By David Mullen
After three weeks of a 17-game NFL season, it is too early to anticipate the end of the story. That would be like predicting the outcome of an Agatha Christie whodunit in the second chapter. Detective Hercule Poirot is still searching for clues. But it is not impulsive to identify the teams who have gotten off to murderous starts and find others who appear on the express train to Super Bowl XVI.
Football fans are on the edge of their seats. The Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers thriller on NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” on September 26 drew more than 21 million viewers, up 14 percent from the same time last season. And that was despite other screening options like a pennant race game between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox on ESPN, numerous TV season openers and a “Free Brittany” (Spears) special on paid cable network CNN.
And give my regards to Broadway. The Tony Awards broadcast on CBS was a flop. The revival of pro football is big and back and better than ever. It’s boffo.
In the NFL, there is a clear balance of power shift from the East to the West. The best teams so far, with few exceptions, are the Los Angeles Rams, San Francisco 49ers, Los Angeles (nee San Diego) Chargers, Las Vegas (nee Oakland) Raiders, Arizona Cardinals and Denver Broncos. From the Pacific to the Rockies, the West is wild. Like the beer in the brown stubby bottles with puzzles inside the cap used to claim, “It’s Lucky When You Live in the West.” In this case, it is more than luck. These teams are good.
The Rams’ defense is stout. The 49ers have battled injuries but are a Packers’ QB Aaron Rodgers improbable drive away from 3-0. The Chargers have an emerging leader in QB Justin Herbert. The Raiders are the “Kings of Neon.” And the Cardinals and Broncos have beaten the teams they should have beaten. But before the Broncos’ faithful gets a “Rocky Mountain High,” the three teams they have thrashed are trash — a collective 0-9 thus far.
In the AFC, the Buffalo Bills provide no reasons to think that they won’t make the AFC Championship game. They have balance and little competition within the division. The Cleveland Browns are finally putting things together under QB Baker Mayfield and a strong running game. And if Tennessee continues to hand the football to Derrick Henry, the Titans will run through the AFC South.
While too early to do an autopsy on most NFL teams, it is fun to see where the bodies are buried.
Perennial favorites are dying on the vine. The New England Patriots’ muskets are empty, the Indianapolis Colts are winless with oft-injured quarterback Carson Wentz in the saddle, and the Pittsburgh Steelers and aging quarterback Ben Roethlisberger are as sad as watching a local mill close.
And it appears that the Super Bowl XV hangover remains in the heads of the Kansas City Chiefs. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers exploited the Chiefs defense in the Super Bowl, and other coaches took notice. For the first time since 2014, the Chiefs seem vulnerable. The NFL is cyclical and it may be Kansas City’s time to spin their wheels for a while.
In the NFC North, South and East, the distance from the top team and the worst teams is as broad as the Grand Canyon. Tampa Bay will swashbuckle their way through the NFC South, with only the Carolina Panthers processing an attack. The Panthers have yielded just 30 points in three games. The Cowboys may score that many when they meet on Sunday, Oct. 3 at AT&T Stadium. Despite some holes, cheese heads in Green Bay should celebrate another division title. And Seattle will perk up from a groggy start to make the NFC West a four-team race.
Dallas, as the late head football coach Denny Green famously said, “Are who we thought they were.” They are an offensive juggernaut and a defensive jumble. But some riddles may be answered.
First round pick Micah Parsons is a versatile football player with an insatiable desire. It appears that rookie defensive tackle Osa Odighizuwa might be a steal in the draft. And most importantly, the Dallas defense has become opportunistic after a lost season. Sometimes you must take chances to make chances.
The Cowboys still miss scoring shots but seem to be able to dodge bullets because their offense is full of firepower. It would help if head coach Mike McCarthy began to grasp that his team does not get rewarded by bringing unused timeouts into the locker room. But once looking like a coach on borrowed time, it appears that McCarthy’s job is safe on Jerry Jones’ watch, for now.
The local team’s divisional opponents appear not ready for prime time. Washington forgot how to play defense. Philadelphia forgot how to run. And Giants fans in “New York, New York” sing: “I want to wake up, to a team that never sleeps. And find they’re king of the hill, not top of the scrap heap.” Wishful singing. New York football followers — both Giants and Jets — have a bad case of the blues.
The mystery of the 2021 season is how far the Cowboys can go this season.
Quarterback Dak Prescott has returned to the MVP conversation. The defense makes up for mistakes with aggressive play. And the NFC East teams are setting football back to the days before the forward pass. The West is the best, but the final chapter on the Cowboys has yet to be written to find out if they have a killer instinct.