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The Winners and Losers From NFL Week 3

Dak and Dez and the suddenly mighty Dallas Cowboys. Plus, Aaron Rodgers rises, the Vikings defense pummels, and Elite Flacco returns.

AP
AP

Week 3 of the NFL season is here, bringing highs, lows, and everything in between. And each Sunday, throughout the day, The Ringer staff will be celebrating the insane plays, admonishing the colossal blunders, and explaining the inexplicable moments of the NFL season. Welcome to Winners and Losers. Which one are you?

Winner: The Cowboys

Bryan Curtis: If you’re a Cowboys fan, tonight’s game was an oddly calm, happy dream. Zeke Elliott ran like the fourth pick in the draft. Dak Prescott continued to look like an NFL quarterback. (It was OK to turn to your buddy and joke, “Do we really want Tony Romo to come back? Heh heh heh.” Then you looked at each other to see who would say they weren’t kidding.) Probable 2015 bust Chaz Green didn’t completely sabotage the offense in a spot start for Tyron Smith at tackle. And Terrance Williams — well, his third-quarter fumble when the Bears were ready to walk out of the stadium en masse actually functioned as a convenient, scared-sober kind of moment.

I’d like to highlight one particularly odd and calm scene in particular: Dez Bryant didn’t sustain a dumb, season-ending injury on the second play of the game. When Bryant was tackled awkwardly by linebacker Christian Jones, it certainly felt like a horrible injury. Not because of the angle Bryant’s leg was bent or even his grimace on the bench. The dread felt by Cowboys fans came from the fact that such an injury seemed to happen to the Cowboys several dozen times last season, and indeed to Romo this preseason. Later, Bryant returned to catch his first TD of the season.

We could continue, while non-Cowboys fans slowly stream out of the exits: How cool was it that Lance Dunbar got a goal-line carry? Is rookie tackle Maliek Collins a thing? Was the Cowboys now-dead home losing streak — which extended to Week 1 of the 2015 season — the ultimate indictment of a high-tech stadium that few Cowboys fans actually like?

But this is overanalysis or fantasy navel-gazing. On Sunday, a maybe-decent Cowboys team beat an absolutely terrible Bears team in a pretty dull game. Watching Romo and Jay Cutler on the sidelines, I could only wonder if they wished they were out there or if they were glad, like the rest of us, for the early bedtime.

Winner: Carson Wentz

Claire McNear: They say in journalism that three events equals a trend — and friends, I am here to tell you that the highly statistical, super-reliable, threefold trend is this: Carson Wentz is subsuming, superseding, sucking the all-American football marrow out of, and just generally surpassing Tom Brady as this nation’s foremost quarterback. Who is now gunning for the Pats QB’s record for most passes without an interception to start a career? That’s right: America’s wholesomest, cornfed-est, gingerest hope, who in a three-game NFL career has tossed 102 without an INT. He is classy. He is gritty. Tom Brady is dead. Long live Tom Brady.

In all seriousness, though, it is getting increasingly hard to be reasonable about Wentz. He went 23-for-31 for 301 yards in Sunday’s 34–3 win over the Steelers; the Eagles are now the only team left without a turnover on offense this season. Is it all just a little too unlikely to be true? Sure. Is it a joy to watch? You bet. Are hearts in Philadelphia wrapped in enough scar tissue to cushion them from the near-inevitable disappointment? … Probably?

Anyway. We’re three weeks in and the Wentz Wagon keeps on chugging, and there’s still room up top. All aboard.

Getty Images
Getty Images

Winner: Aaron Rodgers

Chris Ryan: Someday, someone is going to say Aaron Rodgers is Losing It, and they are going to be right. BUT NOT TODAY. I would post the GIF of the soldier in Starship Troopers’ arm burning off, but this is a family website. Instead, I’ll just leave this here; it’s just as flammable.

Frankly, that’s just damn good football throwing. Rodgers came out of the traps like a stinging bee on Sunday, getting the ball out quickly and exploiting a beleaguered Lions linebacker corps. He got some help from his coach — Mike “My Seat Is NOT Hot” McCarthy — in the play-calling department, too: The Packers mixed it up with formations and personnel, and helped their franchise cornerstone dial up a four-touchdown first half. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to make Danny Kelly write a piece called “Something Is Wrong With Chris Ryan,” so that I can win the MacArthur genius grant.

Winner: The Vikings Defense

Danny Kelly: The poor Panthers, who lost the Super Bowl and their Week 1 rematch to the Broncos, just can’t seem to escape Denver’s formula. The Vikings didn’t choose this life — losing their top two offensive players in Teddy Bridgewater and Adrian Peterson to major injury wasn’t by design — but Minnesota has adopted the Broncos’ blueprint, and they used it to knock off the Panthers in their place. It was Carolina’s first home loss since Week 11 of the 2014 season.

The Broncos won the Super Bowl despite their offense by riding a dominant pass rush, a rangy group of linebackers, and a ball-hawking secondary to the Lombardi Trophy. On Sunday, the Vikings did a pretty convincing cover version: Everson Griffen (three sacks) played like Von Miller Lite, Eric Kendricks (12 tackles), Anthony Barr (seven tackles, one sack), and Danielle Hunter (five tackles, one sack) were all over the place, Linval Joseph (seven tackles) was a beast in the middle, and Minnesota’s deep secondary instituted a Broncosesque no-fly zone deep down the field.

Sam Bradford was fine for the second straight week, completing 18 of 28 passes for 171 yards and a touchdown, but it was Minnesota’s defense that carried the day. It sacked Cam Newton a ridiculous eight times (once for a safety ), picked him off three times, and held a Panthers offense that had averaged 40.4 points in its last seven home games to just 10. This Vikings defense is the real deal — in three weeks, it’s already scored two touchdowns, forced a safety, racked up 15 sacks, picked off five passes, and recovered four fumbles — and if it can keep playing like this, it may not even matter that the offense is missing its two biggest names.

Loser: Odell Beckham’s Social Content Strat

Katie Baker: Like all good divisional clusterfucks, the Giants-Redskins game lasted forever and neither team outwardly wanted it more. It was a contest that vindicated the most pessimistic and insufferable genre of fan. (You know the kind: They moan, “We’re gonna screw it up here” at every refreshed first-and-10, and thanks to mathematics, they’re usually right.) It was a day of stuck-together helmets, trick punt plays, refs getting clocked by celebratory elbows, and other various weirdness, which meant that it was a day of solidly meme-worthy viral video content. Unless your name was Odell Beckham Jr., of course.

Beckham first made his name in November of 2014 via looped image; clips of his famous one-handed catch persist even now in commercials that air during NFL games. Against Washington, he was once again eminently GIFable — but under much different circumstances. Early on, cameras captured Beckham streaking wide open as Eli Manning opted to hurl the ball into a crowded slot. Later, he was carried by Josh Norman through the end zone while the two exhibited the acrobatic grace of pairs figure skaters. (Toepick!) But it was when Manning threw an interception early in the fourth quarter that Beckham really hit the footage trifecta of oof footage.

There he was, battling tears. There he was, being consoled on the sideline by his dopey, interception-y quarterback. And there he was, losing a fight to a kicking net and looking generally like Sideshow Bob stepping on rakes. It’s a testament to Beckham that he cares this much, that he is so open with his tangled emotions. It’s also impressive to see him make plays like this on his adversary, Norman. But while Beckham may have had yet another sweet, one-handed catch today, that’s not the footage that will be replayed again and again.

Getty Images
Getty Images

Winner: Jimmy Graham

Kevin Clark: Seattle is good again this year. This is not a new development. The new development is that one of their most disappointing players has jump-started the offense and could provide a massive boost to a top NFC contender. In Seattle’s 37–18 victory over San Francisco, Graham finally looked like the player who was, in 2015, worth trading a first-round pick for. The tight end passed the 100-yard mark for only the second time as a Seahawk (he had 11 yards against the Dolphins and 42 against the Rams in Weeks 1 and 2). Graham developing into a top target would give Russell Wilson a much-needed post–Marshawn Lynch safety valve.

A blowout Seahawks win over the 49ers would not normally be an exciting event for Seattle fans, but you have to consider the last few weeks for both of these teams. The 49ers are bad but not nearly as bad as conventional wisdom pegged them — they put up 27 on the Panthers and defeated a Rams team who beat the Seahawks last week. The Seahawks, meanwhile, looked awful in a win over the Dolphins and couldn’t even score a touchdown in L.A. That has been attributed, in part, to Russell Wilson being banged up in the early part of the season. Wilson, by the way, left today’s game early with a knee injury. (He briefly reentered the game, so it’s likely not serious.) Sunday was a return to normalcy for the NFC’s most consistent team over the past five years. As long as Wilson can play next week against the Jets, Seahawks fans will consider this a very good Sunday indeed.

Loser: San Francisco quarterbacks

Claire McNear: As punt turned into punt turned into punt turned into interception turned into partially blocked punt, “PUT KAP IN!” became a rallying cry for San Francisco fans shocked to find that the Seahawks had not kept their promise to continue their early season mediocrity. By the second half, the Bay Area’s id was even calling for it:

Is Chip Kelly trying to send a message to GM Trent Baalke with his enthusiasm for Blaine Gabbert? Was there nothing to be gained by bringing someone else in to try to wrangle San Francisco’s meager receiving core? When will the Big One hit, anyway? We’ll get some answers in our lifetimes. Probably.

Loser: Ben Roethlisberger

Kevin Clark: Few things in football were more obvious than the fact that Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown would have to carry the Pittsburgh offense through the early part of the season, and that was made more clear Sunday, when Roethlisberger had an off day, DeAngelo Williams’s run of great games in relief of the suspended Le’Veon Bell ended, and Brown was on the receiving end of 140 of Pittsburgh’s 257 passing yards. Roethlisberger was not a total disaster — his zero-touchdown, one-interception line looks positively fine compared with Ryan Fitzpatrick’s six picks in Kansas City, for instance — but for long stretches of this season, Roethlisberger will be tasked with creating something out of nothing, and he didn’t do much on Sunday. The Eagles beat the Steelers 34–3. Three of Pittsburgh’s next four are against the Chiefs, Jets, and Patriots — three good defenses. This next month will determine whether Roethlisberger is the MVP candidate many expected him to be, but Sunday has created more questions than answers.

Loser: Ryan Fitzpatrick

Sean Fennessey:

[4:07 P.M. PT]

[4:10 P.M. PT]

[4:18 P.M. PT]

Winner: The Bills Nonsensical Firing Practices

Danny Kelly: Last Friday — a day after Rex and Rob Ryan’s defense gave up 493 yards and 37 points in a loss to the Jets — Buffalo tried to stop the bleeding by firing its offensive coordinator. Greg Roman became the first fall guy for a struggling Bills team, despite the fact that the offense wasn’t the problem. But what do I know? It seems to have worked.

The Bills defense finally woke up against a high-octane Arizona offense and forced five straight three-and-outs to open the game. The fast start helped Buffalo jump out to an early 17–0 lead, and Arizona never recovered. Buffalo teed off on an Arizona offense that went into comeback mode: The Bills got home for five sacks and hit Palmer nine times, and he never looked comfortable throwing the ball. On the day, Palmer completed just 26 of 50 passes and tossed four picks, including two to Stephon Gilmore — a big bounce back from a guy that gave up seven catches for 129 yards in coverage to the Jets last week. It was a dominating performance for a Bills D that had looked straight-up bad through the first two weeks.

Not for nothing, but the Bills offense, under new offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn, and without superstar receiver Sammy Watkins, racked up 297 yards against a normally stout Cardinals defense. They were most dangerous on the ground and gained 208 yards on 32 carries, led by 110 yards and two touchdowns by LeSean McCoy. Lynn dialed up a few wildcat runs for McCoy and got 76 yards and a rushing touchdown from Tyrod Taylor.

It’s a one-game sample, but for the first time this year, it actually looks like the Ryan brothers know what they’re doing.

Loser: Carson Palmer

Chris Ryan: Aside from the Cardinals’ west-to-east travel, the table was set for Carson Palmer to feast this weekend. The Bills defense had looked like a mythical floating trash barge for its first two games, Buffalo had just fired its offensive coordinator, and Arizona was coming off dropping 40 on Tampa Bay in Week 2. Palmer basically could have gotten Rex fired, and instead put up a four-pick, two-fumble pratfall of a performance. We are not far enough away from last season’s NFC championship game for Cardinals fans to feel OK about this. Arizona has ridiculous talent all over the field, with many players still in or hitting their primes. Bruce Arians has got to be hoping Palmer hasn’t fully exited his.

Possible solution: Let Patrick Peterson play all 11 positions:

Winner: Joe Flacco

Micah Peters: There are a few questions that every human wrestles with: Why are we here? Why does God allow suffering? Why did I eat the whole thing? “Why” presupposes a state of being, but questions of whether something is or isn’t are thornier, and, inconveniently, depend on condition. For example: Is Joe Flacco elite?

Sometimes. Today, yes. Sort of. I think. Maybe.

The facts: At one point in the game, Flacco had 21 straight completions, a franchise record and four shy of the league record. He linked with Steve Smith Sr. late in the fourth quarter for a crucial fourth-down conversion that set up a game-winning 54-yard field goal. The 19–17 win over the Jaguars means that he’s led the Ravens to their first 3–0 start since 2009. He scored a rushing touchdown in the first quarter.

Also facts: He threw two interceptions in the fourth quarter, as well. And that aforementioned league record belongs to Ryan Tannehill, so like, how much could it really mean?

So, is Joe Flacco elite? Sometimes. Today, yes. Sort of. I think. Maybe.

Winner: The Touchdown Twerking Trend

Shea Serrano: Early in the second quarter of the Cincy-Denver game, Trevor Siemian rocketed a 41-yard pass to Emmanuel Sanders, who had outrun Pacman Jones because Pacman Jones is 60 years old and runs like the actual Pac-Man now. Siemian threw the ball, Sanders caught it and scored, then Denver was awarded six points. It was, in many ways, a regular football moment. Until it became something much more important.

The cameras stayed on Sanders as he cruised to a stop in the end zone …

They stayed on Sanders as he whirled the football at the ground with enough velocity that it stood up on its own for a moment as it spun …

They stayed on Sanders as he did a walking-swim-move thing …

And the cameras stayed on Sanders as he swam his arms down to his knees and began to squat down …

But then he began to pump.

And that’s when he was silenced.

Loser: The CBS Broadcast Truck

Shea Serrano: Pumping is all of a sudden not allowed in the NFL, so instead of allowing us to watch Sanders pump, the camera quickly cut away to Siemian, who was not pumping, and a person who is not pumping is decidedly less interesting than a person who is pumping.

The only joy I get from this situation is thinking about how there was probably a meeting where a bunch of older and professional white men sat around an expensive oak table talking about how the NFL’s pump epidemic should be handled going forward. I hope one of them referred to it as a “pump epidemic,” and I also hope he shook his head and talked about how much better America was before all of this pumping existed. “I’ll tell you what,” he probably said, in between signing petitions to defund inner city schools, “When Trump’s president, all of these pumpers are getting pumped right the fuck out of this beautiful country of ours.”

Loser: Dwayne Harris

Micah Peters: It seemed like Washington wideout Jamison Crowder spent his whole afternoon cheffing up would-be Giants tacklers, but this … this was just sad.

Shrugging off a noble attempt by rookie corner Eli Apple, Crowder hoped to steal a little extra yardage on a punt return, but that’s all it was supposed to be. The person at fault for Crowder’s resulting 52-yard romp is Dwayne Harris, who closed down a good 10 yards of space, only to be juked into two Mondays from now, when the Giants play the Vikings. He now owns eternal shame.

Winner: People Without DirecTV Living in the Raiders Coverage Area

Katie Baker: Life in the greater Reno metropolitan area can be a bit of a sports wasteland; the closest major pro team, after all, is the Sacramento Kings. And while many people who live around here tend to look down at Bay Area folk as pushy weekend warriors whose Teslas spin out on I-80 and/or clog ski-resort parking lots, we are nevertheless tied to their sports teams, like it or not. This is particularly true on NFL Sundays, when the 506 coverage maps always say the same thing, again and again: Raiders and Niners on the menu; no substitutions. It’s hard to know what has gone through a bigger drought: the climate in the Sierras or the Oakland organization.

But both may be changing. We got our first snow flurries just the other day, and in the past few weeks the Raiders have been, dare I say, fun to watch. Oakland was a Week 1 darling thanks to Blackjack Del Rio’s game-winning gamble, and their narrow Week 2 loss at least featured 299 yards and three touchdowns from quarterback Derek Carr. This week, Carr’s connections with Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree, combined with Latavius Murray’s touchdown run and Sebastian Janikowski’s record-setting field goal, made the game close and good right up until the exciting end. (Can Crabtree have someone fix the straps on that helmet, tho? Thx.) At the mildly depressing casino where I watched the NFL slate, the Raiders game was on the main screen, and people didn’t even seem unhappy about it. In contrast with past years, being part of the diaspora of Raider Nation feels like a feature, not a bug.