With 10 weeks of actual football in the books for the 2023 NFL season, it’s time for Doug Farrar of Touchdown Wire, and Kyle Madson of Niners Wire, to come to the table with their own unique brand of analysis in “4-Down Territory.”
This week, the guys have some serious questions to answer:
The Steelers are 6-3 despite having been outgained and outscored overall for the season. Is there any reason whatsoever to take them seriously?
Last year, the Lions were everybody’s plucky favorite. This year, are they a legitimate Super Bowl contender?
The Texans have been the NFL’s best surprise with C.J. Stroud, but quarterback aside, are they the kind of team that could shock the world in the postseason?
What was everybody’s Worst of the Week?
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1. Is there any reason to take the Steelers seriously?
In the 2022 NFL season, the Minnesota Vikings were the kings of good luck, winning a record 11 one-score games, and losing by at least 11 points in each loss. This made them the kings of potential regression in 2023. This season, it’s the Pittsburgh Steelers who are on the tip of the good luck spear. They’ve been outgained in each of their nine games this season, but they’re somehow 6-3. Is there any fire behind that statistical smoke, or should the Steelers not be taken seriously at all?
Doug: It’s not that they should be taken seriously or not. Probably not. But this is who the Steelers are – they’re not going up or down. I put together a list of the teams with winning records through pro football history with the worst point differentials, and the Steelers, in three seasons under offensive coordinator Matt Canada, are on that list in all three seasons. The 2021 Steelers went 9-7-1 with a -55 point differential, the 2022 Steelers went 9-8 with a -38 point differential, and this 6-3 Steelers team has a -26 point differential. There are currently 13 teams with a point differential of -26 or lower, and the Steelers are the only one with a winning record. So, the Steelers aren’t setting themselves up for any kind of regression in 2024 – they’re simply showing who they are and, for whatever the hell reason, who they seem to want to be.
Far be it for me to tell Mike Tomlin what to do when it comes to football or anything else because he’s 10 million times cooler than I’ll ever be, but it might be time to stop putting so much pressure on your defense.
Kyle: I think the difference is Kirk Cousins’ track record vs. Mike Tomlin’s. The perception was that Cousins couldn’t lead a team as good as Minnesota’s and their run of one-score wins was borne more out of luck than anything special the team was capable of doing on purpose. That stands in stark contrast to what we’ve come to know of Tomlin’s Steelers clubs. They’re going to be tough, and gritty and get into rock fights where they can win despite being outgained.
As for taking Pittsburgh seriously, we can’t place them in the conversation with any real Super Bowl contender. The quarterback play across the league is just too good to believe whatever the heck this Steelers offense is doing is capable of winning four playoff games. Their defense certainly is, and their defense may even steal them a playoff win. However, making a real playoff run is out of the question as the long as the offense is going to get outgained every week.
2. Are the Lions a Super Bowl contender, full stop?
Following their thrilling 41-38 win over the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday, the Detroit Lions stand at 7-2. They are tied with the Kansas City Chiefs for the second-best record in the NFL behind the 8-1 Philadelphia Eagles, and if the regular season ended today, they’d be the NFC’s two-seed behind those Eagles. Last season, Dan Campbell’s team was a great story – those tough, spunky Lions, who might lose, but will give you everything they’ve got. Is it time to elevate our perception of the Lions to legitimate Super Bowl contenders?
Doug: The Lions are absolutely as good as any team in the NFL right now. There are no more disclaimers. They rank fourth overall in DVOA – fourth in Offensive DVOA, ninth in Defensive DVOA, and 11th in Special Teams DVOA. Their offense is built around a top-tier offensive line and one of the NFL’s best and most multiple run games – we saw that when David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs ran all over the Chargers. Jared Goff is playing the best ball of his career – he’s no longer entirely beholden to a scheme, though OC Ben Johnson is dialing it up as well as anyone in the NFL. The defense can be a bit vulnerable from week to week, but in a short tournament, if these guys are on, I’m not sure any other team should be guaranteed to beat them.
Kyle: The Lions are good as heck! Winning in the trenches is a good way to try and win a lot of football games and Detroit is excellent in both.
They carry a lot of the characteristics of a good team though. Their vibes are off the charts, the coaching staff is creative, and they’re super talented on both sides of the football. Doug, last week you said that there aren’t a lot of ways to beat the Baltimore Ravens. It feels the same way with Detroit. Even though their secondary can be a little suspect, they’re capable of getting into a shootout and winning it. They’re also capable of winning a rock fight like the one we saw in the season opener in Kansas City. This Detroit team is very much for real, and it wouldn’t be a huge shock if they wound up representing the NFC in the Super Bowl.
3. Are the Texans poised for an unlikely deep playoff run with C.J. Stroud?
Speaking of last year’s Lions, we have talked about the 2023 Houston Texans as that team this season – the one you might beat, but nothing about that experience will be pleasant. But they’ve won five of their last seven games after an 0-2 start, and forget about Offensive Rookie of the Year – you can give that to C.J. Stroud right now. Stroud now looks like an MVP candidate. So, are the 5-4 Texans the kind of team that could shock the world and go deep into the playoffs, one year after a 3-13-1 disaster?
Doug: Between Stroud, DeMeco Ryans, a defense that is putting it together, and an absolutely horrid AFC South division, I’d say you should look at the Texans as that object that is closer than it appears in your rearview mirror. Does that mean a Super Bowl berth this season? Probably not, though I wouldn’t count them out entirely. But you had better get ready for a Texans team over the next few seasons the likes of which we’ve not seen before.
I did some tape work on the Texans Monday, trying to analyze the overall makeup of the team without Stroud as the primary component. And I’m here to tell you – this team has talent all over the roster, even if people don’t yet know who these guys are. Running backs Dameon Pierce and Devin Singletary make up a nice one-two punch, they have several receivers who can beat defenses up, especially in the deep passing game, the offensive line has been automatic since Laremy Tunsil came back in Week 5 from a knee injury, Johathan Greenard might be the NFL’s most underrated edge-rusher, they have two interior defensive linemen in Sheldon Rankins and Maliek Collins,,, I mean, right now, Will Anderson Jr., the third overall pick in the 2023 draft, might be their fourth-best pass-rusher.
They have all kinds of hidden talent at linebacker and defensive back. This is not a case of a team being pulled out of mediocrity by its quarterback, though we all know how great Stroud is.
And if you look at the AFC right now, how many teams can you say are unequivocally better than the Texans over the last month or so? The Chiefs and Ravens? Absolutely. The Bengals? Well, Houston just beat them. The Dolphins? Probably, but given Miami’s splits of success between winning and losing teams, you have to respect that the Texans have played a tougher schedule, and it’s about to get easier with the Cardinals, Jaguars, Broncos, Jets, Titans and Colts to finish off the season. DeMeco Ryans and GM Nick Caserio have done an amazing, unheralded job taking a bunch of “no-names” and turning them into an integrated team capable of championship football right now.
Kyle: Let me start this by saying how much fun it is to watch the Texans. I thought DeMeco Ryans would do a nice job as their head coach, but he is just obliterating even my loftiest expectations. Everything they’re doing on both sides of the ball screams contender … eventually.
In reality I don’t think they’re quite there to make a real run this year. Doing so with a rookie quarterback is very hard, but it’s easy to forget amid the fun wins that there are some pretty bad losses in there too, including losses to Carolina and Atlanta. Not that losing to Atlanta is the end of the world, but that’s a game a team aiming for a deep playoff run needs to win. However, they’re not far off and the fact they’ve drawn a comparison to a team like the Lions less than a full season into Ryans’ tenure says a ton about the monumental progress Houston has made.
They seem destined for a playoff berth barring a few hiccups down the stretch. I don’t love Houston’s first round matchup if they’re the No. 7 seed and going to Kansas City or Baltimore in Round 1. It’s a different story if they go to Miami or Jacksonville though where they could take advantage of a couple of flawed teams.
It takes a lot to win in January and the Texans are still a couple players away. Next year though? Watch out. Because the Texans are almost here.
4. What was your Worst of the Week for Week 10 in the NFL?
Doug: Pretty much everything about 49ers cornerback Ambry Thomas’ fumble recovery touchdown against the Jaguars that was eventually taken off the board. Not that it mattered in the end, as the San Francisco 49ers completely demolished the Jacksonville Jaguars 34-3 on Sunday, but this play made no sense in about five different directions.
With 5:39 left in the third quarter, 49ers cornerback Ambry Thomas stripped the ball from Jaguars receiver Christian Kirk, and seemed to return the fumble 92 yards for a touchdown. Now, let’s start with the fact that there were FOUR Jaguars players – Kirk, running back Travis Etienne, tackle Walker Little, and center Luke Fortner – within two yards of Thomas when he was down, and not a single one of them touched him. So, Thomas got up and started running. Problem was, two 49ers rookies – Dee Winters and Ji’Ayir Brown – decided to celebrate on the field while Thomas was still running. As far as I know, you can’t have 13 defensive players on the field at any one time, so there was that touchdown out the window. When you look at the All-22, it looked like there were about five extra 49ers on the field at once. I think Kyle Shanahan was on the field at one point because he thought the play was over.
I know that defensive coordinator Steve Wilks moved from the booth to the sideline last week to impart more of his wisdom to what was a struggling defense, so there’s your Alanis Morrissette-level ironic moment in the NFL last week.
Kyle: That “football game” in Frankfurt, and more specifically Mac Jones getting benched before a potential game-winning drive with two minutes left is my worst of the week. Jones was abysmal once again against the Colts, guiding the Patriots to just six points while completing 15-of-20 throws for 170 yards and one interception. He was then yanked from the game for one drive of Bailey Zappe, who threw a game-sealing interception on a fake spike.
The Jones mess only highlights an ongoing problem in New England. It’s hard to point the finger at Bill Belichick given his track record, but it’s even harder to place blame elsewhere at this point. I’ve never really felt like Belichick didn’t have control over a situation, but with Jones and the Patriots’ offense it feels like he’s let go of the rope and things are now at a point of being irreparable. If it wasn’t clear going into Sunday, it certainly is now after that debacle in Germany.