In The First Read, Jeffri Chadiha provides a snapshot of the hottest stories and trends heading into Week 4 of the 2022 NFL season, including:
But first, a look at a team that is getting used to playing with a target on its back ...
CINCINNATI -- The Cincinnati Bengals have spent a good part of this month encouraging critics to back off and take a deep breath. As disappointing as they looked in losing their first two games of the season, there were plenty of reasons to believe things could turn around fast. Part of that optimism certainly had something to do with the New York Jets showing up on the schedule in Week 3. More of it comes down to the predictable learning curve that often follows an appearance in the Super Bowl.
The Bengals' biggest problem at the start of this season was confidence. They thought they could keep doing the same things that earned them an AFC championship in 2021 because they had all their stars back for an encore and made valuable additions to the roster. What they have quickly discovered is it doesn't work that way in the NFL. The better you get, the more challenges you face the next season.
It helped that Cincinnati earned a 27-12 win over the Jets on Sunday. It means even more that they're adapting to life as the hunted.
"Last year we knew what we had and how good we could become but I don't think anybody else expected that, whether it was (the public) or other teams," defensive end Sam Hubbard told me last Thursday. "This year you've got teams giving their best shot to a team that made it to the Super Bowl. Everybody expects us to go 17-0 and go straight back to the Super Bowl again but it's football. There's a lot of adversity that comes with this."
The Bengals proved that much from the start of this year. They had five turnovers in a season-opening loss to Pittsburgh. Their offensive line gave up a total of 13 sacks to the Steelers and Cowboys in consecutive defeats. The defense couldn't find a way to shut down Dallas backup quarterback Cooper Rush and all the magic that Bengals star quarterback Joe Burrow generated in 2021 basically evaporated. It was like the clock had struck midnight and the fantasy feel-good story of a year ago had morphed back into a bungling squad that simply had too many ways to beat itself.
The reality is that Cincinnati had opportunities to win both of those games, as it lost by three points on each occasion. The Bengals faced two talented defenses that feature two of the best pass rushers in football (the Steelers' T.J. Watt and the Cowboys' Micah Parsons). More than anything, Burrow needed to stop playing as if big plays to his talented wide receivers were his birthright. He held the ball too long and forced too many throws at the start of this season that simply were bad decisions. He was more efficient against the Jets (23 of 36, 275 yards and three touchdowns) and his protection was markedly better (two sacks allowed).
Burrow basically discovered what Patrick Mahomes learned in Kansas City early last season: Once you establish yourself as a big-play offense, opponents aren't going to give you big plays.
"That's been a huge part of the early part of our season," Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan told me. "You come into the season feeling so good because you have all these players, we're all together and we've got the same system. We felt great in training camp and everybody was excited. Then you get into the first game of the season and teams are like, 'We're not going to let you do that stuff anymore.' It's been a little bit of a learning period for Joe, in that you're not going to just go out there and throw the ball all over the lot whenever you want. There are a lot of good coaches and players -- prideful coaches and players -- who don't want that to happen."
The Bengals aren't panicking about this slow start because they've been down this road before. Last year was their first winning season since 2015 and they won only six games in two seasons under head coach Zac Taylor before that magical Super Bowl year. This is a team that built itself up when nobody outside the building was betting on its chances for success. If anything, they're probably more comfortable with the doubters circling and the concerns mounting.
The difference this year is that there is still plenty of talent in the room along with one of the game's best young quarterbacks.
"We have a team that is about to regroup and figure it out," said wide receiver Tyler Boyd. "The only thing that is different now is that we've had more success. We had a nice playoff run and made it to the Super Bowl. What you get now is a lot of people who still don't believe in us. They think the Super Bowl was a one-and-done thing. So we still play with that chip on our shoulder. We still feel like we have to prove people wrong."
That's the right attitude to have when you're the Bengals, who will host the undefeated Miami Dolphins on Thursday night. There's not a more predictable cliché at this time of year than the Super Bowl hangover, the notion that the team that loses that game invariably falls on its face the following season. The Bengals started out giving people ample reason to think they belong in that category. They're also too skilled for that narrative to apply to them as we move deeper into this year.
Quick-hitting thoughts on storylines to track around the NFL.
1) Lamar Jackson soars in MVP race: Buffalo's Josh Allen might have started this season as the clear favorite to win the MVP award but Jackson has closed that gap in a hurry. Jackson is making plays with his arm (10 touchdown passes to two interceptions) and his legs (he's had two straight 100-yard rushing performances) and Baltimore would be undefeated if not for blowing a 21-point fourth-quarter lead in a Week 2 loss to Miami. It feels like Jackson has produced so many jaw-dropping feats in his brief career already that we take his current success for granted. Don't make that mistake. Jackson is generating serious numbers despite all sorts of offensive line upheaval and largely without the assistance of much help in the backfield (J.K. Dobbins just returned to the field after recovering from major knee surgery). It would be inaccurate to say Jackson is carrying the entire Ravens offense all by himself. But he's damn sure coming as close as he possibly can, which means those long-term contract negotiations are likely to get more interesting whenever the talks with the Ravens resume.
2) Jaguars ahead of schedule: The second-most impressive team in the state of Florida these days -- after the Dolphins -- is officially Jacksonville. That is the only real takeaway that should have come out of the Jaguars' 38-10 beatdown of the Los Angeles Chargers. It's not just that the Jaguars are playing electric defense. They're seeing strong signs of maturation from second-year quarterback Trevor Lawrence and they're getting big plays from their skill-position weapons. Three different wide receivers caught touchdown passes against the Chargers. James Robinson ran for 100 yards while running back Travis Etienne added another 75 total yards on 16 touches (13 carries and 3 receptions). As for the defense, that unit only has allowed 10 points in its last two games and now has one fewer interception (6) than it produced in the entire 2021 season. There was reason to think the Jaguars would improve after firing the clown show that was Urban Meyer and hiring a proven head coach in Doug Pederson. Three weeks into the season, it's fair to think this team will be contending for a playoff spot and even the AFC South title come January. This isn't a fluke. Jacksonville is legit.
3) 49ers' setbacks: Last week I used the top of this column to celebrate the potential of the 49ers with Jimmy Garoppolo taking over quarterback duties for the injured Trey Lance. This week it feels like it's time to pump the brakes. That's because any questions about the value All-Pro left tackle Trent Williams brings to San Francisco were answered on Sunday night. He sustained a high ankle sprain in the third quarter of a loss to Denver and the 49ers were never the same after that. Most critically, they had no real answers for a Broncos pass rush that harassed Garoppolo relentlessly and finished the contest with four sacks. The 49ers obviously had issues when Garoppolo actually had time to throw -- they converted only one of 10 third-down opportunities -- but it's going to be a major problem if Williams is sidelined for a prolonged period. Garoppolo simply doesn't have the mobility to escape the kind of pressure the 49ers could face without Williams protecting his blindside. San Francisco's reliable rushing attack would be in peril as well. That isn't to say the 49ers don't have the talent to coach up replacements and scheme around weaknesses. It's just that they were a lot more formidable before the weekend began.
Apparently it was Smith’s turn to star this week as the Eagles continue to look like one of the best teams in the NFL. Fellow wide receiver A.J. Brown went off in Week 1 and Jalen Hurts has established himself as an MVP candidate through three games. Now Smith is coming off an eight-catch, 169-yard effort in a win over Washington (a performance that included 156 yards in the first half). Smith only had 80 receiving yards coming into the game but you knew it was a matter of time before he exploded. The Eagles have so many weapons on offense that there will be plenty of days when he’ll have favorable matchups to exploit. That’s why this team is becoming more frightening with each passing week.
The Panthers’ star running back is reminding people of how dangerous he can be when healthy. After two injury-plagued seasons, McCaffrey has strung together back-to-back games with more than 100 yards rushing (including 108 on 25 carries in Sunday’s win over New Orleans). The Panthers snapped a nine-game losing streak with that victory. More importantly, they did enough on offense to offset some mediocre quarterback play and help a defense that has some legitimate strengths. You want to know how head coach Matt Rhule can hold on to his job? Keep feeding McCaffrey.
Some wondered if the Browns would be a dumpster fire by this point, primarily because starting quarterback Deshaun Watson is serving an 11-game suspension. Somebody forgot to tell that to Brissett. He’s been an efficient game manager, developed a strong chemistry with wide receiver Amari Cooper and done enough to keep Cleveland afloat with a 2-1 record. Given that the Browns play Atlanta this coming weekend and have two games against opponents with banged-up quarterbacks after that (the Chargers and Patriots), it’s not hard to see Cleveland securing a few more key wins. Brissett has a legitimate chance to keep this team around .500 before Watson returns. That would be huge.
Kicker Matt Ammendola proved unreliable in a 20-17 loss to Indianapolis after missing a 34-yard field goal and an extra point. Rookie wide receiver Skyy Moore set up the first Colts touchdown with a fumbled punt return inside the Chiefs’ five-yard line. The Chiefs also botched a fake field goal in the fourth quarter that reinforced their distrust in Ammendola, who is only on the roster because of an ankle injury to kicker Harrison Butker. The Chiefs have annually fielded some of the best special teams units in the league but they aren’t dominant enough to overcome these gaffes. Their offense lacks the instant explosiveness that Tyreek Hill once provided, which means they have to win ugly more than we’ve seen in the past. They can’t thrive consistently without more help in this area.
The good news in Chicago is that the Bears are 2-1. The bad news is that a lot of that success has nothing to do with their quarterback. Fields has only thrown for 297 yards through three games. What’s even more damning is that he hasn’t attempted more than 17 passes in any contest (while only producing a completion rate better than 50 percent once). The Bears got a huge effort from Khalil Herbert in Sunday’s win over Houston and their defense made some key plays. Fields, on the other hand, threw two interceptions and no touchdown passes. You really want to root for this guy. The problem is that he’s getting worse with every time he takes the field and the team’s trust in him seems to be waning.
The Chargers are falling right back into the same old problems that have plagued them over the last few years: an inability to keep key players healthy. Quarterback Justin Herbert is playing with fractured rib cartilage. Wide receiver Keenan Allen has been sidelined with a hamstring injury since the season opener. Center Corey Linsley is still nursing a knee injury sustained in a Week 2 loss at Kansas City and Pro Bowl left tackle Rashawn Slater is expected to miss the rest of the season after rupturing a biceps tendon in a loss to Jacksonville. There are health concerns on defense as well -- edge rusher Joey Bosa is dealing with a groin injury -- and there are going to be some rough weeks ahead for a team that’s been built for a deep playoff run.
One question answered by an unnamed front office source.
SCOUT FOR AFC TEAM: "It's a loss but they're so well-coached that it won't be a disaster. Hyde is a good player and their style of defense puts pressure on the safeties but the front is what makes that defense go. So any long-term injuries to the defensive line is what would really be problematic for them. I know (Buffalo All-Pro safety) Jordan Poyer didn't play (in a 21-19 loss to Miami) but I don't even know how much he suffers (without Hyde). There's a lot to be said for their chemistry between those two but once they get their other guys back (starting cornerbacks Dane Jackson and Tre’Davious White are also sidelined), they'll be able to vary coverages more effectively and create different looks. It will be interesting to see if they can just plug and play with a new safety in Hyde's spot or if they have to alter a lot to be effective. Miami didn't go crazy against them like they did against Baltimore so that's a good sign."
A simple ranking of the top five candidates as I see them, which will be updated weekly, depending on performance. Here is how it stands heading into Week 4 (odds courtesy of FanDuel are current as of 7 p.m. ET on Sept. 26):
Weeks in Top 5: 3
Next game: vs. Bills | Sunday, Oct. 2
Weeks in Top 5: 1
Next game: vs. Jaguars | Sunday, Oct. 2
Weeks in Top 5: 3
Next game: at Ravens | Sunday, Oct. 2
Weeks in Top 5: 3
Next game: at Buccaneers | Sunday, Oct. 2
Weeks in Top 5: 2
Next game: at Bengals | Thursday, Sept. 29
My slowly evolving Super Bowl pick, which also will be updated each week, depending on performances: Bills over Eagles.
Previous picks ...
- Week 3: Bills over 49ers
- Week 2: Bills over Buccaneers
- Week 1: Bills over Packers