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At NFL’s one-quarter mark, these three contenders have real cause for concern

The Falcons' offense has been great, but concerns on defense have the team in a 1-3 hole. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

The first quarter of the NFL season is behind us — excluding, for now, this week’s Monday Night Football participants (Broncos and Chiefs) and the teams unfortunate enough to receive a Week 4 bye (Panthers and Redskins) — and it provided both great hope for the future and major concerns for the present.

The league is awash with talented, young quarterbacks. Scoring is through the roof. A few contenders that looked vulnerable early have righted themselves as they enter the second quarter of the year.

But in a loaded NFC, some preseason favorites already find themselves at risk of missing the playoffs this season. And there’s one in the AFC that looks to be in serious trouble, as well. That’s where we’ll begin our look at the biggest story lines coming out of Week 4 of the NFL season.

Three preseason favorites have real cause for concern

Everyone knew the margin of success in the NFC was thin because of the abundance of quality quarterbacks in the conference. We wrote before the season that arguably 14 of the top 20 passers in the league reside in the NFC.

While we could spend all day debating the exact order, it’s clear that the talent level at the position is high, and the NFC quarterback who entered the season as the biggest question mark, Mitchell Trubisky, is the talk of the NFL this week after throwing six touchdown passes in the Bears’ blowout win over Tampa Bay. He graduated from a player who could only run Coach Matt Nagy’s opening 15-play script to a quarterback who helps make the Bears legitimate contenders to win the NFC North.

The Bears believe in Mitchell Trubisky, and they might not be alone anymore

Beyond the four division winners, there are only two wild-card playoff spots to be had, meaning teams that entered the season among the league’s top contenders are at risk of missing the postseason following slow starts.

Three teams at biggest risk, in descending order of concern: The Falcons, Vikings and Eagles.

Atlanta’s issues on defense look to be difficult to overcome. After a crushing last-minute 37-36 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, the Falcons are giving up 30.5 points per game and are 1-3, two games behind the division-leading New Orleans Saints and last place in the NFC South. Injuries have played a big part, as three of their best young defenders are out: Deion Jones, Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen (of the three, only Jones is projected to return).

The talk after their Week 1 loss to the Eagles was the need to fix their red-zone problems on offense, and they’ve done that, scoring 11 touchdowns on their last 13 red-zone tries, and averaging nearly 30 points per game.

But the defensive issues go back to the team’s recent struggles, when they went 4-12 in 2013 and 6-10 in 2014. No matter how good Matt Ryan and the offense are, the Falcons are doomed if they can’t stop opponents.

“We just have to pick it up on defense, that’s just what it is at the end of the day,” cornerback Desmond Trufant said. “Myself, all the other leaders on the team, we have to play better. Offense is doing their thing right now, so we have to hold it down and get turnovers, get stops and [put] them in good field position. We have to do our part.”

The Vikings are reeling after their 38-31 loss to the Los Angeles Rams on Thursday night and enter next Sunday’s road trip to Philadelphia at 1-2-1. Vikings Coach Mike Zimmer said he had never coached a secondary that played as badly as it did against the Rams. The Vikings gave up 29 points to the Green Bay Packers, 27 to the Buffalo Bills and 38 points to the Rams in their last three games. Believe it or not, they are now a game and a half behind the Bears.

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The Eagles are 2-2 after Sunday’s overtime loss to the Titans. Their concern level isn’t the same as Atlanta’s or Minnesota’s, in part because quarterback Carson Wentz is still getting back to full strength and the Eagles have one of the best defenses in the league. Through four games, the NFC East also appears less competitive than the North or South. But the margin for error is slim in the NFC, as we mentioned, and a loss to the Vikings next week would give them some catching up to do.

One preseason AFC contender who is at risk: The Pittsburgh Steelers, who dropped to 1-2-1 with their loss to the Ravens on Sunday night. Their defense is leaky. They don’t have Le’Veon Bell, and it appears unlikely he’ll rejoin the team at any point this season. They don’t look anywhere close to being a playoff team at the moment. Making matters worse is that they play in a division with two teams that have been impressive — the 3-1 Bengals and Ravens — and a third that is on the rise, the Cleveland Browns (more on them and their rookie QB in a bit).

“You know, I don’t think I’m on the same page as anybody right now,” Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said after the loss.

Pittsburgh hosts Atlanta next week in a critical game for both teams, and then it plays at Cincinnati the week after that.

Other story lines to watch

It’s a quarterback-driven league, and the young QBs are stepping forward. No quarterback made better strides than Trubisky. He was shaky the first three weeks of the season, but in the 48-10 blowout of the Bucs, he did everything right, from short passes to deep throws. He was 19 of 26 for 354 yards and six touchdowns.

“He’s a very, very, very competitive dude,” Bears linebacker Khalil Mack said after the game. “And a special talent. And you can see that today.”

Baker Mayfield and Josh Rosen made their NFL starting debuts, and they offered positive things. Mayfield got into a shootout with Derek Carr in an overtime loss to the Oakland Raiders. Mayfield had 21 completions for 295 yards and two touchdowns but also had two interceptions and lost two fumbles.

Analysis: The Patriots just reminded the rest of the NFL that they aren't done yet

“You know when you make that many mistakes, it’s not going to happen,” Mayfield said. “It’s all the little things from getting fundamentals in our routes to me delivering the ball in the right place at the right time. Yeah, they scored, put up points tonight, but we gave them the opportunity to do so. We turned the ball over too many times.”

The Cardinals didn’t want to start Josh Rosen this early, but Sam Bradford’s poor play forced their hand. The rookie wasn’t bad. Seahawks defenders praised him for being able to get to his first, second and third reads. His numbers weren’t great — 15 for 27 for 180 yards — but he didn’t turn the ball over, and he looked like a decent NFL quarterback.

“He didn’t get down, even though we had a couple of drops there,” Cardinals head coach Steve Wilks said. “He was encouraging his teammates, stayed the course, continues to try to operate the offense well. The guy is very poised, very confident and I liked him back there commanding the huddle and running this offense.”

From Trubisky, Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson of the 2017 draft class, to this year’s crop of Mayfield, Rosen, Josh Allen and Sam Darnold, there is great reason for hope among the league’s young quarterbacks.

The Earl Thomas saga is over in Seattle. No more trade talk. No more withholding services in practice. No more extension talks. Thomas broke his leg in the 20-17 win over Arizona, and he officially signed off as a Seahawk. As he was being carted to the locker room, he flashed an obscene gesture toward the Seahawks' sideline.

Earl Thomas gives Seahawks' sideline the finger while getting carted off

His position was that he didn’t want to sacrifice himself in practices and in camp if he wasn’t getting more money. The Seahawks were hesitant about giving him a third contract because he could get hurt and not finish the deal. Perhaps the Seahawks should have traded him to Dallas, if the Cowboys had offered a second-round pick. If he is able to play next year, he might not get that $10 million-plus contract that would net the Seahawks a third-round compensatory pick in 2020.

The controversy over quarterback hits went away for a week. It looks as though the midweek conference call with the league and the competition committee cut down on the number of personal foul calls for hits on quarterbacks. After averaging more than 10 per week, there were only two Sunday.

The discussion about the league’s new overtime rules isn’t going away. Those rules state that each team gets a possession unless there is an opening touchdown in what is now a 10-minute session. Three games went into overtime Sunday, but at least there were decisions made to prevent ties. The Titans scored on a touchdown drive to beat Philadelphia with five seconds left. After the first two possessions ate up 5:27, the Raiders kicked a field goal to beat Cleveland, 45-42.

The strangest one was the Colts’ loss to Houston. Both teams scored field goals with their first possessions. That left only 1:50 for the Colts. With 27 seconds left, Colts Coach Frank Reich went for it on fourth-and-4 at the Colts’ 43. Andrew Luck had an incompletion. Watson hit a 24-yard pass and the Texans converted the game-winning field goal to win the game.

There were two ties in the first two weeks. Since the NFL went to overtime in 1974, no season has had more than two ties. Based on early-season results, it’s fair to guess that record will be broken.

More NFL coverage:

Bucs coach calls for his own firing after Jameis Winston replaces Ryan Fitzpatrick in blowout loss to the Bears

Frank Reich’s decision wasn’t dumb. It was daring and admirable. It was also wrong.

With Le’Veon Bell still nowhere to be seen, the Steelers' season is unraveling

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