By Jason Keidel
There may not be season-ending games in Week 4 — unless you’re the New York Giants — but there surely are statement games.
When we thumbed through the NFL schedule this summer, there were games you circled, and games you dismissed as routs over runts. One seemingly obvious rout had to be yesterday’s battle between the Dallas Cowboys and Los Angeles Rams, which, back before we knew any better, clearly looked like it would be a Cowboys’ runaway win. It promised to be a moonwalk over a lifeless club, one small step on the Cowboys’ gallop toward another NFC East title.
Not so much. The Rams, resounding underdogs, marched into Jerry’s World, and strolled out winners, 35-30, before thousands of appalled or awestruck fans. None of the Dallas faithful saw their beloved ‘Boys at 2-2, and surely few NFL fans projected the Rams to be 3-1, and in first place of the NFC West. Neither team can claim their ultimate identity, but neither is where anyone thought they would be.
Whatever happened to Todd Gurley last year — call it a sophomore slump, second-year jinx or adjustment or simply an awful club that could not block for him — he not only looks like the rookie sensation who made the NFL his personal playground, but he’s even more dynamic in his third year than in his first.
Gurley can run, catch, run some more, dodge, dart, or sprint past world-class athletes. On that pass he caught over the middle before dashing 40 more yards past the Dallas secondary, he looked like equal parts running back and Usain Bolt. A man built like a heavyweight with the light feet and fast legs of a welterweight, Gurley is an early-season MVP candidate, if not the outright favorite. Yesterday, he not only led the club in rushing, with 23 carries for 121 yards, he led them in receiving, with seven catches for 94 yards, including that highlight-reel catch-and-dash.
Jared Goff, despite last year’s rookie jitters, happy feet, and errant throws, seems like a different player after four games. Goff looks poised, strong, decisive, and accurate. Just as important, Goff is in command of the huddle and the team. Whether it was a typical fledgeling campaign for a QB, or faulty coaching by former coach Jeff Fisher, Goff has changed in all the right ways. He left Jerry’s World a winner, and played like one, completing 21 of 36 passes, with two touchdowns and zero interceptions, matching last year’s rookie QB monolith, Dak Prescott, pass for pass.
The Rams, who now flaunt the most offensive firepower in the entire sport, lead the NFL in offense. Their 142 points scored are easily the most in the sport, while only the Patriots (129) are within range.
As for Dallas, it seems the Cowboys have some serious tweaking to do before they can live up to the nickname America’s Team. While Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott took the pro football world by storm in 2016, they aren’t surprising or sneaking up on anyone in 2017. Every club in the country now circles their Cowboys game on their calendar. Indeed, Dallas will get everyone’s best shot this season, and they surely got a hefty one-two punch from the revived Rams.
For his part, Prescott was fine, if not excellent. The second-year QB completed 20 of 36 passes for 252 yards, with three TDs and one INT. Likewise Elliott didn’t flash his 2016 speed and rugged power — 21 rushes for 85 yards and one TD, along with four catches for 54 yards and another TD — but he’s also not the slow and sluggish diva his detractors are branding him as this young season.
Teams lose games, and lose them at home. Even the Patriots are 2-2 and have been shockingly vulnerable in Foxborough this year. It’s quite rare to leave September with just one unbeaten team (Kansas City Chiefs), to see Don Shula, Mercury Morris, and Larry Csonka pop that ’72 Dolphins champagne before Halloween. It’s also early to laud or loathe any given team on such a small sample size.
But at the NFL quarter-pole, we are fairly sure of a few things. The Chiefs look like the league’s best team, with a good shot to host the AFC playoffs. And we expected there would be a slew of 3-1 clubs in the NFC, including the clubs that played in last year’s NFC title game, the Falcons and Packers. We didn’t expect Dallas not to be among them, or that the Rams, early kings of the NFC West, would be.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.