What We Learned From Week 4 of the N.F.L. Season

What We Learned From Week 4 of the N.F.L. Season

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Utterly dismantling a Carolina Panthers defense that has dominated the rest of the N.F.L. this season, Dak Prescott looked like the Super Bowl-caliber quarterback that Jerry Jones doubted he ever would be.

After all, it was Jones who had originally preferred Paxton Lynch and Connor Cook to Prescott in the 2016 draft. The Dallas Cowboys owner was apoplectic when the Cowboys failed to trade into the first round for Lynch. That weekend, Prescott was little more than a consolation prize, and there were even members of the Cowboys’ front office who didn’t even view Prescott as a draftable player then.

Jerry’s World is a wacky place, indeed.

Prescott won — instantly — and was forced to wait six years to get paid.

After using the franchise tag on Prescott in 2020, Jones finally gave the quarterback a long-term deal before this 2021 season. Now, Prescott appears ready to reward the Super Bowl-starved Jones. The biggest takeaway from Week 4 in the N.F.L.?

Against a Carolina defense that has been suffocating offenses — No. 1 in sacks, No. 1 in quarterback hits, No. 2 in points allowed through three weeks — Dallas’s new $160-million-dollar man coolly completed 14 of 22 passes for 188 yards with four touchdowns, no interceptions and a 130.3 passer rating in a convincing 36-28 win.

Granted, the season is young. There’s still time for either Jones or Mike McCarthy to meddle with what’s working, via a bizarre trade in the middle of the season or mind-boggling clock mismanagement. Both are capable of sabotaging a potential champion, as we’ve seen. But one is in the booth and one is on the sideline. It’s Prescott with the ball in his hands every play and Prescott absolutely gives the Cowboys a real shot at ending a 25-year championship drought.

With the score tied, 7-7, at the end of the first quarter, on fourth-and-1 near midfield, the Panthers had all of Dallas’s receivers blanketed. Prescott did not hesitate. He saw a crease and took off for 21 yards to keep the drive alive. Three snaps later, he knifed an 18-yard touchdown to tight end Blake Jarwin.

Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold ran in for his second rushing touchdown to push Carolina ahead, 14-13, Carolina missed a field-goal attempt on its first drive of the third quarter and Prescott struck again.

With Carolina deploying a single-high safety, Prescott made them pay.

Planting his right foot at the Panthers’ 44-yard line, he rainbowed a beauty to Amari Cooper for a touchdown that put Dallas ahead, 20-14. Few defenses in today’s N.F.L. ever cede a one-on-one opportunity along the boundary like that. Prescott read it and pounced on exactly the sort of throw these Cowboys need to consistently make against elite defenses. Further, the Cowboys’ offensive line did an excellent job picking up the exotic blitz.

Dallas never looked back, eventually extending its lead to 36-14.

Even in a league full of quarterbacks married to the sport, Prescott’s maniacal work ethic stands out as rare. Since 2016, he has drastically improved every aspect of his game: accuracy, athleticism, arm strength. If he was a caretaker as a rookie, he’s indisputably one of the best playmakers in the N.F.L. today.

And the one aspect of his game that never wavered? His leadership. By most accounts, Prescott endeared himself to veterans, rookies and team staffers from Day 1. His first coordinator in Dallas, Scott Linehan, once told me that even with Tony Romo still roaming the backfield, “When Dak was in the building, you knew he was the face of the franchise.”

Now he’s grown into a franchise leader who can engage in a shootout with Matthew Stafford, Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson, if needed.

In a season-opening loss to Tampa Bay, Prescott threw for 403 yards on 58 attempts. But since then, the Cowboys have struck a more sustainable formula — they’re leaning on the ground game. With both Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard pounding away, Dan Quinn, the team’s defensive coordinator, has been able to retool what was a historically bad defense last year. The Cowboys’ offense is complementing its defense and Sunday provided evidence that the Elliott who was also handed big money has returned.

Midway through the third quarter, Elliott hesitated at the line, let a hole develop and hit a top-end speed that Dallas hasn’t seen in ages for a 47-yard carry.

Jones made it clear in training camp that he would “do anything known to man” to win a Super Bowl. Honestly, that’s been the case since he bought the team — and has usually resulted in bad decisions.

Jerry Jones may never have really wanted Prescott, but Prescott is proving that he’s capable of giving Jones what he has always been after.

Through the Giants’ first three losses this season, it has been far too easy to pin all blame on the two players handpicked by General Manager Dave Gettleman to bring the team back to glory. But the truth is that quarterback Daniel Jones was playing perfectly fine — not great, but not horrid, either — and running back Saquon Barkley, meanwhile, looked fine in the early stages of testing his rehabbed right anterior cruciate ligament.

In Sunday’s 27-21 comeback win over the New Orleans Saints, both Jones and Barkley were unquestionably special.

Their numbers were impressive: Jones threw for a career-high 402 yards and Barkley had 126 yards from scrimmage. But one specific play in the always-deafening Superdome silenced the crowd, and had to particularly give the Giants brass real hope in their No. 2 overall draft pick in 2018 (Barkley) and No. 6 overall pick from 2019 (Jones).

Down 21-10, with seven minutes to go, Barkley split wide left and burned Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore for a 54-yard touchdown catch. Barkley noted afterward that he and Jones had discussed the coverage during the game: Seeing that Lattimore was sitting on an out route, Barkley knew he could simply go deep.

Jones ran in the 2-point conversion, and a field goal on the Giants’ next drive tied the game at 21. Barkley’s 6-yard touchdown run in overtime ended the game.

The Giants are now 1-3 with renewed confidence heading right in the teeth of their schedule.

Blame Kirk Cousins. Blame an anemic offensive line.

Either way, the Minnesota Vikings’ 14-7 loss at home to the Cleveland Browns was as demoralizing as it gets for an offense that could do no wrong in September. For three weeks, Cousins tore up three subpar secondaries. He didn’t throw an interception, nor did he show a tick of fear in the face of any pass rush. Statistically, he was playing as well as any quarterback in the N.F.L.

Against the best defense he’s faced to date, Cousins again turned back into a pumpkin.

That has been the rap on Cousins over his career: Against poor defenses, he’ll throw for 300-plus yards and three touchdowns with ease. But add a stingy pass rush and sprinkle on higher stakes, and be ready to be underwhelmed. Heading into this season, Cousins was 7-35 against teams that finished the season with a winning record.

The Vikings want to believe he’s the answer. General Manager Rick Spielman and the front office did salary cap gymnastics to sign Cousins to a contract extension heading into the 2020 season.

Unfortunately, this is who he’s been since entering the league nine years ago.

The Browns finished with 10 hits on Cousins, four from Myles Garrett alone. Still, this was a 4-point game for three quarters and one big play could have busted things open. Just one. That throw deep to Justin Jefferson or Adam Thielen never developed. After Cleveland kicker Chase McLaughlin hit a 53-yard field goal to put the Browns up, 14-7, with six minutes remaining, Cousins’s deep shot the next possession was easily intercepted by cornerback Greedy Williams. The Vikings got the ball back twice more but fell short on each drive.

Cousins gets the Detroit Lions next, but that’ll most likely serve as nothing but a couple of pills of Advil with the Vikings then facing six legitimate contenders in a row.

And at some point, the Vikings must ask themselves exactly how far Cousins can take them.

Buccaneers 19, Patriots 17: Nobody knows Tom Brady’s game and brain better than Bill Belichick, whose defense kept Brady guessing all night. Brady was limited to 269 yards passing and no touchdowns, but came away with a win in a sloppy, penalty-filled game in a driving rain.

Cardinals 37, Rams 20: It’s time to stop sleeping on the Cardinals, who smacked around a team that seemed borderline invincible to start the season. Kyler Murray didn’t turn the ball over, Arizona rushed for 216 yards and, now, the Cardinals are in total control of the N.F.C. West. The question now is if Coach Kliff Kingsbury can keep this offense humming and avoid a slide similar to last season’s, when Arizona started 5-2 and went 3-6 the rest of the way.

Seahawks 28, 49ers 21: You cannot let Russell Wilson hang around. With every opportunity to bury Seattle early, San Francisco’s offense kept short-circuiting. And as he’s done his whole career, Wilson turned it on when needed, scoring 14 of the Seahawks’ 21 second-half points.

Packers 27, Steelers 17: Everything for Pittsburgh turned on an offsides penalty before the half. Officials ruled that cornerback Joe Haden jumped before the snap, negating a blocked field goal-attempt that Minkah Fitzpatrick returned for a touchdown that would have given the Steelers a 17-14 lead. Alas, Ben Roethlisberger was forced to play from behind. As we’ve learned thus far in 2021, that’s not a pretty sight.

Ravens 23, Broncos 7: Facing the best defense he’s seen this season, Lamar Jackson finished with 316 yards and a touchdown through the air and ran the ball only seven times to hand Denver its first loss of the season.

Washington 34, Falcons 30: One of the biggest shocks of this season is how bad the Washington Football Team’s defense has performed. Of course, it didn’t matter against an equally porous Falcons defense. Running back J.D. McKissic supplied the heroics by going airborne at the goal line with 33 seconds left.

Bears 24, Lions 14: Whenever hysteria reaches its fever pitch at Halas Hall, it seems like the Bears always have a get-right game on the schedule. The rebuilding Lions were the perfect medicine, and running back David Montgomery (106 yards, two touchdowns) continued to bludgeon linebackers as one of the best players we don’t talk nearly enough about.

Bills 40, Texans 0: One day, there will be a “30 for 30” documentary written solely on how the 2021 Texans managed to win a football game. Not this week, though.

Colts 27, Dolphins 17: Jonathan Taylor was a force on the ground (103 yards, touchdown), Carson Wentz was efficient enough on those two bad ankles (24-of-32 passing with two touchdowns) for Indianapolis to get a much-needed win after three emotionally taxing losses.

Giants 27, Saints 21 (OT): Lost in the Giants madness this season is the fact that Daniel Jones has taken an obvious step forward. He’s not committing the backbreaking mistakes of 2020 and, on Sunday, he started taking more shots downfield, finishing with 402 yards and two touchdowns.

Chiefs 42, Eagles 30: Andy Reid surely knows he needs to clean up his rickety defense. Kansas City again gave up yards and points in chunks. But as long as Patrick Mahomes and Tyreek Hill exist, this Chiefs offense can outscore any team in the league. On 12 targets, Hill caught 11 passes for 186 yards and three touchdowns.

Jets 27, Titans 24 (OT): OK, so Titans receivers Julio Jones and A.J. Brown were both sidelined. Jets Coach Robert Saleh still got his first N.F.L. win behind a defense that hit Ryan Tannehill 14 times and a rookie quarterback, Zach Wilson, who played with the swagger the team has been missing.


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