From Jags, Giants and Steelers to Peyton, Pats and Chiefs, here's the good, bad and ugly through four weeks of the NFL.
Make that great, as in Peyton Manning and the Broncos; the coaching of Andy Reid, Sean Payton, Mike Munchak and Bill Belichick; the work of sackmasters, who have the NFL on a near-record pace; superb field goal accuracy; and the breathtaking performances of Patrick Peterson, Adrian Peterson and Trindon Holliday.
A fully healthy Manning clearly has been the star and the story of the first four weeks, with his unprecedented — and unbelievable — 16 touchdown passes and no interceptions. The ease with which he connects with his receivers (10 already), the margins by which the Broncos are winning (179-91 overall) and the balance the offence has stamped them as early front-runners for Super Bowl.
"I think we just continue to get better," coach John Fox said before delivering a scary warning. "It's still early in the season and I expect us to get better. People look at me funny when I say that, but there are still a lot of areas we need to improve at and can improve at."
Kansas City's improvement is the most dramatic and notable, although New Orleans was 0-4 at this point in 2012 with Payton suspended for the season for his role in the bounty scandal. Reid, a consistent winner for most of his 14 years in Philadelphia, has brought stability to the Chiefs, and a renewed confidence.
Their defence is particularly formidable, with a monster pass rush. The Chiefs have led the surge of sacks throughout the league with 18.
With the Petersons and Holliday, the old saw about every time someone touches the ball he could score, absolutely applies. Holliday, the NFL's shortest player at 5-foot-5, has 12 kickoff returns for 296 yards and two scores. Arizona's Peterson has played his usual cornerback slot, worked as a receiver and is one of the league's most dangerous kick returners.
As for 2012 MVP Adrian Peterson, the Vikings running back has "only" 421 yards rushing and five touchdowns, a pace that would get him near 1,700 yards on the ground and 20 scores. Not quite what he managed last year, but remember that Peterson was unstoppable in the second half of last season.
Also notable through four weeks:
—Saints TE Jimmy Graham ranking second in yards receiving to Atlanta's Julio Jones, unheard of territory for a tight end. Graham also has six TDs, tied with Peterson and Denver's Wes Welker for the league lead.
—Colts DE Robert Mathis, supposedly on the other side of his prime, tied with Kansas City's Justin Houston for the NFL lead with 7 1-2 sacks.
—Five 4-0 teams, tied for the most in any season.
It's far too early to panic, yet the folks in Atlanta, Minnesota, Washington, Houston, Green Bay, Cincinnati and Baltimore — all 2012 playoff teams — should be concerned about the first month of the schedule.
None has shown any of the consistency and clutch performances they displayed last year. Most worrisome are the Falcons, Vikings and Redskins.
The Falcons can't run the ball, can't stop the pass and tend to come up just short in tight games, as losses to the Saints, Dolphins and Patriots proved. At least they've been pretty competitive, but so have the Vikings, despite a surprisingly problematic defence, worst in the league against the pass.
But the Redskins needed a rally at Oakland to beat the woeful Raiders for their first win, and QB Robert Griffin III, still healing from a post-season knee injury, has been anything but the sensational top rookie of 2012. The defence has been a sieve.
As in 0-4.
Jacksonville's wretched start — outscored 129-31, noncompetitive at home or on the road — was somewhat expected given its lack of talent and a new coaching staff finding its way. Things might not get any better this year.
The Steelers adamantly refuse to use the world "rebuilding," but with few playmakers left on their once-vaunted defence and nobody who can keep Ben Roethlisberger upright, it's time to admit the obvious.
New York's collapse is a stunner because the Giants do have those playmakers on both sides of the ball. They're well-coached, usually disciplined, and Eli Manning seemed to be far past his penchant for ill-advised throws.
Guess again. Their offensive line has been, well, downright offensive, just like Pittsburgh's. And the pass rush, upon which the defence is built, has disappeared.
Still, nothing has been as pitiful as what Tampa Bay has managed in its four defeats.
That first game was handed to the Jets on a late hit by linebacker Lavonte David. It should have been an early indication of how out of control things would get with the Bucs.
Then there's the QB situation: Josh Freeman was benched last week after playing poorly in the first three games. Then the quarterback believed someone within the Bucs organization leaked information about him being in the league's drug testing program.
On Thursday, Tampa Bay released Freeman.
The Bucs have the second-worst offence and a mistake-prone defence despite a collection of high-priced veterans on the roster.
Their bye week has given them extra time to stew in the ugliness.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org
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