The Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers each entered Week 4 with a share of first place in their divisions and rising expectations for their seasons. Undefeated, both teams had started the season with a string of dominant defensive performances, and at the end of Week 3, each was ranked among the top three teams in the league in points allowed per game, yards allowed per play and defensive expected points added per play. In a surprising twist given the history of each team’s starting quarterbacks, the offenses weren’t far behind. Journeyman QB Teddy Bridgewater and Jets castoff Sam Darnold entered Week 4 playing the best ball of their careers, with Bridegwater ranked fourth in the league in QBR heading into Denver’s home game against the Baltimore Ravens and Darnold ranked sixth prior to Carolina’s road game versus the Dallas Cowboys. Yet despite their early season dominance, both teams limped out of the weekend with their first losses of the season.
September domination is usually a good sign — teams that go 3-0 have made the playoffs 75 percent of the time — especially if the winning comes against good teams. But that wasn’t the case for Denver and Carolina, and it’s our first clue about what went wrong for them in Week 4.
Each team’s defensive performance was bolstered by an easy schedule against some of the league’s worst teams. Heading into Week 4, the average offensive EPA per play of Carolina’s first three opponents (the Houston Texans, New Orleans Saints and New York Jets) was -0.05, and the offensive EPA per play of Denver’s first three opponents (the New York Giants, Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Jets) was just -0.09.
Given the soft early schedule, it probably shouldn’t have been all that surprising that each team struggled in its toughest test of the young season. The Broncos’ struggles took the form of a 23-7 loss to Lamar Jackson and the Ravens that saw Denver pile up injuries. The previously stout Denver defense gave up 316 yards passing, the second-highest regular-season total of Jackson’s career, on 37 attempts for a robust 8.5 yard average. And as bad as the defense was, the offense was worse. Prior to exiting with a concussion at the end of the first half, Bridgewater completed fewer than half his passes and amassed a Total QBR of 9.7. His replacement, Drew Lock, fared no better, posting a Total QBR of 6.6 against a Ravens defense that came in ranked 27th in yards allowed per play and 26th in points allowed per game.
In Dallas, the Cowboys rolled the Panthers, dismantling Carolina’s defense en route to a 38-26 win. Cowboys QB Dak Prescott threw four touchdowns on just 22 pass attempts, and Ezekiel Elliott ran 20 times for 143 yards (an incredible 7.2 yards per carry) and rushed for a touchdown. On offense, Darnold played well in the first half — including rushing for two touchdowns — but he was intercepted twice in the second half on back-to-back possessions by Trevon Diggs, who became just the fourth player since 1990 with an interception in each of his team’s first four games. Down-field passing was also a concern: Around two-thirds of Darnold’s 301 yards came on yards after the catch, and according to ESPN Stats & Information passing maps, he completed just one pass out of 10 thrown 15 yards or more down field.
The outlook for each team isn’t great. After their losses, our Elo model projects the Broncos to go 10-7 and the Panthers to finish with a 9-8 record, just barely above .500. The model gives each a 16 percent chance to win its division, and making the playoffs is currently about a coin flip for both teams.
For Denver, which plays in the tough AFC West, its fate depends largely upon the 2-2 Kansas City Chiefs and 3-1 Los Angeles Chargers. The Chargers are the current favorites to win the division (38 percent), and the Chiefs and Chargers both have around a 75 percent chance to make the playoffs. With the 3-1 Las Vegas Raiders also in the hunt (48 percent probability of making the postseason), it’s possible all three AFC wild-card teams could come from the West. The key for Denver will be getting Bridgewater and the other injured Broncos healthy and back on the field.
The Panthers have the misfortune to play in the same division as Tom Brady and the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Bucs are the NFC favorites to return to the Super Bowl and are nearly as likely to repeat (13 percent) as Carolina is to win the division. Still, compared to the Broncos, the Panthers face a slightly easier road ahead. They’ve already beaten their division rivals in New Orleans once, and the 1-3 Atlanta Falcons aren’t putting up much of a fight this year under new head coach Arthur Smith. The loss to Dallas may have proven that Carolina can’t rely on its defense in big games, but with Darnold’s newly discovered rushing ability, perhaps it can lean on him to carry them across the finish line.
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