Wednesday, September 28, 2011

NFL Week 3: what?

Note: nothing that I write has any effect on anything that actually happens. No, I'm not telling you this. I'm telling me this.

Yeah, so ... this happened. We need to know more about the Vikings to understand how much this means, but at worst, erasing a 20-point deficit on the road against a weak opponent is a good thing (although obviously going down 20 is not). If Minnesota is closer to 8-8 than 4-12, it'll look that much better. Yes, it's nice to be 3-0, but I remember 1980 and missing the playoffs. I also remember six straight wins, 12-4 in 1991 and getting clubbed in the NFC Championship, and seven straight wins to squeak into the 1995 playoffs and still lose in the first round. I'd take a playoff game in a heartbeat after the last decade, but the Lions' 3-0 is not like the Packers' 3-0.

Yet.

On to the games:
  • The Lions finally gave up a sack. Well, five of them, actually. They didn't turn the ball over, though, and they did come back from 20 points down, as you may have heard. Again, you can't project 3-0 into 15-1 or whatever, but 3-0 does mean that .500 ball puts you at 9-10 wins for the season, and that is close to playoff territory. Detroit now has a 1 in 4 chance to get the #1 seed in the NFC and a 7.8% chance to be playing right here in Indy in February. A lot can happen, of course, but woo! The Lions' ANY/A is 8.8, which is in the wow range, and their defense has been solid, second only to Tennessee so far. The Dallas game will be another test, like the Tampa Bay and Minnesota games combined: a tough team on the road in a very noisy environment. If they can pull off that win, they'll be undefeated and on national television for the first time since 1975, when they were 2-0 and lost to Dallas, 36-10. (Side note: in 2009 and 2010, the only four teams not to appear on Monday night were Detroit, St. Louis, Seattle, and Tampa Bay. The Lions' 9-year drought isn't the longest, either: the Bucs went 14 seasons without appearing, 1984-1997.)
  • The Vikings have some issues, don't they? The passing game is exactly what you'd expect with McNabb at the controls, the defense is slipping (the DL can only do so much), and at some point, teams will stop punting to Sherels. The lack of ability to adjust at halftime has to be a serious concern. Fortunately, Minnesota has a Super Bowl IV rematch coming up with Kansas City. (Uh, the Chiefs won that, so ...) Win that game and the Arizona game the next week, and things might be OK. Even though Kansas City nearly beat San Diego in San Diego, if the Chiefs win at home against the Vikings, especially if it's another blown halftime lead, people may start to wonder when there will be change in Minnesota.
  • So this Buffalo team is a lot like last year's team, isn't it? I mean, it isn't like there's a rift in time between 1991 and 2011, so that Jim Kelly and James Lofton and Thurman Thomas are actually playing again. (I hope not; while an NFC Championship appearance would be great, a beat-down would not be.) So what changed? Has anything changed? The Bills and Lions have one opponent in common – Kansas City – and that's not inconsequential. New England's pass defense is bad, but Oakland's isn't that bad. The Bills have Cincinnati next, but Philadelphia and the Giants after that. We'll know at the bye how much of this is real.
  • Is New England copying the Colts for a change? Focus on offense, forget the defense; if they stop the other team, great, but if not, it'll just take one more TD to win. Tom Brady's 625 YAR leads the league by a ton ... again, when defensive adjustments kick in, we'll have an idea as to how good that offense is, but the defense, well ... the return game with the Bills is New Year's Day.
  • San Francisco, ugh. I guess someone had to win, but ugh. Alex Smith has yet to show that Harbaugh's approach has been any more effective than all those before who tried and failed to make him an NFL-caliber QB. Take away those two return TDs in Week 1 and people are calling for Smith's head, but now they're leading the worst division in football.
  • How much of a difference can Andy Dalton make? I mean, Mike Brown still runs the team, right? The Bengals' defense does deserve some credit, though, and with Jacksonville and Indianapolis up on the schedule after the Bills' loss (you really think they'll stand a chance?), Cincinnati could be a respectable 3-3.
  • Apparently Jason Taylor said that Chad Henne is more talented than Mark Sanchez. (This is a surprise? Well, either: that Taylor said it or that he believes it.) The problem in Miami is primarily with respect to talent evaluation. I mean, Reggie Bush was rarely productive in New Orleans' offense ... so the Dolphins sign him ostensibly as a primary RB. Ha ha. Even so, the problem is more on the other side of the ball: it is a terrible time to have a weak pass defense (as this year's Chiefs and the Lions of 2008 and 2009 will tell you), and with Buffalo's resurgence, the Dolphins may end up buried in the East.
  • Cleveland has done just enough to win their last two games, but unlike Detroit and Buffalo, they don't have a quality win, and that loss to Cincinnati isn't getting any better. Still, the AFC North plays the NFC West and the AFC South this year, so Cleveland has a pretty favorable schedule coming up. If they can hold off Tennessee at home, they could look like a contender by December. Unfortunately, four of their last five are against Baltimore and Pittsburgh ... they could easily fall from 7-4 to 7-9.
  • Repeat after me: Kyle Orton is not the problem. For some reason, people think there are 50 NFL-caliber starting QBs around somewhere, and if their team would just drop the current loser and pick up a good one, everything would be fine. Almost without exception, these people are watching teams that have significant problems at other positions. Changing the QB does not make the pass defense better. (However, if you'd like to give Tim Tebow the start in week 8 against Detroit, that would be fine with me.)
  • The loss of Kenny Britt will hurt the Titans' offense, especially now that Chris Johnson is continuing his 2010 ways (whether it's defenses keying on him, the predictable letdown after a huge season, or both, only fools and Mrs. Johnson believe he's going to repeat 2009), but defense can make up for a lot of shortcomings. The Titans will still have to throw the ball effectively, though. Can Hasselbeck run the offense well when he's missing his best weapon? He'd better. If you thought defenses keyed on the run against Tennessee before ...
  • So the line on the Texans was that their offense would continue to roll and the defense would improve just enough to give them a shot at the playoffs. Instead of being neck-and-neck with the Colts, though (see what I did there?), they may end up holding off the Titans for the division. The defense has been pretty good, and their loss to New Orleans is understandable for a team with defensive issues. Baltimore and Oakland figure to test the defense as well, but it's hard to point out any other team on the schedule, even Pittsburgh, as a team that can push them similarly. Houston may end up in a really good position if they can split with or sweep the Titans.
  • New Orleans has faced Green Bay and Houston already, so of course the defense looks bad. But after Jacksonville, Carolina, Tampa Bay, Indianapolis, St. Louis, Tampa Bay again, and Atlanta, the very same defense will suddenly look pretty good. In reality, of course, it'll be in between. The December 4 game against Detroit could be very interesting: the Saints should be locking up the division by then, and Detroit might be playing meaningful games in December for the first time since 2000 ... when the Lions opened the season with a 14-10 win in New Orleans.
  • Those key injuries on defense are really holding the Giants back, aren't they? Never mind the Arizona and Seattle games coming up: New York will be tested when the Bills come to town. Losing Steve Smith to the Eagles has hurt the passing game, but as long as the running game can be a strong complement to Eli, the Giants should have a good shot at the playoffs. If Manning struggles, though, running yards will be harder to get, and we may finally see the impact of those early-season injuries.
  • It's amazing to me that in a sport with 53-man rosters, people assume that you can sign 5-10 guys and suddenly become so dominant that playing the games is an afterthought. Never mind that the Eagles are trying to make Vick a pocket passer; their acquisitions didn't really fix some of the problems Philadelphia has had for years, and those problems are already being exposed. No power running game means no easy TDs in the red zone, and Reid's reluctance to let Vick roll out means no option plays ... so why go for it on fourth down? Clock management is still an issue, play selection is still an issue ... and of course you can always call plays to take advantage of the Eagles' aggressive defense. In two weeks, the Eagles visit Buffalo, and that could be a challenge. It's not really a make-or-break game, though. With both Chicago and Atlanta struggling, and with the NFC West as bad as ever, the playoff picture is still pretty favorable, so there is still time to get this collection of FA talent to the postseason.
  • You can't blame Blaine Gabbert for anything that happened Sunday, because those conditions give you nothing to work with, but the Jaguars' offense is still pretty wretched. We'll never know exactly how bad David Garrard was in practice, nor if there were other issues that led to his release, but it's hard to see the value in releasing the veteran and assuming that Luke McCown would somehow be ready to run the team. Jacksonville got an NFL team based on smoke and mirrors, and it seems that's all that's left of the Jaguars. I don't see Del Rio around much longer, and I'm not sure the franchise can last much longer. It'll either move or fold; it's just not possible for that city to sustain a team.
  • Cam Newton's doing a pretty good job in Carolina so far, which is to say much better than some people (including me) thought he would do. His completion percentage is pretty low, but then he had 34 attempts in that Jacksonville game. Carolina's ANY/A is 7.3, which is middle-of-the-pack and thus a huge step up from last season. (2.9!!! Then again, that's Jacksonville's current ANY/A, and the league as a whole is up about 0.8 yards/attempt so far this season.) The Panthers should surely be better than last season, but their last 7 games could be brutal: they include games at Detroit, Houston, and New Orleans, plus a home game with Atlanta and both of their games with Tampa Bay. 
  • Speaking of overrated players from USC, it'd be something if the Jets had a good QB, wouldn't it? FO pointed out that Sanchez had excellent luck avoiding interceptions last season (15 dropped interceptions, most in the league), and even so, the Jets' ANY/A was 5.4, behind teams like the 49ers and Lions. His completion percentage was 54.8%, worse than everyone except Carolina and Arizona, teams that frankly didn't have a QB then and did something specific in the offseason to fix it. Sanchez is that something in New York, or at least he's supposed to be. If you look at his similarity scores, you see some good possibilities (young Brees, young Elway, young Eli) and some horrifying ones (Tony Banks, Chris Miller, Dave Brown). The Jets' defense is going to have to be outstanding this season to overcome all of Sanchez' flaws, or else he's going to have to suddenly become Drew Brees Jr.
  • Hey, it might not have been Jason Campbell in Washington after all! Don't tell Al Davis (no, I mean that literally – don't), but the Raiders are on a roll. Sure, they lost to Buffalo, but look at the Bills now! Ignore that the Raiders face the AFC East and NFC North; focus on their productive running game. Once we figure out how good the Jets are, we can get a better idea of how much Oakland has improved in the air; we're past the point where you can build a team with only a ground game, so they'll have to complement McFadden and company with some good passing.
  • I don't know which is the real Ravens team, the one that whacked Pittsburgh and St. Louis or the one that stumbled against Tennessee. Baltimore does have three more games against the NFC West, but then that doesn't help them within the division, and the loss to Tennessee could be a problem if the Steelers beat the Titans later this season. Baltimore should hammer the Jets this week, but wait until after the bye: if they can handle Matt Schaub and the Texans, then ignore Week 2 as an anomaly.
  • St. Louis has to be in the worst position you can imagine. They've got a good shot at picking #1 again next year, and there's no way they can draft Andrew Luck. (There should, at least, be some takers if they want to trade down. No way were people trading into the top spot prior to the new CBA.) With no Amendola, no healthy Jackson, and no improvement on defense, the Rams look to sink to the bottom of a bad division yet again. 
  • Kansas City needed that win against the Chargers. They aren't going to get many opportunities this season. The Chiefs' defense may not be as bad as it looks, even without Eric Berry, because Buffalo and Detroit may just have improved that much. With Minnesota and Indianapolis up next, we'll learn for sure: if the Chiefs can't stop those teams, they won't be able to stop anyone.
  • The Packers are another team in the Indianapolis mold: the offense can outscore most teams, but if they run into problems, it could get ugly. Green Bay gets a break by not facing Detroit until Thanksgiving, so they may see Shaun Hill instead of Stafford. (Of course, it was Drew Stanton who led the Lions past the Packers in Detroit last season, so maybe it's Rodgers who's the key.) The pass defense is 22nd in VOA, and I doubt either Carolina or Chicago is going to improve it that much. (Obviously the Saints can still move the ball.) Still, a healthy team could do some damage that last year's team couldn't during the regular season, and obviously we know how the playoffs went.
  • Chicago's offensive line is 30th in Adjusted Sack Rate, 32nd in Adjusted Line Yards and in percentage of plays stuffed at or behind the line. In their next six games, they play Detroit twice and Minnesota and Philadelphia once each. All are in the top 10 in ASR and Stuffed %, and their division opponents are also top 10 in ALY. If the Bears don't change some things quickly, Cutler isn't going to finish the season, and then the insane people asking for Caleb Hanie will get their wish in spades.
  • I don't have much to say about Arizona or Seattle. Kolb has been a great improvement, but then QB Cardinals was terrible last season. Seattle's upset of New Orleans may be a franchise highlight for years; Pete Carroll may wish that would be his legacy rather than what is happening in Seattle. (Tarvaris Jackson?)
  • So Matt Ryan has been regressing since his rookie season, from 7.0 ANY/A in 2008 to 5.0 so far this season. This wouldn't be a big deal, except that Atlanta is in the toughest division in the NFC, the East is still 2-3 teams deep, and Detroit's resurgence is making up for Chicago and Minnesota sinking. There is no guarantee that there will be a wild-card spot for the team that doesn't win the South, and the Falcons have yet to show that they can. The win over Philadelphia was big, and this was possibly a tough opening stretch (if the Bears really are contenders), but the loss at Chicago looks worse now that the Bears have done poorly against Green Bay and New Orleans. 
  • As for the Bucs, well, they should be 4-1 going into their Week 6 game against New Orleans. That opening loss to Detroit looks better every week, and the win at Minnesota may prove to be big if Tampa Bay continues to hang with the Saints and Falcons. Josh Freeman is completing a lot of passes (nearly 70%), but not really getting anywhere with them. At some point, he's going to have to be able to move the team quickly downfield when the Bucs aren't trailing.
  • Pittsburgh is probably the second-least impressive team in the NFL behind San Francisco. They nearly lost to a Colts team that has just a defensive line, and the one quality team they played beat them to a pulp. They have injuries beyond injuries on the offensive line, and that's something no team can cope with. You can't just grab an OL via waivers or free agency or whatever like you can a WR or a RB, so as the Steelers finish their four-week tour of the AFC South, they may lose a game or two strictly because of those injuries. Really, though, aside from that Houston game, they have New England and Baltimore back-to-back, and that's really it. Pittsburgh could win 11-12 games and still be struggling.
  • Yeah, Kerry Collins hasn't picked up where Peyton left off, but he was just getting to the point where he was starting to feel comfortable in the Colts' offense. Remember, Peyton struggled when he returned from knee surgery, and he practically designed this offense. The idea that the Colts could pick up some other QB and do better is absurd. If this were a simpler offense, then maybe they could get QB-off-the-street, but really, can you say with a straight face that David Garrard would do better than Collins? He was cut for being unable to run Jacksonville's offense against the Jaguars' defense. (Of course, the Colts may have to sign someone anyway if Collins has post-concussion symptoms.) The Colts' defense has done a great job holding on as best they could, and the OL has done a surprisingly good job, but the special teams have been terrible. What the Colts really needed was for Polian to draft someone other than Curtis Painter, someone who showed NFL potential in college. The guy who's watched the offense for years is the guy who should be able to step in and run it. I think Jim Sorgi gave Colts fans that feeling; Painter only does because he isn't the guy under center right now. (Indianapolis, welcome back to the NFL. This is a quarterback controversy.)
  • Hmm, maybe Rex Grossman wasn't the answer after all. Washington's 2-1, sure, and the win over the Giants was big, but they nearly lost to Arizona, and it doesn't look like they ever moved the ball consistently against Dallas. If the offense struggles, the defense will eventually give way. (Insert DeAngelo Hall joke here.) Worse yet, Dan Snyder will wake up and remember that he likes to meddle in things he doesn't understand. 
  • Tony Romo is not the problem. He looks like the problem because his mistakes come at bad times, but he also makes great plays, and anyway, the alternative is not a QB similar to Romo but without the mistakes, but a 39-year-old guy who has had a higher interception percentage and sack rate and a lower ANY/A than Romo in the same offense. The Cowboys need some kind of production from their backs so that Romo isn't having to pull miracles out of a hat, and they need better performance on special teams. They have an interesting matchup in Detroit: if the Cowboys lose this one at home, expect the calls for a change at QB to increase in volume, no matter how silly it would be.
Remember, you can't extrapolate, but you do get credit for performance. Throwing for 1000 yards doesn't mean you'll throw for 5333, but starting off 0-3 does mean you'll have to improve a lot to get to .500, and starting off 3-0 means you're that much closer to a playoff spot.

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