Patriots, Saints, Packers in last place
There is something wrong with this picture: Patriots, Saints, Packers and Peyton Manning all at the bottom of their divisions. And things won't get better for either New Orleans or Green Bay, who meet Sunday at Lambeau Field.
But the weirdest line in the standings has to belong to New England.
Not since 2003 have the Patriots been below .500. That year, they lost their opener at Buffalo 31-0, then fell only once more all season and won the Super Bowl.
A couple of close defeats in which New England made some critical mistakes in the final minutes dropped the Patriots behind the Bills and Jets in the AFC East. That's hardly what fans have come to expect from New England.
"We don't talk about records," said coach Bill Belichick, who was fined $50,000 for making contact with a replacement official after the 31-30 loss to Baltimore. "There are so many things that can happen at the end of the game, so many different situations. Those strategic situations have to be played a certain way, whatever your strategy happens to be. But there's an element of strategy there that's unique to this game and that's what makes it great. Do we have to adjust? Yeah, sure."
The Bills looked awful in their opener at the Jets, then won their last two. They lost the league's leading rusher, C.J. Spiller, to a left shoulder injury against Cleveland, but hope to have incumbent starter Fred Jackson back from a sprained right knee.
They don't want to hear anything about being tied atop the AFC East.
"In our eyes the Patriots are still the top dog in this division," said Mario Williams, the $100 million free agent defensive end Buffalo signed in the offseason. "There is no pressure because we are already in everybody else's eyes not the leader of this division. It is the Patriots. If anybody should feel pressure it is them."
Them and, even more so, the regular officials who return after the lockout ended with them reaching a new contract with the NFL. Their performances will be firmly in the spotlight this weekend.
"Everything is fine until there is a call that decides a game and then people — players, fans, reporters — are going to be complaining again," Lions receiver Nate Burleson said. "If you thought there was a microscope on the replacement refs, just wait until people start expecting the regular refs to be perfect."
Also Sunday, Manning and Denver host Oakland; Miami is at Arizona; Tennessee at Houston, Carolina at Atlanta; the New York Giants at Philadelphia; San Francisco at the New York Jets; Seattle at St. Louis; Minnesota at Detroit; San Diego at Kansas City; Cincinnati at Jacksonville; and Washington at Tampa Bay.
Chicago is at Dallas on Monday night. Pittsburgh and Indianapolis, both 1-2, are off in the first of the bye weeks.
The week's action began Thursday night, with Baltimore holding off visiting Cleveland 23-16. The Ravens improved to 3-1, and the Browns dropped to 0-4.
New Orleans (0-3) at Green Bay (1-2)
Through three weeks, 731 points have been scored, an all-time high. Yet these two normally potent offenses have struggled.
Yes, Drew Brees can tie John Unitas' record of 47 straight games with a TD pass if he gets one against the Packers, and he might need a few to get the Saints their first victory if Green Bay's dormant passing attack awakens. Clearly, the suspensions of coach Sean Payton and his interim replacement, Joe Vitt, for the bounty scandal have hurt the Saints.
"For us, despite what's happened this offseason and the circumstances that we've been put under, all we can worry about is the guys that we do have in the locker room, as coaches and players, the scheme that we're running, trusting in, trusting in our preparation, and then going out there and finding a way to go win games," Brees said.
Green Bay found the most painful and mystifying way to lose last Monday night at Seattle, on what was the final decision by the replacement officials. Coach Mike McCarthy doesn't want his players looking back at the TD awarded to Seahawks receiver Golden Tate even though Packers safety M.D. Jennings seemed to have the ball.
"Our experience the last couple of days has been different, unique," McCarthy said. "You can't deny that or throw it off to the side. I think it would be foolish. As far as my comments and my direction with the team, it's the same as it always is. They know exactly how I feel about everything that has happened and everything about the path forward that we're taking."
Oakland (1-2) at Denver (1-2)
Manning gets his first taste of this bitter rivalry, and he's only 3-2 against Oakland in his career. This is a key game for the Broncos after two straight losses and with trips to New England and San Diego ahead.
The Raiders have won the last four meetings in Denver, outscoring the Broncos 133-63. They gave coach Dennis Allen, the Broncos' defensive coordinator in 2011, his first NFL victory by rallying past Pittsburgh last weekend.
Miami (1-2) at Arizona (3-0)
The Cardinals can become the ninth team with 500 franchise victories. They are off to their best start since sweeping the first seven games in 1974 while in St. Louis. Before that, they lived in Chicago.