Six NFL teams take their byes this week, each in a very different state, but all areas to improve for the final three-quarters of the season.
The Ravens are riding high after a Sunday night shellacking of the New York Jets that provided a glimpse of the Baltimore defenses of old that tormented opponents and more than made up for a mostly-incompetent offense.
The Redskins, too, would prefer to save their bye for later in the season with momentum following a sound defensive performance of their own in a 17-10 win in St. Louis.
For the Cowboys, Browns, Rams and Dolphins, however, now is as good a time as any to figure out what is going wrong.
Here’s a quick look at the state of each of the six teams heading into their bye weeks.
Baltimore Ravens (3-1): The Ravens bounced back from a disappointing 26-13 loss at Tennessee in Week 2 to trounce St. Louis and the Jets with defensive displays that make them appear the front-runner in the AFC North. Baltimore has scored at least 34 points in three of its four games, including a 35-7 Week 1 romp over the Steelers — the team that knocked them out of the playoffs last winter.
Plus: The defense is dominant once again. Ed Reed is healthy and making plays all over the field, the defensive line is getting after opposing quarterbacks (11 sacks) and the Ravens have a +7 turnover ratio.
Minus: Joe Flacco is alternating polished and poor play each week. He threw three touchdowns and no interceptions in Weeks 1 and 3, but threw a pair of picks in the loss to the Titans and on Sunday completed a dismal 10 of 31 passes for just 163 yards and a pick. If Flacco, Ray Rice and the rest of the offense can just be consistently average (think Trent Dilfer in 2000), this team could contend for the AFC title.
Dallas Cowboys (2-2): One week after the Cowboys gutted out a win at home against the Redskins in a Dan Bailey field goal fest that left everyone slurping Tony Romo’s toughness, Dallas coughed up a 27-3 halftime lead to lose to the best silver and blue team in the NFL. Dallas is banged up physically (and mentally) and the early bye can only help them regain their footing — amidst the sure-to-come media onslaught.
Plus: Tony Romo is one tough cookie. The guy proved his willingness to suit up despite some internal boo-boos. He can get you out of some jams with his mobility in the pocket and his improvisation.
Minus: Tony Romo can also kill you. The guy proved his miraculous ability to take a comfortable second-half lead and make it disappear with Sunday’s dismal final two quarters against the Lions. Jerry Jones and the Cowboys have their eggs in Romo’s basket, but it remains to be seen whether he can help his team meet their annual lofty expectations.
Washington Redskins (3-1): This team hasn’t been 3-1 since 2008, but a shaky finish to Sunday’s 17-10 win in St. Louis — including a pair of inopportune interceptions by quarterback Rex Grossman — leave the team with several issues to address during the bye.
Plus: The Redskins are a defensive-first, smash-mouth running team once again. The team is miles ahead of last year with its 3-4 defense and the young outside linebacker duo of Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan is making quarterbacks pay for holding onto the ball too long. In Tim Hightower, rookie Roy Helu and Sunday’s hero Ryan Torain, the Redskins have a capable three-headed rushing attack that should allow them to mix things up and keep their backs fresh for the rest of the season.
Minus: The Rexy era got off to a strong start but over the last two weeks, Washington’s slow-footed veteran has made some awful crunch-time decisions. Turnovers have always been and will continue to be a problem for Grossman, but he’s got to clean things up in a hurry to keep the Redskins and prevent cries for John Beck under center.
Cleveland Browns (2-2): The Browns can’t be too disappointed with a .500 record going into the bye, but they won’t be winning awards for aesthetically-pleasing football anytime soon. They took care of a wounded dog in a Week 2 win against Indy, and Colt McCoy flashed some last-minute magic in a come-from-behind win against Miami. But Cleveland fell behind early on Sunday against Tennessee, couldn’t get anything going on the ground and, despite 61 pass attempts from McCoy, was never in the game in the second half.
Plus: McCoy looks like a great fit for Cleveland’s West Coast offense. He’s displayed good instincts, an ability to extend plays and poise in the pocket. With a receiving corps that leaves a lot to be desired, McCoy is doing his best to make the most of what he’s got.
Minus: The Browns relied on a breakout season from Peyton Hillis to be competitive last season but Cleveland’s run game has produced only 3.4 yards per carry and 101 yards per game in the early going. Hillis — who missed the Week 3 loss — is averaging 3.6 yards per carry and a healthy Montario Hardesty provides added depth, but the Browns won’t win too many games if McCoy continues to average 43 pass attempts per week.
Miami Dolphins (0-4): The Dolphins are reeling and head coach Tony Sparano is officially on the hot seat. According to the South Florida Sun Sentinel, a high-ranking NHL source reported Monday that Sparano is “certain” to remain the team’s coach through their Oct. 17 game against the Jets. But beyond that? The team turned the offense over to Matt Moore on Sunday, after quarterback Chad Henne was injured on a first-quarter run, but Moore is not the answer. Miami is hanging with its opponents — its last three losses have come by 10 points or fewer — but simply can’t get over the hump.
Plus: Brandon Marshall is one of the toughest receivers to stop in the NFL and through four weeks, his 22 catches have him in the top 20 in the league. But for the second straight year, those catches are not coming in the end zone. Marshall only has one touchdown so far and the Dolphins only have four TD passes all season.
Minus: Turnovers will doom a team without quick-strike ability on offense and the Dolphins are at -5 in turnover margin. After missing Week 1, Daniel Thomas played like the guy everyone was excited about coming into training camp for two weeks then got injured again and missed the loss to the Chargers. Miami needs him back and healthy because Reggie Bush cannot carry a full backfield load.
St. Louis Rams (0-4): What happened to the trendy pick to win the NFC West? If there’s one quarterback in the league who has a right to throw his teammates under the bus for his early struggles, it’s Sam Bradford. He’s already been sacked 18 times this season, his offensive line can’t protect him or avoid costly penalties and his receivers can’t catch anything. The team has been crippled by injuries — the loss of Bradford’s top target Danny Amendola was huge — and they simply can’t seem to get much going on either side of the ball.
Plus: The Rams play in the NFC West. The 49ers are leading the division at 3-1 following a come-from-behind win against that team briefly known as the “Dream Team.” The Seahawks and Cardinals are both 1-3. In no way is St. Louis out of this race. Heck, the Seahawks won the division in 2010 at 7-9 last year despite going 3-7 down the stretch. This is not a good division, and the Rams have all six NFC West contests ahead of them in a very friendly second-half schedule.
Minus: The Rams healthy wide receivers need to stop greasing their gloves with butter before games. Bradford is going to be a solid NFL quarterback, but he can only do so much when his targets are dropping everything thrown their way. On Sunday against Washington, the Rams dropped touchdown passes, third-down conversions and numerous other passes in situations that — had they been caught — could have swung the game in their favor.