The first four weeks of the NFL regular season are in the rear view mirror, which makes this a good time to look at some compelling stories.
1. Maybe these no-names on Denver's defense are actually pretty good.
Yes, Josh McDaniels has done a fantastic job getting his Broncos to play both smart and hard for him after an offseason full of controversy. And, like everyone else, I list Mike Nolan as the leading candidate for assistant coach of the year based on what he has done with the defense in Denver. But maybe, just maybe, the guys Nolan is coaching are not as bad as pundits seemed to think they were.
Admit it. You still don't know much about the majority of the starters in Denver's front seven. Do the names Ronald Fields, Ryan McBean, Kenny Peterson or Mario Haggan ring a bell? Didn't think so. After I surveyed that list and watched them during training camp, I said there were multiple 3-4 teams in the league whose second units were superior to the Broncos starters. But the truth is that sometimes non-descript players play well because they completely buy in to what their coaches are telling them, with no ego or need to be the guy making all the plays or getting all of the ink. It is an oft used cliché, but it truly is amazing what can be accomplished when nobody cares who gets the credit.
To be fair, the Broncos stellar secondary is loaded with proven performers like Champ Bailey and Brian Dawkins. But the players with recognizable names coming into the season in the linebacking corps included a player who flamed out with the Browns (Andra Davis), a guy who is best known around the league for not improving one iota since his rookie season (D.J. Williams), and quite possibly the shortest outside linebacker in the history of the 3-4 defense (5-foot-11 Elvis Dumervil). Yet somehow this hodgepodge of players is giving up fewer than seven points per game. Amazing.
2. Lack of Giant talk ultimate sign of respect.
Every week I get e-mails, tweets and phone calls to my show at Sirius NFL Radio asking why more people aren't talking about the New York Giants. I'm sure this won't satisfy the G-men's fanbase, but the lack of focus is actually the ultimate compliment. That's because the Giants playing well is pretty much expected given what they have done the last couple of seasons.
Unlike other teams that play down to inferior opponents, the Giants just play their game and win by double digits. They attack early and often and take the fight right out of opponents. And they do so while overcoming all sorts of injuries that would be a useful crutch or excuse for a lesser-run franchise.
3. These are not the Niners of yesteryear.
Most 49er fans fell in love with this franchise because of their aerial efficiency during the heyday of Joe Montana and Steve Young throwing to the likes of Jerry Rice and Brent Jones. That offense was a thing of beauty. This year's San Francisco squad may not be as aesthetically pleasing or as efficient through the air, but that doesn't mean it can't be just as brutally effective.
There is no denying that this team has taken on the personality of its intense and detail-oriented coach Mike Singletary. The Niners are about as subtle as a sledge hammer to the groin. They win by outhitting and outhustling their opposition. They get great production on defense from studs like middle linebacker Patrick Willis, defensive end Justin Smith and corner Nate Clements. Their contributions only tell part of the story. Relative unknowns up front on defense like Aubrayo Franklin, Isaac Sopoaga, Parys Haralson and Ray McDonald perform at a high level without getting a whole lot of accolades.
They still lack an elite playmaker on offense when Frank Gore is hurt, but they don't let that define them. The hope, of course, is that newly signed first-round pick Michael Crabtree can eventually reach that level. For now, offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye knows what this team can and can't do, so he accentuates the positives while minimizing their weaknesses. That means a good mix of run and pass, taking advantage of quarterback Shaun Hill's football acumen and playmaking ability without putting him in situations in which his physical limitations would become an issue.
Their line scored big points in my book when I saw how many of them were in the end zone within three seconds of Gore's long touchdown runs against the Seahawks in Week 2. That showed me how much passion they have for the game and how excited they were about Gore's plays, two qualities that should serve them well throughout the season.
4. Joe Flacco is really, really good.
I wasn't 100% sure about Flacco until I saw him in person on Sunday against the Patriots. I am now completely on board. This guy is going to be a full-fledged star, even if stardom isn't a priority of his. Flacco is so unassuming and reticent about life as a starting quarterback, and a top ten one at that, that he is kind of the anti-Kyle Boller, a personality trait that should win over the blue collar faithful in Baltimore as much as his ability.
I know the nickname Joe Cool" has already been bestowed on Montana, but watching Flacco on Sunday led to the same thoughts. His arm strength was a given ever since he did the spring workouts for scouts last year at Delaware. What the brightest football people couldn't know for sure was the poise he shows in the pocket, even when under duress.
Falcons rookie quarterback Matt Ryan got most of the attention last season, and rightfully so, but I wouldn't be surprised if Patriots defenders were more impressed by Flacco after Baltimore and Atlanta in back to back weeks.