As the guy responsible for SI.com's NFL Power Rankings, someone asked me Monday afternoon what constitutes the NFL's elite class this season. As I gave it some thought, I realized Week 4 was when it started to dawn on us that we don't really have one of those yet in the 2010 NFL season.
Consider the following:
• When Miami fell with a thud to .500 in the wake of that 41-14 demolition by New England on Monday night, it meant that 21 of the league's 32 teams (65.6 percent) were sitting at .500 or worse at the season's first quarter pole. That's 11 of 16 NFC teams with at least two losses, and 10 of 16 AFC teams at 2-2 or worse. Can't anybody here play this game?
• Of the six playoffs from 2009 in the NFC, only two (New Orleans and Green Bay, both 3-1) have winning records through four weeks, and neither have been anything approaching dominant. As a six-team field, the Cowboys, Eagles, Saints, Vikings, Packers and Cardinals are a very mediocre 12-10. The story is a bit better in the AFC, where last year's six playoff teams have started 15-9, with three winning teams (Jets, Patriots and Ravens) and three at .500 (Colts, Bengals and Chargers).
• Three different divisions feature a three-team jumble of 2-2 teams, with the NFC East and West being led by those break-even clubs, and the AFC South having Jacksonville, Indianapolis and Tennessee clumped just a game back of division-leading Houston (3-1).
• Lastly, with both Pittsburgh and Chicago losing in Week 4, Kansas City (3-0), remarkably enough, remains the league's only undefeated team. The last time we were down to just one of those this early in the season was the year before realignment, in 2001, when Mike Martz's Rams got off to a 4-0 start while everyone else took at least one loss in the first month of the schedule. Since the 1970 merger, the earliest point in a season in which there were no undefeated teams was after Week 4 in 1970.
But it's not just the hard, cold win-loss records alone that tell the story of teams' struggles so far in 2010. It's Indy's difficulties to win in the division, stop the run and play on the road. It's the Saints not being able to get their high-octane offense going or play a game without it being close (four games decided by a total of 13 points). It's the Cowboys and Vikings looking like a shell of themselves so far, and the Chargers, Cardinals, Bengals and Titans all riding the up-one-week, down-the-next rollercoaster.
It's the Bears being almost completely unable to protect the quarterback (18 sacks allowed), Denver's inability to field even the threat of a running game (55.0 yards per game), Houston's woeful pass defense (337.8), and four NFC teams being tied for first place in their respective divisions despite being outscored (the 2-2 Redskins, Giants, Cardinals and Seahawks are all in that boat, with Arizona having fashioned an amazing 60-point deficit at 58-118).
But hey, maybe the most pertinent question is who needs an elite class in early October? The NFL's TV ratings continue to climb like late-'90s tech stocks and even the 0-4 49ers can sit here with a straight face and tell us they're still very much alive in the NFC West playoff hunt. In the NFL this season, almost everyone looks a little flawed so far. But perhaps the beauty of it is, when everyone has problems, no one's problems really stand out.
• Maybe now everyone will stop telling us what a great young quarterback Miami has in Chad Henne. The third-year veteran is not there yet, and those back-to-back home-field losses to the division rival Jets and Patriots illustrated it vividly.
Henne threw for a combined 665 yards in his past two games, but big deal. The Dolphins lost by eight points to New York and 27 points to New England. Henne only had 296 combined passing yards in season-opening road wins over Buffalo and Minnesota, but he didn't throw an interception either. He's had four the past two weeks, and they've been killers for a Dolphins offense that doesn't remotely have that kind of a margin for error.
Can we let Henne, 25, win a big game for once before someone tries to convince us of how bright his NFL future is? He just went head-to-head at home with his division's two best quarterbacks, Mark Sanchez and Tom Brady, and he didn't measure up.
• Week 4 was crazy with sacks, with the Giants dropping Chicago quarterbacks 10 times, the Chargers registering nine sacks against Arizona and the Titans getting to Denver's Kyle Orton six times. Eight different teams already have double-digit sack totals, led by the Packers, Giants and Titans, who are all tied at 16.
But it only seems like there are more sacks being registered, because believe it or not, the NFL overall has fewer sacks through four weeks than at any point in the past five years. There have been 266 so far in 2010, and that's one fewer than last year's total (267) through Week 4, with the previous three years featuring 274, 278 and 291 sacks at the corresponding juncture of the season.
• But if you're thinking you can't ever remember seeing so many kickoff-return touchdowns this early in the season, you're onto something. With both New England's Brandon Tate (103 yards) and Tennessee's Marc Mariani (98 yards) scoring on kickoffs in Week 4, the NFL's eight kickoff-return touchdowns so far are the most in the first four weeks of any season since 1970. This year also marks the first time since the merger that the league has had at least one kickoff-return touchdown in each of the first four weeks of a season.
One reason for this increase: There have been a number of speedy return men coming into the league in recent years, like Tate, C.J. Spiller, LaRod Stephens-Howling and Antonio Brown. But there may be a bigger factor at play. Not to take anything from the likes of Tate or Seattle's Leon Washington, who lead the league with two kickoff-return touchdowns each, but the shoddy state of tackling on special teams is overwhelming. Teams just don't have enough roster spots to dedicate to proven special-teams performers, so they make due as best they can with guys who have precious little experience playing in those low-profile roles.
• Hard to recall an NFL week where more headline acquisitions stepped up and produced for the teams that landed them last offseason. LaDainian Tomlinson in New York, T.J. Houshmandzadeh in Baltimore, Donovan McNabb in Washington, Peyton Hillis in Cleveland (OK, maybe he wasn't a "headline'' acquisition, but he's making some now), and Terrell Owens in Cincinnati were all center stage in Week 4.
• I'm developing a serious aversion to pregame storylines, because how many times do the angles we focus on actually wind up being the key determining factors in the game? Another case in point was Monday night, when much of the pregame buildup centered on new Dolphins receiver Brandon Marshall;how could the Patriots' young secondary possibly contain Miami's playmaker?
Marshall didn't catch a pass in the first half and finished with just five catches for a less-than-impactful 50 yards in the Dolphins' 27-point loss. Oh, well.
New England receiver Randy Moss got plenty of the pregame spotlight, too, and he merely was held without a catch in a game for the first time since 2006. Thanks in large part to the special teams, the Patriots still managed a season-best 41 points, and continue to lead the NFL in scoring with 131 total points, or 32.8 per game.
(Come to think of it, that whole Donovan McNabb vs. Michael Vick subplot didn't really come to fruition either in Philadelphia on Sunday.)
• Between running back Danny Woodhead (listed at 5-foot-9, but he's more like 5-7), receiver Wes Welker (listed at 5-9), safety Patrick Chung (5-11), cornerback Kyle Arrington (5-10) and running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis (5-11), New England's Gnat Patrol ate the Dolphins alive Monday night in South Florida.
And we're even going to resist the urge to reference Brandon "Little Man'' Tate, who stands all of 6-1 according to the generous New England roster.
• Just wondering, but which NFL team benefits more from getting its star back from his four-game, league-mandated suspension this week: Pittsburgh with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, Houston with outside linebacker Brian Cushing or the Jets with receiver Santonio Holmes? It's not really the slam dunk for the Steelers that we might have thought it would be, is it?
• When they became the only team in the league to start their schedule with a pair of road wins, the 2-0 Dolphins looked set up nicely for the rest of the season. But now that Miami has canceled out that advantage by becoming one of just four teams to already lose two home games (along with Philadelphia, Carolina and Buffalo), its path to the playoffs just got considerably harder.
Not only do the Dolphins trail AFC East co-leaders New England and New York by what amounts to 1 1/2 games in the division, but Miami has a very challenging schedule awaiting in its next four game after this week's bye: at Green Bay, Pittsburgh, at Cincinnati, at Baltimore. That might just be a recipe for a 2-6 first half of the season and second-half irrelevancy for the once-hopeful Dolphins.
• Tiki Barber getting booed lustily at the Giants' feel-good Ring of Honor halftime ceremony Sunday night is an interesting cautionary tale. But was it that Barber spoke out far too often and too candidly from his new media platform in the months after he retired, ripping into Giants head coach Tom Coughlin and quarterback Eli Manning just before they led the team to a memorable (and Tiki-less) Super Bowl title? Or did the chilly reception have more to do with either the spectacle created by his very messy and public recent divorce, or the fact that just last week he characterized Coughlin as facing another crisis internally with his club? It's probably a mixture of everything, but this much is obvious: Barber's sense of timing has been abysmal for a while now.