In the NFL, the only thing with a shorter shelf life than a running back is a preseason prediction. Preconceived notions always seem so right until the teams actually start playing games. Then, things like Mike Tomlin, Tom Coughlin and Mike Shanahan combining to go 0-9 through the first three weeks happen.
The San Francisco 49ers dropping under .500 for the first time with Jim Harbaugh in charge happened. The AFC East—not the NFC East—being 9-3 happened. The Cincinnati Bengals surging back to send the Green Bay Packers to a 1-2 start happened.
Sure things morphed into hazy question marks in Week 3. Maybe the NFC West isn’t the best division in football. Maybe the San Francisco 49ers defense isn’t one of the best in football. Maybe Robert Griffin III should change his nickname to RG0-3.
Maybe we all need to remember that this time last season, the Patriots, Colts, Broncos, Redskins and Packers were all 1-2 before going on to make the playoffs and the Cardinals started 3-0, only to lose 11 out of their last 12 games.
The narrative has experienced its first monumental shift of this young season. And these six players played a prominent role in that—at least until Week 4 when none of this matters.
Eli Manning, quarterback, New York Giants
The New York Giants fell to 0-3 for the first time under Tom Coughlin on Sunday by way of a 38-0 beating courtesy of the Carolina Panthers. Eli Manning completed just 12 passes, which seems pathetic until it’s noted that the Panthers defense sacked Manning seven times. Then, it seems like a miracle that Manning got off 12 passes.
Manning has thrown eight interceptions through the first three games and only five touchdowns to match. Look no further for an illustration of Manning’s early-season struggles than the fact that he led all rushers on Sunday for a blip of time in the first quarter with an ungraceful, Manning-like 14-yard scramble.
After that, it was all Cam Newton and the Panthers. Newton, who has experienced struggles of his own to open what was expected to be his breakout year, embodied Superman on Sunday with 223 yards and 3 touchdowns on 15-for-27 passing along with 45 yards on the ground and a rushing touchdown.
It’s just weird for a Manning to look like Clark Kent—especially in Carolina.
The Giants’ NFC East foe Dallas Cowboys, and a man who has haunted Manning many times, was on the other side of the sack parade on Sunday.
Demarcus Ware, defensive end, Dallas Cowboys
Wrangling St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford to the turf twice awarded Dallas Cowboys defensive end Demarcus Ware the Cowboys all-time career sack record. Ware now has 115 career sacks. Any concern regarding Cowboys first-year defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin’s 4-3 scheme affecting Ware’s performance is buried underneath the pile of opposing offensive linemen trying to stop him.
One NFC wide receiver broke the all-time single-season receiving yards record last season, and he added 115 yards to his total this season.
Calvin Johnson, wide receiver, Detroit Lions
Calvin Johnson had his routine seven receptions for 115 yards and a touchdown in the Lions 27-20 victory in Washington.
Johnson's touchdown came with a little under four minutes left in the fourth quarter to eventually push the Lions over Washington. Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford is picking up where he left off last year—setting the record for most pass attempts in a single season—with 121 attempts already this season. With Reggie Bush sidelined due to injury and Johnson flanked out wide, can anyone really blame him?
Megatron will be Megatron. Diddy must be proud.
Another wide receiver—whose spot on the all-time list Johnson will one day be threatening—played an important role in his team’s 27 points.
Reggie Wayne, wide receiver, Indianapolis Colts
Reggie Wayne has been doing this for 13 years and makes it look like he could do it for 13 more years. Wayne inched above Randy Moss (982) on the NFL’s all-time career receptions list with his five grabs for 63 yards in San Francisco, giving him 986 receptions in his career. Wayne is now ninth all-time and 14 catches away from tying Hines Ward for the No. 8 spot.
The Colts puzzled the Niners 27-7 in a downright domination on both sides of the ball Sunday afternoon. San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick could use a wide receiver like Reggie Wayne—the 49ers have been outscored 59-10 over the last two games.
It’s been a while since Wayne was a Miami Hurricane, but one player’s first career touchdown connects Wayne back to Miami.
Dion Sims, tight end, Miami Dolphins
The most memorable yard of Dion Sims' career came in the form of a game-winning touchdown in Miami on Sunday. The Dolphins, a surprising 3-0, defeated the Atlanta Falcons 27-23 with 38 seconds left in the game. Ryan Tannehill floated the ball toward the end zone from one yard out to gift Sims his first career reception and touchdown in one fell swoop. Sims, who shared a field with Tony Gonzalez on Sunday, should relish in playing hero for the day.
Sims is perhaps the most unsuspecting of Tannehill’s weapons to catch a game-winner. Mike Wallace had a whopping two catches for 22 yards on Sunday, which means he might complain again, but he’s better off just appreciating the fact that his new team is 3-0, while his former team is 0-3.
Another rookie wide receiver on a sneaky good AFC team played the role of hometown hero with his first NFL reception.
Justin Hunter, wide receiver, Tennessee Titans
After accumulating over 1,000 yards receiving in 2012, his final season as a Volunteer, Justin Hunter made his first splash in Tennessee’s next level on Sunday. Hunter’s first career reception was also his first touchdown—a game-winning 34-yard rocket-launch from quarterback Jake Locker.
Like the Dolphins, the Titans are a surprising team thus far. With wide receiver Kenny Britt very clearly unhappy in Tennessee, Hunter could be a key piece in making sure the Titans aren’t (completely) flukes.
Megan Armstrong is on Twitter at @meganKarmstrong.