1. St. Louis Rams’ Special Teams
If you only heard about the Rams’ upset win over the defending champion Seahawks, then you may have missed two gutsy calls which reminded us of the game-changing potential of special teams. Already leading 14-3 in the middle of the second quarter, the Rams dialed up their first trick play. Tavon Austin, the usual punt returner, backpedaled near one sideline, appearing ready to catch the incoming punt. The Rams blockers gathered in front of Austin, and Seahawks raced towards him. Austin then fell to the ground as though he had muffed the punt, but the ball was nowhere to be found. Instead, on the opposite side of the field, Stedman Bailey was busy actually fielding the punt, and he raced 90 yards for a shocking touchdown. An even bolder call came later in the game, as the Rams clung to a 2-point lead and were preparing to punt the ball back to a red hot Russell Wilson with under 3 minutes remaining in the game. Except Wilson never got the ball; the Rams executed a flawless fake punt pass which netted them the first down and the ability to run out the remained of the clock. Special indeed.
2. Matthew Stafford
The often overlooked quarterback for the Detroit Lions engineered another stunning comeback Sunday, allowing the Lions to keep pace with the Packers in the NFC North. Aside from Eli Manning, Stafford may be the quarterback most likely to either win or lose a game for his team. After throwing two interceptions earlier in the game and stuck without injured star wide receiver Calvin Johnson, Stafford and the Lions found themselves down 13 points with about five minutes remaining. Somehow, Stafford managed to engineer two touchdown drives in just over three minutes to steal a win from the visiting Saints.
3. Sammy Watkins
I really do owe the Clemson product an apology; before the season started I didn’t believe that Watkins would have a convincing rookie campaign. To be fair, I really had more issues with the Buffalo quarterback play and lack of other receivers to keep defenses honest. Watkins has had an impressive season so far, and this Sunday only further highlighted his abilities. Watkins saw 14 passes thrown his way, catching nine for a total of 122 yards and two touchdowns in the Bills’ comeback win over the visiting Minnesota Vikings. The best part of this impressive stat line was Watkins’ final catch: a two yard touchdown reception with only two seconds remaining which gave the Bills the lead. If Sunday was any indication, then there are certainly many bright years ahead for Watkins.
BONUS: Jacksonville Jaguars
Congratulations to the lowly Jaguars for their first win! For those keeping score at home, the Oakland Raiders (0-6) are now the only team in the NFL without a victory.
1. Jay Cutler
The Bears have been having trouble for weeks now, and were highlighted in this column last week. New revelations following this week’s disappointing loss to the Dolphins have led me to again mention this sinking team. According to sources, star receiver Brandon Marshall was overheard berating the team and especially Cutler, who struggled mightily in Sunday’s game. After talking to the media, Marshall expressed obvious frustration, but did not mention Cutler explicitly. He instead named all the offensive weapons the Bears have, including the offensive line, but didn’t include Cutler on the list of weapons. His omission spoke louder than anything he could have said about Cutler directly, and it is clear that Cutler’s teammates have lost confidence in their quarterback. While Cutler should keep his job for this season at least, this toxic locker room environment is not a good sign for the future.
2. NFC South
The Panthers and Falcons suffered blowout losses this Sunday, while the Saints had an embarrassing collapse against the Lions. The Buccaneers were only saved from disappointment by a bye week, and the Panthers somehow sit atop the division at 3-3-1. Not a single team in the NFC South has a positive point differential; no other division can claim this distinction. The NFC South is also the only division in the NFL that lacks a team with at least four wins. I doubt many thought the Bucs would be any good, but with Matt Ryan, Drew Brees, and Cam Newton leading the other three teams, many though the South would be one of the NFL’s better divisions. There is still plenty of season left, but for the moment the NFC South is struggling more than any division in football.
3. Cincinnati Bengals
Rock bottom, anyone? Their record may be 3-2-1, but the Bengals haven’t won a game for four weeks. They entered their bye week undefeated with three dominating wins, and many were ready to hand them a top seed in the AFC. Since that bye week they have lost by a large margin twice and tied the (suddenly) pathetic Panthers. Star wide receiver AJ Green has missed time with an injured toe that unfortunately appears like it might be a nagging issue throughout the rest of the year, and the offense has been unable to regain the magic it had early in the year. They now head home to face the red hot division-leading Ravens for a matchup in which the Bengals desperately need to show some signs of life.