Analysis

Snap Judgments: Zimmer, Vikings riding defense to 3-0 start

Musings, observations and the occasional insight from a wacky and rather mistake-strewn Week 3 in the NFL ...

No Teddy Bridgewater was supposed to spell disaster. No Adrian Peterson was expected to all but ensure doom. But so far, the Minnesota Vikings have no injury problems that can't be overcome, thanks to a defense that never seems to go missing when it's needed most.

Roll this reality around in your head: The Vikings just went into Carolina's Bank of America Stadium and ended the defending NFC champion Panthers' 14-game home winning streak, prevailing by a comfortable 22-10 score despite garnering a puny 35 yards of offense in the first half. Down 10-0 in the first quarter, the Vikings roared back with 22 unanswered points, on the strength of a dominant defensive performance against an offense that took the league by storm last season. In their past seven home games before Sunday, the Panthers had averaged 40-points-plus per outing. But that kind of production seemed like eons ago against the Vikings.

Minnesota sacked 2015 NFL MVP Cam Newton an astounding eight times -- once for a safety -- and picked him off on three occasions, humbling a team that lost only once in the regular season one year ago, but already has twice that many defeats three weeks into their 2016 schedule.

The Vikings' defense was already plenty good before this season. But it is rapidly becoming one of the elite units in the game, and Sunday's statement win in Charlotte was its finest work yet in the three-year Mike Zimmer coaching era. The Vikings didn't just beat Newton and the Panthers, they toyed with them, limiting Carolina to just 101 yards in the second half, and 306 overall. Minnesota scored on defense (a safety/sack by Danielle Hunter), offense and special teams (a 54-yard Marcus Sherelspunt return touchdown) and boosted its league-best takeaway ratio to a gaudy plus-8, making it five consecutive games of surrendering 16 points or less.

"It's fun right now, absolutely,'' Vikings safety Harrison Smith said by phone, after Minnesota improved to 3-0 for the first time since 2009, when it advanced all the way to the NFC Championship Game. "That's a big deal, our turnover ratio. Because that's huge in the NFL for determining the outcome of games. And then when you throw in those sacks, that's really huge. We've got to keep that going.

"We didn't start out how we wanted to today, and we just tightened things up and got after it in the second half. That's our goal, to be one of the best, and so far we've played really well. But we can't get ahead of ourselves. We can't prove that in just one game. It's got to be every day and every game. But what we're doing so far is working for us.''

That's the understatement of the young season. With Zimmer setting the tone for his team with a no-excuses mentality, even the loss of the team's starting quarterback to a late-August knee injury, and last week's torn meniscus suffered by its top offensive weapon in Peterson has not deterred these Vikings. They still believe they're a legitimate Super Bowl contender, and if it takes the defense to lead the way there, so be it. They can go that route. A whopping five different Vikings had sacks, led by Everson Griffen's three.

"Losing Teddy, obviously we all hurt for him,'' said Smith, who had one of Minnesota's eight sacks, coming off the corner to blindside Newton on a safety blitz. "And then we lost Adrian and a few other guys last week. But this team is such a resilient team. We don't dwell on things. We don't worry about things we can't control. We just try to get ready for the next opportunity and keep things going.

"Our confidence doesn't change no matter what. Because it isn't based on just whatever happens to us. That's the way [Zimmer] has done things since the day he came in the door. That's how he coaches and that's how he deals with us day to day. And after a few years, it's really gotten through to all of us. Everybody here is on the same page and headed the same direction."

Despite their setbacks on the health front, the Vikings are still a team on the ascent. They can beat you a lot of different ways, and as the Panthers just found out, they can make you look bad while they're doing it. Minnesota is going for it this season, as that blockbuster preseason trade for quarterback Sam Bradford proved. Maybe it's just a coincidence, but have you noticed the last two undefeated teams in the NFC? The Vikings and Eagles are both 3-0, and they're the clubs that swung that bold deal.

So Carolina sinks to an unaccustomed 1-2 with a loss that has to be sobering to the Panthers faithful, even if there are far more important things to be dealt with in Charlotte these days. Ron Rivera's team got pushed around for most of the second half by Minnesota, and it simply could not protect Newton after the first 10 minutes of the game or so. And what's up with no catches for big-play receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who was almost uncoverable last week in a 46-27 win over San Francisco?

Strange early season doings in the NFC heavyweight division. The Panthers and Cardinals are both struggling at 1-2, after playing for the conference's championship last January. Meanwhile in the AFC, the status quo holds. Denver and New England are both 3-0 despite their quarterback changes/issues. The Broncos and Patriots just keep on winning, no matter who is doing the throwing.

There was some serious desperation on display in Week 3, and for the most part, the 0-2 teams that absolutely had to win did so. Nobody saved their season from swirling down the drain more so than Washington, with its so-ugly-it's-beautiful 29-27 road win over the Giants. The frustration level was mounting in D.C. and another loss might have proven to be a tipping point.

Instead, the world looks a lot better for Washington at 1-2, especially with Cleveland (0-3) headed to town next week. Kirk Cousins didn't play mistake-free ball in beating the Giants -- especially when he failed to get rid of the football just before the half, wasting a chip-shot field goal opportunity -- but he did throw for two touchdowns, with no interceptions, and helped lead his club out of a 21-9 second-quarter deficit.

That should buy him a little more confidence from his own locker room, after the whispers of the past two weeks.

That looked like a sloppy effort straight out of last year's Giants playbook, finding a way to lose a game that looked eminently winnable. New York could have all but finished off the defending NFC East champions, taking a three-game lead over them in the division, but it let Washington off the hook thanks to a bevy of mistakes and missed opportunities. They could regret this one for the next three months, and it represented a step back for the improved Giants defense.

The Odell Beckham Jr.-Josh Norman showdown was pretty entertaining and both stars had their moments to shine. But I had it scored Giants Punting Net 1, Beckham 0 after OBJ threw that sideline temper tantrum in the second half. Got to be careful of those helmet-to-net hits, Mr. Beckham.

Miami and Buffalo were the other two 0-2 clubs to avoid the near-death sentence of 0-3. The Dolphins were playing at home against the Browns, so one of those two winless teams had to end its misery, and naturally it was Miami that did so 30-24 in overtime after Cleveland's Cody Parkey missed a 46-yard field goal try that would have won it in regulation.

The injury-decimated Browns played with a lot of pluck, climbing out of a 24-13 fourth-quarter deficit, but alas, it was another physical setback that helped produce this loss. Parkey missed three field goals, after being signed on Saturday to replace the injured Patrick Murray, who hurt himself in Friday's walk-through practice.

All you need to know about the Browns so far in 2016 was summed up wordlessly in that shot of both Josh McCown and Robert Griffin III standing on the Cleveland sideline on Sunday, with their left arms in matching black slings. A stylized version of that image should probably be the team's new logo.

That said, how about Terrelle Pryor's interesting day? He did everything but drive the team bus for the Browns (and we don't really know he wasn't behind the wheel) in South Florida. Pryor was a triple threat, becoming the first Browns player in 39 years to rack up multiple catches (8 for 144 yards), rushes (4 for 21) and passes (3 of 5 for 35 yards). Plenty of folks scoffed when Pryor, the ex-Raiders quarterback, said he thought he could make an impact as a receiver in the NFL. But nobody's laughing now.

Hey, maybe it was all Greg Roman's fault in Buffalo. Because the Bills looked a world better in their 33-18 conquest of visiting Arizona, about nine days after head coach Rex Ryan fired his offensive coordinator. Ryan said his guys would rise to the challenge of facing one of the leading NFC Super Bowl contenders, and they did, cranking up the running game that led the league in rushing last season. Buffalo churned for 208 yards on the ground, and a 6.5 yard average on 32 runs, as LeSean McCoy returned to form with a 17-attempt, 110-yard, two-touchdown rushing game.

But it's really the defense that Bills fans should be feeling best about, because Buffalo came after Carson Palmer and it worked, forcing the Cardinals quarterback into four interceptions and sacking him three times. With a showing like that, you can bet the question of whether Palmer's shaky playoff performance is creating a hangover effect this season will remain topical for the time being.

Palmer started badly on Sunday and also had a rough fourth quarter. He hasn't really looked like the Palmer of the 2015 regular season since December, and at some point Arizona head coach Bruce Arians has to figure out why, if the Cardinals have any shot of earning that postseason trip to Houston they're aiming for. So far, with losses to the Patriots and Bills, Arizona is definitely not loving its forays against the AFC East.

And then there's the Cardinals' long-snapping problems, which cropped back up again in the loss to Buffalo. Kameron Canaday's air-mailed a snap way too high on Chandler Catanzaro's 32-yard field goal in the second half, and the ensuing action became an instant classic on the football follies. Poor Cardinals holder Drew Butler, the team's regular punter, injured his leg earlier in the game and couldn't punt, being replaced by Catanzaro. But he still held for his kicker, and when the snap went awry, he tried to limp after it with predictable results.

And speaking of breakdowns, I'm dumbfounded by the Cardinals' decision not to challenge that first-half catch by Bills receiver Robert Woods, the one that clearly bounced off the turf and yet went undetected by the officials. On the next play after that easy-to-spot-incompletion (at least via replay), McCoy took it to the house on a handoff for a 10-0 Bills lead, a score that should never have occurred.

OK, that settles it for me. The next time Aaron Rodgers tells us all to relax and take a breath, I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt. The Packers quarterback again quieted his critics the best way possible, burying the Lions with four first-half touchdown passes en route to Green Bay's 34-27 conquest of visiting Detroit. Rodgers posted a 129.3 passer rating, after not cracking triple digits in his past 14 games, and at least the Packers can enter their bye week without the full-blown panic attack that seemed to grip most of their fan base last week.

And for now, Detroit's defense, minus the injured DeAndre Levy and Ezekiel Ansah, is a shell of what it was hoping to be. The Lions aren't deep enough on defense to make up for the absences of its two best players, and Green Bay drove almost easily to four touchdowns and a field goal on its first five possessions, building a 31-10 second-quarter lead.

Coaches under pressure for 200? There were a couple winners in that category in Week 3, with the Bills backing up the embattled Rex Ryan with that rout of Arizona, and the Raiders' defense giving up just 10 points and less than 400 yards of offense in a 17-10 win at Tennessee that removed the bullseye from the back of Oakland defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr.

The news was not so good, however, for under-the-gun Jacksonville head coach Gus Bradley, whose club fell to 0-3 with a dispiriting 19-17 loss to visiting Baltimore. The Jaguars have zero killer instinct, and had the Ravens on the ropes in the fourth quarter, forcing three Baltimore turnovers. They got exactly three points out of those, and now must make their annual trek to London in Week 4, to take on a Colts team that got into the win column Sunday with a late 26-22 comeback at home against San Diego.

John Harbaugh is absolutely dead-on correct. His Ravens "just aren't that pretty," but they're 3-0 and in sole possession of first place in the AFC North. Style points have never been Baltimore's calling card, but they're finding ways to gut out a win every week, whether it's digging out of a 20-0 hole at Cleveland last week or staving off the Jaguars by a mere two points on Sunday.

Riding the defense to a championship is the Baltimore way, and it bodes well at least that that side of the ball is back front and center for Harbaugh's club. And did you see that one-handed, tip-drill interception by inside linebacker C.J. Mosley against the Jaguars? Mosley is rapidly emerging as a big-time playmaker for the Ravens' D. Baltimore has won its three games by a combined 13 points, and there's never a moment in their games where they're in a comfortable position. But there's something to be said for being able to live on the razor's edge, and not only survive but thrive. The Ravens' revamped defense is making the difference, and doing what it takes when the game is hanging in the balance. Baltimore has surrendered just 10 points in the second half of games this season, and posted four sacks and three interceptions of Jacksonville quarterback Blake Bortles on Sunday.

We can check off yet another box for Broncos quarterback Trevor Siemian. Apparently he can handle the hostile road environment challenge. Paul Brown Stadium has been a very tough place for visiting teams in recent years, but Siemian didn't really flinch in The Jungle, becoming the first NFL passer to throw four touchdown passes with no picks and at least 300 yards in his first road start.

Peyton who? Oh, and take care now, Brock. The Broncos look like they got this one right when they confidently said Siemian was their guy. Denver improved to 3-0 with a 29-17 win in Cincinnati, and the best news of all was that the Broncos had to rally in the fourth quarter to secure the victory. Siemian showed no aversion to that kind of pressure either, throwing a pair of scoring passes during the final quarter, while going 11 of 12. His 23-of-35, 312-yard showing, with a passer rating of 132.1 proved to me that Denver's blueprint of winning with defense first, and game management at quarterback, is out the window this season. For good reason.

Clearly I picked the wrong NFL team from Pennsylvania to make the Super Bowl. Because as everybody could see Sunday afternoon and evening, the Eagles are a hefty 31 points better than the Steelers, my preseason choice to win the AFC championship.

Has anyone had a better September than Eagles football czar Howie Roseman? He not only traded Sam Bradford to Minnesota for a first-round pick (and more) in 2017 early this month -- clearing the way to play rookie phenom QB Carson Wentz -- but his club is now 3-0 and starting to look like the story of the young season so far in 2016.

Wentz just became the second rookie quarterback to start and win his first three games since the 1970 merger, and this time it wasn't just the Browns or Bears that Philly beat up on. Is there anything this kid can't do, other than avoid contact when he scrambles? Because we haven't seen a glaring weakness yet.

While the Rams have put No. 1 pick Jared Goff in bubble wrap on the sideline, it's getting easier all the time to mentally start writing in Wentz, the No. 2 overall selection, as the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year this season. He took the Steelers' defense apart, completing 23 of 31 passes, for 301 yards and two touchdowns, and he still hasn't thrown an interception -- after more than 100 attempts as a rookie. That's another slice of history he owns, because that feat had never been accomplished before he did it.

I can remember a few bad losses for the Steelers in the Mike Tomlin era, but never this ugly. The 31-point rout was Pittsburgh's worst defeat since 1989. I guess the Steelers should just be thankful that the Bengals are 1-2 and on a two-game losing streak, and Pittsburgh still has both games against first-place Baltimore remaining.

Now that's the real pick-six the Jets' Ryan Fitzpatrick threw at the Chiefs in Arrowhead Stadium: six interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown in Kansas City's 24-3 domination of New York. Not even the turnover machine that was Mark Sanchez had a day that dismal for Gang Green. The Jets had eight giveaways overall to the Chiefs, and this second version of Todd Bowles' team is already showing itself to be confounding and inconsistent.

Something tells me that if Russell Wilson is out for any significant amount of time after spraining his left knee in a 37-18 blowout home win against San Francisco, the Seahawks don't have a New England-like quarterback contingency plan to keep the train rolling. Wilson is backed up by the lightly experienced Trevone Boykin, who fared well enough against the 49ers in relief of Wilson: 7 of 9 for 65 yards, with one touchdown and one interception.

But Wilson is the guy who makes the Seattle offense go these days, and it'll be very difficult to replace his production and improvisational style of play. Suddenly for the first time in his five-year NFL career, Wilson looks mortal in terms of his health, coping with a high ankle sprain and a knee injury in the season's opening three weeks. If his legs are not right, his game suffers mightily, because so much of what he does is based on his mobility and escapability. Those Super Bowl dreams in Seattle are officially in limbo.

If the Colts rally from Week 3 on and somehow make the playoffs this season, you can credit receiver T.Y. Hilton with the rescue. Hilton's brilliant 63-yard catch and gallop with 1:17 remaining was the stroke of magic that Indianapolis needed, just when it was staring into the abyss. The Colts staved off the always streaky Chargers 26-22, and thus avoided the first 0-3 getaway of the Andrew Luck era. Hilton, with eight catches for 174 yards and that weaving open-field touchdown gallop, was sensational.

I'm not sure if it says more about the state of the Rams' offense or the Bucs' defense, but I didn't see Los Angeles 37, Tampa Bay 32 coming in the highest-scoring game of the weekend. Did you? What a tease the Rams can be. They could not have played worse than they did in their Monday-night opener at San Francisco, but here they are in first place in the NFC West, at 2-1 and holding the head-to-head tiebreaker over Seattle for the time being.

The Rams had to wait out that 75-minute Ed Hochuli-mandated lightning delay in the game's final two minutes, but after the whole relocation drama, what's another hour-plus wait for Jeff Fisher and Co.? As for the Bucs, they've pretty much thoroughly dissipated all the momentum and goodwill they created with that Week 1 upset win at Atlanta. With last week's meltdown at Arizona, and then this slugfest loss to the previously anemic Rams, the Bucs are right back to their losing and underachieving ways. (And get ready for some more Roberto Aguayo angst, because he missed a field goal and an extra point in the five-point loss to L.A.).

Watching Bill Belichick coach this month recalls one of my favorite Bum Phillips quotes, which he reportedly said at various times about both Don Shula and Paul "Bear'' Bryant's coaching prowess:

"He can take his'n and beat your'n, and then he can turn around and take your'n and beat his'n.''

In other words, the man can flat coach. No matter who's playing quarterback. And speaking of Jacoby Brissett and Jimmy Garoppolo, the whole Deflategate saga is officially going to go down as a huge win for New England. Not only are the Patriots 3-0 without Tom Brady, they've been forced to discover they have three quality quarterbacks, and that can only help them stay on top in the AFC East in the long run. And who knows, maybe that number will rise to four if Julian Edelman has to pull a Tom Matte next week against visiting Buffalo.

I know it must have happened at some point, but why does it seem impossible to recall the Houston Texans ever winning a truly big game? (And beating the Bengals in the first round of the playoffs in back-to-back years isn't the toughest of tests, now is it?) For the most part I like what coach Bill O'Brien has built in his tenure in Houston, but the Texans still seem to shrink when the stage grows large. It feels like we've watched Houston's 27-0 egg-laying in Foxborough on Thursday night multiple times before.

Some quick thoughts from the Cowboys' 31-17 dismantling of the visiting Bears at AT&T Stadium: One year ago in Week 3, the Cowboys lost at home to Atlanta, falling to 2-1 in their first game without injured starting quarterback Tony Romo. We know how that ended, at 4-12 with a last-place finish in the NFC East. What a difference one year makes, even with Romo again injured and out of the lineup for this 2-1 team. With rookie quarterback Dak Prescott and rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott having arrived, the future is now in Dallas.

Prescott refuses to show any real sign of being a rookie, still going without an interception 99 passes into his NFL career, and Elliott broke out in a big way against the Bears, rumbling (and hurdling) his way to 140 yards on 30 carries, and catching two passes for 20 more yards. The Cowboys' offense is in pretty good hands right now, and Romo, remarkably enough, feels like something of an afterthought as September ends. In Dallas, the days of Matt Cassel, Brandon Weeden, Kellen Moore and the parade of 2015 backup QBs feels very long ago. Home wins and non-Romo wins have been rarities for the Cowboys, but those trends are finally changing.

Brian Hoyer has the equivalent of nine NFL lives, but it does seem borderline amazing that he was starting a playoff game for Houston less than nine months ago. And here he is again in somebody's lineup. He didn't play badly for Chicago against the Cowboys, throwing for 317 yards and two touchdowns without an interception. But this Bears team is woefully banged up and already has lost three times by an average margin of almost 13 points per game.

If you're current Cowboys backup Mark Sanchez, you're probably glad just to have a job in the league after cycling through three teams since his tenure with the Jets ended. But then again, does any other team's backup own a 4-2 career playoff record like Sanchez does, a mark Hoyer can only envy. These Bears aren't going anywhere with Hoyer under center, but you could say the same when Jay Cutler's throwing hand was healthy. Another last-place season, the Bears' third in a row, looks to be on the way in Chicago.

Ridiculously cool football card of the week

Let's start a new feature for Snap Judgments, culled from my personal collection of vintage football cards. Here's a 1960 Topps of Johnny Unitas, who wears the look of a man clearly having fun at the photographer's expense. With those deranged eyes and that exquisite razor-sharp crew cut, this is easily the most remarkable and classic Johnny U. card ever.

Oh, and on Sept. 25, 1960 -- 56 years ago today -- Unitas led Baltimore to a season-opening 20-0 win over visiting Washington, completing 17 of 35 passes, for 232 yards, with one touchdown and one interception. The 12-yard scoring pass went to his fellow future Hall of Famer, receiver Raymond Berry, and essentially put the game away at 17-0 in the third quarter. Those were the days of the 12-game NFL schedule, and Week 1 didn't arrive until late September. Imagine that, hopelessly addicted modern-day football fans.

Follow Don Banks on Twitter @donbanks.

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