NFC East hits rock bottom with winless Giants, Redskins; more Snaps
BALTIMORE, Md. -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight while watching Ray Lewis enter the Ravens' Ring of Honor amid an impressive Baltimore victory over Houston in Week 3 at M&T Bank Stadium. ...
• Truth be known, I'm almost glad Pat Summerall isn't here to see this. Because I'm not sure the legendary announcer -- whose voice became synonymous with the NFC East and its historic niche in the game -- would know exactly what to say about the sad demise of what was once known as the league's glamor division. Week 3 felt like rock bottom, didn't it?
There are the 2-1 first-place Dallas Cowboys, and then there are disasters everywhere you look in the NFC Least. Let us detail the ineptitude, which includes a combined 3-9 record by division teams, with two of those wins coming in head-to-head play:
-- The Giants are off to their first 0-3 start since 1996, the last year of the Dan Reeves coaching era, after getting destroyed 38-0 at Carolina. Let that one soak in: a 38-point shutout loss to the previously offensively challenged Panthers, who entered Sunday 0-2, averaging 15 points per game. Carolina has never won a game by a bigger margin, and the Giants have never lost a game by a more lopsided score in coach Tom Coughlin's 10-season tenure.
-- The Redskins, last year's surprise division champion, are 0-3 as well, falling 27-20 to a Detroit team that was 0-for-forever when playing at Washington. (The Lions are now 1-21 if you're scoring at home. And speaking of home, the Redskins are suddenly 0-2 there this season, after winning their final seven games of the 2012 regular season overall and five of their past six at FedEx Field.) Washington hasn't been off to a worst start since 2001, when Marty Schottenheimer's only season in D.C. got off to an 0-5 beginning.
According to Elias Sports, this is the first time in NFL history that the Redskins and Giants are both 0-3.
-- And then there are Chip Kelly's Eagles, who dropped a 26-16 decision to Andy Reid and his upstart Kansas City Chiefs on Thursday night in Philadelphia, getting the whole Week 3 carnage started in the division. After a spectacular first two quarters in their opener at Washington in Week 1, the Eagles have been pretty pathetic, and find themselves sitting 1-2 and facing a three-game road trip in the coming weeks. The air has come out of the balloon in Philly in the blink of an eye, and the loss to the Chiefs looked an awful lot like many of the 12 defeats the Eagles incurred last year, when things spiraled out of control in Reid's final season.
In truth, greatness and the NFC East haven't belonged in the same sentence for a while now, with the division champion winning only 9 or 10 games for the past three years now. But good golly, this year is ugly so far, and the worst of it is in New York, where the Giants have now lost eight of their past 11 games since last year's 6-2 start. At least this year New York doesn't have to worry about its perennial pattern of getting off to a great start and then swooning in the season's second half. And don't look now, but New York in Week 4 travels to undefeated Kansas City (3-0), which will be fresh from its 10-day break between games. Clearly there's more fun to come.
The Giants were so bad against the Panthers that their five-point loss in Week 1 at Dallas, the one in which they committed six turnovers, is now fondly recalled as the good 'ol days. New York's Eli Manning was sacked by Carolina on three consecutive snaps in the first quarter, and the Panthers' total of seven sacks (six of which came in a 17-minute span in the first half) tied a franchise record.
At halftime, the Giants trailed 17-0, with 18 yards of offense, one passing yard and two first downs. A David Wilson touchdown run was wiped out by a penalty, and a 38-yard Josh Brown field goal attempt was badly missed. Manning finished just 12-of-23 for 119 yards and another interception, giving him eight this season in three games. And to think Carolina came into the game short-handed on pass defense due to injuries (Coughlin called it a "chopped-up secondary''). But New York's passing game still couldn't take advantage.
As for the NFL-worst Giants running game, it remained virtually non-existent, gaining just 60 yards, which almost matched its total from the first two games (73). The Panthers had no such problems, rushing for almost 200 yards, and getting a great game from quarterback Cam Newton, who threw for 223 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for another in the rout.
Was it really just more than 19 months ago that Coughlin's Giants won their second Super Bowl title in a five-year span? It seems eons ago. And while New York last week cited its 0-2 start in 2007 -- also a Super Bowl season -- as a reminder of what could still be this year, there were no such delusional statements this time around. The Giants have never recovered from an 0-3 start to make the playoffs, and both they and the Redskins are facing long odds to be alive in January. Since the NFL went to its 12-team playoff format in 1990, only three of 115 teams that started 0-3 rallied to make the playoffs, and no one has done it since '98.
I suppose we should have seen this coming in New York, given that its own MetLife Stadium will play host to the Super Bowl in February, thereby representing the kiss of death for the G-Men. No team has ever played a Super Bowl on its own home field, and unless the Jets pull off a miracle on par with the 1969 Mets, that 48-year streak will continue into 2014.
• I barely mentioned the Cowboys (2-1) above, because they don't deserve to be lumped in with the rest of the division in any way, shape or form. Dallas throttled St. Louis 31-7 in statement-game fashion on Sunday, running out to a 24-0 third-quarter lead and cruising to its second home win of the season. It's the first time in the five-year history of AT&T Stadium that the Cowboys have started 2-0 at home, and at this rate, they might win the NFC East by default. (I know this much: I'm glad Dallas was my preseason pick to win the division, because any other call would have represented egg on my face after three weeks.)
The Cowboys are a markedly different team this year. They scored on their first three possessions against the Rams, rolled up 193 yards rushing against a St. Louis defense that had ranked sixth against the run, and sacked Sam Bradford six times --which was six more than he had absorbed in the Rams' opening two games. The Dallas win over St. Louis represented the first victory this season by an NFC East team outside of its own division.
Nobody had more to do with Dallas climbing back over .500 than DeMarco Murray, the Cowboys' running back who apparently lives to torment St. Louis. Murray gouged the Rams for 175 yards and a touchdown on 26 rushes, after putting up a franchise-record 253 yards against St. Louis in his breakthrough game in 2011.
The NFC East has seen a three-team clump near the top of the division in recent years, but that trend appears to be in serious jeopardy. From the vantage point of September, the Cowboys look like the class of the division and easily the most balanced team in the East.
• Green Bay can be a maddening team to figure out. The Packers fell behind 14-0 in the first quarter of a game for the first time since 2005, scored 30 consecutive points to take a 16-point lead in the third quarter and then saw Cincinnati storm back with the game's final three touchdowns to win 34-30.
Green Bay forced four Bengals turnovers, and piled up 299 yards of offense in the second half alone, but the Packers are 1-2 because rookie running back Johnathan Franklin fumbled away a carry on a questionable 4th-and-1 call at the Bengals' 30 with just under four minutes remaining. A 47- or 48-yard Mason Crosby field goal would have given the Packers a six-point lead to protect. On Franklin's fumble, safety Reggie Nelson recovered, then fumbled, but the ball bounced to cornerback Terence Newman, who took it the remaining 58 yards for the game-winning touchdown.
The Packers have a bye next week, and they desperately need it. Franklin was their only healthy running back on Sunday, after James Starks was knocked out of action with a knee injury in the second half. Rookie Eddie Lacy (concussion) and fullback John Kuhn (hamstring) were inactive. More injury woes accumulated for Green Bay, with star outside linebacker Clay Matthews suffering a hamstring pull and tight end Jermichael Finley leaving with a first-quarter concussion.
• Not sure how much meaning to attach to Cincinnati's win, its second at home in a seven-day span. The Bengals and Packers were my Super Bowl picks, but both teams turned the ball over four times, and looked ragged for different portions of the game. It was a modest step forward for Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton, however. He completed 20-of-28 passes, for 235 yards, with two touchdowns, one interception and one fumble lost.
In the astounding stat of the week department, the Bengals are the first team in NFL history to ever lead by 14 points, trail by 16 points, and then win a game. It was that kind of rollercoaster ride at Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday.
• The Browns' front office may be already thinking about 2014, but Cleveland's players stayed in the moment at Minnesota, showing they haven't given up on this season with a resilient 31-27 comeback win over the Vikings.
Who needs Trent Richardson when you've got receiver Josh Gordon, tight end Jordan Cameron and quarterback Brian Hoyer? OK, don't answer that one. It was rhetorical. But Hoyer, making just his second career start, did provide Cleveland's offense with a boost, starting well, overcoming three interceptions and then leading the Browns on a game-winning touchdown drive that ended with him hitting Cameron in the end zone from 7 yards out with 51 seconds remaining.
Hoyer completed 30-of-54 passes, for 321 yards, with three touchdowns and those three picks. Cameron had just six catches, but half of them went for scores, and Gordon was a beast, with 10 receptions for 146 yards and a touchdown. Even better, the Browns were fun, pulling a fake punt to set up a field goal, and executing a fake field goal that saw punter/holder Spencer Lanning throw an 11-yard touchdown pass to Cameron in the second quarter.
Lanning had quite the day. Not only did he throw that scoring pass, but he also subbed for injured kicker Billy Cundiff, kicking the PAT after the Browns' game-winning touchdown. I'll bet he didn't wake up on Sunday thinking he'd be the first player with a punt, extra point and a touchdown pass in a single game since Sam Baker did it in 1968.
As for the Browns' starting quarterback next week at home against Cincinnati, it has to be Hoyer. With him at the helm, Cleveland hung up 31 points on the road and got head coach Rob Chudzinski his first career win. The Browns had scored all of 16 points combined in their losses to Miami and Baltimore.
• Don't think for a minute the league office was thrilled with the decision of the 49ers' organization to go silent for two days and apparently leave it up to the NFL to mete out the disciplinary action against San Francisco's Aldon Smith, who was arrested early Friday morning on the suspicion of driving under the influence. The league would have been fully supportive if the 49ers had taken the lead and announced some punishment of Smith, but they have unsurprisingly opted to let the NFL play the enforcer role.
Shame on the 49ers, too, for letting Smith play against Indianapolis on Sunday, rather than taking a stand and making a strong statement about Smith's continued reckless behavior. Smith reportedly is being encouraged to seek rehabilitation for his substance abuse issues (and it was announced after the game that he will take an indefinite leave from the team), but the league is fully expected to add to his time away from the game at some point in the future. This was Smith's second DUI arrest, and as a repeat offender he could be in for a three- or four-game suspension, with the league expected to wait for the legal process to play out before making any announcement on his fate.
Wasn't it just the other day that Von Miller and Smith looked like the bright, young defensive superstars in the NFL stratosphere? Their resumes have lost plenty of luster this year.
• You have to look past a bunch of bad football to feel good about the Jets' 27-20 conquest of the visiting Bills, like a mind-blowing 20 penalties for 168 yards and two Geno Smith interceptions. But there were bright spots, and plenty to build on for New York. Smith threw for 331 yards on 16-of-29 passing, and also had a first-quarter 8-yard touchdown run.
And the Jets offense produced big plays for a change, with Santonio Holmes -- remember him? -- hauling in the game-winning 69-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter, and receiver Stephen Hill catching a 51-yard scoring pass in the second quarter. Holmes had a huge, five-catch, 154-yard game, while Hill caught three passes for 108 yards and that touchdown. Balancing New York's offense out nicely was running back Bilal Powell, who rushed 27 times for a game-best 149 yards.
The Jets are 2-1, and even though they might not hang around with New England and Miami (both 3-0) in the AFC East all season long, they're in a whole lot better shape than the Giants (0-3), and who saw that coming?
• What a dream performance by the Saints defense against Arizona. So far this season, everything is going exactly as planned in coordinator Rob Ryan's makeover of the New Orleans defense. The Cardinals scored first on Sunday, going 80 yards for a touchdown drive, but it was all Saints after that in the 31-7 New Orleans victory.
The Saints are 3-0 for the first time since their Super Bowl season of 2009, and Ryan's defense has given up just four touchdowns in three games. Facing Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer, the Saints sacked him four times, picked him off twice and held him to 187 yards passing with a 43.4 rating. That's the Palmer who has lost a ton of games in his past three-plus seasons, and the Saints kept him under pressure all day.
New Orleans also got interceptions from both of its key offseason acquisitions on defense, rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro and veteran free-agent cornerback Keenan Lewis. Arizona's blowout loss will serve to tamp down some of the enthusiasm Bruce Arians' team had generated as a dark-horse contender in the tough NFC West. Of course, the Cardinals, at 1-2, are tied with San Francisco and St. Louis, so there's that.
• It's time to officially take the Dolphins seriously, courtesy of that 27-23 win over Atlanta in Miami's home-opener. Joe Philbin's team is 3-0 for the first time since 2002, and it's obvious second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill has taken a step up in weight class this season. Tannehill out-dueled Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, the guy Dolphins football czar Bill Parcells passed on in favor of offensive tackle Jake Long in the 2008 draft.
Tannehill endured five sacks by the Falcons, but he stood tall in the end, directing a game-winning touchdown drive that ended with his pretty 1-yard pass to rookie tight end Dion Sims with 38 seconds remaining. The only real downer for Miami was the loss of Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Wake to a knee injury in the second quarter. The Dolphins can't afford to be without Wake for long, but the undefeated September helps ease the pain of his loss.
• The Green Bay Packers have to be wondering where this version of the 49ers came from. San Francisco has lost two games in a row after beating Green Bay at home in Week 1, and Sunday's 27-7 drubbing at the hands of the inspired Colts at Candlestick Park forces us to contemplate that we might have over-rated the defending NFC champions.
And underrated the Colts, who I thought would take a slight step back this season after their 11-5 wild-card-qualifying efforts of 2012. Indy's running game was much improved as expected, but more credit goes to the emergence of veteran Ahmad Bradshaw than the acquisition of Trent Richardson. The ex-Giant came to life against the 49ers, rushing for 95 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries. Richardson scored on his first running attempt as a Colt, but totaled just 35 yards on 13 attempts.
Suddenly the 49ers are under .500 for the first time in the Jim Harbaugh coaching era, they trail first-place Seattle by two games and their offense looks quite mediocre. The Colts held Colin Kaepernick to just 150 yards on 13-of-27 passing, and Indy outgained the 49ers 336 to 254 yards, possessing the ball for more than 36 minutes.
San Francisco has been outscored 56-10 in the past two weeks, and now must face a short week and a trip to St. Louis for the Thursday night game. The Rams (1-2) have played San Francisco tough, going 1-0-1 against the 49ers last season.
• Seattle (3-0) didn't call it a bye week, but that was pretty much the end result in its pummeling of visiting Jacksonville 45-17. Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson played just two-plus quarters, and still threw a career-tying four touchdown passes against the 0-3 Jaguars.
We're running out of ways to describe Wilson's game, but the NFL came through for us on Sunday, announcing that Wilson is now 10-0 at home in his career, becoming just the fifth quarterback to manage that kind of start to his career since the 1970 merger.
• Whatever mojo the Vikings had in winning their final four regular-season games to make the playoffs as a surprise NFC wild-card last season, it did not survive the offseason. Minnesota is 0-3 after the devastating home loss to the Browns, and for a second week in a row the Vikings gave up the game-winning touchdown in the final minute. Minnesota's defense is getting shredded, having given up at least 31 points for three weeks in a row.
And there's a decent chance the Vikings' secondary might need Antoine Winfield after all. Minnesota was already thin in the back, and against the Browns it saw defensive backs Chris Cook, Jamarca Sanford and A.J. Jefferson leave the game due to injuries. Winfield, the ex-Viking cornerback, is retired, but his phone might be ringing shortly, even if Minnesota is headed across the pond on Monday to prepare for next Sunday's game against Pittsburgh in London.
• If you haven't seen that last play of the Chargers' 20-17 loss at Tennessee, go find it. It had everything but the Stanford band in the end zone. San Diego's desperate attempt to keep the game alive included seven laterals and a Philip Rivers' kick of the ball. It didn't work, of course, but I'm sure it will be set to music and go viral in the coming days.
• Jake Locker was the star of Tennessee's win. The third-year quarterback might have had his best game yet, throwing for 299 yards, running for 68 yards and a touchdown, and capping his day by hitting rookie receiver Justin Hunter on a 34-yard scoring pass with 15 seconds remaining.
Locker connected with six receivers for 94 yards on the game-deciding drive, and the touchdown was the first catch of Hunter's career.
• Yes, the team's young receivers stepped up in New England's dominating 23-3 win over Tampa Bay, but don't sleep on the Patriots defense. Tampa Bay got very little going against New England, and the Bucs were just 5-of-18 on third downs, with the Patriots generating three fourth-down stops and taking the ball away via an Aqib Talib second-quarter interception.
The Patriots defense is better than many realize, and it's getting better by the week. After giving up 21 points in the opener at Buffalo, it held the Jets to just 10 points in Week 2, and dropped that number to three points against Tampa Bay.