Unheralded backups propelling surprising Cardinals; more Snaps
PHILADELPHIA -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight from an entertaining but blowout-heavy Week 3 in the NFL, which featured nine games decided by 11 or more points and one doozy of a brawl in Philadelphia. ...
• A career backup quarterback and a rookie receiver. That’s who the Arizona Cardinals have to thank for being 3-0 and the biggest surprise of the NFL as late September arrives. The vaunted Drew Stanton-to-John Brown connection struck twice in the third quarter of the Cardinals’ 23-14 humbling of San Francisco, and feel free to raise your hand if you foresaw any part of that unlikely development.
At this point, however, Bruce Arians’ resilient team doesn’t really deserve to be labeled anything but a playoff contender. The Cardinals are now 13-6 since the start of last season, and the shock value of their success should have long since worn off.
Arizona just knows how to win, and its latest success story was one of its more remarkable feats yet. Down 14-6 at the half, the Cardinals outscored Jim Harbaugh’s club 17-0 in the second half, and watched as the seasoned and playoff perennial 49ers self-destructed in the game’s most pivotal moments. San Francisco entered play 9-2 in games following losses in the four-year Harbaugh era, but that record is a little less glossy now.
Will Arizona ever start showing the effects of losing so much defensive talent to injuries (Darnell Dockett, John Abraham), free-agent defections (Karlos Dansby) and a league-issued suspension (Daryl Washington)? And how is it that missing starting quarterback Carson Palmer (shoulder) the past two weeks hasn’t seemed to faze these Cardinals one bit?
Facing a 49ers defense that should have been playing with some smoldering intensity after last week’s loss to Chicago in the grand-opening of Levi’s Stadium, Stanton was a cool and efficient 18-of-33 for 224 yards and two touchdowns, both to the rookie Brown, who collected 24- and 21-yard scores, putting Arizona in the lead to stay. Only a Larry Fitzgerald second-half fumble inside the 49ers’ 5-yard line kept the score as respectable as it was.
In their wins over San Diego, the Giants and now the 49ers, the Cardinals have shown a consistent ability to finish. Arizona has outscored its three opponents 30-0 in the fourth quarter, and that’s proof of the disciplined and tenacious mentality that Arians has instilled in his team. The Cardinals don’t panic and they don’t beat themselves. They play sound, fundamental football, but stay aggressive and willing to take risks. And most importantly, Arians has them believing they can compete with any team in the NFL, even if it means going up to Seattle and getting out of CenturyLink Field with a win, as they did last December.
It’s the 49ers, ironically, who could use a little discipline about now, following consecutive second-half meltdowns in their losses to Chicago and Arizona. San Francisco drew nine penalty flags for 107 yards, none bigger than the personal foul called on veteran receiver Anquan Boldin, who lost his composure and head-butted Cardinals defensive back Tony Jefferson, costing San Francisco a chance for a go-ahead touchdown drive in the fourth quarter. The 49ers wound up settling for a Phil Dawson field-goal attempt that was blocked, and have now been outscored 52-3 in the second half this season.
While Arizona soars into its bye week at 3-0, a game ahead of second-place Seattle (2-1) in the NFC West, the 49ers (1-2) are tied with St. Louis for last place in the division and have some answers to find before they welcome undefeated Philadelphia (3-0) to Levi’s Stadium next Sunday. The fastbreak Eagles are about as big a test as there is for a defense these days, and San Francisco will have to end its self-destructive ways and show up in the second half in order to climb back to the .500 mark.
The 49ers have at least momentarily lost their identity and no longer know what they do best. Such is not the case in Arizona, where the Cardinals have become a reliable and proven winner. The strength of Arians’ team is believing it belongs and never backing down.
• They don’t hand out participation trophies in the NFL, but at least Denver proved to itself that it can play with defending Super Bowl champion Seattle, even in the raucous environment that is CenturyLink Field. The Seahawks showed some moxie in driving 80 yards in 13 plays to secure a 26-20 overtime victory over the Broncos, but credit Denver for clawing its way out of a 17-3 halftime deficit and tying the game in the final minute of regulation with a touchdown and two-point conversion.
Makes you wish Peyton Manning and Co. could have managed that kind of effort last February in MetLife Stadium, because a Super Bowl in overtime would have been kind of fun.
• With Denver, Buffalo, Houston and Carolina all losing in Week 3, the ranks of the undefeated in the NFL are down to just three: Philadelphia, Cincinnati and Arizona.
The zeroes are disappearing on the other side of the ledger as well, with Indianapolis, Kansas City, New Orleans and the Giants all winning to improve to 1-2. That leaves just three still searching for a victory: Oakland, Jacksonville and Tampa Bay (0-3).
• You have to wonder when is the heat going to start legitimately building on Rams’ third-year coach Jeff Fisher? It’s overdue. That was a ghastly and wholly unforgivable 34-31 loss to visiting Dallas by St. Louis, in a game the Rams once led 21-0. The Cowboys, who know a little something about blowing big leads, scored 34 of the game’s next 37 points after trailing by three touchdowns.
This one is squarely on the Rams defense, which was supposed to be the strength of the team and is the side of the ball on which Fisher’s supposed coaching expertise resides. St. Louis couldn’t cover Dez Bryant or stop DeMarco Murray when it mattered, and the Rams so far look like they’d be lucky to get to seven wins this season.
The Rams’ onetime third-string quarterback, Austin Davis, continues to be impressive, throwing for 327 yards and three touchdowns, albeit with one costly pick-six to Cowboys linebacker Bruce Carter. But St. Louis ought to be embarrassed by Dallas tying its franchise record for the largest comeback in team history.
• The broken bones in quarterback Matt Cassel’s left foot decided things, but I predict in time the Vikings will be glad their Teddy Bridgewater starting era began as early as Week 4 of his rookie season. Minnesota will ride with the rookie from Louisville starting next week at home against Atlanta, and if his relief role Sunday was any indication, he’s ready enough.
Bridgewater made his debut in the loud and hostile atmosphere of the New Orleans Superdome, and he didn’t embarrass himself whatsoever in the Saints’ 20-9 win. He completed 12-of-20 passes for 150 yards, ran six times for 27 yards, and helped lead the Vikings to a pair of field goal drives. Bridgewater ran the offense without looking rattled or uncertain, and his athleticism helped extend plays, a feature the Vikings lacked with Cassel under center.
Bridgewater should provide the Minnesota offense with a little spark against the Falcons, and if nothing else, he might help energize a fan base demoralized by a home-opening blowout loss to New England last week, and the recent Adrian Peterson controversy.
• Unless you’re Julian Edelman, I can’t imagine anyone having anything to do with offense in New England is feeling very good about life these days. The Patriots toughed out a 16-9 win over the toothless Raiders in the home-opener at Gillette Stadium, but there are still way too many issues that need work on offense. Like the pass protection, the red zone execution and the dearth of reliable passing game weapons outside of Edelman, who caught another 10 passes for 84 yards on Sunday.
A win is a win in the NFL, but at 2-1 the Patriots don’t appear to be serious Super Bowl contenders, nor do they even look like they'll claim their customary AFC title game berth. There’s time, of course, to get things straightened out, but seven-point wins over Oakland get treated almost like losses in Foxborough.
• There was one pretty interesting reunion going on Sunday at Gillette Stadium. Tom Brady, say hello to your old friend, Justin Tuck. It must have been a Super Bowl flashback for Brady to see the former New York Giant Tuck, now a Raiders’ pass rusher, steaming into the backfield with bad intentions. And not a pleasant Super Bowl flashback, from Brady's first three appearances, but instead bringing him back to the two that featured Tuck sacking Brady twice each in New York's twin upsets of New England.
• Speaking of the Giants, when New York tight end Larry Donnell fumbled inside the Houston 5-yard line, then the Giants botched a field-goal attempt with a horrible snap by Zak DeOssie, I thought another miserable day was coming for Tom Coughlin and the self-destructing Giants.
But New York finally looked like a potent offensive threat after those mistakes, and wound up cruising past the Texans 30-17. The best piece of news was running back Rashad Jennings doing his best Ottis Anderson impersonation, rumbling for a career-high 176 yards and a touchdown on a whopping 34 carries. But that wasn’t the lone positive. Eli Manning was a cool 21-of-28 for 234 yards and two touchdowns, and Victor Cruz actually caught the ball well, grabbing five passes for 107 yards and a touchdown.
No 0-6 start in Gotham this year. The Giants are 1-2, and at least starting to show signs of life in Ben McAdoo’s offense.
• I don’t care one bit that Jacksonville is reversing field on its oft-stated plan to sit first-round quarterback Blake Bortles behind veteran Chad Henne all season, for the rookie’s own good. What were the Jaguars supposed to do, keep running Henne out there and hoping for his luck to change? That’s definition of insanity material.
Under Henne at home against the Colts on Sunday, Jacksonville in the first half generated two first downs and 55 yards of offense. Blaine Gabbert was never that bad. (Was he?) Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley, perhaps reluctantly, finally went to Bortles to open the second half, and now there’s no way to put that Genie back in the bottle. This is Bortles’ team going forward, and there’s at least reason to watch the Jaguars now.
Bortles wasn’t perfect, but he completed 14-of-24 passes for 223 yards, with two touchdowns and two interceptions, posting an 82.5 passer rating and helping hang 17 points on the scoreboard in the dismal 44-17 loss to Indianapolis. That’s at least something to build on with Jacksonville headed for a tough game at San Diego (2-1) next week.
Jacksonville simply couldn’t stick with Henne, who gave his coaches nothing in return for their loyalty in the season’s first three weeks. Before they scored in the second half, the Jaguars had been outplayed to the tune of 105-10 from the end of the first half in Philadelphia on -- a span of eight quarters, or two full games. Henne was just 4-of-7 for 33 yards in the first half, and he had to take a seat if the franchise cared about its fan base.
• It took three weeks, but the bad Ryan Fitzpatrick made his season debut Sunday for the Texans in their 30-17 blowout loss at the Giants. Houston’s veteran quarterback threw three interceptions and was sacked twice after not producing a pick or absorbing a sack over the course of the Texans’ 2-0 start.
Not having Arian Foster (hamstring) was a big factor in Houston’s lack of competitiveness, because over the course of his career, any time a team has asked Fitzpatrick to do too much, bad things usually ensue. The Texans need a running game to avoid putting too much of the offensive load on Fitzpatrick’s shoulders.
• I know it got wiped out by a penalty and thus officially never happened, but Texans receiver DeAndre Hopkins made the catch of the season so far in the NFL against the Giants. His one-handed grab, with him reaching back to his left to snare a bomb from Fitzpatrick while in tight coverage, was a thing of beauty. NFL Films should still put it to music, penalty flag or no penalty flag.
• It’s pretty clear-cut who Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco already has learned to look for when he’s in trouble and in need of a big play: Veteran receiver Steve Smith is his go-to guy. Smith had five catches for 101 yards in the Ravens’ dramatic 23-21 comeback win at Cleveland, and his 290 yards receiving in his first three games is the most by any Baltimore pass-catcher in their opening three games with the team.
Smith made the game’s biggest play, hauling in a 32-yard reception down to the Cleveland 14 with 44 seconds remaining, a gain that set up Justin Tucker’s game-winning 32-yard field goal at the gun. Smith told ESPN: “When I line up, I think there is no better option than myself.’’ He’s correct, especially since Baltimore just lost one of its most productive receiving threats in tight end Dennis Pitta with a dislocated right hip. It was a non-contact injury in the second quarter, and it’s the second year in a row Pitta has suffered a serious injury to that hip.
With Pitta out for the foreseeable future, the Ravens will rely even more heavily on Smith -- starting next week, when Carolina, his former team, visits M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, in a game he has been anticipating for months.
• The points were at a premium in Detroit, but that was still a very big statement win for Jim Caldwell’s Lions, who beat Green Bay 19-7 at home, rebounding smartly from last week’s no-show in Carolina. Beating the Packers with Aaron Rodgers at quarterback had never happened in the Matthew Stafford era, and any time you can hold Green Bay’s passing game to just seven points, you’re doing something right.
Stafford didn’t sparkle with two interceptions and a lost fumble in the red zone, but Green Bay’s offense was even worse, with an Eddie Lacy fumble that produced a defensive touchdown for Detroit, in addition to Lacy being tackled in the end zone for a safety. That’s right. The Lions defense outscored the mighty Packers offense.
• But Detroit does have a problem that must be rectified in rookie kicker Nate Freese. Make that soon-to-be-ex-Lion Nate Freese. He missed another field goal on Sunday, and is now 0-for-4 this season from 40-yards-plus.
Wonder if the 44-year-old Jason Hanson would pick up the phone if Detroit called?
• Way to kill the buzz in Buffalo, Bills. Doug Marrone’s team lacked offensive rhythm in its 22-10 home loss to San Diego, and it’s clear the Bills aren’t a team that’s built to play catch-up football. Buffalo excelled in the season’s first two weeks when it led or was tied, but the Bills fell behind the Chargers and never seriously threatened to mount a rally.
One loss doesn’t ruin the season for the Bills. But the challenge in Buffalo is to not let one flat performance turn into a six-game losing streak. That’s been the Bills’ MO for years, that the air comes out of the balloon furiously once it starts. With road trips to Houston and Detroit just ahead, followed by a home game with AFC East bully New England, the next three weeks should tell us if Buffalo is for real.
• I didn’t do as much research as I should have, but I think the Bengals are 1-0 all-time when Andy Dalton catches a touchdown pass. And for that matter, if Mohamed Sanu keeps this up -- the Cincinnati receiver is 4-of-4 with a quarterback rating of 158.3 in his career -- the St. Louis Rams might try to trade for him as QB insurance.
The Bengals are gaining believers by the week, and their 33-7 domination of visiting Tennessee means they head into their bye week at 3-0, with a franchise-record 11-game home winning streak dating to late 2012. Kudos to new Cincinnati offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, whose inventive playcalling has made the Bengals much more dangerous and diverse.
Dalton caught an 18-yard touchdown pass from Sanu, but I’m still not sure how the Bengals quarterback managed to haul it down in traffic and elude the shoddy tackling and coverage of Titans cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson.