It doesn't take long for the best-laid plans of mice, men and Browns executives to go awry. Week 3 finds many teams moving on to Plan B. The Steelers are back to running by committee, the Packers are back to not running at all and the Robert Griffin bandwagon unloaded so fast that you would think Chip Kelly was running it. Tom Brady must make sure his receivers went potty one last time before they leave the tunnel, the Ravens need a bigger Ring of Honor and the Falcons just want to get through a week without their game plans getting RoddyLeaked. Nothing says "Plan B" like trading your star running back after two weeks, but the Browns are really on Plan QZ right now, and as Game Riffs will reveal, the Colts just got one more gadget to clutter the kitchen counter.
Colts at 49ers
4:25 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: 49ers by 11 ½
We interrupt the Stanford Young Alumni and Faculty Reunion Banquet at Levi's Stadium to bring you the curious case of Trent Richardson: Browns survivor, Alabama legend and droplet of Colts flop-sweat.
Alabama running backs are like the home bread machines of football. Everybody thinks they are useful and they want one, so they spend a lot of money and energy acquiring them. Then they realize, wait a second, this is the 21st century, and no one bakes their own bread anymore!
Richardson, like Mark Ingram before him and Eddie Lacy after, excels at kneading out thousands of yards from the I-formation behind a great offensive line for a traditional, overwhelming college powerhouse. NFL executives see these backs and harken back to a simpler time. The previous Browns regime saw Richardson and dreamed of a 25-carry workload, just as the Saints saw Ingram as a way to bruise through fourth quarters the Packers see Lacy as a reason to hand off more than twice per half. But the Saints and Packers have little use for a traditional between-the-tackles grinder, and if Norv Turner couldn't find a role for Richardson, well, the NFL has truly left this style of running back behind.
But Jim Irsay is a home-baking kind of guy, and GM Ryan Grigson is so eager to build momentum behind his "boy genius" reputation that he couldn't stand idle while his team went … 1-1. Richardson may find a home in coordinator Pep Hamilton's offense. Hamilton uses an earlier version of the Stanford offense that Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman attached fins and a spoiler to in San Francisco. It's full of pulling guards, counter treys and other cloud-of-dust blocking tactics that went out of style in the NFL by the mid-1980s. An old-school grinder should feel right at home, just as Frank Gore does in San Francisco.
Did the Colts pay too much for Richardson? A first-round pick is almost always far too much to pay for any running back. Are Irsay and Grigson pushing panic buttons? Irsay thinks it's the bass boost button, but yes. Is Richardson better than Ahmad Bradshaw and Donald Brown? Yes, particularly in this system.
That does not mean that Richardson can propel the Colts past the 49ers, especially on short notice. The Seahawks provided a blueprint for crushing the 49ers last week, and with Hamilton, Andrew Luck and all those other Stanford guys in the Colts locker room, reading a blueprint should not be a problem. Unfortunately, here's what the blueprint says:
Step One: Start with overwhelmingly awesome personnel, particularly on defense. No Erik Waldens, please.
Step Two: Spend several seasons coaching those talented defenders to assignment perfections. Again, NO ERIK WALDENS.
Step Three: Beat the 49ers.
The Colts are still stuck on Step One, and they are still overpaying for gizmos other teams were ready to leave by the curb. The Colts use a system that made Luck a star, and Luck made Harbaugh a star, but now Harbaugh is making Colin Kaepernick a star, and Richardson is just happy to be out of Cleveland.
Prediction: 49ers 34, Colts 20
* * *
Packers at Bengals
1 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Packers by 3
Since the beginning of the 2011 season, the Packers are undefeated when they have a running back rush for over 100 yards. In other words, they are 1-0.
James Starks rushed for 132 yards last week, and he did so the only way a Packers running back can. First, he waited for the team to take a 31-7 lead. Then, he ran for a 32-yard touchdown that put him over the 100-yard mark and made the score 38-7. The Packers still did not become run-oriented with a huge lead (they passed six times and rushed seven in the fourth quarter of a blowout) but a few late-game carries added some ballast to his numbers.
The fact that Starks is in the backfield, McCarthy has forgotten where he hid the keys to the running game, and the Packers are back to once-per-presidential administration 100-yard rushers means that their offseason plans have already gone to rot. Eddie Lacy suffered a concussion at the start of the Redskins game and is questionable for Sunday. Johnathan Franklin, the other rookie the Packers drafted specifically so we would not see empty backfields with 31-7 leads, has been a disappointment. So here we are, with Starks and Randall Cobb in the backfield again. Luckily, the Packers are very good at this brand of football.
The Bengals' offseason plans, on the other hand, are bearing fruit. Rookie running back Giovani Bernard diversified their offense with a rushing and receiving touchdown against the Steelers. Opponents are averaging just 2.8 yards per carry against the best all-around defensive line in the NFL. Now if someone would just tell Andy Dalton that Tyler Eifert is not nine feet tall, the Bengals would really be on to something.
Prediction: Packers 27, Bengals 24
* * *
Buccaneers at Patriots
1 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Patriots by 8 ½
NFL Game Riffs proudly presents: "The Bradysitters Club," a young adult novel.
Brady pulled on his turtleneck sweater, combed his lovely chestnut hair and prepared for a busy day. All of the other babysitters, even Danny and Gronk, were too sick to work, so he would have to lead little Kenbrell and Dobbie all the way across town to face a team with a very good defense, an overmatched loudmouth of a coach and a quarterback situation so ugly even Claudia could not save it with a high-fashion makeover.
"The Jets?" asked precocious little Kenbrell. Brady corrected him: No, a different team with a very good defense, overmatched loudmouth of a coach, and a quarterback situation so ugly it could give Mallory nightmares. After 213 novels, the antagonists are bound to start looking alike.
Brady wanted to lead the little ones along the safest possible route: running down the middle of a wide field. But Mister McDaniels made his fortune by founding a chain of Montessori schools for the criminally insane, so he chose a much more difficult path, with lots of complicated routes that would tax Kenbrell and Dobbie's childlike skills. Oh well, Brady thought: He had signed an oath promising to be the best babysitter he could.
So he led the children according to Mister McDaniels' crazy plan. Dobbie kept falling down, running the wrong way and dropping things. Kenbrell would be on the verge of doing something mature and brilliant, then have an "oopsie" that reminded Brady just how young he was.
Brady and the youngsters were tired, mixed up and frustrated with one another by the time they reached their destination. But then Mean Mister Schiano showed up, dragging a squalling Joshie. "He overslept, he's off his schedule, and now I cannot do a darn thing with him," Mister Schiano growled. Brady wrinkled his nose at the harsh language. Joshie can be a brat, but Mister Schiano needs to take some responsibility, too, Brady thought. Nobody seems able to get along with him.
At the end of the day, Brady led Kenbrell and Dobbie safely to victory, even though Kenbrell was still confused and thought they had played the Jets. "I could have sworn that was Darrelle Revis chasing me," he said over ice cream. Brady smiled, knowing that a great babysitter can sometimes be more helpful to youngsters than an angry, disorganized parent.
Prediction: Patriots 22, Buccaneers 13
* * *
Bears at Steelers
8:30 p.m. Sunday, NBC
Line: Bears by 2 ½
First, Le'Veon Bell got hurt, forcing the Steelers to go from "workhorse running back" to "Haley's Random Rushers." Then, Maurkice Pouncey got hurt, ensuring that Haley's Random Rushers would be running behind a worse-than-usual Steelers line. Then, LaRod Stephens-Howling got hurt; Howlin' Rod doesn't get a lot of ink, but he is a valuable committee back and special teamer. The Steelers replaced Howlin' Rod on special teams with Isaac Redman, who was also supposed to be the leader of Haley's Random Rushers in Bell's absence. Redman suffered a concussion of the opening kickoff of the Bengals game. He returned briefly, but the Steelers were forced to rely on Felix Jones and Jonathan Dwyer, one back who was not even with the team at the start of camp and another that the team tried hard to replace, while facing a tough division opponent on Monday night.
Just to show that he operates beyond our childlike mortal concepts of reasoning and common sense, Todd Haley responded to this cascading running game disaster by starting the game with three straight handoffs. After that, it was nothing but deep passes and end arounds to Jerricho Cotchery, who has replaced Charlie Batch as the guy the Steelers will inexplicably employ until he becomes a living fossil. The Steelers now average 2.4 yards per rush; quarterbacks Alex Smith and Andrew Luck currently have more rushing yards than the Steelers after two games.
The moral of the Steelers saga is that arriving at late September with two wins, a mostly healthy roster and a still-functioning business model is nothing to take for granted. Be happy with what you have, Bears.
Prediction: Bears 24, Steelers 10
* * *
Texans at Ravens
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Texans by 2 ½
This is a big game, right? Defending champions against a perennial playoff team, Ed Reed's revenge, Ravens seeking payback for a blowout loss in Houston last year, Texans seeking validation as always. Big stuff! Andre Johnson is going through concussion protocols and uncertain for the game, Ray Rice (hip) is also uncertain after missing some midweek practices. There is a lot going on here. You aren't convinced this is a huge game? Sigh. No one is. Heck, Ray Lewis is getting inducted into the Ring of Honor, yet this matchup could not even shake a prime-time slot away from Bears-Steelers.
Oh yeah, Lewis and the Ring of Honor. The Ravens' Ring of Honor already has six members. That's a lot of "honor" for less than 20 years. Lewis joins Jonathan Ogden (yes!), Art Modell (he was the boss!), Matt Stover (Baltimore loves kickers …), Jamal Lewis (a 2,000-yard season is nothing to sneeze at), Michael McCrary and Peter Boulware (umm….). Reed will of course join them, as will Rice and Joe Flacco in time, and if McCrary and Boulware are the benchmarks, Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs should get in. Since Modell broke the executive barrier, there must be room for John Harbaugh, Ozzie Newsome and probably Steve Bisciotti. The Ring of Honor will extend all the way to Fort McHenry.
Lewis' speech will be the emotional highlight of an otherwise drab Ravens victory. If you don't want to watch the game, you can simulate the Lewis speech experience at home. First, memorize this excerpt from T.S Eliot's "The Wasteland:"
I can connect/nothing with nothing/The broken fingernails of dirty hands/My people humble people who expect nothing/la la/Burning burning burning burning/O Lord thou pluckest me out/O Lord though pluckest/burning.
Next, shout it to your friends, as loud and fast as possible, with a mouth full of rye bread. Congratulations, Ray. And now back to Matt Schaub throwing incompletions out of bounds.
Prediction: Ravens 22, Texans 17
* * *
Giants at Panthers
1 p.m. Sunday, Fox
The Giants could use another game like last September's 36-7 blowout of the Panthers. They have oscillated between "inconsistent" and "awful" in their first two games, and if the Panthers do get destroyed, at least Ron Rivera won't have to hear about how he blew another blown fourth quarter lead.
To put the Panthers' 10 blown fourth-quarter leads in 2.125 years into perspective, the team has held on to fourth quarter leads only 11 times under Coach Ronnie Puntsalot. Two of Rivera's 13 career wins involved Panthers comebacks: against the Eagles last year and the Jaguars in 2011. So give Rivera the lead with 15 minutes to play, and he will give you a 52.3 percent winning percentage. The home team winning percentage in the NFL is about 58 percent, so the average team gets a bigger boost from being in its own stadium than the Panthers get from beating an opponent for three quarters.
Of course, if the Giants play as poorly as they have at times in the last two weeks, while the Panthers play as well as they do until the moment Rivera or his assistants have to make a game-critical decision, the Panthers could blow out the Giants. That's unlikely, however, due to injuries in the Panthers secondary. For Rivera, lopsided victories are the only victories; there's just no way to produce enough of them.
Prediction: Giants 27, Panthers 17
* * *
Lions at Redskins
1 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Redskins by 1
We aren't going to acknowledge or encourage the Robert Griffin Benchers here at Game Riffs. And no, we don't care what Tony Dungy said on Sunday night, because Dungy has 2,000 things to deal with during those Sunday Night Football telecasts and probably had all of five minutes to watch Packers-Redskins between finalizing his Seahawks-Niners talking points and getting his hair and wardrobe done. (Well, wardrobe). Kirk Cousins can only help the Redskins as a starter if he can somehow replace DeAngelo Hall. Get real.
Let's talk about the Lions; they are more fun! Things you see while watching a Lions game:
Linebacker DeAndre Levy begins to run an interception back for a touchdown, and the announcer shouts: "No illegal block this time!" Meanwhile, at the corner of the television screen, Ndamukong Suh shoves Carson Palmer to the ground: Obviously, he's just too busy to clip a blocker.
Micheal Spurlock assumes return duties, and every special teams play becomes an adventure. Punt returns go 30 yards sideways and five yard backwards, touchbacks become near safeties as he waffles about whether to bring the ball out.
David Akers misses makeable field goals and has another kick blocked, proving that last season was no slump. He's toast.
Matthew Stafford throws a series of incomplete passes while the Lions try to hold a lead. Then, suddenly needing a comeback, Stafford throws a three-yard pass to Nate Burleson on fourth-and-four. Is it Stafford or coordinator Scott Linehan? It does not matter when you cannot kick a field goal.
And the best thing of all: Every once in a while, center Dominic Raiola delivers a shotgun snap so sudden and hard that it almost hits Stafford in the face. You read it here first: The Lions will lose a game this season on a fumbled snap caroming off Stafford's facemask.
It could happen this week. Hall could return the Raiola chin music for a touchdown, then Spurlock commits a safety on the kickoff return, and the Redskins become a different team playing with a lead. If it shuts up all of the Bench Griffin talk, it will be worth it.
Prediction: Redskins 30, Lions 21
* * *
Chargers at Titans
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Titans by 3
Both of these teams would be 2-0 if not for those wacky, unpredictable comeback specialists, the Houston Texans. Thanks Texans! You saved us from a "Jake Locker finds a way to win" storyline that would probably dislodge earth from its axis and send us spiraling into the heart of the sun. Also, thanks Chargers! Someone needed to slam the brakes on the "Eagles win simply by running a million plays" narrative, and you demonstrated that even the fastest-paced offense in the world can only run zero plays when it is on the sideline.
Manti Te'o (foot) was back at practice by midweek, and he may make his regular-season debut against his old buddy, Titans guard Chance Warmack. It's a rematch of the BCS Championship Game, which is a little like a rematch between a bulldozer and a dry-rotted toolshed. Chris Johnson has not had a run longer than 16 yards this year. Warmack blew Te'o backward that far last January just by breathing on him, so CJ2K is due.
Prediction: Titans 22, Chargers 20
* * *
Browns at Vikings
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Vikings by 7
The Browns have accelerated their Insane Quarterback Controversy/Paradigm Shift/Front Office Intrigue schedule to keep pace with the modern news cycle. They launched the Charlie Frye/Braylon Edwards/Kellen Winslow era in 2006 but did not really cut bait on it until 2009, when they traded Edwards. The team drafted Kamerion Wimbley in 2006 and Brady Quinn in 2007, then traded both on March 14, 2010. Both sets of moves were byproducts of elaborate front office power struggles, but they both took more than three years to advance from "bold reason for optimism" to flush. That's just too long in the age of Twitter.
Sept. 18, 2013 became another one of those days in Browns history which are starting to arrive too frequently. Third-string quarterback Brian Hoyer leap-frogged over backup Jason Campbell to replace inconclusively-injured Brandon Weeden, and Trent Richardson now plays for the Colts. The Browns erased the first round of the 2012 draft less than 18 months after it happened, halving their previous regime purge time!
The latest moves carry the stamp of general manager Michael Lombardi, who spent his first offseason on the job hemmed in by Joe Banner above him and Rob Chudzinski below. Yes, folks: This is another dreary power struggle that will end with coaches and execs getting fired and the roster getting spread across the NFL. At least in the past, the Browns let you watch the players actually play a few more times before they resumed the front office backstabbing.
The Browns now have two first-round picks next year. Don't they always? They will draft two pretty good players in May, then trade them in August, sparing us the effort of trying to figure out who is up to what come September.
Prediction: Vikings 27, Browns 13
* * *
Cardinals at Saints
1 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Saints by 8 ½
The Cardinals came back to win in the fourth quarter last Sunday with Larry Fitzgerald sidelined with a hamstring injury. In past years, you could have gotten better odds on the Cardinals building a spaceship out of bamboo and travelling to Saturn. But a mix of old and young players have made the Cardinals less Larry Fitzcentric.
Carson Palmer leads the old timers, and it is remarkable what basic quarterback competence does for an offense. Yeremiah Bell has been a stabilizing force on defense, and Karlos Dansby is playing as if it was still 2008.
The youngsters include a deep rookie class. Sixth-round pick Andre Ellington is a very good all-purpose change-up back. Tyrann Mathieu has been as exciting as advertised. Undrafted safety Tony Jefferson has gotten involved in a handful of big plays. Most of the Cardinals' top picks have barely contributed -- Jonathan Cooper is injured, and Kevin Minter is strictly a special teamer -- but the Cardinals are still getting a boost from their rookie class.
Of course, it did not hurt that the Cardinals were facing the Lions, a team that self-destructs on cue like a "Mission Impossible" message. The Saints will not be as obliging.
Prediction: Saints 30, Cardinals 17
* * *
Falcons at Dolphins
4:05 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Dolphins by 1
The Dolphins are a hard team to draw a bead on. Their new uniforms may be part of the problem. They look like they were dyed extra white, then bleached, then covered with glitter, then tossed into a nuclear reactor for that extra retina-searing glow. When they play on a sunny day, like they did against the Colts last week, watching them is like having someone shine a halogen headlight at your face, on the beach.
The Dolphins offense is also part of the problem. Dink, dunk, dinkety-dunk. Ryan Tannehill treats downfield throws like he is being asked to clean the gerbil cage, and noted speed demon Charles Clay has been his favorite deep weapon so far this season. The Dolphins are productive enough, but the lack of big-play capability/willingness makes it look like the Dolphins are just trying to score 24 points and call it a day.
So the Dolphins would be in trouble against the Falcons offense at full strength, but the Falcons offense may not be at full strength. For an update on their injury issues, let's check in with wide receiver/fantasy expert Roddy White.
Roddy, are you OK? I am playing hurt, so I would still bench me in favor of, say, Cecil Shorts, who has an easy matchup this week (wink).
Roddy, with Steven Jackson hurt, should fantasy owners start Jacquizz Rodgers or Jason Snelling? I don't sit in on the running back meetings, but I know who I would give the ball to at the goal line?
What about Julio? Julio is good to go. No red flags there.
Can you give us a tweet about Tony Gonzalez? Man, Tony's so old he thinks a tweet message involves a carrier pigeon.
There you have it: The Falcons should have just enough firepower to overcome the Dolphins, if they aren't stricken blind by theDolphins' brighty-whities. (Oh, and Roddy White's fantasy football remarks about his own team were not real, this week. We live in the scary world where I actually have to clarify that.)
Prediction: Falcons 27, Dolphins 21
* * *
Bills at Jets
4:25 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Jets by 1
EJ Manuel and Geno Smith each took the Patriots to the wall, only to lose by a field goal or less. Each won their other game thanks to a defensive penalty on the penultimate play. In his last game, Geno Smith threw three late-game interceptions after playing fairly well through three quarters. In his last game, EJ Manuel threw an interception late in the third quarter, got strip-sacked to start the fourth quarter and threw an apparent interception on the game-ending drive, only to be saved by a flag. This time last year, Geno Smith was a college football sensation, while Manuel was a middling prospect with little national buzz. Manuel has two great running backs and a legitimate go-to receiver to help him develop. Smith has Bilal Powell and the sometimes-interested Santonio Holmes.
Now that we have all that on the table, there are still some legitimate reasons for believing that Manuel is the NFL's next bright star, while Smith is just business-as-usual evidence of Jets incompetence. There are just far fewer of those legitimate reasons than you might think.
Prediction: Jets 16, Bills 13
* * *
Jaguars at Seahawks
4:25 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Seahawks by 19
This could be one of those trap games, because (click)
………………▀▄█████▓▒░Strike F2 to run system diagnostic------
Gosh, it seems that my computer crashed, rebooted and actually caught fire in protest of the suggestion that this could be a trap game. You could try to trap a racehorse with flypaper, but all you get is a sticky racehorse. The only question about this game is whether it will be an epic blowout or one of those lazy beatings great NFL teams often hand to miserable ones. Either way, when the 12th Man simultaneously yawns, it will shatter eardrums.
Prediction: Seahawks 37, Jaguars 6
* * *
Rams at Cowboys
1 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Cowboys by 4
Jason Garrett blamed rookie center Travis Frederick for giving up two straight-up-the-gut sacks to Chiefs lineman Dontari Poe last week. "He physically got beat on the one," Garrett said, "and the other one there was a miscommunication between him and the guard."
See coach, this is why no one lets you talk. Blaming Frederick, the mid-round talent the Cowboys a) drafted in the first round because the Jones family ignored its own draft board, then b) elevated to the first string as an act of self-justification, focuses attention right back on the ridiculous missteps that resulted in Frederick's presence on the field. Blaming Frederick is like cramming pennies in the fuse box to fix short-outs, watching your house burn down, then blaming pennies. In the future, just blame yourself for the sacks, coach. It's what Jerry would do.
Frederick faces Michael Brockers this week. Brockers was selected three spots after Poe in the first round of the 2012 draft, but was far more effective last year, and has added muscle to his 330-pound frame this year. Get your story straight, coach.
Prediction: Rams 22, Cowboys 19
* * *
Raiders at Broncos
8:30 p.m. Monday, ESPN
Line: Broncos by 16 ½
The Broncos and Seahawks, the two best teams in the NFL right now, both lost their Pro Bowl left tackles last week. Russell Okung will miss several games for the Seahawks, while Ryan Clady was placed on the IR and will miss the remainder of the season. Luckily, both teams catch huge scheduling breaks this week. The Seahawks, as noted above, could allow Absolute Zero points: not just a shutout, but negative-273 net yards. The Raiders present more of a problem because they have recorded nine sacks already, and not all of those sacks can be attributed to having faced the Jaguars.
Chris Clark will replace Clady. Clark started a handful of games as a make-believe tight end when the Broncos gave up trying to throw the ball and used a six-lineman formation in 2011. Clark has been hanging around the Broncos for four years, which is a good sign: He survived a regime change and two scheme changes, knows the playbook and has gotten plenty of reps. He must be OK.
Clady's absence will result in a sack or two, and it may slow the Broncos offense down around 15 percent. Let's see, that means (grabbing calculator) 327 passing yards for Peyton Manning, 394 yards of total offense and 36 points. That should be sufficient.
Prediction: Broncos 36, Raiders 16
Credit for computer GIF: GifADay