Tuesday, September 29, 2015

NFL Week 3 Wrap: Luck Leads Another Comeback, Eagles Win, Cowboys Lose and Saints and Ravens fall to 0-3

The third week of the NFL season was rife with turnarounds and late game comebacks. None was any bigger than the Indianapolis Colts, who were down before a 21-point fourth quarter led them to a 35-33 win over the Titans, who now join them at 1-2. The Ravens and Browns traded late touchdowns before a penalty cancelled out a fourth down completion to keep the drive alive and they failed on the second try to lose to the Bengals 28-24 (meaning the teams have transposed records of 3-0 and 0-3). The Raiders held on with a late interception of McCown near the end zone to move to 2-1 after a 27-20 victory at Cleveland. The Eagles almost blew a 24-0 lead against the Jets, but were able to hold on after easily covering the onside kick for a 24-17 win. The Jets defense shut down Philly in the second half, but could only muster 10 points themselves in falling to 2-1. In the marque matchup of the early games, the Cowboys built a 28-14 lead, before ceding the next 25 points, and the game to the 3-0 Atlanta Falcons. Elsewhere, the Texans beat the Bucs 19-9, the Patriots obliterated the 1-2 Jags 51-17, the Panthers pushed the Saints to 0-3 with a 27-22 come from behind win and the Vikings crushed the Chargers 31-14, behind a huge game from Adrian Peterson. The final early game was a defensive struggle between the previously highflying offense of the Steelers and the stout Rams defense. The Steelers won the game 12-6, but Roethlisberger was stretchered off with a knee injury and any sustained period out could be a huge blow to the Super Bowl hopefuls.

The late games included the explosive Cardinals against a Niners defense that was great in Week 1 and terrible in Week 2. It was the Week 2 defense that showed up early, as the Cardinals rolled to a 21-0 first quarter lead, assisted by a pick 6 of Kaepernick, before extending to 31-7 by halftime. Both the Seahawks and Buffalo shut out their opponents in the first half of their games, as the Bills jumped to a 27-0 lead over Miami (aided by three Tannehill interceptions) and Seattle scored a last field goal to make it 6-0 over the Bears. The beginning of the second half saw the Bears give up a kickoff return for a touchdown for the second game running, as Seattle’s lead extended to 13-0 and it appeared all three games were all but in the books early into the second half. The final scores were 47-7 for the Cards, 26-0 for the Seahawks and 41-14 for the Bills.

Sunday night saw another 0-2 team, Detroit, hosting the 2-0 Broncos. Most of the first half was uninspired, with interceptions by both Manning and Stafford before it came alive in the last five minutes with three touchdowns and a blocked extra point attempt almost run back for a touchdown. Denver ultimately led 14-6 after Manning drove the team 80 yards in less than a minute, going for it on 4th and 1 from the Detroit 45 with 13 second left, heaving the ball 35 yards in the air, with the receiver catching it over a Lion and coasting into the end zone. Both teams drove the ball in the second half but fumbles and missed third downs meant the game headed into the last 8 minutes with only one Lions touchdown and failed two-point conversion early in the 3rd to show for either offense. After a head scratching fumble call on the Lions where Stafford’s arm appeared to clearly be going forward, a penalty by the Lions (for overloading one side of the line of scrimmage, a new rule) allowed Denver to retry a missed FG attempt and make it the second time around to extend the lead to 17-12. With the Lions driving for a potentially go ahead touchdown, Stafford threw his second pick of the night, on the back of the aforementioned fumble, with the Broncos almost giving it back two plays later before Sanders pulled the ball out of Slay’s hand, the defender guilty on the big play right before the half as well. The Broncos put it in the end zone through the air again to go ahead 24-12 with 2:28 left and Detroit out of timeouts. It was a messy game from beginning to end, one challenge after another together with a combined 18 penalties for 171 yards and five turnovers. Denver will have to be taken seriously after a third straight win to start the season while the Lions season is quickly unraveling, with a trip to Seattle awaiting them next week.

Finally was Monday night, a replay of the first Super Bowl between the Green Bay Packers and KC Chiefs, on the 50th anniversary of that game. The Packers jumped out to an early lead, extended it to 24-7 at halftime and then blew out the Chiefs behind another incredible performance from Mr. Reliable, Aaron Rodgers (24 of 35, 333 yards, 5 TDs, and no interceptions). A couple of fourth quarter touchdowns for KC made the game seem closer than it was, with the final score coming in at 38-28. It was not and Green Bay placed their own early bid for “best in the NFL so far.” The other teams in contention are clearly the New England Patriots that some are already starting to compare to that incredible 2007 team, and the Arizona Cardinals.

Some thoughts on Week 3:

The 0-2 Teams
A number of teams came into week 3 needing a win to avoid falling to 0-3, making a playoff run extremely unlikely. First were the Giants on Thursday night, facing the 1-1 Redskins off the back of a win. The Giants blew their first two games late, but they held on nicely in this one for a 32-21 victory. Second were the Eagles, who were solid without being overly impressive in beating the Jets 24-17. They dominated the first half, helped by a number of silly Jets mistakes, including a failed lateral from Brandon Marshall gifted them the ball. In the second half, the Jets defense held them under 30 yards and recovered a fumble but couldn’t make it all the way back. The Colts were the third 0-2 team to win, with Andrew Luck again coming up big in a come-from-behind 35-33 win, with 21 points in the fourth quarter (to six for the now 1-2 Titans). They find themselves right back in the race in the weakest division in all of football. The other 0-2 teams were not so lucky, however, with the Ravens giving up a late TD to the Bengals before a failed fourth down conversion sealed their fate. The Saints also fell late, giving up the only 7 points of the fourth quarter to lose to the Panthers 27-22. That loss to their division rivals, means they are really four games back with the current tiebreakers. Might be time to write this season off.

The Seahawks also needed a win and were lucky to be facing the Chicago Bears minus Jay Cutler (or was it the Bears lucky their expensive but underperforming QB was out?). Seattle were poor offensively in the first half, only garnering six points, after they failed to push it in from a first and goal with time running out at the end of a 77-yard drive. Sound familiar, minus the interception? The Seahawks ultimately won 26-0, though it did little to allay concerns on the offensive end. The final 0-2 team, the Lions, had a tough home game against the 2-0 Broncos and struggled to get their offense in sync, a missed extra point and a couple tough calls against them meaning they were down two points halfway through the fourth quarter before ultimately losing 24-12, their last three drives entailing a fumble, interception and turnover on downs.

The Unpredictability of Predictability Redux
The NFL is difficult to predict from one week to the next in the early going of this season, though some results went to form. Two teams without their starting quarterback both lost, though the Cowboys really blew a game they were dominating by completely forgetting to play defense. The Patriots won big over the struggling Jags, though when weren’t the Jags struggling? Heading into the season, few would have predicted the Atlanta Falcons also at 3-0 and among the best of the NFC, but three weeks of strong second half performances see them as the early surprise of the young season. The combination of Ryan behind center, Freeman in the backfield and the largely uncoverable Julio Jones running short, medium and long routes make them one of the premier trios in the league and their defense seems to play at least one half of great football a game. The explosive Steelers offense was held by St. Louis in a win and even though you can’t fully blame the injury to Roethlisberger, with backup Michael Vick going 5 for 6 for 38 yards, it was an impressive performance by the Rams defense. It’s too bad their offense has been far below par this year, with just 16 points in their past two games. Todd Gurley made his debut, but was only able to gain 9 yards on 6 carries, and Nick Foles was 19-28 for 197 yards with a huge interception. Seattle’s offense continued to stutter in their game against Chicago while the Buffalo defense rebounded in a big way, with three pickoffs of Tannehill in the first half on the way to a 27-0 halftime lead. After three games, it appears two of the best defenses reside in the AFC East, with the Bills and Jets seemingly the cream of the NFL, even as both are only 2-1 (and both had one bad defensive performances).

Cowboys Crisis Begins
The Eagles and Giants both won this weekend and the Cowboys lost, meaning their lead has shrunk to one game with a long way to go. And after an impressive first half where they led 28-17, even with a Weeden interception that led to 7 for Atlanta, they looked in okay shape. Sure they gave up a last second field goal, but an 11-point lead means a couple more scores would seal it. Instead, after stopping the Falcons on their first drive of the second half and then getting great field possession on the other side of the 50, the Cowboys had three penalties and a sack on the way to a disappointing punt. Even a field goal there might have stopped the Falcons momentum, but they were essentially unstoppable from that moment, going on to score the last 25 points of the game. The most confusing aspect of a scoreless second half for the Cowboys was what happened to their running game in the second half. Without any explanation, they only ran the ball six times, instead putting a heavy load on their backup quarterback, who had been perfect but for the interception through his start and relief appearance. Unable to get the ball downfield, or build any momentum in a drive, the Cowboys wilted under the force of the Atlanta offensive machine. One expected some tough games while Romo and Bryant are out, but this was a winnable game that they lost, with some seriously bad play calling along the way. Dallas will have to hope to pick up a couple of games in the next four or five weeks, or they could find themselves in danger of missing out on the playoffs altogether.

Quarterback Fortunes Mixed Bag
Tom Brady passed the coveted 400 TD mark and Matt Ryan had a big second half as both played a big part in getting their respective teams to 3-0 records. Rodgers, as mentioned above, was even better, going his 19th home game at Lambeau without an interception while throwing five touchdowns in a game for the fourth time in his career (along with 15 games with at least 4). That puts the Packers star in some pretty rarified company, as only Drew Brees has more four-touchdown games and only four QBs have more five TD games (Brees again (9), Manning (9), Marino (6) and Brady (5). By the time this kid is done, he might break a lot of records. Meanwhile, Mariotta tied the record for most TD passes in his first three games, with 8, though his first interception as a pro contributed to the Colts comeback victory Sunday.

Another quarterback can be added to the list of starters that will be spending time on the sideline, a list that now includes Ben Roethlisberger (at least 4 weeks), Tony Romo (8 weeks), Drew Brees (week-to-week) and Jay Cutler (week-to-week). The Steelers were able to win a defensive battle, but all of the other teams lost without their season opening starters and will probably continue to struggle without them, though the Cowboys have a supporting cast that could keep them competitive, if their defense steps up after a terrible second half. The 49ers might be starting to rethink putting the franchise in the hands of Colin Kaepernick though, as he had another terrible day at the park, throwing two pick sixes, two other interceptions and only completing 9 of 19 passes for 67 yards, without a touchdown throw (he did run one in). The quarterback on the other sideline had another good game, competing 20 of 32 passes for 311 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, just missing out on a couple more TD throws as receivers were caught at the one. While Manning did much to silence his critics on Sunday night (31 of 42 for 324 yards, 2 TDS and an INT), Matthew Stafford continued to struggle, even as he completed 31 of 45 passes for 282 yards (with a TD, two INTs and a lost fumble). Finally is Alex Smith, the guy that was picked ahead of Aaron Rodgers in the draft. He had a day that looked okay on first glance, completing 24 of 40 passes for 290 yards, with a TD and an INT, but that was even worse that the completion percentage might indicate – as it garnered a 17.6 QBR, compared to Rodgers’ 78.0.

Early Super Bowl Favorites

It is early to make any playoff predictions, but why not? The Patriots again look like the cream of the AFC, with Denver also sitting at 3-0 and Indianapolis back to winning ways after starting the season 0-2. One should also mention the Bengals, though they have been consistent underperformers in the playoffs. The Steelers will have to count on Michael Vick for four to six weeks, but are an offensive force to be reckoned with if they stay close. In the NFC, the Packers are the clear favorites at this early juncture, with Arizona continuing to impress along with the Atlanta Falcons (both 3-0). Seattle will always be in the conversation, as their defense pitched a shutout to register their first win of the season, but their offensive struggles continued and it looks increasingly likely they would have to travel to Green Bay if they do get back to the Championship Game. The Cowboys should remain in contention as well, if they can get through the spell without Romo and Bryant without too many more losses. They had a good chance to make it 3-0, but collapsed in the second half, mysteriously only running the ball six times after a dominant first half on the ground. As has been the case in the past, some questions should be asked of coach Garrett, who has a team that is near the top of the league in penalties most seasons and often loses very winnable games through questionable play calling and time management. If I were putting money down this week, I would say the Green Bay Packers beat the Patriots in a shootout in Super Bowl L.

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