The dilemma has been resolved. For now.
The “Three and Out” series will continue, with three questions and answers for each of the Sunday games, every Sunday until no more Sundays remain in the 2014 regular season.
Then, the dilemma will resurface in 2015. Assuming I — and you — don’t completely forget about this feature by then.
Lions at Falcons
1. Why are they playing this one so early?
That’s the question ESPN and CBS will be asking, as the audiences for their pregame shows, already diluted by the Internet, become even more undermined by an actual game. But there are only so many places on the pizzas into which cheese can be crammed, and the NFL is hoping to fill up the crust of your morning with football.
On a day that usually features a large cluster of games from 1:00 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. ET, the shifting of a game to 9:30 a.m. ET lets everyone focus on one game before a bunch of them get started. And it showcases the London game, giving it a spot by itself on the Wembley Stadium stage.
Of course, Lions and Falcons fans living in California may not appreciate it. If enough people in every time zone tune in, look for more early-morning London games in the future.
2. Do the Lions really need Calvin Johnson?
Not at a cap number in excess of $20 million for next year; that reality continues to hover over the franchise. The bloated Ndamukong Suh contract will result in the second overall pick in the 2010 draft leaving in free agency. Johnson’s big-dollar deal could still prompt the Lions to cut him as early as next year.
The more they win without him and the longer his ankle injury lingers, the more likely the Lions will be to devote those cap dollars to other positions on the roster.
G.M. Martin Mayhew declined to comment on Johnson’s future this week. Mayhew also opted not to declare Johnson will retire as a Lion. At this point, it would be a surprise if he does.
3. Is there hope for the Falcons?
Technically, yes. Despite being 2-5, the Falcons are only one win behind the first-place Panthers. And the Falcons still play Carolina twice.
But something’s wrong. The Falcons haven’t won in more than a month, a rollicking 56-14 Thursday night trouncing of the Buccaneers. Injuries on the offensive line and a subpar defense have left the Falcons searching desperately for answers — and even more desperately for a win. Against the 5-2 Lions on Sunday, that may not happen.
At least they won’t have to use the silent count in front of their “home” fans in London.
Seahawks at Panthers
1. Are the Seahawks divided?
They’re apparently divided on the question of whether there’s a divide. Quarterback Russell Wilson insists all is well, but what else is going to say? Coach Pete Carroll and company managed to hide some serious dysfunction during receiver Percy Harvin’s time with the team. Folks who know the truth continue to be programmed to say nothing, with Carroll having a Belichickian degree of influence over current and former players who won’t break ranks for fear of incurring the Wrath of Pete.
Something clearly isn’t right, or Harvin would still be there. While Harvin reportedly was far from a model citizen, there’s no smoking gun that points a major incident that became the last straw. Otherwise, players wouldn’t have been so shocked by the news that Harvin had been dumped onto the Jets.
While there’s cause for concern if, as it appears, some players resent Wilson, this team found a way to easily win the Super Bowl despite whatever was happening in 2013. It shouldn’t be an issue this year, unless the losses continue to pile up.
Pile up they may. Through six games, Seattle already has lost as many as it lost in 19 games a season ago.
2. How much do the Panthers miss Greg Hardy?
A lot. Ranked 27th in yardage allowed and 29th in scoring, the Panthers aren’t close to what they were defensively in 2013. They’ve still mustered 15 sacks through seven games, but that’s a far cry from the 60-sack mark of a year ago.
As Hardy heads toward a trial date next month on domestic violence charges, an acquittal should result in immediate reinstatement, which will be very good news for a Panthers team that somehow finds itself in first place despite a sluggish 3-3-1 record.
3. Should Russell Wilson have his head on a swivel?
With all the talk about internal strife, the Seahawks quarterback needs to be concerned about external forces that intend him harm. The Panthers definitely do, if Wilson decides to tuck the ball and run.
“He’s pretty much like a running back back there with the way he can scramble. So we’ve just got to plaster him and, in some cases, take a shot,” Carolina defensive end Wes Horton said this week.
It’s easy to say. It’s not easy to do. Fast, agile, and elusive, Wilson has a knack for running away from and around guys, protecting himself by getting out of bounds or sliding or instinctively positioning himself in a way to absorb a hit without it being the kind of big hit that could cause an injury.
Ravens at Bengals
1. What’s wrong with the Bengals?
From three straight wins to three straight games without one, the easy explanation is that the Bengals miss receiver A.J. Green, who has missed the last two with a toe injury and who was fully neutralized by Pats cornerback Darrelle Revis in Week Five. Apart from his production, the threat of Green getting behind a defense opens up the rest of the offense. Without that potential for a big play, it’s a lot harder to find an opening underneath.
The defense under new coordinator Paul Guenther also has been exposed. Over the last three weeks, Cincinnati has allowed 43, 37, and 27. That’s an average of 35.6 points allowed per game.
A loss to Baltimore will equalize the head-to-head tiebreaker (which only matters if Baltimore plays someone to a tie this year, given Cincinnati’s tie with the Panthers). Far more importantly, it will put the Bengals two-and-a-half games behind the Ravens.
2. Is Andy Dalton earning his contract?
The media and the fans tend to adopt narratives early in the season and then forget about them. For the Bengals’ freshly-minted almost-franchise quarterback, conventional wisdom supported the notion that Dalton was indeed justifying the team’s investment in him. Averaging 8.6 yards per attempt, Dalton was on his way to becoming one of the best young-ish quarterbacks in the league.
In the last three games, Dalton’s average-per-attempt has plunged to 6.2, with a paltry 3.3 yards per attempt during a shutout loss to the Colts. While the absence of A.J. Green surely is a factor, true franchise quarterbacks generate yards and points and wins regardless of who the receivers are. Dalton has shown that he’s still not ready for that title.
3. Why are the Ravens more productive on offense this year?
It partially comes from an emphasis on generating points early in games. It’s one of the specific situations on which the Ravens focus in practice each week.
“That has been something we’ve done through training camp, and we do it usually about once a week,” coach John Harbaugh said this week. “We have a first drive of the game. It’s nothing elaborate. It’s just a drill.”
The drill is working. Quarterback Joe Flacco has six first-quarter touchdown passes in 2014. Last season, he had a total of four.
Dolphins at Jaguars
1. Is Peyton Manning a Dolphins fan?
At least for this week, he should be. With 10 interceptions in five games and with nine to play, Blake Bortles is on pace to tie Peyton Manning’s rookie interception record of 28.
Manning, who is keenly aware of pretty much everything (including scoreboard operation), knows about the record — he mentioned it during a preseason visit to PFT on NBCSN. If Bortles keeps throwing at least two per game, Manning won’t have to mention it any longer.
2. Will Denard Robinson ever do more than be a tailback?
Quite possibly. Appearing on Thursday’s PFT Live, Robinson said that he’s currently focusing on getting more comfortable at the running back position. Once he does, he could be doing more in the offense, including playing a little quarterback.
Robinson is getting closer to reaching the right comfort level at running back. He carried the ball 22 times for 127 yards on Sunday against the Browns. In all of 2013, Robinson had a total of 20 carries.
Maybe, in time, he’ll be throwing a periodic pass or two along with it.
3. How has Ryan Tannehill improved so quickly?
When Bill Lazor arrived as offensive coordinator, the thinking was that Tannehill would have to adapt to the new offense. Lazor eventually decided to adapt the offense to Tannehill.
Deep throws, for example, aren’t one of Tannehill’s strengths. So the Dolphins only dial up a pass of 20 or more yards once in ever 12 snaps.
With a 2-1 record since coach Joe Philbin bizarrely answered a different question when asked if Tannehill is still the starter, Tannehill has shown that he’s the right guy for the job — at least for now.
Rams at Chiefs
1. What have they done with Zac Stacy?
Stacy started the year as the starting running back in St. Louis. But with Benny Cunningham performing well and rookie Tre Mason making a bit of a splash, Stacy participated in only one play during last Sunday’s win over the Seahawks. And he didn’t touch the ball at all.
“It was just a weird situation,” Stacy said this week. “Right now, we’re doing a rotation with me, Tre, and Benny — and we’re going with the hot hand. I’m just staying positive, I’ll keep working, and whenever my opportunity is called just take advantage of it.”
For the year, Stacy remains the leading rusher, with 240 yards. Cunningham has 136 and Mason has 125. But Mason had 85 against the Seahawks, which qualifies him as having the hottest hand, as of right now.
2. Is Austin Davis the next Tom Brady or Kurt Warner?
Brady? No. Warner? Probably no.
The comparison came from Brett Favre, who emerges via satellite from Mississippi with the frequency of Punxsutawney Phil to spout off a wide variety of opinions about a sport that he doesn’t follow very closely. His point was that Davis, who became “the guy” in St. Louis after the first “the guy” looked awful in Week One while trying to replace “the guy” with the torn ACL. The biggest comparison to Warner is that Shaun Hill was supposed to be Warner, 15 years after a preseason ACL tear for Trent Green opened the door for the former Arena League grocery-bagger.
Davis doesn’t have the same compelling back story as Warner. Sure, Davis was a walk-on at Southern Miss and became the starter as a redshirt freshman and set 15 school game and single-season records (breaking some of Favre’s records) and eventually broke most if not all of Favre’s school records and went undrafted in 2012 and bounced around the league a little before returning to St. Louis for good (for now) when Sam Bradford tore his ACL for the first time last October.
It’s an intriguing tale, but the Rams are still 2-4. They’ll need more than multiple special-teams tricks and gimmicks to get into the playoff hunt, and Davis has a long way to go until he’s lighting things up the way Brady and Warner did en route to Super Bowl titles in seasons they found themselves unexpectedly under center.
3. Is Alex Smith reflecting much on his most recent game against the Rams?
He says he’s not. But how can’t he be? It was a concussion in November 2012 against St. Louis that opened the door for Colin Kaepernick and closed the book on Smith’s career in San Francisco.
“I haven’t given it that much thought,” Smith said this week. “Certainly I recognize when we go over the personnel, some of these guys. I remember the game. I remember it well. But I haven’t really thought about the what-ifs.”
There’s no way of knowing whether Smith would still be the starter in San Francisco but for that concussion. The 49ers presumably didn’t trade up in the second round of the 2011 draft for a guy they planned to park on the bench for four years. Still, that Rams game from nearly two years ago provided the impetus for change, and Smith’s new surroundings have him facing the Rams for the first time with his new team.
Bears at Patriots
1. Who will Darrelle Revis cover?
The obvious candidate is receiver Brandon Marshall. But receiver Alshon Jeffery can be just as problematic, and tight end Martellus Bennett needs to be accounted for. Without a clear-cut dominant option, Revis could move around and other confuse quarterback Jay Cutler and/or coach Marc Trestman, who fears the NFL has begun to catch up with his offense. Which doesn’t bode well against a head coach who already has detected all the tendencies and trends — and who will keep the Bears from doing whatever it is that they do best.
Which as of right now isn’t all that much.
2. Who’s the leader in Chicago?
No one, at least for now. And the Bears desperately need someone to emerge.
They’ve got plenty of guys who lead by example; they need someone who can lead by words.
Quarterback Jay Cutler can’t or won’t or doesn’t care enough to even consider it. Receiver Brandon Marshall has tried, but it’s unclear whether anyone will follow him. Coach Marc Trestman possibly lacks the personality to command a locker room, which is one of the most important traits of any NFL head coach.
Adversity possibly will cause a vocal leader to emerge. If it doesn’t, the Bears are destined to continue to float through their schedule, underachieving and unable to change it.
3. Will Brandon Marshall continue to sound off?
Probably. First, because that’s his way. Second, because Trestman has given Marshall and everyone else a license to pop off after games. Trestman says he needs to be “accepting” and “non-judgmental” when players speak in the heat of the moment.
Wonder if he’ll feel that way when someone says, “Our coach stinks and he should go back to Canada”?
Bills at Jets
1. What will Percy Harvin’s role be?
It won’t be extensive; coach Rex Ryan says it’s unrealistic to think Harvin will be ready to participate in 50 snaps. But even though it will be difficult for him to absorb the Jets’ version of the West Coast offense on the fly, it will be easy for the Jets to find ways to get the ball in Harvin’s hands and allow his skills to take over.
From kickoff returns to fly/jet sweeps to bubble screens to maybe even a periodic “go” route, Harvin can tilt the field in his new team’s direction without spending much time traversing the learning curve.
2. Who in the hell is Chris Hogan?
If you don’t know, you should. The former Penn State lacrosse player opted to give football a try on a lark, attempted to go to Syracuse and play for current Bills coach Doug Marrone as a graduate student, and ended up at Monmouth due to NCAA transfer rules. Hogan now plays for Marrone, and Hogan has played his way into the No. 3 receiver role in the Buffalo offense.
Hogan, you may recall, was dubbed 7-11 by Reggie Bush during Hard Knocks in 2012, when Hogan and Bush played for the Dolphins. After landing in Buffalo last year as a special-teams contributor, Hogan has earned his playing time.
“I always tell the players that you’ve got to put yourself in a position where the coaches have to play you because that’s how well you’re playing,” Marrone said this week. “I think Chris has done that.”
He made an even stronger case for more playing time with a leaping 28-yard grab that put the ball on the Minnesota two, one play before the game-winning touchdown pass from Kyle Orton to Sammy Watkins.
3. Can the Jets’ offensive line handle the Buffalo defensive front?
Maybe not, which will make it harder for Harvin or anyone else on the New York offense to do anything.
“The two [defensive tackles] we’re going against are the best two in the league, next to [Ndamukong] Suh and [Nick] Fairley, hands down,” Jets guard Willie Colon said this week. “They’re game-wreckers, especially Kyle Williams. He’s been doing it so long. He’s definitely a guy you’ve got to scout for. The other guy inside [Marcel Dareus] is doing a great job. Both of them are explosive, they’re making plays. They definitely give you a little bit of nightmares at night.”
The Jets’ blockers may have some nightmares at day, too. From about 1:00 p.m. until 4:00 p.m. ET on Sunday. Whether the Jets can do anything positive with the ball on a consistent basis will hinge on whether the line can slow down the defensive tackles — and defensive ends — who make up perhaps the best overall defensive line in the league.
Vikings at Buccaneers
1. Will the 1-6 Bucs have a fire sale?
Coach Lovie Smith insists they won’t. At one level, it makes sense. With no one seeming to want to win the NFC South, the Bucs are still alive to make it to the postseason.
But Smith needs players who fit his defense, and stockpiling some picks would make plenty of sense. The decision to unload cornerback Darrelle Revis in the offseason shows that no one is safe. The question is whether Smith and G.M. Jason Licht are comfortable giving up players who can help them win now in return for assets that can help them win later.
2. How’s Teddy Bridgewater doing?
Offensive coordinator Norv Turner sees some good and some bad in the rookie.
“He’s a lot like our offense,” Turner said. “He’s a work in progress, and there’s going to be things we like, things where we see he’s growing, and there’s going to be things where you shake your head a little bit.”
Bridgewater showed plenty of progress in his first start against the Falcons, but Bridgewater has lost two in a row since returning from an ankle injury. He has plenty of time to develop, but the Vikings will want to see a lot more progress before the end of the season.
3. Is Everson Griffen earning his money?
When the Vikings decided to let Jared Allen leave via free agency and to sign youngster Everson Griffen to a $42 million contract, plenty of league insiders and observers were shocked. But the Vikings were steadfast in their belief that the investment would generate a significant return. So far, so good.
Griffin is second in the league with seven sacks, thanks to three against the Bills in Week Seven.
“I’m all about proving people wrong,” Griffen said. “No matter what, you’re always going to have haters. … What you want to do is prove them wrong and show them you can be the guy that they gave a huge contract to and you can live up to everything.”
He’s also living up to his billing as a pass-rush specialist with his own “Sack Daddy” dance: “I slide to the left, I slide to the right, and I do a couple of swirls of my arms and I flex.”
Texans at Titans
1. What’s wrong with Brian Cushing?
The tape from Monday night’s loss to the Steelers shows a guy who can’t run. And he can’t run because his surgically-repaired knee is still bothering him. So he’ll take at least a game off, maybe more.
Sure, coach Bill O’Brien denies that Cushing needs rest and lists him as questionable in order to keep the Titans guessing.
But no guesswork is needed; given Cushing’s ability to run on that balky knee, no benefit is derived from making the Titans think they may be facing him.
2. Why switch to Zach Mettenberger now?
The Titans need to know what they have in the rookie sixth-rounder, so that they’ll know whether to look for a new quarterback in 2015. Destined to have a top 10 (or maybe a top five) pick in the draft, the Titans could try to find a franchise quarterback in Round One, if they don’t think Mettenberger will be the answer.
With Tennessee as a practical matter out of the running for a playoff berth, it makes sense to start the process of evaluating Mettenberger now. Waiting until December could result in only a partial look at Mettenberger’s abilities. The Titans need to see what he does not only in those first few games when the opposing defenses don’t have much film but also after enough tape has been generated to give defensive coordinators more insight into what the rookie does well, what he doesn’t do well, and how he reacts when the things he does well are taken away.
3. Why hasn’t Ryan Fitzpatrick been benched?
Fitzpatrick actually isn’t playing all that poorly. He’s averaging a career-high 8.0 yards per attempt, which means he’s moving the ball well when he throws it. But Fitzpatrick also has eight turnovers in the last five games, which makes it hard to parlayn the ability to move the ball into a movement of the scoreboard.
It’s too early to throw in the towel on the Texans’ season, and it’s also too early to assume Ryan Mallett or rookie Tom Savage are ready. At some point, though, the Texans need to know what they have in Mallett (who’ll be a free agent after the season) and Savage. Especially if the wheels continue the process of coming off, and if the Texans earn another position high in the draft.
Eagles at Cardinals
1. Are the Cardinals relying too much on Andre Ellington?
Possibly. A year ago, they handled him with care. Now, he’s becoming the workhorse, with coach Bruce Arians believing Ellington can withstand 30 touches per game.
“He’s very unique,” quarterback Carson Palmer said this week. “There isn’t another guy in the league like him. He’s got that ability in the pass game and the run game, the ability to go the distance, the ability to run between the tackles. He does a lot for us and he can do it all.”
Last week, Ellington had 30 touches, with 24 rushing attempts and six receptions. For the year, he’s averaging 21.6 per game.
Look for that average to keep going up, as long as Ellington can stay healthy.
2. Does the bye week help the Eagles’ chances?
Typically, having extra time to rest up and prepare for a game doesn’t hurt. Eagles coach Chip Kelly traditionally has parlayed in-season bye weeks into victory. Undefeated at Oregon after a regular-season bye and 1-0 at the NFL level (the Eagles but the Cardinals after a bye in 2013), the Eagles have a very real edge when it comes to self-scouting and game-planning.
3. How will Larry Fitzgerald’s “champagne problem” resolve itself?
The veteran receiver applied that label to his relative lack of targets and catches as he further downplays the idea that he’s being phased out of the Arizona offense. But the decreased production points directly to a looming divorce; with a cap number of $23.8 million in 2015 and an additional shell-game restructuring likely not practical, Fitzgerald will have to take less to stay.
Which means Fitzgerald likely will be cut. Which gives him a chance to join Tom Brady in New England or Peyton Manning in Denver or to go home to Minnesota.
Raiders at Browns
1. Is Brian Hoyer on a short leash?
It’s not yet short, but it’s definitely shorter than it would have been if the Browns hadn’t lost to the Jaguars last Sunday. Hoyer looked sluggish and inaccurate. Ultimately, he was ineffective, prompting coach Mike Petting to admit that he’d considered using Johnny Manziel at one point.
The Browns eventually have to decide who their starter will be in 2015. If Hoyer performs against the Raiders the way he played against the Jaguars, the decision for next year gets a lot easier.
And the chances of the decision being implemented in 2014 become a lot greater.
2. How big of a deal would it be to lose to the Raiders?
It would be a pretty big deal. If the Browns follow last week’s 24-6 loss to the previously 0-6 Jaguars with a loss to the currently 0-6 Raiders, Cleveland will become the first to lose to winless teams on consecutive weekends in Week Seven or later.
And that would likely result in the donning of a Ryan Pontbriand jersey and the direction of strong words at the building that presumably had shed its prior moniker.
3. Could the Raiders go 0-16?
The schedule gets no softer any time soon. The only team in the final 10 currently under .500 is the Rams, who could be a lot better by the time the Raiders visit St. Louis on November 30.
After Sunday’s trip to the 3-3 Browns, it’s time to face the 3-3 Seahawks, the 6-1 Broncos, the 5-3 Chargers, the 3-3 Chiefs, the Rams, the 4-3 49ers, the Chiefs again, the 4-3 Bills, and the Broncos again.
And, yes, seven of the remaining 10 games come against teams that made it to the playoffs in 2013.
So, yes, 0-16 is more than a remote possibility.
Colts at Steelers
1. Who steps up for Reggie Wayne?
With the veteran out due to an elbow injury, Hakeem Nicks becomes the obvious candidate to get more work. A former first-round pick who’s in his Second Annual Contract Year, Nicks has a very high opinion of himself. It’s now his chance to persuade everyone else to share that view.
But Nicks has only 17 catches in seven games, generating a mere 141 yards. As a result, he could be pushed by rookie Donte Moncrief, who actually was on the field for more snaps last week than Nicks.
2. Are the Steelers getting any healthier?
Yes, gradually. The best news comes from linebacker Ryan Shazier’s looming return after a Week Three knee injury. He’s listed as probable for Sunday’s game, which means it’s virtually certain he’ll play.
While cornerback Ike Taylor isn’t ready to play, he practiced this week after suffering a broken forearm in that same game. The Steelers need all the help they can get as they try to avoid sliding back under .500 and losing a second home game in their last three.
3. Can the Colts’ defense pitch another shutout?
Probably not. Although it’s tempting to assume that a team’s most recent performances will continue indefinitely, that 27-0 victory over the Bengals in Indy doesn’t mean the ’85 Bears will be rolling into Pittsburgh. The Steelers average 28 points per game at home. Even though their offense has been maligned by the likes of Snoop Dogg and Joe Banner, they know how to score points at home, and score points they will.
The only question is whether they’ll score enough.
Packers at Saints
1. Will this finally be a good Sunday night game?
Hopefully. The last two games between the Packers and Saints have entailed high scoring and excitement. The Packers won 28-27 in 2012, and the 2011 season began with an excellent 42-34 game at Lambeau Field, which the Packers won by stuffing then-rookie Mark Ingram at the goal line.
The Saints haven’t lost at home under coach Sean Payton since 2011, and they’ve won 13 straight home prime-time games. So this one has the potential to be a good one — regardless of whether the Saints ultimately can continue their run of success at home.
2. Are the Saints still alive in the NFC South?
Absolutely. Despite being only 2-4, the Saints have six home games left, and they’re only one game behind the Panthers in the loss column. Holding serve at home coupled with a road win or two would easily win the division no one seems to want to. And the guaranteed home game that goes with winning the division could allow the Saints to do what the 7-9 Seahawks did to the Saints in the 2010 postseason.
3. Should Aaron Rodgers be considered for a second MVP award?
Without question. He has led the Packers to four straight wins, and he’s thrown 18 touchdown passes against only one interception. While his final numbers may not be as good as 2011 (the year he won the MVP award), he’s performing at a high level once again — and most importantly the Packers are having yet another special season in a year that started off looking like anything but.