There are no unbeaten teams in the NFL, but three teams are sitting at 4–1. Of course, all 4–1 records are not created equal. In the AFC, the Ravens look like the Super Bowl favorites. As usual, Ray Lewis & Co. are stifling opposing offenses and zealously guarding the end zone, allowing only 14.4 points and 156.6 passing yards per game. Running back Ray Rice broke out of his mini-slump yesterday with 133 yards and two touchdowns in a 31–17 win over Denver, and Joe Flacco has thrown one interception in his last 12 quarters of football. In the NFC, the Falcons are riding a four-game winning streak and are an overtime loss to the Steelers away from being undefeated, thanks to a stout defense and the offensive one-two-three punch of Matt Ryan, Michael Turner and Roddy White. And then there are the Bears, an ugly 4–1 that only a mother could love. In the last two weeks, the Bears have turned the ball over seven times and surrendered 13 sacks. Yesterday, creaky 38-year-old Todd Collins stepped in for a concussed Jay Cutler and had possibly the worst day an NFL quarterback has ever had — 6-of-16, 32 yards, four interceptions, a passer rating of 6.2, the fourth game since the merger in which a QB has thrown four interceptions and averaged two or fewer yards per attempt. But the Bears are doing something right — namely, they’re forcing turnovers, 14 of them through five games. I’ve been tempted to dismiss the Bears, but I’d be doing so at my own peril. Lovie Smith has nine NFL lives, and he apparently hasn’t used them all just yet.
Save Us, Bill Cowher
Carolina Panther fans are casting a longing glance toward the NFL Today studio set, where Raleigh resident and possible franchise savior Bill Cowher shares his insight with millions of fans while he could be leading his home-state team out of the football wilderness. Cowher-to-Carolina is probably a long-shot scenario, but changes are clearly on the horizon in Charlotte. The Panthers are the worst of the three remaining winless teams. They’ve already been outscored by 58 points on the young season, they’re playing a rookie quarterback (Jimmy Clausen) who threw for 61 yards and an interception against the Bears, they suddenly can’t even run the ball, they’ve implemented a cost-cutting youth movement — in other words, the decks are cleared for a new regime to save this beleaguered franchise. It may not be Cowher, but the Panthers’ next hire had better be a home run.
Parity’s Poster Children
There’s a four-way tie for first in the AFC South. Or, if you prefer, a four-way tie for last. This quartet of enigmatic teams — alternately potent and inconsistent — is set to wage a season-long battle for supremacy. The AFC South is the poster child for this season of parity. It may not be the most talented division, but it’s the NFL’s most competitive foursome, thanks in part to the fact that the Colts have clearly retreated to the pack. Despite yesterday’s 19–9 win over the previously unbeaten Chiefs, the Colts are not what they’ve been in recent seasons. They already have division losses to the Jags and Texans on their ledger, and their characteristic struggles in the run game — they rank 28th in the league at 79.8 ypg — could finally prove their undoing over the long, difficult march to the finish line. The Jags and Texans are 3–2 despite having been outscored by their opponents, while the Titans have mixed flashes of brilliance with stretches of offensive futility. The season-long sorting-out process, which takes an important turn with Tennessee’s Monday visit to Jacksonville, should be fun.
Mistakes Doom the Chargers
On paper, the San Diego Chargers have everything — talent at every position, playmakers all over the roster, a strong-willed veteran leader at quarterback. They should be dominating their division, as they have done for the last few years. But something is clearly missing, and yesterday’s 35–27 loss to the Raiders, a team that the Chargers had beaten 13 straight times, revealed some shocking weaknesses. The obvious culprit is special teams; the Chargers have allowed four special teams touchdowns in their three losses, including yesterday’s disgraceful showing in which the Raiders blocked two punts, turning one into a touchdown and the other into a safety. Another issue is ball security; the Chargers have coughed it up 13 times in five games, including three turnovers against the Raiders — one of which, a Philip Rivers fumble, turned into a Tyvon Branch clinching touchdown. But let’s face facts. A fish rots from the head down, and the blame for San Diego’s start lies with Norv Turner. There’s still time for the Chargers to come back and win a shaky division, but if they don’t, it may be time for a fresh start.
The Niners Could Still Win Their Division
That’s not just me saying that; the 49ers owner, Jed York, came strong with a Namath-style guarantee. “We’re going to win the division,” he texted to ESPN Monday morning. Sounds crazy, but it’s not. This division is a bad joke; the 3–2 Cardinals, who sit atop the standings, have been outscored by their opponents by 50 points. St. Louis is coming off a 44–6 pasting at the hands of the winless Lions. Those same Rams had their way with the Seahawks the week prior. The Niners have five more games against this motley assortment of also-rans, and they also play Oakland, Denver, Tampa Bay and winless Carolina. Are you ready for a 7–9 division champion? Could happen.
1. Who will make a bigger impact on their new team, the Vikings' Randy Moss or the Seahawks' Marshawn Lynch?
Braden: Marshawn Lynch will be involved more heavily in the offense and will likely touch the football more than Moss. That trade might have also pushed Seattle to the top of that very poor division and into the playoffs. However, the Vikings are in desperate need of a deep threat, and if Moss plays hard (which is a total crap shoot at times), then Minnesota returns as the favorite in the brutal NFC North. The worst thing that could happen to the rest of the NFC is a angry, motivated, oh-woe-is-me Randy Moss.
Nathan: Randy Moss has the chance to push the Vikings over the top as a Super Bowl contender. Marshawn Lynch could make the Seahawks’ running game respectable. Now, for the long term, Lynch gives Seattle a feature back of the future, while Moss could go one-and-done in Minnesota and bolt as a free agent. Randy’s all about straight cash, homey.
Steven: With Sidney Rice sidelined and Bernard Berrian invisible in the stat column, Randy Moss will have a bigger impact on his team. Moss should take some of the pressure off of Percy Harvin and tight end Visanthe Shiancoe, while giving Brett Favre another downfield threat. The Vikings desperately needed help in the receiving corps, and Moss appears to be the perfect answer — provided he doesn't get disgruntled over a game with two catches or Favre missing him on a deep pass. Lynch was a good pickup for Seattle, but the offensive line is a question mark and I'm not sure acquiring Lynch is enough to move the Seahawks from a potential 8-8 team to one that can make a deep playoff run.
2. Is Sam Bradford the best quarterback in the NFC West?
Braden: It depends on what side of the bed Alex Smith wakes up on. Some drives he looks like Joe Montana (see the final drive of the Saints MNF game). And other times he looks like an inebriated Jim Druckenmiller. Matt Hasselbeck has led a team to the Super Bowl — yet, cannot finish an entire season healthy. As a future prospect, the answer is no question Bradford is the best of the bunch. But I might still take one of the vets if I needed to get a win today.
Nathan: Sam Bradford is playing the best right now, but his competition is pretty weak. I worry about the rookie’s durability after watching him crash and burn in Oklahoma’s biggest games — BYU and Texas — last season. If I had my choice of NFC West quarterback corps, I’d take the Seahawks’ Matt Hasselbeck and Charlie Whitehurst duo. But, to answer the question, Bradford is currently the best in the NFC Worst.
Steven: No question - Bradford is the best quarterback in the NFC West and should be that way for the foreseeable future. Alex Smith shows flashes for San Francisco, but never seems to put it all together. Arizona's quarterback situation is a mess, although Max Hall has some promise. Seattle's Matt Hasselbeck has posted some good seasons in his career, but at 35, his best days are probably behind him.
3. Over the last two years, Kansas City (OC), San Francisco (OC), Buffalo (OC) and Miami (Special Teams) have made major coaching moves before Week 5 of the season. Are these knee-jerk reactions a good trend for the league?
Braden: My personal theory on firing coaches has two parts. (1) Don't operate in a vacuum. Don't fire someone just to fire him. Have a plan in place. (2) If, as an organization, you have decided he is not the answer to lead the team into the future, then there is no reason to wait. This apparent paradox is what makes these decisions so incredibly difficult — and why "they" make so much money to make them. I always lean towards the conservative end of the firing spectrum. Jeff Fisher and Bill Cowher had some tough years but the front offices stood by them and they returned their teams to prominence. Remember, someone fired Bill Belichick, Tony Dungy, Tom Coughlin and Pete Carroll once and we all know how that worked out.
Nathan: It’s better to cut out the cancer as soon as it’s found rather than let it spread throughout the team — in the form of bad habits developing or, worse, a loser mentality forming. And “knee jerk reaction” might be too strong. Head coaches have spent countless hours game-planning and usually are close personally and professionally with each member of the staff. While we all assume one particularly bad outing results in a firing, usually those moves have been in the works for quite some time.
Steven: After Monday night's debacle against New England, it was no surprise Miami fired its special teams coach and the same holds true with what happened in San Francisco after a slow start. Unfortunately, somebody has to be the fall guy. When something isn't right, outside of a depth chart change, coaching moves are usually the first thing you see when a team is looking for a spark. It's hard to know what was going on inside of each situation for each coach to get fired, but obviously it wasn't working. I think you exercise more patience with head coaches, but coordinators should have a quicker hook. Head coaches in the NFL don't have five years to produce a winner, so we will continue to see changes like this occur, especially at the coordinator spots.
Revis, Jets top the NFL's toughest division.
4. What is the best division in football?
Braden: The Football Bowl Subdivision. Wait, we are talking NFL. In that case, I narrowed it down to the AFC East and the AFC South. Each division has a Super Bowl-caliber team (NYJ, IND) and each division has another team among the favorites for a Wild Card berth (NE, HOU with PIT). Each division also has an above-average squad that has a strong shot at slipping into the playoffs (MIA, TEN). Jacksonville is clearly a better team than Buffalo, but I feel that the edge goes the way of the AFC East in each of the other three matchups. All that said, once Matt Stafford returns for Detroit, and with the addition of Randy Moss, the NFC North might finish as the toughest division.
Nathan: The NFC North has two Super Bowl contenders (Vikings and Packers), another potential playoff team (Bears) and a bottom-feeder (Lions) that is not nearly as bad as their record indicates — even without their injured No. 1 overall pick quarterback.
Steven: I think three divisions in the AFC could make the claim for the best in the NFL, but right now I'll go with the AFC East. The Patriots and Jets are legitimate Super Bowl contenders, while the Dolphins should be a threat to reach the postseason once again. The Bills are certainly bad, but the North has the Browns and the South has the Jaguars. Having the Jets and Patriots as two of the top teams in the NFL and the Dolphins in the next tier, the AFC East has to be considered the best in the NFL after four weeks.
5. If you had to trade either Kevin Kolb or Michael Vick, and would receive equal value, which would you get rid of and which would be the future of your franchise?
Braden: This has been one of the single most intriguing story lines in the league this fall. Andy Reid is only person on the planet who can truly make this call as he is in the best situation to make an educated decision. To me, as I channel my inner Dennis Green, the question becomes, what has Kolb really done to prove that he isn't what we thought he was? We expected some growing pains, tough losses and poor decisions in his first season as the starter. If Reid believed he was the franchise QB of the future, enough so to trade a future Hall of Fame quarterback to a division rival, then I just don't see what has happened to change that.
Nathan: I would have traded Kevin Kolb the day after Mike Vick’s game against the Lions in Week 2. I’d be in trouble now that Vick’s hurt, but Kolb’s trade value was at its height three weeks ago. Way back then, he was still a mystery man who many felt could be a franchise quarterback. The more football Kolb plays, the worse his trade value becomes. It may already be too late. Once a quarterback is tainted goods, he’s untradeable. Right, Matt Leinart?
Steven: Kevin Kolb has shown some ability in a few starts, but we don't know enough about him to declare him a franchise starting quarterback. If I had both on my team, I'd trade Kolb and put everything into winning now with Vick. Sure, Kolb is probably a better long-term fit, but Vick is playing at a high level and showed during his time in Atlanta that he could lead teams to the playoffs.
He has thrown more interceptions (41) than touchdowns (36). He has completed only 58.2 percent of his passes. He has a career passer rating of 73.7.
But for everything he supposedly hasn’t done, can’t do or will never do as a passer, Vince Young has done one thing right: He has won.
The Tennessee Titans quarterback is 28–15 in his career as a starter. His .651 winning percentage is one of the best among active NFL quarterbacks, right up there with Peyton Manning and Brett Favre.
It’s the same thing he did at the University of Texas, where he went 30–2 in three years as the starter.
“There are so many doubters, and they’re still doubting now,” Young said. “A lot of people don’t even mention that [winning percentage]. They always mention all the other stuff. That’s why I’ve continued to stay focused and use that type of things as motivation to keep us going on with success for my teammates.”
Still, there remain questions about his commitment, his leadership and his maturity.
This summer, Young was involved in a fight at a Dallas strip club and was issued a Class C Assault citation.
“I was disappointed, but I’ve moved on from that,” Young said. “Things happen, and it happened.”
Against the Steelers in Week 2, Young was benched in the fourth quarter of a 19–11 loss. He threw two interceptions and fumbled twice before being replaced by Kerry Collins.
The Tennessean later reported that Young missed or arrived late for at least two meetings the week of that game.
Titans coach Jeff Fisher, though, said this week that Young’s preparation has improved since he entered the NFL as the No. 3 overall pick in 2006.
“He’s improved over the last couple of years, certainly,” Fisher said. “I think it started with his opportunity to watch Kerry win 10 straight [in 2008] and having to prepare himself to play at a moment’s notice as a backup. Through that experience, I think he’s really improved. He works hard at what he’s doing.
“He just had a moment. It’s one of those things. I’ve said this numerous times, I made a decision just as I would to make a decision to go for it on 4th-and-two.”
Young, 27, is a better quarterback now, facing the Cowboys, than he was when he made his first start, also against the Cowboys, in 2006. He is completing 66.2 percent of his passes, though he has had only 71 attempts, and for the first time, he could have more touchdowns than interceptions in a season.
“Whatever it takes to win a ball game,” Young said.
That’s the one thing he’s always been good at.
Clayton Having a Blast
It didn’t take long for Mark Clayton to become Sam Bradford’s new best friend. They both went to Oklahoma, after all, though at different times.
Clayton, the 22nd overall pick in 2005, was traded by the Ravens to the Rams only six days before the season opener. He became Bradford’s favorite target overnight.
“I was actually talking to Sam about [being traded to St. Louis] in the offseason,” Clayton said. “We clowned around about it. Man, for it to actually happen was surprising and very exciting.”
Clayton was the target on 14 of Bradford’s passes last week and had five catches for 72 yards. He leads the team with 22 receptions for 300 yards and two touchdowns.
“It’s good to be in a position where an organization trusts you,” Clayton said. “Just knowing what you’re capable of using your God-given talents, to be able to go out week in and week out and demonstrate the work and diligence and everything you put into it on the field.”
The Rams are one of the league’s most surprising teams, with their 2-2 record tied for the lead atop the NFC West with the Cardinals and the Seahawks.
Clayton, a free agent after this season, hopes to stay in St. Louis long enough to help the Rams completely turn things around.
“I love it here. Hopefully, they like me enough to stay here,” he said.
Seahawks rookie safety Earl Thomas is all hands. He has three interceptions in four games, tying him for the league lead with another rookie, Eagles safety Nate Allen, and Panthers safety Charles Godfrey.
Thomas also is third on the team with 23 tackles.
“As a rookie, I didn’t want to be the weakest link on the team,” Thomas said. “I’ve just been working hard to correct my mistakes and try to get better.”
ª Eagles left tackle Jason Peters was called for two of the team’s four holding penalties last week. That makes three holding penalties and a false start on Peters in four games. In 20 games with the Eagles since signing a six-year, $60 million contract last year, Peters has been called for 14 penalties.
• Redskins nosetackle Albert Haynesworth looked more like an All-Pro than Just a Guy last week as he had four tackles, one for a loss, and a pass defensed against the Eagles. He also drew a couple of holding penalties in roughly 30 snaps.
• Running back Cadillac Williams acknowledged the Bucs may be readying to move on without him. He is splitting carries with rookie LeGarrette Blount and Kareem Huggins. Williams, who has undergone two major knee surgeries, is off to one of his worst starts in his six seasons with 139 yards on 55 carries, a 2.5-yard average. Williams will become a free agent after the season.
• Mike Tolbert has become the Chargers’ lead back, though coach Norv Turner insists on calling rookie Ryan Mathews by that title. Tolbert is producing like a No. 1 back going for 100 yards on 16 carries last week.
• The Seahawks love what Justin Forsett has brought to their running game with 215 yards on 51 carries, a 4.2 yard average. But Forsett is only 5-8, 194 pounds, which is why they traded for Marshawn Lynch, who is 5-11 and 214 pounds. Forsett, who played with Lynch at Cal and had him as a groomsman in his wedding last summer, will remain the starter at least in the short term.
• Ken Whisenhunt probably figures he has nothing to lose by starting an undrafted free agent this week. The Cardinals had only 124 yards on offense last week, including only 23 in the second half. The Cardinals can see what they have in Max Hall and another rookie, John Skelton, before the 2011 draft.
• The Ravens are 1–3 in the next game following a win over Pittsburgh. When the Ravens beat the Steelers in overtime last season, they lost at Green Bay by 13 points.
• The Titans have had a league-high six personal fouls called on them this year.
• Denver quarterback Kyle Orton has thrown for 1,419 yards, the second-most passing yards through the first four games of the regular season in NFL history. Only Kurt Warner (1,557 in 2000) had more.
• The Lions have allowed 24 points off turnovers in four games. They have been outscored by a total of 24 points in the four losses.
• The Texans never had a winning record on the road until last season when they were 5–3. Now they have a four-game winning streak away from home. Since the start of last season, they are 7–3 on the road. They are 9-4 over their past 13 games.
• Colts quarterback Peyton Manning and receiver Reggie Wayne have combined for 9,703 career yards, moving past Buffalo’s Jim Kelly and Andre Reed (9,538) into second place on the NFL’s all-time list for yards by a quarterback-receiver duo. Manning and Wayne now trail Manning and former Colts receiver Marvin Harrison (12,766).
• The Dolphins have had four punts blocked since the start of the preseason.
• Last season, the Saints won their first six games by double-digit margins and outscored those six opponents by a total of 111 points. They have won three games this season by a total of 10 points.
• Redskins quarterback Donovan McNabb leads the league with four completions of at least 50 yards. They have gone to four targets — Santana Moss, Joey Galloway, Fred Davis and Anthony Armstrong.