We are a quarter of a way through the NFL season, the real refs are back and a clearer picture of the league's top teams is coming into view. We are knee-deep in NFL action.
This is the part of the year when there is finally enough visual and statistical evidence to identify emerging trends and rapidly rising or sinking players.
We'll sort some that out in this slideshow by highlighting fact, fiction or farce for every NFL team.
I'm going to have to chalk this one up to decades of ineptitude balancing out, because the Arizona Cardinals are on a run of clutch performances that is mind-boggling.
With their 24-21 overtime win at home over the Dolphins last Sunday, the Cardinals now have eight consecutive home wins. Five of those have come in overtime.
That streak began in Week 9 of last year with a 19-13 overtime win over the Rams. Since that time, the Cardinals have won 11 of 13 games.
In that stretch, they had five overtime games, and only one win (home or away) in regulation was by more than four points.
They are largely doing this with defense. The 21 points the Dolphins scored is the most an opponent has put up in the Cardinals' past 11 wins.
Now, defense or not, you'd expect a team pulling out this many close games to have a legendary quarterback at the helm. That is not the case for the John Skelton/Kevin Kolb-led Cardinals.
However, despite those two QBs' many faults, they are performing when they need to, and this entire team has developed an uncanny clutch instinct.
That experience is going to serve this team well when it inevitably makes the playoffs.
Matt Ryan is not on a hot streak; he's just being Matt Ryan.
The fifth-year quarterback is having his way with the league right now. That will last all year, and it will lead him to the MVP trophy.
Ryan, 27, is hitting 69.4 percent of his passes and has a league-leading quarterback rating of 112.1. He is on pace to throw for 44 touchdowns, 4,648 yards and only eight interceptions.
All of these numbers blow his previous production out of the water—his best QB rating prior to this is 92.2.
While this could be used to point out that Ryan will suffer through regression the rest of the way, this is a case of a talented player coming into his own with the right players in place around him.
After all, the case can be easily made with Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez that the Falcons have the most fearsome top three receiving targets in the league.
Think of it as everything coming together at the right time, and there is serious precedence that hints at Ryan's ability to keep it all rolling.
Tom Brady burst out in his seventh season as a starter, 2007, with his 50-touchdown campaign and finished with a QB rating of 117.2. His previous best was 92.6. Brady's next highest mark so far in his career came in 2010, when he posted a 111.0.
In 2004, his seventh season, Peyton Manning chucked 49 touchdowns and posted a rating of 121.1. His previous career-high quarterback rating was 99.0. His highest for a season following came the next year and checked in at 104.1.
This is Matt Ryan's season; everyone else is playing in it.
Without reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs, the fierce Ravens defense is nevermore.
This defense has some serious playmakers, but without someone to consistently put pressure on the QB, this group is average.
Let's look at some of the numbers: The Ravens are 29th in passing yards allowed and 13th in rushing yards allowed. Football Outsiders has their Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) ranking at 16.
Now, part of the yardage numbers are skewed because Baltimore has played most of the season with a lead, and that means the opposition is going to take to the air more often, but this defense is still 22nd in yards allowed per pass attempt, a telling stat.
Baltimore has excellent corners with Lardarius Webb, Cary Williams and Jimmy Smith. What it doesn't have is a pass rush. It is 22nd in sack percentage.
Linebacker Dannell Ellerbe leads the Ravens with 2.5 sacks, and he is just one of three Ravens who has more than one sack.
Last year, Suggs finished with a team-high 14 sacks, and his constant demand of a double-team helped the Ravens finish that season with the league's sixth-highest sack percentage.
This defense is just not the same without him.
I'm sure an owner would like to hope that after investing over $100 million in defensive upgrades in the past offseason, his team could do better than allowing the 30th-most points in the league.
As ESPN's James Walker highlights, "[The] Bills spent more than $100 million on defensive ends Mario Williams and Mark Anderson and a first-round pick on cornerback Stephon Gilmore."
Yet there the Bills were on Sunday, allowing seven consecutive scoring drives, a stretch that included six touchdowns, to division rival New England.
The Patriots were passing and rushing all over what should be an embarrassed Bills defense.
While this ineptitude is a team-wide failure, the Bills surely hoped for more from their two big defensive free-agent acquisitions.
Williams has just 1.5 sacks, one tackle for loss and nine total tackles. Anderson has nine tackles, one sack and one tackle for loss.
Rookie Gilmore has certainly had his moments, and he already checks in with seven passes defensed and a forced fumble.
Still, this defense is in shambles, and even if Williams and Anderson pick up their production, this unit will have issues.
The Bills defense is 23rd in passing yards allowed, 28th in rushing yards allowed and 26th in Football Outsiders' DVOA ranking.
While this team is 2-2, this defense will doom it, and it already has to a large extent. Both of the Bills' losses have come in division by a combined score of 100-56. A hundred points allowed in two division games! Amazing.
Maybe Cam Newton is just trying to bring the towel-on-the-head look into vogue.
Or possibly the reigning Rookie of the Year has some growing up to do.
Given the mounting evidence, I'm choosing the latter.
There is no denying that Cam in a fierce competitor, but the young quarterback has to start displaying more poise, and he doesn't appear to be grasping this concept.
A week after Newton, as the Associated Press points out, was "lit into" by Steve Smith for sulking on the sideline, he continued his moping ways following his team's 30-28 loss to the Falcons last Sunday.
ESPN's Ed Werder does a great job of illustrating that with this tweets.
Cam Newton held up team buses for long time while sitting in locker room alone and setting record most lotion applied post shower.Nfl— Ed Werder (@Edwerderespn) October 1, 2012
That's not all. Newton also displayed his selfishness in a postgame, question-and-answer session with the media.
Cam Newton also walked off while questions still being asked by people waiting forever. Gisele wasn't that upset after losing Super Bowl— Ed Werder (@Edwerderespn) October 1, 2012
Newton is the quarterback and face of this franchise. He has to be more professional than that. When Newton brushes off the media like that, it puts more of the onus on his teammates.
Combine that with him holding up the entire team by not making the bus on time, and you are going to have a growing resentment and divide between Cam and his teammates.
Here we have our second straight slide about attitude-challenged quarterbacks.
Jay Cutler's temper-tantrum ways have fallen squarely in the public's consciousness, and Cutler was right in many aspects when, as Jeff Dickerson of ESPN Chicago points, he chided the media about focusing on brief moments just to sell papers.
Once the media locks in on something juicy, reporters hone in like a pack of rabid dogs, but Cutler is still missing the underlying point: He is not doing everything he can to help this team win.
When Cutler walked away from Mike Tice, he was essentially punishing Tice for not getting the plays in quickly enough and whatever else it was that was bothering him. Maybe Tice beat him at ping-pong the other night or something. Who knows?
But the point is that Cutler chose to make a demonstration out of his dissatisfaction rather than actually work on solving the problem. Even if Cutler sat there and told Tice he was not going to run any of the plays he called, at least they would be on the same page.
The Bengals have allowed the 25th-most points per game, which is hard to believe given how amazing the front four has been.
The Bengals lead the league in both sacks and sack percentage, and the majority of those sacks are coming from the defensive line.
The Bengals already have three defensive linemen who have registered at least two sacks.
Geno Atkins, who is on the verge of stardom, has five—an especially impressive number considering he is a defensive tackle.
His dominance on the inside makes everyone else's job on the defensive line easier. They aren't going to see a lot of extra attention.
As a result, opposing quarterbacks are spending, and will spend, a lot of time on the turf.
Brandon Weeden, the elder statesman of the 2012 rookie class, proved he belongs in the NFL this past week. Weeden, 28, didn't finish with the prettiest stat line in the Browns' 23-16 loss to the Ravens. He was 25-of-52 for 320 yards and an interception, but he played far better than those stats suggest.
The Plain Dealer's Dennis Manoloff reviewed the game, and he came up with this great stat:
Of the 27 incompletions, 10 hit receivers' hands/gloves before hitting the ground. All 10 were not pinpoint-accurate throws—most were high—and the ball was wet, but upper-tier receivers would be disappointed not to catch them.
He goes on to add that those 10 drops totaled "148 yards in the air." Combine those drops with the bad weather and the fact the Browns were playing without Mohamed Massaquoi, and Weeden's performance looks much better.
This goes beyond just the numbers, though. Weeden is making quick gains in his feel for the game. He looks far more natural in the pocket, and he is beginning to see the whole field.
I'm not going to say that Weeden is going to be an elite quarterback, but he is proving he is a legitimate starter in this league.
The product the Dallas Cowboys are putting on the field is such a chaotic mess that it makes the circus of the media, reality shows and Jerry Jones self-promotional tours surrounding this team look mundane.
Check out the attached video of Tony Romo's five-interception effort this past Monday night, and you'll find reasons to blame every part of the offense.
You'll see gaffes by receivers, poor blocking by the offensive line and bad decisions by the offensive line. Behind all that you have an ineffective running game that is making all this throwing necessary in the first place.
Yes, this was a bad performance in a bad matchup for the Cowboys, but there are also way too many problems for this team to turn it around before this season ends.
A great sigh could be heard around the greater Denver area when a 27-yard laser beam stuck in the hands of tight end Joel Dreessen as three defenders simultaneously hurled themselves at him.
That was the opening score of the Broncos' cakewalk over Oakland, and that was the moment Peyton Manning kindly reassured us he was just fine.
This was a throw that required the kind of zip some were beginning to wonder if Manning still possessed. It also had to fit in a window so small that few would even think to try to hit it.
Just substitute Dallas Clark for Dreessen, and it's a play we've seen countless times and were still left marveling.
Peyton Manning is back, and football is better off because of it.
The Detroit Lions should just call it teams because there is nothing special about it.
In two straight games, the Lions have allowed both a punt and kickoff return for a touchdown. How does this happen? Teams wouldn't want to allow four kick/punt returns for touchdowns all season, let alone in two straight weeks.
Hence the burning hot seat for special teams coordinator Danny Crossman.
MLive.com's Justin Rogers points out that it was rookie Jonte Green's lane that was exploited for both kickoff returns.
While that is Green's gaffe, it is Crossman's failure. He either should have made sure that Green would not make a similar mistake or found someone else.
He did neither, and his unit needs to turn it around in a hurry; otherwise, I wouldn't be surprised if he didn't make it through the season.
During halftime of the Packers' supposed loss to the Seahawks on Monday night of Week 3, the Packers bandwagon was hemorrhaging ccupants.
The Pack had allowed eight sacks in that half, and that was following a week where they allowed five sacks to the Chicago Bears.
But then something remarkable happened: The offensive front five remembered how to block.
In the following six quarters, the Packers have not allowed a sack. Zach Kruse of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (and Bleacher Report) points out that that stretch covered 67 quarterback drop-backs.
What a stunning and promising turnaround for this maligned group, and with protection anywhere close to as effective as it has been the last six quarters, this offense is deadly.
Super Mario Williams took his Bowser bashing to Buffalo, but the Texans cranked up the J.J.—I mean watts. Ugh...I do that every time.
Second-year defensive end J.J. Watt is terrorizing opposing quarterbacks. With 7.5 sacks already this young season, he leads the league. That is two more than he turned in for his entire rookie season.
The most impressive thing with this number is the consistency he has displayed to achieve it. He has tallied at least 1.5 sacks in each of his four games this season.
The value of a dominant pass-rusher to a defense cannot be overstated, and Watt is a huge reason why the Texans are second in the league in passing yards allowed.
At 31, Robert Mathis seemed a little deep in his career to make the switch from a 4-3 defensive end to a 3-4 linebacker.
However, Mathis has made the transition so seamlessly that you have to wonder if this was a better spot for him all along, and that is saying something given his decorated career.
Mathis, who entered the league in 2003, has had at least seven sacks in every season except his rookie campaign. That was good enough to give him 83.5 career sacks entering this season.
Through three games, Mathis already has four sacks, and this hasn't come on the strength of one good game against a weak tackle. He has at least one sack in each game.
That puts him on pace for a 21-sack season. His previous career best is 11.5, which he's done twice.
If Mathis stays healthy, he will easily set a new career mark this year.
Also, I'd like to send out my best to Chuck Pagano, who needs to win a battle that really matters!
If you have a fantasy running back set to go against the Jaguars, and he is healthy enough to walk, play him. If you see a running back on the waiver wire and he is going to get more than 10 carries against the Jaguars that week, claim him and play him.
The Jaguars, who finished ninth in rushing yards allowed last year, are 30th in rushing defense this year. They are also 30th in fantasy points allowed to running backs.
Now, the Jaguars' numbers are hurt a bit by the fact they faced the strong rushing attacks of the Vikings and Texans to open the season, but this is the same team that allowed the Colts to average 0.6 yards per carry more than their season average and the Bengals to average 0.2 yards more per carry.
This is a rush defense that used to make owners think twice about playing running backs. Those days are long gone, and they won't be coming back anytime soon.
The Chiefs are only a quarter through the season, yet they have placed Kevin Boss on injured reserve due to a concussion, ending his season.
The Associated Press reported the news and added that the Chiefs decided to make this move "after doctors determined they would not clear him to play the rest of the year."
There was a time in the NFL, probably not all that long ago, where a team would've handed Boss a couple of aspirin and told him to suit up, while pointing him to someone that could help him suit up if he didn't remember.
The attention being paid to head injuries is long overdue.
Make a beeline for Brian Hartline. That was terrible, I know. But what do you expect? He hasn't give us any time to prepare for this!
The fourth-year pro went from being a guy no one could believe was starting to a franchise-record-breaking receiver overnight.
Hartline went for 12 catches for 253 yards and a touchdown against the Cardinals last week.
This left a giant pile of fantasy points unused last week. He was owned in just 2.1 percent of NFL.com leagues heading into Week 4.
While Hartline is unlikely to come close to that production in a game again this year, he is going to produce quality numbers.
For the season, he now has 25 catches and 455 yards, and his 48 targets should catch fantasy owners' attention.
Christian Ponder is obviously committed to perfecting his craft. There is no other way the second-year QB could have made these kinds of offseason strides.
His 97.7 quarterback rating checks in over 27 points higher than it was last year, and he is hitting 14 percent more of his passes.
Ponder is throwing the ball all over the field and dropping it on a dime, and all of this is coming into view because of his increased poise and awareness.
Ponder is going through his progressions more quickly, and his feel in the pocket has been outstanding. This is a QB that has quality tools and a great acumen for the game. He is going to have a great career.
In Week 4, the Patriots offense was a scorching hot knife, and the Bills defense was loosely churned butter. It wasn't even a contest.
While I don't expect the Patriots to put up 52 points every week, this offense is going put up some scary numbers.
It's not like the Patriots offense struggled heading into this game. They were putting up 27.3 points per game. However, they looked more vulnerable than most expected and what we were all used to.
Well, this offense is finding itself now. Against the Bills, they had two backs rush for over 100 yards, which is a feat they had not accomplished since 1982.
They also decided to brush the dust off Wes Welker, as he finished with nine catches for 129 yards. This offense has so many ways to attack, it took the Patriots four weeks before they figured out how best to use all their pieces.
They've got it dialed in now, and the rest of the league better take notice.
Here we are a quarter of the way through the season, and the Saints can start planning for next year. Well, some of them can. As long as they don't include Sean Payton or one of their interim head coaches.
Sure, the Saints almost beat the mighty Green Bay Packers last week, but close doesn't count in the standings, and the only team to ever make the playoffs after starting 0-4 is the 1992 Chargers.
This isn't just about their record either. This defense is allowing running backs to gain yards like they were out for an easy stroll through the park.
There is no way this team can rebound from an 0-4 start with that kind of defense.
What was that? (See picture at left.) Even the replacement refs could have gotten that pass interference call right.
Ramses Barden's insanely blatant interference left the Giants to run one more play, which was incomplete, and then attempt a 54-yard field goal that came up about two yards short. It was a 10-yard penalty.
This is the exact opposite of the late-game play we have come to expect from these clutch Giants. They are going to have a hard time winning games if they can't pull out their fourth-quarter magic.
Barden certainly has potential, but he is clearly not ready to be this team's starter. The Giants need Hakeem Nicks back, and the jury is out on when that will happen, as noted Wednesday by ESPN New York's Ohm Youngmisuk:
Hakeem Nicks will not practice. Coughlin says Nicks looks better walking but won't speculate if Nicks will practice on Thursday— Ohm Youngmisuk (@NotoriousOHM) October 3, 2012
At least he is healthy enough to even be discussed for the next game. The Giants just need to hope this isn't something that bothers him all year.
Rex Ryan may be smaller, but he is easier to kick. Just ask him.
Ryan put on a beer-commercial-worthy performance in the attached media session, and there is going to be more where that came from.
This season is rapidly spinning out of control for the Jets.
They were humiliated while getting shut out by the 49ers last Sunday, their run defense is in shambles, their pass defense looks helpless without Darrelle Revis and you can just forget about their offense.
They have scored only two offensive touchdowns in their last three games—and for anyone thinking Tim Tebow will save them, just stop.
The Jets offensive line is a mess, and they are only getting 3.2 yards per carry. Tebow will not be able to succeed in that setting.
This is going to be a long season for the Jets, and judging by Ryan's demeanor in the video, it's going to be an interesting one too.
The Raiders pass defense is hurting. The cornerback position has been rocked by injuries, and they have no pass rush.
They are 26th in passing yards allowed have given up the most fantasy points to opposing QBs of any team, according to ESPN.
Football Outsiders has Oakland ranked 30th overall in pass defense, 31st against No. 1 receivers, 19th against tight ends and 19th against running backs (in passing).
So when looking for a quick waiver-wire grab that can add something with aerial stats, just look for who is available on the Raiders' opponent. Just don't do it this week because they have their bye.
Did I miss something? Because last time I checked the Eagles were 3-1. Yet this team is reported on with overwhelming doom-and-gloom undertones.
Most of that centers on Michael Vick's poor play, and for good reason: He's been terrible. But again, they are 3-1.
The Eagles have a quarterback vastly underperforming, and they already can claim wins over the Ravens and Giants.
Vick showed signs of life last week with a turnover-free performance while beating the Giants, 19-17, and with the defense playing like this, they don't need him to do much more than not turn it over.
This is a defense that is allowing the 10th-fewest points per game despite being tied to an offense that has coughed up the second-most turnovers in the league.
It's time to start asking what is right in Philly.
There's been something wrong in Pittsburgh. The always fierce Steelers defense has looked way too vulnerable, and this team is 1-2 as a result.
Their fortunes are about to dramatically turn, as the Steelers are about to get a small army back.
Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports the news:
Coach Mike Tomlin said today that he is optimistic that (James) Harrison and (Troy) Polamalu will play on defense together for the first time since their playoff loss in Denver last January. And he implied that (Rashard) Mendenhall will play for the first time since his ACL was torn Jan. 1 in the 2011 regular season finale at Cleveland.
That is a lot of firepower to introduce to a lineup. Harrison will be a huge boost to a pass rush that is ranked 21st, and Polamalu's playmaking ability can turn any game.
Time will tell how effective Mendenhall will be after his knee injury, but he won't even have to be close to 100 percent to help the Steelers improve on their league-worst 2.6 yards per carry.
It is way too early to count this team out.
I don't know that I've ever seen a kicker make more of an impact, at least in a positive way, than rookie kicker Greg Zuerlein did on Sunday.
In a game his team won 19-13, he kicked four field goals, which included breaking his club's record for longest field goal...twice!
He booted a 58-yarder and followed that up with one from 60 yards.
The rookie is now a perfect 12-of-12 on the season with eight of those field goals coming from beyond 40 yards.
At this rate, he is going to be the Rams' MVP.
San Diego Chargers running back Ryan Mathews was considered a No. 1 fantasy running back by almost everyone entering the season.
Now, he has been relegated to backup duty. He took a back seat to teammate Jackie Battle last week in the Chargers' win over the Chiefs.
There was a perception out there that Mathews would return to being the featured back because he was just in a temporary doghouse for his fumbling issues. However, it looks like he won't be returning anytime soon.
The Chargers have vaulted Battle over Mathews on the team's depth chart.
This is not the time to see if you can work a steal of a trade and get this back while his value is low. With his shaky standing on the depth chart and his injury history, he is not worth your fantasy time.
We've already had two slides discussing quarterbacks doing things the wrong way, so it is nice to have one about a QB that actually gets it, and Colin Kaepernick gets it.
In the attached video, Kaepernick turns down the chance of touchdown glory to take a knee and allow his offense to kneel out the clock.
While the move saved the Jets from added embarrassment on the scoreboard, it was not New York Kaepernick was offering a little mercy.
USA Today's Chris Chase offered this quote from the second-year QB on the play:
That's one less kickoff we have to cover. That's one less time we have to go out on defense. We can end the game with no more collisions or chance of injury.
Now that is the kind of team-first attitude teammates will rally around, not one that will turn them off.
I'm sure that rookie Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson is tired of hearing he is too small to play quarterback. But there is no doubt it is true.
Just take a look at this picture posted by Seattle radio show host Dave Mahler.
The only question is how much it will hamper him?
The answer is plenty when Wilson plays against a team with a defensive line that breaks down a pocket like the Rams.
With the Rams linemen pushing the trenches closer to Wilson, he was having a terrible time finding passing lanes.
The 5'11" QB was done no favors by his receivers in his three-interception outing against St. Louis, but it's not the picks that are the long-term concern. It is impossible for the Seahawks to run this offense as it's designed when Wilson can't see his receivers through the trees.
It turns out, Doug Martin was not a steal in fantasy drafts.
When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers traded back into the first round of this past draft to snag this Boise State product, people began pointing at him as a fantasy back to watch this year.
Due to a combination of poor offensive line play and his own ineffectiveness, Martin has struggled. He has 247 yards, and they have been gained at just 3.5 yards per carry. He's only added 53 yards receiving and has one touchdown overall on the year.
There is just little reason to think he will turn it around. Tampa lost Pro Bowl RG Davin Joseph for the season with a knee injury, and run-blocking specialist Jeremy Trueblood was benched.
Martin's meager production is here to stay.
When Walter Jones roamed the synthetic sod of NFL football fields, Matthew Hasselbeck was an outstanding quarterback.
Unfortunately for the Titans, those days are long gone. Hasselbeck, 37, is a hamstring pull waiting to happen. Just look at the attached picture of Matt trying to run down a cornerback after a pick and tell me your knees don't ache a little.
He can still play, though. He had his moments in a two-touchdown, two-interception performance while filling in for the injured Jake Locker last week, and he posted a decent 82.4 quarterback rating as the Titans' starter last year.
Which is good, because the Titans are going to need him. The Tennessean's Jim Wyatt offered this update on Locker and his hurting shoulder:
Those asking about Jake Locker: As I said Sunday night, expect him to miss time. He's not expected to play vs Vikings and Pitt in doubt— Jim Wyatt (@jwyattsports) October 2, 2012
Hasselbeck has a well-below-average arm, and his mobility has dwindled to a near invisible level, but he is a heady quarterback.
He is going to have to rely heavily on that veteran savvy if the 1-3 Titans don't want to sink further under .500.
Always keep your head on a swivel. Always!
In a week where I should be gushing about the amazing Robert Griffin III, I can't get past the unfortunate collision that occurred before the game even started.
Safety Brandon Meriweather was running down an airborne ball when he collided with receiver Aldrick Robinson, who was looking down and didn't see him approaching.
Meriweather was set to make his season debut after missing the Redskins' first three games with knee issues. Both he and wide receiver Robinson were inactive for Week 4.
According to the league's official injury report, Meriweather has now already been ruled out for Week 5, and Robinson was limited in Wednesday's practice.
This was truly an unfortunate accident that could have been avoided.
Hit me with fantasy questions, or to gloat when I whiff on a prediction.