KANSAS CITY -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight from a Week 3 that was quite friendly to the road teams on this NFL Sunday ...
• Desperation can be a double-edged sword in the NFL, but the Cowboys and Vikings certainly channeled it for season-saving wins in Week 3. Dallas and Minnesota spent the week on the brink after their home losses to the Bears and Dolphins last Sunday, but both have reason to exhale after avoiding the mayhem and carnage that would have ensued at 0-3.
The Cowboys may not make it all the way to their goal of playing the Super Bowl in their own stadium, but they did manage to win a monstrously important game at Houston, knocking off the previously undefeated Texans (27-13) in impressive fashion. It was the same basic story for the Vikings, who thumped the visiting Lions 24-10, thereby ensuring that Brett Favre's latest comeback wasn't a complete waste of his time.
Dallas and Minnesota were two of the NFL's three 0-2's to start climbing their way back into contention in Week 3 (the Rams, behind Sam Bradford, also broke out of their winless funk). Desperation wasn't enough to get it done for the likes of Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, Carolina and San Francisco. Of the five teams, the 49ers are easily the biggest underachievers, and Mike Singletary's unraveling club is now staring at 0-4 with a trip to 2-1 Atlanta looming next week.
Tony Romo's and Roy Williams' strong games notwithstanding, the Cowboys' best development was the return of their defense. Three takeaways (zero in Weeks 1-2) and four sacks against a top-ranked Texans offense that had its way against the Colts and Redskins served notice the Cowboys will still factor in an NFC East that apparently doesn't contain anything resembling a juggernaut. No one is running away from anyone within the division. Vote of confidence or not, Wade Phillips still does his best coaching when he's concentrating on the defensive side of the ball -- and it showed in Houston.
In Minnesota, the Vikings offense still wasn't crisp, but Brad Childress wisely rode Adrian Peterson to the franchise's 22nd win over Detroit in 25 tries. Peterson finished with 160 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 23 carries (7.0 average), and it was his career-best 80-yard scoring run in the third quarter that broke the Lions' spirits. Favre was shaky again, with two picks and a pair of sacks, giving him six interceptions after three games (after throwing only seven last season). Two other Favre turnovers, a fumble and an interception, were wiped out by penalties against Detroit.
The Vikings and Cowboys both take their bye in Week 4, and I imagine the break looks a world more inviting at 1-2 than it would have at 0-3. Favre and Co. need the rest, because in Weeks 5-8, games against the Jets, Cowboys, Packers and Patriots loom. Dallas comes back to face the Titans, Vikings, Giants and Jaguars in the ensuing four games.
Both the Cowboys and Vikings staved off the desperation for now, but a host of challenges still await the pair of Super Bowl contenders. A win in the NFL still lasts an entire week, but it's only one week.
• Roy Williams had the unexpected big game at Houston, but I wouldn't get used to it, Dallas fans. The Texans secondary can make almost anyone look like a threat. Houston became the first NFL team in history to surrender 400-plus yards passing in its opening two games of the season, but "held'' the Cowboys to just 284 on Sunday. In the best game of his Dallas tenure, Williams had 117 yards on five catches, including a pair of touchdowns (15 and 63 yards) in the second half.
Another 25 or so games like that, and Williams might just approach being worth the price Dallas paid for him at the 2008 trading deadline.
• Now we've got an honest-to-goodness race in the NFC South, thanks to Atlanta's thrilling 27-24 overtime defeat of New Orleans (2-1) in the Superdome. The Falcons (2-1) needed a Garrett Hartley shank job from 29 yards in OT to get the chance at victory, but there was nothing fluky about the win. Atlanta put up 417 yards of offense against the Saints, with 202 coming on the ground. The Falcons simply wore down the Saints defenders, holding the ball for a whopping 45:50, compared to New Orleans' 27:15 time of possession.
Atlanta really needed to win Sunday to avoid spending most of the next couple months chasing down the Saints in the division. The Falcons play just one NFC South game (home against Tampa Bay) between now and Week 13, with four of their six division games jammed into the season's final five weeks. The Week 16 rematch against the Saints, in the Georgia Dome, won't happen until two days after Christmas.
• The Patriots offense is all the way back this season, but how can anyone rest easy in Foxboro with a New England defense capable of being dented for 374 yards by Ryan Fitzpatrick and the previously non-threatening Bills offense? New England's 38-30 win over Buffalo was considerably harder than it should have been (six lead changes in the game), and until some of those young Patriots defenders start to mature, there might be plenty of shootouts to come for Tom Brady and Co. this season.
• There was some good news for Buffalo in dropping to 0-3. Fitzpatrick clearly gives the Bills more of a vertical threat than Trent Edwards and his check-down heavy passing game, and rookie running back C.J. Spiller finally looked like the player many of us picked to win the Offensive Rookie of the Year award.
Spiller scored twice at New England, first on a five-yard pass from Fitzpatrick, and later on a scintillating 95-yard kickoff return in the third quarter. There's plenty more days like that to come for the ex-Clemson star.
• When is that Ben Roethlisberger guy coming back from his suspension in Pittsburgh -- Week 6, at home against Cleveland? I sure hope he doesn't disrupt the Steelers' offensive rhythm when he returns, because 13-year veteran quarterback Charlie Batch had Pittsburgh running like a finely tuned machine at Tampa Bay.
Batch completed 11 of his first 14 passes, with a spike and a drop mixed in, as the Steelers rolled to a 28-6 lead, en route to a 38-13 blowout of the 2-0 Bucs. Batch had 177 yards and three touchdowns at that point, with a 128.6 passer rating. Pittsburgh only felt the need to throw three passes in the second half, with Rashard Mendenhall (19 carries for 143 yards) pacing a 201-yard rushing attack for the Steelers.
Remember when we all theorized that Pittsburgh would do well just to hang on until Roethlisberger resumed playing, maybe scratching out a 2-2 start? Whoever starts at quarterback for the Steelers, they'll be favored to go to 4-0 at home against Baltimore next week.
• Speaking of the Ravens, did anyone need a good game in Week 3 more than quarterback Joe Flacco, who actually had to endure talk-show chatter calling for backup Marc Bulger last week? Flacco was back in form in the Ravens' surprisingly tough 24-17 win over visiting Cleveland, with 22 of 31 passing for 262 yards and three touchdowns -- all to his new favorite target, Anquan Boldin.
More importantly, Flacco had no interceptions after four last week at Cincinnati, and one in Week 1 at the Jets. Now comes the toughest test an NFL quarterback can face at the moment: A Week 4 trip to Pittsburgh, for a showdown with the 3-0 Steelers.
• Can't remember the last time I saw two better quarterbacks make two uglier throws than the interceptions Eli Manning and Drew Brees turned in Sunday.
Pass pressure can make even the best quarterbacks do stupid things, and Manning actually switched the ball to his left hand and tried to shot-put a touchdown pass to tight end Kevin Boss in the end zone. Instead, Titans cornerback Jason McCourty picked off the lob and denied New York a golden scoring opportunity late in the first quarter.
In New Orleans, Brees was intercepted by Falcons safety Thomas DeCoud in the second quarter when attempting an ill-advised underhand throw to tight end Jimmy Graham while falling to the turf. That play started at the Falcons' 25, but with the reprieve, Atlanta wound up taking the ball and marching 72 yards on a staggering 19 plays for a game-tying touchdown.
• What a train-wreck-in-the-making the Giants have become. I didn't pick New York to make the NFC playoffs, but I thought it had a chance to be pretty good if new coordinator Perry Fewell could get the defense fixed. But Tom Coughlin's team is disintegrating before our eyes.
In losing 29-10 at home to the Titans on Sunday, New York (1-2) was an undisciplined mess, with five personal fouls, two turnovers inside the Tennessee 6-yard line, a safety incurred when running back Ahmad Bradshaw chop-blocked in the end zone, and 11 penalties for 86 yards. That's how you lose by 19 points despite outgaining your opponent by 200 yards (471-271).
I don't buy that an entire team can lose its poise at the same time, but New York is making me rethink that. Coughlin yanked offensive tackle Kareem McKenzie out of the game after a second personal foul, and the Giants head coach later benched safety Antrel Rolle -- he of the travel itinerary issues -- for a time. As for Coughlin, I'd say his chances of being back on New York's sideline in 2011 are dwindling by the week.
• Reggie who? New Orleans got a 72-yard punt return touchdown and scoring catches of 80 and 16 yards from receiver Lance Moore, and as we presumed, the Reggie Bush-less Saints aren't exactly bereft of big-time playmakers without their injured running back-return man.
I guess you could say that New Orleans has Moore than enough on offense.
• That Danny Woodhead signing in New England has to be driving Rex Ryan and his Jets a little nuts. Ryan, as HBO's Hard Knocks proved, loves Woodhead, but New York had to cut him recently when it needed help elsewhere on the roster. The Patriots snapped him up, and now he's a legitimate contributor for the Jets' biggest rivals. With Kevin Faulk out for the season with a knee injury, Woodhead was active against the Bills and had a nifty 22-yard touchdown run.
• It was a new quarterback and the same old results for Carolina. The Jimmy Clausen era started Sunday against the visiting Bengals, but the bottom line was very familiar: Carolina scored just seven points in its loss to Cincinnati, the same amount it scored in losing at home to Tampa Bay a week ago.
Clausen was 16 of 33 for 188 yards, with a dismal 53.6 passer rating. He threw one interception and lost a pair of fumbles, and Carolina (0-3) is already two full games behind all three of its NFC South opponents.
• Wow. We already knew Jeff Fisher was a graybeard, because he's now in his 16th year on the job with the Oilers/Titans franchise, making him the dean of all NFL head coaches. But did we really need the reinforcing visual of that very, very gray beard Fisher's sporting these days?
Please tell me Fisher won't wind up in one of those cheesy "Just for Men'' commercials with Emmitt Smith, Keith Hernandez and Walt Frazier.