EAST RUTHERFORD, N. J. -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we take a look at a Week 2 in the NFL that was chock-full of close games and comebacks. ...
• Well that didn't take long. Last season's surprise teams -- Washington, Indianapolis and Minnesota -- are surprising us once again. This time with their underachievement.
The Redskins, Colts and Vikings were all playoff teams a year ago, and the kind of feel-good stories few saw coming. But that was then, this is now and there's little about 2013 that's giving anyone goose bumps so far. Washington and Minnesota are a disheartening 0-2 (none of the 12 playoff teams last season lost their first two games), and Indianapolis lost 24-20 at home against Miami on Sunday, dropping to 1-1 after last week's narrow escape at home against Oakland.
Nothing seems quite as unexpected in this young NFL season as the early returns in Washington, where the Robert Griffin III comeback qualifies as the letdown of the year through two weeks. Griffin has rolled up some nice passing stats in the second half of both of Washington's losses -- to Philadelphia and at Green Bay -- but the Redskins were being blown out at halftime of both games and many of those yards were cosmetic.
Griffin made everything look so easy last season, but we're now getting a glimpse of his game without him posing a running threat, and it's nothing all that special. In the span of seven days, Griffin has been rendered a good but not great quarterback, and his return from last January's devastating knee injury clearly remains a work in progress. After throwing just five interceptions all of last season, Griffin has three in the season's opening two weeks.
Griffin as a pocket passer is no slouch, as he completed 26-of-40 passes in Sunday's 38-20 loss to the Packers, good for 320 yards, with three touchdowns and one interception. But the mobility that made him so dangerous and helped him take the league by storm in the read-option offense last year is not currently part of his repertoire -- and who knows for sure if it ever will be again?
It's a period of transition for Griffin, and it's too soon to know if this is the new normal for him or not. He ran just four times for one yard against the Packers, and now has only 25 yards rushing on nine carries for the season, meaning he's a lot easier to defend this year than he was last season, when the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year helped the Redskins overcome a 3-6 start and win their last seven games to claim the NFC East for the first time since 1999.
It's not all about Griffin in Washington, of course. The 0-2 start has plenty to do with the deficiencies on defense. Washington has allowed 1,023 yards in its two losses, and Green Bay gouged the Redskins for 580 yards of offense at Lambeau Field, with the Packers getting both a 400-yard passer (Aaron Rodgers, 480 yards and four touchdowns) and a 100-yard rusher (James Starks, 132 yards on 20 carries) for the first time in their illustrious history. Starks' 100-yard performance was Green Bay's first by any rusher in 45 games, with Brandon Jackson being the last Packers rusher to accomplish it, in Week 5 of 2010.
In the Colts' loss to the Dolphins, quarterback Andrew Luck's uncanny fourth-quarter magic failed him this time. Luck marched Indy to the Miami 23 with 1:45 remaining, but then fired three consecutive incompletions before being sacked on fourth down by Dolphins linebacker Phillip Wheeler. Earlier, Luck made a key mistake, getting picked off in the end zone by cornerback Brent Grimes on a ball he should have never thrown given the tight coverage.
And don't look now, but the Indianapolis schedule is about to turn tougher, with the Colts taking on the powerful 49ers and Seahawks over the course of the next three weeks, with a trip to San Diego waiting in Week 6. All told, the Colts will play just twice more at home between now and Nov. 10, and those games are against Seattle and Denver, a pair of Super Bowl contenders.
Minnesota was the third 2012 playoff qualifier on Sunday to find out the hard way that last year is over. The Vikings played the Bears tough at rainy Soldier Field, but somehow found a way to lose to Chicago 31-30, despite getting a 105-yard return for a touchdown from rookie Cordarrelle Patterson on the opening kickoff, and later a 61-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown by defensive lineman Brian Robison.
The Vikings forced four Bears turnovers, but watched as Jay Cutler led his second consecutive fourth-quarter comeback win, connecting with tight end Martellus Bennett from 16 yards out with 10 second left. Just like that, Chicago is off to a 2-0 start in the Marc Trestman coaching era, with both wins at home, and the Vikings are 0-2 in the division, with both defeats coming on the road.
The combined 1-5 start of the Colts, Vikings and Redskins is not a shocking development. I didn't have any of them making a return trip to the playoffs this season. But for teams that came out of nowhere to finish a combined 31-17 in 2012, albeit with three first-round playoff losses, the new season has been sobering thus far. In Indy, Minnesota and Washington, September has already grown challenging.
• Upon further review, revolutionizing the NFL is apparently going to take longer than a week. That's the lesson the Eagles and Chip Kelly learned on Sunday, in a stunning 33-30 home-opening loss to San Diego. Philadelphia's offense was productive, but a sluggish first half wound up costing the Eagles, who trailed 13-10 at the break and never really exhibited the same kind of break-neck offensive pace that was the talk of the NFL after Philly's win at Washington last Monday night.
Michael Vick was superb again, throwing for a career-best 428 yards on 23-of-36 passing, with two touchdowns passing, another one rushing and no turnovers. But lo and behold, the Chargers' embattled quarterback, Philip Rivers, was better, completing 36-of-47 for 419 yards with three touchdowns and nary a giveaway. San Diego might have won in a relative breeze were it not for costly red-zone fumbles by tight end Antonio Gates and running back Ryan Mathews in the first half. The Chargers punted just once all day.
The Eagles defense has been a sieve the past six quarters, against Washington and San Diego. At this rate, 33-30 might be the typical Philadelphia final score this season, with the Eagles both winning and losing their share of shootouts.
• After their excruciating last-second loss to the Patriots at home last week, the Bills rewarded their fans and bucked up their own growing confidence with that 24-23 comeback win over visiting Carolina. Buffalo's two games have now been decided with five seconds left against New England, and two ticks remaining against the Panthers.
Bills rookie quarterback EJ Manuel was no mere game manager in this one, completing 27-of-39 for 296 yards, with his only touchdown pass being the one that mattered: a pretty two-yard flip to Stevie Johnson in the end zone, for the game-winner. Manuel had what appeared to be a game-icing interception by Carolina safety Colin Jones wiped out by a pass interference penalty, and he made the Panthers pay for that mistake.
The Bills are trying to build something this season with a rookie head coach (Doug Marrone) and a rookie quarterback, but they're going to be fun to watch and a .500 record isn't out of the question. Buffalo's defense is drastically better, too, and 2012's big free-agent signing, defensive end Mario Williams, came through with an enormous 4.5-sack showing against the Panthers, establishing a new franchise record.
• As for the Panthers, life in Charlotte is becoming a broken record. Carolina let another victory get away, falling to 2-14 in games decided by a touchdown or less in the three seasons under head coach Ron Rivera. The injury news was even more depressing, with Panthers safety Charles Godfrey suffering an Achilles injury that will be evaluated further on Monday. Carolina also saw safety Quintin Mikell go down with an ankle injury.
• Kansas City head coach Andy Reid is going to make his celebrated return to Philadelphia on Thursday night with a head of steam. Reid's Chiefs are 2-0 after winning their home-opener against Dallas, 17-16, and Kansas City's resurgence is one of the best stories of the season thus far. The Chiefs have already matched their 2012 win total, and the combination of Reid and former 49ers quarterback Alex Smith has brought to Kansas City the kind of professional and efficient performance that has been lacking for most of the past decade.
And let's not forget about the improvement of the Chiefs defense, which has been led by defensive lineman Dontari Poe. With two more sacks against the Cowboys, Poe has 3.5 on the season already, and he's rapidly becoming a force up front for Kansas City.
• Who needs Dustin Keller in Miami? Charles Clay had a monster day at Indianapolis, and the Dolphins, as it turns out, do have a pass-catching threat at tight end after all. Clay finished with five catches for 109 yards in Miami's upset of the Colts, plus he added a late-third quarter, one-yard touchdown run that wound up being the difference in the game.
And the Dolphins even had a happy Mike Wallace on their hands after this one. Miami got Wallace involved in the passing game early, and his 18-yard, first-quarter touchdown catch highlighted his nine-reception, 115-yard day.
After going 2-0 on the road to start the season, the Dolphins have three of their next four at home, starting with Week 3 against Atlanta.
• It would seem the Texans are in for a year of living dangerously. They survived despite a 21-point third-quarter deficit at San Diego last Monday night, and on Sunday, they pulled another rabbit out of their hat, beating Tennessee 30-24 in overtime. The Titans had an eight-point lead late in regulation, but Houston tied inside of two minutes, and nearly won it in the final seconds, but kicker Randy Bullock missed a 46-yarder.
Bullock missed three attempts on the day and is suddenly a concern going forward. He actually got four cracks at the game-winner in regulation, but twice Tennessee head coach Mike Munchak called a late timeout, to ice the kicker -- I hate that practice more every year -- and once the Titans were flagged for offside on a kick they blocked.
The Texans did find themselves a new star in rookie receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who caught seven passes for 117 yards, including the pretty, game-winning three-yard touchdown in overtime. With lead receiver Andre Johnson out of the game with concussion symptoms in the fourth quarter, Hopkins stepped up. Could Houston's long search for a No. 2 receiver to draw attention away from Johnson finally be at an end?
• Brutal day to be an NFL running back. The Packers lost rookie lead back Eddie Lacy early on when Redskins safety Brandon Merriweather knocked him out of the game with a concussion. In Atlanta, the newly acquired Steven Jackson scored the game's first touchdown, then exited for the day with a thigh bruise. In Baltimore's win over Cleveland, the Ravens' Ray Rice went down untouched, the victim of a hip flexor strain.
• Last week's win over Minnesota aside, the Lions are still the Lions. They showed their lack of discipline again in a 25-21 loss at Arizona, rolling up eight penalties for 101 yards, losing a fumble deep in their own territory and failing to make a pair of field-goal attempts.
Detroit had a second-half lead, but let Arizona score the game's final 12 points, including a one-yard Rashard Mendenhall run with about two minutes left. Wasted in the effort was a strong game by Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, who was a crisp 24-of-36 for 278 yards, two touchdowns, no picks and a 108.3 passer rating.
• No, this is not the 2007 Patriots offense. New England has defined the "winning ugly'' mantra so far, not putting away the Bills last week in Buffalo until the final five seconds of the game, and then slopping its way to a three-point win over the turnover-happy Jets in Foxboro on Thursday night.
But, don't weep for the Patriots, even with the reported news that go-to receiver Danny Amendola might need surgery and be out at least a month with either a sports hernia or torn adductors muscles in his hip. New England woke up Friday morning with a 2-0 record in the AFC East, and the advantage of having a mini-bye this weekend, before it starts preparations for visiting Tampa Bay in Week 3.
It may be one of those years where nothing comes easily in New England, but the Pats will get their wins.
• Remarkably, Chargers receiver Malcolm Floyd is said to be doing well and was able to fly home to San Diego with his teammates after the victory in Philadelphia. But when I first saw him getting sandwiched between Eagles safety Nate Allen and linebacker DeMeco Ryans, with the top of his helmet coming in contact with Ryans' shoulder, I thought everything including paralysis was the possible outcome.
• It's only two weeks, but I think you can start printing up those Teddy Bridgewater jerseys in Jacksonville. With the Jaguars losing 19-9 at Oakland, we have a clear-cut leader in the clubhouse for next May's No. 1 draft pick.
The Jaguars did finally score a touchdown this week, getting a fourth-quarter, 13-yard Clay Harbor scoring catch after registering only a safety last week in a home loss to Kansas City. Even with Chad Henne subbing for the injured Blaine Gabbert, the basic storyline did not change, especially with Jones-Drew leaving the game with a bum ankle in the second quarter.
Jacksonville plays at Seattle next week, so the beatings will continue. The Jaguars will stay west and practice all week in California. Can you blame them for not wanting to go home?
• The Falcons got their first win of the season, beating the visiting Rams, but the 31-24 win was closer than it probably should have been, given that Atlanta led 24-3 at halftime. That's only going to raise the familiar question about killer instinct for the Falcons, who struggled in last year's postseason with putting teams away (see win over Seattle, and loss to San Francisco).
The Falcons know how to start, and have the offensive weapons to build big leads. But Mike Smith's club still finds it challenging to finish.
• Now that was an old-time Baltimore Ravens defensive showing, in their 14-6 defeat of visiting Cleveland, a division rival they've beaten 11 times in a row. Baltimore's remolded defense got humbled at Denver last week, but the Browns paid for it.
The Ravens sacked Cleveland quarterback Brandon Weeden five times and knocked him out the game with a fourth-quarter thumb injury, and the Browns totaled just two field goals and 259 total yards of offense.
Get ready, Baltimore fans. I think there are going to be more wins like this one coming in 2013. The Ravens offense is still in the process of re-inventing itself, especially in the passing game. And that means the defense might have to carry the ball in the season's first half.
• With Weeden again getting very little done in terms of putting points on the board -- Cleveland has just one touchdown in two games -- will the Browns use his thumb injury as a reason to start backup Jason Campbell next week at Minnesota?
Stay tuned, but my hunch is Campbell gets his opportunity, before another season in Cleveland swirls down the drain.
• How about that Mrs. Dana Flacco, having a baby about noon on gameday, with husband/quarterback Joe Flacco already having gone through pregame warmups with the Ravens? That's old-school. The couple's second child was a son.
• On the NFL fashion front, I always love when the Bills wear their throwback helmets with the polite little red bison standing perfectly upright. That just screams Cookie Gilchrist and early O.J. Simpson.
But I am definitely not in favor of the red-on-red look that the Chiefs debuted on Sunday in the home-opener against Dallas. Paraphrasing the immortal words of Boog Powell, who had to don the red pants and red jersey of the mid-70s Cleveland Indians, the Chiefs looked like a bunch of giant blood clots.