There were some heavyweight clashes across the league on Sunday night and one of my overriding thoughts coming away from a thoroughly entertaining evening was that your team – any team - is infinitely more watchable if they have a franchise quarterback in place.
Think about some of the outstanding moments of Week 3 (putting Justin Tucker's monster kick to one side just for a moment). Josh Allen went off big-time in Buffalo's 43-21 defeat of Washington, Matthew Stafford out-duelled Tom Brady as the Rams beat the Buccaneers 34-24, Justin Herbert went toe to toe with Patrick Mahomes and his coach Brandon Staley put it on him to win the game 30-24.
And Aaron Rodgers was sensational and back to his MVP form of 2020 in Sunday Night Football's clash between the Green Bay Packers and the San Francisco 49ers. That's where I want to begin.
Rodgers' accuracy and poise is incredible. In a weekend of great throws and big plays, Rodgers' fourth quarter touchdown pass to Marquez Valdes-Scantling in the back corner of the end zone was something else.
It was not as easy on the eye when Jimmy Garoppolo dropped back to pass but, to his credit, he did what was required of him and put the Niners on top with a touchdown throw to Kyle Juszczyk with 37 seconds remaining.
Niners fans – who were watching their team play at home for the first time since the 2019 season's NFC Championship Game – celebrated the score with great delight. But the sight of Rodgers – pulling the towel from around his neck and getting up from the bench, eyes cast toward the stadium clock – must have filled them with dread.
There were 37 ticks of the clock remaining. More than enough time for Rodgers to work his magic. His big pass to Davante Adams was a thing of beauty, sailing just an inch or so over the out-stretched arms of linebacker Fred Warner. Another completion to Adams – on third down, no less – and a Mason Crosby field goal from 51 yards saw the Packers race out of Levi's Stadium with a 30-28 win.
If you only look at the box score, Rodgers' numbers are not that dramatic. He threw for 261 yards, two touchdowns and no picks. Seems solid enough, right. But elite quarterback play is not always about every-down and every-drive success. It's about stepping up and delivering in the big moments. Not for the first time in his career, Rodgers did that on Sunday night.
How many more times he does that in Green Bay remains to be seen. There is a major rift between Rodgers and team president Mark Murphy and general manager Brian Gutekunst. But that does not appear to be the case when it comes to Rodgers and his teammates, as well as head coach Matt LaFleur.
I'm all for NFL drama and stories, but I don't really want to spend much more time looking into the crystal ball and wondering where Rodgers will play in 2022. I want to live in the here and now and enjoy the magic he creates on Sundays. The rest can be for the offseason. Right now, I just love to watch Rodgers do his thing.
Justin Tucker… He was already on his way, but on Sunday night Justin Tucker kicked his way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. The opera-singing, almost-automatic Baltimore Ravens kicker spared his team's blushes by landing an NFL record 66-yard field goal as time expired for the 19-17 win in Detroit. And if the distance and circumstances of such a kick were not dramatic enough, he doinked it off the crossbard with the ball sailing almost 10 feet straight up in the air before flying into the net behind the posts. Cue scenes of wild celebrations among the Ravens. As Lions head coach Dan Campbell dropped his head between his knees, I was reminded of something Baltimore defensive lineman Calais Campbell told me on Inside the Huddle in the days leading up that game in Detroit… "Good teams find ways to win."
Matthew Stafford and Cooper Kupp… The early-season form of this pair has Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay running around like a seven-year-old who has downed too many fizzy drinks and chomped his way through a black sack filled with Haribo (other sweets are available) at a birthday party. I can forgive McVay for being so excited – the combination of Stafford and Kupp have given the Rams an early-season Super Bowl look. There is a long way to go but the pairing has proven unstoppable thus far. Stafford has 942 passing yards and nine touchdowns in three games, while Kupp has 25 catches for 367 yards and five scores. The pair are at their best when adjusting at the line of scrimmage or in the middle of plays, highlighting the football intelligence of both players.
J'Marr Chase… The Bengals were one of the big talking points of the NFL Draft. Should they shore up a poor offensive line by taking Oregon tackle Penei Sewell? Or should they go in another direction and find an additional weapon for Joe Burrow? They chose the latter course, selecting Burrow's former LSU teammate in wide receiver J'Marr Chase with the fifth overall pick. There were some worries in training camp as Chase put too many footballs on the ground, but he has been a star since playing for real in the regular season. Chase scored twice during Sunday's relatively routine 24-10 win in Pittsburgh and now has at least one touchdown catch in every game this season. The fact that the result in Steeltown was routine is a story in itself. Pittsburgh had won 10 of the last 11 meetings and Cincinnati had not won on the road against the Steelers since 2015.
Rookie quarterbacks (Part 1)... It was another rough night for the rookie passers. Trevor Lawrence went 34-2 in college but is 0-3 in the pros after Jacksonville's 31-19 loss to Arizona on Sunday. The first overall became just the third player in the last 40 years to throw at least two interceptions in three straight games to start an NFL career. He can take comfort from being in the company of Troy Aikman (1989) and Peyton Manning (1998). Lawrence has seven interceptions on the year and his off-the-back-foot pick six to Byron Murphy was a killer in what was a close game up to that point. Zach Wilson and the New York Jets look over-manned every time they step on the field and they lost 26-0 to Denver in Week 3. Wilson tossed two more interceptions, giving him seven in three games. Mac Jones had been more careful with the ball in New England's first two games, but the wheels came off during Sunday's 28-13 loss to New Orleans. There were drops and miscues which mean this should not all be placed on Jones. But he has done little to excite through three weeks.
The other rookie quarterback… Things were so bad for Justin Fields, of the Chicago Bears, that he deserves his own section. Bears fans have been clamouring for the first-rounder to be inserted into the starting line-up. Head coach Matt Nagy has been calling for patience and seems intent on bringing Fields along slowly. Chicago supporters got what they had been wishing for on Sunday as Fields started against Cleveland in relief of the injured Andy Dalton. The rookie was overwhelmed in a 26-6 loss, completing just six of 20 throws for 68 yards. By the time Fields had been sacked nine times for 67 yards, the Bears were left with one net passing yard on the day. The rookie is not ready to be thrown to the wolves behind that offensive line and it appears Nagy was right to take a more cautious approach to the development of his young passer.
Kansas City Chiefs… Going back to the point I made at the very top of this column, the Chiefs remain one of the most watchable teams in the league and they are going to be just fine with Patrick Mahomes at quarterback. But ball security was a major issue for the Chiefs during Sunday's six-point home loss to the Chargers. Four turnovers were hugely damaging in such a close and highly-charged game. It is normally the Chiefs who come up with the timely turnover but not in the last two contests – both losses. Clyde Edwards-Helaire had a costly late fumble in Baltimore in Week 2 and another at home in Week 3. There were also some instances where Mahomes was off or forcing the issue a bit too much. There is no panic in Kansas City, but there should be the knowledge that they don't have as much room for error as they might have previously thought and therefore need to tidy up this particular area of their game.
The Fast Five…
- There was worrying news out of Kansas City after the game as head coach Andy Reid felt unwell and was taken to a local hospital as a precaution. Details are scarce but the club did issue a statement to say the 63-year-old stayed in hospital overnight and was in a stable condition. His health and well-being is all that matters right now. The wins and losses will come and go. The health of one of the NFL's true good guys is the priority today and for the weeks to come. Even if Reid pushes for a quick return to the sidelines, the Chiefs need to look after their coach and make sure he is fully good to go before he comes back.
- The Minnesota Vikings got what they felt they deserved in the first two weeks of the season – a win! Kirk Cousins threw for 323 yards and three scores, receivers Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen found the end zone and running back Alexander Mattison, subbing for the injured Dalvin Cook, gained 171 yards from scrimmage. To me, Cousins is the star in Minnesota even though so many seem intent on running him out of town. Through three weeks, Cousins has completed 74 percent of his passes for 918 yards, eight touchdowns and no picks. Put those numbers on any other quarterback not named Cousins and they would be an early-season MVP candidate.
- After stubbing their toe at home to Pittsburgh in Week 1, the Bills are rolling and looking more like the genuine Super Bowl contender I thought they would be. Why not Buffalo in what appears to be a wide open AFC? Josh Allen was excellent on Sunday as he threw four touchdown passes and rushed for a score. And the defense looks back to the 2019 form when it was one of the best units in the league.
- It has not always been pretty but as the late, great Al Davis preached: "Just win, baby." The Raiders continue to just win and are off to a 3-0 start for the first time since 2002 following Sunday's 31-28 overtime victory against Miami. What impressed me with this win was how deep the Raiders had to dig to stay undefeated. There were bodies lying all over the field in overtime and yet Derek Carr delivered one final drive to set up kicker Daniel Carlson for the game-winner. That style of win had to have pleased head coach Jon Gruden as much as a blowout victory.
- I've got a few alarm bells ringing if I'm a Pittsburgh fan. During Sunday's tame loss to Cincinnati, the Steelers rushed for just 45 yards on 15 attempts. The league's 32nd-ranked rushing attack from a year ago was supposed to be better in 2021. And Big Ben threw up two bad interceptions and continues to look like an ageing boxer in his final fight.
Fact of the Week
After Week 3, the New England Patriots, Kansas City Chiefs, Seattle Seahawks and Pittsburgh Steelers are all 1-2, marking the first time those four teams have had a losing record at the same point in a season since Week 12, 2000 - the Patriots (71.8 percent), Chiefs (70.2), Seahawks (67.6) and Steelers (63.7) have the four highest win percentages in the NFL since 2013.
Finish That Sentence
Each week in this spot I ask readers - via Twitter - to randomly send me the start of a sentence and, as we so often did on our NFL UK Live stage show tours, I will finish the sentence with the first thought that comes into my head. Here we go…
From Andrew McCoy (@GallowsBait) The Steelers need to address…_ the quarterback and the offensive line. Apart from that, they're golden!! I don't think they should have brought Big Ben back this season. Why didn't they let him gracefully head off into the sunset and get in the market for a Matthew Stafford or even Carson Wentz? I don't think there is much gas left in Big Ben's tank and his shortcomings are highlighted behind a make-shift offensive line still trying to get on the same page. The running game has been shocking but I think that will be fixed once the problems up front are solved. Najee Harris will be good.
From Addy Field (@Addyfield) This is the last year of the Pete Carroll era in Seattle because… his career-long strength and philosophies run totally contrary to what will make Russell Wilson succeed at quarterback. When I first read your sentence, Addy, I thought it was a bit too knee-jerk and reactionary. But I think there may be something to it. Pete Carroll wants to run the ball and win with defense. He wants to keep the shackles on Wilson to the point where his star quarterback wanted away in the offseason and likely wants out of town again in 2022. The problem is that Seattle's defense is really poor, so the philosophy is broken. Carroll needs to bend, adapt and make it all about Russell Wilson. Or faced with a choice between this clash of cultures, the Seahawks are likely to go with their quarterback.
From Richard Sims (@simsini) The Bucs secondary needs additional help by signing… Richard Sherman who is a free agent and has been there and done that. But don't expect him to be the solution to all their pass defense woes. They are thin on the back end and need a great deal of help. Keep an eye on Tampa Bay around the trade deadline. Bruce Arians knows the Super Bowl window will remain open as long as Tom Brady is in town and being aggressive now is the play. I fully expect the Bucs to go big around that deadline and grab an elite defensive back from another team. I don't know who and I don't know the price, but I do know Brady will not allow Arians to sit on his hands. The offense is ready to win another Super Bowl this year. The defense, particularly against the pass, is not.
The week-to-week wackiness of the NFL season can be summed up perfectly in the life and performances of one man… New Orleans Saints quarterback Jameis Winston. He rode a high in Week 1 which led to a thrashing of Green Bay, he posted a career-low quarterback rating of 29.6 in a Week 2 loss to Carolina and on Sunday he rode the roller coaster back to the top with two touchdowns and no picks in a big road win in New England. I am happy to admit that I have no idea how Winston will play next week. I'm not all that sure he knows, either!