NFL Week 4 winners, losers: Bengals in bad place with QB Joe Burrow

The first month of the 2023 NFL is nearly through, and the stretch has given an idea of what a lot of teams are.

In a few cases, however, it has offered the opposite. The Cincinnati Bengals came in with Super Bowl aspirations but the offense behind Joe Burrow, who is nursing a right calf injury, has failed to live up to expectations.

Elsewhere in the AFC, a massive matchup between division rivals – the Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills – saw the three-time reigning AFC East champs take yet another early edge.

In the NFC, the 4-0 San Francisco 49ers have gone all-in on their best and most explosive player, running back Christian McCaffrey, who may sneak his way into MVP consideration.

Here are the winners and losers from Sunday of Week 4 in the NFL.

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WINNERS

The Bills resume dominance over Dolphins, claim early edge in the AFC East

This was a complete performance. The Bills pressured Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, disrupting the timing of Miami’s passing game. Bills offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey and quarterback Josh Allen targeted Miami corner Kader Kohou, and Stefon Diggs (six catches, 120 yards, three touchdowns) went off. Most importantly, Buffalo (3-1) picked up a massive division victory against a Miami (3-1) team that was looking like a potential power in the conference.

Allen was clinical with more total touchdowns (five) than incompletions (four), but the story here was Buffalo’s defense. Using several cornerback blitzes, the Bills collected four sacks on Tagovailoa and hit him nine times. They also often dropped two deep safeties to neutralize the deep passing game. There’s still plenty of season and these two will meet up in the season finale in Miami. But, for now, Buffalo’s defense significantly outplaying Miami’s could hint to the way the AFC East race eventually falls.

Zach Wilson buys some time

The New York Jets didn’t win and the first quarter was as ugly as it could’ve been, but give quarterback Zach Wilson credit for settling and going toe-for-toe with two-time NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs. Wilson started the game 5-of-8 for 30 yards and then went 23-for-31 with 215 yards and two touchdowns the rest of the way.

In particular, Wilson overcame one of his biggest weaknesses; he has often buckled when facing a pass rush. Against Kansas City, he was pressured on 40.5% of his snaps and was blitzed 38.1% of the time, yet he completed 71.8% of his throws. His footwork was steady enough. After misplacing some balls early, he was precise with back-shoulder throws and allowed his receivers to make plays. For all the chatter about the Jets needing to move on to have a chance to compete, Wilson showed there’s hope yet. He just needs to find a lot more consistency.

A non-QB MVP candidate in Christian McCaffrey enters the chat

With his four total touchdowns and 177 yards from scrimmage in a 35-16 victory over the Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey continued his unprecedented tear. The four scores are a career-high and tied for second-most in a single game in Niners franchise history. In fact, he has now scored a touchdown in 13 consecutive games, snapping a tie for a team record that legend Jerry Rice held.

The last non-quarterback to win the AP NFL Most Valuable Player award was in fact a running back, when Adrian Peterson did it in 2012 as a member of the Minnesota Vikings. McCaffrey is on pace for an absurd 1,951 rushing yards and nearly 600 receiving yards with 30 total touchdowns this season. His numbers will eventually regress to the mean, but San Francisco (4-0) has built its offensive identity around McCaffrey, which means — if he stays healthy — he’ll have plenty of chances to show why he’s the best running back in football.

The Texans found a real one in C.J. Stroud

Remember when C.J. Stroud was criticized out of the blue during the pre-draft process? Not only does it now seem malicious, it also has been proven to be completely unfounded. Stroud, the rookie quarterback of the Houston Texans (2-2), ranks fourth in the NFL in passing yards (1,212), third in yards per attempt (eight), ninth in QB rating (100.6) and has yet to throw an interception.

More importantly, Stroud has revitalized the culture around the Houston offense. With their 30-6 rout of the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Texans won a game at home for the first time since Week 16 of 2021. Stroud has delivered his passes with touch and accuracy and has been efficient when targeting targets down the field. He has demonstrated poise and hasn’t been rattled on the NFL stage. His teammates, based on postgame comments, have loved playing with him. An Offensive Rookie of the Year award may just be the start of what looks to be a promising career.

LOSERS

Time to pull the plug on Mac Jones?

The only New England Patriots target to catch more passes from quarterback Mac Jones than DaRon Bland – a cornerback who plays for the Dallas Cowboys – was tight end Hunter Henry, who had just three receptions for 47 yards while Jones was under center in Sunday’s ugly 35-point loss, a career worst for Bill Belichick. Jones committed three turnovers, two of which were returned for touchdowns, and was benched midway through the third quarter.

The Patriots don’t gain anything by benching Jones the rest of the season. Belichick needs to decide if he wants to commit to Jones, who is in the third season of his four-year rookie contract. New England must decide by May whether to exercise Jones’ fifth-year option for the 2025 season, which would be fully guaranteed and worth around $25 million. While the roster lacks speed and star power at the skill positions, if this continues, the Patriots might find it hard to stick with the status quo.

It’s time to shut down Joe Burrow for a bit

Joe Burrow #9 of the Cincinnati Bengals looks on against the Tennessee Titans during the first half at Nissan Stadium on October 01, 2023 in Nashville, Tennessee.
Joe Burrow #9 of the Cincinnati Bengals looks on against the Tennessee Titans during the first half at Nissan Stadium on October 01, 2023 in Nashville, Tennessee.

The highest-paid player in NFL history is not the sole reason the Bengals have fumbled to a 1-3 start. But the team’s limitations in crafting an offensive scheme to account for his injured right calf is. The Bengals scored just three points in a loss Sunday against the Tennessee Titans, marking the second time in four weeks that Cincy has scored only a field goal in a defeat.

Perhaps Burrow’s injury is such that it compromises his footwork, making the downfield passing game nonviable. But just one of Burrow’s 20 completions was caught 10 or more yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Only four of his 30 attempts were thrown 10 or more yards beyond the line of scrimmage. The Bengals rank dead last in the NFL in yards per play (4.0) and passing yards per attempt (4.36). As a result, the offense is putting far too much pressure on the defense and frustrations are setting in.

Pittsburgh’s problems extend past Matt Canada

And Kenny Pickett is a big part of them – now in more ways than one. Pickett limped off the field and was later declared out with a left knee injury during the 24-point loss against the rebuilding Texans. Backup Mitchell Trubisky entered and didn’t do much. The problem is that Pickett, even when healthy, hadn’t done anything this season, either.

After an offseason in which Pickett and receiver George Pickens were being hyped up for a potential breakout, neither player has flourished, and Pittsburgh’s offense simply cannot extend drives. The Steelers (2-2) entered Sunday ranked 31st in the NFL in first downs; the Texans doubled Pittsburgh’s output Sunday, 24 to 12. Third-down efficiency (36.2% on the season) has also been an issue. Matt Canada, the offensive coordinator, has drawn the fan base’s ire, and rightfully so. But Pickett’s numbers this season (60.6% completion rate, 803 yards and four touchdowns with four interceptions) haven’t been close to good enough. If he’s forced to miss time, that will only further hinder his development.

Free Kyle Pitts

Since Arthur Smith, took over the Falcons in 2021, he has failed to elevate Atlanta’s offense. To be fair, the Falcons have lacked any consistency at quarterback. It has become clear Desmond Ridder is not a viable long-term solution. But Smith and offensive coordinator Dave Ragone's scheme has – at best – failed to suit the skill sets of Atlanta’s players. At worst, however, this staff has completely mismanaged weapons like tight end Kyle Pitts, whose athleticism is constantly ignored.

Pitts, the No. 4 overall selection in the 2021 draft, drew only four targets and caught two passes for just 21 yards in a 23-7 loss against the Jaguars. That brings his season total to 11 catches for 121 yards and zero touchdowns. The Falcons have ranked 29th, 24th and now are once again 24th in total offense under Smith.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL winners, losers of Week 4: Bengals in bad spot with QB Joe Burrow