As the old adage goes, to be the best, you have to beat the best.
The Miami Dolphins believed Sunday represented the chance to take the baton, and a big step towards changing the guard in the AFC East, after a gangbusters 3-0 start. But, the three-time reigning division champion Buffalo Bills instead sent a very different and very emphatic message.
Through the season's first month, Tua Tagovailoa looked like a runaway favorite to win his first MVP award after guiding the Dolphins to three straight wins while leading the league's most prolific offense. However, Josh Allen and the Bills issued a reminder in a 48-20 victory that Buffalo remains among the league's elite and very much in the conversation to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.
"What you saw today is all of the Bills talent coming to the forefront," an AFC South Scouting Director told FanBuzz. "The question becomes; will they commit to the run and not run down their quarterback by the end of the season?"
After the Bills and Dolphins traded touchdowns, playing to a 14-14 tie though the game's 18:08, Buffalo's defense decided it was time to slam the door, and Allen put his team on his back in a contest that felt as much like a playoff game as any staged on Oct. 1 possibly could.
Buffalo simply ran roughshod over the Dolphins over the final three quarters, outscoring Miami 34-6 over that span. Allen led the way, playing like he belongs at the forefront of the NFL MVP conversation, completing 21-of-25 passing attempts for 320 yards with four touchdown passes, one touchdown run, and finishing with a flawless 158.3 passer rating.
"What [Josh Allen] tried to do in the first game against the Jets, was to carry the whole team on his shoulders," former Bills offensive lineman John Fina told FanBuzz by phone Sunday evening. "As we all have seen, historically, the teams that go deep in the playoffs rely on an entire cast of characters.
"You have to have a big ego to play this game, but part of that ego is taking what they're giving you. Expose the parts of the field that are available to you. So, in the last three games, including Sunday, you saw a lot of that [from Josh.] You saw a lot of throws taking what they give you, get the ball into your playmakers' hands, whether that's Gabe Davis, Stefon Diggs, Dalton Kincaid ... That's the maturity that the Bills need, to go deep."
Fina, who hosts the Off Tackle with John Fina Podcast believes that the Bills, having bounce back from a brutal overtime loss on a supercharged opening night against the Jets, dispatched the Raiders, and beaten Washington can now look at Sunday's statement victory over the Dolphins as the kind of win that can have a lingering effect on the rest of the season in terms of confidence and championship mindset.
Especially because Miami arrived in Orchard Park averaging a league-high 43.3 points per game, aided by a 70-point outburst against the Denver Broncos, but it was the Bills' defense that ruled this day.
Gregory Rousseau terrorized Tagovailoa, who passed for 282 yards with one touchdown to one interception, sacking the Dolphins' quarterback twice, hitting him twice, and finishing with a pair of tackles for loss.
All told, Buffalo's swarming defense logged four sacks while dragging the Dolphins' high-flying explosive offensive attack back to earth, holding Miami to 3-of-10 on third down, limiting long drives and the damage done on the scoreboard despite allowing 6.8 yards per play.
"The Bills' defensive front four, by and large, is more aggressive and incredibly active compared to last year," Fina said. "It always starts in the trenches ... Miami lost Terron Armstead to an injury, he came out, and the Bills took advantage of that. They really become tenacious up front. I'm not in the locker room, I'm not in the booth, but Sean McDermott is calling great football, defensively."
Some of Buffalo's enthusiasm from Sunday's victory has to be tempered by the fact that stalwart cornerback Tre'Davious White suffered an injury late, that the Bills fear is a ruptured Achilles, less than two years after he suffered a torn ACL in a Thanksgiving game against the New Orleans Saints.
"For whatever reason, major injuries seem to take their toll on them," the Scouting Director said. "And losing White today is not good. The last time he went out, It hurt that defense, bad. He's a true leader."
Buffalo vaults to the top of the AFC East, but these two teams could very well wind up on a collision course for the regular season finale in Miami Gardens being played for division crown and perhaps even more than that.
Between now and then, though, one month into the season, there seems to be clear separation between the Kansas City Chiefs, Bills, Dolphins and the rest of the AFC in the race for Las Vegas and Super Sunday. After Sunday afternoon, the Bills seem to have not only rediscovered the winning formula but are building the confidence to sustain a run at Lombardi.
Here's a rundown of the biggest storylines, moments, and takeaways from Week 4 of the 2023 NFL season, with insight from sources around the league:
First Down: Christian McCaffrey Belongs in MVP Conversation
There aren't many players in the NFL who make the kind of transcendent impact on his team than Christian McCaffrey does on the San Francisco 49ers and Kyle Shanahan's scheme.
Sunday afternoon in Santa Clara, Calif., McCaffrey became the first player in the illustrious history of the San Francisco 49ers to score the first four touchdowns of the game, notching scores of 1, 18, 6, and 2 yards in a decisive 35-16 win over the NFC West rival Arizona Cardinals.
By game's end, McCaffrey had rushed for 106 yards and 3 touchdowns, while averaging 5.3 yards per carry. But, as has been the case for McCaffrey throughout his career, his impact wasn't limited to the damage he did on the ground. McCaffrey also caught 7 passes for 71 yards with one receiving touchdown. Against Arizona, McCaffrey logged five receptions of 10 yards or more.
Beyond buoying his reputation as one of the game's most versatile weapons, producing 460 rushing yards with six touchdowns and 141 receiving yards and one more score through the Niners' first four games, McCaffrey is having the kind of season that should place him firmly in the MVP conversation by season's end.
Even in an era where quarterbacks have taken home the honor every season since Adrian Peterson was the last running back to win it, back in 2012, McCaffrey's impact simply cannot be ignored.
Since McCaffrey's arrival to the bay area in a trade deadline deal last fall, the 49ers have posted a 14-1 regular season record, as the 27-year-old has rushed for 1,200 yards while scoring 15 total touchdowns. Beyond McCaffrey's tangible impact on wins and losses, he's in the midst of a 13-game touchdown streak and has scored 20 touchdowns in his first 18 games in a 49ers uniform.
It's still a young season, but with the 49ers' boasting one of the NFC's deepest and most talented rosters, and Shanahan seemingly going out of his way each week to find new ways to showcase McCaffrey and his value, it's easy to picture the star running back finishing the year among the leading MVP vote-getters. If not breaking the decade of quarterback dominance and winning the award outright.
Second Down: Where do Atlanta Falcons Go From Here?
Desmond Ridder gave the Atlanta Falcons plenty to think about during the 9.5 hour flight home from Sunday's dreadful 23-7 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars at London's Wembley Stadium.
If the 2023 season is legitimately an audition for Ridder to be the steward of a Falcons' offense that's loaded with elite playmakers such as wide receiver Drake London, running back Bijan Robinson, and tight end Kyle Pitts, Sunday morning's performance raises serious concerns about his and the franchise's future.
Worse than Ridder's 19-of-31 for 191 yards with one touchdown to two interceptions stat line, is the fact that the second-year signal caller stared down Jaguars cornerback Darious Williams on his first interception that was returned 61 yards for a touchdown and then on his very next passing attempt telegraphed a pass to safety Andre Cisco that was also picked off.
Not what you want to see.
With a heralded quarterback class that includes elite prospect Caleb Williams, rising UNC quarterback Drake Maye, and veterans such as Kirk Cousins, Ryan Tannehill, and perhaps Kyler Murray potentially hitting the market ahead of the trade deadline, can the Falcons really commit to Ridder as the long-term solution?
"I just don't think he's very good," an NFL quarterback coach told FanBuzz.
In fairness to Ridder, the sample size is small. The third-round pick in the 2022 draft has passed for 1,452 yards with five touchdowns to five interceptions through his first eight games.
However, Ridder's inconsistency has become a hallmark of his early career.
"The Falcons obviously think he can improve," former NFL Executive of The Year Randy Mueller told FanBuzz. "But, I'm skeptical. Hopeful for their sake, though."
Despite the abundance of speed that the Falcons have built around Ridder, the offense has failed to generate much consistency — or rhythm this season.
"Desmond Ridder has the skill se that some NFL teams covet," Mueller explained. "He's big, he's athletic enough and he has plenty of arm-strength. But, playing quarterback at the NFL is much more than that.
"The key is unlocking and taking those skills to the next level. To be the top-level best in the world, it's about improving vision, feel, anticipation, and processing. That's what separates good quarterbacks from great ones."
On paper, Atlanta built a great offense — Kyle Pitts' mysterious disappearance not withstanding. There is going to come a time when general manager Terry Fontenot, head coach Arthur Smith must decide if they are content to leave their chances in the hands of a 'good' quarterback.
If more performances like Sunday from Ridder continue to stack on top of each other, that time may come much sooner than later.
Third Down: It's Time to Sound the Alarm on Cincinnati Bengals
One month into the season, and it is officially time to panic in Cincinnati.
The Bengals entered the 2023 campaign boasting a roster, led by a quarterback that many believed was capable of making a second trip to the Super Bowl in the past three seasons and a third consecutive AFC Championship Game.
However, after getting broadsided by the previously struggling Tennessee Titans, 27-3, it's time for some serious soul-searching for Joe Burrow's Bengals.
The Bengals are now 1-3, with the reigning AFC North champions' lone victory of the season coming last Monday night as Burrow looked like a shell of himself, too banged up to push the ball vertically in a way that has become a hallmark of Cincy's explosive offense. Sunday, Burrow averaged 5.5 yards per attempt while finishing just 20-of-30 for 165 yards with an 80.6 passer rating.
No longer is Cincinnati exploiting defenses deep on the perimeter. Joe Mixon, who rushed for just 67 yards against the Titans, hasn't surpassed 70 rushing yards in a game yet this season. Defensively, outside of a swarming an menacing performance from Trey Hendrickson, B.J. Hill, and D.J. Reader against the Rams, this group has struggled mightily through the season's first month.
Tennessee gashed the Bengals for 400 yards of total offense, including averaging a whopping 5.2 yards per rush.
It's difficult to win that way.
If things look bad now, it's not going to get any easier for the Bengals, who face the league's seventh-toughest remaining strength of schedule against opponents who boast a .560 winning percentage.
The only saving grace for the Bengals is that they're only two games back of the Ravens for the division-lead. But, having already lost to Baltimore and the Cleveland Browns, even clawing back into the postseason chase feels like it would be a Herculean feat for this team.
Fourth Down: C.J. Stroud Gives Texans Hope ... For bright future, and 2023
The Houston Texans are in the infancy of a rebuild, but the most important piece couldn't possibly be off to a more promising start to his career.
Sunday afternoon, Texans rookie quarterback, and the No. 2 overall pick in April's draft, C.J. Stroud was nearly flawless at the helm of a 30-6 dismantling of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Stroud showed the poise of a veteran and elite decision-making while carving up Pittsburgh's defense for 306 yards with two touchdowns, and zero interceptions en-route to a 111.3 passer rating, while adding four rushes for 16 yards.
"He was the best quarterback prospect coming out," an NFC North personnel executive told FanBuzz. "By far. His ceiling is very high."
Through his first four NFL starts, Stroud has surpassed 300 yards twice, has logged three consecutive games with a passer rating above 100.0, and has the NFL Offensive Rookie of The Month for September in tow.
With 1,212 passing yards, six interceptions, and starting his career with zero interceptions through his first four games, the Texans have to be thrilled about Stroud's start and the potential might hold for this organization.
Only Cam Newton has passed for more yards through his first four starts, when he passed for 1,386 in 2011.
So, what sets Stroud apart? Why is there so much promise that a new era is finally dawning for the Texans?
"He's big, strong, and extremely accurate," the executive said. "But, I think what impresses me most is the fact that he's very confident in his own ability."
Team of The Week: Detroit Lions
After a statement victory over the division rival Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field on Thursday night, the Detroit Lions have officially arrived.
Yes, it's true that the Packers' offensive line has been decimated by injuries, but Green Bay had no answers for the Lions' swarming defense led by Aidan Hutchinson's 1.5 sacks and three quarterback hits as he took up residence in the backfield, and Detroit sacked Jordan Love five times.
The formula for Lions is a winning one and one that travels' smash the power running game, stop the run, pressure the quarterback, and get consistently effective quarterback play.
Inside Lambeau on Thursday night, Detroit proved their brand of football travels; as David Montgomery rushed for 121 yards with three touchdowns, the Packers mustered only 27 rushing yards all game, Jordan Love produced a meager 69.9 passer rating, and Jared Goff was a maestro in the pocket while managing the game with 210 passing yards, one touchdown and one interception.
The NFC playoff picture is a truncated one, but the NFC North's leaders continue to prove they belong in the conversation alongside the Philadelphia Eagles, 49ers, and Dallas Cowboys with a legitimate chance to bully their way through a lengthy postseason run.
Week 4 MVP: A.J. Brown, WR, Philadelphia Eagles
With the Eagles facing very real danger of suffering their first loss of the season, against the NFC East rival Washington Commanders, A.J. Brown rose to the occasion with the kind of performance in the game's biggest moments reminiscent of his legitimately difference-making 2022 campaign.
Jalen Hurts and Brown connected on two of the Eagles' most important touchdowns of their season, on Sunday.
As the Commanders held a 17-13 lead with 7:24 remaining, Hurts hit Brown deep down the sideline before Brown split Washington defenders at the 25-yard line and streaked into the end zone to give Philly the lead. Later, with the game knotted at 24 with 1:49 remaining, Hurts unfurled a bomb that Brown pulled down for a 30-yard go-ahead touchdown.
Philadelphia went on to beat the Commanders, 34-31, to remain unbeaten and atop the NFC East. But, the Eagles might not have survived being put on upset alert had it not been for Brown's game-high nine catches for 175 yards and two touchdowns.
Brown was instrumental in the Eagles' joining the San Francisco 49ers as the last of the NFL's unbeaten.
Sunday reinforced the notion that so long as Hurts is the Eagles' quarterback, and Brown is on the field, Philadelphia is never out of the game.
Week 4 Breakout Star: Kyren Williams, RB, Los Angeles Rams
Kyren Williams has been a revelation for the Rams, and Sunday afternoon the second-year running back was instrumental in Los Angeles' 29-23 overtime win in Indianapolis over the Colts.
Against the Colts, Williams posted his first 100-plus yard game, rushing for 103 yards with a pair of first-half touchdowns as a driving force behind the Rams' offense. Sunday afternoon was Williams' third multi-touchdown game through the first four weeks.
Williams hasn't just been instrumental to the Rams' success so far this season, but inspired enough confidence in the organization to make fellow back Cam Akers expendable.
So far this season, Williams has rushed for 245 yards with five touchdowns, while showing off his versatility with 11 receptions for 101 yards and another score. If Sunday's career-best performance is any indication, look for Williams to continue to be the focal point of the Rams' offense.
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