We're a quarter of the way into the 2011 season, and a couple of standard football principles are starting to come into play: Running the football still has its place in today's pass-happy NFL (SEE: the 49ers, Redskins and Texans); injuries still happen despite all league efforts to the contrary (SEE: Jerod Mayo, Andre Johnson and poor Bryan Thomas); and separating quality from mediocrity is still as tough as ever.
Prior to last weekend's exciting package of games, I harped on Cincinnati's ability to stifle Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Bills (nice one, Elliot) as well as Tony Romo's big-time play thus far (not so good, Elliot).
After this week's games, I -- like most of you football heads -- learned a few things.
»a. New Orleans appears intent on bringing 2009 back.
»b. NFL Ebay -- free agency -- can't top April's draft when it comes to building a defense.
»c. Alternate jerseys aren't going away.
»d. Some bargain brand QBs are playing as good or better than the name brands.
But enough about Alex Smith. Let's get to the rankings, where Smith's Niners and some other NFC teams showed serious upward mobility ...
Green Bay isn't moving. The secondary, namely Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams, made some plays Sunday. But, Green Bay -- sans Nick Collins -- is still vulnerable vertically. Thankfully, as long as Aaron Rodgers keeps flinging the ol' NERF football around, it really doesn't matter.
If you knew that Darren Sproles was gonna be this integral to the offense, then you probably guessed that Cam Newton would throw for 350 yards per game and the last "Indiana Jones" movie was gonna suck. Well, actually, a lot of us knew that, but you get the point. Sproles had 188 all-purpose yards Sunday, and the Saints' ground game put up 177. Now, if they would just go back to the uniforms they wore vs. Houston.
Two straight weeks, two straight massive comebacks for Matthew Stafford. Remember in Tecmo Super Bowl -- not Tecmo Bowl -- but Tecmo Super Bowl, when Joe Montana could throw it up and Jerry Rice or John Taylor would just jump up and catch it ... no matter how many guys were around? If you were on defense, you would throw your controller across the room as soon as you saw the cut scene with the close up of Rice jumping and the ball sticking to his hands. That's what Cowboys fans did on Sunday, throwing the remote across the room as soon as they saw Calvin Johnson jump over Terence Newman.
New England keeps rolling as it appears it will take four interceptions from Tom Brady for this team to lose. Then again, the upcoming schedule is not a cakewalk: vs. Jets, vs. Cowboys, at Steelers, vs. Giants and at Jets. The committee approach on offense just got more diversified with back Stevan Ridley's 100 yards from scrimmage against the Raiders.
Big win at Reliant Stadium, but it came at a price. Andre Johnson is out. Ben Tate is also hurt. Better hope that hamstring holds up on Arian Foster, Texans fans. When Johnson injured his ankle last year vs. the Redskins, Dallas went with a single high safety the next week and thwarted the Houston offense. No A.J. means tighter coverage on everyone else. Kevin Walter and Owen Daniels are going to have to win their matchups. Good news: Oakland's poor run defense is up next. Foster destroyed them last year (133 yards in one half of work).
That was one ugly football game Sunday night. If you're a Ravens fan, you must love the occasional shot downfield to Torrey Smith. It opens things up for everyone else, although Joe Flacco continues to be consistently inconsistent. More important than the quarterback position, at least this week, was the solid performance by the Ravens' corners, a position that has been a weak spot.
A letdown was bound to happen. To be frank, losing to the Bengals on the road was not the worst thing in the world. That was the best defense Buffalo has played, and it still took a last-second field goal to fall from the unbeaten ranks. One of the keys to staying successful will be to keep finding ways to incorporate Fred Jackson into the offense, and not lose patience in the ground game. The Bills passed on nine straight first down plays in the second half in Cincinnati.
I hesitate to write anything nice about the Chargers, because I don't want to curse the nice people of San Diego and Pacific Beach. You write about Oakland, and Ryan Fitzpatrick pours touchdown passes over their heads in Buffalo. You write about Romo, he hits fly balls to Detroit's center fielders. So, nothing nice about San Diego. A win is a win.
Tampa fans, if you're wondering how the Colts stayed in the game, your answer is 13 penalties for 100 yards. The Bucs lacked discipline Monday night, but offensive coordinator Greg Olson made up for it with some smart play-calling. A heavy dose of LeGarrette Blount, who was John Riggins in a past life, didn't hurt.
Look out. This group is 3-1, with the one loss a two-point setback in Dallas. All the talk about Tim Hightower's carries, and Roy Helu's increased action, played itself out in typical Mike Shanahan fashion -- Ryan Torain gained 135 yards on 19 carries. Meanwhile, the defense gave up fewer than four yards per passing attempt to Sam Bradford. Pretty damn impressive.
If there can be a sneaky 3-1 team in the NFL, it's the G-Men. Hand it to Tom Coughlin, who's making it happen despite the death-by-a-thousand-paper-cuts injury situation. Did Big Blue dominate in Arizona? No. But the Giants got pressure on Kevin Kolb and are making opposing passers ineffective. Perry Fewell's defense has limited quarterbacks to a 76.9 passer rating, 10 points below the league average.
Call me a football purist, but Sunday night's game brought a healthy dose of reality to all of those who only pay attention to fantasy numbers. Hey Jets, the guy who snaps the ball -- commonly referred to as the "center" -- is quite important. Nick Mangold's absence led to protection problems and a running game that averaged 2.0 yards per carry against the Ravens. Of course, that's not much worse than the ground game has been all season, as offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer just can't get Shonn Greene going.
Matt Forte hung a 205-spot in the rushing column, but the real story was that offensive coordinator Mike Martz got the memo and gift-wrapped his back 25 carries against the Panthers. In fact, the Bears' run-pass ratio was 31 to 17. Someone should've taken Martz's temperature after the game to make sure he was feeling okay. That's not like him.
My defense of the Titans as a potential wild-card team appears healthy (this week). A key to Tennessee's win in Cleveland was constantly forcing the Browns into third-down situations -- they had 20! The victory was an emotional one for the Titans, who had to play a few days after the death of former offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger, a respected figure around the league.
Every Steelers follower I know felt the Texans matchup was a bad one. While Foster had a nice game, Pittsburgh held its own. Despite starting William Gay at corner, Matt Schaub and the vaunted Houston passing attack was mostly held in check (although Andre Johnson's injury certainly helped). The Steelers were missing two starters on the offensive line, lost Rashard Mendenhall, James Harrison, and Aaron Smith during the game and were still there at the end. With the Titans, Jaguars and Cardinals coming up on the schedule, it's not panic time.
Romo giveth, and Romo taketh away. I'll tell ya, you write an article defending a guy and then he shoots the thing all to hell.
Even with Michael Vick's injury status and the Eagles struggling on defense, pretty much no one gave the 49ers a chance in Philadelphia. But look who's 3-1? Frank Gore responded to criticism of being fat and happy with his new contract -- as well as fantasy owners benching him in droves -- with 127 yards on only 15 carries. The Niners' biggest positive to come out of the win, however, was an efficient Alex Smith, who got a lot of bang for the buck on 33 throws (291 yards) and didn't toss a pick.
The Raiders had their butts handed to them by a better team, plain and simple. There are three huge issues preventing Oakland from toppling San Diego in the AFC West: Penalties, run defense and penalties. The Raiders commit almost 10 penalties per game and give up 5.9 yards per carry. That won't cut it against the NFL's elite.
Falcons fans should be concerned with their team's inability to put away an inferior opponent like the Seahawks. Considering the Falcons had to travel 3,100 miles to play a game, though, just take the win. Matt Ryan played what was probably his best game of the young season, but he still isn't wowing anyone. Atlanta's key in the NFC has to be its ability to run the football, and that aspect of the offense has struggled the last two weeks.
The 2011 Eagles are slowly but surely becoming the poster child for why building through free agency pales in comparison to building through the draft. All of a sudden, next week's road game in Buffalo -- marked down in the preseason as an easy "W" -- is a must-win situation. You can count on one hand how many 1-4 teams have recovered to make the playoffs.
Andy Dalton showed Bengals fans what they needed to see. Was he great all game? No. Did he throw some picks? Yes. But he also led a drive to get a winning field goal against the then-unbeaten Bills. He was clutch, as was Mike Zimmer's defense. I told my colleagues (who shouted me down) on "NFL Fantasy Live" that Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick would not torch the Cincinnati defense. Sure enough Fitzpatrick only threw for 199 yards and had no touchdowns. Great win, Cincy.
I was in the Green Room at NFL West in Culver City, peacefully watching a portion of the games with Steve Mariucci, that is until Mooch yelled, " Colt McCoy threw 61 passes!" I second that and can't imagine that's the blueprint Team Holmgren has for Cleveland. The home loss to the Titans is the exact kind of game the Browns need to take. They're not talented enough (yet) to lose these games and win on the road against better clubs.
Have you noticed yet that Carolina is nobody's push over? In defeat, Cam Newton threw for 374 yards while the running game came out of hibernation to put up 169 yards. We even had our first sighting of a productive DeAngelo Williams (82 yards). Just imagine how competitive 2010's worst team would be if linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis hadn't gone down to injury.
The calls for Tim Tebow are only going to get louder if the television broadcast annoyingly shows him standing on the sideline every time Kyle Orton misfires on a 5-yard out. Here's some news for the masses: a) Denver's defense is as much to blame for Sunday's debacle as Orton; and b) Tebow doesn't give John Fox a better chance to win. Orton and the passing game certainly turned it on after the Packers jumped ahead 21-3. Of course, that's the problem, the offense is not igniting when Denver needs it most.
That last sequence of downs vs. the G-Men was not inspiring. Watching Kevin Kolb, it's almost as if he hasn't decided how good he is yet. Some plays he's decisive and a risk-taker, then suddenly he's not and Craig Krentzel-like the next set of downs. Either way, Beanie Wells looks good. Expect Ken Whisenhunt to lean on him ... like a 20-25 carries per game lean.
How much did the 12th man want Steven Hauschka to bang that 61-yarder through? Seattle needed that upset like Top 40 radio needs talent. So what's the upside in almost upsetting a perceived quality team, like Atlanta? Tarvaris Jackson showed everybody something in the second half. A stat line of 25 of 38 for 319 yards has never been uttered next to Jackson's name. The defense was solid against the run, again. The Seahawks are allowing only 3.2 yards per carry (third in NFL) and forcing teams to beat them with the pass, which hasn't exactly been tough to do.
Kansas City moves up this high because of character, and of course, beating the Vikings. After calling them out on "NFL Fantasy Live" two weeks ago, K.C. has played much better. The defense performed admirably Sunday, holding the Vikings to 10 points, and the Chiefs might have an opportunity to get their second win this weekend in Indianapolis. Todd Haley's team is fighting, despite the fact that the football Gods took his 2011 preseason plan and dumped it over a stadium rail where a street cleaner and marching band rolled over it. Just like in "The Naked Gun" ... "My Dad went the same way, Frank."
This just isn't fair to Vikings fans. It's bad enough to have your team at 0-4, with virtually no shot of making the playoffs. But to have to sit through Donovan McNabb go through another just-good-enough-to-get-you-beat performance has to be absolutely maddening.
It looked like the Jags were going to get beat 50-3 at one point Sunday. A little red-zone defense stopped that from happening. Jacksonville ranks 32nd in points scored, red-zone drives, passer rating and passing yards. Blaine Gabbert struggled going 16 of 42 against the Saints. But, at the end of the day, everyone in Jacksonville knows what they would've got with David Garrard. Gabbert equals upside. Saving $8 million-plus probably didn't hurt, either.
The Chiefs' 2011 plan got crapped on, while the Dolphins' 2011 plan appears to be crap, at least to the Miami fans I've spoken to. It's a difficult point to argue, considering the ill-fated approach to land Jim Harbaugh and then give Tony Sparano a half-hearted vote of confidence once Harbaugh said no. Sparano's background as an offensive line coach isn't manifesting itself, either. Miami has allowed 14 sacks, while Reggie Bush has been a certifiable bust as a lead back.
It's starting to look pretty bleak in St. Louis. The Rams rank below both the Jags and Vikings because they've already allowed 113 points. Offensively, Josh McDaniels and Sam Bradford miss Danny Amendola and his ability to work underneath the secondary, and the running game gave Bradford virtually nothing vs. Washington's front seven. The preseason favorite to win the NFC West is now 0-4, with the Packers, Cowboys and Saints coming up. St. Louis could easily start 0-7.