Week 3 was a big reminder that division games are a lot less predictable than non-division games. The teams know each other well and final scores can be surprising. Go no farther than Buffalo for a prime example. This and some exciting news for 3-0 teams and very depressing information for 0-3 teams are among my six observations from Week 3:
1. One theme rang out loud and clear in two of Sunday's late games: Teams seem more pass-happy than ever. After two weeks of play, the average passing yards per game is up 50 yards over 2010, which sounds exciting, but two teams I watched have got to think long and hard about how much they're putting their franchise quarterbacks in harm's way.
Bears QB Jay Cutler came into this week's game against Green Bay with 11 sacks, 16 hits from defenders and one tackle, or 28 contacts in two games. That seemed like a dangerous enough pace to force the Bears into calling more running plays, especially with right tackle Gabe Carimi out with an injury. Of course that wasn't the case: Matt Forte got nine carries for a grand total of two yards, while Cutler was involved in 40 pass plays and took three sacks, four hits and three tackles. Cutler has been contacted by opponents 38 times in three games. At this pace, he will wind up being sacked 75 times, hit another 106 times and tackled 21 times. Trust me, Jay Cutler will not be on the field for all of those hits if this pace continues.
The other quarterback who seems like he's in trouble is Atlanta's Matt Ryan. He was sacked four times by the Bucs and now has been sacked 14 times, hit 16 and tackled five. Moreover, he was really tagged a few times Sunday after taking a significant beating the previous week against the Eagles. Matty Ice is on pace to be sacked 75 times, hit 85 times and tackled in the open field 27 times. I think you get the picture for both of these signal callers.
2. It's time to take the Raiders seriously.Rex Ryan came into Oakland on Sunday with an 11-5 road record. The Jets defense, meanwhile, had only allowed one 100-yard rusher in 25 games. No one thought the Raiders could rush for over 200 yards, score on the ground four times and average 7.3 yards per carry -- but that's exactly what they did. Darren McFadden is having a Pro Bowl season, and as one NFL coach said to me after Sunday's game, "I think I might rather have McFadden than any other back in the NFL." After three games, the big back has 62 touches for 477 yards, which is 7.7 yards every time he touches the ball. But the Raiders aren't a one-man team -- they're getting excellent play from their offensive line and solid play from their quarterback, especially since the discovery of wide receiver Denarius Moore. Offensive line coach Bob Wylie is doing a great job with the guys he has up front.
3. What do records mean at this point? History can be an indicator of what the future may hold. Take a look at the accompanying chart (which covers games since 1990) and think about what each team faces.
At this point, the world champion Packers look as dangerous as the 2010 version that won the Super Bowl. The most intriguing teams are the Bills and Lions. After Week 3 wins, both are looking at the reality that 75.9 percent of teams that start 3-0 make the playoffs -- but that also means that 24 percent can't handle the early success and don't make it. After watching both the Bills and Lions earn comeback victories this week, I'm inclined to think they are on their way to the postseason. The Redskins have a lot on the line Monday night: a win means they increase their playoff likelihood by 21 percent.
As for the 0-3 teams, things aren't looking very good for the postseason. Only five teams since 1990 have climbed out of an 0-3 hole to get to the postseason. For the record, four of the five teams that make up the 2.8 percent to have accomplished the feat lost in the wild-card round and the other lost in the divisional round.
4. Rookie quarterbacks meet the defensive coordinators. For Cam Newton, Andy Dalton and a few of 2011's other rookie quarterbacks, things will get tougher before they get easier. Defensive coordinators came into Week 3 with two game tapes to draw from, in the cases of Newton and Dalton. For Newton, gone were the 400-yard passing days and in its place was a 158-yard effort with his longest pass being 18 yards against Jacksonville. As for Dalton, after not throwing an interception in the first two weeks, he had two picks and no touchdowns in a loss to the 49ers.
Newton led his team to a win, so the heck with stats. But next week, defensive coordinators will have an even better idea of how to make life tough on the two quarterbacks. Newton travels to the Bears and Dalton gets a visit from the Bills. It was good to see Newton find Greg Olsen for the winning touchdown Sunday with the Jags committed to taking Steve Smith away, and Dalton did a decent job of finding other receivers besides A.J. Green. Now, can they find a way to generate the points needed to beat their next opponents?
5. Scores around the league. Maybe it was the many divisional matchups, the game film now available to coaches, or just players working out the kinks in their execution, but in seven of Sunday's games, the team with the lead at halftime lost the game. Interesting that many teams were able to go to the locker room for 15 minutes and make adjustments to turn the tide.
What I can't explain is how a team with a 10-point lead at halftime of Week 1, a 17-point lead at halftime of Week 2 and a 20-point lead at halftime of Week 3 loses all three weeks, as the Vikings have done. I do know that Adrian Peterson had 12 carries for 73 yards at halftime on Sunday and only five carries for five yards in the second half. This game made me go back and look at the Vikings' first two games. In Week 1, AP had nine carries for 74 yards at halftime and just seven carries for 24 yards in the second half. In Week 2, he had 15 carries for 83 yards in the first half and returned after intermission for 10 carries and 42 yards. In three games, Peterson has 36 carries for 230 yards in the first half, and 22 carries for 71 yards in the second half. Strange.
6. The Dream Team. The 2011 Philadelphia Eagles left their normal structure of building through the draft and went all-in this offseason in an attempt to build a Super Bowl winner. They still may get there, but the Dream Team definitely is being challenged. The Giants were haunted last year by the great Eagles' comeback that left them on the outside looking in at the playoffs. The Giants returned the favor Sunday with a surprise win and did it with a very depleted roster. No one thought the Giants receivers could get open against the Eagles secondary, and no one on the Eagles had even heard of Victor Cruz, but they know about the youngster from UMass now after watching him score twice against their dream secondary.
The Giants did a masterful job of getting the ball into the hands of their running backs. Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs touched the ball 29 times for 200 yards and two touchdowns. That may be the blueprint that could turn the dream into a nightmare.