Sorting the Sunday Pile takes all of Sunday's NFL action and figures out the most important storylines for you to digest. Send your complaints, questions and comments to Will Brinson on Twitter. No recap Pick-Six Podcast this week (long story), but you can still go ahead and subscribe via iTunes for future episodes.
1. Rise of the NFC West
In the always unpredictable world of the NFL, even this is stunning: the NFC West has become one of the best defensive divisions in football. And even if the NFL has become a passing league, defensive teams are still plenty dangerous.
Witness the West's 4-0 record on Sunday, all of which were impressive victories over talented offensive teams. The Cardinals stunned the Patriots in Foxborough, shutting down Tom Brady and limiting the Pats to 18 points. The Seahawks put an end to the Cowboys coronation ceremony, allowing the high-powered Dallas (albeit inconsistent) offense to score just a single touchdown. The Rams gave up 28 points, but still emerged victorious over the resurgent Redskins. And the 49ers continued to shut the haters up, winning their home opener in impressive fashion against Matthew Stafford and the Lions.
No one needs a refresher course on San Francisco, who looks surprisingly improved after an impressive 13-3 season in 2011. The rest of the teams in this division are still flying under the radar, but they might not be for long. Seattle and Arizona are contenders, but they're both fatally flawed (Seattle's receivers are sub-par to say the least and they're starting a rookie quarterback, while Arizona's offense outside of Larry Fitzgerald is an issue). St. Louis has protection issues for Sam Bradford and can be run on, but the combo of Cortland Finnegan and Janoris Jenkins gave the Rams outlook a 180.
Add them to the talented NFC West corner trio of Patrick Peterson, Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman (not to mention Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor) and passing against teams in this division isn't easy.
We're not likely to see anything silly like three teams going to the playoffs from this division or anything, and no one in this division is going to get confused for a high-powered offensive juggernaut. But Sunday served notice for the rest of the NFL that the NFC West isn't going to be the schedule speedbump it's been for the past half decade or so.
2. Saints Defense Cause for Concern
When Robert Griffin III tore up the Saints in Week 1, he and the Mike/Kyle Shanahan combo got most of the credit. They deserved it. But after watching the Saints stumble out to an 0-2 start following their 35-27 loss at Carolina on Sunday, it might be time to reassess our opinion of New Orleans.
They are an immensely talented team on the offensive end, but they absolutely miss Sean Payton and it shows. Drew Brees has four picks through two games, posting an interception rate of 3.96 percent. He hasn't been above 3.5 percent on a season since 2003. Yes, it is early, and, yes, it is a small sample size. But the one concern with Brees sans Payton was that he'd take too many chances and force things a bit. The hallmark of that is an increase in picks.
Defensively they are a trainwreck right now. The Saints gave up 5.3 yards per carry to the Panthers on Sunday and now rank dead last in the NFL in yards and points allowed. They let Cam Newton put up a whopping 12.65 yards per attempt after giving up 12.31 yards per attempt to RG3 last week. We'll have a better idea as to just how vulnerable they really are when Matt Cassel comes to the Superdome next week. If the Chiefs lights up the New Orleans secondary, Aaron Rodgers (Week 4) and Philip Rivers (Week 5) should be licking their chops. And the Saints should be worried about their record going into their bye.
3. Tom Coughlin had every reason to be upset with Greg Schiano
The Buccaneers had an impressive effort against the Giants in New York on Sunday. The game ultimately ended up being a full Giants season condensed into 60 minutes, as they gave up big plays, saw Eli Manning struggle, looked terrible against a worse team at home, managed a comeback, lost the lead on their comeback, then came back and won. As they were wrapping up their win, Eli Manning took knee and Tampa got real aggressive with their defense, pushing through the Giants line and knocking Eli back:
What followed was Tom Coughlin storming to midfield and celebrating the anniversary of the Jim Harbaugh/Jim Schwartz postgame debacle by getting his drill sergeant on in Greg Schiano's face.
Afterwards, Schiano tried to justify it by saying that he teaches his guys to play hard on every play, and that's absolute junk. There isn't a "QB Kneel" defense in anyone's playbook, and trying hard to bust through the line and potentially cause a fumble on a gentleman's playcall is total horseplop. It's one thing to be aggressive with your defense and get your team to exert maximum effort on every single play. But it's an entirely different thing to risk injuring other players by pushing the limits on what's necessary.
"We play clean, hard football until they tell us the game is over," Schiano said.
Except the game WAS over. That's what taking a knee means. When someone takes a knee on you, they're not doing it to taunt you into diving over the line and trying to tackle their quarterback. They're ending the game in a gentlemanly fashion intended to prevent injury. What Schiano did is the equivalent of playing Madden in real life: he might as well have ordered his players to keep jumping in the neutral zone before Eli Manning snapped the ball.
Coughlin had every right to be cheesed at Schiano. This isn't the Big East anymore, Toto.
4. Trent Richardson is real ... and he's spectacular
Rey Maualuga ripped Trent Richardson for the rook's performance against the Eagles in Week 1, saying he "didn't do anything spectacular." T-Rich was not a fan of that and fired a verbal salvo back at the Bengals linebacker during the week.
On Sunday, Richardson let his actions do the talking and showed precisely why he was a top-five pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, rushing for 109 yards on just 19 carries. And while Richardson didn't "pull a Kurt Coleman" on Maualuga, he did embarrass the linebacker on a 23-yard, four-broken-tackle touchdown catch that was equal parts brute and beauty. Richardson's other touchdown was a gorgeous 32-yard scamper that saw him fake half the Bengals defenders on an inside move, cut back out to the edge and turn on the afterburners.
It won't be fun for Cleveland fans this season, but if Richardson looks like that the entire year, losing will be a lot more enjoyable.
5. Speaking of the West ...
I'll probably regret this when the Chargers stumble and Peyton Manning gets hurt ... but it's a two-team race in the AFC. We've been here before; last year, notably, the Chiefs and Broncos looked dead in the water through two weeks. Denver won the division and KC made a late run. But this year is different: the Raiders were stripped down in the name of new management (this is a good thing) and won't be able to stop teams. They showed as much when they decided to get blown out by the Dolphins. The Chiefs were, somehow, even less impressive on Sunday, getting hammerjobbed by the Bills. They're still dealing with injuries and a lack of explosiveness on offense and it's going to keep haunting them.
Meanwhile, the Chargers managed to win two games to start off September, a rarity in the Norv Turner era. And Denver's got one a tough game on Monday night and could very well be staring up at San Diego when Week 3 begins. But, assuming he's healthy, Peyton Manning's going to keep the Broncos in this race throughout the year.
6. Another elite class for Eli Manning
With his win over the Bucs on Sunday, Eli moved into another "elite" class, as he became one of only 12 players to throw for 500 yards in a single game. Even as prolific as the passing game's become in the NFL, someone chunking it that much is still a big deal -- we had two guys do it last year, but the NFL hadn't seen a 500-yard passer before then since Ben Roethlisberger in 2009.
Oddly, Eli become the third Giants quarterback to do so, joining Phil Simms and Y.A. Tittle in the club.
7. Back on the Bandwagon!
After Week 1, people couldn't backpedal fast enough from picking the Panthers and the Bills as playoff teams. Not so fast, my friends: both Buffalo and Carolina looked like the real deal on Sunday.
The Bills impressive victory is less impressive considering how bad the Chiefs look, but C.J. Spiller appears to be the real deal. He was dynamite at Clemson and is flashing that first-round skill now. That being said, the Bills (and fantasy owners) should want Fred Jackson back. Spiller -- and Ryan Fitzpatrick -- will be more effective with dual backs there. If Buffalo can beat two of the Patriots, 49ers and Cardinals before the bye, they'll still make the playoffs.
As for the Panthers, things are suddenly topsy-turvy in the NFC South, and we saw the team we expected to see in 2012 against the Saints. Rob Chudzinski was creative (without being cute) on offense, Cam Newton was lethally efficient and didn't make any backbreaking decisions. Brandon LaFell looks prepared to emerge as a legitimate No. 2 wide receiver on this team. And the running game with Jonathan Stewart is immensely better; he simply mixes it up. The offense that showed up on Sunday can hang with anyone in the NFL.
8. Quiet Contender
For whatever reason, people aren't talking about the Houston Texans. Maybe it's because they were good last year. Maybe it's because they've only played the Dolphins and Jaguars. Maybe they're not flashy. Whatever, they're really, really good.
Pete Prisco talked about their super defense (ironic, given a lack of Mario ...) and all they hype J.J. Watt's getting from his teammates. I think the kid's a sleeper for Defensive Player of the Year. Which is a good status to have, because it fits in with what his team's doing right now. They can run the ball as well as anyone on in the NFL. Their defense is one of the best in the league. They can throw it if necessary. And yet, they're not all that flashy.
Maybe no one's talking about them because everyone expects Houston to make it to the playoffs: such is life in the AFC South when you're head and shoulders above the competition. If their key players can stay healthy, it's hard to fathom them not clinching a top seed in the AFC and making a deep playoff run.
9. Philly's Phine Line
I have no earthly idea how, but the Eagles are 2-0. They are the first team since the 1983 Los Angeles Rams to turn the ball over four teams in each game and still win both contests. Even crazier: they are the first team in NFL history to start a season off by winning two games by a single point.
As my colleague Clark Judge pointed out, it can't last forever if the Eagles don't figure out a way to stop turning the ball over. Philadelphia also has to look more consistent. Or, ahem, Michael Vick does. He showed on Sunday exactly why we drool over his potential, with two throws really sticking out. There was the touchdown to pass to Jeremy Maclin, where Vick was flushed, rolled out to his left, waited until the last possible second and lasered a pass down the sideline to a wide-open Maclin for a score. An unreal toss-and-catch, and the same applies for his pass to DeSean Jackson late in the third quarter. Vick threw a teardrop 49 yards down the right side, hitting Jackson on his back shoulder with two defenders around him.
But for all Vick's excitement, there's still the issue of him being turnover prone and playing too recklessly. It's hard to argue with undefeated, especially when one of those wins is over a tough Ravens team (even if the Baltimore defense wilted some in the second half). But it's also hard to imagine the Eagles continuing their run of success if Vick can't outplay Andy Dalton (has also played the Browns and Ravens, has not thrown six interceptions) for lengthy stretches.
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