The NFL needed a redemption week.
The first two slates were filled wth unwatchable games, low scoring, slumping stars. Given the modern, hands-off approach to preseason and exhibition play, it’s not that surprising the league got off to such a lackluster start.
Week 3, our confidence and faith were restored, our fandom validated. What a glorious afternoon of NFL action.
Let’s start with Brandin Cooks, who finally gave the Patriots the explosive downfield presence they’ve been looking for. Cooks had two long touchdown grabs in New England’s 36-33 escape over Houston, including the game-winning TD with 23 seconds left, a high-difficulty catch by the left boundary. Cooks threw in a two-point conversion for good measure, the capper on a snappy 5-131-2 afternoon. Chris Hogan also had two touchdown catches, while Tom Brady threw for 378 yards and five scores.
It wasn’t all sunshine and lollipops for the Pats. Brady took five sacks and far too many hits, the running game stumbled to 59 yards (on 3.0 a carry), and the defense was riddled by Deshaun Watson, of all people. But there’s nothing wrong with New England’s passing game, provided Brady has time to throw.
The Giants suffered a stomach-punch 27-24 loss at Philadelphia, but at least they got their offense rebooted — mostly because Odell Beckham was back in form. Beckham caught nine of 13 targets for 79 yards and a pair of touchdowns, both of them worthy of immediate applause. With Sterling Shepherd (7-133-1) also going off, the Giants finally pushed over 20 points for the first time in nine games. It’s convenient the passing game showed up, because New York’s running game (and especially, its run blocking) remained abysmal.
Chicago’s Jordan Howard was one of the biggest scapegoats of the opening two weeks, panned for his unreliable hands and discounted in favor of the flavor of the month, Tarik Cohen. Now Cohen might wind up being something special, but there’s room for the powerful Howard and the slippery Cohen in the same offense. Howard’s game was in fine form all through the 23-17 upset over Pittsburgh; he rumbled for 138 yards and two scores on the ground (including the game-winning TD romp in overtime), and even caught all five of his targets.
Everyone who buried Howard prematurely, raise your hand (I’m raising my hand).
Maybe the Bears will be a more competitive group than initially thought. The defense played well in the Week 1 loss to Atlanta — the game Howard fritted away with his late drop — and the unit was outstanding Sunday, holding Le’Veon Bell under 100 total yards and Ben Roethlisberger to 6.0 YPA. If the defense is as good as it’s looked to this point, that’s another potential boost to Howard’s value.
MIAMI TANKS IN THE MEADOWLANDS
The Dolphins have a cherry matchup against the Saints in Week 4, but I’m not going to be one of the promoters. I’ll sit this one, thanks. Jay Cutler and Friends threw a stinkbomb in Sunday’s loss at the Jets, sputtering throughout a 20-6 defeat.
The Dolphins made the score cosmetically closer with a Hall of Fame garbage-time touchdown — Cutler hit Devante Parker on the final snap of the game, with the outcome long decided. Let’s focus on what happened when the match was actually in question. Miami had a pathetic 49 yards of total offense in the first half, and Cutler finished with a scant 5.0 YPA, netting just 220 yards on his 44 attempts. He was sacked three times.
Jay Ajayi couldn’t get going in this one, either, bottled up to 16 yards on 11 attempts. What happened to the Jets rushing defense that was trampled last week? Perhaps Ajayi wasn’t fully healthy, maybe his knee was worse than the team let on. He also was dinged up in Sunday’s first half. Miami’s offensive line didn’t clock itself in glory, either.
Parker owners got away with some second-half numbers, en route to an acceptable 8-76-1 day on 10 looks. That’s a win. But there’s nothing else encouraging to say about this offense. Ajayi is a forced play when healthy, but Cutler is capable of derailing any passing game.
PIANOW ON THE TAKE
• Another electric game from Chris Thompson, who thrills you on every touch. But I worry that the Washington coaching staff thinks Thompson’s limited usage is sparking his production, not getting in the way of it.
• Jacoby Brissett wasn’t asked to do much in the second half after smoking the Browns out of the building in the first half. But Brissett’s competence and athleticism allows us to be proactive with Indy’s quality skill players, especially T.Y. Hilton (who’s obviously elite), Jack Doyle and Frank Gore.
• I can’t believe I’m taking Mike Tolbert seriously, but if he’s going to get this much usage with Shady McCoy still healthy, I have to assume the Bills would strongly consider Tolbert in a featured role if McCoy got hurt. And McCoy’s age, history, and attrition suggest he’s one of the backs most likely to get hurt.
• If the glass half-full or half-empty with Kenny Britt? After mailing it in for Week 2, he rebounded with a 3-54-1 line at Indy — but he needed 10 targets to get there. I’m going to give Rashard Higgins another week before I give up on him.
• I needed to see a prove-it game from Case Keenum before I could get proactive with the Minnesota passing game. We saw it. Granted, the Tampa Bay secondary handed out some goodies, but Keenum also played well, took advantage of a full week of preparation and knowledge that he needed to play.
• Are we sure Jay Cutler is better than Matt Moore? I’m not.
• I’m glad we’ve had endless debates over Kenny Golladay, but over the last two weeks, he has three catches for 33 yards. Maybe we can call him “Kenny” and move along.
• Why isn’t Devonta Freeman considered with the elite running backs, the Bells and Johnsons and Elliots? What would you want to see? He runs inside and out, he catches the ball, he scores touchdowns, he gains yards after contact, he has wonderful change of direction. His jump cuts are things of beauty. The presence of Tevin Coleman doesn’t matter; in today’s NFL (and I know I keep saying this), a committee begins at three.
• The Seattle offense doesn’t get interesting each week until they go to an up-tempo package and ask Russell Wilson to make stuff up. Maybe you can’t play that way all the time — you might get Wilson killed — but the Seahawks have to consider being more proactive with that package, and using it more in the first quarter of games.
• Joe Mixon didn’t break the game at Green Bay, but it was encouraging for him to get 21 touches in the first game of the new regime. He has upside, as a potential bell cow, in this backfield; Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard do not.
• Hunter Henry will surely have a handful of big games in the second half, but I can’t see how they’ll be projectable. If you can’t call the shot ahead of time, you can’t start someone. The Chargers have the weakest home-field advantage in the league, by far — Los Angeles doesn’t care about them, either — and I hope there’s some truth to the scuttlebutt that they might have a chance of returning to San Diego.