The NFL season really starts to feel like it has hit stride after the third week. Teams falling to 0-3 have a real hurdle to overcome, and those that start 3-0 can start to gear up for a run at the postseason.
If you don’t think teams are already thinking about the playoffs, you weren’t watching Monday night when the Chargers, desperately trying to avoid going 0-3, blew the doors off the Jets.
Teams know how hard it is to dig themselves out of a hole, because with only 16 games, you can’t take a week off...Unless you’re playing Detroit, Kansas City, or St. Louis.
Week Three was like any week in the NFL: Brian Griese threw for 400 yards, Ronnie Brown threw a touchdown pass (not to mention rushed for four others), and a team that last season barely won a game in the regular season beat a team that didn’t lose a game in the regular season by 25 on the road.
I can only imagine the fantasy waiver wires this week with people who drafted Matt Hasselbeck or Tom Brady desperately trying to pick up J.T. O’Sullivan.
2008 supports the argument that I made last year: People don’t like dynasties. They don’t want to see undefeated teams. Fans want to see underdogs take down giants, and the Dolphins beating the Pats lacks some power because the Pats were Brady-less, but it was still quite a feat.
When parody means there is a greater amount of solid football being played around the league, we are going to see higher ratings and a better game. Last week’s Monday night game was the highest rated show in cable history, mainly because it was entertaining, but also because it pitted two teams in a bitter rivalry who are both capable of winning it all.
In 2008, we might see a half dozen games like that when last season there were maybe two.
That brings us to my first from-sofa musing of the week.
Unless You’re Detroit, KC, or Saint Louis, You Have a Shot At it
By the third week of the NFL season, guys start to get banged up, fatigue sets in to some degree, teams catch a rhythm, and we start to see the true identity of each franchise. After Week Three, really all we know about most of the teams is that they have a shot to win their division.
If you play in the AFC—not in Arrowhead Stadium—you have a chance to win your division and make the playoffs. Houston has looked awful as well, but with the Jags and Colts scuffling, and the Texans' propensity to play the division so tough, they have a shot in depleted South.
The Bills, Titans, Ravens, and Broncos are the only undefeated left in the AFC and probably only the Bills can really say they have the inside track to win their division.
In the NFC, the West is WIDE open, with Seattle playing arena leaguers at wide receiver, the Cardinals are unable to stop anyone, the Rams are playing AAA football, and the 49ers are somehow suddenly playing like pros.
The North looks like the Packer’s division to lose, but the Vikings will be tough if they can protect Gus Frerotte. In the South, every team looks like they can play well enough to win it, even the Falcons if Michael Turner keeps torching defenses on the ground. Am I forgetting anyone? Oh yeah...
The Beasts of the East
For the past several seasons, the AFC have dominated the NFC. Six of the last eight Super Bowl champions have come from the American Football Conference, and there has been no doubt that teams like the Patriots, Steelers, and Colts were the class of the NFL.
Even with Tom Brady, the NFC has officially caught up. You can thank the Giants, Eagles, Cowboys, and Redskins for much of that power shift.
The Cowboys are the best team in football, and the Eagles are probably second, having now beaten arguably the best team in the AFC, the Pittsburgh Steelers. I have to believe the Giants are the third-best team in the NFL, and the Redskins are probably in the top 10.
While neither the Giants nor the Redskins have played a tough schedule so far, good teams handle business against inferior opponents. It would be foolish to believe all four teams could win 10 games, as some have suggested simply because each team will have to play six games against teams in their own division, not to mention the tough AFC North out of conference.
If the MVP was handed out today, Tony Romo would be at the top of most ballots, with Donovan McNabb right behind him. Every single one of these teams has a chance to win it all, even the Redskins, thanks to the stellar play of Jason Campbell.
Running Back Redemptions
The shelf life of NFL players is short. We know that. The shelf life for running backs is even shorter. So when running backs go from top shelf to bargain brand, it isn’t that big of a deal. We see it every year. However, this year there are a few who have decided they want to be stars again after down years in 2007.
Reggie Bush – NFL fans could not be happier to see Bush on this list. NFC South fans may have reason to worry. On Sunday, against the Broncos, Bush had a remarkable 29 touches—18 rushes and 11 receptions—for 148 yards and a touchdown. That is the kind of use Sean Payton had been getting out of Bush as a rookie, when Reggie showed flashes of greatness.
Bush is actually leading the league in receptions and ranks 10th yards receiving. If this Saints team can better defensively, we should see Bush back in the playoffs.
Julius Jones – Marion Barber started to eat into the amount of carries this former Notre Dame rusher was getting in Dallas, and it became clear the ‘Boys were moving on. With Shaun Alexander’s precipitous fall and departure from Seattle, the Seahawks needed a new lead back.
After his 22 carry, 140 yard, one TD game against the Rams, Jones is third in the league in rushing yards and is tied for first in the league with four runs of 20 yards or more. With Matt Hasselbeck still healing and the receiving corps in shambles, Jones will continue to get the opportunity to show he is worthy of being a feature back in this league.
Frank Gore – Gore’s place on this list could be debated after a 1,000-yard season in 2007. However, the 49ers' offense was abysmal, and Gore managed just 4.2 yards per carry after averaging nearly 5.5 in 2006.
With a new coach and a new quarterback, Gore’s burst and vision seem to be back. He killed the Lions racking up 130 yards on 27 carries to go along with a score. This San Fran offense looks revitalized with J.T. O’Sullivan at quarterback, and Gore taking his place as the focal point. In the West, where defense is optional, except Gore to put up Pro Bowl numbers this season.
One of the main reasons we can never compare the college game to the pro game is because in the NFL, everyone is really good. That seems intuitive, but sometimes players that weren’t outstanding in college look great in the NFL and fans suddenly are left going, “Who the heck is that?”
Roddy White – To be fair, White was a first-round draft pick of the Falcons, but coming out of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, not too many people knew who this kid was. This speed burner seems to have found a connection with rookie Matt Ryan and now leads the league in yards per catch among receivers with at least 10 receptions.
It would make sense then that when he catches the ball, he is moving the sticks. 91 percent of the time to be exact. Only Lee Evans has a higher percentage among receivers with at least 10 receptions.
J.T. O’Sullivan – Since leaving the New Orleans Saints in 2004, the 49ers mark the sixth team uniform O’Sullivan has donned. Before being named the starter in 2008 for San Francisco, O’Sullivan had thrown a career total of 26 regular-season passes in five years.
This year, with Mike Martz calling the plays, O’Sullivan has the fourth-best passer rating in the NFL, ahead of guys like Romo, McNabb, both Mannings, Favre, and Roethlisberger. In the West, O’Sullivan’s 49ers have a decent shot to win the division, particularly if they continue to get such inspired play from their QB.
Cortland Finnegan – Hearing the name, you may think more of someone who ought to be a character in a Charles Dickens story, not one of the leaders of one of the best defenses in the NFL. Through three weeks, Finnegan’s outstanding play at corner has helped Tennessee to hold opponents to 29 total points.
Finnegan leads the Titans third-ranked defense by being a playmaker in the secondary. He leads the league in picks with four, returning one last week 99 yards for the icing score. With six passes defended, Finnegan is already nearly halfway to his season total of 13 in 2007. If Finnegan and company play defense like this, it will not matter who is under center for the Titans.
Adam Jones – My guess is, if you asked the average NFL fan about how well “Adam Jones” was doing, most people would have to think about it for a while. Say “Pacman” and it gets a whole lot easier.
Mr. Jones was outstanding against the Packers on Sunday night, leading the team in tackles with eight and even forcing a fumble on Green Bay’s first drive. While this entry is somewhat facetious because of Jones’ infamous moniker, he has been an excellent addition to a Dallas secondary in need of depth.
Just like we now have an idea of whom the players in the MVP race are, the front-runners for rookie of the year have come into focus as well. Bears running back Matt Forte compiled more than 150 total yards and a score this last week and is fourth in the NFL in rushing yards. The race for OROY right now comes down to Forte and Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson. However, with Jackson have a less than spectacular game, another name must now be counted.
The Texans might be playing poorly, but their rookie running back is not. Steve Slaton ran all over the Titans' defense carrying the rock 18 times for 116 yards and a score, including a 50-yard burst.
Coming out of West Virginia, Slaton had a disappointing junior season and then tested below where scouts expected coming into the draft. I believed scouts underestimated Slaton’s talent and apparently he did, too.
Running behind a mediocre offensive line against arguably the best defense in the league, Slaton was slippery and persistent, making people miss and looking like the player he was early on at West Virginia.
If Matt Schaub can figure it out, this offense has scary potential.
Defensively, the top rookie seems to be Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo without question. Rams D-end Chris Long finally showed up with seven tackles, including six solo, but his team got blown out.
Tracey Porter had a ton of tackles again, but his team gave up a bazillion points to the Broncos and lost. I know Mayo’s defense was run over by Ronnie Brown and there were plenty of tackles to be made, but Mayo made most of them, finishing with 12 tackles including eight solo.
With the defense for the Pats aging, it looks like they have found a centerpiece around which to build for the future.