Week Four of the 2011 NFL season was exactly what we needed to confirm a lot of what we thought we knew and help set up the remainder of the regular season.
As I suspected, the Detroit Lions are very much for real and will be in the playoffs. It would be a good idea if they would stop falling behind by two or three scores every week, but they are a club loaded with young talent, and there is no smoke or mirrors involved.
Calvin Johnson is the dominant player in the NFL today, now that he's the first in history to catch at least two TD passes in each of his first four games. Ndamukong Suh is the best defensive lineman in football even if he's not yet displaying it 60 minutes a week, and Matt Stafford, Brandon Pettigrew, Cliff Avril, Louis Delmas and Chris Houston are excellent young football players who will only get better. Nate Burleson, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Corey Williams, Steven Tulloch and Justin Durant are all capable of game-changing plays, and they still haven't gotten a thing out of Nick Fairley or Mikel Leshoure, both of whom have star-type ability. General manager Martin Mayhew and head coach Jim Schwartz clearly know what they're doing, and you can look for the Lions to announce their Super Bowl aspirations this coming Monday night at home vs. the Bears. They're not there yet; it may be next year, but ...
The Buffalo Bills are pretenders. Vastly improved, yes, and perhaps capable of winning nine games this year, but where are the young talent and veteran playmakers on the Bills' roster to match up with the Lions? Ryan Fitzpatrick is a nice system quarterback who's a perfect fit for what Chan Gailey wants to do, and Fred Jackson, Stevie Johnson, David Nelson and Kyle Williams are guys you're proud to line up and compete with. But what are the chances any of them could make an impact with the Lions, not to mention the Packers, Saints or Patriots? In fact, how much playing time might they earn? My hat's off to the Bills for the nice 3-1 start, but it's going to end short of the playoffs.
The San Francisco 49ers will win the NFC West in Jim Harbaugh's rookie year as head coach and will enter the playoffs somewhere between the Lions and Bills. There are a few legit pieces in place, and Alex Smith had to really open some eyes with how far he has come under Harbaugh in that Eagles game, but playing in the NFC West is the only reason they'll punch their playoff ticket this year. The arrow is clearly pointing up, though.
The Oakland Raiders bear watching, as well, but something is still missing there, and I suspect the Chargers will find themselves before Oakland does. As impressive as Tennessee was at home vs. Baltimore, and 3-1 is still 3-1, the wins over Denver and Cleveland don't really tell us much, and the loss of Kenny Britt will be too much to overcome when the Titans get in with some big boys.
The Philadelphia Eagles are no "Dream Team," the Chicago Bears are deeply flawed and the Pittsburgh Steelers may be used to overcoming this kind of a start, but their offensive line woes are severe, and this could be the year they don't bounce back.
I have no idea what the Eagles were thinking with the contract they gave Michael Vick, as he clearly is not a franchise QB you can win titles with or even count on to show up healthy every week. The best pass rush and secondary in football don't help much if you have no offensive line or linebackers and can't stop the run. The Bears' few difference-makers are aging — I defy anyone to find a single player on the roster under the age of 26 whom you'd take if you were building from the ground up — and they appear rudderless on both offense and defense. I think both of these clubs' playoff hopes are done (although the Eagles could still get lucky if 9-7 wins the NFC East, which it might), and the Steelers' chances will depend a lot on just how many games the Raiders, Titans and Bills can win, as the Ravens appear to be the team to beat in the AFC North.