NFL Nation: Final Word NFC 2012 Week 3

Final Word: NFC West

September, 21, 2012
9/21/12
1:30
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 3:

Playing to their strengths: The Arizona Cardinals went into this season feeling as though their defense, special teams and rushing attack could carry them as long as the team reduced turnovers at quarterback. The ground game has yet to get going for Arizona, but the rest of the formula has helped the Cardinals reach 2-0. Quarterback Kevin Kolb has yet to throw an interception, and he is taking fewer chances down the field. His passes have traveled 5.9 yards past the line of scrimmage on average, the lowest figure in the league this season. That number is well below the NFL average (8.2) and the 7.9-yard average for Kolb last season. Getting more aggressive carries risks. Philadelphia has held opposing quarterbacks to a 6.7 out of 100 Total QBR, the second-lowest figure in the NFL.

[+] EnlargeLarry Fitzgerald
AP Photo/Paul ConnorsLarry Fitzgerald has eight TDs in four games against the Eagles.
Something has to give: The Cardinals have won nine of their past 11 games, tied with New England, San Francisco and Green Bay for the best regular-season record during that span. That includes a 7-1 record for the Cardinals in their past eight games, tied with the Patriots for best in the league. Arizona's Week 3 opponent, Philadelphia, has won its past six regular-season games, the longest active streak. But with the Eagles suffering nine turnovers this season and Arizona failing to exceed 20 points in either game, these 2-0 teams are sliding under the radar a bit. A breakout game from Larry Fitzgerald (five receptions this season) could restore some offensive identity to Arizona. Fitzgerald has averaged 114 yards per game against the Eagles, the most for any player with at least four games against Philadelphia. He has 26 catches for 456 yards and eight touchdowns in four matchups.

Early bird special: Western teams have long complained about too many road games kicking off at 10 a.m. PT. The San Francisco 49ers have done their share of the complaining, but with a victory at Minnesota in an early kickoff Sunday, the 49ers can run their record to 6-0 under coach Jim Harbaugh when kicking off at 10 a.m. PT. None of the other Western teams -- Arizona, San Diego, Oakland or Seattle -- has approached such a run in recent years. The 49ers had gone 2-9 in their previous 11 games kicking off that early. They were 7-27 in early kickoffs under Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary. The best teams can win just about any time and anywhere. The 49ers, 15-3 under Harbaugh, have become one of those teams.

Turning a corner: The St. Louis Rams need a victory at Chicago to exceed a .500 winning percentage for the first time since the 2006 team stood 4-3 after Week 7. Quarterback Sam Bradford has been a key to St. Louis' increased competitiveness. He has arguably outplayed Matthew Stafford and Robert Griffin III in the Rams' first two games. Can he outplay the Bears' Jay Cutler? That seems like a reasonable expectation after Cutler threw four picks and took seven sacks against Green Bay. Both teams' top running backs have injury concerns, putting even more of the focus on the quarterbacks. Bradford completed all nine of his third-down passes against Washington last week. He'll face a Bears defense that held Andrew Luck and Aaron Rodgers to a combined 5 of 14 passing with one pick and four sacks on third down. Luck went 1-for-7 and threw the interception.

Roughing up receivers: Seattle cornerback Brandon Browner led the NFL in penalties last season with 19. That included six for pass interference, four for defensive holding, four personal fouls and three for illegal contact. Browner continues to play an aggressive brand of cornerback. At 6-foot-4, he must put his size to use. Through two games this season, Browner has drawn only one penalty -- defensive holding in the season opener at Arizona. Being able to play aggressively against the Packers' smaller receivers could be a key for Seattle against Green Bay on Monday night.

ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this piece.

Final Word: NFC South

September, 21, 2012
9/21/12
1:30
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 3:

[+] EnlargeSaints
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesThe Saints are off to their worst start since 2007, when they lost four games to begin the season.
Playing the percentages: The odds already are in favor of the Atlanta Falcons making the playoffs and against the New Orleans Saints not reaching the postseason. The Falcons have a chance to start 3-0. Since 1990, 75.7 percent of the teams to start 3-0 have gone to the playoffs. If the Saints lose to Kansas City, they’ll be 0-3. In the same time span, only 2.7 percent of the teams to start 0-3 have reached the postseason.

Saints predictable: In recent years, there’s been a lot of talk about how unpredictable the New Orleans offense was. That might have changed this year and defenses might have an idea what’s coming, just by looking at who’s in the backfield. According to ESPN Stats & Information, running back Darren Sproles doesn’t have a rushing attempt this season. The Saints have passed on 74 of the 77 plays Sproles has been on the field. On the flip side, the Saints have passed on only six of the 29 plays Mark Ingram has been on the field.

Romo’s domination: Dallas’ Tony Romo has played better against the Buccaneers than perhaps any other opponent. In his three career games against Tampa Bay, Romo has thrown for 11 touchdowns with no interceptions while completing 70.9 percent of his passes. Dallas has won all three of those games.

Ugly streaks: The Bucs have lost eight straight road games, tying them for the second-longest active streak in the league (the Colts lead with nine straight road losses). The Bucs also have lost their last eight non-division games, the longest active streak in the NFL.

Perception changing: There’s a perception that Atlanta’s Matt Ryan struggles on the road, particularly in outdoor games. There might have been some truth to that earlier in Ryan’s career, but things are changing. Including the postseason, Ryan has not thrown an interception in any of his last four road games. In his last three regular-season road games, Ryan is 2-1 with eight touchdown passes, no interceptions and a 65.3 completion percentage.

Final Word: NFC North

September, 21, 2012
9/21/12
1:30
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 3:

[+] EnlargeAdrian Peterson
Brian Spurlock/US PresswireMinnesota will surely welcome any red zone production from Adrian Peterson against Arizona on Sunday.
Running aground: The Minnesota Vikings' punchless offense is going to have a tough time functioning against the San Francisco 49ers' physical, fast and sure-tackling defense. Receiver/running back Percy Harvin has been the NFL's best open-field runner over the season's first two weeks, but it will be quite an achievement if he can run through the 49ers' group. Tailback Adrian Peterson noted the 49ers haven't yet played a team as committed to the running game as the Vikings are, but history suggests he will struggle as well. He has totaled 88 yards on 33 carries in two career games against the 49ers. One of those carries was a 35-yard run. So on the other 32 carries, Peterson has managed 53 yards against them.

Bad combination: Pulling off an upset of this magnitude would no doubt require a number of forced turnovers. But the odds are against the Vikings rattling 49ers quarterback Alex Smith, who hasn't thrown an interception in nine games, including the playoffs. In two games this season, in fact, he has only had one pass broken up by a defender, according to ESPN Stats & Information. (His rate of having 1.8 percent of attempts broken up is the NFL's lowest.) Smith is playing exceptionally smart, and the Vikings have failed exceptionally over a long stretch to be opportunistic. They have only two interceptions in their past 13 games.

Cutler's next game: The Chicago Bears have spent the past eight days answering questions about quarterback Jay Cutler's performance and behavior. Cutler, of course, threw four interceptions and took seven sacks in a Sept. 13 loss to the Green Bay Packers. It was the fourth four-interception game of Cutler's career with the Bears. But as they prepared for Sunday's game against the St. Louis Rams, the Bears could be comforted in knowing that Cutler typically has rebounded well from the previous three instances. The Bears are 2-1 in games after Cutler throws four interceptions, and Cutler has thrown five touchdowns and one interception in those games.

Titans 'defense:' Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford has conceded that "I don't think as an offense we've hit our stride yet." The Tennessee Titans provide an opportunity for the Lions to straighten themselves out. The Titans' first two opponents this season have scored 34 and 38 points, respectively. The Lions are 11-1 since the start of last season when they score at least 20 points and 0-6 when they fall below that threshold. I think I'll take the over, especially considering the Lions will add a new element to their offense with the regular-season debut of tailback Mikel Leshoure.

Monday looms: We'll have more on the Packers-Seahawks game over the weekend and on Monday. So consider this a special "First Word." For now, we should at least put on the record how different the Seahawks are at home. Since CenturyLink Field opened in 2002, the Seahawks have a 65.5 winning percentage and a point differential of plus-787 points, the second-highest total in the NFL. Opponents have also committed a league-high 143 false starts in the stadium. On the road over the same span, the Seahawks have won 36 percent of their games. That litany is not meant to discount the Packers' chances of winning. In fact, they won their most recent game in Seattle, in 2008. It's just a warning that the Seahawks should always be considered a formidable opponent at home.

Final Word: NFC East

September, 21, 2012
9/21/12
1:30
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 3:

This hard land: The Dallas Cowboys host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, and historically that is good news for Dallas. The Cowboys are 10-3 all-time against the Bucs, which is their second-best record all-time against any opponent. (They're 8-1 against the Carolina Panthers). They have been especially tough against Tampa Bay at home, going 7-1 against the Bucs in Texas, and winning by an average of 8.4 points per game. Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo is 3-0 with a 70.9 completion percentage, 11 touchdowns and no interceptions in his career against Tampa Bay. Of course, all of those stats were compiled back when you could take the end-of-game kneel-down for granted against the Bucs. All that stuff is out the window now that they bring that Rutgers-style grit and toughness to the final seconds.

[+] EnlargeRobert Griffin III
Photo by Scott Rovak/US PresswireEarly stats point to a potentially big game for Redskins QB Robert Griffin III against the Bengals.
Open all night: The Cincinnati Bengals have been one of the worst pass defenses in the league so far this season, ranking 29th through the first two weeks in completion percentage (71.0) and passing yards allowed per game (308.5), and 30th in passing first downs allowed (31). Washington Redskins rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III, who will face that Bengals defense in his home debut, has a completion percentage of 70.9, which ranks fourth in the NFL so far this season. The Redskins might throw the ball some, is the basic point I'm trying to get across here. A couple of potentially mitigating factors include: (1) The likely absence of top Redskins wide receiver Pierre Garcon for a second straight game with a foot injury, (2) the possible return of Bengals pass-rusher Carlos Dunlap from injury in time for this game, and (3) the quirky fact that the Bengals are 7-1 in their past eight games against non-AFC North opponents. Yeah, it's nice to get a break from playing the Steelers and the Ravens all the time.

I'm on fire: Not only are the Philadelphia Eagles and the Arizona Cardinals two of only six undefeated NFL teams after two weeks, they are (if you overlook the little matter that there was a 2012 postseason) two of the league's hottest teams. The Eagles' six-game winning streak dating to last season is the longest current winning streak in the league. And the Cardinals are 7-1 since Week 12 of last season, which is tied with the Patriots for the best record in the league over that time. The last time the Eagles won seven games in a row was when they started the 2004 season 7-0.

Tougher than the rest: You have to admire the grit that Cowboys tight end Jason Witten has shown coming back from his preseason spleen laceration to play in the team's first two games, but he doesn't look like himself. According to ESPN Stats & Information's "Next Level" numbers, Witten has dropped four of the 13 passes that have been thrown to him this season. He dropped four passes all of last season, and no more than three in any of the three seasons prior to that. Witten seems to be taking some time to round into form, but the Cowboys' passing offense could use his formerly reliable hands.

Born to run: As impressive as the Cardinals' defense has been this season, they rank in the middle of the pack against the run. Seattle's Marshawn Lynch (85 yards on 21 carries) and New England's Stevan Ridley (71 yards on 17 carries) each had some degree of success running the ball against the Cardinals in the first two weeks, though neither was spectacular. Philadelphia's LeSean McCoy got 20 carries in the opener and 25 last week against Baltimore, marking just the second time in his career he's had 20 or more carries in consecutive games. The Eagles are 9-1 all-time when McCoy gets at least 20 carries. I think it's fair to say they should make this a priority.

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