Commentary

Week 3: AFC striking back

With hot start, conference is flipping the script after NFC's 2012 dominance

Originally Published: September 22, 2013
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

What a difference a year makes. The AFC is suddenly back.

After going 39-25 against the AFC last year, the NFC has the look of an overrated conference. In Week 3, the AFC won six of eight games against the NFC. For the season, the AFC has an 11-3 record in inter-conference games.

The only AFC teams to lose to NFC teams this week were the Jacksonville Jaguars (predictable blowout loss to the Seattle Seahawks) and Pittsburgh Steelers (beaten at home by Chicago). The Jaguars might be the worst team in football, but the AFC has shocked the world during the first three weeks of the season.

The trend started last week, when the AFC West went 3-0 against the NFC East, proving the NFC East was overrated.

Sunday had all elements of surprise. The Indianapolis Colts went to San Francisco and controlled the 49ers in a 27-7 win. The Cleveland Browns stunned the Minnesota Vikings, 31-27. The Cincinnati Bengals beat the Green Bay Packers, 34-30. Miami beat Atlanta, 27-23.

In other words, the AFC went up against five of the six NFC playoff teams from 2012 and won four games. Impressive.

Here's what we learned in Week 3:

1. Browns come up big: So much for tanking the season. First, the Browns traded running back Trent Richardson to the Colts. Then, they started Brian Hoyer at QB over Jason Campbell, who has 31 NFL wins on his résumé. The Browns' 31-27 victory over the Minnesota Vikings was clearly the biggest upset of the year. For more than a decade, Browns fans have been held hostage by rebuilding years. The Richardson trade and decision to start Hoyer theoretically posted the "Wait Until Next Year" sign on the franchise. Against the Vikings, the Browns looked like a team playing for the present.

"We've got a really resilient group," Hoyer said. "We showed that through the week that we had."

Without Richardson, the Browns didn't have much of a running game, but Hoyer kept battling. He completed 30 of 54 passes for 321 yards. Sure, he threw three interceptions. Sure, he was sacked three times. But he gave the team a needed spark on offense. Before the game, head coach Rob Chudzinski didn't ensure that Brandon Weeden will get his starting back once he has recovered from his thumb injury. With the Richardson trade, it's pretty clear the Browns are going to draft a quarterback next year. They have seven picks in the first four rounds. This year, they planned to make do. But against the Vikings, the Browns played for the present.

"I told them I believed in them and they responded," Chudzinski said. "Brian Hoyer really gave us a spark today. It's the resiliency that he's shown and that this team has shown. We're never going to quit. We're going to be aggressive."

2. The Colts' stunner by the Bay: What's happened to the 49ers? After beating Green Bay in the season opener, the 49ers couldn't do anything on offense with the crowd noise in Seattle last Sunday night. That was expected. But losing by 20 to the Colts at home was remarkable. That shows there are more problems on the 49ers than just a strange transition at wide receiver.

Going into the season, the feeling was the 49ers were understaffed at receiver. Michael Crabtree is out until late in the season with a torn Achilles. Anquan Boldin is the team's best receiver, but he's a slower, bigger slot receiver. Match him up with press man coverage, and Boldin becomes invisible. Seattle exposed the problem last week with its big corners and safeties, taking away Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis. Colin Kaepernick was not only fighting the crowd, but he struggled getting the ball to his third and fourth options.

We probably should have sensed the 49ers were in trouble when Davis didn't practice all week and was scratched because of a hamstring injury. What we didn't see coming was the Colts' offense controlling the 49ers' defense. Sure, it didn't help that LB Patrick Willis suffered a groin injury and couldn't finish the game. Attrition is a big issue with the 49ers' defense because it uses a rotation of only 13 players. With NT Ian Williams out for the season with a broken ankle and Aldon Smith facing an indefinite leave of absence for personal reasons, the 49ers suddenly have major concerns on D.

3. Ravens' offense gets help: For years we watched the Chicago Bears win games like the Baltimore Ravens did Sunday afternoon. The offense would fumble around and then the defense and special teams would bail the team out. On Sunday, M&T Bank Stadium looked like Soldier Field in the sense that Tandon Doss did his best Devin Hester impersonation with an 82-yard punt return for a score and linebacker Daryl Smith returned a Matt Schaub interception 37 yards for a touchdown in a 30-9 victory over the Houston Texans.

"It's 14 points, that's what it really boils down to," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "You're talking about 14 points, and that's a huge difference in the game."

It was huge because the Ravens' offense is at the stage in which scoring 14 points is a struggle. Joe Flacco lost a good chunk of his touchdown scoring potential with the trade of Boldin and the injury to tight end Dennis Pitta. To make matters worse, halfback Ray Rice was out with a hip flexor problem that could keep him sidelined for the next two weeks. Speed receiver Jacoby Jones remains out with a knee injury.

"I don't know what we had in our playbook to this point," Harbaugh said while laughing. "We're still building the offensive playbook at this point." That's why QB Joe Flacco is making $20.1 million a year. On Sunday, the Ravens had one offensive touchdown and three field goals, but the victory bought them more time to grow.

What allowed Harbaugh to call this a "rock-solid victory" was how the Ravens held together as a team in the first quarter. The Texans held the ball for 12:15 in the first quarter and had 22 plays to the Ravens' six. Somehow, the Ravens came away with only a 3-0 deficit. Flacco knows he has to find targets in the red zone and get the best out of backup halfback Bernard Pierce, who had 24 carries for 65 tough yards.

Things should get better. The Ravens haven't ruled out getting Pitta back late in the season. Rice should be back in a week or two. To be 2-1 with an offense this handicapped shows the Ravens haven't lost it as a playoff contender.

[+] EnlargeGiants' Eli Manning
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesEli Manning was sacked seven times Sunday as the Giants' offense hit a new low.

4. A Giant disaster: The Vikings have been the second-most disappointing team, taking a backseat to the New York Giants. Not only are the Giants not winning, they are becoming uncompetitive. Their 38-0 loss to the Carolina Panthers was the worst performance of Week 3.

"Disappointing is not a strong enough word," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. "This was not the competitive game I thought it would be."

That's an understatement. Eli Manning was sacked seven times and hit 10 more times. Coughlin said after the game he thought Manning was hit about 20 times. The bad part for New York is the Panthers did it with primarily a four-man rush. The Giants' five offensive linemen couldn't block the Panthers' four linemen. The one chance the Giants had to make it a game fell apart when left tackle Will Beatty was called for holding, negating a 17-yard touchdown run by halfback David Wilson. The Panthers led 7-0 at the time early in the second quarter. Fittingly, the Giants turned the possession into disaster when Josh Brown missed a 38-yard field goal.

Face it, the Giants' line has gotten too old. Manning has been sacked 11 times in three games. He has thrown eight interceptions. The Giants are averaging only 2.7 yards a carry and have only 133 yards rushing. That's right, 133 -- in three games. No wonder the Giants have been outscored 115 to 54 in their 0-3 start. There is little the Giants can do. They have only $2.2 million of cap room.

"We are what we are," Coughlin said. "I thought the effort was there. We don't have the results to show for it." Right now, the Giants aren't very good.

5. Packers' gamble backfires: With four minutes to go and leading by three, Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy got greedy. He went for a fourth-and-1 at the Bengals' 30-yard line instead of a going for a field goal. Like it or not, the decision dropped the Packers to 1-2. Rookie Johnathan Franklin fumbled. Bengals cornerback Terence Newman picked up the ball and took it 58 yards for the game-winning score.

Was it the right call? Had the Packers made the first down, they could have killed more of the clock and put Bengals QB Andy Dalton in a tough spot to make a two-minute comeback. The reason for debate was the fact that the running back was a rookie. Over the past month, the Packers have lost three backs to injury. DuJuan Harris is out for the season. Eddie Lacy was out Sunday with a concussion. James Starks suffered a knee injury during Sunday's game. Franklin was the only back left for the Packers, but he had been running well. He had 103 yards on 13 carries against the Bengals.

"I've got to hold it high and tight," Franklin said. "I was trying to make a play and everything, and I know the game was on the line right there. I've got to get better. I can't do that."

Franklin lost the ball while trying to leap over the defensive pile. Kicker Mason Crosby has struggled of late on longer field goals, so you figure McCarthy had that in mind when deciding whether or not to go for the first down. It was the most defining play of the year. If you ask me, I say McCarthy would have been better served going with a field goal instead of giving the ball to the rookie.

SHORT TAKES

The trend of close games continued. Not counting the Sunday night game between the Steelers and Bears, 29 of the first 46 games were decided by eight points or less, including 12 decided by a field goal or less. … Texans WR Andre Johnson couldn't finish the game because of a shin injury, but he said it wasn't too bad. The Texans play the Seahawks next week. … Injuries played a major role at running back Sunday. Reggie Bush, Steven Jackson, Eddie Lacy, John Kuhn, Ray Rice and Shonn Greene were inactive because of injuries. There were only four 100-yard runners Sunday and most of the teams minus their top runners struggled on the ground. … After a 23-3 loss to New England, Bucs coach Greg Schiano was asked if struggling quarterback Josh Freeman gives the Bucs the best chance to win and if there were thoughts of going to Mike Glennon. "He does and there wasn't," Schiano said. … Everyone likes talking about the slow start of Robert Griffin III, but what about the Redskins' defense? In a 27-20 loss to the Detroit Lions, RG III was better, but Washington's secondary gave up seven of nine completions that went in the air 15 yards or more, and those plays averaged 22.2 yards, according to ESPN Stats & Information. … Monte Kiffin's defense had its best day of the season for the Dallas Cowboys and accomplished what Cover 2 defenses like to accomplish. Rams QB Sam Bradford averaged only 8.3 yards a completion in a 31-7 loss to the Cowboys. … With a 27-23 win over Atlanta, the Dolphins are 3-0 for the first time since 2002 and now are a threat to challenge the Patriots for the AFC East. Still, they have to worry about DE Cameron Wake, who suffered a knee injury. … Geno Smith took the slight lead as the best rookie quarterback this season with his 331-yard performance against the Bills in a 27-20 victory. Somehow, he was able to overcome 20 penalties by the Jets and still get a victory. … So far this season, eight games have been decided in the final minute. … Passing continues at a brisk pace. There have been 29 games in a quarterback has thrown for at least 300 yards. The best three-week stretch was 34 in the beginning of the 2011 season.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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