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Shorts and Shells: Week Three

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Recent posts by Eric Edholm

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Posted Sept. 26, 2011 @ 3:59 a.m. ET
By Eric Edholm

At 3:51 p.m. EDT on Sunday, all but one of the eight games were under the six-minute mark in the fourth quarter, with Patriots-Bills the only outlier with 10-plus minutes remaining.

It had just been announced that the right hand of Eagles QB Michael Vick was broken. I gave a quick look to the NFL scoreboard. Every single game was within one score.

Eight games, none more than eight points apart. Now that is a sport you can market.

Whatever problems the league had two months ago are now gone. In fact, the NFL is more popular than ever. Why? Every week is full-on drama, and no one knows how it will end up. No one.

Consider what happened in a short amount of time around the league. It's stunning, really:

  • The Giants led 22-16 after Victor Cruz outjumped Nnamdi Asomugha for a score, and they got the ball back after Vick was replaced by Mike Kafka, who threw a first-pass INT. On the ensuing drive, the mentally tougher Giants drove a stake through the Eagles' defense with a 10-play, Chinese-water-torture drive capped off by an Ahmad Bradshaw screen pass for 18 yards and the score. Untouched. The NFC East now officially is a grab bag.
  • Matt Hasselbeck, who took over from his own five-yard line down 14-10 with under eight minutes left, hit TE Craig Stevens on a seam route for 58 yards. All hail the Titans' vertical passing game! Three plays later, Hasselbeck hit Daniel Graham, another tight end, naturally, for the game-winning score. The Titans are 2-1 and should perhaps be 3-0. Hasselbeck has 326 more passing yards than Vick.
  • Saints TE Jimmy Graham had just hauled in a fade route — is this the era of the tight end, or what? — to cut the Texans' lead to 26-24 with 9:35 left. There would be three more touchdowns (one off a tipped pass that could have been an INT), two two-point conversions by Lance Moore in his first game of the season, and 24 total pass plays. The Saints came back to win in a 73-pointer in the Dome. Prediction: This is not the last shootout either of these teams will have to win this season.
  • Cam Newton, Mr. 400, had been held to 81 yards passing through three quarters. In easily the strangest game of the day, the Jaguars led 10-8 behind Blaine Gabbert in his first start when the wheels started coming off. Newton hit TE Greg Olsen for a 16-yard score and then Jeremy Shockey for the two-point conversion (again, the tight ends!). Newton had 81 passing yards in the fourth quarter. He survived the biblical rain in the first half, some awfully high throws, and found a way to earn his first NFL win. That's winning without your best fastball, something a lot of six-year vets can't do.
  • Colt McCoy hit Mohamed Massaquoi on a 14-yard TD with 43 seconds left. About four real-time minutes later, the Browns picked off Chad Henne and finished off the Dolphins. Even the worst game on the board had tangible drama, and hey, the Browns have a better record than the Eagles. Crazy league.

And of course, that was not all. There was the pièce de résistance up in Buffalo. How exactly to sum up the Bills' comeback against the Patriots, down 21-0? How to signify its meaning in the grand scheme? It's tough to, really.

This is a franchise that measures itself against the Patriots and tries to mimic their on-field approach (3-4 defense, no-huddle spread attack). And given that the Patriots had beaten them 20 of the past 21 meetings, with the majority of them crushing, either by blowout or by heartbreaker, this one was huge. This was the first time the Bills probably felt not only like they could beat the Patriots but that they even should beat them.

But going in a three-TD hole to the scariest offensive team in the league normally is a deathblow. Instead, this scrappy, fear-no-evil Bills outfit just kept chipping away. Cut it to 11 at half. Cut it to one score, then tied it. Kept the Patriots on their heels defensively and forced them to be uncharacteristically passive offensively. And with 68,104 fans sensing the enormity of what was happening, the Bills responded with a huge drive and what would be the game-clincher. Fred Jackson and Ryan Fitzpatrick, the everyman heroes of this ragtag bunch, once more keyed a dramatic win.

"It's the biggest win of my career," said Bills LB Chris Kelsay, who had lived through the years of losing twice to the Patriots. "I can't think of any bigger."

What made the scene even more surreal was the sight of the Patriots — with the game tied 31-31 but the edge clearly to the Bills as they were milking the clock and getting ready for the game-winning field goal — lose their cool. For years in this rivalry, it was the Bills who lost their cool, and before the comeback, this looked like it would continue.

Instead, we got a comeback for the ages and a great story developing in Buffalo. Goes to show you don't ever know.

At 4:27 p.m. EDT, Lions PK Jason Hanson kicked the game-winner in overtime of a game the Vikings blew despite leading 20-0. That capped off an incredible 36-minute period in pro footballdom.

Right as the late games were starting up ...


Controversial call of the week

Might as well keep the real-time timeline thing going on for one more section.

I sent a mocking tweet as the Vikings faced a 4th-and-1 from the Lions' 17-yard line with 11:40 left in the fourth quarter. They were leading 20-17, and though a field goal still keeps it a one-score game, it at least gives you points and stops the bleeding somewhat.

For the second week in a row, the Vikings had blown a double-digit lead but were still leading by three. And at first, it appeared that Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier wanted to kick the field goal as PK Ryan Longwell headed out onto the field.

But Frazier and the Vikings had a change of heart: They would go for it. With Adrian Peterson as the I-back and Toby Gerhart offset right, with a tight end off the line on the right side, it was a predictable formation for a power run to the right. But instead of Peterson, who was killing the Lions in the first half, the Vikings gave it to Gerhart on a fullback dive.

Kyle Vanden Bosch, Sammie Lee Hill and Andre Fluellen all collapsed the Vikings' line and converged on Gerhart, who had nowhere to go. It was short.

It was at that point that you knew the Vikings would lose another lead and another game, later becoming only the fifth team ever in NFL history to blow a halftime lead in each of the first three games of a season.

"I thought that they were going to kick a field goal," Lions LB Justin Durant told me from his home Sunday night, replaying the wild game. "They decided to go for it, and we came up with a huge stop."

Was Durant surprised it was Gerhart and not Peterson?

"No, Gerhart is a good back, too," Durant said. "That didn't shock me. Our D-line got a great push, so I think we would have stopped either one of them."

Frazier was grilled by the media just as much for going for it as he was for not giving it to his best player.

"We were thinking about if the field-goal unit wanted to kick or not. We were confident that we had a good play that would get us the first down, and that was about it," he said. "Based on what they were doing on defense, we felt that the play we had worked out at that time would be the best situation, but it didn't work out for us."

Very little is working out for the Vikings, who have given up halftime leads of 10, 17 and 20 points in the first three weeks.


The wow factor

This week's edition features the good, the bad and the ugly.

The Good: Darren McFadden — Is there a more underappreciated star in the game? And that's what he is. It's a bit odd that a college star who was the fourth pick in the draft doesn't get more pub than McFadden, especially in this fantasy-geeked world we live in. But McFadden is a big, fast thoroughbred and the game's best home-run runner now. Yes, he might be a hamstring injury waiting to happen. But consider me undaunted.

The Bad: The Eagles' offensive line committed four false starts ... at home. It was just one of those days. How bad was it? The Eagles kicked a field goal in the third quarter to take a 16-14 lead. The fans booed.

The Ugly: Michael Vick ripping the refs after the game, adding insult (a likely league fine) to injury. There might be some truth to what he said about not receiving the same degree of protection from the officials as other quarterbacks, but it's a dangerous thing to do.


Entertainers and icons

Pretty sure I could run anchor leg in the 4x400m with these three and win a shiny medal, but right now I am only impressed with two of them on the football field.

Packers TE Jermichael Finley: I love watching him run. For all the tight ends I mentioned earlier, Finley might be the best pure pass catcher and he showed it off with the first three-TD game in his career. He looks like he is seven feet tall out there, and his hands and leaping ability are second to none at the position. Can you tell I am impressed? Basically, he's not a tight end; he's half wide receiver, half small forward. What an athlete.

Eagles RB LeSean McCoy: He might be the most exciting running back in the league. He has been the Eagles' most consistent offensive player through three games. Heck, he might be the best back in the game, although I get it if you want to go with Adrian Peterson. If it's 3rd-and-1, I understand if you want to take Peterson. But McCoy can do so many things. No back right now plants his foot and goes on the inside zone run like McCoy.

Dolphins RB Reggie Bush: At one point, his line read: five carries, one yard, two fumbles. It's just not working. Another failed offensive addition by the Dolphins, who struggle to get the most out of their offensive players. Bush is a punt returner and a slot receiver/third-down back. Period. Don't make him something he is not.


Ten takeaways of the week

Here are 10 things I took from Week Three, aka the separation between boys and men:

1. An early-season theme has been the big comeback. It being a passing league — a nuclear passing league — likely portends that. But we could see some epic comeback stats this season like the one we were given Sunday: Dating back to 1950, the Bills became the first team to win back-to-back games in which they trailed by 18 points or more, according to STATS LLC. It should be fun, and you know we'll be along for the ride.

2. Matt Forté said it best Sunday: The Bears' loss to the Saints was a step back. The loss to the Packers was a "major step back." He's right. Mike Martz can't help himself. The Packers took the run away early, and it brilliantly played into Martz becoming even more one-dimensional than he had been in Week Two, angering legions of Bears fans. The Bears ran nine called runs to Forté. They gained two yards. Good teams don't ditch the run when they fall behind. The Bears are not a good team right now. Week One's win over the Falcons stands as a distant memory. Lovie Smith needs to get control of his offense, the "Bears offense" as he likes to call it, just as Smith did during their bye last year. It saved the season.

3. The postgame press conference with head coaches has become utterly worthless. I tend to skip them when I go to a game. But when the coaches are wholly unhelpful to the media, it really is irksome. Andy Reid and Bill Belichick are two fine coaches, and they each suffered hard losses today. But that doesn't mean they don't have obligations to uphold. Each was out of the room faster than you can say "blown leads." I did word counts on their postgame pressers from Sunday: Belichick, 203. Andy Reid, 211. Thanks for the help, guys!

4. Dave Toub's "Where is Devin Hester?" punt return at the end of the Packers-Bears game was a stunning bit of creativity. Special-teams coaches are among the more inventive in all of football, but this was a high-water mark for me. The Bears' special-teams coach is among the best, and late in the game he had Hester attract about two-thirds of the Packers' coverage team on a punt with just over a minute left. The problem? The ball was kicked to the other side of the field. The Bears' entire blocking scheme and Hester were lined up on their left side while Johnny Knox snuck out to the right where the ball was kicked. Clearly, it was an audible situation that Toub put on for this game, and it worked: Knox ran it back 89 yards for a score ... but it was called back because of a (phantom) holding call on Corey Graham. I am still looking for the hold. But Toub's terrific setup had the Packers completely fooled. "It was a bad call," Knox told the Chicago Sun-Times. "Corey didn't even touch him."

5. Count me among the people who vaulted the Rams up to the top of the NFC West prematurely. I still stand by my contention that they have their best football ahead of them this season, but I worry that the ceiling might be far lower than expected. For me, the biggest disappointment has been on defense. Yes, we all thought Sam Bradford was ready for a breakout, but I'm not impressed with the play of those around him, either. The schedule clearly is not doing them favors, but the Rams must regroup during the Week Five bye. The good news is that the division is still very winnable with the shaky 49ers (2-1) atop the West.

6. Don't give me that nonsense about the Rams having something to gripe about because Joe Flacco was throwing the ball late. This is still a contact league, right? You can still punish a quarterback, no? I say this: If you are going to throw against me and you're up 30 points — as the Ravens were, chucking it deep late in the game with a 37-7 edge — I am going to blitz you and make your QB pay. Not dirty. Not late hits. Just hard. But I have nothing to say if I don't stop you. Don't be bush league, St. Lou, and cry foul. Credit to Steve Spagnuolo for not whining.

7. The Vikings were the first team to pressure the Lions and disrupt the timing of Matthew Stafford and the Lions' passing game. The Lions' O-line had done a nice job prior to this game, but it was pretty sad early on at Minnesota. ORT Gosder Cherilus was benched for Corey Hilliard, OLT Jeff Backus had back-to-back false starts and the Vikings had five sacks (for minus-40 yards). Stafford was hit seven times, too, which shows how tough he was in leading his team back from being down 20-0. But geez, if that is how the O-line played against the Vikings, will it be worse against the chaos of Rob Ryan and the Cowboys next week? Just thinking aloud here ...

8. Jacquian Williams is going to be a player. The Giants' sixth-rounder from South Florida is fast and active, and he looks very good on blitzes. Williams is most famous in his three-game career for the flop job he pulled on Monday night against the Rams, faking an injury to slow down their fast-break offense. But Williams put his best foot forward on Sunday, pressuring Vick on a pass that became an interception and leading the Giants with nine tackles.

9. Eagles LB Casey Matthews has to be benched. He's just not where he needs to be. I know the coaches love his smarts and his toughness and all that, but the kid has been physically overwhelmed so far. He was beaten on a wheel route by Giants RB Brandon Jacobs for a 40-yard TD on Sunday and was replaced in the nickel by Brian Rolle, another rookie. One personnel director said his team had sixth-round grades on Matthews because he looked like a special-teamer. Putting him in the middle of a "Dream Team," fair title or not, is just unfair for the kid.

10. I wrote the past two weeks that this Colts team has too much pride, and I knew they would play with emotion Sunday night against the Steelers. Deep down, they probably know the season is lost as far as the playoffs are concerned. But Sunday's loss to the Steelers, in which Pittsburgh was pushed to the brink, showed a lot about the Colts' character. They might have been dealt the biggest injury blow of the season, losing Peyton Manning, but I have a ton of respect for Dwight Freeney, Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark and the rest of the veterans who easily could have mailed this in. They have not. Colts fans should be proud.


Early Week Four teasers

The top five story lines heading into next week:

  • The Lions are 3-0, but they know they are facing a crucial stretch, starting with Sunday's game at Dallas. "We have to keep working hard, watching extra tape and prepare like we have to get to 3-0, but we have to play even better," said LB Justin Durant, the underrated tackles leader for this young defense. Other than Kyle Vanden Bosch, Durant (fifth season, 26 years old) is one of the few "older" guys on this group. "We're hardworking and hard-hitting," he said. "That's what people are going to find out about us." And they'll be on TV quite a bit, too. The Lions host the Bears in their first Monday-nighter in 10 years, then the 2-1 49ers and the down-but-not-out Falcons in three straight weeks. Down the line the Lions have games against the Saints, Raiders and two against the Packers. We shall find out if they are for real.
  • The Raiders are for real, and they get a great test when New England visits the Black Hole. One thing that can't be overlooked: It's horrible business to bet against a peeved Patriots team. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have an ungodly record a week after a loss, and when you're the Patriots, every loss is a disappointment. But we must honor the Raiders: That D-line, run game and those special teams are for real.
  • The Jets and Ravens are fun no matter what, but there obviously is some familial connection between Rex Ryan and his old team. But we now must ask the question: Which is the better team?
  • The Titans and Browns are 2-1 — for real — and both got here after losing to teams they probably should have beaten in Week One, Jacksonville and Cincinnati, respectively. The winner is a surprising 3-1, although most people will assume that neither team is for real. This game might provide answers, but the Kenny Britt injury (if it's major) could be a killer for Tennessee.
  • The Eagles, perhaps Vick-less, are 1-2, in last place. The 49ers are 2-1, in first place in the NFC West. Raise your hand if you had that quinella. It very well could be Mike Kafka vs. Alex Smith at The Linc. And the Eagles' season could be hanging in the balance. Hey, no pressure, Northwestern. None at all.

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