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A 3-0 Start? As Last Season Showed, That Means Very Little

Sep 29, 2009 – 12:00 AM
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Dave Goldberg

Dave Goldberg %BloggerTitle%

Ray RiceThe NFL loves parity. There's just not much of it so far this season.

There are currently seven unbeaten teams and seven winless ones -- including Carolina, 0-3 after losing Monday night's game in the Jerry Jones Pleasure Dome. There also were seven and seven in 2002. The most 3-0 teams to start a season? Eight in 1998, when the NFL had 30 franchises.

Still, even for those off to perfect starts, nothing is guaranteed.

Historically, about three-quarters of 3-0 teams make the playoffs. But last season, five teams won their first three games and only two, the Titans and Giants, made it. Dallas finished 9-7, Denver 8-8 and Buffalo 7-9.

It should get back to a more normal percentage this year.

Of the 3-0 teams, only the Jets and Broncos are a surprise -- Denver seemed in turmoil entering the season, and New York's expectations were the limited ones you expect with a rookie quarterback. The Ravens, Giants, Vikings and Colts were all considered at least contenders -- if not favorites -- in their divisions, and the Saints needed only to find a semblance of a defense to have a playoff season. .

One other note: The cliche about defense winning championships seems to be true. Although early stats often mean little because schedules vary, unbeaten teams are 1-2-3-4 in yards allowed: Broncos, Giants, Jets and Vikings in that order. And the Ravens' D may be better than all of them.

A look at the 3-0 teams:

BALTIMORE: Always an intimidating defense, even with Rex Ryan having gone to the Jets and taken Bart Scott and Jim Leonhard with him.

But look at the offense, a problem since the Ravens' first season in Baltimore 14 years ago. Joe Flacco might be the best second-year QB since Peyton Manning in 1999, and there are three premier running backs, including fullback Le'Ron McClain. A healthy Ray Rice has 192 yards rushing, and the competition has rejuvenated Willis McGahee, who has 190 yards and is averaging 5.9 per carry, a full two yards more than last season. McGahee also leads the league with six touchdowns, five on the ground.

PROGNOSIS: A game ahead of the Bengals and two over the Steelers, who remain the primary competition in the AFC North. It will be hard for the Ravens to miss the postseason.

NEW YORK GIANTS: The defense, without four injured starters, returned Sunday in Tampa, holding the Bucs to one first down and just 35 offensive yards in the first 50 minutes. A few garbage yards late gave Tampa Bay 86 total for the game. Problems running and stopping the run in Dallas? Not against the admittedly awful Bucs -- 226 yards rushing for New York, compared to 28 allowed.

Steve Smith and Mario Manningham (with injured rookie Hakeem Nicks in the wings) are answering the questions at wide receiver. Smith's 23 catches are second in the NFL.

PROGNOSIS: With two division wins already, and Tampa the beginning of the softest part of the schedule -- Kansas City and Oakland are next -- the Giants are in good shape in a division with at least two other tough teams, most notably Philadelphia.

MINNESOTA: If we didn't know why the Vikings were so anxious to have Brett Favre, we know now. Game manager? Does anyone think Tarvaris Jackson or Sage Rosenfels could have executed the last-minute drive that beat the 49ers? That winning 32-yard TD pass to Greg Lewis was drilled almost 50 yards on a line -- 7-8 yards behind the line of scrimmage to the back line of the end zone. And kudos to Lewis for the catch -- given Tom Brady's lack of rapport with Joey Galloway and Sam Aiken, it might have been a rare mistake by Bill Belichick to let him go from New England.

The Favre-Lewis play overshadowed the work of Percy Harvin, whose 101-yard kickoff return was another highlight. Given the strength of the defense, adding another playmaker to Adrian Peterson makes Minnesota scary.

PROGNOSIS: The Vikings are simply better right now than Chicago and Green Bay, the competition in NFC North. But that can change if Favre, who will turn 40 on Oct. 10, goes down -- he's acknowledged that he might be good for only 10-11 games.

INDIANAPOLIS: Ho hum. So Manning lost Marvin Harrison and (temporarily) Anthony Gonzalez. Enter Austin Collie, Donald Brown and Pierre Garcon (and please, hold the increasingly trite French jokes -- he was born in Carmel, N.Y.and grew up in Florida.) The defense still gives up a lot of yards, but that Miami game is classic Colts -- a win with 14:53 time of possession

"He knew what plays to call at the right time and we couldn't stop him," Arizona's Darnell Dockett said after Manning torched the Cardinals 34-10 Sunday night.

We've heard that one before.

PROGNOSIS: As always, the Colts will finish 12-4 or better. With a questionable defense (as always), they're on their own in the playoffs.

NEW ORLEANS: Drew Brees threw nine TD passes in two games, then none in Buffalo. But the game against the Bills demonstrated more about the Saints' playoff potential than wins over Detroit and a hobbled Philly team. That's because Pierre Thomas' running, 14 carries for 126 yards and two TDs, carried them.

The defense also held up well, although the Bills are hardly the NFL's most potent offense. But it was still the kind of showing the Saints needed -- a nice win in outdoor weather against a physical opponent.

PROGNOSIS: Too many offensive weapons not to win the NFC South, where if Carolina's slide continues, Atlanta is the only other contender. The next two games will tell a lot: the Jets, then the Giants after a bye. Both are at home, which should help a lot.

NEW YORK JETS. For all the hype about Mark Sanchez, the first rookie quarterback to start 3-0 since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970, the Jets are doing it with defense. They pressed a still rusty Tom Brady in Week 2. And on Sunday, they did to Kerry Collins what more teams should do -- pressured him endlessly, even at the end of a 24-17 win, when most teams would play soft on defense. Looking as immobile as ever, Collins missed on his last 13 passes.

If the Jets make the playoffs, Rex Ryan's aggressive defenses will be the reason. Sanchez has been solid so far, but all rookies make mistakes and the receiving corps is just ordinary.

PROGNOSIS: The Jets just might do what they might have done last season before Favre got hurt and faded -- win the AFC East. Their win over New England will help, although the Patriots figure to get better as Brady returns to form. But every win helps -- if there's no division title, there still could be a wild-card spot.

DENVER: Clearly the biggest surprise among this group. A 32-year-old coach, Josh McDaniels, arrives in town, gets into a tiff with his franchise QB and finally trades him. Then his franchise receiver plays ultra diva and is suspended for two exhibition games. The defense, one of the NFL's worst last season, is expected to remain vulnerable, and the new QB seems to be basically a placeholder.

So after three games, the defense, under deposed San Francisco coach Mike Nolan, has allowed just one touchdown and three field goals, best in the league and best in team history. It leads with league with only 214 yards allowed and has eight takeaways and a plus-six turnover differential.

PROGNOSIS: The Broncos won with a lucky bounce in Cincinnati and beat Cleveland and Oakland, two of the league's worst. They could be 3-3 after Dallas, New England and San Diego. If they come out of that with even one win -- especially if it's the Chargers -- they might be a legit contender in the AFC West.



COACHING CHANGES?

There will be NONE in the immediate future, although to monitor Twitter, you'd think everyone with a losing record is in danger. And there's a huge media circus going on at Redskins Park.

But nothing is likely to happen there despite an ugly Week 2 win over St. Louis followed by Sunday's 19-14 loss in Detroit that ended the Lions' 19-game winless streak..

Two people who have spoken directly with Daniel Snyder confirm he has no plans to fire Jim Zorn right now, at least in part because there's no replacement available.

Next year? Bill Cowher seems less likely a candidate than Mike Shanahan. But Cowher, Shanahan and everyone else out there know, as Tony Dungy pointed out on NBC Sunday night, that Snyder is running the team like a fantasy franchise. So whoever gets the job will want a new GM to replace Vinny Cerrato, who mostly does Snyder's bidding.

Nor is Randy Lerner going to fire Eric Mangini in Cleveland. Maybe Lerner shouldn't have hired him, but three games is hardly a fair sample.

As for Bucs fans ranting about Raheem Morris ...

Give the guy a chance. He had to tear down to rebuild the aging team he inherited from Jon Gruden and Bruce Allen. Yes, they were pathetic against the Giants on Sunday and they might be better off trying Josh Johnson at QB for Byron Leftwich. But even that's a question -- the mini-drive of about 50 yards that Johnson engineered came with the game way out of hand and New York backups in the game playing a soft defense.
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