10 questions: Is Michael Vick now one of the NFL’s best QBs again?
USA TODAY’s Sean Leahy spins around the NFL with 10 questions from Sunday’s Week 3 games and looks at how they will affect Week 4:
1. Is Michael Vick now one of NFL’s best QBs?
Vick accounted for all four of the Eagles’ TDs in their 28-3 win at Jacksonville. He threw for three scores and 291 yards and added a rushing TD in the first game since Eagles coach Andy Reid named him the team’s full-time starter. He has not thrown an interception and Vick’s QB rating of 110.2 ranks fourth in in the NFL (and as SI.com’s Peter King pointed out, he never had a career QB rating above 81). Since replacing Kevin Kolb at halftime of Week 1, the Eagles have outscored their opponents 80-49 under Vick’s direction. When he named Vick the starter last week, Reid said he was “possibly the hottest quarterback in the National Football League.” Outside of Colts QB Peyton Manning (one of two QBs with a better rating), it’s hard to find any signal-caller playing better than Vick right now. The Washington Redskins (and former Eagles QB Donovan McNabb) get the next shot at containing Vick. The Redskins knew their Week 5-6 games against the Packers (Aaron Rodgers) and Colts (Manning) would provide stiff tests against top-tier QBs when the season started. They likely didn’t expect Vick would have joined that stratosphere and to give them a devilish three-week stretch.
2. How good are the Atlanta Falcons?
The Falcons’ 27-24 OT win that handed the champion New Orleans Saints their first defeat should not be seen as a surprise. At 9-7 last year, Atlanta missed out on the playoffs but clinched its first-ever back-to-back winning records. And the Falcons have a strong nucleus of young players — led by QB Matt Ryan — ready to use that as a launching pad to more success this year. With RB Michael Turner, Pro Bowl WR Roddy White and steady TE Tony Gonzalez — still a big factor at age 34 — the Falcons’ offense is loaded. And the defense, with playmakers such as S Thomas DeCoud and LB Curtis Lofton, is growing into a unit that can handcuff even superstar QBs such as Drew Brees (who threw his first two INTs of the season against Atlanta). And the schedule is favorable for the 2-1 Falcons, who host the 49ers and visit the Browns in the next two weeks. Expect them to vie with the Saints for the NFC South crown in December.
3. Is this just another slow start for Chargers?
The Bolts fell to 1-2 after a 27-20 loss in Seattle on Sunday. It repeats a familiar trend for the four-time defending AFC West champions. In each of the past three seasons, the Chargers have stumbled to a 2-3 start and then had to scramble late in the season. These early-season losses to the Chiefs and Seahawks could portend a similar fate. The key for San Diego is QB Philip Rivers, who rallied his team from a 17-0 second-half deficit on Sunday. Twice he led drives deep into Seahawks territory in the final minutes pressing for a game-tying TD. The Chargers have Pro Bowl LT Marcus McNeill headed back by Week 5. Though there’s no end in sight yet to the standoff with WR Vincent Jackson, as long as Rivers — who typically thrives under pressure — is leading the Bolts they’ll keep fighting. And their track record indicates a second-half renaissance is very possible. But this year they’ll be chasing the 3-0 Chiefs, who after just three weeks have a two-game lead on everyone else in the AFC West.
4. Does Mark Sanchez’s play make Jets real contenders?
Not every analyst believed New York Jets coach Rex Ryan when he proclaimed his team the Super Bowl champion in August. The defense looked good, but there were questions about the team that squeaked into the playoffs last year at 9-7. The offseason additions (Jason Taylor, LaDainian Tomlinson) were old. They had cut their leading rusher (Thomas Jones). Their top receiver (Santonio Holmes) was out for a four-game suspension. And the quarterback, Mark Sanchez, was still green heading after a rookie season in which he threw 20 INTs. But after three games, Sanchez is showing that he may be a reason the Jets should be considered legitimate Super Bowl threats. With a 6-0 ratio of TDs-to-INTs, Sanchez is one of three starters (Vick, Manning) yet to throw a pick. He out-performed Tom Brady with three TD passes in the Jets’ Week 2 win against the Patriots, and followed that up with three more scoring passes in a 31-23 win at Miami on Sunday night. Sanchez has done an about face from his abysmal Week 1 effort against Baltimore. He looks poised and is making the smart choices expected of a veteran QB. With the strength of the Jets’ defense, if Sanchez can continue to perform at this level, the Jets will be much better prepared to fulfill Ryan’s championship vision.
5. How important were wins on Sunday for the Cowboys and Vikings?
The relief felt by Cowboys QB Tony Romo and Vikings QB Brett Favre was evident as they spoke after both collected their first victories of the season on Sunday. Romo’s Cowboys scored a moral victory also by striking a 27-13 blow to the in-state rival Texans who were picking up buzz as a potential contender to play in the Super Bowl the Cowboys are hosting in February. Favre’s Vikings defeated Detroit 24-10 behind the strength of Adrian Peterson’s 160 rushing yards and two running TDs. Both teams now head into an early Week 4 bye without the cloud of a win-or-else game facing them on the other side. The Vikings can take solace in a defense that has surrendered just 38 points, as they seek remedies to the receiving issues that have hurt them and Favre. The Cowboys need to work on a rushing game that ranks 26th. And they can both look down the road to their Week 6 meeting in Minneapolis, which could loom large as a tiebreaker if both teams are vying for a wild-card berth late in the season.
6. Are the Steelers one of the NFL’s best teams?
At the start of the season, the convention wisdom was if the Steelers could tread water at 2-2 through Ben Roethlisberger’s four-game suspension, they’d be in good shape. But after Sunday’s 38-13 rout in Tampa, the Steelers are 3-0 and looking like one of the league’s strongest teams — even without Roethlisberger. Their defense, with Pro Bowl S Troy Polamalu healthy, has surrendered just 33 points — fewest among teams that have played three games. And their rushing game, powered by Rashard Mendenhall, ranks first. Add to that the strong play of veteran Charlie Batch (three TD passes against the Bucs), and the Steelers look little like the defending Super Bowl champion that limped to a non-playoff finish last year. This week they host the rival Ravens before a bye week when Roethlisberger returns. Where once the Ravens game was seen as a likely ‘L’ on the Steelers’ schedule without their Pro Bowl QB, now it looks like the coin flip that these rivals’ games usually turn out to be. Only one of their last six meetings has been decided by more than six points.
7. Will the Chiefs be in the AFC West race all season?
Look at the stats, and there’s not a lot to get excited about with the Chiefs. They’re 15th in total offense, 14th in total defense, and only RB Jamaal Charles (seventh in rushing yards) appears close to the top of the individual leaderboards. But the Chiefs play with a fire and excitement that hasn’t been seen in Kansas City in years. They dominated the 49ers 31-10 on Sunday in a game where San Francisco didn’t score a TD until the final play. They mounted a fourth-quarter rally — and later held that lead — to win at Cleveland in Week 2. And they flattended AFC West rival San Diego 21-14 in Week 1. And while they may not have the most talented playmakers yet, the Chiefs are learning to win as a team through special teams (two key punt returns in Week 1) and special plays (a trick play 45-yard TD in Week 3). They’re building confidence and wins at the same time, which — veterans such as LB Mike Vrabel will likely tell young teammates — make them a serious threat to earn a playoff spot this year.
8. Can the 49ers recover from their 0-3 start?
The ramifications of the 49ers’ horrible start began to fall on Monday when the team dismissed offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye. Other than a 25-22 loss to the Saints in Week 2 on Monday night, the Saints have been listless through the young season. Is there a way out? New offensive coordinator Mike Johnson needs to harness the poise QB Alex Smith showed when he orchestrated a game-tying, fourth-quarter TD drive against the Saints. That Alex Smith showed why many saw the 49ers as NFC West favorites in the preseason. But the road ahead — at Atlanta and vs. Philadelphia the next two weeks — is difficult. Yet the 49ers play in the NFL’s worst division, where 8 or 9 wins could claim the division title. So it’s too early to call it a lost season.
9. How much life is there in the St. Louis Rams?
No. 1 overall draft pick Sam Bradford notched his first career NFL win on Sunday when the Rams beat the Redskins 30-16. It marked just the second win for the Rams in the last 29 games. It came after two losses by a combined six points in which the Rams were in position to make a game-winning drive late in the game. Bradford (68.1 rating, 59% completion rate, four TDs, five INTs) doesn’t have the strongest cast around him, and could be hurt by the groin injury RB Steven Jackson suffered on Sunday. But for the first time in several years the Rams are playing like they expect to win each week. And the schedule (vs. Seattle, at Detroit, at Tampa, vs. Carolina in four of the next five weeks) is favorable for the Rams to notch a few more victories.
10. Which is the NFL’s worst team?
Count the Rams (improved play) and the 49ers (expectations still high) out of this conversation. And the 0-3 Lions have played the Bears, Eagles and Vikings too tough to win the title of Team 32. That leaves the Browns, Bills and Panthers among 0-3 teams. The Browns have lost the momentum of last year’s season-ending four-game win streak, but have been hurt by the loss of QB Jake Delhomme to a foot injury. All of their defeats have been by seven points or less, and they gave the Ravens fits in a 24-17 defeat in Baltimore on Sunday. The Bills looked like the NFL’s worst after Week 2, until they benched (and then cut) QB Trent Edwards. They lost 38-30 in New England on Sunday, but scored more than they had in the previous two weeks combined (23 points). This week, the NFL’s bottom-feeders reside in Carolina, where the Panthers have scored an NFL-low 32 points with an offense that committed four turnovers and had eight drives on Sunday where it couldn’t get a first down. The switch to rookie QB Jimmy Clausen got off to a rough start in the 20-7 loss to the Bengals. And it could only get worse: The Panthers travel to the Superdome to play the Saints on Sunday.