Debrief, Week 3: New hope for Lions; Le'Veon Bell landing spots


Gregg Rosenthal catches you up on everything you need to know as we turn from Week 3 to Week 4.

Three weeks into a season shaping up as one in which it will be difficult to determine which teams are good at playing football, there are a lot of upset fans.

The Patriots fans are upset about the players around Tom Brady, because it's too scary to imagine being upset at Tom Brady. A crucial AFC East game looms in Week 4 against the undefeated Miami Dolphins, a jumble of words that wouldn't have made a lot of sense two weeks ago.

Vikings fans, like coach Mike Zimmer, were taken aback that their team trailed 27-0 at home, deep into the fourth quarter against the Bills. The 1-1-1 Vikings will be heavy underdogs Thursday night against the undefeated Rams, with another road trip to Philadelphia looming on the first weekend in October. Escaping that stretch at 2-2-1 would be a moral victory.

Packers fans are losing their minds after their team was thoroughly handled by the Redskins, directing that rage at the NFL's confusing rulebook, because the long-term implications of Aaron Rodgers' injuries are too upsetting to consider. While rage is one way to handle defeat, Falcons fans mostly just get sad. That's the sensible way to react after a Falcons defense missing Keanu Neal, Deion Jones, Takk McKinley and eventually safety Ricardo Allen was steamrolled during a crushing overtime loss to the Saints.

All of these early disappointments are the byproduct of too many teams having outsized expectations entering this season. It's no longer a league that looks top-heavy. Then again, this season is too young to draw many major conclusions from, except that Patrick Mahomes is a God temporarily playing with mortals. Sunday felt particularly strange because of a few big upsets, but people say that the start to every season is strange.

NFL teams are always one game away from changing their direction, and that's especially true at this time of year. Jaguars fans, feeling like AFC superpowers a week ago, have to wonder why the Titans own their squad. Fans of the Lions, Bills, Giants and Seahawks woke up Monday morning feeling 10 pounds lighter, their seasons reborn, their significant other looking sexier than ever. Browns fans feel 10 years younger.

I'll start this look across Week 3 with the teams that altered the course of their seasons for the good before it was too late. Then, I'll check in on Earl Thomas' game-changing "hold-in," potential Le'Veon Bell landing spots and some sneaky good starts to the season before I rank the things that should be causing fan bases the most panic. Let's do it:

Five teams that found new hope

1) Detroit Lions: Coach Matt Patricia and the Detroit secondary made Jimmy Garoppolo and Tom Brady look uncomfortable in successive weeks. Both of Patricia's former co-workers were forced to hold the ball far longer than desired while absorbing far too many hits. The focus after the game was understandably on Brady's lack of weapons, but Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is usually able to scheme guys like Chris Hogan open. The Patriots' running game is usually able to pick up first downs in short-yardage situations. Detroit's defense prevented both from happening, and Patricia deserves credit for doing everything possible to help the Lions avoid an 0-3 death sentence.

2) Buffalo Bills: There were so many surprising aspects to Buffalo's thorough takedown of the Vikings, but the performance of Sean McDermott's defense was the key. In nine drives over the first three quarters, the Vikings had 68 total yards and three turnovers. Sixty-eight! That's about what you'd expect if the 2018 Cardinals faced the 1985 Bears.

Next Gen Stats credited Jerry Hughes with 15 pressures, the most in a single game since 2016. The Bills probably won't suddenly become playoff contenders, but Josh Allen is going to make them more watchable, and this performance was a reminder of how resilient McDermott's defense was throughout last season. It's impressive how they responded to the most embarrassing start to the season imaginable.

3) Cleveland Browns: My friend and podcast co-host Marc Sessler penned the definitive piece on what it's like to devotedly support a sports team, especially when that devotion defies logic. It was published last Thursday, and I choose to see his piece about the Browns as a document of what life was like for Cleveland fans before Baker Mayfield, because everything is about to change. That's how good Mayfield looked throughout the preseason, and that's how decisive he looked in his first appearance against the Jets, leaving the Browns no choice but to officially make him their starter on Monday.

The Browns staying in the playoff mix would ratchet this entire season up a notch, a conceivable development after the impressive three-game stretch to start the year by coordinator Gregg Williams' defense. Mayfield may have been drafted by a winless team, but he has more support around him than fellow rookie quarterbacks Sam Darnold, Josh Allen and Josh Rosen.

4) New York Giants: The Giants may never fix their right tackle situation. Chad Wheeler, the replacement for weekly tabloid enemy Ereck Flowers, was routinely beaten by a revived J.J. Watt throughout much of Sunday's game. It just didn't matter enough. Eli Manning hit Sterling Shepard and Odell Beckham on time throughout the first half and the Giants' quietly improved defense did more than enough to win.

Facing a third-and-2 with under four minutes left and a five-point lead on Sunday, the Giants lined up Saquon Barkley as a wide receiver before Eli Manning found him down the field for a 21-yard gain. That's the type of play the Giants' offense simply couldn't make over the last few years, even during their playoff season of 2016. It's the type of play -- and formula for success centered around Barkley -- that gives the Giants some hope they can be relevant this year.

5) Seattle Seahawks: The Seahawks play five of their first seven games on the road. But Sunday's 24-13 win over Dallas provided a jolt of energy and a reminder that this group could be tough to beat in Seattle. Earl Thomas and Bradley McDougald comprise perhaps the best safety tandem in football. Tyler Lockett is already living up to his contract extension. Bobby Wagner is back to being among the best at his position. There are still a host of offensive problems for the Seahawks to solve, but Pete Carroll has to be optimistic about how his defense is already coming together. They have some winnable road games coming up (Arizona, Oakland) before the extremely home-heavy back half of the season.

Then again, they have to manage to keep that safety tandem together.

Earl Thomas is changing the game

I thought I'd seen every tactic when it comes to a contract dispute. Even Le'Veon Bell's appearance at his album release party last week now seems unimaginative after what Earl Thomas pulled off this week.

Jay Glazer of FOX was the first to report that Thomas has invented the "hold-in," a decision to prioritize his body and contract while being part of the team. Thomas sat out practice Wednesday and Friday to send a message to his employer.

"I need to make sure my body is 100 [percent]. And I'm invested in myself. If they was invested in me, I would be out there practicing," Thomas told reporters after the game. "If I feel like anything -- I don't give a damn if it's small, I got a headache -- I'm not practicing. But I don't want that to be taken the wrong way. I know I'm going to get fined, but that's just where I'm at with that."

The crazy part is that it's not getting taken the wrong way and that it worked. Thomas picked off two Dak Prescott passes Sunday and had the full support of his teammates after the game.

In comments to Michael Dugar of The Athletic, McDougald joked that he wanted to escort Thomas to the locker room so that Thomas didn't go to Dallas' side. Frank Clark called Thomas the G.O.A.T. and noted that "Earl is going to do Earl." Even coach Pete Carroll dodged the specifics of Thomas' stance, noting that the safety "gave everything" on the field Sunday and that the coach will "talk to him next week about whatever."

Thomas capped his WWE-heel style week by getting a penalty for bowing at the Cowboys bench after his second pick.

"If they was gonna trade for me and extend me, they should have did it," Thomas said.

So Thomas managed to troll the Seahawks and Cowboys on the same weekend, thrilling his fans like a Canton-bound legend all the while. Everything about the situation is fascinating, including Thomas creating a brand-new tactic in contract negotiations for future legends to consider. Speaking of which ...

Le'Veon Bell's best landing spots

Monday's news from NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport that Pittsburgh is listening to trade offers for Le'Veon Bell represented a significant change in his standoff with the team. The Steelers now appear open to the idea of moving on without Bell, even if trade compensation will be tricky. Here are five logical landing spots, as I see it:

Houston Texans: They have plenty of cap space, and Lamar Miller is probably in his last year with the team. While paying big for a running back isn't in the Bill Belichick-disciple playbook, Bill O'Brien is an independent thinker and knows his offense needs help.

Indianapolis Colts: General manager Chris Ballard is armed with a boatload of picks and cap space, without much offensive talent.

New York Jets: The New York Daily News reported that the team has reached out regarding Bell. While the backfield of Bilal Powell and Isaiah Crowell is the least of the Jets' problems, Bell would add star power to an offense that needs it. More importantly, general manager Mike Maccagnan and coach Todd Bowles could be in win-now mode, looking to make a splash this season before the next hiring and firing cycle.

Miami Dolphins: They have a decent amount of cap space and a decision maker in Mike Tannenbaum who is prone to making splashy moves like this. Kenyan Drake is an asset at running back, especially at his price, so this isn't a move the Dolphins need to make. But they didn't need to give Ndamukong Suh that contract in 2015, either.

Seattle Seahawks: This sounds improbable, because the Seahawks just drafted Rashaad Penny in the first round, but a deal involving Earl Thomas (and a runner?) going to the Steelers for Bell actually makes sense for both sides. The Seahawks are not afraid to make bold trades -- see Jimmy Graham, Percy Harvin, Duane Brown and Sheldon Richardson. They obviously value the running game more than most teams, and Seattle desperately needs some playmakers that can create on their own. This is an organization that takes big swings, and obtaining Bell fits with that mindset.

Sneaky good

1) It is so strange that last week, of all weeks, there was a tired national conversation about whether Jared Goff is a "system quarterback." It's as if no one wants to recognize that Goff is a dramatically improved 23-year-old who looks better every week. Goff's performance in the Rams' 35-23 win over the Chargers was another step forward, because he continues to connect on difficult throws.

Goff is throwing when under pressure in the pocket better and fitting the ball through tight windows more than ever. The Rams are the best team in football because they are the most complete club, from Wade Phillips' defensive line to John Fassel's special-teams unit. But Goff's obvious maturation this year is the best sign for a Rams team that should now be disappointed with anything less than a playoff bye. With 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo expected to miss the rest of the season, the division race already looks all but over.

2) Tennessee's defense stole another game for the Titans. Jurrell Casey led the way in Jacksonville, helping hold the Jaguars to six points. The Titans are 2-0 in the division despite getting virtually nothing out of their passing game. This formula can't hold forever, but coach Mike Vrabel has to love the resourceful way Tennessee has won the last two weeks.

3) A lot of people scoffed at the three-year, $24 million contract Albert Wilson signed in Miami over the offseason, but he is a good bet to outlast DeVante Parker and Danny Amendola on the team. Wilson is helping to provide a versatile, big-play element for coach Adam Gase to deploy at moments opponents don't expect, including as a passer on Sunday. Gase's Dolphins won largely with gadget plays against Oakland.

Everything about the Dolphins' 3-0 start has been unconventional, from their seven-hour opener to a comeback victory on Sunday that included only 39 offensive plays to 74 for the Raiders. It's a team that is deeper than you think -- without many stars -- and does not have many obvious holes. Xavien Howard is the leader of an emerging secondary, and Gase has a knack for the one-score win, now 16-5 as Dolphins head coach in close games.

4) Tampa lost its first game on Monday night, but the 30-27 loss to the Steelers marked another excellent performance by offensive coordinator Todd Monken. Ryan Fitzpatrick made one tragic decision on a pick-six, but otherwise the Bucs' passing attack had Pittsburgh's secondary flummoxed throughout much of the night. Monken took over the play-calling duties in Tampa in the preseason and the Bucs immediately looked like a different team. Fitzpatrick, Jameis Winston and Ryan Griffin all lit up August, and Fitzpatrick has carried that success into the season.

Monken has an interesting background, mixing pro concepts with some of the most aggressive "Air Raid" concepts in college football at Oklahoma State and Southern Mississippi. Now that the NFL is starting to resemble the most creative pass-happy approaches from the college game, coaches like Monken could become even more valuable. You can absolutely see his college influence in his play calling and it doesn't hurt that he has three dynamic wide receivers and a pair of quality tight ends to flood the field with. The Bucs' offense should be a problem for defenses all season, no matter who is at quarterback.

An entirely subjective ranking of what fan bases should be panicking about the most after a loss on Sunday:

1) San Francisco 49ers: The team confirmed on Monday that Jimmy Garoppolo tore his left ACL in Sunday's loss to Kansas City, which is depressing for everyone involved. It's even depressing for those of us not involved, especially considering how often the 49ers are scheduled to be on prime time over the next two months.

2) Dallas Cowboys: I'm not looking forward to watching this offense for 13 more weeks.

3) Los Angeles Chargers: Facing the Chiefs and Rams in the first three weeks is tough, but this defense was still expected to be a lot more competitive.

4) Atlanta Falcons: Dan Quinn's Falcons have never given up more yards in a game than they did against the Saints (534). The team now has two losses against key NFC competition (Philly and New Orleans), and the vast defensive injuries are multiplying.

5) New England Patriots: The issues are real on both sides of the ball. The Patriots can't create pass-rush pressure, and their receivers can't seem to beat man coverage. No team problem-solves better than the Patriots, and it might not be a bad thing for them to be tested with such a big game against Miami so early in the season. But this still has the feeling of a Patriots season with a different shape than the last eight or so, where the biggest concern by mid-November was usually playoff seeding.

In a strange way, all the Patriots' success almost diminishes the importance of regular-season losses. All that matters for them is finding any way to get to January. Bill Belichick has to find the right pieces and strategy to have this team playing contending football by December, and it's no great shame if they lose six games like a normal team along the way. New England has played so many different variations of "everyone counted us out" seasons over the years, but they have never played one expecting a 41-year-old quarterback to cover up for so many of his teammates. This is all uncharted territory, so pointing back to previous September struggles is only so instructive.

6) Minnesota Vikings: While the schedule is rough for a while, the Vikings have the roster to make it over the long haul. After three weeks, it's clear the NFC North is going to be more competitive, top to bottom, than it has been for a while.

7) Green Bay Packers: Like the Patriots, the Packers often seem to take a while to get going. Perhaps I am overconfident in the overall talent base here, but enough role players have stepped up in the early weeks to make one believe that better times are ahead.

That's the beauty of Week 3. There are still miles of runway ahead to work with.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.



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