Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we digest an eventful Week 4 in the NFL. ...
The ankle will heal. It’s the arm, the mobility and the presence of mind that made Teddy Bridgewater’s NFL starting debut so wildly successful Sunday in Minneapolis. And those are the crucial factors Vikings fans should be focused the next few days, rather than the short-term complication Bridgewater’s late-game ankle sprain presents with a road game looming Thursday night against the hated Green Bay Packers.
Even if the rookie can’t play in four days against the Packers, the Vikings just found out the kid can really play during the course of Minnesota’s 41-28 dismantling of the visiting Falcons, with Bridgewater turning in a spectacular performance that boosted the franchise’s spirits and may have altered the course of its 2014 season.
Tell me again why Bridgewater lasted until the No. 32 pick of the draft’s first round in May and was the third quarterback selected? Bridgewater certainly looked the part of a franchise quarterback against the overwhelmed Falcons, throwing for 317 yards, running for a score and leading Minnesota on an 87-yard, go-ahead, fourth-quarter touchdown drive.
And with Bridgewater providing calm, cool leadership under center, the Vikings' running game was somehow reborn in the process, rolling up a gaudy 241 yards on 44 attempts -- even without Adrian Peterson -- and powering a Minnesota offense that produced a whopping 558 total yards and 41 points. For a Vikings team that got destroyed by New England two weeks ago at home and then struggled to muster much offense in a 20-9 loss at New Orleans last week, Sunday’s outburst was eye-opening.
Missing Peterson and injured tight end Kyle Rudolph, the Vikings were dynamic and versatile and got production from many parts of the lineup. Running back Jerick McKinnon rushed 18 times for 135 yards, and backfield mate Matt Asiata scored three touchdowns and gained 78 yards on 20 carries. Bridgewater chipped in with a 13-yard scoring run in the second quarter, and receivers Jarius Wright (eight catches for 132 yards) and Greg Jennings (three grabs for 72 yards) repeatedly picked up chunk yardage.
Just imagine what the Vikings might do once they get receiver Cordarrelle Patterson (two catches for 38 yards) fully in sync with the passing game this season. If Sunday offered a glimpse of Minnesota’s new offensive identity, the previews were beyond promising.
The Falcons scored 28 points on Minnesota, but that was still exactly half of what Atlanta posted in Week 3, when Matt Ryan and Co. shredded Tampa Bay 56-14 at home on Thursday Night Football. And Minnesota stiffened defensively when it had to, shutting Atlanta out in the fourth quarter, while Bridgewater and backup quarterback Christian Ponder were producing 14 unanswered points, transforming a 28-27 deficit into a 41-28 lead.
Bridgewater’s poise, presence and grasp of the offense suddenly make for a brighter future in Minnesota. It was only one start, but it looked like the start of something really good. Under less than ideal circumstances, Bridgewater played like he’s the total package. And even if Bridgewater can’t play on Thursday in Green Bay and Ponder has to take over for the time being, the Vikings on Sunday found out they have a quarterback for the long term.
• Aaron Rodgers was right. Everyone needed to chill. That ought to buy Green Bay’s quarterback a little trust and credibility the next time he feels the need to tell Packers fans to R-E-L-A-X. Green Bay went to Chicago and destroyed the Bears 38-17, and Rodgers was almost flawless against the team he loves to beat, completing 22-of-28 passes for 302 yards and four touchdowns, a pair each to Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb.
The clubs combined for 854 yards of offense and never punted, but the Packers (2-2) will be the only team looking forward to watching this game film. Green Bay scored five touchdowns and a field goal on its first six possessions, and only a blocked Mason Crosby field-goal attempt in the fourth quarter kept the Packers offense from pitching something of a perfect game. Rodgers’ most amazing throw of the day didn’t even count. His across-the-body 34-yard touchdown pass to Davante Adams in the third quarter was wiped out by a holding penalty, but it was a thing of beauty, delivered under heavy pressure.
It’s almost comical how much the Packers own the Bears. Green Bay has won five consecutive games in Chicago, and Bears quarterback Jay Cutler is now just 1-9 against the Packers. Rodgers to Cobb was the connection that kept Chicago from going to the playoffs last season in Week 17, but the Bears may be fortunate to hang around in the NFC North race that long this year.
The Bears have now dropped both of their home games this season, to Buffalo and Green Bay, while winning once on the West Coast, against San Francisco, and once on the East Coast, at the Jets. The good news for Chicago? The Bears play just once more at Soldier Field between now and mid-November. Four of their next five games are on the road, with only a visit from Miami in Week 7 and a Week 9 bye breaking up that streak.
• One call that went against the Bears seemed to deflate Marc Trestman’s team for the rest of the game. On the final play of the first half, with Green Bay leading 21-17, Chicago tight end Martellus Bennett caught a 2nd-and-goal pass from Cutler and seemingly came within inches of breaking the plane of the goal line. But Packers rookie safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix wrapped Bennett up as time expired -- the Bears were out of timeouts -- and Green Bay safety Micah Hyde wound up unintentionally blocking the goal-line camera angle of the play, keeping the officials from having any view good enough to reverse the call and award Chicago the touchdown.
Give the Bears some well-deserved criticism for mismanagement of the clock in that situation, not leaving themselves time enough for at least a field goal try, but it was a superb effort by Clinton-Dix to deny Bennett the goal line. And Hyde did his part, too, being in the right place at the right time.
• For a half, anyway, Jaguars rookie quarterback Blake Bortles was making as dazzling a starting debut as anyone could have hoped for in Jacksonville. The Jags trailed just 17-14 at San Diego after the first two quarters, with Bortles completing 15-of-18 passes for 149 yards and a touchdown.
The second half didn’t follow the same script, however, and Bortles came out on the losing end of San Diego’s 33-14 victory. But there was still plenty to build on for Jacksonville, which at least looked like a functional NFL offense with Bortles replacing benched veteran Chad Henne this week. Seeing the rookie handle both a hostile crowd and the challenges of facing a top-10 defense were obvious positives.
Bortles threw for just 104 yards in the second half and had two interceptions the Chargers turned into points. But he played with confidence and efficiency, and other than a fourth-quarter interception to San Diego safety Eric Weddle, he made no grievous rookie mistakes or lapses in judgment. His 29-of-37 passing for 253 yards was more than respectable, and his ability to move and make plays outside the pocket were notable as well, with five scrambles for 24 yards.
The Jaguars defense remains a glaring weakness, having not held any opponent to fewer than 33 points this season. But even at 0-4, there’s at least hope in Jacksonville, because Bortles looks like he might live up to his lofty draft slot.
• The best news for the Chargers was easy to identify. The re-emergence of receiver Keenan Allen jumped out in the 19-point win over visiting Jacksonville. He looked like the devastating playmaker of his rookie season in 2013, catching 10 passes for 135 yards -- both totals representing career-highs.
Allen had struggled to make an impact in the season’s first three weeks, catching just 12 passes for 109 yards, with a mere two receptions for 17 yards in San Diego’s road win at Buffalo last week. But with Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers (29-of-39 for 377 yards, three touchdowns) targeting him 11 times against the Jaguars, Allen was again San Diego’s go-to receiver. San Diego’s third consecutive victory moves the 3-1 Chargers into sole possession of first place in the AFC West, one-half game ahead of idle Denver (2-1).
• I’m not sure if the 49ers defense is really that good or the Eagles offense was really that bad, but I’m convinced San Francisco had to have that 26-21 win over visiting Philadelphia to keep its season from spiraling out of control. The world at 2-2 looks much different today to the 49ers, who still have never lost three in a row under head coach Jim Harbaugh.
What a strange game the Eagles and 49ers played. The Eagles came into the week with 74 points scored in the second half of games this season, while San Francisco had been outscored 52-3 after intermissions. Naturally, the 49ers blanked Philadelphia 13-0 after halftime.
How the Eagles were even in position to win this game was a statistical marvel. According to ESPN, they were only the second team in league history to record a punt return touchdown, an interception return touchdown and a blocked punt return touchdown in the same game. And they lost, because the offense added nothing to that bizarre 21-point trifecta.
But San Francisco’s defense was heroic when it mattered, turning the Eagles away twice from the one-yard line with a five-point lead and the game on the line late. San Francisco made Eagles quarterback Nick Foles look confused and horrible all day, intercepting him twice and sacking him once. Foles was 21-of-43 for 195 yards, with no touchdowns and those two picks. Foles’ uneven second season as the Eagles starter continues to unfold in puzzling fashion.
• It’s not too early to declare: The Jets are going nowhere this season. Fresh off its third consecutive loss to an NFC North team -- to visiting Detroit, 24-17 -- New York is in free-fall now, especially given its next three games: at San Diego, home against Denver, at New England. That means 1-3 could easily become 1-6 by mid-October, effectively ending any chance Rex Ryan has of reversing New York’s three-season playoff drought and probably giving the Jets a coaching search to conduct next January.
New York is in sole possession of last place in the AFC East and just squandered the advantage of playing three of its first four games at home, only managing to barely beat the hapless Raiders in Week 1. The 1-3 start is the worst of Ryan's six-year tenure and the franchise’s worst performance in the season’s first month since the 2007 Jets started 1-3.
Given the building desperation, Ryan probably has a quarterback change in his future, with Geno Smith having morphed back into the turnover machine of the first half of his rookie season. Ryan expressed support for Smith after the game and said he’ll remain the team’s starter, but stay tuned, because that’s always subject to change. It didn’t help Smith’s cause that he lost his cool as he was leaving the field in the postgame and swore at a Jets fan, an act he apologized for later.
Smith has committed seven turnovers in four games, and his two giveaways in the fourth quarter against the Lions were devastating to New York’s comeback hopes. Smith leads the NFL with five interceptions, and his ball security issues are probably going to force Ryan to turn to veteran Michael Vick at some point. Not that that move will be a season-saver in New York.
• As bad as the Jets offense has been, the defense has had a big hand in the underachievement of September. It doesn’t matter how much talent the Jets have in their defensive front seven, because it’s still not enough to overcome the calamity that is the secondary on a weekly basis. Detroit didn’t really even need the hobbled Calvin Johnson (ankle) to have a field day against the Jets' undermanned pass defense. The Lions’ Golden Tate hauled in eight catches for 116 yards, and the Jets were burned on a 59-yard touchdown bomb to the little-known Jeremy Ross, while rookie tight end Eric Ebron finally showed up on the stat sheet with a 16-yard scoring reception, his first in the NFL. It’s a passing league, and Ryan’s defense simply can’t stop anything in the air.
• It was far better to be J.J. than EJ on Sunday. Houston defensive lineman J.J. Watt made life miserable for Buffalo quarterback EJ Manuel in the Texans’ 23-17 victory at home, pounding him in the pass rush with nine quarterback hits, before picking him off in the flat for a game-changing 80-yard interception return for a touchdown.
Houston was trailing 10-7 in the third quarter when Watt lined up at left end and somehow baited Manuel into throwing his way. And maybe the most amazing part of Watt’s play was his open-field speed, as no Bills player came close to running him down.
If you’re scoring at home, that gives Watt two touchdowns this season, with the other a one-yard catch when he lined up at tight end in a Week 2 win at Oakland. That’s two more touchdowns than produced by Texans star receiver Andre Johnson this season.
• Even with the Texans at 3-1 and in sole possession of first place in the AFC South, I’m not ready to buy in just yet and consider them playoff-bound. But Houston has proven it can beat the teams it should beat, with wins over Washington, Oakland and Buffalo. That means the Texans have already topped 2013’s win total, and that’s a solid first step of progress for Houston’s first-year head coach, Bill O’Brien.
• As for the Bills, their hopeful 2-0 start already seems a long time ago. Buffalo is 2-2, and much like Geno Smith with the Jets, there are going to be questions about how much longer coach Doug Marrone can stick with Manuel at quarterback if he doesn’t start taking better care of the ball. Manuel had a pair of touchdowns and 225 yards on 21-of-44 passing, but his two interceptions were costly. The pick-six by Watt was a mistake he simply can’t make. Buffalo dropped some passes, but Manuel didn’t give his team enough of a chance to win and wasted a pretty strong defensive showing by the Bills, who produced three takeaways and limited Houston to just 37 rushing yards.
• Matt Moore wound up playing quarterback for the Dolphins after all against Oakland, but not because Ryan Tannehill wasn’t up to the job. After a drama-filled week, Miami got a first-round-pick worthy effort from Tannehill in the Dolphins’ 38-14 beatdown of the Raiders in London. The win was so convincing, Miami head coach Joe Philbin sent Moore into the game for some mop-up duty in the fourth quarter, which turned last week’s narrative on its head.
Maybe Tannehill needs a little dissing now and then, because he responded to Philbin’s lack of verbal support with one of the best performances of his three-year NFL career. He started the game 17-of-19 for 204 yards and two touchdowns in the first half, completing 14 in a row at one point, and wound up with a 109.2 passer rating, going 23-of-31 for 278 yards, with two touchdowns and one interception.
The Dolphins (2-2) scored 38 unanswered points after Oakland grabbed an early 7-0 lead on a Derek Carr touchdown pass, and for now, both Tannehill and Philbin are out of the crosshairs in Miami.
• Dennis Allen’s job security does not share that same optimistic forecast. The Raiders' endangered head coach may not even make it all the way back on the 5,340-mile flight to Oakland with his job status unchanged. The Raiders are 0-4 for the first time since 2006, have lost a league-worst 10 consecutive games and weren’t even competitive against the Dolphins after playing the Patriots very tough in Foxboro last week. It’s not really a good time to take your bye week if you’re Allen, because it gives owner Mark Davis a natural point in the calendar to consider making a move.
Allen is probably as good as gone at some point in the near future, and with an 8-28 record in his first two-plus seasons in Oakland, it’s understandable if the Raiders cut ties with him. But he’s only working with the talent he has on hand, and frankly there’s very little of that. The responsibility for that reality has to fall on Oakland third-year general manager Reggie McKenzie, whose work has yet to inspire much confidence.
Interestingly, the previous eight teams to lose a London game all finished with losing records that season, and Oakland at 0-4 seems a lock to make it 9-for-9. The Raiders defense got manhandled by Miami, and now Oakland may have to start either Matt McGloin or Matt Schaub at home against San Diego in Week 6, due to an ankle/knee injury suffered by quarterback Derek Carr in the third quarter.
In Oakland, the misery continues.
• Have to admit, I was dubious of Miami’s decision to fly overnight Thursday to London, arriving very late in the week by typical NFL travel standards in this sort of situation. But something worked. The Dolphins didn’t look challenged by jet lag or their time-zone hopping, so maybe that’s the new normal other teams will copy. By comparison, the Raiders flew way, way early to London, leaving right after last week’s game in New England. Given the way Oakland played, the English fans were probably more interested in their departure rather than their arrival.
• I think we now know this much about Lovie Smith in his first year as Tampa Bay’s head coach: In one of his first major decisions, he started the wrong quarterback. Second-year veteran Mike Glennon led Tampa Bay to a stunning 27-24 road upset of the Steelers, and his 302-yard, two-touchdown performance should make it hard for Tampa Bay to go back to Josh McCown once his injured thumb heals.
Glennon didn’t play well in the first half in Pittsburgh, but he got better as the game wore on and wound up throwing for 245 of his 302 yards in the second half. And Glennon was cool under pressure, leading Tampa Bay on the game-winning drive in the final minutes, capped by a five-yard touchdown pass to Vincent Jackson with seven seconds remaining.
Smith christened McCown his starter as soon as the ex-Bears backup/part-time starter signed with the Bucs early in free agency, and many, me included, thought that was absolutely the right move. But McCown struggled mightily in his three starts this season, throwing four interceptions, and perhaps Glennon was overlooked after turning in a fairly impressive rookie season last year. He did manage to win four games for a team that started the season 0-8.
Humiliated by Atlanta 56-14 just 11 days ago, Tampa Bay’s bounce-back performance against Pittsburgh was the surprise of the week in the NFL. The Bucs are 1-3, off the skids and heading to New Orleans next week. If Smith doesn’t stick with Glennon, his own locker room may rightfully question the move.
• The Steelers are confounding. So dominant on the road at Carolina last week, and so underwhelming in the second half of the 27-24 loss to the Bucs. Kind of like their streaky performance in Week 1 against the Browns, when they dominated Cleveland 27-3 in the first half, then were outscored 24-3 in the second half, barely hanging on for the last-second win.
Pittsburgh committed 13 penalties for 125 yards, had some key drops in the passing game, and looked invisible on defense on Tampa Bay’s game-winning, last-minute drive.
Add it all up and the Steelers' up-and-down showing in the season’s first month looks likely to produce a third consecutive mediocre 8-8 mark.
• No way to sugar-coat this: The NFL’s officiating has been brutal at times this season. Steelers receiver Antonio Brown is an amazing talent, but he clearly got away with a push in the back against Bucs cornerback Alterraun Verner on that 27-yard touchdown catch late in the first half. If that’s not a call the referees are willing to make, they’ve got no business cracking down on defenders who make illegal contact or hand-check receivers well past the five-yard contact zone. Brown only caught the ball because he created separation in the end zone by shoving Verner to the ground.
• Give Steve Smith his due. The man backed up his talk, single-handedly producing more points than the Baltimore Ravens needed to beat visiting Carolina 38-10 on Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium. Smith was clearly looking for revenge against the team he spent the first 13 years of his career with, and he got it and then some, turning in his first two-touchdown game since Week 1 of 2011.
The Panthers really never had an answer for Smith, who caught seven passes for 139 yards and two touchdowns: one from 61 yards out on a pass deflected by Ravens tight end Owen Daniels and the other from 21 yards while being held by a Panthers' cornerback in the end zone.
Afterward, he couldn’t resist firing one last zinger in the direction of the Panthers, who released him this spring: "I’ll give you a one-liner: That film was a coaching session. They’re going to be coaching how, at 35 years old, a man ran round boys like they were schoolyard kids."
Baltimore’s two big moves this offseason were hiring ex-Texans head coach Gary Kubiak as offensive coordinator and signing Smith to add veteran leadership and production in the receiving game. Though the first month of the season, the Ravens have hit grand slams with both decisions. Baltimore is 3-1, and has made the playoffs in each of the last six seasons in which it has gotten off to a 3-1 start. That includes both of their Super Bowl runs, in 2000 and '12.
• Carolina, by comparison, looks to be in real trouble. Maybe the Panthers are who we originally thought they were: a 2013 playoff team ready to take a significant step back toward the pack. After starting 2-0 with wins at Tampa Bay and home against Detroit, the Panthers have been exposed the past two weeks, losing by a combined 75-29 to the Steelers and Ravens. They’ve had quite enough of the AFC North for the time being, thank you.
The vaunted Carolina defense is getting gashed without Greg Hardy’s pass rush from the defensive end spot and Thomas Davis’ steady play at linebacker. Baltimore had 291 yards of offense at halftime, raced to a 28-7 lead early in the second half and was never threatened.
• If only the Colts could play AFC South opponents every week. Indianapolis has scored 44 and 41 points in posting consecutive wins over Jacksonville and Tennessee, and that means the Colts have quickly scratched their way back to .500 after a troubling 0-2 start. I know first-place Houston is 3-1 and plans on having something to say about how this division goes this season, but I can’t see how the Colts aren’t the class of the AFC South once again this year.
Indy has won nine division games in a row and 11 of 12, and this is the first time since 2004 the Colts have cracked the 40-point barrier in two straight games. Andrew Luck is suddenly red hot, with eight touchdown passes in the past two games and 13 on the season. Luck dissected Tennessee to the tune of 29-of-41 passing for 393 yards, throwing just one interception. Running back Ahmad Bradshaw was again an impact player for the Colts, and what a great addition he’s been so far. Bradshaw has four touchdown catches in his four games with Indy, after totaling just three in his previous 88 games entering 2014.
Sure, it helps when the opposing team is starting the likes of Chad Henne and Charlie Whitehurst. But don’t hold that against Indianapolis. The Colts offense is a well-oiled machine right now, topping 500 yards against both the Jaguars and Titans.
• The Titans look lost already, dropping their third straight game after winning at Kansas City in Week 1. After the blowout loss to the Colts, new Titans head coach Ken Whisenhunt admitted to the media that he might have overestimated his team’s talent level this year. That’s an honest answer because Tennessee clearly is not ready to compete for the playoffs and doesn’t have a signature team strength at this point.
Having given up more points in each of their four games, including 33 at Cincinnati last week and 41 to the Colts, the Titans would do well to start approaching this season like they’re laying the foundation for the future. Injured quarterback Jake Locker will get his job back when healthy, but finding out if rookie Zach Mettenberger is the Titans' quarterback of tomorrow should be Whisenhunt’s top priority this year.