Four downs: James' stock sees a run-up
By Skip Wood, USA TODAY
Four downs. Four chances to examine a key moment, trend, stat or performance. Every Tuesday we'll analyze four things from NFL Sunday and consider how they'll play out the following week.
Edgerrin James has had Peyton Manning's back as the Colts have bolted to a 3-0 start. By Darron Cummings, AP
1st down: Tag, you're it
Edgerrin James didn't want it. The Indianapolis Colts insisted. James grumbled. The Colts shrugged.
And three games into the schedule, the team's offseason decision to label James as its franchise player certainly is paying off — and could provide financial benefit for its star running back as well, one way or the other.
With opponents more and more willing to drop an inordinate number of defenders into pass coverage to combat the prowess of quarterback Peyton Manning, with foes seemingly content to fall back on the ol' "you'll have to beat us with the run" adage, James is helping Indianapolis to do just that.
In the 13-6 win against the Cleveland Browns, James rushed for 108 yards as well as his first touchdown of the season. Considering the Colts' high-powered offense has been relatively shackled by the aforementioned defensive strategy, that's good news for the men from Indy.
The 3-0 Colts have scored just 47 points compared with the 100 they had at this time a year ago. But James has reminded fans — and perhaps himself — that Indianapolis isn't simply Peyton's place.
With 324 yards on 77 carries, he's the league's fourth-leading rusher. Not only that, but the seventh-year man is No. 1 in coming up with first downs, 24 in all, with 19 on the ground.
So after signing a one-year deal with the team, his value is becoming even clearer to the Colts as well as to potential suitors if an acceptable new deal doesn't materialize.
Next week Manning will have a chance to get the offense untracked against the defensively challenged Titans in Tennessee.
2nd down: Lousy starts? Take heart!
Oh, to be in the NFC North now that the season is here.
We're talking about the only division in the league without a winning team, and the only one with three losing teams — the 1-2 Chicago Bears, the 1-2 Minnesota Vikings and the 0-3 Green Bay Packers.
The Detroit Lions didn't even play last weekend yet find themselves atop the standings at 1-1. And this is a team that has been outscored 41-23, the only division leader with a differential on the wrong side of the fence.
So for the three teams looking up at the Lions, things indeed are looking up — however perversely.
The only team to win Sunday was Minnesota, as the Vikings dispatched the New Orleans Saints 33-16 with relative ease.
This after being outscored 61-21 in losses to the Cincinnati Bengals and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
"I almost forgot how it felt to win," Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper said afterward, "but really, it's right back to the drawing board."
Indeed it is, because next up for Minnesota is a trip to Atlanta, where Michael Vick and the 2-1 Falcons will greet the Vikings on Sunday.
The other two division teams in action this weekend also face daunting assignments. The Lions visit the undefeated Buccaneers, while the Packers go to Charlotte for a Monday night encounter against a 1-2 Carolina Panthers outfit that's growling about its two close losses and still of the belief it's among the NFC's better teams.
In other words, things will not get easier for the NFC Northies — any of them.
But Seattle won a division title last season at 9-7, and the Browns won their division in 1985 with but an 8-8 mark. National League West, anyone?
3rd down: Underlying, expert analysis
So before we get to the recent history of 0-3 teams and whether or not they were able to right themselves enough to make the playoffs, consider the words of Bill Belichick, coach of the two-time defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. All together, now, one game at a time.
"I think we should approach it like that every week regardless of whether it's snowing, raining, 90 degrees, win, lose, tie, play on the road, play at home, have a circus in town, don't have a circus in town," he told reporters last week. "I don't care what happened last week, last year, last month, what the overall record between the two teams was going back to 1947 or whenever they started playing each other, who wins at home, who wins when the wind is blowing from the north and all of that. You guys have all of those stats. Do whatever you want with them. I'll tell you what I'd do with them."
Teams such as the Packers and the Oakland Raiders no doubt harbor similar sentiments about the fact that the most recent team to make the playoffs after a 0-3 start was Buffalo in 1998, when the Bills finished 10-6 and qualified as a wild card.
Nevertheless, here's a nugget concerning four of the five unbeaten teams going into Monday night's game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Denver Broncos. They're all coached by men with Super Bowl rings and who presumably know what it takes to get another one.
Washington's Joe Gibbs has three with the Redskins, Tampa Bay's Jon Gruden has one with the Buccaneers, Kansas City's Dick Vermeil has one with the St. Louis Rams and Cincinnati's Marvin Lewis has one as the Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator.
4th down: Young guns humbled
On one hand, you had youthful players such as Atlanta's Vick and the Jacksonville Jaguars' Byron Leftwich overcoming injury to lead their teams to victory.
On the other, you had second-year players such as the Pittsburgh Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger, the New York Giants' Eli Manning and Buffalo's J.P. Losman — 2004 draft picks all — failing to deliver their teams from evil.
Roethlisberger led his team to a late TD that tied the score, but it wasn't enough to prevent New England from coming back with a last-second field goal. Manning almost single-handedly got the Giants back into the game late in the second quarter before the team he spurned, the San Diego Chargers, romped in the second half.
Losman struggled mightily against the Falcons in the third game of his first season as starter.
When going against an injury-depleted secondary, completing just 10 of 23 passes for 75 yards, no touchdowns, an interception and a longest throw of 17 yards isn't exactly chicken soup for the young passer's soul.
"This is game No. 3," Losman said, "and I haven't been happy."
At least he's playing. That brings to mind to another 2004 draft pick and begs to borrow a phrase from USA TODAY's Jon Saraceno:
Hey, what ever happened to Philip Rivers?