The spotlight has never been on the officiating to such an extent before, and we can only imagine the uproar if the returning refs have a bad day, but it will be great to see Ed Hochuli's biceps back, and Mike Carey's exaggerated hand gestures.
The replacement refs have made picking games this season even more tricky than usual. Most teams have felt that bad calls have cost them games, or at least damaged their chances. No where was that clearer than on Monday Night Football with the crazy ending in Seattle. You could see the anger in Steve Young's eyes in the postgame discussion, mostly because it was also being reflected back off of Trent Dilfer's head.
But we're back to normal now, and every weekend won't be full of whining at the refs (it definitely will) or constant second guessing of calls (again, this will definitely still happen). So without further ado, lets get into our games of the week:
Toby's Game of the Week: Minnesota Vikings (2-1) @ Detroit Lions (1-2), Sunday 1pm ET
|This was the biggest story in the NFL for about 4 hours,|
then the primetime debacles started
The Vikings knocked off our consensus #1 team last week with an epic performance. Meanwhile the Lions have looked lost in all their games so far. A pre-season pick to take a wildcard spot, they're struggling to find any rhythm in their passing game, and can't stop anyone with their defense.
The Vikings are an interesting team, Adrian Peterson is getting healthier every week and once he's back to full strength, watch out. Christian Ponder turned his flashes of good play into a full 60 minutes of outstanding on sunday against the 49ers, with Percy Harvin becoming one of the most unstoppable wide receivers in the NFL. He does everything really well and is a nightmare to try and scheme against. Put that together with fantastic play from rookie left tackle Matt Kalil, who is fast entering the converastion for very best in the NFL, and you have an offense that is actually going to cause issues for Detroit, especially with the return of Jerome Simpson to play opposite Harvin.
The Lions botched the end of a game that should never have been that close, and while the Titans had to pull out every bit of trickery and plain luck that they had, the Lions themselves were shoddy on defense.
Matthew Stafford hasn't looked like himself this season, and couldn't finish the game on sunday after sustaining a leg injury. While Shaun Hill has proven himself to be a capable backup, he's not got the arm that Stafford does to really take full advantage of Calvin Johnson. On the plus side for Detroit, Minnesota's defense looks very beatable, and the debut of Mikel LeShoure seemed to add a dimension that had been lacking for a very long time in Detroit. If they can become a more balanced attack, and force the opposition into bringing and extra body towards the line of scrimmage, Calvin might just create even more havoc than he did last year.
This is the first divisional match-up for both sides, and while it's not a do-or-die game for Detroit's play-off hopes, they won't want to fall too far behind the pack, or force their fans to bring out the brown bags again.
Gur's Game of the Week: New York giants (2-1) @ Philadelphia Eagles (2-1), Sunday 8:20pm EST
Parity parity parity - parity everywhere. It is true of the NFL as a whole; it is true of our inter-blog prediction competition, where everyone finished either 8-8 or 7-9 in predictions last week; and it is perhaps especially true of the NFC East. When voting for our September power rankings, there is no division that I struggled with more than the NFC East. I could have easily made a case for putting any one of the four teams at first or at fourth in the division, and though two season-ending injuries on key defensive players may have made it slightly harder to argue the case for the Redskins, though far from a stretch, it is certainly true of the other three teams, with each having both rock-solid strengths and glaring flaws that could see the Giants, Eagles or Cowboys just as easily securing a first-round bye in the playoffs to struggling to get a .500 record. In a division with so little to separate the teams, divisional matchups such as this one are crucial to either team's playoff hopes.
What should make this a particularly good game, beyond the huge significance this match up will likely have when it comes to tie breakers at the end of the season with the way the division is playing at the moment, is how the various strengths and weaknesses of the two teams match up against each other. One of the biggest factors in the Eagles' loss last week, and one of the reasons that they scraped victories in their first two games by a single point, has been the number of times opposing defenses have been able to hit Michael Vick, not aided by the offseason loss of the best left tackle in the game, Jason Peters, and second year standout center Jason Kelce being lost for the season during their win over Baltimore. The Giants, on the other hand, boast a fearsome collection of pass rushers - albeit ones which aren't perhaps putting up quite the gaudy numbers you might expect, though the return of the regular officials should see a reduction in the number of blatant holds that have somewhat neutralised the Giants' DE corp so far this season. Even if they don't get to #7, putting pressure on him - which should be an easy feat - could well lead to plenty of turnovers, as Vick is joint-1st in interceptions thrown, while the Giants defense leads the league in interception percentage. The Giants secondary is very thin, and you might expect the Eagles to take advantage by playing plenty of three-wide sets to get matchups with lesser corners, but with the third-lowest touchdown percentage through the air, the Eagles passing game will need to play better than it has all season to really be able to capitalise on this huge flaw.
It is, however, a different story when Eli Manning will face the Eagles defense, as this will be a feature of strength-on-strength, and with the Philadelphia offense misfiring right now, it will be up to their defense to keep them in the game. The Giants come into Week 4 with the league's second-most passing yards; the Eagles, on the other hand, have given up the third-least passing yards. Critically for this game, they've shown an ability to take quality quarterbacks (well... one quality quarterback anyway in Joe Flacco. Kevin Kolb and Brandon Weeden definitely do not count) and throw them off their game, holding opposing passers to just 50.5% completion and an average passer rating of 57, both league bests. Eli Manning has shown himself to be vulnerable when harassed this season, throwing three interceptions in the first half of their Week 2 victory over Tampa Bay, and with the sheer talent the Eagles undoubtedly have on defense, the Eagles could force the Giants to have to rely on their running game - and Philadelphia have only allowed a single touchdown on the ground thus far.
The game will ultimately come down to how well the talent of the Eagles defense can match the production of the Giants' passing game; if they can tame Eli Manning, then if Vick can get some protection, he may well be able to pull another fourth-quarter comeback to top the defending Super Bowl champs. Either way, this should be a great matchup.
Phil’s Game of the Week: Seattle Seahawks (2-1) @ St Louis Rams (1-2) – Sunday, 1pm ET
If you’re a fan of old school, smash mouth football, this week’s all NFC West matchup is a great one to check in on. One of the biggest surprises of 2012 so far is the emergence of the NFC West as a truly talented division, as Toby discussed this week, and a major part of this has been the defensive play of all 4 teams. Whilst the 9ers D has been vaunted for some time, and the Cardinals D line has been strong since before their Superbowl (XLIV?) loss to the Steelers, the Rams and Seahawks have quietly constructed very strong units of their own without getting much plaudits along the way.
Many now recognise the Seahawks has having the best defensive secondary in the NFL. With the man-mountain pair of Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman opposite each other at corner, Earl Thomas prowling behind them at one safety spot, and Kam Chancellor no slouch at the other, these four have already severely limited Aaron Rodgers and Tony Romo this season, and with the regular refs returning allowing them to be more physical without fear of ridiculous DPI flags being thrown, will look to do the same against Sam Bradford.
Despite not throwing an interception in the first two weeks of the season, and after week 2 ranking 3rd in QB rating in the NFL, Bradford had a poor week 3 vs the Bears. The Rams offensive line wasn’t a strength to start the season, but now with significant injuries to LT Rodger Saffold, C Scott Wells, and backup T Wayne Hunter, it’s even more patchwork than before. Considering they will have to deal with a pass rush unit that recorded an 8 sack performance vs Green Bay on MNF, you might start to fear for the Rams O in this game.
On the other hand, there are a number of reasons the Rams have a chance in this one where you might not expect it. Firstly, their own D has been less of a pushover this season than previous. Cortland Finnegan has an interception in every game so far this year, they picked off Matt Stafford 3 times in week one, and their own pass rushers in Chris Long and Robert Quinn are perfectly capable of putting plenty of pressure on rookie QB Russell Wilson – remember the Rams only win of 2012 so far came against another mobile rookie in RGIII, who even with his running ability couldn’t finish the Rams off. They will be wary of Marshawn Lynch, but with a vastly improved secondary, the Rams can afford to slide a safety down to the box in more and more situations.
The MNF hangover is also likely to play a role. Not only are the Seahawks coming off a short week, but the way MNF ended with the “Inaccurate Reception”, the “Fail Mary” or the “Century Link Stink” (whatever you want to call it), and the fall out that has followed, will have taken its toll on the Hawks. When you take the whole game into account, Seattle really did deserve to win the game, but the way it happened has levelled a lot of criticism at them, entirely unjustifiably. If the Seahawks haven’t had time to recover from the emotional rollercoaster of MNF, look for the Rams to capitalise and pounce on this team when they least expect it.
Guest Game of the Week: New Orleans Saints (0-3) @ Green Bay Packers (1-2), Sunday 4:25pm EST
by Lewis English, Until Kickoff (@UntilKickoff)
Vengeance, anger and retribution. These are the words that will be running through the minds of Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews III against the Saints this weekend. This game will be great but last season it would have been even greater.
If the NFL used college rankings then this would have been my Super Bowl for last year. These teams epitomise the new breed of pass wacky offenses and scattergun defences that are sweeping the NFL. The problem with this new "pass first" trend is that arguably the two best teams in football at the moment - the San Francisco 49ers and the Houston Texans - run old school run and hit hard systems. At the moment the New Orleans Saints are fun to watch but not very effective.
You are probably thinking "its been three sentences and he hasn't started talking about the match-up yet", and you would be right so here goes. I am going to stick my unmentionables on the line here and say that this game features the two best quarterbacks in the league right now. This game will be high scoring and a masterclass for anyone who loves the current high octane score-fest NFL. The Packers rarely use their running backs these days and when they do it is just to keep the opposing defence honest. The Saints are more effective in the pass game but their biggest threat, Darren Sproles, is more of a passing threat out of the backfield in his "New Reggie Bush" role.
Both teams are not playing as well as their talent suggests at the moment. The Saints are still in the throws of a seasonal meltdown due to have no coaching staff whatsoever. Drew Brees is a fantastic player but not yet a coach and it is clear to everyone that the pressure of running the entire offence is not working at the moment. The Saints defence is now longer allowed to attempt murder and is therefore leaking yards and touchdowns. The Saints are returning to the 'aints and as far as entertainment is concerned it's a good thing.
As far as Green Bay are concerned Aaron Rodgers is still Aaron Rodgers and their defence is much better than last year. The problem on the offence is with Greg Jennings. Jennings is not fit and will not command double teams, this leaves the Saints to nickel and dime the rest of the 1,000 strong Packers wide receiving corps. The Packers have the number one defence in the league and will be great to see Brees try, and inevitably fail, to unlock this monster D.
My prediction is for a fantastic game full of bit hits, big plays and a big score. This game relies on one question - Will Monday Night Football enrage or subdue the Green Bay Packers?
Onto the Michael Pick inter-blog picking league (are you starting to see a pattern yet?). Last week saw a ridiculous level of parity, with four entrants finishing at 8-8 and the other three - who were first and joint-second heading into Week 3 - ending up at 7-9; this is even more remarkable when you consider that we only had four consensus picks last week, three of which we all got wrong. In the wider picture, by Phil, Gur and Until Kickoff finishing slightly behind the others, it's allowed Second City Fanatics to take a share of joint-second, with Phil retaining his narrow one-game margin at the top of the pile. Still, the competition is incredibly close, with even the last-place V2journal only five games behind first-place Phil, so there's still very much everything left to play for heading into the final weekend of September. Here's our picks for this week.