’t catch Derby’s insane one-handed touchdown snag on Sunday, do yourself a favor and go get you some. This 6’5” mountain of Iowan beef has the soft hands of Itzahk Perlman and an adorable smirk reminiscent of Seth Rogen’s farm-raised cousin. New England picked him in the sixth round of the 2015 draft, so you know Bill Belichick was getting breathy and sweaty watching some 2014 Arkansas game tape a few years ago. He played some quarterback in college too, so expect to see Derby involved in some weird trickeration this season, or potentially as an emergency QB if Denver ever needs it. He also attended Coffeyville Community College, the alma mater of the inimitable Gary Busey, who once said, “Winners do what losers don’t want to do.” And we all know A.J. Derby is a winner.
Dominating Performance – Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
Here’s the thing about Aaron Rodgers: he’s incredibly good at football. He’s possibly the best quarterback of all time. He routinely makes the position look so goddamn simple that it’s easy to overlook his dominance because it seems so routine. Well I ain’t doing that today. Sure it was the Bears. Sure it was in Lambeau. But Rodgers’ performance this week was nothing short of sublime: 18 of 26 for 179 yards and four scores. He did exactly what he needed to do in order for his team to comfortably win. He seamlessly folded in two different rookie running backs – 4th round pick Jamaal Williams and 7th round pick Aaron Jones – when his starting back went down. He spread the ball around the offense, making sure to get new tight end Martellus Bennett involved early and often, because he knows Bennett will be a key cog for this team going forward. Want more evidence? He completed 69% of his passes AND averaged 6.9 yards per attempt. Niiiice. No chance that wasn’t intentional.
Most Devastating Injury – Derek Carr, Oakland Raiders & Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings
Let’s start with Derek Carr. The way his back got bent, it almost feels lucky that he’s only out for 2-4 weeks. Only Olympic gymnasts should bend like that. And now the Raiders are in a really tough spot, with four games coming up that they could easily go 0-4 in with EJ Manuel at QB: vs. Ravens, vs. Chargers, vs. Chiefs, and at Bills. You figure they’ve got to get to 10 wins to have a shot at the playoffs, meaning anything less than 2-2 over this stretch will essentially destroy their chances. It was probably an overrated team coming into the year, but I still figured them for a Wild Card. Unless Carr makes a very swift comeback, this could easily be a six or seven win team.
Dalvin Cook looked like the real deal. But the second I saw him go down with zero contact on Sunday, I knew he was screwed. Minnesota was already leaning heavily on their defense, and now they basically need that group to carry the team. With Sam Bradford’s health totally unreliable, their offense will depend on the playmaking ability of Stefon Diggs to somehow produce touchdowns. It’s a tough spot to be in, even though they’re only a game back of Detroit and Green Bay, albeit with a divison loss already on the board.
Well, Cleveland remains the favorite for the #1 overall pick, as they let Andy Dalton annihilate them through the air. Any early glimpses of competence that DeShone Kizer showed are looking distant in that rearview mirror. They probably have their best chance at a win in Week 5 vs. the Jets, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.
San Francisco continues losing games in stunningly tragic fashion – it almost seems like they’re destined to be in the Darnold/Rosen sweepstakes. But like Cleveland, the Niners have a great chance (relatively speaking) at a win this week when they visit Jacoby Brissett and the Indianapolis Colts in one of Week 5’s least watchable games. Or possibly one of the least watchable games in NFL history. Suck on.
Image Sources: Troy Taormina/USA TODAY Sports, Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports, Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY Sports, Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY Sports, Brad Rempel/USA TODAY Sports, Scott Galvin/USA TODAY Sports