Even with blanket coverage of NFL, 3-1 Vikes a shock; more Snaps
Even in a world that dissects the NFL's minutiae, the 3-1 Vikings are a big surprise
The Packers saved their season, while nothing continues to go right for the Saints
No change of guard in AFC East: Pats are still dominant, Bills still fold in spotlight
PHILADELPHIA -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we digest Week 4 in the NFL ...
The beauty of the NFL has long been that despite Roger Goodell's fiefdom being the most obsessively covered, followed and scrutinized sports league in American history, it still has the capacity to shock and surprise us. And not just in that upset of the week, any-given-Sunday sense. We're talking a surprise, writ large.
We all seem to spend about half of the NFL offseason these days trying to identify this year's turnaround team, dissecting every clue to discern who will come out of "nowhere'' to take the league by storm in the fall. But if anybody had the Minnesota Vikings as their worst-to-first, turnaround-team this spring and summer, I missed it. Buffalo was a chic choice. Kansas City, Carolina and even Tampa Bay had their backers as well. The Vikings? Not in the supposedly stacked division they reside in.
I wrote the Vikings preview for Sports Illustrated's NFL preview issue this year, and I came away from my visit to Minnesota's training camp in Mankato believing Leslie Frazier's team would be better this season and second-year quarterback Christian Ponder was significantly improved. But that still added up to 6-10 material and last place in the NFC North to me. No way did I assess the Vikings' talent and foresee them matching their entire 2011 win total by the end of September, or imagine they could grab sole possession of first place in their division in Week 4, at least pending the outcome of Chicago at Dallas on Monday night.
But that's exactly the lofty position Minnesota finds itself in the wake of a 20-13 win in Detroit on Sunday, the Vikings' third win in four tries this season and its first NFC North victory after 11 consecutive division losses, dating to Week 3 of 2010. After watching Minnesota dismantle a second straight 2011 NFC playoff qualifier in two weeks, it's time we admitted we didn't anticipate this Vikings' resurgence. But they're a well-executing team and playing solid football week in and week out, and there's nothing fluky about the way they're getting the job done.
Yes, the Vikings got touchdowns on both a kickoff return (Percy Harvin, 105 yards, the longest play in franchise history) and a punt return (Marcus Sherels, 77 yards) against the Lions, but strong special teams are usually a big part of the equation for winning teams, and Minnesota is using that part of the roster to great success. Rookie kicker Blair Walsh kicked two more field goals in Detroit (49, 27 yards), and has now nailed nine of his first 10 attempts in the NFL, including a 38-yard overtime game winner in Week 1 against Jacksonville.
Last week, when Minnesota upset previously undefeated San Francisco in the Metrodome, the story seemingly was more about the mighty 49ers losing than the Vikings winning. But we won't make that mistake again. Minnesota deserves to be taken seriously, and the Vikings are playing as if to demand it. With a home game next week against struggling Tennessee, Minnesota has a 4-1 start within its reach.
Ponder wasn't spectacular against the Lions by any stretch, throwing for just 111 yards and no touchdowns. But he's taking superb care of the football (no interceptions for a fourth consecutive game) and was greatly helped out Sunday by the 102-yard rushing performance turned in by star running back Adrian Peterson, who posted his first triple-digit showing since Week 7 of 2011. With a revitalized Vikings defense that hits hard, runs to the ball all day, and doesn't give up big plays, Minnesota has a winning formula that could carry it a long way in 2012.
Even if next to no one saw them coming, these Vikings aren't going away.
The Vikings, of course, don't have the Turnaround Team title to themselves this season. Not with the Cardinals starting 4-0, even if it took that 24-21 near-death experience in overtime against the visiting Dolphins to stay perfect. In reality, Arizona should be encouraged that it played something less than its A game and still won, a description that fits for quarterback Kevin Kolb's performance as well. Kolb (eight sacks taken) was better later than he was early, and his game-tying touchdown drive at the end of regulation -- complete with a 15-yard touchdown pass to receiver Andre Roberts on 4th-and-10 with 22 seconds to go -- should serve to build his confidence.
But Arizona's defense is better than it looked against the Dolphins. Way better. Miami led 13-0 at the half, and Dolphins rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill carved up the Cardinals for 431 yards passing. Tannehill connected a whopping 12 times with Brian Hartline for a franchise-receiving-record 253 yards and a touchdown. The Dolphins are playing very competitively each week, but finding new and imaginative ways to lose.
What is it about the Packers that seems to bring out the controversy in the league's officials -- replacement or otherwise? Green Bay was on the wrong side of another couple of questionable calls in its 28-27 season-saving win over New Orleans, and Mike McCarthy's head just might explode if the trend continues.
Saints receiver Marques Colston got away with an obvious offensive pass interference on his 20-yard, first-quarter touchdown reception, and in the fourth quarter, an obvious fumble by Darren Sproles on a kickoff return was negated when the officials erroneously ruled Sproles was down before the fumble. The Packers survived both mistakes, but referee Jeff Triplette and his crew did not have a strong first game back after the end of the three-month lockout.
As for the Saints, their lost year continued with the loss at Lambeau Field, and the fates are only growing more cruel by the week in New Orleans. This week's dagger was having Garrett Hartley's 43-yard, potential game-winning field goal wiped out by a holding penalty inside of three minutes. Hartley wound up re-attempting the kick from 48 yards (after a Packers offsides flag) and missed wide left, naturally.
I say naturally not because Hartley isn't capable of making that kick. He is. But whatever it takes to lose is what the 0-4 Saints have produced in 2012, and with every passing week the playoffs become more and more of a pipe dream.
Fear not, Patriots Nation. Your heroes may win the AFC East by default this season. Down 21-7 on the road in the third quarter at Buffalo on Sunday, New England decided it didn't want to be 1-3 and in last place in the division, with its first three-game losing streak since 2002. So the Patriots poured it on the shell-shocked Bills, scoring the game's next 35 points, all in a span of 14 minutes or so, ultimately burying Buffalo 52-28.
So much for that changing of the guard in the AFC East storyline we were all waiting to pounce on when the Bills were up 21-7 and rolling. The Patriots, Bills and Jets are all tied at 2-2 in the AFC East, but how come it feels like only New England is in first place?
Maybe because the Jets are a mess and the Bills are about to head for back-to-back games at San Francisco and Arizona, meaning they could be 2-4 and fading, with a three-game losing streak, by the time they return home against Tennessee in Week 7.
As for New England, what an embarrassment of riches on offense. Who knew the Patriots could dominate with their running game (247 yards), while losing little if anything from their Tom Brady-led passing game? The Josh McDaniels-coordinated offense managed an accomplishment that has been done only once before in NFL history: Two 100-yard rushers and two 100-yard receivers in the same game. Only the 2008 Packers were in that club before Sunday.
The Patriots got 137 yards rushing and a touchdown from Brandon Bolden and 106 yards and two scores from Stevan Ridley, with Wes Welker (9 catches for 129 yards) and Rob Gronkowski (5 for 104 and a touchdown) both hitting triple digits as well. Apparently any and all concerns about the state of New England's offense this season were unfounded and way premature.
It must sound like an echo of the past frustration-filled 13 years, but the Bills once again came up very small in a big-game setting. Staring victory in the face, up 14 point in the second half, Buffalo disintegrated, giving up 45 of the game's final 52 points in the embarrassment against New England.
The Bills just can't stand prosperity, or pressure. Winners of two in a row entering Week 4, they could have delivered a massive blow to the Patriots with the upset, taking over sole possession of first place in the AFC East in the process. But instead it's Chan Gailey's team that is once again reeling.
Buffalo's much-ballyhooed defensive line did little to stop the bleeding, having plenty to do with the Patriots rushing for that impressive 247 yards. It was smashmouth football the likes of which we've rarely seen New England excel at.
On offense, the Bills were a mistake waiting to happen, with six turnovers, including four interceptions by quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, and crucial fumbles by running backs C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson, the former coming late in the first half when Buffalo was about to score and take a commanding 21-7 lead.
So it's back to the drawing board in Buffalo, as Bills fans question whether their favorite team will ever manage to handle the burden and expectations of playing on a statement-game stage.
With Percy Harvin producing his fifth career return touchdown in the first month of his fourth NFL season, is it possible Chicago's Devin Hester isn't even the most dangerous return threat in the NFC North any more? In this what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league, I'd take the younger Harvin over the more accomplished Hester at the moment.
What a train wreck the Lions special teams coverage units have become. Detroit has now given up touchdowns on a kickoff and punt return in consecutive games (see last week's 44-41 overtime thriller at Tennessee), and that makes them the first team to manage that dubious feat since at least 1940, according to STATS LLC.
The Lions just don't have the mojo this year, do they? Detroit has lost three in a row to fall into undisputed possession of last place in the NFC North, and that's a longer skid than the Lions had at any point during their playoff season of 2011. The big-play factor seems to be missing from the Detroit offense, and I saw both Calvin Johnson and tight end Brandon Pettigrew drop passes that could have swung the Vikings game in a different direction.
Since starting last season 5-0 and jumping out to that turnaround team status in 2011, the Lions have lost 10 of 16 games including the playoffs. That's a whole season (6-10) of losing football, and it leads you to believe the aberration was early last year, and not everything that has come since.
This might be the Year of the Falcon, because whatever Atlanta seems to need, it gets. Carolina looked poised to beat the Birds on Sunday in the Georgia Dome and really make a race of it in the NFC South. But it didn't happen, largely because Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan was able to heave up a 59-yard bomb to receiver Roddy White from his own end zone with less than a minute to go, setting up Matt Bryant's eventual game-winning 40-yard field goal in the 30-28 Falcons win. The play started with Atlanta at its 1-yard line, and just 59 seconds remaining.
But no matter. Whatever it takes to win, that's what the Falcons do. At 4-0, with a three-game lead on the rest of the division, the Falcons may already have won the division in the season's opening month. Ultimately, of course, nothing really matters this year in Atlanta but getting a playoff win or two for Ryan and head coach Mike Smith, but the Falcons are clearly the class of the NFC through Week 4.
Speaking of Ryan and White's big hook-up, teams have been playing some pretty shoddy defense in the final two minutes of games this year. Jacksonville's Blaine Gabbert burned both Minnesota and Indianapolis with late and long go-ahead touchdowns passes, Seattle came back against Green Bay on Monday night courtesy of a long completion (and a little help from the officials), and there was that successful Hail Mary that Detroit executed to force overtime last week at Tennessee. In addition, teams with strong defensive reputations, such as Pittsburgh and Baltimore, have let opponents march to game-winning points late in the fourth quarter this season.
Prevent defense, anyone? Or is that the problem?
If we were worried about Cam Newton's mood swings after last week's blowout loss at home to the Giants, how low might he go this week after his crucial fumble on a late-game run wound up paving the way for Atlanta's comeback win? Newton looked like he had all but salted the game away by picking up a first down on a run to the Falcons 44 with just under two minutes to go, but he fumbled on the play, and even though Carolina recovered, the new spot was short of a first down. The Panthers had to punt, and the Falcons ended up getting the three points that made the difference between winning and losing.
Before his fumble, Newton had a great bounce-back game after the debacle and ensuing pouting fit against the Giants. He finished 15 of 24 for 215 yards, with two touchdowns and no picks, with a career-best 86 yards and a touchdown on nine runs. But it's the fumble that he'll likely remember from this game, and the loss might have dug his 1-3 Panthers a hole that will take a while for them to extricate themselves.
It was another impressive day for the Youngstown 49ers, who probably should consider training in Ohio every week at this point, as they did last week. San Francisco started slowly in the first half at the Jets, but then buried New York with 24 second-half points in a 34-0 win.
I can't say I'm too surprised by the degree of domination the 49ers showed, because the Jets offense is virtually punchless at this point, and I thought San Francisco would respond in a big way after last week's uninspired performance at Minnesota. Jim Harbaugh knows how to get his team's attention after a loss, and it showed once again.
Here's the best news for 49ers fans: A three-game homestand is on tap. The Bills, Giants and Seahawks come to Candlestick in Weeks 5-7, which should put San Francisco in pretty good shape heading into a potential first-place showdown at Arizona in Week 8.
Where exactly do the Jets go from here? Now receiver Santonio Holmes is hurt, suffering a potentially serious foot injury despite no contact, and New York's offense grows weaker still. The reality is the Jets offense has no identity, and there's nothing it does particularly well.
You can't blame this whole mess on the Tim Tebow acquisition, but it hasn't helped New York find its groove on offense to have to grapple with how best to use No. 15. Mark Sanchez is playing poorly again (13 of 29 for 103 yards, one interception and one fumble), but it won't help New York to make a change there, because nobody's going to look too good playing quarterback for these Jets.
Had to love the 49ers tweaking the Jets by using so much of Colin Kaepernick as their backup quarterback/option package weapon, to great effect. Kind of like the Jets were hoping to do with Tebow. Kaepernick ran for a seven-yard touchdown in the first quarter, and finished with five carries for 50 yards, plus an incompletion on a bomb attempt to Randy Moss.
Tebow was again a non-factor, rushing twice for zero yards, and attempting one pass -- his first of the season. He completed it, for nine yards, but Jets tight end Dedrick Epps was hit and fumbled on the play, and also hurt a knee in the process. Not the way the master plan was supposed to go in Gotham this season.
The Redskins beat Tampa Bay, but only after overcoming their bizarre Three Stooges act in the pregame warmups. Receiver Aldrick Robinson and safety Brandon Meriweather were both inactive against the Bucs after Robinson bent over to pick up a football and Meriweather's left knee hit him in the head as Robinson was getting up. Meriweather was expected to return Sunday and see his first regular season action of the year after a preseason left knee injury.
That 37-6 Broncos rout of Oakland should tamp down any concerns about Peyton Manning's throwing arm after consecutive losses to Atlanta and Houston. Manning dissected the Raiders defense, completing 30 of 38 for 338 yards and three touchdowns. Denver really needed the win, because with trips to New England and San Diego just ahead, John Fox's team couldn't afford to hit the road at 1-3, two games behind first-place San Diego (3-1) in the AFC West.
As for the Raiders, whatever momentum they had coming out of last week's upset of visiting Pittsburgh just evaporated post haste. The season's only a month old, but I don't think anybody believes the AFC West will come down to anyone but the Chargers and Broncos. The Chiefs and Raiders look like clear-cut also-rans.
Russell Wilson has been one of the most talked about rookies in the league this season, but the Seattle quarterback didn't deserve the hype on Sunday in St. Louis. Rams rookie kicker Greg Zuerlein did, and then some. Zuerlein kicked four field goals in the 19-13 St. Louis win over the Seahawks, including twice breaking the club record with long-distance boots of 58 and 60 yards. Zuerlein has now started his NFL career by going 12 of 12, and he doesn't even look capable of leaving a field goal attempt short.
The NFC West continues to be the most improved division in the league. All four teams are now at .500 or better, and no division has more wins than the 11 the NFC West has hung up.
Fraud alert: The Chiefs only wish they could play the Saints every week. Kansas City had a great opportunity to get its season back on track at home Sunday against San Diego, climbing back into the AFC West race with a win, but Romeo Crennel's team didn't even show up in the 37-20 loss.
The Chiefs committed six turnovers overall, fell behind 17-0 in the first quarter, and looked like a team committed to being its own worst enemy. A lot of the blame is going to be dumped on quarterback Matt Cassel, who threw three picks and was largely ineffective, but there should be plenty of accountability to go around in K.C. Running back Jamaal Charles was a stud last week in the win over the Saints, but his two fumbles helped doom the Chiefs in a game that could have actually left them tied for first place in the division.