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State of the Patriots: Week 4, 2016

The Patriots are 3-0 after three games and have a realistic shot at 4-0 without Tom Brady under center. The Patriots have had to start two different quarterbacks due to injuries, but the beat goes on. Two of the three wins come against two teams many expected to compete in the playoffs with the Texans and the Cardinals. The Texans have looked alright while the Cardinals have stumbled a bit out of the gate.

Recapping Week 3's win: The Patriots most impressive win of the season to date came on Thursday Night Football. The quick turnaround very much helped the Patriots as they could easily turn the page from the near 2nd half collapse against the Dolphins and focus on the Texans. The Patriots had to rely on a rookie QB making his first NFL start, so that meant the rest of the roster was going to have to win the game for him. The Patriots defense allowed nothing and forced one turnover while Ryan Allen pinned the Texans inside the 20 on all seven punts and the kickoff coverage unit created two more turnovers. The team also got a productive day from RB LeGarrette Blount, who ran for 105 yards and a pair of scores. It's the type of win that puts Belichick on the early ballot for Coach of the Year. At this point, only Doug Pederson and Mike Zimmer have a realistic shot of wresting away the award from Belichick.

Early success of Dak Prescott and Carson Wentz not too surprising: On Sunday, I got to get a good look at both rookie QBs and for the Cowboys and Eagles, they have to be really excited for their guy. Prescott wasn't considered a serious QB prospect in the draft behind names like Wentz, Jared Goff, Paxton Lynch, and Connor Cook. Prescott is looking like the early favorite for steal of the 2016 draft. Prescott played a spread offense at Mississippi State, which meant there was a learning curve adjusting to an NFL offense. Fortunately for him, he came into a situation with a talented Cowboys offense that featured the best OL in the league along with a promising rookie feature back in Ezekiel Elliott, who went three rounds ahead of Prescott, and one of the best receivers in the league in Dez Bryant.

In Wentz situation, he came into a second place Eagles team that had talent, but didn't have a QB. The Eagles laid a whooping on an unprepared Steelers team, outscoring them 21-0 in the second half. In hindsight, perhaps Wentz was indeed the best QB prospect in the draft. While competition level is questionable, he played in a Pro Style offense and was part of a North Dakota State program that won 5 consecutive titles. While the Roethlisberger comparisons are a bit over the top, the Rams and the Browns have to be kicking themselves for passing on that guy.

For both QBs, the common denominator is landing on talented teams. Most rookie QBs, especially ones drafted in the top 5 are generally playing on rosters that are devoid of talent. Neither guy was initially expected to contribute much had things gone to plan, but both have taken advantage of their one opportunity to lock down the QB job. Both players have had long time backup QBs as their current head coach, which is a great resource for a young QB to use to develop.

AFC East Recap: On Sunday, the Dolphins and the Bills won and the Jets lost. All three teams are 1-2 to start the season and already 2 games behind the Brady-less Patriots. The Dolphins squeaked by a Browns team that should have beaten them in regulation, the Bills rocked an unprepared Cardinals team, and the Jets got rocked in one of the most hostile environments in football. The Bills had the best week of the three, soundly beating the Cardinals in a more lopsided win than the final score says. With their backs against the wall, they took out a Cardinals team that despite their highly touted acquisitions in the offseason. Sunday could be Rex's last stand against the Patriots.

AFC Recap: With the Steelers losing and the Broncos and Ravens winning, the 3-0 club is inhabited by the Broncos, Ravens, and Patriots. While in the NFC there is a lot of parity in that conference, the AFC has the same teams always at the top of the standings. I honestly shouldn't be surprised the Broncos are 3-0 since Trevor Siemien, as a thrower, is an upgrade over Peyton Manning's corpse at QB and they're winning the same way they did last year. While normally you'd expect them to win with running the ball and defense, they beat the Bengals with deep passes to Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders this week. After somewhat expecting a Super Bowl hangover this year and the Chiefs to improve, neither of which has happened yet, the Broncos have put up so far. You have to assume at this point they are still a legitimate contender.

The Ravens have had three unimpressive wins so far to start the season, but they are playing on a last place schedule, which should be enough for them to squeak into the playoffs easily. It will be interesting to see how they fare against the two big boys of the AFC North in the Bengals, who have owned them of late, and the Steelers, who fight them to the last inch. The Ravens don't look great on paper, but can be very dangerous if they get hot at the right time.

Injury Report: The two biggest injuries to monitor are the injuries to backup QBs Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett. I'm feeling better about Brissett being able to go if both are limited because Brissett was able to finish the Patriots win against the Texans despite spraining his thumb in the 4th quarter. The Patriots have not made a QB signing this week and don't plan to, which is a good sign for both QBs. If the Patriots play it close to the vest, the Bills will have to prepare for two QBs potentially playing against him with two completely different styles to prepare for.

The Patriots are also nursing injuries with Rob Gronkowski (hamstring) and Dont'a Hightower (knee/ankle). The Patriots are slowly working Gronk back into the lineup, who played mostly as a blocker and ran only 1 route against the Texans, which was a curl route in the end zone. Gronk may get more snaps and routes this week with 10 days between games. Hightower's injury the Patriots can afford to play a bit more conservative with the stellar play from LB Jamie Collins as well as Jonathan Freeny not looking out of sorts lately at LB. Last year the Patriots lacked enough LB depth to be afford such an injury, this year they can. With the Bills offense and the emphasis to stop the run, we may see Hightower return in Week 4. Don't hold me to that if he doesn't.

We're on to Buffalo: The Patriots finish off the non-Brady slate of games at home against the Buffalo Bills. If you're the Patriots, expect the kitchen sink, toilet, and fridge on defense. There's no doubt Rex is going to try to throw different wrinkles on his defense to confuse the Patriots inexperienced QBs. Once again, defense and special teams needs to carry the day as that's where the Patriots have a decisive advantage. The Patriots should focus on the run game between QB Tyrod Taylor and RB LeSean McCoy and make Taylor throw the ball to beat the Patriots. On offense, the Patriots need to be able to run the ball to stay ahead of the chains and keep the Bills defense honest. That means Blount has to keep on doing what he's doing well. The Patriots are early home favorites against the Bills.