ATLANTA -- I got to drop in on the NFC South on Sunday, and boy was that fun. The New Orleans Saints' 43-37 overtime victory over the Atlanta Falcons was about as 2018 as football gets. Quarterbacks, more protected than ever, airing it out. A rookie receiver dominating his matchup. The ever-menacing threat of a tie. And, in the end, Drew Brees still colder than ice when it counts.
The NFC South had three playoff teams last year. So far this year, only the 1-2 Falcons have a losing record, and their losses are to the Philadelphia Eagles and Saints. No other division has more than two teams with winning records so far. Which is why every game between two NFC South teams is must-watch, and every division win a huge relief.
"It makes the win that much sweeter when we know we have that much more room to grow," Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan said after Sunday's game. "We know we can improve, and we know we have to. Starting next week."
The Saints haven't played as well as they'd like to so far -- especially on defense. They talked last week about "diversifying" their passing attack, but 25 of Brees' 39 completions Sunday went to Alvin Kamara or Michael Thomas. Work still to do. But they're 2-1, and a road win in Atlanta is a big deal when you're forecasting a tight division race.
Carolina is also 2-1, with a Week 2 loss in Atlanta. The encouraging thing for the Panthers is that they've scored 31 points in each of their past two games. They need to get some things going downfield with their receivers, but the early success has Cam Newton buying into Norv Turner's offense, and the defense gets better in two weeks when Thomas Davis returns from suspension.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are a surprising 2-1 even after getting knocked off at home by the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday night, and it remains to be seen what happens with their quarterback situation. But the offense is clearly capable of big things, and they look like a tougher team to play than they were last year.
Sadly, the Atlanta Falcons may be cooked. Ricardo Allen's season-ending injury Sunday means they're now without both starting safeties (Allen and Keanu Neal) and middle linebacker Deion Jones. Dan Quinn's defense is built around the idea of funneling the other team's passing game up the middle and leaning on star players who can clean up that area. Those guys are all gone to injury, and in a division like this one there's little margin for error. That's why Sunday's loss hurt Atlanta so badly. Five touchdown passes from Matt Ryan, three to rookie Calvin Ridley and an offense that finally looks like it's clicking under Steve Sarkisian ... and now the defense is falling apart. Got to hit your windows in this league. They always shut before you expect them to shut.
Some other things Week 3 taught us:
The Seattle Seahawks really should trade Earl Thomas
Fascinating situation up there in Seattle. Thomas is no longer holding out, but does seem to be staging what Fox's Jay Glazer referred to Sunday as a "hold-in." Thomas admitted after Sunday's game -- in which he had two interceptions -- that he has been skipping practice because he wants to reduce the strain on his body and keep himself fresh for games. He said, "I'm invested in myself. If they were invested in me, I would be out there practicing."
Thomas, in the final year of his contract, wants a new deal. The Seahawks don't want to give him one, so Thomas would like to be traded to a team that will. It seems clear that a trade would be in everyone's best interest, since Thomas obviously doesn't want to be there and Seattle's coaches surely don't want one of their best players skipping practice and signaling to others on the team that such behavior is OK. The reasons not to trade him are (1) because you don't want to be perceived as giving in to a player's trade demand and (2) because he's going to help you win. But this year's Seahawks (Sunday's home-opener victory against a miserable Dallas Cowboys offense notwithstanding) don't look as though Thomas is going to make them a Super Bowl team. And as to the first point, what does pride really get you here? They have a guy who doesn't want to be there and would be of value to another team. Find out what that value is, max it out, and wish another of your franchise cornerstones well. It's rebuild time out there anyway, and you need draft picks for that.
Richard Sherman's injury is going to cost him
Speaking of former Seattle cornerstones, San Francisco 49ers corner Richard Sherman looks as though he'll miss two to three games with a calf injury. Remember when Sherman negotiated his own contract with the 49ers without an agent? Yeah, here's what that means now that he's hurt:
Sherman loses $125,000 in per-game roster bonuses for every week he's not on the 46-man roster. So if he misses three games, that's $375,000. His contract also stipulates a $1 million bonus if he plays in at least 90 percent of the 49ers' defensive snaps. If he misses two games, he's got almost no chance of doing that. He gets an additional $1 million for making the Pro Bowl (in the initial selection process, not as an alternate) and $2 million if he's first-team or second-team All-Pro. Not many dudes who play only 13 games get that kind of recognition. Oh, and his totally non-guaranteed 2019 salary includes a $1 million escalator that only kicks in if he makes this year's Pro Bowl (again, initially, not as an alternate). So if he makes this year's Pro Bowl (which he probably won't now that he's hurt), his 2019 salary would be $8 million instead of $7 million and would be injury-guaranteed upon that selection and fully guaranteed as of April 1, 2019. As it stands, without that escalator, the Niners can cut him free and clear after this year and owe nothing.
So a contract that was initially reported as three years, $39 million really comes out to one year, $8.625 million if he misses three games due to injury -- less by $125,000 for each additional game he misses.
Sherman argued at the time that he was in a low-leverage situation coming off an Achilles injury and having been cut by Seattle. And he's right. He wanted to try to negotiate his own deal without an agent, and that's his right. The point here is not to call Sherman a fool, which he is not. The point here is that an agent surely could have done better in terms of guaranteed money. San Francisco contract negotiator Paraag Marathe is one of the best in the business, but this surely was not his final offer. If this became a trend -- if players ditched agents and started negotiating their own deals -- teams would really, really enjoy that.
Complaints about roughing the passer calls aren't going away
Clay Matthews is upset. Jerry Jones is upset. Even quarterbacks who are benefiting from the calls seem to think the league may be going too far in trying to protect quarterbacks. But it's not going to stop any time soon, and here's why.
First of all, this thing about not landing on the QB with your full body weight is not a new rule. It has been on the books since 1995. It's a point of emphasis this year because teams complained that it wasn't being enforced and asked the competition committee to look at it. They did, and issued the following recommendation:
"The Committee recommends that the Officiating department emphasize that the defender is responsible to avoid landing on the quarterback when taking him to the ground. The Committee also recommended that video be shown to players, coaches, and officials during the offseason demonstrating legal and illegal plays. Examples of rushing defenders getting their bodies to the side during the contact and avoiding putting their body weight on the quarterback must be included so that coaches can teach proper technique."
All of this happened. NFL officials visit every team in training camp every year to go over rule changes and points of emphasis specific to that season. Every player who's complaining saw a video with multiple examples of how to sack the quarterback legally. I've seen it too. It begins with about a dozen examples of legal sacks. Every player who's complaining and asking, "What does the league want us to do instead?" has been shown an answer. Whether they were paying attention or not in their team's annual training camp officials meeting is a different question. And the answer probably tells you why this controversy isn't going away.
The Tennessee Titans are an early-season miracle
Saturday night, when Titans coach Mike Vrabel addressed his team, one of the things he said about the Jacksonville Jaguars was, "Everybody in this room knows what it's like to beat this team." A slight exaggeration, perhaps, since some of the people in that room were playing college football last year. But think about it. Not only did the Titans beat the Jags twice in 2017, but the Los Angeles Rams beat them with current Titans offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur in the same position, the New England Patriots beat them with current Titans cornerback Malcolm Butler in their secondary, and the Arizona Cardinals beat them with Blaine Gabbert -- who started Sunday's game for Tennessee -- playing quarterback. Thus, it shouldn't have been a huge shock to see the Titans win Sunday's game.
But the way they won it -- and the way they won last week's game against Houston -- is what stands out. The Titans have nothing on offense right now. They lost their most reliable offensive weapon, tight end Delanie Walker, for the season in Week 1. Both of their starting tackles have missed games due to injury. Starting quarterback Marcus Mariota still can't grip the ball at full strength following his Week 1 elbow injury, which is why Gabbert was starting, but then Gabbert got a concussion so Mariota had to go in anyway. The Titans' offense has scored just two touchdowns in three games. Dallas and Arizona are the only teams in the league that have scored fewer points. And yet, Tennessee is 2-1 overall and 2-0 in their division.
What makes the Titans dangerous is that it should get better from here. Left tackle Taylor Lewan was back in the lineup Sunday, and right tackle Jack Conklin could be back from his injury in time for this week's game against the Eagles. The Titans' coaching staff believes Mariota is progressing in his recovery and that it's possible he'll play Sunday without limitations. They can't get Walker back, but they're happy with the development of second-year receiver Corey Davis.
LaFleur certainly isn't happy with the production of his offense so far, but he's proud that they're finding a way to make fourth-quarter plays that win them games. The defense is playing lights-out, and as a result the Titans are finding a way to win games -- important division games -- while undermanned. That's likely to serve them well as the season goes along and they get healthier.