Ah, the all-important Week 3 of the NFL preseason—the so-called "dress rehearsal" for Week 1 of the regular season. This is the week where we learn the most about each NFL team as the regular campaign hurdles ever closer.
This past weekend, there was much to be gleaned from the action. For some teams, it seems like the season is over before it has even started. For others, optimism abounds, and there's legitimate hope that 2013 could be a positive one. And for the Jets, it doesn't seem the big top atmosphere will ever go away.
Let's examine what we learned from a fascinating Week 3 of the NFL preseason.
Despite their 31-23 loss to the Saints on Sunday afternoon, the Houston Texans reminded the football world that they just might be the most complete team in the AFC.
The run game was extremely effective, with top backup running back Ben Tate using his tantalizing blend of speed and power to slice through the New Orleans defense. Wide receiver Andre Johnson fit a game's worth of production into one half, hauling in seven passes for 131 yards in the game's opening 30 minutes. Quarterback Matt Schaub managed the offense, threw for over 200 yards and didn't turn the ball over.
Yes, the Texans lost the game, and yes, the Saints offense outperformed the Houston defense. But remember, the New Orleans offense under Sean Payton generally outperforms opposing defenses, and Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips isn't going to show all of his cards in the third preseason game.
The fact of the matter is, Houston is loaded on both sides of the ball. On defense, lineman J.J. Watt is the favorite to repeat as Defensive Player of the Year, linebacker Brian Cushing is back after an ACL tear and there is obvious talent throughout. On offense, running back Arian Foster joins the aforementioned players to constitute an outstanding unit.
So, while the majority of the preseason hype in the AFC has centered around the New England Patriots, Cincinnati Bengals and Denver Broncos, the Texans are lurking. Don't count them out as viable contenders to represent the AFC in Super Bowl XLVIII.
The Dallas Cowboys underwent an offseason of change, which could easily have been construed as turmoil.
Head coach Jason Garrett was stripped of his play-calling duties, a responsibility new offensive coordinator Bill Callahan will now handle. The 3-4 defense was completely overhauled, with new defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin installing his 4-3, Tampa 2-based scheme.
Mix those ingredients with a lackluster offensive line, and you could have a recipe for disaster. But after the third preseason game, it appears there is reason for optimism in Dallas.
The Cowboys played very well in their 24-18 win over Cincinnati on Saturday night. Quarterback Tony Romo was in sync with his two top wide receivers, Dez Bryant and Miles Austin. More importantly, the defense forced four Bengals turnovers, and throughout the preseason, the Cowboys' first-team defense has yet to allow a touchdown.
Yes, it's only preseason, and yes, we won't know how good the Cowboys defense can be until it takes the field on Sunday Night Football in Week 1 against the New York Giants. All the same, Cowboys fans can puff their chests out a little after the third week of preseason. Dallas will definitely be in the mix in the NFC East.
Although the 34-26 scoreline doesn't necessarily show it, the Bears put an absolute whupping on the Raiders on Friday night. It was another disconcerting performance that has Oakland squarely in the catbird seat for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 draft.
The defense looked completely hapless against the Chicago offense, with quarterback Jay Cutler connecting with receiver Alshon Jeffery over and over again. Oakland couldn't stop the run, with the Bears averaging 5.5 yards per carry. The Raiders trailed 27-3 at halftime.
Raiders quarterback Matt Flynn looked pedestrian yet again, and the offense didn't pick up until backup signal-caller Terrelle Pryor entered the game. That, along with Flynn's elbow tendinitis, has caused the team to name Pryor the starter for the team's final preseason contest in Seattle.
Don't get it twisted: Pryor is absolutely auditioning for the starting job. For the second consecutive year—after being overtaken in 2012 by Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson—Flynn looks set to lose a starting job that was all but his. For an Oakland team that has had and will have significant issues protecting the quarterback, having the mobile Pryor under center might actually be a preferable alternative.
Still, regardless of who the quarterback is, the Raiders are going to be awful.
But hey, Raiders fans, it isn't all that bad. South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney or Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater will look great in silver and black.
The Atlanta Falcons are a trendy pick to represent the NFC in Super Bowl XLVIII, and with good reason. They are absolutely loaded on offense, with quarterback Matt Ryan leading the charge, and the defense, coordinated by the excellent Mike Nolan, could be better in 2013 than it was in 2012.
But there are reasons for concern, many of them exacerbated in the team's 27-16 loss in Tennessee on Saturday night. B/R NFC South blogger Knox Bardeen detailed them here in an outstanding piece.
Simply put: The Falcons offensive line must do a better job of protecting Ryan. Allowing six sacks to a relatively pedestrian Titans defense is not acceptable for a Super Bowl contender. Plus, the defense made Tennessee quarterback Jake Locker look like the late, great Steve McNair. That's not good.
This isn't to suggest that Atlanta won't win the NFC South or put together a marvelous regular season. However, there's no question that the team must clean up its issues if it is to contend with NFC heavyweights like San Francisco, Seattle and Green Bay.
Now, with injuries to Manuel and Kolb, the top two are Jeff Tuel and Matt Leinart. The latter signed on Sunday, as reported by Ryan Wilson of CBSSports.com.
What a difference a week makes.
Manuel is questionable for Week 1 with a knee injury, and in Saturday's 30-7 loss to the Redskins, Kolb suffered what is feared to be a career-ending concussion. The injuries to the two signal-callers prompted Buffalo to excavate Leinart from the rock he was hiding under, and there's a realistic chance that he could end up starting in Week 1 against the Patriots.
Think about that. Matt Leinart—yes, Matt Leinart—could end up as the Week 1 starting quarterback for the Bills.
Buffalo fans are likely finding themselves repeating the opening lines from Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody": "Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?"
The primary focus for the Bills must be to have a healthy Manuel on the field for the vast majority of the season. That's their best bet for continued success in 2014 and beyond.
I covered the complete embarrassment that was the Jets' 24-21, overtime victory over the New York Giants here, but now that there's been a 24-hour cushion, there's more to say about Gang Green and its clueless coach, Rex Ryan.
Jets owner Woody Johnson blew it when he retained Ryan after firing former general manager Mike Tannenbaum. If he was going to fire one of them, he needed to fire both.
Now, he's stuck with Ryan for another season. Go ahead and watch the above video, if you haven't already seen it. That is the head coach of an NFL franchise looking absolutely foolish in front of the assembled media. It's incredible that it actually happened.
Ryan's decision to insert presumed starting quarterback Mark Sanchez into the fourth quarter of a meaningless preseason game is indefensible. Sanchez's status is reportedly day-to-day, per Sporting News, and he won't play in the team's final preseason game.
Let's not mince words: This is going to be a lost year for the Jets. The team is almost completely bereft of playmakers, and under Ryan's hapless "leadership," Gang Green is a rudderless ship that has zero chance of successfully navigating through the choppy waters of the AFC.
Yes, the New Orleans Saints defeated the Houston Texans on Sunday, 31-23, but the game was a worrisome microcosm of the Saints' DNA.
The offense was explosive. Quarterback Drew Brees was majestic in his limited action, and the passing game is on point with the return of head coach Sean Payton. The high-octane attack looks like it's firing on all cylinders ahead of the club's critical Week 1 matchup against NFC South rival Atlanta.
However, the Houston offense absolutely shredded the Saints' D. It doesn't matter that the Texans have good players on that side of the ball; the fact is, the Saints defense doesn't look good as the regular season draws closer.
Last year, statistically, the Saints possessed the very worst defense in the history of the NFL. Consider that fact—it's staggering. The hiring of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was well received, but he's never once coordinated a top-10 defense. Quite frankly, if he didn't share that last name with his father (Buddy) and brother (Rex), it's doubtful that his hiring would have been as ballyhooed.
There's no question that the Saints offense will light up scoreboards like a pinball machine.
The problem is, opposing offenses look like they'll do it against them, too.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are, on paper, an extremely viable playoff contender in the NFC. This offseason, general manager Mark Dominik and head coach Greg Schiano did a fantastic job of addressing the team's primary need (the secondary) with the trade for cornerback Darrelle Revis, the signing of safety Dashon Goldson and the drafting of cornerback Johnthan Banks.
However, as is the case with most teams, they will only go as far as their quarterback takes them. And right now in Tampa, there are significant questions surrounding signal-caller Josh Freeman.
Freeman is entering the final year of his rookie deal, and it's telling that the team didn't even try to extend his contract this offseason. Freeman is a lame duck and needs to have a "prove it" year if he's to return as the Bucs' starting quarterback in 2014 and beyond.
The fifth-year quarterback has been below average in the preseason, with the moldy cherry on top of a spoiled sundae being Saturday night's effort against Miami. In that game, Freeman completed six of his 16 passes for 59 yards. That's not the kind of performance Dominik and Schiano were looking for in the team's critical third preseason game.
The team drafted North Carolina State quarterback Mike Glennon in the third round of April's draft. If Freeman struggles when the regular campaign opens, don't be shocked if Glennon is inserted into the starting lineup. The Bucs are ready to win now, and they can't afford to be trotting out an albatross at the game's most important position.
Just call Freeman "General Custer." This could very well be his last stand in Tampa Bay.
Last season, the Detroit Lions finished a miserable 4-12, failing to restore the roar from 2011's 10-6 team that qualified for the postseason. However, there is reason for optimism in Motown.
The team's 40-9 victory over the Patriots on Thursday night was stunning. Yes, it's only the preseason, but it was still mighty impressive.
In that game, the Lions' uber-talented defensive line dominated the interior of New England's offensive line, harassing Patriots quarterback Tom Brady throughout and keeping the run game in check. On the other side, running back Reggie Bush looked like he did at USC, and once all-world receiver Calvin Johnson returns from a knee bruise, the offense could be quite potent.
There are still question marks throughout the roster. Their back seven is questionable at best, and quarterback Matthew Stafford must make better decisions with the football.
Nevertheless, Thursday night's effort was a positive sign for the team. The Lions could end up exceeding expectations in 2013.