Rick Gosselin's Week 4 NFL rankings: the NFC starting to make some noise

Ezekiel Elliott (21) photo courtesy of USA Today
Rick Gosselin

Editor's note: Rick Gosselin is in his 47th season reporting on the NFL in 2019. He has covered the Lions, Giants, Chiefs and Cowboys in his career plus 37 Super Bowls. He has served on the Hall of Fame selection committee and is a member of both the senior and contributor sub-committees. Gosselin also is one of the 12 voters for the AP 32, the weekly ranking of NFL teams conducted by the Associated Press. Here is his ballot for Week 4:

1. Kansas City Chiefs. So who throws an interception first this season, 2018 NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes or 2017 NFL MVP Tom Brady? Mahomes has thrown 114 passes without a pick for the unbeaten Chiefs and Brady 106 passes without an INT for the unbeaten Patriots. In a longer stretch, Mahomes has thrown 194 consecutive passes without an interception over his last six games.

2. New England Patriots. The Patriots have hit a rare height on defense. Through three games, they lead the NFL in run, pass, total and scoring defense. Only one Super Bowl champion ever finished the season No. 1 in all four of those categories – the 1969 Kansas City Chiefs.

3. Dallas Cowboys. Ezekiel Elliott and rookie Tony Pollard both rushed for 100 yards in last weekend’s victory over the Dolphins. The last NFL team with two 100-yard rushers in the same game was the Rams, ironically, against the Cowboys in the NFC semifinals when Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson both gashed Dallas.

4. Los Angeles Rams. The Rams went 4-0 against the AFC last season but didn’t get much help from their NFC brethren as the AFC won the interconference series, 34-30. The Rams have continued where they left off in 2018, defeating the Cleveland Browns in their first interconference game this season. But the NFC has gotten serious about the series in 2019 and now holds an 11-3 edge over the AFC through three weeks. The NFC West has won five of those games.

5. Green Bay Packers. The 3-0 Packers knew exactly what they were getting when they signed OLB Preston Smith away from the Redskins in free agency – a playmaker for a defense that lacked playmakers in 2018. Smith has given the Packers 4 ½ sacks and interception to trigger a defensive resurgence in Green Bay.

6. Baltimore Ravens. QB Lamar Jackson has not committed a turnover for the Ravens this season. He’s thrown 100 passes without an interception. He also has rushed 21 times and been sacked six times without any fumbles.

7. San Francisco 49ers. What’s statistically puzzling about San Francisco’s 3-0 start is the fact the 49ers share the league lead with eight giveaways. Jimmy Garoppolo is one of only three quarterbacks who has thrown an interception in all three games this season, along with Baker Mayfield and Matt Ryan. Garoppolo has committed six turnovers total, throwing five interceptions and losing a fumble.

8. Buffalo Bills. Who’d have guessed that after three weeks of the 2019 season the Denver Broncos and Pittsburgh Steelers would be winless and the Buffalo Bills and Detroit Lions would be unbeaten? The Broncos and Steelers have combined for nine Super Bowls … and the Bills and Lions have combined for none.

9. Chicago Bears. The trade of edge rusher Khalil Mack a year ago continues to sting the Raiders. Oakland ranks 23rd in the NFL in sacks with five – just two more than Mack has through three games this season with the Chicago Bears.

10. Detroit Lions. The Lions have never done a good job of protecting their franchise quarterback Matthew Stafford. He’s been sacked 332 times in his 11-year career, including at least 40 times in four of his last five seasons. But the Lions are protecting Stafford this season. He hasn’t been sacked in either of the last two games covering 62 total pass attempts and the Lions have won both in their 2-0-1 start.

11. Seattle Seahawks. RB Chris Carson is the only player in the NFL to lose a fumble in each of the first three games of the 2019 season. That’s out of character for Carson, who lost only two fumbles all of last year on the way to his first 1,000-yard rushing season.

12. Minnesota Vikings. The NFL’s all-time leading rusher Emmitt Smith once told me that the center was his key read in the running game. That being the case, the Vikings hit a home run with the selection of North Carolina State center Garrett Bradbury with their first-round pick last April. He became a walk-in starter and the 2-1 Vikings now have the best rushing attack in the NFL, averaging 193.7 yards per game.

13. New Orleans Saints. Drew Brees may be missing from the New Orleans offense but RB Alvin Kamara and WR Michael Thomas are still there. Both are in the Top 3 in the NFL at their positions and playing like it -- regardless of the quarterback. Kamara scored two touchdowns and Thomas one last week to engineer the road upset of the Seahawks with Teddy Bridgewater filling in for the injured Brees.

14. Houston Texans. Laremy Tunsil must be warming up as the protector of DeShaun Watson’s blind side in the Houston offense. He arrived late in training camp after a blockbuster deal with the Dolphins that sent a pair of first-round picks to Miami. There has been an improvement in the Houston pass protection in each game. Watson was sacked six times in the opener against New Orleans, then four times in the second week against Jacksonville but only twice last week against the Chargers. Are Tunsil and the 2-1 Texans speeding toward a zero-sack game of Watson?

15. Indianapolis Colts. RB Marlon Mack is money in the bank for the Colts. Give him the ball and good things happen. He leads the NFL with 22 first downs, all on the ground. He’s one of only two AFC backs to rush for 100 yards in a game this season (Mark Ingram of Baltimore is the other) and leads the AFC with 299 rushing yards for the 2-1 Colts.

16. Los Angeles Chargers. The Chargers are 1-2 but the slow start can’t be traced to the contract holdout of RB Melvin Gordon. Austin Ekeler has stepped into the void at running back and now ranks fifth in the NFL in yards from scrimmage with 368. He has rushed for 160 yards and has caught 19 passes for 209 more yards. He also leads the team with four touchdowns.

17. Philadelphia Eagles. With DT Fletcher Cox standing in the middle of their defense, the Eagles can play the run just fine. They rank second in the NFL in run defense. But when offenses go to the air, the Eagles have problems. They have allowed two 300-yard passers and four 100-yard receivers through the first three weeks, which helps explain Philadelphia’s 1-2 start.

18. Carolina Panthers. MLB Luke Kuechly leads the NFL in tackles with 36, helping the Panthers field a Top 5 defense despite their 1-2 record. He’s on a pace to collect a personal-best 192 tackles. And his personal best is saying a lot – Kuechly has had 100-plus tackles in all seven of his NFL seasons thus far.

19. Jacksonville Jaguars. The Jaguars have one of four defenses still looking for their first interception as we head into the NFL’s fourth weekend. Jacksonville is joined by Dallas, Denver and Oakland at zero. Counting last season, the Jaguars have a league-worst four game interception drought.

20. New York Giants. When I was in the Giants’ lockerroom after the season-opening loss to the Cowboys, a New York coach said to me, “We think we got the best player in each of the last two drafts” – RB Saquon Barkley in 2018 and QB Daniel Jones in 2019. After watching Jones win his first start, rallying the Giants from an 18-point halftime deficit in a victory over Tampa Bay, that comment qualifies as a clip and save.

21. Atlanta Falcons. Matt Ryan is one of only two quarterbacks who has passed for more than 300 yards in each of his first three games along with Patrick Mahomes. But Mahomes has yet to throw an interception, which helps explain KC’s 3-0 start. Ryan has thrown six interceptions, which helps explain Atlanta’s 1-2 start.

22. Tennessee Titans. QB Marcus Mariota has yet to turn the ball over this season, which is miraculous given the punishment he’s taken in the Tennessee pocket. Mariota has been sacked a league-high 17 times. Despite that pressure, he has not fumbled the ball away or thrown an interception in 92 passes.

23. Pittsburgh Steelers. Minkah Fitzpatrick had no problem fitting into the Pittsburgh defense. Acquired on Sept. 16, Fitzpatrick found himself in the starting lineup less than a week later and contributed five tackles, an interception and a forced fumble from his free safety position – but his defensive heroics weren’t enough to stave off a 24-20 loss to the 49ers.

24. Cleveland Browns. The 1-2 Browns enter the gut check portion of their schedule with only one home game in the next six weeks. That home game will be against Seattle and there also be a bye week. But there will be road trips to Baltimore, New England and San Francisco to face Super Bowl contenders over these next six weeks. The Patriots and 49ers are both 3-0 and the Ravens and Seahawks both 2-1.

25. Oakland Raiders. Jon Gruden is getting the Oakland passing offense where he’d like it to be. QB Derek Carr is completing 73.5 percent of his passes this season. But it’s a defense still smarting from the 2018 departure of Pro Bowl pass rusher Khalil Mack that continues to slow down the rebuilding process in Oakland. The Raiders rank 25th in yards allowed, 23rd in sacks and 27th in takeaways.

26. Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Cleveland isn’t the only team with a rough road ahead. The Buccaneers also play at home just once in the next six weeks. They have a home date with Carolina and a bye week plus road games at the Rams, Saints, Titans and Seahawks. All fancy themselves as playoff contenders.

27. Washington Redskins. Remember when the Redskins were an elite franchise? There were almost 15,000 empty seats Monday night for a game against an NFC power (Chicago). With this 0-3 start, there figure to be a growing number of empty seats for the Redskins this season.

28. Cincinnati Bengals. The Bengals hired Zac Taylor away from the NFC champion Rams to give their passing game some zip. Taylor was the quarterback coach of the Rams. Cincinnati has gotten that zip from Taylor in the passing game – but not the win column. The Bengals now ranked third in the NFL in passing behind only Kansas City and New England…but have three losses to show for their new-look offense.

29. Denver Broncos. A team that lives by its defense is now dying by its defense. The 0-3 Broncos are the only team in the NFL without either a sack or a takeaway this season. Unbeaten New England leads the NFL with 13 sacks and unbeaten Green Bay leads with eight takeaways.

30. Arizona Cardinals. Last season at Oklahoma, Kyler Murray averaged a touchdown ever nine passes on his way to the Heisman Trophy. In this his rookie season in the NFL, Murray is averaging a TD pass one ever 34 throws. He has four touchdowns in 137 passes for the Cardinals.

31. New York Jets. Sam Darnold threw a touchdown pass in the second quarter of the season opener against Buffalo – and the New York quarterbacks haven’t thrown one since. That’s 10 quarters now and counting. Darnold has been out with mononucleosis since the opener and the Jets have started two quarterbacks in the two games since then, Trevor Siemian and Luke Falk.

32. Miami Dolphins. Just one year ago, the Dolphins started the season 3-0. Since then they have rid themselves of their top passer, top rusher, two top wide receivers, two top pass rushers, their leading tackler and top offensive lineman in a clear rebuild. So this year they are 0-3 – their first 0-3 start since 2011.

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