- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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NFL fans learned Sunday that even the regular officials make mistakes.
Referee Jeff Triplett failed to call Darren Sproles' fumble in the fourth quarter of the Green Bay Packers-New Orleans Saints tilt. Because Packers coach Mike McCarthy was out of replay challenges, he couldn't overturn the apparent bad call.
As it turned out, the Packers came back to win 28-27, so all is right Lambeau Field.
Still, it was great to have the regular officials back. Games returned to normal. The first 14 games of Week 4 averaged a time of 3 hours, 8 minutes, not the 3:20-plus marathons of Week 3. The officials marched off an average of 11.8 penalties a game, not overly excessive. Their calls were decisive. They knew the rules.
But, the regular refs are human.
Here's what we learned in Week 4:
1. The Crimson Tide of the NFL: The combination of Matt Schaub's brains and Wade Phillips' defense has allowed the Houston Texans to become one of the league's most dominating teams. Dating back to last year, Schaub has won his past eight games. Houston's average margin of victory is 20 points in those games. Watching the Texans dismantle AFC teams is like watching Alabama plow through the SEC. The Texans' schedule hasn't been grinding -- they've beaten the Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars twice, the Cleveland Browns, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Miami Dolphins and Denver Broncos during Schaub's past eight starts -- but putting Schaub behind center combined the Texans' defense is problematic for opponents.
Phillips has coached great defensive linemen in the past, but J.J. Watt is playing at a Hall of Fame level. In Sunday's 38-14 victory over Tennessee, Watt had two sacks, three tackles behind the line of scrimmage and two quarterback hits against Titans quarterbacks Matt Hasselbeck and Jake Locker.
"He's a tremendous player," Phillips said. "I said earlier in the year he's the best defensive lineman the league."
With 7.5 sacks in four games -- incredible for a 3-4 defensive end -- Watt is among the leading candidates for defensive player of the year. What is lost in the shuffle is the great play of the Texans' safeties. Glover Quin and Danieal Manning are understated for how good they are. Quin and Manning came into the league as corners. Phillips turned Quin into a safety and encouraged Texans management to sign Manning from the Chicago Bears.
"They have the speed to play corner, but the toughness to play safety," cornerback Johnathan Joseph said of his teammates.
Less than nine minutes into the game, Quin knocked Locker out of the game with a left shoulder injury, crunching him on a sack. In the third quarter, Manning put the game out of reach with a 55-yard interception return for a touchdown that opened a 14-point lead. Three years ago, Quin and Kareem Jackson were bad rookie cornerbacks on one of the worst secondaries in NFL history. Phillips brought in Manning and Joseph and now is getting the best out of Jackson and Quin. It's impressive.
2. Falcons are a force: Sunday's 30-28 victory over the Carolina Panthers is confirmation that the Atlanta Falcons are the class of the NFC South. They are 4-0, and QB Matt Ryan proved can handle any situation. As much as everyone will talk about the 59-yard completion to Roddy White from the Falcons' 1-yard line that set up the game-winning field goal, the key to the game was the confidence the coaches have in Ryan.
When the Falcons settled for a field goal to cut the Panthers' lead to 28-27 with five minutes left, Mike Smith and staff knew Ryan could bring the team from behind. After each team had three-and-outs, Carolina QB Cam Newton got the ball to midfield but couldn't get that first down to ice the game. Then Matty Ice stared at 99 yards of football field and 59 seconds on the clock to win the game and he did.
Ryan said it was going to take 60 minutes to beat their division rival: "The difference for us is making the plays at the end of the game." The Falcons were supposed to be in a two-way dogfight with the Saints for the division. Now, they are in a runaway. They have a three-game lead over the Panthers and Buccaneers.
3. Pretenders and contenders in AFC East: To no one's surprise, the New England Patriots stepped up and showed they are the class of the AFC East. Tom Brady responded from a 21-7 deficit with 35 unanswered points and blew way the Buffalo Bills, 52-28.
It's no secret the Patriots have problems on the offensive line, so they can't use as many spread formations as in the past. With guard Logan Mankins inactive, the Patriots had to rely more on the run. The Pats opened the season by having their tight ends playing in tighter alignments and having running back Stevan Ridley on the field 40 or more plays in order to run it. Ridley rushed for 106 yards on 22 carries Sunday. Undrafted rookie Brandon Bolden stunned everyone by coming off the bench to rush for 137 yards and a score. The re-emphasis of the run allowed Brady to be sacked only once.
It's hard to tell if the Bills are pretenders or contenders. They invested $117 million in contracts for defensive ends Mario Williams and Mark Anderson yet gave up 580 yards and 52 points to the Patriots. But they always lose to the Patriots, right? The easy schedule will keep them in contention.
I can't say the same for the Jets. They looked impotent offensively in their 34-0 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. They started the season thin on offensive talent. Without injured tight end Dustin Keller and wide receiver Stephen Hill, they were hopeless Sunday. But things could get worse. Wide receiver Santonio Holmes will undergo an MRI for a foot injury that caused him to be carted off the field. Minus Holmes, the Jets have virtually nothing at the skill positions. Running back Shonn Greene (11 carries, 34 yards) continues to be a non-factor.
Even more embarrassing is how 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh came into New York and out-Wildcatted the Jets. Tim Tebow had two rushes for no yards. 49ers backup QB Colin Kaepernick had 50 yards and five carries out of the Wildcat, including a 7-yard touchdown run.
"We have the character of guys in this room to step up and stop the bleeding and get better, and that's what we're going to," Jets center Nick Mangold said after the game. Other Jets players were saying, "We're 2-2. It's not the end of the world.''
It's not the end of the world, but Sunday's game could point to the end of the Jets as a serious playoff contender. Their schedule is tough and they have few answers at the skill positions.
4. Lions aren't roaring: Coming into the season, I questioned whether the Detroit Lions did enough in the offseason to gear up for another playoff run in the NFC North. The Lions' only free-agent addition making more than the NFL minimum was backup cornerback Jacob Lacey, who signed a one-year, $1.3 million contract. It reminded me of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who won 10 games on an easy schedule in 2010 and added only a punter in 2011.
The Lions fell two games behind the Vikings Sunday after a 20-13 loss in which they looked somewhat lost as a franchise. The Lions are making the kind of self-inflicted wounds that you see from some Oakland Raiders teams. Whether it's penalties, turnovers or blunders, the Lions are their own worst enemy.
"We've given up five non-defensive scores in the last two weeks," Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. "We're 1-3 right now because we deserve to be 1-3 and that's part of the reason."
Special teams have been a disaster -- the Lions allowed a 105-yard kickoff return and a 77-yard punt return to the Vikings -- but Schwartz said he's not considering changing his special teams coach. Offensively, they aren't getting the big plays. The Vikings played a basic Cover 2, and the scheme took away the big play from the passing game. Matthew Stafford threw for 319 yards but had only two completions longer than 20.
"Teams are definitely taking away the big plays, but we don't have to adjust," Stafford said. "We have a good intermediate passing game. We just shot ourselves in the foot on first down."
The lack of a running game (55 yards) was one of the reasons.
5. Saints go marching out of the playoffs: All you had to do is watch the New Orleans Saints in the final minutes of their loss to the Green Bay Packers to see why they are 0-4 and positioning themselves for a high draft choice in 2013 instead of making a playoff run. Trailing by one with 2:58 left in the fourth quarter, Garrett Hartley made a 43-yard field goal for the lead, but it was nullified by an offensive holding penalty by Dave Thomas. That pushed Hartley back for a 53-yarder, but an encroachment penalty gave him another chance for a 48-yarder. He missed it.
Face it, the Saints aren't as sharp without their coach, Sean Payton. Their involvement with pay-for-performance and possible bounties has killed their season. Their defense is a sieve. They gave up 319 passing yards to Aaron Rodgers and Rodgers spent a portion of the second half on the sidelines with an injury. They switched to a Steve Spagnoulo scheme in which the Saints can't get to the quarterback. They registered no sacks and had only one hit.
Give Drew Brees credit for trying to rally the team in desperation. He passed for 446 yards and completed 35 passes. There isn't enough time in the 12 remaining games to catch the Falcons, who are 4-0. They are blowing all their tie-breakers in wild card. Effectively, their season is over.
It sure doesn't say a lot for Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blaine Gabbert throwing for only 186 yards --143 net -- against a Cincinnati Bengals secondary that was down four cornerbacks. Out were starters Leon Hall and Nate Clements and backups Dre Kirkpatrick and Jason Allen. All the Bengals had were the ageless Terence Newman, Adam Jones and Chris Lewis-Harris, a practice-squad player signed Saturday. Compare that to what Peyton Manning did to the Raiders. The Raiders were without their starting cornerbacks. Pat Lee and Michael Huff, usually the team's starting safety, were the corners for the Raiders. Manning completed 30-of-38 for 338 yards and three touchdowns in a 37-6 blowout. Even though Cam Newton looked despondent following the Panthers' 30-28 loss to the Falcons, Panthers coach Ron Rivera said he will not let this loss demoralize the team. Bills running backs C.J. Spiller (shoulder) and Fred Jackson (knee) were questionable coming into Sunday's 52-28 loss to the Patriots. To his credit, Bills coach Chan Gailey didn't try to abuse them, knowing they were hurt. Gailey focused more on the passing offense and limited Jackson to 13 carries and Spiller to eight. That should allow them to be more of a factor in future weeks. Possibly concerned about Ryan Mathews' recent bout with fumbles, Chargers coach Norv Turner used Jackie Battle more in the backfield. Battle had 15 tough carries for 39 yards and a touchdown; Mathews had only four carries in the first half. Because he didn't fumble in the first half, Mathews earned more second-half chances and finished with 14 carries for 61 yards. The Chiefs have to have serious concerns about the play of QB Matt Cassel. General manager Scott Pioli traded for him to be a good manager of the game. Cassel threw three interceptions in a 37-20 loss to the Chargers. He has seven interceptions and three lost fumbles for the season. Romeo Crennel said he won't change quarterbacks because he believes Cassel still can do some good things and he provided a spark toward the end of the game. Without Darrelle Revis at corner, the Jets used running back Joe McKnight as a backup cornerback and used him as a blitzer. The Jets stayed in some man, but they couldn't stop the run. The 49ers rushed for 245 yards and passed for 134. The Jaguars must be somewhat concerned about wide receiver Laurent Robinson. He was questionable during the week because of a concussion. Then he was knocked out Sunday's game with a concussion. As good as the Cardinals' defense is, Miami rookie QB Ryan Tannehill chewed it up in a 24-21 overtime loss. He had 431 yards passing and a touchdown. The NFC West is now 9-3 in out-of-division games in four weeks. It won 18 last year in 17 weeks, including eight by the 49ers.