Here are five things we learned in week three of the NFL, which saw three games go to overtime and the Cardinals go 3-0.
Torrey Smith is a remarkable man
Everybody reacts differently to grief. Whether in professional sports or any other walk of life, there will always be some people who find that work provides an outlet – a necessary channel for emotions and energies that would otherwise be overwhelming. Likewise, there will be others who find it impossible to even contemplate their jobs while coping with the loss of a loved one. Torrey Smith chose the former option on Sunday night, suiting up to play for Baltimore against New England less than 24 hours after discovering that his younger brother Tevin Jones had died in a motorcycle accident. "It was tough. I didn't know until 4 o'clock if I was going to play," Smith said afterwards. "I only had like an hour of sleep. Emotionally, I didn't know how I was going to hold up."
In the event, he held up better than anyone could have imagined. Smith's performance was nothing short of remarkable, the receiver hauling in six catches for 127 yards and two touchdowns in a 31-30 win over the Patriots. The first score came at a time when his team desperately needed a kick-start, trailing 13-0 in the second quarter. The second brought them to within two points with three-and-a-half minutes to play: setting up an eventual 31-30 win.
"There's not a better guy on this team than Torrey Smith," said his team-mate, Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta. "For him to come out and play the way he did today was unbelievable. I can't even begin to put myself in his shoes."
It may be time to take the Arizona Cardinals seriously
Three weeks into the NFL season, and just three teams remain unbeaten. The Houston Texans had never before started a season 3-0, yet neither their perfect start nor that of the Atlanta Falcons could be deemed as truly shocking. Each has recorded noteworthy wins, but both had been pegged before the season began as contenders in their respective conferences.
The same could not be said for the Arizona Cardinals – a team widely predicted to finish in the bottom half of an NFC West division thought to be the worst in football. Their schedule only rendered such a fast start all the more unthinkable. Week two brought a trip to New England: a team who had never lost a home opener at Foxboro. Week three saw them hosting Michael Vick and the Philadelphia Eagles.
And yet after three weeks there they are, having outlasted Tom Brady's bunch last week and now overwhelmed Philadelphia. Defensive co-ordinator Ray Horton's aggressive schemes flummoxed Mike Vick – hit four times on his first seven plays and 10 times in the first half – and allowed his team to restrict the Eagles' explosive offense to six points. The Cardinals defense also forced two fumbles from the quarterback, one of which was returned 96 yards for a touchdown. All this with the Cardinals' Pro Bowl safety Adrian Wilson sitting out with ankle and groin complaints.
Sunday brought a hugely encouraging performance from the much-maligned quarterback Kevin Kolb, completing 17 of 24 for 222 yards and two touchdowns against his former team, but there is no question that the defense remains the strength of this team. Up front Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell create constant disruption, allowing Horton to draw up his blitz schemes around them.
"No one respects our defense," said third-year linebacker O'Brien Schofield after Sunday's win. "No one respects our team, and that's okay." But as much as the Cardinals might enjoy playing the underdog, people will now begin to take notice. Seventy-five per cent of teams who start 3-0 go to the playoffs. The Cardinals' next challenge will be showing they can live with raised expectations.
Christian Ponder is developing nicely
Perhaps the biggest upset of the weekend arrived in Minnesota, where the Vikings defeated the heavily favoured San Francisco 49ers 24-13. The Vikes did a lot of things right throughout the game – from forcing Alex Smith's first interception in 249 throws to restricting Frank Gore on the ground, but the stand-out performance belonged to quarterback Christian Ponder.
Against one of the best defences in the league – one that had bewildered Matthew Stafford and defeated Aaron Rodgers in the last two weeks – Ponder kept his composure and seized the opportunities presented to him. As well as throwing for two scores, he became the first player with a rushing touchdown against the 49ers this season when he weaved through the heart of their defence to dive in from 23 yards out midway through the second quarter.
With so much focus on the rookie quarterbacks starting this season, it has been easy to forget about the second-year guys like Ponder and Tennessee's Jake Locker – who also had a big day in his team's 44-41 overtime win over the Lions. Ponder has completed more than 70% of his passes so far this season, throwing for four touchdowns, no picks and a passer rating of 104.9.
He's a big part of why the unfancied Vikings are now 2-1: the same record as the 49er team they beat this weekend.
Parity is king
Even before this weekend there was evidence to suggest that this was an abnormally competitive year across the NFL. A league record 20 teams reached the end of week two having won one game and lost the other. Just six teams had unbeaten records: the lowest such figure since the NFL expanded to 30 teams in 1995.
Week three, though, only served to reinforce the point, with a string of results that would have been deemed improbable just a few short days ago. The Vikings beating the Niners? The Raiders beating the Steelers? The Chiefs wiping out an 18-point third-quarter deficit to beat the Saints in their own dome?
Perhaps the real lesson of week three is that we don't know nearly as much as we thought we did. When even the Patriots are below .500 anything seems possible. This is the first time New England has had a losing record at any stage of a season since week one of 2003.
The replacement officials saga continues to slide into farce
We have established by now that many of the replacement referees, drafted in to replace the regular ones after the NFL failed to reach agreement with them on a new collective contract, are not up to scratch. Over the past three weeks they have blown calls, awarded a team additional time-outs, and at different moments just given the general impression of not being fully in control.
This has given rise to some dangerous trends. Players, believing the new officials to be either more lenient or simply not brave enough to throw flags have begun pushing their luck – making late hits and testing the boundaries of what is acceptable. Coaches have also got carried away. After Baltimore's win over New England on Sunday, Bill Belichick ran over and tried to grab one of the line judges as he exited the field.
Games have become chippier. On Sunday the NFL Players Association wrote an open letter to the league noting, among other things, the increased injury risk in such an environment.
Of course there is also an element of speculation to all this. The Broncos defender Joe Mays might just as well have launched himself into the helmet-to-helmet hit which cost Houston Texans quarterback Matt Schaub a small chunk of his ear even with the most qualified officials had been in place.
It seems rather less likely, though, that one of the regular referees would have casually thrown his hat into the path of a sprinting player, as one did during the Cowboys' win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday night. Dallas wide receiver Kevin Ogletree was trying to get open in the end zone, when he lost his footing after stepping on the offending piece of headgear.
Officials are supposed to drop their hats to the turf to signify that a player has stepped out of bounds while running a route – which would make them ineligible to catch a pass until they re-establish themselves in-bounds – but typically just beside their own feet, rather than into the path of a man running at full speed. Had Ogletree picked up a twist, sprain or worse while slipping, one can only imagine the fall-out.
What we have also learned over the last few weeks, however, is that the NFL is unmoved by such concerns. Further talks took place between the two sides on Sunday, but broke off with the two sides reportedly still far apart. The expectation is that we will have the replacements again for week four. Hopefully by then, someone will have had a word about the safe deployment of official headgear.
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