The NFC West is better than advertised
It has been easy to make fun of the NFC West lately. The division which some commentators took to calling the NFC Worst has not provided a Wildcard qualifier to the playoffs since 2004. In 2010 it became the first division in NFL history to be won by a team with a losing record.
Even when the San Francisco 49ers emerged to reach the Conference Championship game last year, some suggested that their 13-3 record had been inflated by playing six games against such feeble opposition. Old assumptions die hard. Few noticed how the Arizona Cardinals won seven of their last nine games, or acknowledged how hard the St Louis Rams had been hit by injury.
A few more might be paying attention now, after a week in which the NFC West's representatives went a perfect 4-0. Arizona's victory was the most remarkable, the Cardinals ending New England's 10-year streak of always having won their home openers since moving to Gillette Stadium in 2002. The Patriots had a chance to win the game with a 42-yard field goal at the death, but Stephen Gostkowski would pull his effort wide of the uprights.
If that might seem like a tough break for New England then any other outcome would have been cruel on Arizona, who were on course for the win before running back Ryan Williams fumbled at his own 30-yard line with just over a minute to play. Arizona's defense, which sacked Tom Brady four times and intercepted him once, had been to the fore – as it has been since their upswing began last year.
That is a testament to defensive co-ordinator Ray Horton, whose schemes have brought the best out of players such as defensive end Calais Campbell and helped make up for a woeful offense in which Kevin Kolb lost the job at quarterback within a year of joining on a $62m contract, yet now has it back after Josh Skelton went down injured. But it is perhaps also a sign of how the division is bucking league trends.
Although Alex Smith has improved significantly under Jim Harbaugh, the 49ers have unquestionably built their success off the back of a ferocious defense at a time when big passing offence is supposed to rule all. The Cardinals and Seahawks have been following a similar model, the latter's defense suffocating an explosive Cowboys offense on Sunday.
St Louis's young group, too, have an aggressive ball-hawking mentality, as evinced by four interceptions in two games against the Detroit Lions and Washington Redskins. They were good value for their win this week, even if they were eventually helped across the line by a spectacularly foolish act of petulance from Skins receiver Josh Morgan.
San Francisco remain the cream of the division and perhaps still the only real contender among the group. But the notion that the NFC West will be whipping boys for the rest of the league is being rapidly disproved.
Taking a knee is a dangerous business
All eyes were on the pregame niceties at Candlestick Parck on Sunday, as fans waited to see if there would be a reprise of last year's handshake histrionics between 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh and his Detroit Lions counterpart Jim Schwartz. But instead of San Francisco it was New York where tempers would fray, Giants head coach Tom Coughlin giving a piece of his mind to Greg Schiano of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as they met on the field after the game.
Coughlin's beef was over the behaviour of the Bucs' defenders during a kneel-down play at the end of the game. NFL etiquette typically calls for defenders to stand and allow the offense to run such a play when lined up in the appropriate formation, but Schiano, in his first year as an NFL head coach, had instructed his players to crowd the line and fire off hard in the hopes of causing a fumble.
Giants quarterback Eli Manning, whose remarkable 510 yards passing put him within three of the single-game franchise record held by Phil Simms, called it a "cheap shot", while Coughlin simply described himself as relieved that nobody had been hurt, but Schiano defended his perspective. "I don't know if that's not something that's done in the National Football League," he told the New York Post. "We fight until they tell us the game is over.
"There's nothing dirty about it, there's nothing illegal about it. We crowd the ball like a sneak defense and try to knock it loose. We're not going to quit – that's just the way I coach and teach our players. If some people are upset about it, that's just the way it goes. I don't have any hesitation. That's the way we play. We play clean, hard football until they tell us the game is over."
Tim Tebow is not a key component for the Jets
The Pittsburgh Steelers have less than fond memories of Tim Tebow. Eliminated from last year's playoffs by a Tebow-led Denver, their fans greeted the quarterback's appearance on the field during their game against the New York Jets on Sunday with a hearty booing. The volume only went up as he broke off a 22-yard run on his first play.
They did not have to boo for long, however. Tebow would stay in for the next two plays, handing off to Joe McKnight and Shonn Greene, before leaving the game again – not to return. On his one carry, Tebow had collected just one fewer yard than Greene managed on 11 attempts. The team's leading rusher, Bilal Powell, had just 33 yards from 10 attempts. For the second game running, Tebow was not asked to throw the ball.
Rex Ryan's words afterwards spoke volumes, the Jets head coach blaming Pittsburgh's domination of possession for the fact Tebow was not seen more. "We did put him in there … and he had a nice run and then we had another one with Joe and then we had a 6-yard loss," said Ryan. "Obviously at that time you're out of it, and then by then we're doing several points, so I think we need to throw the ball in those situations."
The idea of letting Tebow throw the ball, it seems, did not factor into Ryan's thinking. In the coach's mind, clearly, there can be no quarterback controversy – because Tebow is not a quarterback.
The Saints are in trouble
Perhaps head coaches are important after all. Two games into the season the New Orleans Saints, who went 13-3 last season under Sean Payton, are 0-2 – following up last weekend's home defeat to Robert Griffin III and the Washington Redskins with a 35-27 loss on the road to their division rival Carolina Panthers. The statistics are well-known. Since the playoffs expanded to 12 teams in 1990, only 22 of the 206 teams to start a season 0-2 have made the postseason.
The odds feel even longer than that for a Saints team which has given up a league-worst 461 yards per game. If it felt as though New Orleans might gain some advantage against Cam Newton the Carolina Panthers from having already played against a mobile quarterback in RG3 the previous week, then that theory was quickly disproved as Cam Newton was allowed to pick up 71 yards and a score on 13 carries.
If Payton's absence is being felt then the perhaps most troubling aspect of their start is that defensive co-ordinator Steve Spagnuolo, hired this summer to fix a defense which has been a postseason liability, is very much in place. A system which worked so well for Spagnuolo in New York, where he had the likes of Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck, has not been such a success with a less capable pass-rushing defensive line.
Without Payton calling the shots, the offense has not been sharp enough to make up for their deficiencies. Then again, they might not be if he was present. As the New Orleans safety Malcolm Jenkins put it: "Sean Payton couldn't come out and run a route. Joe Vitt couldn't make a tackle."
The NFL is not vetting replacement officials thoroughly enough
One of the weekend's big stories unfolded before a down was even played. On Sunday morning, just hours before New Orleans were due to kick off against Carolina, it emerged that one of the side judges appointed to officiate their game was a Saints fan. Not one who was shy about his allegiances either. Brian Stropolo had a number of pictures of him wearing Saints gear on his Facebook page.
Stropolo was pulled from the game shortly before kick-off. ESPN reported that when they first got in touch with the NFL about the story, the league was still unaware of Stropolo's allegiances. An article on NFL.com suggested that the eventual decision to replace Stropolo stemmed from a desire to: "avoid any storylines or excuses that could be related to potential in-game conflicts".
The league has stated that the replacement referees are subject to the same background checks as its regular officials, but it is hard to imagine the NFL allowing such an appointment if they had known of Stropolo's allegiances. Had the oversight not been noticed in time, the potential for any marginal calls he made to been spun into hugely negative stories would be enormous.
Nor was this the only apparent tale of insufficient vetting to emerge this weekend –NFL.com's Albert Breer reporting on Sunday night that Jeff Sadorous, who worked Arizona's game against Seattle last week, had been employed by the Seahawks last season to officiate their practices. The latter might be much more of a grey area than the assignment of a fan to his team's games, but only serves to reinforce a sense of poor organisation.
The real source of frustration for fans, of course, is simply that the replacements continue to make important mistakes. The most glaring this week might have been in the Jets-Steelers game, when Ike Taylor was flagged for a pass interference on Santonio Holmes that was simply non-existent. Or perhaps the calling of two separate two-minute warnings during the fourth quarter of the Philadelphia Eagles' win over the Baltimore Ravens.
But it is the general, pervasive and constant low-level mistakes which are beginning to wear down players and coaches. After his team's defeat, Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco suggested that the officials were undermining the integrity of the game. And although such words could easily have come across as sour grapes, the truth is that he was right.
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image: © David Reber Hammer Photography