The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What to know from NFL Week 4: Bills win close, and John Harbaugh was right

Buffalo Bills kicker Tyler Bass (2) celebrates with teammates after kicking a field goal on the final play of the game to give the Bills a 23-20 win over the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday. (Julio Cortez/AP)

The NFL is a stage for human achievement at the cost of human suffering. The thrill of the games and the brilliance of the athletes can push that into the background, but it is always there. It hovered over Week 4 more starkly than usual after Thursday night, when Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s head smashed into the Cincinnati turf and the distressed neurons in his body made his fingers twist into a claw. The NFL and the NFL Players Association decided to alter their concussion protocols, but no measures can remove the danger from football.

Moving on after horrific injuries is baked into the NFL, and the games continued apace Sunday. Here is what to know.

The Bills finally won a close game. While they emerged as the Super Bowl favorite, the Bills could not shake a deserved reputation as front-runners. They usually annihilated their opponents. But when they didn’t, they lost.

The Bills lost all six of their regular season games decided by one score last year, and their season ended when they couldn’t prevent the Chiefs from scoring despite kicking off with 13 seconds left in regulation. This season started the same way. They crushed the Rams and Titans, then last week they wilted against Miami in a two-point loss.

In Baltimore on Sunday, quarterback Josh Allen proved he can win a close one. The Bills erased a 20-3 deficit and beat the Ravens, 23-20, in a game defined by Ravens Coach John Harbaugh’s controversial choice to eschew a field goal from the 2-yard line with the score tied at 20.

The Bills played the endgame to perfection, bleeding the clock inches from the Ravens’ goal line once they advanced the ball. Tyler Bass kicked the game-winner as the final seconds ticked off, not allowing Lamar Jackson any chance to respond. Playing on the road in a rainstorm, the Bills did not allow a point in the second half.

The Bills often destroy opponents. If they can start winning the close ones, too, they’ll run away with the top seed in the AFC.

How coaches try (and often fail) to master end-of-game chaos

Harbaugh made the right call. Over the past three seasons, the coach has frequently placed himself at the center of controversy with his aggression on fourth down. He found himself defending a decision that backfired again Sunday, drawing ire from the Ravens’ fan base and his own cornerback; Marcus Peters screamed at Harbaugh and chucked his helmet on the sideline as the game ended.

With 4:15 left in regulation and the score tied at 20, the Ravens, after marching 93 yards, faced fourth and goal from the Buffalo 2-yard line. A field goal would have been automatic for Justin Tucker.

But Harbaugh kept his offense on the field. If he kicked, it would’ve meant giving Allen the ball back around the 25-yard line with four downs at his disposal. Harbaugh didn’t want to let Buffalo win with a touchdown. At worst, he would limit what the Bills could call on offense by pinning them deep. He didn’t say it this way, but he would rather let Jackson decide the game than Allen.

The math recommended the Ravens go for it, but, as Harbaugh explained last week, he navigates the endgame through analysis and feel less than strict probability. By either measure, Harbaugh made the best call for the situation.

That remained true even though it backfired in every way. Jackson drifted backward and lofted an interception, which cost the Ravens the advantage of sticking the Bills inside their 5-yard line. The Bills only needed a field goal, which allowed their offense to methodically move down the field and drain the clock. In hindsight, the call led to disaster. In the moment, everything about it made sense.

Nobody does it like Patrick Mahomes. The Chiefs have a penchant for sleepwalking through some games, as last week’s fluky loss in Indianapolis showed. When they play motivated and focused, they remain the class of the NFL. The reason is Mahomes, who provided another reminder Sunday night that he is the best player in the NFL.

In a 41-31 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Mahomes exacted a measure of revenge from the beating he took in the Super Bowl two years ago. He beat them in every way the game allows, in ways only he could conjure. He shredded them through the air. He danced around them. He zipped, flipped, pushed and flung passes. For one score, he braked next to the sideline, spun around a defender and kind of squirted the ball out of his hand to the back of the end zone, where it nestled into running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire’s hands.

Mahomes finished with 249 yards and three touchdowns, averaging a pedestrian 6.7 yards per attempt. It’s not always what he produces that makes him special. It’s how he does it.

The Kenny Pickett era arrived in Pittsburgh. The Steelers could have used their mini-bye after playing two Thursdays ago to replace Mitchell Trubisky with Pickett, the rookie they chose with the 20th pick in April. But Coach Mike Tomlin vociferously backed Trubisky and committed to him as Pittsburgh’s starter — a commitment that lasted until halftime Sunday, at which point Trubisky had continued his miserable season by completing 7 of 13 passes for 84 yards with an interception and three sacks.

Pickett injected needed energy into the Steelers’ offense, plowing for one touchdown on a sneak and scoring again on a keeper. He also threw a late interception that led to the New York Jets’ 24-20 victory in Pittsburgh, a loss that dropped the Steelers to 1-3 with a harrowing chunk of their schedule upcoming.

With a new QB for the first time in 18 years, Steelers plan to keep on winning

Tomlin made the right — if not only — call going to Pickett. The offense functioned more efficiently, and his verve lifted teammates whose frustration with Trubisky had grown more visible in recent weeks. Pickett completed 10 of 13 passes with three interceptions, but two of those picks hit his receiver’s fingers and the other came on a Hail Mary.

The upgrade to Pickett may not be enough for Tomlin to preserve his 15-year streak of never having a losing record. Tomlin was noncommittal, but it seems certain Pickett will become the full-time starter. If so, his first four starts will come against the Bills, Buccaneers, Dolphins and Eagles, with only the Bucs coming at home. Lots of luck, Kenny.

The Eagles’ dominance in the second quarter is absolutely wild. The Eagles remained the NFL’s last unbeaten team with their 29-21 victory over the Jaguars and former coach Doug Pederson, overcoming a 14-0 deficit built by Andre Cisco’s interception return for a touchdown. The Eagles have been the best team in the NFL through four weeks, and it’s possible they could claim the bizarre distinction of being the best team in league history in the second quarter.

The numbers are bonkers: The Eagles have scored 85 points in four second quarters and only 30 in their other 12 quarters combined. They have outscored opponents 85-14 in second quarters, a staggering total considering it equates to the amount of time in one whole game. They have scored at least 17 points in the second quarter in each of their four games. In the past two weeks, they throttled the Commanders and Jaguars by a combined 44-0 in second quarters.

The New York Giants single-winged their way to 3-1. With 8:55 left in the fourth quarter, the Giants ran out of quarterbacks. Daniel Jones had been sidelined with a rolled ankle, and backup Tyrod Taylor took a hit to the head that necessitated a concussion evaluation. On the fly, Coach Brian Daboll installed a wildcat offense with Saquon Barkley at quarterback.

Jones returned to the game, probably so the Giants could communicate with him through the helmet headset. He lined up as a wide receiver and stood still during plays. The Giants did not attempt a pass for the remainder, running 11 times for 40 yards. Bears rookie wide receiver Velus Jones Jr. muffed a punt, a key play as the Giants salted away a 20-12 victory.

The most important development of the Giants’ season has been the reemergence of Barkley, who leads the NFL in rushing after he gained 146 yards on 31 carries Sunday. The Giants have rarely been impressive, squeaking past the Titans and Panthers by a field goal for their first two wins. Their point differential is only plus-5, and their roster lacks talent. But there are only eight teams with a 3-1 record or better, and the Giants are one of them.

The New England Patriots are making progress. Bill Belichick raised eyebrows this summer and early in the season with his sanguine comments in the face of struggle. Belichick, a bottom-line coach if there ever was one, expressed belief that the Patriots would coalesce over the course of the season. After losses, he would discuss the one or two plays that could have changed the result — as if he hadn’t build his career on winning those one or two plays.

The post-Tom Brady Patriots are still figuring out who they are

In a 27-24 overtime loss to the Packers, Belichick’s attitude started to make a little more sense. After looking lost as they adjusted to a new offense designed by Matt Patricia, the Patriots played like a team with an identity for the first time. With Mac Jones out with an ankle injury and backup Brian Hoyer sidelined with a concussion, they turned to fourth-round draft pick Bailey Zappe and bullied the Packers with their running game. Rookie defensive back Jack Jones returned an Aaron Rodgers interception for a touchdown. Zappe played with poise and made two big throws. The Patriots nearly pulled off a massive upset at Lambeau Field.

They are 1-3 and still not a very good team. For the first time, they showed signs of how they could be one.

Matt Rhule might not survive Baker Mayfield. The 1-3 Panthers have cycled through quarterbacks since Rhule arrived three seasons ago, and in four games this season Mayfield has been a disaster. In a 26-16 loss to the Cardinals, the Panthers could not run a functioning offense. Arizona batted down nine of Mayfield’s passes. He completed 22 of 36 passes for 197 yards — 72 of which came on a late fourth-quarter drive while trailing by three scores — and threw two interceptions.

The Panthers scored a defensive touchdown in the first quarter, at home, against a 1-2 team mired in its own dysfunction. They still could not come within two scores. In the fourth quarter, Mayfield had to cover the earholes of his helmet to hear a play call over boos. He entered Sunday averaging 6.8 yards per attempt with an 80.8 rating, both worse than last year, when the 2018 No. 1 overall pick played his way out of Cleveland.

Rhule is 11-25 since Panthers owner David Tepper hired him out of Baylor. The Panthers have lost and played dull, plodding football under Rhule. He does not have many cards to play, either; Matt Corral, the quarterback Carolina drafted out of Mississippi, tore a ligament in his foot in the preseason and is out for the year. Carolina’s backup is Sam Darnold, whose failures last year led to the acquisition of Mayfield.