Tuesday, September 25, 2012

NFL Week 3: Reaction and Analysis

It was an interesting week in the NFL Week 3, especially with the influence of the replacement officials and their sometimes stupefying calls and penalties.  Here's a look at the games from Week 3 and some analysis of the teams moving forward....

New York Giants - 36 | Carolina Panthers - 7

This was the first shocking outcome of the NFL's 3rd week and it came on Thursday Night Football.  Carolina, who was a 2.5 point favorite by the spread, completely no-showed for this game.  The Giants were business as usual despite giving the bulk of their running work to a backup running back, Andre Brown, and being without their top wide receiver, Hakeem Nicks.  The absence of these players made Carolina a popular pick to win the game, especially with how dangerous Cam Newton, Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell can be in the passing game against a Giants secondary that has shown it can be compared to some of the league's worst.  The Giants' elite defensive line neutralized the Panthers' passing game by pressuring Cam all night and allowing that bad secondary to breath a sigh of relief.  The Panthers defense was as bad as they've been advertised over the last season plus, but the expectation was that Cam and company would light up that secondary but they never got the opportunity to.

St. Louis Rams - 6 | Chicago Bears - 23

It was back to basics for Jay Cutler and the Bears after a bad offensive outing against Green Bay in Week 2.  To combat their ongoing protection issues, the Bears changed up the game plan to give Jay Cutler more running back screens and roll-outs to use an aggressive pass rush against itself.  These types of plays can assist a team with poor pass protection, but are higher risk and harder to be consistent with.  This play selection was proven somewhat effective against a Rams pass defense that is much improved since acquiring former Titans CB Cortland Finnegan(who had an interception in this game).  This style of play-calling won't be successful for teams that are prepared for it or have more speed at linebacker or a dominant defensive line, none of which St. Louis has.  The Rams continued to give the Bears opportunities by not moving the ball the entire game and it was finally broken wide open with an interception return for a TD by Bears' defensive back, Major Wright late in the game.  Little positive can be said for any aspect of the Rams' performance on offense or defense.  They are looking like the doormat team they were a season ago.

Buffalo Bills - 24 | Cleveland Browns - 14

The Buffalo Bills are showing signs that their blowout loss against the Jets in Week 1 was just an anomoly.  In that first game, Bills' QB Ryan Fitzpatrick threw 3 interceptions, but has posted 5 TDs and 0 interceptions in his last two games, including 3 this week versus the Browns.  The Bills did suffer another big loss at running back this week when the NFL's leading rusher, RB C.J. Spiller went out in the 1st quarter with what looked like a seperated shoulder or potential broken clavicle.  Already missing Fred Jackson with a sprained LCL in his left knee, this could have been a disaster for the Bills, but their third string running back, the former Dallas Cowboy, Tashard Choice filled in very respectably for the two injured backs rushing for over 90 yards.  The Browns, though in three tough losses, are showing that they can compete in any given week.  Rookie QB Brandon Weeden has matured very quickly and bounced back from his 4 interception day in Week 1 to post a 300 yard game and a quality start against the Bills.  The Browns may surprise someone one week with a big upset.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers - 10 | Dallas Cowboys - 16

This was one of the more uninspiring wins for the Dallas Cowboys in recent memory, but considering they were coming off of a bad loss to Seattle where they were manhandled, any kind of win would be considered an improvement.  The Dallas defense did their job to contain what is a pretty pedestrian offense lead by QB Josh Freeman, RB Doug Martin and WRs Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams.  What's more worrisome for the Cowboys is we saw some poor play and decision making on the part of Tony Romo again.  He didn't have a passing TD in this game and threw a bad interception that lead to the only Buccaneer TD.  The Cowboys are going to have to see more production from their offense if they want to have even a chance to win the NFC East division, nonetheless, the Super Bowl they claim that they have a chance for this year.  The Buccaneers look a bit more disciplined under new HC Greg Schiano, but they are still trying to overcome a lack of major talent at the skill positions.  Vincent Jackson is making half of the impact they expect from him so far and Doug Martin has looked like a respectable RB, but this team is still a long way from being considered a contender in the NFC South.

Jacksonville Jaguars - 22 | Indianapolis Colts - 17

Little can be said for the future of either of these two teams.  The game was pretty poorly played on both sides, but in the spirit of there having to be a winner, it was Jacksonville that was able to strike on an 80 yard TD with less than a minute left in the game to win it.  The only reason the Jaguars were able to score at all was merely because of two enormously blown assignments on a 59 yard romp by MJD and the aforementioned 80 yard TD by Cecil Shorts.  That 80 yard TD pass accounted for 52% of Blaine Gabbert's passing yards for the entire game.  It was all MJD in this one, proving that the lockout has had and won't have any ill-effects on his game.  Andrew Luck actually looked better than Gabbert in this one, but he was failed by their very accurate kicker, Adam Vinatieri, on a missed chip-shot FG that would have changed the progression of the game.  These teams will still be fighting over last place in the AFC South at the end of the year.

New York Jets - 23 | Miami Dolphins - 20

In some cases, the winner of the game is not represented by the score.  In thsi game, that is the case.  Miami played so much better than the Jets, they should have won this game hands down.  Some bac breaks and a missed FG by their usually very reliable kick, Dan Carpenter, was their demise.  The Jets looked nothing short of atrocious on offense.  If not for a very rookie mistake by the Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill that lead to one of the easiest interception returns for a TD you'll see for the Jets, the Jets unequivocally lose this game.  It was more a matter of the Dolphins' inability to help themselves on offense that lead to this Jets win than a Jets defensive performance.  The biggest story to come out of the game though was the Jets' loss of All-Pro defensive back, Darrell Revis.  He's arguably the MVP of the entire team on either side of the ball and his injury is massive blow to the Jets' already slim chances of seeing the playoffs.  Opposing teams have accumulated a 78% completion rate  and 5/0 TD:INT ratio when Revis is not on the field compared to only 56% and a 15:21 TD:INT ratio while he is in.  On other note, Reggie Bush had a scare in the game leaving the game in the 2nd quarter with a bruised knee.  It was first feared that he had structural damage to the knee, but after an MRI reports are he is ok and could play this Sunday.

San Francisco 49ers - 13 | Minnesota Vikings - 24 

In the surprise game of the day, the Vikings found a way to win, not behind the legs of their All-Pro running back, but behind their inexperienced QB, Christian Ponder.  Having the best game of his career, Ponder was poised and very accurate on almost all of his passes and was peppering his TE Kyle Rudolph all day including two TD receptions for Rudolph.  Even more surprisingly, the Vikings much maligned defense played the best game we've seen from them in years.  This very defense has made superstars out of sub-par QB's in the first two weeks of the season and suddenly flipped the switch when the 49ers came to town.  In contradiction to the Vikings, the 49ers had one of their worst combined offensive and defensive games in the Jim Harbaugh era.  The 49ers, who give up under 80 yards per game rushing under Harbaugh gave up 146 yards rushing albeit on a massive 41 rushing attempts.  The 49ers also had very uncharacteristic turnovers by Frank Gore and Alex Smith.  Smith's one interception was his first in 249 passes which was an ongoing 49ers record.  The once seemingly weakness-free Niners have some questions to answer in their secondary if they are going to have championship aspirations.  The Vikings, though posting an impressive win against one of the NFL's top teams can still expect to come up short of their very competitive division with the Bears, Packers and Lions to face, but this is a game no one had them winning this year.

Kansas City Chiefs - 27 | New Orleans Saints - 24

In what was the second biggest shocker of the day behind the 49ers loss to the Lions was the New Orleans Saints falling to 0-2 at home and 0-3 overall against the Kansas City Chiefs who people have been talking about as one of the weaker teams in the NFL.  I don't personally believe the Chiefs are all as bad as people make them out to be, but they have no business going into the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and winning a game in New Orleans.  The Saints were a perfect 8-0 at home last season and appeared unbeatable with their home advantage in recent years, but with this unbelievably bad defense the Saints have put together in 2012, in part hampered by the loss of linebackers Jonathon Vilma to suspension/injury and Scott Fujita to free agency, they can't seem to stop anything wearing an opposing jersey.  We all know how talented and fast Chiefs RB Jamaal Charles is but anytime you give up 233 yards rushing to not just a team, but to one individual, that's about as bad a day as you can have on defense.  There's no doubt that these losses are more about how bad the Saints are than their opponent's performance.  The three teams that have beaten the Saints have recorded their only win of the season against New Orleans through Week 3 making their opponents 0-6 in other games.  The Saints now join the Browns as the only 0-3 teams in the NFL.  To make matters worse, only 3 of 118 teams have made the playoffs after starting the season 0-3 since the new playoff format adopted in 1990.  This would indicate that the Saints playoff hopes are already hopeless.

Detroit Lions - 41 | Tennessee Titans - 44

In the highest scoring game of the year, the teams combined for 85 points, but accounted for an NFL record 46 of those points in the 4th quarter.  This was a game that saw a cross-field lateral 60 yard punt return for a TD, a 105 yard kickoff return for a TD, a 71 yard TD reception and a 72 yard strip fumble return for TD, all by the Titans.  The Lions amazingly scored a TD late, got an onside kick and then scored another TD on a Hail Mary heave that was tipped and caught by Tidus Young to tie it at the end of regulation.  The two TDs happened in the last 18 game seconds.  In overtime the Titans posted a FG and on the Lions possession came to a 4th down and 1 in the redzone and instead of attempting a game tying chip-shot FG, they ran a QB keeper which failed and ended the game.  The Lions looked an absolute mess on special teams and defense giving up TDs in every way you can imagine.  The Lions have no chance of snatching away the NFC North from Green Bay or Chicago looking this awful in those phases of the game.  This team still has the lack of discipline they were criticized over last season and it seems HC Jim Schwartz is helpless to get his players to perform basic tasks of discipline to sure up these mental let-downs.  The Titans mostly took advantage of a sloppy playing Lions team, so though 44 points looks nice, it is more a facade of potent offense.  Three of the Titans TDs were scored by the defense or special teams.  Lions QB Matthew Stafford did leave the game late in this one and is questionable to play next week with a strained calf.

Cincinnati Bengals - 38 | Washington Redskins - 31

This was a game that nearly added an early chapter to the young RGIII legacy.  The Bengals began the game on the first play with a wildcat formation putting rookie WR Mohamed Sanu in at QB.  Sanu took the snap and promptly hit A.J. Green in stride for a 73 yard TD pass.  From there, the Bengals would rack up a 24-7 lead and would beat up on RGIII all day.  Robert Griffin remained undeterred though and would come back to lead the Redskins on multiple scoring drives score 17 unanswered points to bring them back into the game.  The Bengals would outlast the strong comeback from RGIII and the Redskins to survive by a TD.  The biggest storyline was not just how amazing RGII continues to perform, even when faced with a big deficit, but also the play of sophomore QB Andy Dalton, who has been expected to take a big step building off of his successful rookie campaign last year.  Dalton is looking every bit the prospect he was coming into his second year and more while RGIII just continues to show us what.  What's going relatively unnoticed though is the emergence of unknown WR Andrew Hawkins who has quickly become the complementary receiver the Bengals have needed opposite A.J. Green.  BenJarvus Green-Ellis has quietly posted solid numbers for them in the running game and the offense is clicking.  It's their defense, which was supposed to be the strong suit of the Bengals that has failed them so far.

Philadelphia Eagles - 6 | Arizona Cardinals - 27

It just continues to look ugly for the Eagles.  After being the first team to go 2-0 with 9 turnovers, the turnovers finally caught up with them.  Michael Vick and the Eagles suffered 3 more turnovers and no semblance of offense against what has been an extraordinaraly underrated defense in the Cardinals.  I was one of the few people that had Arizona to win this game, but even I couldn't have forseen this kind of a blowout.  Kevin Kolb, QB for the Cardinals, continues to show why he was brought in via trade from the Eagles to be their starting QB in the absence of the previously named starter, John Skelton, who is still out with an ankle injury suffered last week.  It will be interesting to see who gets to have the starting job when Skelton returns to health.  As for the Eagles, they may be 2-1, but they have looked about as ugly as you can look in those games.  The defense is about where we thought it would be and actually looked pretty good despite the 27 points allowed which was more the fault of the offense turning the ball over, one of which resulted in a returned TD.  Vick is getting eviscerated at the QB position.  He has been hit 56 times in 3 games, which has to be a record for QB hits in three games.  If the Eagles want to have a chance at anything this year, they have got to get Vick protected and keep him healthy.  Handing the ball off would be a good start in ensuring that, but HC Andy Reid is too stubborn.  No one has passed on a higher percentage of plays than Reid in his coaching career.

Atlanta Falcons - 27 | San Diego Chargers - 3

The Atlanta Falcons continued to impress by flying out west to face the previously unbeaten Chargers and take a convincing win back to Atlanta.  Matt Ryan is showing that he is on the cusp of becoming one of the league's next elite QBs with his 2012 season so far.  The one worry for the Falcons was how abysmal their running game has been, but Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers put that to bed, at least for this week, by combining for 112 yards rushing in the victory.  Atlanta's defense seems to be unfazed by the loss of their All-Pro corner, Brent Grimes, who is now out for the season with a ruptured achilles by keeping Philip Rivers and the entire offense out of the endzone all game.  It's back to the drawing board for the Chargers who didn't look overly impressive in their two wins before this game, but they have to be concerned with how they got served in their own house by an east coast team.  The Falcons are one of the NFL's top five teams right now, but to get blown out in such dominant fashion is a real concern.  I think they'll bounce back and make a run at the AFC West, but it appears that the Falcons already have a pretty nice path to winning their division now that New Orleans is 0-3, the Bucs aren't a threat and the Panthers were already having problems with their defense but now their offense is regressing.  I think at this point Atlanta is already a clear favorite in a division we thought would be much more contested.

Houston Texans - 31 | Denver Broncos - 25

For a second straight week a late Peyton Manning comeback falls short for the Broncos.  After getting out to a comfortable lead, the Texans were attempting to simply burn clock with just under 10:00 left in the game when RB Ben Tate fumbled the ball which lead to a Denver score.  Another late score by Manning would bring them within 6 points but the comeback would end there.  Peyton looks like he's still working out the wrinkles in this offense and isn't quite on point yet with this throws.  He narrowly missed a couple of TD passes to Demaryius Thomas including one that was caught but Thomas didn't have the presence of mind to drag his second foot before going out of bounds thus getting the TD call reversed.  Texans Qb Matt Shaub was on the money all day in every facet of the game.  He finished his day with four TD passes including an two absolute bombs; a 60 yarder to Andre Johnson and 52 yard deep ball to Kevin Walter.  Just when we thought the key to meutraslizing the Texans offense was to stop Arain Foster and the running game, Schaub and the Texans have shown that they can and will beat teams through the air as well.  With one of the league's top rated defenses, there seems to be no more complete team in the NFL.  The Broncos are very close to being a very good team.  They are missing plays and throws by the smallest of margins.  This feels like a team that may sturggle a little in the coming weeks, but could be a very dangerous team once the chemistry between Manning and his receivers is in full effect.

Pittsburgh Steelers - 31 | Oakland Raiders - 34

It's becoming painfully obvious that the Steelers are a shell of their former selves.  A team known first for crushing defense and a 'ground and pound' mentality has neither of those elements working in the 2012 version of this team.  Ben and the passing game is probably as good as they've ever been since Ben was drafted, but with the running game and defense taking steps back, the step forward that this offense has taken under new OC Todd Haley in the passing game still comes out to an aggregate negative.  This defense is missing veteran leaders James Harrison and Troy Polamalu right now with injuries, but even when Polamalu has been healthy in the last year and Week 1 of this year, he has not looked like the All-Pro safety we are accustomed to.  It looks like he may be on the decline and we don't know what the Steelers will get out of Harrison with his surgically repaired knee when he comes back.  This was a very encouraging win for Oakland, however.  Carson Palmer looks like he is finally getting comfortable in this offense after being acquired via trade in the middle of last season.  If he can come to old form, when he was the #1 overall player selected in the draft and won a bunch of games for the Bengals, he and that massive running game behind the legs of world class speedster Darren McFadden could take them all the way to an AFC West title with no one stepping up as a favorite in that division yet.  The Steelers are looking like a team that will be lucky to grab the final wildcard spot in the AFC.  They are certainly capable of it, but I can't see them surpassing the Ravens with how good they have looked so far this year.

New England Patriots - 30 | Baltimore Ravens - 31 

This rematch of last year's AFC Championship had a number of unique storylines.  First, you had the Ravens young standout WR Torrey Smith playing emotionally inspired by the death of his younger brother who died in a motorcycle accident less than 24 hours before kickoff.  He would turn that emotional inspiration into the biggest game of his life.  Smith grabbed 6 balls for 127 yards and 2 TDs making him one of the biggest factors in this game for Baltimore.  There were a number of questionable calls in the game, which actually lead to an NFL game record 13 penalties that resulted in first downs.  In a game littered with yellow laundry, what stood out the most was how Joe Flacco has seemed to respond to his critics that say he is the weak link in this offense and that the team is to reliant on stud RB Ray Rice.  Flacco is putting his doubters to rest by playing at a very high level and against some pretty good competition.  The Patriots are left reeling after a second consecutive loss, but what really has them perturbed is the way the game ended.  It appeared that the final field goal that won the game as time expired may have gone directly over the crossbar and not inside of it, which sent all of the Patriots players into a furor.  So much so that HC Bill Belichick went rampaging after an official and even attempted to grab him by the arm as he was jogging off of the field.  Belichick can expect a nice sized fine for that one.  In all, the Patriots just don't have the glamour or intimidation they once possessed and it could be that this team, after a decade of rich success may finally be coming back to earth a bit.  In this game, it looked like the Ravens who would be destined for an AFC Championship appearance in 2012 and not the Patriots.

Green Bay Packers - 12 | Seattle Seahawks - 14

There's no evaluating this game without first recognizing that the Packers were more blatantly robbed of this win than any game I've seen in over 15 years of watching the NFL.  Amongst many bad calls around the NFL since the beginning of the season with the replacement refs, none have been as egregious as the Hail Mary interception thrown by Seattle's Russell Wilson that was ultimately ruled a TD based on what the refs saw as 'simultaneous possession' of the football.  The reality is, the ball was first intercepted and after coming to the ground, Seattle's WR Golden Tate wrestled his arm into the cradled arms of the Packers' defender and gave the illusion that he had some kind of possession of the ball.  To his credit, the scam worked and Seattle stole one from Green Bay on the backs of the replacement officials.  Aside from that, this game looked very ugly for both teams.  Seattle stunned Green Bay with 8 first half sacks, but then continued to get in their own way on offense with very little movement of the ball.  It's a very rare thing to keep Aaron Rodgers to just 223 yards and 0 TD passes and still lose the game, which is what Seattle should have been up against if not for the blown call at the end.  This reversal of fortunes could have huge playoff implications going forward.  If the Packers somehow miss the playoffs by one game, they will know who to blame.  Seattle looks like they could be an eventual playoff contender, but they are going to have to get Russell Wilson better at finding hot reads in blitz situations.  Coming into the game, Wilson had a 78% completion rate when facing just four rushers.  That percentage drops to under 50% when facing the blitz.  Though this loss is alarming for the Packers, there's no need for panic at this juncture as other teams in the NFC North haven't shown any dominance or have began to pull away from the pack.

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