BALTIMORE -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we take in a Week 4 that made the state of Texas feel like the center of the NFL universe, with Houston winning a biggie to get to 3-1 and Dallas gagging away its shot to build a three-game winning streak with a historic (and horrific) second-half collapse....
• That Tony Romo, he's always in the middle of things, eh? Good luck to all those Cowboys fans who have climbed aboard the Romo Rollercoaster this season. You had best hang on tight when No. 9's got the ball in his hands. The highs are way high and the dips are some doozeys. Dallas' lightning rod of a quarterback really seems to like to keep both teams in the game at all times; witness his feat of starting off Sunday with three touchdown passes for the Cowboys, and then following that with three interceptions to the Lions.
Somebody help me out, because I've lost track: Is it Romo Goat Week or Romo Hero Week?
Oh, that's right. It was both, sort of. Romo was the hero of the first half, but the goat in the second half, with his three second-half interceptions against the Lions paving the way for the second late-game meltdown of the season in Cowboys Land. Suddenly Romo's fourth-quarter and overtime dramatics in wins over San Francisco and Washington the past two weeks seem like the aberration again.
But maybe we're looking at this story backwards. Detroit was down by 24 points with about 12½ minutes to go in the game (it trailed 27-3), and wound up winning 34-30 and improving to 4-0 for the first time since 1980. These Lions are suddenly road warriors, with a 3-0 mark away from home this year, and five straight road wins dating to December. Detroit is never, repeat, never out of a game. The Lions trailed 20-0 at Minnesota last week and won. And then they went out and topped even that comeback against the Cowboys. That makes them the first team in history to win consecutive games in which it trailed by at least 20 points in each contest.
But back to Dallas for a moment, because Romo has simply been the MPP of the league so far this season: the Most Pivotal Player. He single-handedly cost the Cowboys what would have been a Week 1 upset at the Jets with two late turnovers, then almost single-handedly was responsible for a couple of gutty Dallas wins over the 49ers and Redskins the past two weeks, games in which he drew much praise and admiration for playing despite a broken rib.
But this latest twist in the Romo saga takes the cake. Romo had his team up by 24 points against the undefeated Lions, and was playing one heck of a game in front of the home crowd. Then he decided to make things interesting again, because every Dallas game this year absolutely has to go down to the very last minute. The first two of Romo's three interceptions in the second half were returned for third-quarter touchdowns by Lions linebacker Bobby Carpenter (the ex-Cowboy who was in Romo's wedding this offseason) and cornerback Chris Houston, spring-boarding the Detroit comeback. The last Romo pick (all came in a span of 11 pass attempts), by linebacker Stephen Tulloch, came with 4:13 to play and set up Detroit's game-winning drive.
It was the largest blown lead in the Cowboys' 52-season history, and it did some real damage, because it kept Dallas (2-2) from staying in a first-place tie in the NFC East with Washington and the Giants. It also does ne more thing: It leaves us impossibly confused about Romo through the first month of the 2011 season. Is he an asset or a liability for the Cowboys, a gifted comeback quarterback or the gift-wrapper of games?
So far this season, he's absolutely both. And it's a week-to-week story that keeps changing in Dallas. Without Romo, the Cowboys might be winless this year. Or undefeated. With him, they're a very well-deserved 2-2, and heading into their Week 5 bye with some of the same old questions about their maddeningly inconsistent starting quarterback.
• The most amazing thing to me about the Lions' 4-0 start is how quickly head coach Jim Schwartz has been able to change the defeatist attitude that Detroit possessed like a birthright for year after disappointing year. These Lions actually expect to win every week, even if it's in the most improbable of ways (see their past two games). That's a remarkable turnaround for a team that has now won its past eight regular season games, Detroit's longest such winning streak since 1953-54, in the heart of the Bobby Layne era.
And don't look now, but Schwartz's Lions are set to go all primetime on us, with next Monday night's home game against the Bears being Detroit's first MNF appearance since 2001. Lions Fever is about to become all the rage.
• Somebody had better tell Cris Carter and Rob Ryan, and whoever else needs to hear, that this Calvin Johnson guy is pretty good. I mean, really, really good. Johnson caught two more touchdown passes on Sunday -- including the game-winner, from two yards out with 1:39 remaining -- and now has four consecutive two-touchdown games to start the season, which is a league record for a receiver to begin the year. With a two-TD game next week, Johnson will break Carter's NFL record of four straight such games.
That would be rich. Maybe the Lions can invite Carter to town and have him present the man they call "Megatron'' with a commemorative ball.
• That's three straight losses thanks to fourth-quarter leads being lost for the Eagles, and you have to think that Philadelphia is not far away from disarray at this point. To lose at home to the 49ers when Michael Vick throws for a career-best 416 yards and runs for 75 is almost unfathomable. The Eagles led San Francisco 23-3 in the third quarter, but gave up three second-half touchdowns to Alex Smith and Co., who entered Sunday's game as the NFL's worst-ranked offense.
The Eagles had not lost three games in a row since late in the 2007 season, but now you've got to wonder where bottom is for a Philadelphia team that looks incapable of playing defense and protecting a lead. I wouldn't want to be Eagles' newly promoted defensive coordinator Juan Castillo about now. Can anybody on the Philadelphia defense tackle in the open field?
And it's not entirely on the defense, because the Eagles' short-yardage offense is a joke, and who knows what in the name of Wilbert Montgomery went through the mind of running back Ronnie Brown when he tried to throw that ill-advised pass as he was being wrapped up and tackled near the goal line in the third quarter? That was a Wildcat move indeed by Brown, and it ended up being ruled as a critical lost fumble.
The Eagles take their bruised psyches to Buffalo and Washington in the coming two weeks, before a Week 7 bye, and those won't be easy touches. The Bills and Redskins own three wins apiece, which is triple the number that Philadelphia's so-called "Dream Team'' has in the win column. I wonder what Vince Young has to say about that?
• That was finally the statement win the Texans have been seeking for the longest time, but why can't Houston ever make it easy on itself? Houston probably should have beaten Pittsburgh much more comfortably than 17-10, given that it got 155 yards rushing on 30 carries from running back Arian Foster. But the Texans wiped out a special teams touchdown they scored just before the half on a ridiculous Danieal Manning penalty, and they also gave the Steelers some late life with a roughing the passer penalty that negated a pick-six touchdown by Houston.
• Give credit to Houston for putting Pittsburgh away, but it's tough right now to know who the Steelers really are -- the team that lost to quality opponents in Baltimore and Houston, or the club that won against lightweights Seattle and Indianapolis?
This much is clear: The Steelers' banged-up offensive line remains a disaster area. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was sacked five times by the Texans, and hit repeatedly. Postgame reports indicated he left the stadium with a walking boot on his left foot, and will undergo an MRI on Monday.
• So who's laughing at the 49ers for their week-long stay at Youngstown State now? Road wins at Cincinnati and Philadelphia makes a genius out of somebody for deciding to stay out East last week rather than fly back and forth across the continent. Something worked, because the 49ers hadn't won consecutive road games since 2006.
San Francisco at 3-1 is the clear-cut best team in the NFC West, but that's a sliding-scale type of compliment if there ever was one. The 49ers gave up a ton of yardage to Philly, but they made some huge plays when necessary, and they won in one of the NFL's most hostile settings. That counts for something, and you can see how new head coach Jim Harbaugh is starting to mold his team into a tougher, more resilient club than it has been for years and years now.
• Could anyone kick the ball in Philadelphia in Week 4? Former Eagles' kicker David Akers made his homecoming with San Francisco to Lincoln Financial Field, but wound up missing wide left from 44 yards, making a 37-yarder and having a third attempt blocked from 45 yards.
Akers' replacement, Alex Henery, wasn't exactly money either. He went 3 of 5 in field goal attempts, missing from 39 and 33 yards in the fourth quarter of the one-point Eagles loss. Henery made kicks of 32, 32 and 33 yards earlier in the game, but Philadelphia has now been outscored 36-0 in the fourth quarter of its past three games, all losses.
• Washington is another 3-1 surprise story this season, and while the Redskins may not be winning pretty, does anyone in D.C. really care about style points? The Redskins ground out a 17-10 win at St. Louis, and that one had to feel particularly good for Washington defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, who once served in the same job with the Rams, and was the team's interim head coach in 2008 after the Scott Linehan firing. Haslett wanted the full-time gig, of course, but St. Louis went with Steve Spagnuolo.
You have to be impressed with Washington's backfield depth. Forgotten man Ryan Torain ripped off 135 yards rushing on 19 carries against the Rams, out-producing Tim Hightower and rookie Roy Helu, who have been playing ahead of him in the season's first three games.
But even the victories in Washington are not disguising the fact that quarterback Rex Grossman is returning to the inconsistent form that has plagued his NFL career. Grossman threw two late interceptions that helped the Rams mount a comeback, and the reality is there's going to be some chatter about Washington replacing Grossman with backup John Beck as the team takes its bye this week.
Remember, both Mike and Kyle Shanahan seemed to favor Beck as the team's starter for most of the offseason and preseason, and that's why I still think this will be Beck's team sooner than later. Though he played well enough to win in the season's first two games, Grossman, in the end, is Grossman and he's always going to give you the mixed bag experience. I look for Beck to be in the lineup by Week 7 at Carolina.
• St. Louis has to be one of the top three or four underachievers in the league this year, and could you blame the Rams if they've had about enough of teams from the East Coast? St. Louis has lost to Philadelphia, the Giants, Baltimore and Washington in the first four weeks, and the Rams don't look ready for that weight class. Then again, at the moment they don't even look capable of competing in the NFC West, the weakest division in football.
• Watching Sam Bradford play quarterback for St. Louis is painful right now. He knows he's going to get hit almost every time he drops back, and I think he's starting to anticipate the pressure even on the few plays it's not there. The Redskins sacked Bradford six times, and he took at least 10 to 12 other hits. Bradford looks nothing like the accurate and confident passer he was last season as a rookie. He's running for his life out there, and the Rams' season is going down the tubes because of it.
• It's safe to say Mike Martz got the memo last week in Chicago. The Bears had run the ball an average of 12 times in the past two games, compared to 41 passes on average. That had to change, and it did in an entertaining 34-29 win over Carolina.
The Bears actually had 24 points on the scoreboard midway through the second quarter despite Jay Cutler throwing just one pass. Cutler finished just 3 of 4 in the first half, and was 9 of 17 for 102 yards and one interception. I'm sure it had to about kill the wide-open, pass-loving Martz, but it was effective. Running back Matt Forte, the team's best offensive weapon, ran for a career-high 205 yards on 25 attempts, with a second-quarter 17-yard scoring run. Chicago rushed the ball 31 times all told, for 224 yards and a gaudy 7.2-yard average.
Forte had 108 yards on just 12 attempts in the first half, averaging nine yards per touch.
• You could kind of predict a return to earth by the Bills in Week 4, given their huge emotional homefield upset of the Patriots last week. But Buffalo blowing a 17-3 halftime lead at Cincinnati and falling 23-20 is a little surprising. Maybe the Bills didn't know what to do with themselves when they were ahead at the break, instead of trailing by 18 to 21 points.
• The Bengals tied Pittsburgh and Cleveland for second place in the AFC North at 2-2, pending the outcome of the Jets-Ravens game on Sunday night. That's halfway toward Cincinnati's win total of four games last season, and you have to love what you've seen so far out of Bengals' top draft pick A.J. Green. The rookie receiver had four catches for 118 yards against the Bills, his second 100-yard game of the season.
Cam Newton has to be the early leader for the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year honor, but at least Green is doing his part to stay in the conversation.