The NFL season has become a mess with surprises and disappointments galore in Week Four and already a disturbing percentage of the league has been eliminated from playoff hope.
Carolina's loss to the Falcons - which included injury to Cam Newton - apart from being a surprising resurgence for Matt Ryan (though flying out of the gate is something we saw from the Falcons last season), was just one of a striking number of games that illustrated a disturbing pattern this year, as even before the Sunday Night affair between the Chiefs and Steelers a whopping thirteen teams stood at 1-3 with the Browns buried at 0-4. Being 1-3 is the traditional death knell for playoff chances. One offhand can't remember the last time so many teams - in essence half the league - were realistically finished from playoff contention this early in a season.
Three-fourths of the AFC South stands at 1-3 with the Houston Texans at 3-1. The Colts staged a strong rally against the Jaguars in London but Andrew Luck's traditional monopoly over division opponents didn't come through and he has a terrible record over his last ten starts. The Titans meanwhile yet again failed to finish a comeback attempt as they erased a 17-3 gap and later tied the game 20-20 but gagged on a punt return. The loss leaves Marcus Mariota stuck on just four wins in his still-short career.
In contrast the Denver Broncos just keep rolling along almost unchallenged, even after Trevor Siemian was injured and had to be taken off on the meat wagon; rookie Paxton Lynch didn't miss a beat in his first NFL action. Meanwhile Jameis Winston has fallen to 1-3 and the Bucs are in the bottom half in points scored, with only six teams in the conference with fewer points scored.
The Cardinals are another 1-3 team, but the bigger surprise is the 3-1 Rams and Case Keenum. Jeff Fisher had struggled to surpass 7-9 records since being hired by the Rams in 2012 but he won against enough quality foes to stay, and so far patience is beginning to pay off. The Cardinals meanwhile lost Carson Palmer to a concussion and even without that they've needed to question the wisdom of keeping him with the scattershot quality of his entire career.
The resurgence of the Oakland Raiders continued with a close win over the Ravens - last year's shootout win introduced the league to Derek Carr and this win may propel him further.
Of course the elephant in the room that got slayed by Gwangi is the New England Patriots and the 16-0 shutout by Rex Ryan and the Bills. Jacoby Brissett illustrated the myth that is "anyone can win in this Patriots system," because his play was singularly embarrassing - they didn't trust him to run the offense so they ran a laughingly dumbed-down offense and even that was too much for him with few completions and nothing to show for it outside of a few completions to Martellus Bennett. Getting Tom Brady can't come too soon with the Patriots now the #2 seed in the AFC and the hated Broncos still cruising.
So what to conclude right now? Some big picture takes -
With half the league realistically out of the playoffs, the best bet for them is to just stay their course and keep fighting, stop worrying about making the playoffs, worry instead about winning the next game - and the next one, and the next one.....
Oakland and the Rams illustrate that staying the course does work, and there is legitimate talent on a lot of those 1-3 teams - and even on the 0-4 Browns.
Even with that some of these teams need to start preparing for change - the Saints for one need to start considering a post-Brees (and perhaps even post-Payton) era; the Chargers likewise have been stuck in mediocrity with Mike McCoy and Philip Rivers; if Josh McDaniels indeed becomes a candidate for a head-coaching job in 2017 Tennessee (which wanted him for this year but couldn't wait longer than it did for him to become available) should get him because it's a good environment for him.
That's just a few areas where change is needed or appears to be inevitable as 2016 has yet to play out.