Life comes at you fast. One minute you're just short of a perfect season, trying to win your franchise's first Super Bowl and the next thing you're staring up in your division at the 3-1 Atlanta Falcons. Such is life for the Carolina Panthers right now, a very talented team that looks extremely hung over a quarter of the way into the season.
The Panthers find themselves in a very precarious spot, just a year after coming out of the gates a scorching 4-0 in their first four games. There are a number of issues here, most notably on defense.
This did not go unnoticed by the Panthers' shutdown corner from 2015, Josh Norman. Norman threw shade in the Panthers' direction after Jones lit up the secondary, saying he was just going to "sip his tea." Norman got smoked once by Jones last year, so he wouldn't cure all the ills, but certainly Carolina is paying the price right now with an inability to cover top receivers.
There's also no pass rush coming out of the defensive line -- they have nine sacks on the season so far, but only two were produced by defensive ends (Mario Addison and Lavar Edwards have one each). Kony Ealy was supposed to parlay his breakout Super Bowl performance into a huge season, and it hasn't happened yet. When the defensive line doesn't generate pressure, it means more time to cover for the defensive backs. And they're not talented enough to hold up.
So Carolina has this defense that isn't playing up to par and the offense isn't really doing its part either. With Jonathan Stewart out, the run game has been a real issue. Carolina is top 10 in the NFL in rushing yards per game, and managing the same number of yards per rush, but it just hasn't been nearly as effective a unit as we saw last season.
It's possible the opponents are the issue here. Atlanta isn't a loaded defense, but the Panthers did play the Broncos and Vikings. Winning games in the NFL is difficult, and Carolina's had some tough matchups. Denver and Minnesota, in particular, offer a difficult task for a questionable offensive line. Michael Oher and Mike Remmers aren't high-end tackles (Oher was out Sunday) and haven't played well this season.
According to Pro Football Focus, Oher and Remmers have both allowed three sacks this season, tied for fifth most among all tackles in the league. Combined they've allowed a whopping 20 hurries and three quarterback hits as well.
Mix in a Cam Newton concussion -- not their fault -- and you have the recipe for an offense that isn't holding up its end of the bargain. Or maybe you have a team that's looked like an average NFL squad thus far this year.
The Panthers have a pair of "get right" games coming up against the Buccaneers (home) and Saints (road). But those are division games too. They're not freebies. Newton might miss time with his head injury. Pushing the panic button a quarter of the way into the season is unnecessary, but any concerns Panthers fans might have are absolutely justified at this point.
Here are more takeaways from around the league Sunday.
1. More struggles in Arizona
Like Carolina, the Cardinals were riding high recently. Picked by many people to win the Super Bowl, Arizona looks like a team shell-shocked four weeks into the season. They're 1-3, with losses to the Rams and Patriots at home, in addition to an ugly Week 3 loss to the Bills. Seven days ago that egg in Buffalo was an aberration. Right now it looks like reality after Arizona shot itself in the foot during a loss to the Rams.
Like Newton, the Cardinals haven't gotten what they wanted from their 2015 MVP candidate. Carson Palmer is completing less than 60 percent of his passes (58.8), has thrown nearly as many interceptions (five) as he has touchdowns (six) and now he too is dealing with a concussion.
Anyone who's watched the Cards play can't think Palmer looks like the same dude as last year. There's clearly something off. The "he's dealing with the playoff loss poorly" excuse is dumb. But Palmer isn't right.
It's weird, too, because the skill-position guys have been pretty good so far. John Brown finally showed up this week and looks healthy after struggling during the early part of the season. Michael Floyd hasn't broken out the way people hoped, but he's been alright. David Johnson's been the best running back in football four weeks in.
2. John Elway wins again
We yell a lot about quarterbacks when covering the NFL, but we don't spend enough time talking about the ability of smart front offices to invest heavily in quarterbacks. Elway didn't budge on his number for Brock Osweiler, and as a result he entered the season without great options at quarterback. However, he secretly put some depth together.
The combination of Trevor Siemian (better-than-we-thought young veteran) with Paxton Lynch (rookie loaded with upside) and Mark Sanchez (break glass in case of emergency) set Denver up well before the season. Even heading into the year with just Siemian and Lynch sounded risky, but they had a higher ceiling than people believed.
Siemian met expectations, at least those of Gary Kubiak and Elway, and when he suffered a shoulder injury, Lynch was there to jump in.
The Broncos don't have the biggest name value at quarterback on their depth chart, but they do have quality and reasonable depth in different ways.
Lynch was prepared enough to step in and manage a fairly easy win over the Buccaneers, completing 14 of 24 passes for 170 yards and a touchdown. No one's asking for 50 passes in this Kubiak offense. For a guy with his skillset to come in ice cold and handle the offense is huge, even if the gameplan was conservative.
Denver gets the Falcons and Chargers on deck next, which means they could very well conceive an offensive gameplan that allows them to move to 6-0.
3. Chargers are chokers
At this point, I'm just completely tired of defending the Chargers. They're losers who can't close. I mean that in the nicest way possible, which is not very nice. San Diego should be 4-0 at this point. Not joking at all.
This is a mind-blowing stat about their inability to close out games:
The Chargers are 1-2 this season in games they've led by 13+ points in 4th quarter. The rest of the NFL is 25-0 in such games pic.twitter.com/5wp3eF0dC1— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) October 3, 2016
And the Chargers have had fourth-quarter leads in every single loss this season.
Sunday was something else, with the Chargers sitting on a lead, about to run out the ball and beat the Saints, when Melvin Gordon just handed the ball over and allowed Drew Brees to hit Michael Thomas for a touchdown.
The personal investment here is a pick of San Diego to win the division, a pick that looks like a total joke at this point.
There are several early candidates to be the first coach fired, and Mike McCoy is the clear clubhouse leader.
4. The No Fun League and celebration penalties
The NFL is out of control right now with these taunting penalties and celebration penalties. You're really going to hit Antonio Brown for 15 yards for shaking his pelvis? Cam Newton gets nailed because he stands up and the ball hits another player? And don't even try to shoot a bow and arrow in a pretend effort to celebrate.
5. Colts doing a disservice to Luck
It was fantastic watching football on Sunday morning. It was less fantastic watching Andrew Luck nearly get knocked into oblivion.
The Colts quarterback was sacked another six times by the Jaguars in London, bringing his total to 15 for the year and putting him on pace for a 60-sack season. The record for most sacks in a season is 76 (David Carr in 2002 with the Texans) and most recently we saw Ryan Tannehill take 58 of them. Sixty for Luck, who just got $140 million this offseason, would be negligence on the behalf of this front office.
Indy should be 0-4, but they stole a win against the Chargers despite being behind late. They look like the worst team in the entire division, which is impressive because Mike Mularkey is in the middle of setting Marcus Mariota's career on fire.
According to Pro Football Focus, Luck was pressured on 40 percent of his dropbacks Sunday. That brings his total for the season to 41.8 percent. That's bananas -- Luck is getting hit, hurried or sacked on over a third of his dropbacks.
The Colts invested in the offensive line early on in the draft but it hasn't done enough. And even Luck, a fairly whitewashed quote if there ever was one, isn't staying buttoned up after that ugly loss.
"We gotta be more professional as players, in a sense, and understand our role, our job and do our job," Luck said Sunday.
"A lot of almosts, and almosts are never good enough in this league," he continued a moment later. "I'm tired of almost. I want to win. The Colts are a winning culture. We expect wins. And it just doesn't happen if you trot out on the field.
"It starts at practice, it starts in the work hours, and I think we can go back, improve and make that happen."
The Colts thought about rebooting their approach this offseason, but settled instead on letting Chuck Pagano and Ryan Grigson stick around. They are allowing Jim Irsay's huge investment to get absolutely crushed week in and week out. Without some sort of change on the field for Indy, it's hard to imagine there isn't some kind of change coming in the front office.