The Patriots are guilty of many things. Many, many things. About twice as many things as they are willing to admit, and nearly half the things they are accused of. But panicking in the preseason is not one of them.
The Patriots looked bad in their preseason dress rehearsal against the Panthers, worse than their 17-16 victory or even their 7-6 halftime lead would indicate. Tom Brady threw two interceptions (one was a nifty strip by Charles "Peanut" Tillman, but the other was embarrassing), took a sack, threw only one truly Brady-like pass down the seam and, worst of all, scrambled twice. Brady scrambling: a slow-motion nightmare with all of New England shouting No! No! while all of 345 Park Avenue shouts Yes! Yes! Mwahahaha!
The Patriots defense didn't look like much either. Panthers receiver Corey "Don't Call Me Philly or Expect Me to Catch Balls Thrown at My Hands" Brown was their MVP in the first half.
OK, so Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman didn't play. Neither did Ryan Wendell, Marcus Cannon and Bryan Stork, typically starters or top reserves on the offensive line. So those weren't quite the real Patriots starters, but then we are not really sure who the Patriots' real early-season starters are. Jimmy Garoppolo entered the game and threw a pair of dropped interceptions before settling down against the Panthers backups.
The Patriots weren't the only slumping contenders. The Seahawks grunted out a 16-15 win over the Chargers but mustered only 80 first-half offensive yards. If you didn't know better, you would have thought you were watching the Browns. The Packers have been mixing defensive lapses with crippling offensive injuries throughout the preseason. Peyton Manning took three sacks, including an untouched topple to the ground, and threw mostly four-yard passes (plus an interception) as the Broncos offense managed just six offensive points over the first three quarters against the 49ers.
There's an old adage in the live theater: Bad rehearsal, great performance. In other words, actors have their own phrase for "it's only the preseason." Tellingly, the old adage is never used when the rehearsal goes well.
While the top contenders flubbed lines and missed marks, some upstarts looked ready for their close-ups. Take the Eagles, before they take you. The Eagles piled up a 39-14 first-half lead before second-half silly time turned it into a 39-26 win over the Packers.
It was Notre Dame vs. DeVry Institute-level competition with the starters in the game. Sam Bradford and the Eagles starters were unstoppable. The defense was sloppier, but you know how those fast-break basketball teams are: Lots of points, lots of turnovers and disruption, but at least a few easy layups at the other end.
Yes, Aaron Rodgers took the night off, leaving Brett Hundley to start behind a cobbled-together line. But the Eagles have been the NFL's best team in the preseason. They have outscored opponents in the first half 86-17, and it's not like the Bradford and DeMarco Murray have been on the field very much. It's only preseason, but 86-17 is a heck of a differential. A rehearsal like the Eagles enjoyed Saturday night has to mean something, right?
Maybe it does. Take a look at how the last 10 Super Bowl teams fared in their third preseason games. Many of them, particularly the offense-oriented teams, had excellent dress rehearsals.
The 2014 Patriots beat the tar out of the Panthers in the dress rehearsal: Halftime score 13-0, final score 30-7. Brady threw two touchdowns. Ryan Mallett actually took some snaps in that game, with Brady returning to the lineup after Mallett did just enough to hoodwink the Texans into a trade. Who says the Patriots don't carefully game-plan for preseason games? It's just a different kind of plan.
The 2013 Seahawks looked like themselves in a 17-10 win (3-3 at half) over the Packers. Russell Wilson engineered a pair of long drives that ended in red-zone sacks, but the Seahawks defense clobbered the Packers starters and kept the game close. The rest has been recent history.
The 2012 Ravens crushed the Jaguars in the rehearsal: 48-17 overall, 13-3 at half, with another Baltimore touchdown in the early third quarter with both sets of starters still in the game. The sight of the Ravens scoring 48 points should have told us that 2012 was going to be a strange year.
The 2011 Giants lost the Snoopy Bowl to the Jets 17-3. They trailed 7-3 at half, with Eli Manning throwing a pair of interceptions. The Giants would remain unimpressive that year until the second half of the Super Bowl, which is a trick only the Giants can manage.
The 2010 Packers took a 28-17 halftime lead against the Colts and parlayed it into a 59-24 blowout. Aaron Rodgers threw three touchdowns, Peyton Manning two and favorites like Reggie Wayne and Donald Driver put up big numbers. This may have been the greatest preseason game ever.
The 2009 Saints turned a 31-0 halftime lead against the Raiders into a 45-7 romp. Drew Brees threw two touchdowns and three incomplete passes in one half's work.
The 2008 Steelers had a poor rehearsal: They trailed the Vikings 7-3 at half before kicking their way to a 12-10 win.
The 2007 Giants lost the Lil' Abner Bowl to the Jets 20-12, though they led 12-6 at half thanks to things like a blocked Jets extra point and a penalty-in-the-end-zone safety. Maybe the Giants and Jets shouldn't meet in the third preseason game each year.
The 2006 Colts turned a 17-0 halftime lead against the Saints into a 27-14 rehearsal win. Peyton and Co. dominated Brees and Co. until the backups arrived.
The sample size is small, and of course there are plenty of teams that dominate the third preseason game but never get close to the Super Bowl. But there's food for thought here. Truly great teams tend to demonstrate a little greatness in the third week of rehearsals.
With that in mind, let's look at some teams, besides the Eagles, that looked particularly strong this weekend. Maybe a stealth Super Bowl contender sneaked onto the stage:
Bengals: Needlessly endangering unpopular starting quarterbacks is the latest trend, and Marv Lewis jumped on the bandwagon by calling two designed runs for Andy Dalton in the first series—a draw from a tricky Patriots vs. Ravens-style four-lineman formation (Jay Gruden is kicking himself for not thinking of that one) and a sneak at the goal line. Sure enough, Dalton suffered a minor neck injury when plunging for a touchdown.
Luckily, AJ McCarron entered the lineup and delivered two impressive touchdown drives, causing the Quarterback Controversy Geiger Counter to flicker from "Highly Unlikely" to "Ruins of Megaton." A 21-3 halftime lead became a 21-10 final, which would bode well for the Bengals finally turning the postseason corner...except:
• The Bengals looked like a bad MAC team as recently as last Monday night.
• The Bears started playing like they would rather be watching The Barclays golf tournament late in the first quarter (no team publicly and emphatically quits quite like the Bears).
• Even the refs didn't appear to be dialed in. Martellus Bennett briefly fumbled to end the first half, and the clock ran for nearly 30 seconds while the referees slooowwwly sorted through the pile.
• And last, c'mon...They are the Bengals.
Bills: The 43-19 final score in their win over the Steelers was misleading. The Bills led just 23-19 at the half, and their defense didn't look very good despite only facing Ben Roethlisberger for a brief cameo. Still, the Bills were able to move the ball without most of their skill-position starters. That's an encouraging sign for a team we all expect to struggle on offense.
EJ Manuel started, threw a touchdown pass on his second attempt, then disappeared, only to reappear in the third quarter for long relief. See the 2014 Patriots comment and Ryan Mallett in the previous section to see what Rex Ryan is trying to do here.
Chiefs: The Chiefs are the best of the many AFC teams (Bills, Browns, Jets, Texans) hoping to reach the playoffs entirely via sacks and screen passes. Alex Smith may be one of the NFL's weakest starting quarterbacks but can also be seen as the cream of the Josh McCown-Matt Cassel-Ryan Fitzpatrick crop: A mobile aerosol-armed veteran who really does all of the savvy "leadership" stuff all the others just get credit for because we have to justify their continued employment somehow.
The Chiefs took a 17-0 lead before Smith left the game against the Titans on Friday. The final score was 34-10. Justin Houston and the first-team defense looked vicious, Jamaal Charles and the running game churned out 6.8 yards per carry, and as long as Andy Reid keeps dreaming up pass routes where no receiver goes more than five yards downfield (see the figure below), the Chiefs should be able to stay in the playoff picture.
Jets and Browns: Let's get serious. If a midtier contender like the Eagles or Bengals plays well in the rehearsal, it's good news for them. If the Jets or Browns play well in the rehearsal, it's bad news for the opponent.
Going For Two
NFL teams are now 23-of-48 (47.9 percent) on two-point conversions, according to NFLGSIS. For a small data set, the two-point conversion rates are remarkably stable. The league rate hovers just below 50 percent each week, and the attempt rate keeps holding steady at about one attempt per game.
The Steelers attempted a pair of two-pointers against the Bills, one after kicker Garrett Hartley suffered a hamstring injury. The Steelers would probably have been forced to attempt two-point conversions for the rest of the game. Lucky for them, they were shut out in the second half. The Shayne Graham Signal is once again lighting up the sky over Pittsburgh; it's like the Bat Signal except that it's a pair of uprights and a question mark.
Tim Tebow attempted a pair of two-point conversions to the delight of those who have been theorizing for four months (or three years) that he would be some sort of superweapon from the 2-yard line. Tebow was stopped short of the goal line on his first attempt and threw a near-interception on his second.
Chip Kelly may have been giving Tebow a last chance to crack the roster. He may also have wanted a look at how opponents defend a Tebow two-pointer. They defend it by cramming linebackers in the interior run gaps to take away the threat of an inside run, playing tight man on the receivers and treating Tebow as if he were someone like Frank Gore taking a direct snap.
The Raiders successfully converted a two-point conversion to force a tie late in the fourth quarter of the night game, which nearly caused preseason overtime, which was outlawed by the Geneva Conventions.
There have been 10 missed extra points this preseason. The extra-point rate is currently 149-of-159, or 93.7 percent.
Naming this segment "Stock Watch" sounded like a great idea two weeks ago. Hoo boy. Anyway, here are the teams and players that are trending after three preseason weeks. Try not to think about your portfolio.
Seahawks Offense: Falling. The Patriots offense took some heat at the start of this week's Hangover for forcing Tom Brady to scramble. At least Brady didn't get called for intentional grounding while trying to throw the ball away left-handed, like Russell Wilson did. At least Brady didn't attempt a read-option, only to be met by two unblocked defenders five yards in the backfield, like Wilson did. Wilson had better stock up on the patent medicines. It's going to be a long year behind the Legion of Sluice.
49ers Offense: Falling. Just because expectations are low doesn't mean the 49ers cannot disappoint us. It's hard to pick out the lowlight of Saturday night's 19-12 loss to the Broncos. The safety is an obvious choice, with Colin Kaepernick reaching desperately to get the football out of the end zone and risking a strip and a Broncos touchdown instead of a safety.
But what about the fumbled shotgun snap that bounced into Reggie Bush's hands, forcing Bush to improvise for a few positive yards before getting body-slammed out of bounds by the always feisty Aqib Talib, leading to a shoving match? That was pretty special, too.
The 49ers' only offensive highlights were a pair of Kaepernick scrambles just before halftime. Remember when people looked forward to Kaepernick scrambles because they were a new, different element for the already good 49ers offense? Now they look forward to them because they are the only good thing left.
Josh McCown, Browns, and Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jets: Rising. Every office has an employee who hustles through the corridors with a harried look on his or her face, pencil behind the ear, stack of paperwork (or buzzing cellphone) in hand, making an elaborate show of being the hardest working person in the company.
The boss initially loves this apparently industrious team player. Then the boss realizes this employee gets less done than the folks who aren't perpetually on the verge of a coronary and is so scattered and inefficient that everyone else has to work harder to compensate.
McCown and Fitzpatrick are like those World's Most Put-Upon Employees. Coaches, reporters and fans initially love them. McCown is 36 years old but still scrambles! Fitzpatrick runs downfield to block after screen passes! Such toughness! Such gumption!
But after about a month, everyone realizes that receivers shouldn't have to reach in all compass-point directions just to catch six-yard passes.
Fitzpatrick looked better Saturday night throwing against a Giants team with zero NFL safeties on its roster than McCown looked against a Buccaneers team that kept giving the Browns great field position. It doesn't matter. Both will enjoy a September honeymoon looking extra busy while their defenses keep them in games. Then the real performance reviews will start rolling in.
Brian Hoyer, Texans: Steady. Hoyer is McCown or Fitzpatrick without the sizzle, if you can imagine. His best pitch is his changeup, which travels down the field like water from a drippy hose down a driveway. Hoyer has the good sense to: A) not oversleep on workdays; b) Deliver his off-speed pitches early, like Saturday, so they arrive on time; and C) occasionally loft a pass to where only DeAndre Hopkins can get it. These skills will keep him in the lineup until Bill O'Brien stops grounding Ryan Mallett.
Odell Beckham Jr., Giants, and Darrelle Revis, Jets: Steady. Beckham caught five short passes. He nearly made a pair of miracle catches, but he drifted out of bounds both times. Revis got beat on one of those near-miracles; the other was Beckham being Asgardian against good coverage. Revis also reprised his familiar role of forcing quarterbacks to look to the other side of the field so Antonio Cromartie could trawl for interceptions.
Next year, cancel the Mary Worth Bowl and just make Eli Manning throw to OBJ in the parking lot with Revis in coverage. It will be much more entertaining.
Michael Vick, Steelers: Steady. Vick still has his two most marketable skills: the ability to run fast and the ability to throw deep passes. He still lacks all other quarterback skills, though he lacks them a little more now than he did five years ago.
There's nothing perplexing about the Steelers' interest in Vick. If Ben Roethlisberger misses a game or two, who do you want to threaten the opposing defense with? Matt Flynn? Rex Grossman? I'll take the fast, big-armed X-factor, thank you. Then I will put him back the moment the starter returns.
Randall Cobb, Packers: Steady. Cobb's injury prognosis went from "broken collarbone" to "minor sprain" in a matter of hours; Packers fans' hands stopped uncontrollably shaking sometime Sunday afternoon.
The Jordy Nelson Replacement Brigade had its moments against the Eagles: Ty Montgomery had a 52-yard catch, Jeff Janis had three receptions and a touchdown, Myles White was everywhere (nine catches) in extended garbage time. Aaron Rodgers will probably tell everyone to "Relax" again this week. That's easy for him to do while standing on the sideline drinking Gatorade and contemplating Olivia Munn snugglebunnies.
Kirk Cousins, Redskins: Rising. Cousins completed 20 of 27 passes! Including one to himself on a deflection! And a touchdown to Jamison Crowder that was intended for Andre Roberts! Also, Colt McCoy threw a pair of touchdowns in the second half, so the Redskins are totally fine at quarterback, just like last year!
Cousins can be counted on for one excellent start after Robert Griffin III gets injured, thrown in the dog house, injured while being thrown in the dog house, thrown in the doghouse due to a dispute over the extent of his injury or whatever new source of dysfunction the Redskins invent in their miscommunication-and-resentment R&D lab. Let's hope Saturday night wasn't that start.
"I know people want to make it out that we're incompetent, but we're not," Gruden said in his postgame press conference in response to the latest convoluted Griffin drama. No competent person in human history has ever had to make such a statement publicly.
Greg Olsen, Panthers: Rising. Here's the current passing game plan for the Panthers:
• First Read: Olsen.
• Second Read: Bounce a pass off Corey Brown's hands.
• Third Read: Maybe Olsen is open now…
• Fourth Read: Cam Newton either throws the ball five yards out of bounds or changes his mind midthrow and bounces the ball between two receivers. The play is likely called back for holding anyway. Also, the snap was high.
• Fifth Read: Wow, Jerricho Cotchery is still in the NFL!
Things may change a little when Devin Funchess returns, but not much. Olsen (six catches, 51 yards Friday night) may catch 90 passes this season. For 450 yards.
Aaron Donald and the Rams offense: Rising. Donald showed how the Rams plan to score points this season, at least until Todd Gurley arrives. He recorded three straight tackles or assists for a net minus-four yards while the Colts were pinned at their own end zone.
A punt put Nick Foles in striking distance for a one-play drive: a 44-yard pass to Chris Givens. Yes, Chris Givens is still in the NFL and still vaguely in the Rams plans. Anyway, Donald just needs to have three defensive series like that each game and the Rams will score enough points to reach the playoffs.
Surprise Onside Kicks are Surprising: The Colts surprised the Rams with an onside kick in the first quarter Saturday night, successfully ensuring that every opponent for the rest of the year will be on the lookout for the surprise onside kick.
(As Jeff Fisher pointed out in his Sunday press conference, there are lots of collisions during a surprise onside kick, so the Colts also increased their injury risk.) Of course, maybe Chuck Pagano wants them worried about the onside kick. It's never a good idea when we are invoking The Princess Bride Vizzini logic before Labor Day.
Everybody's Doing the Sideline Scuffle: Steve Smith and Chris Culliver were kicked out of the Redskins-Ravens game for fighting. Smith plans to act like Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino character for the rest of the preseason, so we will have to live with occasional fisticuffs.
Frank Clark tried to sucker-punch Philip Rivers, a bad idea because A) while Rivers is often cocky and smug, he is not a Jets quarterback, so you don't get any sympathy for sucker-punching him; B) Rivers also seems like the kind of guy who would wait with a big grin on his face to run you over in the parking lot; and C) King Dunlap was there to growl "I am Groot!" and wrap his branches around Clark.
There were too many shoving matches this weekend, and many of them started with a late hit out of bounds, followed by the ball-carrier getting up and escalating things, followed by the usual shoving and posturing, which looks bad, slows games down and sometimes leads to real fighting.
Late hits out of bounds and sucker-punches draw 15-yard penalties. If the guy who gets hit comes up slugging, the referees should be quick to call offsetting penalties and replay the down if it takes away a long gain (think Mark Ingram vs. John Simon in the Saints-Texans game); that will make coaches more serious about reminding guys to keep their cool.
The league frowns on players pulling opponents off piles, but if the quarterback is at the bottom of the pile, the officials should race in fast and announce their presence to prevent monkey business. In general, the NFL needs to crack down on the extracurriculars now before they mar the regular season, or someone gets hurt.
Preseason Man Crush of the Week: Cardinals tight end Ifeanyi Momah made a late bid for man crush honors Sunday night. During a two-minute drill to prevent the torture of preseason overtime, he dragged Raiders defenders for a first down, then bounced off a wicked hit in the open field, readjusted his helmet (which almost flew off) and rumbled to set up the winning touchdown.
But Man Crush of the Week honors were sewn up the moment AJ McCarron took the field.
There's no quarterback controversy in Cincinnati. Really! Everyone is just praising the daylights out of McCarron, former Alabama star and Heisman runner-up, for not just his accurate passes (he connected on both short and deep passes during a pair of impressive drives) but his "passion," "poise" and all those other intangibles that make backup quarterbacks so magical.
Nope, no controversy whatsoever, even though McCarron is a Proven Winner™ from his college days—while ole Andy Dalton curls up in a little ball in the playoffs. Yep, Dalton is the starter, even though there were reports that Bengals defenders were so enthralled by McCarron's passing exploits (for heaven's sake, he wasn't Brett Favre) that they could barely pay attention to their coaches on the sidelines.
Just as all romantic comedies start with the pretty girl and handsome fella swearing there is nothing between them, all quarterback controversies begin with vehement protests that there is absolutely no quarterback controversy.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.