So the season has, um, picked up a bit, eh? Will Week Four be as amazing, controversial and frustrating as Week Three (especially that Monday-night game) was? Here are the early story lines for this week’s games.
1. If there’s a coach and team prepared to unfurl and handle the fallout madness from the Monday-night controversy, it’s Mike McCarthy and the Packers. As hurt and confused as he might have been, the coach spoke with resolve and focus in the post-game press conference despite the feeling deep down that nearly everyone else would have had trouble hiding: he and his team got a fast one pulled on them. No, we’re not suggesting that the Packers were a part of some conspiracy, and of course the league would never put itself in such a compromising position in regards to its highly criticized referee problem. But they were jobbed, plain and simple. What a mess. But also, McCarthy might say, what an opportunity. They’ll try to do Sunday against the Saints what the Saints couldn’t do to start this season (they’re 0-3, in case you didn’t realize), and that’s turn controversy on its head and use it as a motivational force. The Packers have the even-keeled and steely quarterback (although you could almost see steam coming out of Aaron Rodgers’ ears Monday night) and now, apparently, the defense to make ends meet up quite well, thank you very much, starting with Sunday. A win over the Saints would make the Packers 2-2 with maybe the toughest part of their schedule behind them.
2. There’s no joy in Mudville, aka New Orleans, with a winless start — and with two of those games coming at home, Sunday’s loss being the most painful. Holding an 18-point lead against an 0-2 team in the not-so recent past was tantamount to an early post-game celebration trip to Frenchmen Street, but no longer. The Saints have fallen hard, and Sunday’s game in Green Bay could make them an unsightly 0-4. Never before will Joe Vitt be such a sight for sore eyes in a few weeks. But it hasn’t been that long since the Saints were in this kind of dark place. It was 2007, when the post-post-Katrina Saints, high off their NFC title-game appearance the year before, fell to 0-4 with a home loss (coming off a bye) to the Panthers. Prior to that, they had been outscored 103-38; this year through three losses, the Saints at least have made all of them one-score games. Expect a desperate, competitive Saints team with little to lose and nowhere to go but up. Expect a willful Drew Brees playing at the level he did last time he was in Lambeau, gunning for 419 yards and three TDs in the 2011 season-opening loss last season. What might be the difference Sunday, however? The Saints couldn’t stop Rodgers that night — so how, with a far worse defense, can they hope to do so Sunday, especially given all that has happened to the Packers this week?
3. The other team swathed in the controversial game, of course, was the Seahawks. After playing their lottery numbers this week, they’ll head to St. Louis to face the feisty Rams, who are playing better defense by a mile this season. In fact, the whole NFC West is turning heads for the “D” — and who would have thought that the Seahawks’ eight first-half sacks against Rodgers and the Packers would be about the eighth-most interesting story line by game’s end? Should Rams QB Sam Bradford (12 sacks taken this season) be worried? The Bears took him down six times and hit him another three. What about Seahawks QB Russell Wilson? Not his finest day, despite the unreal finish. Wilson had 106 passing yards on 20 attempts prior to the Golden Tate miracle, and the Seahawks were 2-of-11 on third downs. The Rams are starting to get some return on all their defensive investments, ranking seventh in the NFL in interception rate and tied for eighth in third-down defense. Expect another slugger in the Dome.
4. Andy Reid didn’t say absolutely not. Before clarifying his comments a day later, he had the chance to say that Michael Vick was his quarterback, his guy, as he likes to say. But when asked if he’d make a change if Vick (nine turnovers in three games) continues to donate footballs to opponents, Reid didn’t shut the door. "Right now, we're with Michael, and that's what we're doing,” Reid said. “We'll evaluate as we go." Reid is famous for a few things: not saying much and having his not much speak volumes are two big ones. Vick has had some big moments in the first two weeks, such as the game-winning drive at Cleveland and most of the win over the Ravens. Reid also said rookie QB and preseason hero Nick Foles would not receive any additional snaps this week in advance of the Sunday-night game against the Giants, but the coach certainly won’t be revealing his master plan before such a big game. Could we see Foles? It’s not likely, but it’s certainly something to watch for at some point. A more pressing question might be if we’ll see Jeremy Maclin and his injured hip. The Eagles are 29-17, averaging 26.7 points when Maclin plays, and 2-3 (16.8 ppg) when he doesn’t. They missed him Sunday for sure.
5. Both the Eagles and Giants are 2-1. Does it feel that way? After the season-opening loss, the Giants have responded and played six straight excellent quarters. It’s almost as if they are following last year’s script with the early loss followed by a strong run. And it was in Week Three a year ago that the world was introduced to Victor Cruz and the Salsa Dance. He torched the Eagles — at the height of their defensive problems in 2011 — for three catches, 110 yards and two touchdowns. A week ago, two Giants made their introductions to a national audience: RB Andre Brown and WR Ramses Barden. With Hakeem Nicks’ foot and RB Ahmad Bradshaw’s neck keeping them out of the short-week game, Brown and Barden were breakout stars. The Giants seem to find guys like this in the woodwork every year. From the second half of the Bucs game in Week Two, Brown ran hard and rallied his team with broken tackles. Barden’s nine catches against the Panthers matched his 2011 total; in four seasons he had only 16 career receptions coming in. Will the Giants need them again? They’re getting healthier on offense and in the secondary.
6. Those Panthers were torn apart at the seams, offensively and defensively, against the Giants and the team that everyone wanted to anoint as the next breakout squad is staring 1-3 overall and 0-2 in the division in the face. Facing the Falcons — next up on, “You’re The Best Team In The NFL!” with the 49ers’ unexpected loss — will be a huge challenge for the Panthers in Atlanta. Cam Newton struggled in his last trip to his hometown as a rookie last season, throwing two fourth-quarter interceptions in a 31-17 Panthers loss to the Falcons. The Panthers have not turned the corner yet this season, and Newton has struggled to avoid bad decisions. Meanwhile, the Falcons have emerged as the cream of the division — and perhaps the conference — now that the defense has taken step forward.
7. Can’t wait for the injury report Wednesday and what might be an NFL first in relation to Texans QB Matt Schaub: “Probable, ear.” Yes, Schaub had his Evander Holyfield moment (and not this kind, thankfully) late in the victory over the Broncos, grabbing his ear in pain after a chunk of it had come off from an illegal hit by Broncos LB Joe Mays (whose name kind of sounds like a boxer, no?). No worries — Schaub threw for 290 yards and four TDs (including 60- and 52-yard scores) and is quietly among the league’s leading passers after signing an extension with the Texans. Life is pretty good for this balanced and dangerous team, which might be the AFC’s best heading into a game against the suddenly back-to-life Titans. They too flashed a big-play penchant, becoming the first team to score five 60-yard-or-longer TDs in a game in the 44-41 OT thriller that somehow was only the second-most-talked-about game of Week Three. Titans QB Jake Locker might have had his coming out party against the Lions Sunday, but his chore becomes markedly tougher against the Texans, who made Peyton Manning work awfully hard for his 330 yards.
8. If you’re looking for textbook offensive line play, you might want to skip Monday’s game between the Bears and Cowboys in Dallas. (Of course, had you taken that approach last week, you would have missed out on all the fun in Seattle, so …) Yes, the Bears rank 29th sack percentage allowed and 25th in yards per rush, and the Cowboys are 28th in rushing yards and their O-line has been responsible for 13 of the team’s 31 penalties, including four by ORT Doug Free in Sunday’s ugly win. Jay Cutler and Tony Romo are capable of slinging some bullets, and this game could offer some offensive excitement. But that isn’t very likely, given the way things have gone lately. Both defenses are ranked in the top 10 in most key categories, with the Cowboys first in yards allowed and tied for seventh in points and the Bears sixth in yards and fifth in points permitted. We might be in line for a second straight defensive battle on Monday. Now, if we can just avoid controversial endings …
9. Matthew Stafford might not practice much (or at all) this week, but he’s reportedly going to try to give it a go against the Vikings in Detroit on Sunday. He had to give way to backup QB Shaun Hill — who was mostly brilliant in defeat — after suffering what the team is calling a leg muscle injury. The last time these teams met here, Vikings QB Christian Ponder started, struggled (four turnovers) and was benched, giving way to Joe Webb, who almost pulled off the comeback. But Ponder feels like a new man this season, completing more than 70 percent of his passes and leading late rallies in the first two weeks and beating the mighty Niners on Sunday. He also gets WR Jerome Simpson, which should alleviate some of the Vikings’ downfield passing problems, and last we checked the Lions couldn’t do much to stop Locker, a fellow second-year passer. The Lions will be on high upset alert, but head coach Jim Schwartz said his team also emerged from the Nashville rubble with some positives. “You have to be halfway in between,” Schwartz said. “You can be a guy that says, ‘Hey we set a lot of records, we almost had 600 yards, we scored 41 points, we came back 14 points in the last 18 seconds and made a value.’ You can point to all the positive things and there was. There is no question there is a great deal of positive things.”
10. This week’s Thursday game features one of only two 0-3 teams, the Browns, against one of 12 2-1 squads in the Ravens. It’s not the most exciting game on the docket, that’s for sure, but it’s worth noting that the Browns are one more loss closer to having the whole ship torn apart by new owner Jimmy Haslam III. The Browns’ losses have been getting incrementally larger — from one point to seven points to 10 Sunday — and they have lost eight straight to the Ravens, although the last one in Baltimore (20-14, Week 16) at least was close. There might be changes afoot in this one. Browns WR Greg Little tried to make up for his continued drops Sunday with an Usain Bolt-esque “lightning bolt” celebration after each of his two receptions (for a total of 17 yards!). Surprisingly, head coach Pat Shurmur, who now is 4-15 as the team’s coach with nine straight losses, wasn’t high-fiving his wideout after the game. "We can't play a guy that's going to drop footballs," Shurmur said, rather humorlessly. For the Ravens, the big drama might be to see if John Harbaugh can keep his cool with the refs.
11. The Patriots are 1-2, below .500 for the first time since dropping their opener in 2003 to the Bills. There’s surprisingly little panic in New England considering, but the Patriots have had early-season losses — and the occasional but rare back-to-back losses — and bounced back. This team last season hit rock bottom after the loss at home to the Giants, which, like Sunday’s defeat at the hands of the Ravens, came in the final moments, and they ended up winning 10 straight (including postseason) leading up to the Super Bowl. Another low moment for the Patriots in 2011 was the Bills game in Buffalo, and they return to the scene Sunday of last year’s stunning 34-31 loss. The Bills are a competitive 2-1, but they suffered a big loss for this game with RB C.J. Spiller likely out. There are two thank goodnesses here: One, Spiller’s injury looks like a 1-2 week thing; two, it appears Fred Jackson will return in this game. He smoked the Patriots for 74 yards rushing and 87 more receiving, including a 38-yard reception that set up the winning field goal in last year's victory.
12. The 1-2 Chiefs might have saved their season with a win on the road. The 2-1 Chargers ran afoul with a home loss. Which result was more stunning? We might get some answers Sunday in Kansas City when the two teams face off for a small bit of clarification for the who-the-heck-knows AFC West. The return of Ryan Mathews did not jumpstart the Chargers’ run game, and yet head coach Norv Turner is not about to play “poor me” with his first-place team. "It is not only us and that is the point I'm talking about with the other teams," Turner said. "I'm sure there are other coaches, like us, finding out who we are and what scenarios give us the best chance to win." But whereas the Chiefs solved a huge problem area after halftime Sunday against the Saints from the previous 10 quarters with its defense, the Chargers seemed to take two steps back against the jump in competition with the visiting Falcons. Still, nothing but roses from the coach who somehow stays dry when it rains. "I have a good feel for where our team is headed," Turner said. "We are going to become an outstanding football team. We have the right kind of guys, with the right kind of work ethic and outstanding coaches."
13. Darrelle Revis has been properly put to rest for this season, and the Jets have used up all of their token “next man up” references, but will the season summarily tank following his 2012-ending ACL injury? It might not be the fiercest passing-game test, but they’ll get an angry nest of hornets when the 49ers, with fresh blood on their uniforms from Sunday’s upset in Minnesota, come to town on Sunday. The Niners came to the East Coast three times last season, winning two and losing one — all close games, however. The Jets have already been a part of two blowouts (one good, one bad) but scratched one out in overtime last week in Miami, a win that few feel truly good about. Hey, the Vikings beat the 49ers at their brand of ugly football — can the Jets, who specialize in that style, do the same? Never say never.
14. The numbers suggest the Cardinals are going to make the postseason. Since 1990, 75.7 percent of teams (84 of 111) that started 3-0 made the playoffs, and the Cardinals’ next three games are against the Dolphins, Rams and Bills, who are a combined 4-5. Two of those three games, including Sunday afternoon’s contest, are in Arizona. You might not have noticed it with most of the attention on Reggie Bush and Ryan Tannehill on the other side, but the Dolphins’ run defense has actually been spectacular (2.4 yards per carry allowed, only seven rushing first downs against). You also might not have noticed that the Cardinals are among the more anemic at running the ball on offense, averaging 2.8 yards an attempt. Allow Kevin Kolb to let it rip? Why not? He was great Sunday against the Eagles’ defense, hasn’t thrown a pick and has the third-best QB rating in the NFL. Strange season. Bush, by the way, could play. The knee injury he suffered was not structural in nature. That's huge for the Dolphins.
15. The Buccaneers will finish their three-game barnstorming tour of the NFC East with a home game against the high-flying Redskins (NFL-best 99 points) and their rookie sensation, QB Robert Griffin III. Sadly, for the Redskins, they also must bring along their other units. The special teams were not awful in Sunday’s loss to the Bengals, but the defense was. Thankfully, the Buccaneers have been somewhat dormant on offense for long stretches this season — after the first two drives in Week One, most of the second half in Week Two and the entire game in Week Three. What happens when a stoppable force faces off against a quite moveable object? That’s the philosophical debate that will play out Sunday afternoon in Tampa. The Redskins, frankly, are worried about how many hits Griffin is taking, and that worry has grown with OLT Trent Williams hurt. Opposite Williams’ replacement, however, could be another replacement: Bucs DRE Adrian Claiborne is also hurt and will miss the remainder of the season. Still, you can bet that Mike Shanahan is going over kneeldown-contingency plans this week with his line and franchise QB, just in case. Oh, and you might not all have realized it’s the first bye week. The Colts and Steelers rest this weekend.