Hear them roar. NFL Week 2 Recap

The Lions, led by Matthew Stafford, are making a case to be considered among the NFC’s contenders. Justifiable, or too early? Elsewhere, the Chargers, Eagles, and 49ers lose in disheartening fashion.

Week Two Headlines

Lions romp Chiefs
That roar you hear up north isn’t the resurgence of the American automobile companies. No, that roar is coming from the Detroit Lions. Two weeks into the 2011 NFL season the Lions have pundits using “playoffs” and “Lions” in the same sentence. After going into Tampa Bay and dismantling the up-and-coming Buccaneers, Detroit hosted the defending AFC West champion Kansas City Chiefs. It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t even ugly. It was 48-3, avert your eyes, hide the women and children, ugly. Offensively, Matthew Stafford could do just about whatever he pleased. Finally healthy (at least for now), Stafford is living up to his number one overall pick potential. Everything is rolling in Detroit. Still, I’m not ready to board the Lions bandwagon just yet. You see, the Lions can’t run the football effectively enough to slow down aggressively pass rushes like Green Bay, Philadelphia, or even Chicago. If teams are able to pin their ears back and attack Stafford, the Lion offense will stall. Defensively, I’m not sold on the secondary. While you can only beat the teams you play, neither the Buccaneers nor Chiefs have a vaunted aerial attack. The five major contenders in the NFC, however, do. I’m not by any means writing off the exciting Lions. But looking at their schedule (Packers twice, Cowboys, Falcons, Saints, Chargers), there are a number of teams that could easily keep pace with Detroit’s offense. I need more than two wins over the NFL’s middle class before I declare the Lions a legitimate force in the NFC.

Chargers lose to themselves, Patriots
It’d be an arduous task to find three teams as solid as the San Diego Chargers. Finding a team that shoots itself in the foot as much as San Diego would be near impossible. The Charger offense moved up and down the field at will against the Patriots on Sunday. Punting only once the entire afternoon (on their first possession), San Diego was 10/12 on 3rd down conversions, totaled 470 yards, and drove into New England territory on every possession except their last. Unfortunately, two empty trips to the red zone and four total turnovers, all within New England territory, sunk the Chargers.
The Chargers weren’t the only ones to beat the Chargers, though. The brilliant Tom Brady played a major role, throwing for over 400 yards while completing 31 of 40 attempts. More importantly, Brady’s offense committed zero turnovers to San Diego’s four. While I would love to argue the Chargers are the Patriots’ equals, it’s hard to ignore the extreme turnover differential. Good teams overcome turnovers while great teams just don’t turn it over. Had the Chargers, especially Philip Rivers, protected the football, it’s likely they fly back to the west coast undefeated. Instead, Norv Turner must explain passing on a field goal in a three point game and a defense that couldn’t get a much needed stop in the 4th quarter.

Eagles; New faces, same issues.
Let’s ignore the fact that Michael Vick was absent for the final 10+ minutes of Sunday night’s defeat meltdown, or that he transformed into Tony Romo for a brief stretch before and after halftime. The offense put up 31 points in 50 minutes and gave the Eagles a 10 point lead with about 10 minutes to play. It was the defense, just as it’s been the past four seasons, which cost the Eagles a victory. Adding Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers Cromartie were big moves. Both undoubtedly bolstered a secondary that struggled with injuries in 2010. Jason Babin and Cullen Jenkins strengthened an defensive line that often struggled to get after quarterbacks. But what about those three guys that line up between the defensive line and the secondary? Yeah, linebackers, that’s what they’re called. What about them? As we witnessed Sunday night, it’s the linebackers that make the Eagle defense vulnerable.

Look at Atlanta’s offensive production. Matt Ryan threw four touchdown passes. Only one went to a wide receiver. Two went to Tony Gonzalez (a tight end), the other to a fullback. Typically, who’s responsible for a tight end and fullback? That’d be the linebackers. Atlanta’s game-winning drive was set up by a 61 yard scamper by running back Michael Turner. Again, typically speaking, who’s responsible for preventing big runs? Yep. Linebackers. The Eagles have had the same defensive weaknesses since Jeremiah Trotter got old. You could argue the defensive line is responsible for stopping the run, and I’d agree. In fact, the Eagle defensive line handled that task quite well Sunday night. It was only when the Eagles needed run support from their linebackers that they got in trouble. The linebackers can’t stop a soul, let alone make an impactful play. What’s most discouraging is that this has plagued the Eagles for nearly half a decade.

Is it a fatal flaw? Well, to be honest, it depends. As we witnessed tonight, the Eagle offense puts pressure on opposing offenses. Even early in games, opposing teams feel the need to move the ball and score points to combat Vick and his arsenal of weapons. This of course plays into what the Eagle defense was built for – protecting leads and getting after the quarterback. The Falcons had success running the ball early and then abandoned it as the Eagle offense moved up and down the field. Even though the game was still close, Atlanta’s offensive philosophy changed due to the Eagle offense. It wasn’t until late in the 4th quarter that Atlanta got smart and returned to the run. Punishing the Eagles en route to the game’s decisive score.

The recipe for beating the Eagles is simple: Stay within striking distance, work the tight ends, and keep pounding that rock. There was a time, and Jim Johnson preached this ALL THE TIME, when the Eagle defense dictated the football game. Force the offense to do what we want, not the other way around. Unfortunately, those days are gone. Right now, Philadelphia’s defense is only as good as the lead Vick and the offense provide. Otherwise, they’re at the complete mercy of the opposing offense. And that won’t change until the middle of the Eagle defense transforms from soft underbelly to immovable force. That’s just the way it is.
More on the Eagles and Vick tomorrow.

AFC Chaos? Not quite.
While early, it’s not outrageous to assume the Chargers, Patriots, Jets, and by default, Texans, will still be competing come playoff time. Similarly, either the Steelers or Ravens will win the AFC North with a wildcard spot awarded to the second place finisher as a consolation. Did I just write off the Buffalo Bills, Tennessee Titans, Oakland Raiders, and the rest of the AFC? Unfortunately, yes I did. It’s hard to imagine any of the top five (Patriots, Chargers, Jets, Ravens, Steelers) falling so far they’d miss the playoffs. It’s even harder to imagine the Colts rallying or Jacksonville finding its way to win the AFC South. The Titans could possibly outlast the Texans, but my money is on Houston. I know my playoff forecast lacks suspense and ingenuity, but the AFC is quite predictable. After the five elite teams, the conference drops off. Even at 2-0, the Bills are hardly a threat to finish ahead of New England or New York. Sneaking into a wildcard spot would be nearly impossible considering Buffalo faces the deep NFC East in addition to four combined games against the Jets and Patriots. I know a lot will be made of Baltimore’s surprise loss to Tennessee, the surprising Bills, and San Diego’s defeat, but don’t listen. It’s just noise. The AFC, in all likelihood, is going to play out exactly how expected. The canyon between the “haves” and “have-nots” is just too vast.

Someone take them to Chick-fil-A (NFL’s top 5)

1. Packers – It wasn’t pretty, but a win is a win. Besides, who else belongs at number one?
2. Patriots – Tom Brady is unbelievably good. The defense? Not so much.
3. Saints – Their domination of the Bears was, for my money, the most impressive win of the week.
4. Jets – Clobbered a bad a team this week with a relentless defense. My current choice for best team everyone is ignoring.
5. Chargers – What? You didn’t think I’d put the Ravens, Falcons or Eagles here, did you?
(Last Week: GB, BAL, NO, NE, CHI)

Hardly Ramen Noodle worthy (NFL’s bottom 5)

28. No one – I can’t leave St. Louis here. I also don’t believe the Vikings and Panthers belong with these teams.
Dolphins – Clearly, Reggie Bush was not the answer to Miami’s offensive issues. The entire NFL community is shocked by this development.
30. Seahawks
– (Shaking my head.) 
Colts – Never has a team been so bothered by another team sucking worse than them.
32. Chiefs
– Two humiliating losses in two weeks. One touchdown. Next up: San Diego Chargers. Hello, three humiliating losses.
(Last Week: STL, TENN, SEA, KC, IND)

Stock rising (but not in top 5, yet)

Lions – Detroit’s greatest success since the Model T, Steve Yzerman, and Eminem.
Bills – It’s really a shame Buffalo is in the AFC East where they’ll be squashed by the Jets and Patriots. In the AFC South, the Bills would be division contenders.
Texans – Two rather uninspiring wins over two really bad teams. Saints are up next.

Stock falling (but not in bottom 5, yet)

Vikings – Source just told me Jared Allen is flying to Mississippi to meet with Brett Favre. Donovan McNabb is going, too.
Bears – Poor Jay Cutler spent way too much cozying up with the New Orleans turf, courtesy of the Saints defense. As I suspected and declared, the Chicago secondary can’t hang with the big boys.
Jaguars – Blaine Gabbert sighting. Blaine Gabbert sighting. Blaine Gabbert sighting.

Things I thought and would’ve said on TV if someone paid me…
  • Two weeks in and it looks like the Saints and Packers are in a class of their own in the NFC with the Falcons and Eagles an obvious notch below.
  • If Luke McKown wants to know why he threw 4 interceptions and finished with a quarterback rating of 1.8, he should thank his running back, Maurice Jones-Drew. Earlier in the week, MJD stated he believed McKown was a “Superbowl caliber” quarterback. Whoops.
  • The one sentence every Carolina Panther fan hopes to never, ever, ever hear again: “Derek Anderson warming up on the sidelines.”
  • Speaking of the Panthers, (sorry for all the Panther coverage, it’s hard not to watch Cam Newton), who’s calling their plays? I’m almost convinced they believe by having Newton take twice as many attempts as a normal rookie, they’re doubling the rate of his development. Despite throwing for over 400 yards again, I can’t imagine throwing 3 picks is good for the kid’s psyche. Carolina has got to figure out its running game. Which raises another question. Why extend DeAngelo Williams in the offseason for big money and only give him limited touches the first two weeks of the season? Is he banged up? Do they like Jonathan Stewart better, and if so, why’d they pay Williams? So many questions in Carolina. It makes sense why they prefer NASCAR.
  • Tony Romo’s performance was beyond gutsy. Dude could hardly breath without collapsing in pain. I don’t like any Dallas quarterback, but it’s hard not to appreciate Romo’s heart. The Cowboys needed a win more than any other team in week 2. Romo made sure they got it, even if it meant overcoming fractured ribs.
  • The hardest job of any new coach is eliminating a losing culture (assuming the new coach isn’t replacing a retiring coach or getting handed a contender a la Jim Caldwell). Take Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers. With a 14-0 lead and just over two minutes remaining in the 1st half, the 49ers held the Cowboys on 3rd and 9. Or so it appeared. San Francisco was offside, so Dallas got a second chance to convert on 3rd down. This time, Tony Romo connected with Miles Austin. Touchdown. Lead cut in half. Losing teams surrender those plays. Changing a culture requires time. Obviously, two weeks isn’t enough.
  • Worst game of the day: Arizona and Washington. The Redskins should have blown out the Cardinals and somehow flirted with losing in embarrassing fashion. Rex Grossman looked bad, the Redskins secondary got exposed, and I’ve officially forgotten that I picked the Cardinals to win the NFC West.
  • CBS Football is doing it right. Marv Albert and Kevin Harlan calling football games will make the NBA lockout a little more bearable. FOX, on the other hand, needs to do something about Jim Mora Jr. Whoof.
  • Andy Dalton of the Bengals: 27/41 332 yards, 2 TDs, 0 Int. What happened to bringing rookie quarterbacks along slowly? And aren’t they supposed to struggle? I guess they just don’t make them like they used to. Also, do the Denver Broncos know the season started yet? I feel someone should let them know.
  • The most exciting game of the day was undoubtedly Buffalo’s rally against Oakland. 0 combined touchdowns in the 1st quarter. 5 in the 4th quarter. It’s not how you start; it’s how you finish. The Bills aren’t a great team, but they’re certainly a fun team. Ryan Fitzpatrick appears unflappable. When trailing 21-3, he remained calm and ran the offense. Even after retaking the lead, and losing it, and retaking it, and losing it, he never panicked. On the game’s decisive drive, Fitzpatrick drove Buffalo 80 yards and converted twice on 4th down, including the game-winning touchdown. Through it all, Fitzpatrick looked, dare I say, comfortable.
  • Andy Reid’s Sunday night stats: 1 successful challenge, 1 colossal “Ryan Howard staring at strike three in the 2010 NLCS” missed challenge.
  • First Eric Berry. Now Jamaal Charles. Kansas City’s two best players, and two of the brightest young stars in the NFL, gone before October. I’m inventing pants that prevent cartilage tears. Let me know if you want in.
  • Kenny Britt is terrorizing opponents. Chris Johnson is not. One is making way too much money. You go ahead and guess which one.
  • I’m embarrassed I forgot this, but why is it that Baltimore overvalues every big win, especially against Pittsburgh? After a big win, the Ravens are a guaranteed “L” the following week. I need to remember this.
  • Did you watch a single minute of the Browns vs. Colts game? Me neither.
  • My brother claims I called him around halftime to brag about correctly calling the Buccaneers the “NFC Chiefs.” As far as I know, he can’t prove this. Whew. Check back Wednesday for what caused Minnesota’s collapse.
  • It’s hard to believe a team can commit zero turnovers and still lose 24-0. Seattle found a way. Do not underestimate the putridity of this team.
  • The Texans and Dolphins went a combined 2-9 in the red zone. I guess Miami fans were attending another of the Heat’s “summer title” parties because very few were at this game.
Things I never thought and would not say this week…
  • If a man said he’d shoot me unless an NFL receiver caught a football, I’d want that NFL player to be Jeremy Maclin. He never drops a pass.
  • Tony Romo was overreacting. Fractured ribs aren’t that bad.
  • How about that Steelers-Colts matchup next Sunday night? That should be a great game.
  • No NFL coach would keep 3 points over a fresh set of downs with more than 10 minutes left in the game. (Seriously, though, Jim Harbaugh’s QB is Alex Smith. It’s hard enough to get points. San Fran’s defense lost that game.)
  • At 34, it appears Tom Brady is on the downside of his career.
Fantasy Nightmare Football update of the week…
  • Special thanks to my running backs, Arian Foster and Mike Tolbert for contributing this week. The single point you each contributed was beyond kind. Maybe next week we can shoot for two?

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