Struggling teams can't just point to the schedule anymore. It's not that early.
The San Francisco 49ers already are two games back in the NFC West and they don't know when Aldon Smith will return to the team. They don't know if tight end Vernon Davis or linebacker Patrick Willis will play in a huge game Thursday night against St. Louis. The hyped Rams' defense can't stop anyone.
Three games into the season, these are trends instead of anomalies. Here's what else we learned Sunday:
- The Saints' defense dominated the line of scrimmage, intercepted two passes, earned four sacks and harassed Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer all game long. Defensive end Cameron Jordan and linebacker Junior Galette in particular should have paid rent they were setting up shop so often in the Cardinals' backfield.
3.The Cardinals' offense squandered great field position for most of the first half. After having success on the opening drive running the ball, the Cardinals went to the air. The lack of balance, even when the game was close, was evident. Palmer didn't have enough protection for Bruce Arians' downfield attack.
- Robert Griffin III continues his comeback, but it's not happening at the pace our impatient society would like. His slow start and two turnovers hurt his team's chances of avoiding an 0-3 start. However, he's only three games in, still knocking off the rust and did show flashes of his old self. Our expectations for him never have been realistic.
- Tarvaris Jackson produced a perfect passer rating, rookie Christine Michael looked like the most explosive offensive player on the field, and Doug Baldwin hauled in a diving, one-handed highlight-reel catch after the Seahawks pulled their stars with a 31-7 lead in the third quarter. Seattle has the deepest roster in the league. Their backups looked better than Jacksonville's starters.
- The Jaguarsfell in love with Stephen Burton's potential after claiming the receiver off waivers from the Vikings early this month, but he had trouble separating from coverage. Rookie Ace Sanders also has failed to live up to expectations. This offense desperately needs Marcedes Lewis (calf) and Justin Blackmon (suspension) back in the lineup.
- Left for dead and nationally ridiculed after trading away their best player, the Browns showed fight. Quarterback Brian Hoyer, replacing the injured Brandon Weeden, generated 24 first-half points and engineered an 11-play, 55-yard touchdown drive that sealed the win. Hoyer was far from perfect -- throwing three interceptions -- but he also tossed three touchdown passes, something Weeden hasn't done in 17 career starts.
- Three of our Making the Leap candidates exploded Sunday. Browns receiver Josh Gordon, back from a two-game suspension, hauled in 10 catches for 146 yards and one touchdown. Jordan Cameron popped off the screen with three scores. The Cleveland tight end made a beautiful, over-the-shoulder, 7-yard touchdown grab with 55 seconds remaining to seal the win. For the Vikings, Harrison Smith recorded five tackles, a pass defense and a key interception, furthering the argument that he's the NFL's top young safety.
- After a week of soul-searching, Adrian Peterson was held in check by Cleveland's smothering run defense to the tune of 88 yards on 25 carries. If you're keeping score, that's 68 attempts for 203 yards (and just 2.9 yards per rush) since Peterson's 78-yard touchdown burst in Week 1. Cleveland also made mincemeat of Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder. The Browns racked up six sacks, eight quarterback hits and one interception while holding Ponder to 5.4 yards per attempt.
- The bye week couldn't come at a better time for the Packers' offense. With Eddie Lacy (concussion) already out, fill-in starter James Starks went down with a knee injury just before halftime. Rookie Johnathan Franklin, who impressed before his fumble, left with an ankle injury late in the game. With no running backs available, wide receiver Jeremy Ross lined up in the backfield on the final couple of plays. Green Bay also lost tight end Jermichael Finley to a concussion and linebacker Clay Matthews to a hamstring injury.
- This was the first game in which Aaron Rodgers' pass protection was a major issue. He took four sacks, was hit at least a dozen times and threw multiple interceptions for the first time since Week 7 of the 2010 season. Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson put a clown suit on rookie left tackle David Bakhtiari.
- It will be interesting to see if Jake Locker earns more responsibility with his masterful 10-play, two-minute drill to win the game. The Titans had been the run-heaviest team in the NFL going into this week. Kendall Wright should have a bigger role going forward as well, as he's a quicker and more dangerous receiver after the catch than he was last season.
- It was no coincidence that Kenny Britt was benched for the game-winning drive while Justin Hunter, Damian Williams and even Michael Preston saw action in three-wide receiver sets. The mistake-prone Britt committed two more penalties, dropped two passes and was shut out on five targets. He's been one of the least effective starters in the NFL this season. The Titans are a better team with him on the bench.
- Ronnie Brown's rushing touchdown was the Chargers' first in 358 carries since a Ryan Mathews score early last season. Mathews has been the primary goal-line back, but Brown was in the game because it was a third-down play. The coaching staff still has a lot more trust in Brown and Danny Woodhead than Mathews in passing situations.
- Schaub has not played particularly well through three weeks, despite two impressive comebacks. He missed throws again, which took points off the board early. The Texans' offense is lacking big plays. It isn't pushing the ball up the field. The 16-play drive to start the game that resulted in just three points was a great example. The Texanswork hard to score.
When the score begged for hurry-up action in the second half, the Texans took forever between plays and looked content to move the ball in 5-yard chunks.
- Atlanta's offensive line troubles have caused the Falcons to focus on a quick-release, short-passing offense. It worked for most of the day, but the Falcons really need Roddy White to get healthy. He caught two passes for 16 yards while hobbling around once again. Julio Jones had 115 yards, but running back Jason Snelling was the next most effective receiver. Tony Gonzalez has only 93 yards through three games. That whole "skipping training camp" plan isn't working out.
- The Colts were tougher. Their pass rush overwhelmed San Francisco's offensive line, and they were able to run the ball down the 49ers' throats with Ahmad Bradshaw late in the game. Bradshaw has quietly improved each week this season and looked like his old hard-charging self Sunday. The performance was reminiscent of when Bradshaw and the New York Giants steamrolled the 49ers in San Francisco last year. Trent Richardson had 35 yards and one touchdown on 13 carries.
- This was easily the Panthers' most complete game in the Ron Rivera era. The offense piled up nearly 200 yards on the ground and Cam Newton threw touchdown passes to three different receivers. The Panthers' defensive line continues to look like one of the best in football. Rivera doesn't have to worry about sitting on the hot seat during Carolina's bye week.
- Offensive coordinator Mike Shula wisely opened up the playbook for Cam Newton. The dynamic quarterback finished with 45 yards and one touchdown on seven carries, including some designed rushes out of the option. His touchdown run was classic Ace Boogie, as he dragged defenders into the end zone with him.
- On last week's "Around The League Podcast," Chris Wesseling opined that Jay Cutler now has the look of a top-10 NFL quarterback. That argument was strengthened Sunday night. Bears coach Marc Trestman has earned a well-deservedreputation as a quarterbackwhisperer. Through three games, Trestman's Midas touch has Jay Cutler on pace for career highs in touchdowns and completion rate and a career low in sacks.
- The opportunistic Bears defense was a hallmark of the Lovie Smith era, including a record-tying eight interceptions returned for touchdowns in 2012. They are already a quarter of the way to that mark under new coordinator Mel Tucker after Major Wright's 38-yard pick six to go with Julius Peppers' fumble return for a touchdown. Chicago scored 24 points off turnovers.
- One week after struggling to get open versus the Bengals, Antonio Brown backed up cornerback Ike Taylor's recent assertion that he is indeed a true No. 1 receiver. Brown was highly effective against the Bears' Cover 2 shell, hauling in nine passes for 192 yards and a pair of scores. It helped his cause that Charles Tillman missed time with a groin injury.