By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff

Since Sunday, I’m pretty sure I’ve read at least four columns that have listed the Atlanta Falcons as one of the three or four best teams in the league through the season’s first three weeks. Atlanta is 2-1.

Sorry, Mike Smith, But We're Challenging The Idea That The Falcons Are An Elite Team Right Now.

There are three teams at 3-0 and a whole host of others with the same record as the Falcons. Last week, they beat the defending champion Saints, 27-24 in overtime on the road and to read about the game, you’d think some writers felt they were attending the Super Bowl. The Falcons were very impressive in rolling up 417 total yards, including 202 on the ground, and dominating the time of possession battle in holding the ball for 45:50.

Where they were not remotely impressive was everywhere else. Their defense allowed the Saints 400 yards while also letting the Saints go down the field unencumbered twice with the game on the line, first at the end of regulation when embattled Saints kicker Garrett Hartley booted a 32-yard field goal to tie the game with four seconds left, and then again on New Orleans’ first possession of overtime after taking the OT kickoff and going three-and-out, before Hartley’s 29-yard shank job. Only then, after dodging such a huge bullet through little doing of their own, did Atlanta sack up and put together a drive that resulted in kicker Matt Bryant winning the game with a 46-yarder. Better still, right before the Saints’ game-tying march with a three-point lead and facing fourth-and-six from the Saints 37-yard line with 3:36 left. instead of trying a pooch punt to pin New Orleans back and make them really have to work to tie things up, by coach Mike Smith’s decree, they went for it, didn’t make the first down and gave the Saints a a wide open door through which to tie or win the game. The only thing more inexplicable than this boneheaded decision was Sports Illustrated’s Peter King using it as an example of how gutsy the Falcons are in his Monday column before ranking them at No. 3 on his list of the league’s best 15 teams.

Look, the Falcons are pretty good. They have a great running game, a good quarterback in Matt Ryan who is still learning and improving and a star receiver in Roddy White. In the NFC, where beyond the Packers, Bears and Saints mediocrity reigns, they may even make the playoffs. But let’s not anoint them as championship contenders just yet. They lost in Week 1. They blew out the woeful Cardinals, who have no quarterback and a lousy defense, at home in Week 2, then did everything they could to give away the game against New Orleans. This week, the Falcons get the terrible 49ers at home in a game they should win. Still, before anyone coronates them as one of the best teams in the league, let’s try to have just a little perspective, OK?

This Week’s Five Best Teams

1. Pittsburgh: Everyone knows what an amazing defense the Steelers have but how about that offense, eh? 86-year old Charlie Batch threw three TD passes in Pittsburgh’s 38-13 rout of previously unbeaten Tampa last week and bruiser Rashard Mendenhall racked up 134 yards on just 19 carries. It was thought that 2-2 would be sufficient for these guys in the four games until Ben Roethlisberger came back from his suspension. OK well what about a potential 4-0?

2. Chicago: The Bears just as easily could have lost Monday night’s slugfest against their arch rivals from Green Bay but they used the Packers self-destruction, as well as fantastic special teams play (Devin Hester’s punt return TD, Julius Peppers’ field goal block) and some vintage defense, to their advantage in a 20-17 win that put them on top of the NFC North

3. Indianapolis: Looks like Week 1’s loss in Houston was just a blip on the screen for these guys, who are now looking much more like their old selves. Through three games, Peyton Manning is not surprisingly completing 69 percent of his passes and has nine TDs against zero picks (only the best statistical start of his career). What is surprising is that his favorite target isn’t Reggie Wayne, but Austin Collie, who leads the league in catches (27) and yards (359) and caught 12 for 171 and two scores in last week’s win at Denver.

4. Green Bay: The Packers are still really good, still maybe even the best team in the NFC, regardless of their ugly loss in Chicago. And they still have Aaron Rodgers, who threw for 316 yards and a score and ran for another one in the loss. But if they want to go anywhere, 18 penalties for 152 yards and two turnovers, including a key fumble while driving for the winning score late in the fourth quarter, just won’t do.

5. (tie) New Orleans/Kansas City: The Saints aren’t making things too easy on themselves through the first three games of their title defense, though they should have beaten the Falcons last week (see above). Drew Brees is still at the helm, though, and as his 30-of-38 for 365 yards and three TDs against Atlanta will attest, they’re still just fine, thank you. As for the Chiefs, they’re 3-0 for the first time since 2003 and are already halfway to their win total from the past two seasons combined. Matt Cassel looked Patriot-esque in passing for 250 yards and three TDs with a 111.7 passer rating in their wipeout of the hapless 49ers last week.

This Week’s Five Worst Teams

1. Carolina: If John Fox knew he wasn’t in his last year for the Panthers, by his own choice or not, would he really have panicked and given the ball to a quarterback as ill-prepared as rookie Jimmy Clausen form last week’s brutal home loss to the Bengals? I say no. This week, the poor kid gets the defending champs, angry after a tough loss, on the road. If Fox is really on his way out (and he is), here’s hoping he doesn’t ruin the kid in the process.

2. Cleveland: Hey, give the Browns credit. They led Baltimore on the road in the fourth quarter before their woeful defense gave it up. And bruiser Peyton Hillis, throw-in from the Brady Quinn to Denver trade, rolled for 144 yards and two TDs on just 22 carries. All this and a bump from the worst team in the league to the second worst? Good work, coach Mangenius.

3. Detroit: Damn, is it unfair to be the Lions. The only guy on the team who has shown any life for them, rookie back Jahvid Best, left last week’s loss to the Vikings with an injury and probably won’t play this week. Oh yeah and they’ve now lost 17 straight NFC North games and 22 consecutive on the road.

4. Jacksonville: If the Jack Del Rio watch wasn’t already on for the Jags (and it should have been as far back as two years ago), it definitely is now after last week’s no-show at home against the Eagles. Del Rio’s guy, David Garrard, was 13-of-30 for 105 yards (3.5 yards per attempt) and his fifth pick in his last two games in the 28-3 defeat, good for a nauseating 38.9 passer rating. It will be interesting to see if Garrard is still on the roster in a couple years when the the Jags are the L.A. Jaguars and Del Rio is the linebacker coach in Arizona or Cleveland or somewhere.

5. (tie) Buffalo/San Francisco: The Bills deserve positive marks for putting 30 points up on the Pats and getting a big game out of Ryan Fitzpatrick. They also deserve negative marks for cutting Trent Edwards, who was only their starter and QB of the future two weeks ago, and proving that they have exactly zero organizational plan in doing so. As for the Niners, I read some Bay Area columnist write something to the effect that its not the offensive coordinator, who was mercifully shitcanned after last week’s hideous effort against the Chiefs, who needs to go. It’s coach Mike Singletary, and the team should “replace him with a real coach, not a motivational speaker.” Damn…

What’s Trendy

-Anquan Boldin, Ravens: In the process of catching eight balls for 142 yards and three TDs in Baltimore’s 24-17 win over Cleveland, Boldin surpassed the 600 career catch mark in just his 98th game, the fewest to the 600 catch milestone in NFL history. As good as the Ravens have been the past couple years, they’ve never had a receiver as good as Boldin.

-Leon Washington, Seahawks: It was defense that did it in last week’s home win over the Chargers with five turnovers (as well as San Diego’s 11 penalties). But don’t discount former Jet Washington, who returned two kickoffs, one 99 yards, the other 101, for TDs, tying a league record.

-The Cowboys defense: Finally, these guys show up. Against Houston and its explosive offense, Dallas’s big D had three turnovers and four sacks while holding the Texans to 340 total yards and keeping them out of the end zone until the game’s final two minutes in a 27-13 win. It must have been Jerry Jones’s anger, frustration and disappointment that did the trick.

What’s Not

-The Giants: Wow, are the Giants bad. They were humiliated for the second straight week, this time at home, in a 29-10 loss to the Titans, in which they outgained Tennessee by 200 yards but committed 11 penalties (including a whopping five 15-yard personal fouls), turned the ball over twice inside the Tennessee 5-yard line and gave up a safety on an illegal block in their own end zone that wiped out a 50+ yard pass play. While being hauled down in the Titans red zone, Eli Manning’s left-handed, shotput throw that was picked off easily, said it all.

-Garrett Harley, Saints and Sebastian Janikowski, Raiders: Both kickers saw their team’s offense drive the ball into more than reasonable field goal range in the final minutes and both missed absolute chippies (Janikowski from 32 yards and Hartley from an astonishing 29). Even though he missed two others in Oakland’s 24-23 loss to Arizona, Janikowski’s job is likely safe. Can’t say the same for Hartley what with New Orleans holding kicker tryouts the day after its OT loss to Atlanta and then signing 46-year old John Carney.

-The Broncos offense:
Why would a team that blasted off for 519 total yards, with a career-high 476 for quarterback Kyle Orton, make the not trendy list? Because Denver managed just six points in five red zone trips and lost to the Colts, 27-13. It’s points that matter, not yards, not that our old friend Laurence Maroney would know the difference after he failed to score on three separate carries from the 2 or closer. Hey, at least he didn’t fumble.

And finally…

When the Rams beat the Redskins 30-16 in St. Louis last Sunday, it marked their first win in the month of September since 2006. Think about that for a second. This team was 0-for the first month of the season over the course of three straight seasons. 2006 was also the last season in which the Rams won more than three games. They went a cumulative 6-42 from 2007-2009 and lost their first two games of this season before finally posting that elusive early season victory.

It’s been written in this space before that the Rams are my favorite shitty team, mostly because no matter how bad or hapless or overmatched they’ve been since the dawn of this dark era, they’ve always managed to look like they care, like they’re still playing hard, like they try, regardless of how minuscule their chances are. Second year coach Steve Spagnuolo may have presided over a 1-15 campaign last year, the worst of the Rams miserable last three seasons, but he’s got my respect, if for no other reason than that he ran the defense that dominated the Patriots and cost them a perfect season in Super Bowl XLII for the Giants. Rookie quarterback Sam Bradford, the No. 1 overall pick in last spring’s draft out of Oklahoma, has completed 59 percent of his passes for 655 yards and four TDs, not bad numbers at all for a) a rookie, and b) someone who’s offense has just one weapon (veteran running back Steven Jackson). And the defense, Spagnuolo’s specialty, held the ‘Skins offense (run by noted genius of all things football Mike Shanahan) to just three second half points in last week’s win.

It’s going to take a fair amount more for the Rams to be relevant again – they haven’t had too much luck in their past couple of drafts outside of Bradford in the way, say, the Chiefs have. But it’s nice to see my favorite lousy team make some strides. Pretty soon, I’m guessing I’ll have to find a new one.

By Jeremy Gottlieb
Patriots Daily Staff