<
>

NFL Week 4 Studs and Duds

9/30/2013

Sunday brought us massive comebacks in Houston and San Diego, an immense assault on the NFL record book in Denver, huge blowouts in Kansas City and Jacksonville and considerable embarrassment for the New York Jets. I guess it was just a massive, immense and considerably embarrassing kind of week, depending on your perspective.

As a reminder, I didn't catch every down of every game Sunday. What follows is a reflection of the best and worst of what I saw during my journey through Week 4.

STUDS

1. Matt Cassel, Minnesota Vikings quarterback: I could name a half-dozen Vikings who played better than Cassel in Sunday's victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in London. And it's only fair to point out he faced a defense that stacked at least eight men in the box on 57 percent of its snaps -- a favorable environment for passing. But Cassel played well enough to merit another start in place of Christian Ponder, regardless of whether Ponder's rib injury has healed when the team returns Oct. 13 from its bye. Cassel was decisive and accurate on his short passes, seemingly modest achievements that Ponder hasn't mastered. Cassel smartly targeted veteran receiver Greg Jennings in the end zone, completed his final 11 passes and didn't commit a turnover. That's enough for an offense built around tailback Adrian Peterson. If coach Leslie Frazier agrees and Cassel stays healthy, the Ponder era might have concluded in Minnesota.

2. Patrick Peterson, Arizona Cardinals cornerback: There wasn't much to like from an aesthetic standpoint in the Cardinals' 13-10 victory at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a game notable mostly for the Bucs' simmering controversy with former quarterback Josh Freeman. But Peterson made arguably the two biggest plays in the game, intercepting rookie quarterback Mike Glennon twice in the final 3:12. The first set up the Cardinals' struggling offense at the Bucs' 13-yard line for tying points. The second, near midfield with 48 seconds remaining, sealed the victory. There aren't many opportunities for a cornerback to take over a game, but Peterson did just that in front of the few who were still watching it.

3. Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos quarterback: I've run out of unique ways to view Manning's start to the season. I mean, the guy is on pace to throw for almost 6,000 yards and 64 touchdowns. We're all waiting for someone to slow down the Broncos' offense, but with each passing week, Manning settles deeper into his groove. Sunday, he threw for 327 yards and four touchdowns -- IN THREE QUARTERS -- before backup Brock Osweiler replaced him. According to ESPN Stats & Information, only two of Manning's 34 attempts were either under- or overthrown. The rest were catchable, and Broncos receivers snagged 27 of them. My advice to Broncos fans and everyone else: Sit back and enjoy watching a legend at the absolute top of his game.

4. Dexter McCluster, Kansas City Chiefs punt returner: The Chiefs were clinging to a three-point lead over the New York Giants when McCluster fielded a third-quarter punt at his 11-yard line. By my count, the Giants had six chances to tackle him en route to an 89-yard touchdown return. The score pushed the Chiefs' advantage to 10 points in an eventual 31-7 victory. And in an indication of how far the Giants have fallen, McCluster mocked receiver Victor Cruz's salsa dance when he reached the end zone. The Chiefs are 4-0 with different heroes every week. Sunday, McCluster provided the biggest play of the game.

5. NFL front office: I am 100 percent in favor of the schedule change under consideration by the league, reported Sunday morning by ESPN's Chris Mortensen. In case you missed it: The preseason would be reduced from four to three games for most teams, and the league would make up for the lost revenue by adding two teams to the playoff field (from 12 to 14). So let's get this straight: We would lose one completely meaningless set of games and get more playoffs in return? Yes, please. Spare me any whining about the sanctity of the regular season or the exclusivity of the playoffs. The implied excitement of the regular season is to get to the postseason, and if anything, a larger playoff field will help ensure that all teams capable of winning the Super Bowl have a chance to get there. If some complicated bureaucratic waters can be navigated, this would be a home run for those who hate the preseason (everyone) and love the playoffs (all of us). Don't be a party pooper.

DUDS

1. Matt Schaub, Houston Texans quarterback: Nothing can excuse Schaub's weak, ill-advised third-down pass to tight end Owen Daniels in the flat with 2:40 remaining against the Seattle Seahawks. Daniels was never open and Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman was hardly hiding. Sherman's interception and 58-yard return for a TD capped a comeback from a 20-3 halftime deficit and completely sapped the Texans, who lost 23-20 in overtime. I'm not interested in criticism of coach Gary Kubiak for a risky play call. Schaub is a veteran starter and the Texans think they can win the Super Bowl with him. He should be trusted to make an important third-down conversion against a good opponent at home. Schaub needed to throw it away or take a sack. He didn't, and I wonder if Texans fans will forgive him.

2. Baltimore Ravens game plan: I think we're all still trying to figure out the Ravens' upside-down offensive approach in a loss to the Buffalo Bills. The Ravens hardly gave their running game a chance, having quarterback Joe Flacco drop back on 54 of 63 plays despite a relatively manageable score throughout. The imbalance became even more pronounced as Flacco progressed through a five-interception game; the Ravens called just two running plays after falling behind 20-7 at halftime. If Ray Rice (hip) wasn't healthy enough to carry a fuller workload, then the Ravens should have deactivated him for the game. It's not as if the Ravens needed to be in hurry-up mode with two quarters remaining to make up a 13-point deficit. It simply wasn't a winning formula. According to ESPN Stats & Information, teams that run on less than 20 percent of their plays are 1-56 since the start of the 2008 season.

3. Geno Smith, New York Jets quarterback: You'll probably see a few replays and Internet GIFs of Smith's attempt to switch the ball from his right hand to his left -- behind his back, no less -- as he was being sacked by the Tennessee Titans. Smith failed, naturally, and the ensuing fumble was one of four turnovers in a 38-13 loss. Smith has shown us some encouraging signs this season, but the behind-the-back fumble cemented the sense that he is starting only because the Jets have no one else they want to play at the moment. It was a decision made only by a quarterback who is completely overwhelmed by his environment. Time on the sideline might do Smith some good, but unfortunately for everyone, the Jets don't have many options.

4. Jay Cutler, Chicago Bears quarterback: Hold off on all of those "Jay Cutler has turned a corner" angles. Cutler played terribly in the Bears' 40-32 loss to the Detroit Lions, throwing three interceptions, losing a fumble and resurrecting his tendency to force balls downfield when he gets out of sorts. Cutler's average pass Sunday traveled 12.3 yards downfield, and according to ESPN Stats & Information, that's more than 5 yards higher than his season average. All three of his interceptions came on throws that traveled more than 10 yards downfield. Coach Marc Trestman had coaxed three weeks of relatively conservative throws with a minimum of unforced errors, but not even Trestman could hold off "Bad Jay" forever. I thought former Bears linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer put it well via Twitter: "Wow, no QB in the league with wider variance between his ceiling and floor. Makes today hard to watch. #Bears"

5. Late-game ball distribution, Dallas Cowboys: I saw only the fourth quarter of the Cowboys' 30-21 loss to the San Diego Chargers. But I know that receiver Dez Bryant caught two touchdowns in the second quarter and then seemed an afterthought as the Cowboys tried to close a late deficit. I also know that the Chargers' pass defense has been pretty suspect in the games I've seen this season. But the Cowboys targeted Bryant only three times in the fourth quarter, and none of those instances were near the end zone. In fact, the Cowboys' final chance was dashed when rookie receiver Terrance Williams fumbled while trying to stretch the ball over the goal line with 2:42 remaining. Look, the Chargers deserve some credit for the victory. Quarterback Philip Rivers made some beautiful, perfectly-placed scoring throws to running back Danny Woodhead and tight end Antonio Gates. But the outcome was still in doubt when the Cowboys were ignoring their best weapon.