As Week 4 of the NFL season winds down, we take a look back at some notable performances and key plays.
Sunday's late games
MVPs: Matt Asiata and Jerick McKinnon, RBs, Vikings
Prior to suffering an ankle injury, Teddy Bridgewater was everything the Vikings could have hoped for and then some in his first NFL start -- 317 yards passing, a rushing TD, a two-point conversion and no turnovers. The sudden emergence of an Adrian Peterson-less run game may not be as thrilling for Minnesota fans looking long-term, but without Asiata and McKinnon's work Sunday, Bridgewater may not have chalked up his first win.
Asiata, he of three career rushing touchdowns before Sunday, accounted for three scores Sunday as part of a hard-earned 78 yards on 20 carries. McKinnon, meanwhile, provided the lightning to Asiata's thunder. The rookie out of Georgia Southern averaged 7.5 yards on 18 carries (135 total yards) plus pitched in a 17-yard reception.
Minnesota did rush for 185 yards in a Week 1 at St. Louis. Of course, that came with Peterson (since deactivated from the roster) picking up 75 yards and Cordarrelle Patterson busting loose for 102 on just three carries. The Vikings' backs combined for 113 yards in Weeks 2 and 3, both Minnesota losses.
LVP: Jacksonville's secondary.
"We need to stop the bleeding and progress from there," Jaguars cornerback Dwayne Gratz told the AP on Monday, less than 24 hours after Jacksonville allowed 385 yards through the air to Indianapolis.
Might want to stick a couple more Band-Aids on there.
Sunday, the Jaguars secondary was the latest to be shredded by a red-hot Philip Rivers. He piled up 377 yards passing, with three touchdowns and no interceptions. The majority of those yards came rather uncontested, too, a continuing issue for a Jacksonville defense that will remain dead last in the NFL against the pass when Week 4 wraps.
There is no shame in losing to the Chargers or struggling to contain Rivers, but Jacksonville is a complete mess on the backend defensively. Without significant improvements real soon, the losses are going to pile up.
Must-see play: An Eagles offense that had been stagnant all day faced a late 3rd-and-10, down by five points. Then Jeremy Maclin did this:
A clear contender for catch of the year, even if Philadelphia was unable to take advantage of the grab and score. Which leads us to ...
Head-scratching decision: Philadelphia's play-calling on 3rd- and 4th-and-goal late.
Despite the San Francisco defense pitching a shutout to that point -- all of Philly's scoring came from special teams or defense-- the Eagles had a glorious chance to erase an afternoon's worth of frustration on offense. Trailing by five at the two-minute mark, the Eagles faced a 3rd-and-goal from the San Francisco one-yard line.
The play call: a straight drop for QB Nick Foles, who overshot a tightly covered Brent Celek in the end zone. On fourth down, Philadelphia opted for a play-action rollout to Foles' right, essentially chopping their quarterback's available passing area in half.
The 49ers were all over it, chasing Foles to the boundary and loading the end zone with defenders. Another incompletion.
RB LeSean McCoy is off to a disappointing start behind a banged-up offensive line -- he finished with just 17 yards on 10 carries Sunday, his fourth straight at less than 100 yards. Five of those yards, though, came on the Eagles' 2nd-and-goal play. To not even look again at McCoy, one of the most dangerous backs in the game regardless of what his current numbers say, wound up costing the Eagles.
Oh, and a 2nd-and-20 swing pass to Darren Sproles on Philadelphia's next and final drive will not win any playcalling awards either. Sproles was dropped for a four-yard loss by Aaron Lynch, leaving Philadelphia in an insurmountable 3rd-and-24. -- CB
Key injuries: Atlanta's O-line.
The Falcons headed into Sunday's game versus Minnesota with seven offensive linemen dressed. By the start of the fourth quarter, they were down to four healthy bodies. Guard Justin Blalock exited with a back injury, Lamar Holmes hurt his foot, then starting center Joe Hawley had to be carted off with a knee injury.
So Atlanta was left with this:
Of particular note there is the situation at right tackle, where Levine Toilolo took over as Atlanta mixed and matched. The rub: Toilolo is the Falcons' starting tight end. He's not immune to blocking from that role, of course, but the Falcons obviously would prefer to keep Toilolo from being used on the offensive line.
Sunday's early games
Watt caught his first offensive touchdown pass in Week 2 this season, and there's no question he's got the athletic ability to do some interesting things in the passing game. Just ask Bills quarterback EJ Manuel, who watched Watt do this:
This is an amazing display of effort and awareness by Watt, blasting through blocking as usual and having the field sense to grab Manuel's pass and return it 79 yards for a touchdown. Of course, Watt did more than that in Houston's 23-17 win -- he had six hits on Manuel in the first half alone, and he finished with the deciding touchdown, nine quarterback hits, five tackles and yet another amazing overall performance in a season where anything but extraordinary play would be a shock.
And it once again raises the legitimate question: Is Watt the NFL MVP through the season's quarter-pole, and the MVP if he plays at this level all the way through? Only two defensive players have won the award in league history -- Alan Page in 1971 and Lawrence Taylor in '86. Quarterbacks tend to get the bias here, but it's difficult to imagine a player who has been more crucial to his team's success than Watt this season.
-- Doug Farrar
LVP: The Oakland Raiders' entire defense.
Oakland's defensive "effort" against the Dolphins can be summed up by the game's final score -- 38-14. Miami QB Ryan Tannehill wasn't a sure thing to start this game after a subpar start to the season, but he went 23-for-31 for 278 yards and two touchdowns. Tannehill was eventually pulled for backup Matt Moore, but that was because the game was completely out of hand in Miami's favor.
But we feel the below image best summarizes what the Raiders did defensively in their loss to the Dolphins. Yes, that's single coverage against a bunch formation, with some sort of overload blitz that didn't work. You've got some 'splainin' to do, Oakland defensive coordinator Jason Tarver.
There's been a lot of talk about whether the loser of this game would wind up firing their head coach, and Oakland's Dennis Allen surely has jumped ahead of Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin in that department. But in reality, this is on general manager Reggie McKenzie, who has been given plenty of time to turn things around following the disastrous final years of the Al Davis regime. The Raiders are still unable to sign and cultivate talent, they've lost 10 games in a row and they haven't had a winning season since 2002.
Must-see play: Steve Smith tip drill touchdown from Owen Daniels
After the Panthers unceremoniously dumped Smith after years as Carolina's franchise player and before Smith signed a three-year deal with the Ravens, Smith promised that if his new team happened to play Carolina, his old team shouldn't be too happy about it.
"I want to make sure that whatever team I go to, they’re going to get the best, in shape 35-year-old guy they can get," Smith said back then. "If that happens to run through Bank of America Stadium, put your goggles on cause there’s going to be blood and guts everywhere."
Well, the Ravens faced the Panthers (in Baltimore) on Sunday, and while literal blood and guts weren't the result (thank goodness), Smith proved to the Panthers and general manager Marty Hurney that he's got a lot more in the tank than Hurney thought. Smith, who came into this game with 290 yards on 18 catches (he had just 64 catches for 745 yards for the Panthers all of last season), put up five receptions for 122 yards and two touchdowns in the first half alone against Carolina, and seven total for 139 yards and those two scores as Baltimore thrashed Carolina 38-10.
Smith's first touchdown of the day, which came with 13:12 left in the first half, was especially thrilling, coming on a tip drill from TE Owen Daniels.
This is not to address the fans at MetLife Stadium, who were chanting "We want Vick" as Geno Smith imploded against the Lions in a 24-17 loss. But the decision to keep Smith in that game when he was clearly out of sorts and unable to make plays likely cost the Jets a win. Yes, New York's pass defense was awful as it's been throughout the season, but Smith's two-turnover fourth quarter certainly didn't help. Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, whose play-calling has been justifiably questioned this season, has said that this is about developing Smith as a quarterback. However, it's also about winning games, and the Jets are now 1-3, having wasted three home games in the first quarter of the season.
After Smith's 17-of-33, 209-yard performance, Rex Ryan said that if Smith is healthy, he'll be the starter next Sunday against the Chargers. He also said that it's a matter of when, not if, Smith will be a great quarterback one day. Perhaps, but after this performance and his questionable start to the season as a whole, it might be time to give the kid a breather and see if Vick can turn things around.
Evans, Tampa Bay's first-round pick in 2014, found it tough to get rolling with veteran quarterback Josh McCown. But the wide receiver was having a nice day against the Steelers with backup Mike Glennon, catching four passes for 65 yards and a touchdown, before leaving the game in the third quarter with a left groin injury. The Bucs were able to win without Evans in dramatic last-second fashion, but it will certainly be interesting to monitor how Evans comes along, health-wise, as Tampa Bay's offense starts to pick up with Glennon under center.