You know the drill by now. It's time to recap some winners and losers from Week 3 of the preseason. While the games don't count, the perceptions sure do.....
• WINNER -- If there's one NFL team that's thrilled to see September finally arrive, it's the Green Bay Packers, who are finally almost in position to stop wasting such dominating performances on the preseason. They don't hand out shiny trophies for exhibition games, but if they did, the biggest one would be going to the 3-0 Packers, who were the closest thing in the league to a juggernaut in August.
The perfect record, of course, isn't the important part. The stuff that makes you sit up and take notice is the 38-10 halftime lead at NFC defending champion Arizona on Friday night, when both teams were playing their first-team units, the NFL-best 151.1 passer rating of quarterback Aaron Rodgers, and the whopping plus-10 turnover ratio (also the league's best) compiled by Green Bay's new-look 3-4 defense. And did we mention that in 12 drives of work, the Packers first-team offense has produced nine touchdowns, one field goal and nary a punt? On defense, Green Bay's first unit has played 12 series and surrendered only 10 points and 15 first downs.
To say that it's all clicking for Green Bay right now is the understatement of the young season, but the best news is the Packers have a great shot to keep their mojo rolling in the first two months of the regular season. In fact, I predict Green Bay will be no worse than 5-1 when November arrives, with a favorable early schedule that starts with back-to-back home games against Chicago and Cincinnati, and is followed by at St. Louis, at Minnesota, a fifth-week bye, then Detroit and at Cleveland.
All the hype in the NFC North so far this year has been centered on the high-profile quarterback changes in Chicago, Detroit and Minnesota. But that's about to change. Green Bay is clearly the team to beat in the division, and the Packers are about to force us to pay attention.
• LOSER -- League-wide, the health issue at starting quarterback had been almost dangerously good through the first two weeks of the preseason. Marc Bulger's broken finger and Ben Roethlisberger's Achilles scare aside, things looked pretty calm on the quarterback front. But then came Tom Brady's shoulder, Matt Cassel's knee, Kyle Orton's finger and Matt Schaub's ankle in Week 3. Nothing too serious, mind you. But dress rehearsal week caused more than one head coach to wish the NFL's preseason had already been cut to just two games.
• WINNER -- The battle royale at the Giants receiver position has been front and center for most of the preseason, but I didn't see anybody really stepping up and making the most of the wide-open competition until rookie Hakeem Nicks caught those two fourth-quarter touchdown passes Saturday night in a 27-25 loss to the Jets. True, Nicks excelled against the Jets second-team defense, and it was David Carr and not Eli Manning throwing those scoring strikes. But six catches for 144 yards and a pair of scores is an impressive breakthrough game in the NFL, no matter when it occurs.
The first-round pick out of North Carolina now has caught passes of 55 and 71 yards in consecutive weeks, which can't be sloughed off when you see veteran Steve Smith butter-fingering that bomb from Eli Manning on a post pattern against the Jets. New York has been working on the deep stuff all preseason, and Nicks looks like the only guy making anything happen right now.
• LOSER -- Chan Gailey knows a little something about hasty firings, having been booted as Cowboys head coach after just two years despite going to the playoffs both seasons (in 1998-99). But his dismissal as Chiefs offensive coordinator on Monday, three days before Kansas City's final preseason game, was still a stunner. It's also a pretty good indication that the disarray the Chiefs appear to be in on offense is no mirage. New head coach Todd Haley is assuming the play-calling duties because if he's going to get beat early and often in his K.C. tenure, he at least wants to get beat doing things his way. I guess you could say it's curtains for the Haley-Gailey show.
Despite his starting quarterback (Cassel) being down with a knee injury of undetermined length, and his offense having produced just two touchdowns in its first three preseason games, Haley will get more aggressive with the play-calling, trying to jump start a passing game that has yet to show any ability to stretch the field and truly challenge a defense. But is there a bigger Week 1 underdog on the horizon than Kansas City at Baltimore? Then again, we said the same thing last year, and the Chiefs nearly knocked off the Patriots in Foxboro.
• WINNER -- All in all it was a pretty good weekend for quarterbacks with the initials J.C. who were facing hostile crowds. That goes for Chicago's Jay Cutler in his much-ballyhooed return to Denver, and Washington's Jason Campbell, who averted a full-fledged quarterback crisis by playing well in a narrow loss to New England on Friday night before the home fans at FedEx Field.
In their own way, Cutler and Campbell answered the bell in Week 3, showing they can stand up to the most conceivable amount of pressure you can have in any particular preseason game. It won't be the last time this year that either former first-round pick hears the noise, but to some degree, both can now say "been there, done that.''
• LOSER -- The notion of nostalgia in New England has never had much of a foot-hold, but it took yet another hit Monday. It feels a bit like the end of an era for a Patriots defense that has now lost veterans Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel and Rodney Harrison, all in a matter of months. That's a lot of memories and expertise walking out the door at Gillette, but it was time to turn that page and the Patriots knew it.
At least Bruschi got to go into retirement with his head held high, making it seem like it was more his choice than the team lowering the boom on another franchise favorite. I thought Bruschi could have been in roster trouble two years ago, so he definitely got the most out of his 13-season NFL career. As for the entire New England area, that's bidding a goodbye of sorts to two pretty beloved Teds in the span of a week.
• WINNER -- Just as they did a couple years ago in discovering the undrafted Pierre Thomas, the Saints might have found themselves another gem of a collegiate free-agent running back in P.J. Hill. The former Wisconsin Badger carried 12 times for 83 yards and a couple touchdowns in that slaughter of the Raiders on Saturday, and now has scored three times in New Orleans' three preseason games.
In fact, the Saints running game has three rushers who have gained at least 100 yards this preseason, and none of them are named either Thomas or Reggie Bush, who have been out with injuries for a couple weeks. Lynell Hamilton, an undrafted 2008 free agent out of San Diego State, has led the team with 143 yards on 31 carries, and former Bronco Mike Bell has rolled up 115 yards on just 15 attempts, a gaudy 7.7 average. In fact, New Orleans could be the new Denver, the team that can always find another quality running back.
• LOSER -- It may be time to panic in Carolina, where the Panthers defense continues to look as overmatched as any defense this side of Oakland's. In that not-as-close-as-it-sounds 17-13 home loss to Baltimore Saturday night, Carolina allowed Ravens quarterbacks to complete 31 of 39 passes for 307 yards and 18 first downs through the air. All told, Baltimore out-gained Carolina 421-281, and starting QB Joe Flacco was a near flawless 23 of 28 for 247 yards, with first-half touchdown drives of 80 and 90 yards.
The Panthers are now 0-3 this preseason, and given that they gave up 31 points or more in five of their last seven games last season, including that playoff meltdown at home against Arizona, there may be nothing fluky about their August defensive woes. And that's a big problem in the NFC South, where New Orleans and Atlanta can put points on the board.
• WINNER -- I've been cautiously optimistic that new Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams will be the key to New Orleans finally repairing the Achilles heel of the roster, but the results have been even better than anyone had a right to expect through three weeks of the preseason. The Saints have given up just four touchdowns in three games, with the rush defense being particularly strong (3.4 average gain, nine first downs allowed and no touchdowns).
New Orleans hasn't plowed through a murderer's row in beating Cincinnati, Houston and Oakland, but no matter how you cut it, routing three opponents by a combined score of 100-28 with a plus-5 turnover ratio makes a positive impression as the season looms. It's not the time to be talking much if you're the Saints defense. Just go out and prove that this time it's change we can believe in.
• LOSER -- So which receiver had the worst week when it comes to self-inflicted wounds, Michael Crabtree, in becoming the last NFL draft pick remaining unsigned, or Brandon Marshall, for yet another brick in the wall when it comes to building his reputation as more trouble than he's worth? Marshall wants to be paid like a top-five receiver in the NFL, and Crabtree still can't come to grips with the fact he didn't go in the top five.
The 49ers just keep waiting for Crabtree to wise up, while the Broncos may be losing hope that Marshall will ever grow up.