On Sunday's Week 3 slate of games, three contests went to overtime, one ended in regulation on a game-winning field goal, one came down to an 80-yard touchdown in the final minute and two came down to desperation plays. Yet the most impressive victory of the day came without late-game theatrics.
The Atlanta Falcons, armed with a new offensive philosophy that reflects the modern morays of the game, put a thorough beat down on the Chargers, 27-3, in San Diego. The Falcons improved to 3-0 after winning on the road for the second time this season (which is also true of the undefeated Texans) and, more impressively, they did it coming off a short week while traveling across the country. The Falcons showed no letdown after their dramatic home victory over the Denver Broncos on Monday night.
The win against San Diego was a grind-it-out domination, the antithesis of the 2010 Falcons, the team that went 13-3 during the regular season, only to get trounced in the playoffs by Green Bay. In each of the past two years, the Falcons have suffered ugly playoff losses, each time to the eventual Super Bowl champion.
It appears coach Mike Smith has learned some vital lessons from those past two years. In the offseason, Smith changed both his coordinators, bringing in Dirk Koetter to replace Mike Mularkey on offense after Mularkey was hired in Jacksonville. (Mike Nolan was brought in for the defense.)
"Our goal going into this year is to become more of an attacking offense, let the guys we have out there as playmakers do more," Smith said in August. "What you see with [quarterback] Matt [Ryan], [wide receivers] Julio [Jones] and Roddy [White] is the type of talent we need to take advantage of."
For Smith, allowing Ryan to run more no-huddle offense and throw to score is a paradigm shift. The Falcons had spent the first four years of Ryan's career setting up the offense through running back Michael Turner.
Through three games this season, Ryan has thrown 107 passes (completing 77 for a completion percentage of 72.0).Turner has carried only 42 times, putting him on pace for 224 carries over a full season (he has yet to carry less than 300 times in any of the full seasons he has played with the Falcons).
"I give [Smith] all the credit in the world," an NFC executive said Sunday evening. "If you remember the playoff game from last season, when [the Giants] beat them, [the Falcons] played really conservatively. You can't do that in this league, especially when you go on the road in the playoffs. You have to go after people.
"Mike has always been about playing the percentages. He's great in going over situations and what works at what time. But you have to go a little beyond that to become a champion. You have to know when to go against how you usually do things and just throw the dice. It's not about being wild, it's about knowing when to gamble. Right now, he's gambling with Ryan. I like that."
Through three games, Ryan has eight touchdown passes and only one interception. On Sunday, he had three TDs in the first half as the Falcons built a 20-0 lead. The Falcons cruised the rest of the way, grinding out the clock with Turner and the running game. Ryan threw the ball 29 times in the first half. The second half featured only 11 passes and 15 Falcons rushing attempts, a prototype throw-to-score, run-to-win game plan.
Combine that with a defense that capitalized on the early lead (the Falcons intercepted Philip Rivers twice and recovered two fumbles) and you have one of the best teams in the NFL.
Even if there wasn't a lot of drama surrounding their last performance.
Here are the other winners and losers for Week 3:
• The NFL Referees Association got a huge victory when the replacement referees again screwed up a critical procedural issue. The mistake by referee Ken Roan in the Minnesota Vikings' 24-13 victory over the San Francisco 49ers was inexcusable. The problem occurred after 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh called his final timeout. Harbaugh then realized, according to Roan, that he wanted to challenge the play. Instead of telling Harbaugh he couldn't challenge, Roan granted the challenge. Roan admitted the mistake after the game, so give him credit for honesty. However, that's a mistake Roan should have realized right away. The league and the NFLRA are expected to continue negotiations this week. While the general calls have been OK (no better or worse than the usual), the procedural mistakes like this one are so out of control that it's detracting from the game.
• On the subject of procedure, the fact that the Oakland Raiders' 34-31 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers lasted until almost 8 p.m. ET is a troubling situation for television networks. None of the early games were done in less than 3:15 and if that trend continues, the networks are going to be all over the league because of how much it's going to interfere with other programming.
• The Tennessee Titans' 44-41 overtime win over the Detroit Lions was one of the wildest you will ever see, right down to the mistaken call by the Lions to go for it on fourth-and-1 in overtime from the Tennessee 7-yard line. There were six plays in this game of 46 yards or longer, including three return scores by the Titans (a punt return off a lateral, a kickoff and a fumble). That was the first time since the St. Louis-Kansas City game on Dec. 8, 2002 that a team had three such return scores in a game, according to the NFL research staff. Throw in a Hail Mary and this game was an all-timer. Most notable in all of that is the play of Titans return man Darius Reynaud, who is a serious combination of speed and quickness. Reynaud made it back into the league this season after failing to make a roster in 2011. The Lions were so conscious of his ability that they got taken in on the lateral off the punt. He later burned them for the 105-yard TD on the kickoff.
• Speaking of that game, a tip of the cap goes to Tennessee quarterback Jake Locker, who responded after two mediocre games to complete 29 of 42 passes for 378 yards and two touchdowns. With the Lions focused on stopping running back Chris Johnson (another bad game with 14 carries for 24 yards), Locker finally took advantage. If Locker can continue to do that, Johnson might find some running room.
• In three games, the Chicago defense has compiled 14 sacks, but has been particularly sharp in the two homes games. Between shutting down Sam Bradford and St. Louis on Sunday and controlling rookie Andrew Luck in the opener, the Bears have allowed them to go a combined 41-of 80-for 461 yards, one touchdown, five interceptions and nine sacks. The pass rush has obviously been critical to that, but the play of Chicago cornerback Tim Jennings can't be overstated. Jennings has four interceptions in three games.
• Congrats to New York Jets offensive coordinator Tony Sparano, who got a little bit of revenge against the Dolphins, who fired him after last season. Sparano's offense was hardly explosive and his use of Tim Tebow as a receiver on occasion didn't look particularly good, but the Jets escaped with an overtime victory.
• St. Louis Rams cornerback Cortland Finnegan had an interception for the third straight week as he continued to justify the five-year, $50 million contract he received this offseason. The important lesson that players should take away from Finnegan's situation is that he signed with a coach (former Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher) who knew him well and understands how to use him.
• On the flipside of the Jets' win, New York happens to be lucky it survived without cornerback Darrelle Revis, who was knocked out in the first half with a left knee injury. The final word on Revis isn't going to be available until Monday morning after an MRI. Revis' backup, Kyle Wilson, was attacked almost immediately upon entering the game. Wilson was thrown on at least eight times the rest of the game. He wasn't awful, but Wilson's reputation is that of a guy who is soft and just happy to be in the NFL. He needs to change that fast.
• Congrats to Minnesota for the great aforementioned victory over San Francisco. But did Toby Gerhart fumble three times in the Vikings' final two possessions? Gerhart appreciates Jim Harbaugh for all that they did for each other at Stanford, but this was an unhealthy way to repay his old coach.
•The Indianapolis Colts have a fair amount to be proud of for being in position to get its second consecutive win at home. However, giving up an 80-yard touchdown – Blaine Gabbert to Cecil Shorts – was unacceptable. There has to be a defender over the top to prevent someone from breaking loose for that type of score that late in the game.
• Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill wasn't the only reason the Dolphins lost to the Jets. However, he wasn't great (16-of-36 for 196 yards) and his one interception was a killer, as it was returned for a touchdown by LaRon Landry. Those plays happen, but this one was telegraphed. It was at least the fifth time in the game (the play happened just after halftime) that Tannehill had rolled right before throwing. Tannehill loves to push that play, a favorite, to the limit and every step you take to the right shrinks the field. In this case, Tannehill pushed the X's and O's too far.
• Dear Miami defensive end Jared Odrick, that sack dance you did in the second quarter on Sunday against the Jets, umm, how do I say this? No.
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