As we are coming up on the quarter pole in the NFL season, some themes are starting to emerge and we are finding out who is for real and who is in real trouble:
1. The time is right for Chris Johnson to step up. The news that Kenny Britt will be out for the season with two torn ligaments means that CJ2K, who should be renamed XCVIII (98 in Roman numerals) for his meager rushing output through three games, is the man in the spotlight. QB Matt Hasselbeck has dialed up the deep ball in Chris Palmer's impressive attack, but that was with Britt tilting the field and opening things up for WR Nate Washington and an underrated group of athletic tight ends. With apologies to Palmer, it won't keep up that way with Britt out. The Browns might not feature the best passing defense in the NFL, but they have cleaned up some secondary issues following Week One and have a coordinator, Dick Jauron, who has faced Palmer many times over the years. Johnson has to produce. He used to invite eight- and nine-man fronts because it meant he could break out into the secondary for 60-yard plays once he broke free of the box. Now he looks frustrated and in his own head too much. Palmer got Johnson into space better as a receiver (four receptions, 54 yards) than as a runner (13 rushes, 21 yards), which could be a trend against a slower Browns LB group. The pressure is on Johnson to start earning the contract he cried so long to receive.
2. Waiting to wrap up Johnson is a Browns DT duo that is starting to earn some attention around the NFL. Witness the Week Three collaboration of Phil Taylor and Ahtyba Rubin in the win over the Dolphins: 16 tackles, 2½ sacks, two tackles for losses and three hits on Dolphins QB Chad Henne. Behind them is revived MLB D'Qwell Jackson, who is far more comfortable in a 4-3 scheme (especially behind two such massive tackles). Jackson led the Browns with 11 tackles and met RB Daniel Thomas time and time again in the hole, likely giving the rookie something to remember on the flight home to Miami. They'll have their hands full with Johnson, and the Titans seeking ways to get him going. Offensively, the Browns are opportunistic at best, but they are certainly competitive. Colt McCoy is making just enough plays to keep the Browns in games, and you have to love the way he plays with the game on the line. It's stunning to think that either Hasselbeck or McCoy will be 3-1 after this game — and really, both teams should be unbeaten after Week One losses they regret — but these unsung quarterbacks have their teams in good shape early.
3. Another surprising team, Detroit, is 3-0 for the first time since Jimmy Carter was in office. But the surprise is only to those who did not watch the Lions at the end of last season or fail to accept what this team is doing right. The Lions have a swagger right now, and underrated LB Justin Durant told me Sunday night after the game that the team never once thought about the possibility of losing despite going down 20-0 at Minnesota. "It was pretty calm on the sidelines," Durant said by phone. "We had talked during the week about (the Vikings' propensity for giving up leads), but besides, we have a lot of confidence right now. All we did is clean up some stuff defensively and let the offense take care of business." But Durant also admitted that the Lions' real meat and potatoes, schedule-wise, starts in Week Four with the Cowboys, and following, in order, at home with three toughies: the Bears (first Monday nighter in 10 years), the 49ers (a surprising 2-1 with a good defense) and the Falcons (still a contender until further notice). People want to believe in the Lions, but the interesting thing is that they definitely believe in themselves. The Cowboys will provide a good test.
4. Speaking of the Cowboys, they certainly don't win a lot of style points, do they? Monday's win was a thing of pure ugly, a field-goal festival and bad-snapping nightmare turned positive on the toughness of Tony Romo and the kicking of suddenly clutch rookie Dan Bailey. This week will be spent with a heavy emphasis on Romo and his receivers and Romo and C Phil Costa getting on the same page. But on the other side of the ball, how about the defense coming together under Rob Ryan? Everyone knew his inventive schemes would work in time, and he clearly has some excitement brewing. But the job he has done, working with a shorthanded secondary, has been utterly commendable. And Ryan has to be excited when he watches the first-half tape of Vikings-Lions. What he will see is a full-on attack from the Vikings on a suddenly shaky Lions offensive line. ORT Gosder Cherilus was benched for Corey Hilliard. OLT Jeff Backus incurred back-to-back false starts. Matthew Stafford was sacked five times and hit twice more. Expect Ryan to send the dogs after the Lions' QB all day Sunday. Ryan, I think, likes it ugly.
5. The Eagles are at a crossroads, clearly. Michael Vick not only is under assault, suffering a badly swollen hand in the loss to the Giants courtesy of a free run from Chris Canty, but he now has turned his ire on the officials. Vick made sure to say that he was not complaining about the referees, but then he went on to complain about the referees, saying he does not receive the same treatment as other (read: star) players with regard to late hits. Is this the Vick P.R. machine at work? When the question was asked if Vick thought he was not given proper respect from the zebras, the words were barely out of the reporter's mouth when Vick said, "Absolutely." He then gave a speech that sounded semi-prepared: "I'm not going to complain about it," Vick said. "I'm just making everybody aware, and hopefully somebody will take notice." But what Vick's group of handlers cannot do is speed up the healing of his right (non-throwing) hand in time for the 2-1 Niners in Philly on Sunday. Sure, that record might be a bit over their heads, especially with a putrid offense that seems to be regressing, but the defense can attack. We'll see if it's Vick or Mike Kafka, who was strong in Week Two but awful in a relief appearance against the Giants (two INTs in seven attempts).
6. What to make of these Niners? Maybe they can sneak up on an Eagles team that lacks direction and leadership, struggles to tackle and take good angles defensively and now has a banged-up star QB. It would require a heroic defensive performance, you'd think, given the way the 49ers' offense has flopped. Frank Gore has a tender ankle. The offensive line is struggling. Braylon Edwards is out and Michael Crabtree is back ... but still not all that effective. And Alex Smith, well, you know the story there. But the defense might be worth noticing. Witness Sunday: After Andy Dalton moved the Bengals down the field on the opening drive, completing 5-of-6 passes, the Niners started pressing the Cincy receivers and knocking them off their routes. Dalton completed 12 passes the rest of the afternoon and was picked twice. The 49ers play fast and they don't let your run game get going very easily. Don't be shocked if the Niners make it tough on Philly early in the game. The NFC West, as it is every year, is up for the taking. If 7-9 won it last year, maybe 6-10 takes it this season. If that is the case, the 49ers might only need to win four of their next 13. We're only kidding. We think.
7. Can the "Black Hole" be a factor two weeks in a row? The Raiders' fans rose up and filled the Coliseum and actually made some noise Sunday. Magic Johnson was there. The noise might have led to two procedure penalties. Raiders head coach Hue Jackson got the fans whooped up into a frenzy at game's end. We might have something going on in Oakland again. But the biggest reason wasn't the crowd noise but the franchise tailback. Darren McFadden did to Rex Ryan what no man had done to him before, hanging 171 rushing yards on the Jets head coach. Ryan is most famous for his snack comment in "Hard Knocks," but the one I found most fascinating was when he said, "I can take your run game away if I want to." Ryan must not have wanted to stop McFadden because the Raiders back tore the Jets up, prompting Jackson to call him the "best back in football, bar none." McFadden might be handicapped a little by his tender groin, which caused him to miss the end of the win over the Jets, but you can bet he'll be out there against the Patriots.
8. We'll preface this by noting that the Patriots do a better job of handling internal problems than almost anyone. It's coaching: No one does a better job than Bill Belichick of getting his players to do what they previously could not. But tell me that Sunday's loss to the Bills didn't raise a host of questions about this team, and not just defensively ... and not just Ochocinco-related. I thought they had something with Stevan Ridley there in the fourth quarter, but they got away from him. The Patriots were way too one-dimensional offensively — Tom Brady to Wes Welker, rinse, repeat — and must be far more diverse. The Raiders' defensive line could manhandle the Patriots' front if they are not careful, and TE Aaron Hernandez, who would be perfect to exploit the Raiders' coverage-prone linebackers. They were eaten up by LaDainian Tomlinson in the passing game, so look for Danny Woodhead to flare out on some routes in space. But back to what Belichick does so well. First and foremost, he's a teacher, but he's also a very smart motivator. So given the comments of Raiders LB Rolando McClain, do you think Belichick might make his team aware of them? Here's what McClain said: "This is just a finesse team." He went on to praise the skill-position players, but those six words will find themselves plastered up in the locker room somewhere.
9. Jets. Ravens. Rex Ryan. Bart Scott. Ray Lewis. It's fun. These teams are pretty much mirror images of each other, and they both will chat this week. What's interesting, John Harbaugh doesn't plan to curb any of it on the Ravens' end. "We always tell our guys to be themselves," the head coach said. "We don't tell them not to say anything. We encourage them to be their best selves, and I think our guys are pretty good guys. Our guys are classy guys. I'm sure our guys will have fun with it. ... But it'll be good laughs, listening to what's coming out of New York, and we'll be looking forward to it because it's always funny, it's always entertaining, and that makes it more fun." You know what else is fun? Two similar teams knocking the snot out of each other. Mark Sanchez threw 42 passes Sunday, and Joe Flacco and Torrey Smith almost blew the roof off the dome in St. Louis, but I'll bet dollars to doughnuts that this game is about the slobberknockers. Can Jets replacement C Colin Baxter handle another brutally tough DT combo for the second week in a row in Haloti Ngata and Terrence Cody? We shall see.
10. Might the problem in Houston be Matt Schaub? Stay with me here. Yes, the Texans' defense was scorched in the fourth quarter Sunday at the Superdome. But it never should have been put in the position where it would have to make up for an offense with as much firepower as the Texans possess. After a 14-yard TD pass in the first quarter to TE Owen Daniels, Schaub went 3-of-8 passing for 24 yards and a TD in the red zone, but 20 of those yards came on a fluke deflection to Kevin Walter that should have been intercepted. To be fair, Ben Tate is not Arian Foster — at least not as a receiver. That threat does change the way teams defend the Texans. But they had to settle for field goals too often against the Saints, and a better defensive team in the Steelers could cause some real problems for them in this battle of 2-1 teams in Houston. The Texans have scored five TDs in 16 red-zone possessions (31.3 percent) this season, with a pair of 1-for-5 performances the past two games. That must change against the Steelers.
11. Sanchez wants to throw it more. The Jets sometimes let him. Sometimes he's successful. And though Shonn Greene has yet to step out and the offensive line has yet to dominate, the Jets are still better when Sanchez throws the ball about 25 times as opposed to 35 or more. Ryan and Brian Schottenheimer say they want to be a "throw to score, run to win" offense, but too often they seem to loosen the leash and let the kid throw too much, especially late in games. The Steelers have been this way through various stages of Ben Roethlisberger's career; the more he throws, historically, the less the Steelers have won. The same appears true with the Jets and Sanchez. Like the Patriots' offense, the Jets' defense will figure its problems out. But offensively, they might not ever be great if Sanchez is the central figure. Great as in Super Bowl great.
12. Like the Texans' red-zone issues, the Steelers' problems running the ball are curious. Their offensive line has been a weak spot, and the inability to get any push up front and handle talented defensive fronts (Ravens, Colts) is a major concern. The Colts stunted a lot, and the Steelers couldn't get anything going on their 28 carries. At least give them credit for sticking with it, but you know that Wade Phillips is going to have all kinds of slanting and DL movement up front until the Steelers show they have worked things out in practice drills this week and can handle it in a game. On the season, the Steelers have run for only 257 yards (67 Sunday, 15 from Ben Roethlisberger), and now they are facing OL issues. OTs Jonathan Scott (ankle) and Marcus Gilbert (shoulder) and ORG Doug Legursky (shoulder) all went down Sunday night, leaving their statuses in doubt. You could see either Flozell Adams or Max Starks, two players they cut during training camp, come back. But Starks worked out for the Vikings Monday. This issue won't solve itself.
13. The Falcons appear desperate to fix their offensive line and not get Matt Ryan killed, like he has been so far. "We are very disappointed with the way we have protected our quarterback in the first three ballgames," head coach Mike Smith said. But what did they expect? They aced tough-guy OG Harvey Dahl in the offseason, and Garrett Reynolds hasn't been up to the task. Todd McClure has been hurt, and replacement Joe Hawley looks overmatched. But who do they go to? It's not just the pass blocking; take away 53- and 61-yard runs by Michael Turner, and the Falcons are averaging 2.9 yards a rush. And is making wholesale offensive line changes smart this week? The Falcons head to Seattle, which happens to be False Start West. That crowd noise is a challenge for an experienced group, much less one working together for the first time.
14. The Redskins will look back at the tape of their loss to the Cowboys and be sick at the missed opportunities. Rex Grossman especially will rue this one, as it was the perfect opportunity to quiet the critics and show the masses that the Redskins are contenders. They dominated from the start but couldn't finish off drives and settled for field goals (or blocked FG attempts because of bad snaps, oy). Then, of course, the turnovers killed them. They'll have a short week to get ready for another roadie, at the Rams, and don't assume that the two double-digit losses mean the Rams are cooked. This game, in fact, might tell us just how mentally tough the Redskins really are. Turn around and lose another one, and it's the same old Redskins. Go into St. Louis and win, and they are 3-1 and still atop the NFC East.
15. We save the final spot for the 0-3 Dolphins, who appear to be playing (or are they?) for head coach Tony Sparano's job, starting with Sunday's game against the Chargers. The interesting thing is that the report out of the postgame locker room after Sunday's loss to the Browns was not one of anger but one, we hear, of quiet disappointment, almost as if this team has been beaten before the season is a quarter old. Can the players muster up some fire for their coach, or themselves? We'll cut Chad Henne some slack for misspeaking, but his words Monday were rather amusing. "We're going to find out what kind of team this team is," Henne said. "I know one thing about these guys: They're not going to stop quitting." It's all in good fun, and no one is suggesting that the Dolphins have gone belly-up. In fact, they could have a chance to keep it close against the play-down-to-their-competition Chargers, who might be without TE Antonio Gates again. But, lose big ... then things get pretty dicey for Sparano.