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Time for praise  
Rich Eisen  By Rich Eisen
Special to NFL.com

(Sept. 27, 2005) -- The Colts are 3-0 because of their defense. The Buccaneers are 3-0 because of their running game. The Bengals are 3-0, period.

Do not adjust your screen. For just the third time in the 37-year history of the Bengals, the Striped Tiger of Cincinnati has begun a season with three consecutive victories. The only other times occurred in 1988 -- when Sam Wyche, Boomer et al won a franchise record-tying six in a row to start a season that concluded in the Super Bowl -- and exactly 30 years ago, when the 1975 Bengals set the initial franchise record with six wins to open a campaign, the 21st and final season in the Hall of Fame coaching career of Paul Brown.

It's all come together thus far for Marvin Lewis: the growing pain-filled year he gave Carson Palmer at the controls in 2004 has clearly borne fruit in 2005. Baby appears all grownsed up. Through the first three weeks, only Ben Roethlisberger has a better quarterback rating than Palmer, whose eight touchdowns are tied for most in the league with Donovan McNabb. Right now, he's the only quarterback in the league to post six straight games with a quarterback rating of 100 or better. But most important of all, in Palmer's last 11 starts, the Bengals are 8-3. And how about that defense? It's become as opportunistic as Drew Rosenhaus in a Miami Hurricane parking lot -- a by-far-and-away league-best 16 takeaways to give Cincy a by-far-and-away league-leading plus-12 turnover ratio after just three games. Of the 16 takeaways, 12 of them are picks -- as many interceptions as nine other teams combined and as many picks as the 2004 Bengals had through nine games.

In terms of scoring defense, the Bengals trail only the Indianapolis Colts, who, it cannot be denied, are 3-0 because they're stopping people rather than stomping people's guts out. Through the first three games, Peyton Manning has yet to crack triple digits in quarterback rating once -- something that happened only three times all of last year, not including his Week 17 cameo against Denver. Even more improbable, Manning has not thrown a single touchdown pass in two straight games, something that hasn't happened since the end of the 1999 season. Now, all you fantasy owners who happily snagged Peyton with your top pick may be pulling the remaining hairs out of your head, but the good football fans of Indianapolis aren't. That's because, in each of the last two games, the Colts defense has not allowed a single touchdown. In fact, if you throw out the garbage time score the Ravens cosmetically tossed on the Colts in the fourth quarter of the season opener, the Colts "D" would be pitching an end-zone shutout right now.

At the beginning of the season, who would have thought the Colts, of all teams, would be the ones who sent the folks in the Elias Sports Bureau scurrying for this fact: Since World War II, only five teams held their first three opponents to single digits on the scoreboard. The 2005 Colts just became the sixth and, if they can do it to the Titans in Tennessee next week, they'll join the 1962 Green Bay Packers as the only teams to achieve that feat in their first four games.

Can Ray Nitschke and Cato June possibly be mentioned in the same sentence? Other than the one I can't believe I just typed?

Now that I've spent the last several paragraphs opining on the grandness of the three 3-0 teams in the NFL (with perhaps Washington to join them next week when the Redskins come off their bye week to host Seattle), let me now tell you why the best team in the league is actually one with one loss.

Should there ever be any doubt when Tom Brady takes the field late?  
Should there ever be any doubt when Tom Brady takes the field late?    
There just happens to be a team that's won three of the last four Super Bowls that is 2-1 -- they're called the New England Patriots. You may have heard of them. You certainly heard all last week how they were in trouble going into Pittsburgh, how Tom Brady appeared out of rhythm against the Carolina Panthers. I heard the Brady Misses Charlie Weis Theory trotted out in a couple of places last week, but not as much as an oldie but a goodie from 2004: The Patriots Secondary Is All Banged Up. We even sang that tune on NFL Total Access. It's got a nice beat; you can dance to it. But, I think it's time to retire that noise. It's become quite apparent Bill Belichick could put Diet Pepsi Machine in his secondary and everything will still be copasetic.

Headed into the game with the Steelers, New England's injury report featured no fewer than 12 players listed as questionable, including most of the Patriots secondary. Starting cornerbacks Tyrone Poole and Randall Gay didn't even make the trip to Pennsylvania, but at least they had Pro Bowl safety Rodney Harrison. And then about 12 minutes into the game, they didn't. Certainly, with 75 percent of the starting secondary out, the Steelers would have a field day. Then, moments later in the second quarter, the man who has Tom Brady's back went down with a leg injury of his own. The sudden departure of left tackle Matt Light left the Patriots with two pure rookies on the offensive line. Certainly, it was only a matter of time until the Steel Curtain fell directly on top of the fair-haired Super Bowl MVP quarterback.

Again, Logan Mankins scoffs at your intransigence!

I defy you to name another team that watches two team leaders get carted off within minutes of each other in the most hostile territory possible and still does not fold. Sure, many teams would hang in there, keep that upper lip stiff and come away with the moral victory. The Patriots are the ones that emerge with the actual victory.

Even with the depleted secondary, the Pats "D" held Ben Roethlisberger, still the league's top-rated quarterback, to a virtually impotent second half: 8 of 18 for 79 yards and a touchdown. Of course, behind that supposedly green offensive line, Brady turned in a breathtakingly brilliant fourth quarter: 12 of 12 for 168 yards. And, all the while, the defense with the most sacks in the league didn't bag Brady a single time. Plus, let's not kid anyone: Even if Brady had 52 less seconds to play with at the end of the game, he still would have had 29 seconds to move Adam Vinatieri in position to win it. One never knows if Brady would have done it, but he has done more with less time in bigger situations, yes?

Without question, this past weekend, the Patriots reminded one and all who needed a refresher exactly why they're the best coached and managed team in the NFL. Not only does Scott Pioli have the smarts to draft a 2004 third-round safety in Guss Scott and a 2005 third-rounder in tackle Nick Kazcur, but Bill Belichick also has the uncanny ability to make sure they can respectively fill in for Harrison and Light under adverse conditions even though they're respectively two years removed from Florida and one year from the University of Toledo. Of course, there's also Brady and the stone-cold lock Adam Vinatieri to pick up any pieces.

That's why, in a nutshell, the Patriots aren't 1-2 for the first time in four years but rather 2-1, sitting atop their division and headed home to take on the San Diego Chargers in a place where, by kickoff time, they won't have lost in 1,015 days! In case you're wondering, Marty Schottenheimer, for one, is already tuning out The Patriots Secondary is All Banged Up, which will no doubt get some serious airplay this week with Harrison now out for the season.

"Rodney's a terrific player but my point is, go back and look at the history and the history says that it doesn't affect them regardless of who it might be," said Marty when someone in the media played him the oldie but goodie. "You know, I'm not talking about any particular player, they have a system that they just continue to -- they're interchangeable parts is what it appears to me to be."


That's why, after three weeks, the Patriots are still the team to beat in the AFC and the NFL as a whole. Obviously, we've barely gotten across the Verrazano Bridge in this marathon, but I am one of those people who firmly believe that, just three weeks into a National Football League season, you can begin to gauge larger picture issues. You can look at the current standings and stat sheets and get a sense of how things will somewhat play out on the Road to 40. And, to prove my steadfast belief in this potentially foolish notion, I am going to hand out awards. You betcha. Any ol' NFL blogger can dole out empty kudos and meaningless honors come midseason or postseason. But, who would have the Bernie Kukars to do it now, after just three weeks? Your humble narrator, that's who.

So, without further ado, here now are the First Annual (and perhaps only) First 3/17ths of the NFL Season Awards!

Editor's Note: The Awards Committee initially rejected "The First 17.6% of the Season Awards" because it's technically not accurate. Once dividing the number 3 by 17, the percentage actually runs off into infinity, which led to discussions of a sponsorship deal with Infiniti Motors. However, once that completely fell through, using the fraction in the title won unanimous approval.

Coach of the First 3/17ths of the Season: Marvin Lewis, Cincinnati Bengals. He has officially cast his can-do personality on a franchise whose imprint was supposed to be permanently marked. Indeed, the Bungles are no more, and while this team has taken on his all-business, hard-nosed attitude on both sides of the ball, Lewis still lets his players be themselves. Case in point: Chad Johnson, a First 3/17ths of the Season Award nominee for Most Entertaining Player. One must wonder if Chad could be Chad toiling for other coaches in this league. I'm sure this fact is not lost on the rest of the team. In addition, this man had a long-term plan and stuck to it. Not to be repetitive, but you've got to give Lewis the nod for taking the slings and arrows and tossing Palmer to the wolves last season. Now, everything's coming up roses. You can't argue with the results at the Week 3 post of the season: a perfect 3-0 and full ownership of the AFC North Division lead. Others under consideration for this distinct honor include Jon Gruden, whose Bucs are also 3-0 and atop their division. But, their return is one to Recent Glory. The only way the Bengals enjoyed Glory in the last 15 years is if they went down to Blockbuster and rented it. Of course, other coaches who have seemingly reversed fortune were up for this prestigious 3/17th: Nick Saban, Dick Vermeil, Bill Parcells and even Mike Nolan, who has one win and one moral victory. But, in the end, NFL Total Access chief researcher Andrew Villa cast the deciding vote and he said, without equivocation, Lewis.

Most Entertaining Games: Dallas Cowboys. Boy howdy, do these Cowboys know how to keep you on the edge of your seat. Two trips to California, two last-minute comeback wins. Week 1 in San Diego, Dallas came back on the Chargers on three different occasions, capped by the Drew Bledsoe to Keyshawn Johnson game-winner with 3:06 left. This week, in San Francisco, the Bledsoe to Johnson combo took it much closer to the wire. This time, they provided the game-winning score and two-point conversion with 1:51 to go, capping a 15-point fourth quarter to avoid the ignominy of allowing the fruition of a victory guarantee by a man whose team had won only two times the previous season. In fact, the Cowboys contests have been so exhilarating even their most routine one morphed into the Game of the First 3/17ths. Indeed, the Week 2 Monday nighter between Dallas and Washington wasn't burning any barns until the final throes when the Redskins found their offense for about 71 seconds around midnight. It was one of those rare instances when an NFL game was like an NBA game: All you had to do was watch the last five minutes. With Randy Moss and the 0-3 Raiders welcoming the Cowboys to town this week, pull up a chair and a sedative. Home dates with the Eagles and Giants immediately follow, by the way. I think this award should stand up even after the Second 3/17ths. And, as you might imagine, longevity is the true measure of a First 3/17ths Award.

You just can't look away, can you?  Chad is magnetic.  
You just can't look away, can you? Chad is magnetic.    
Most Entertaining Player: Chad Johnson, Cincinnati Bengals. Right about now, the media is murmuring about a potential First 3/17ths Awards sweep for Cincinnati. You know, just like the Oscars. When a movie picks up Best Cinematography and Best Costumes early, it's frequently just the beginning of a tidal wave that ends up with Best Picture. But, I digress, much like Chad does to the delight of the First 3/17ths Award committee. Nobody spices up the week-long run-up to a contest quite like Johnson. Last year it was the Pepto, this year it's the Schedule. Back in May, when NFL Total Access taped its annual Schedule Announcement Show, Johnson appeared on Bengals cam and refused to talk about the teams he would be playing because, you see, Chad doesn't play against teams. He plays against individual cornerbacks. So, Chad explained, the Bengals season doesn't start at Cleveland, home for Minnesota and at Chicago. The season starts at Gary Baxter, home for Fred Smoot and at Jerry Azumah. Johnson said he would make up an entire schedule as such and, true to his word, he has tacked up exactly that list in his locker for all the world to see. He's even included a yes/no box next to each game, with the word "No" checked off thrice through three weeks. One can only assume it's an answer to the question: Did they stop 85? So far, the answer is no. And that's the beauty of it: Johnson is walking the walk as well. The days of his baiting the league's end-zone police appear to be over, too. His touchdown celebrations have become far more benign and, in turn, brilliant. Johnson's celebratory paying of homage to the Riverdance this past week in Chicago was pure genius. Chad was a runaway winner for this 3/17ths and that's saying a lot when you consider just how exciting LaDainian Tomlinson is any time he merely touches the ball, which brings me to the next award...the envelope please. I'm really getting into this now.

The Best Team at 1-2: San Diego Chargers. I believe Tomlinson just scored on the New York Giants again. Wow. Now, that's what the Chargers offense can look like when it's clicking on all cylinders. 485 total yards, 246 of them care of Tomlinson, who ran three in for a score and even passed for a touchdown. We'll do the math: Tomlinson accounted for 51 percent of the San Diego total yards Sunday night, one of the many reasons why he's up for the Most Valuable Player of the First 3/17ths Award. After seeing a game like Sunday night's, it's amazing to think that it was the first game in which Tomlinson had caught a pass all season. This man should touch it twice every set of downs. Throw in Gates and Brees and company and you've got one big-hitting offense. If the young defense continues to gel, who knows how far the Chargers can go? Right now, though, they're heading east for the first of four times this season. And they're heading to New England at 1-2. They've got their hands full but at least now one of those hands is holding a First 3/17ths Award and that's gotta feel good.

The Rich Kotite Memorial Can We Get A Mulligan Award: New York Jets. Guess we got our answer to the Week 1 question of "How effective can Chad Pennington be coming off shoulder surgery?" Just three games into the season, the Jets franchise quarterback is facing the prospect of having to undergo the knife again. But wait, there's more. All offseason long, the Jets wondered about the soundness of Pennington's shoulder, too. So, they took out a very smart and solid insurance policy, signing Jay Fiedler to a one-year contract. But just seven plays after Pennington went down in Week 3 and the Jets needed to break the glass on that emergency remedy, Fiedler went down with a throwing shoulder injury of his own. The backpage headline on Tuesday's New York Daily News summed up the sentiment in Jets fandom: Finished. Read the New York Post: Done. No one can remember a single instance in which a team had ever lost two quarterbacks for the season in the same game before. It's enough to bust out the New York City oldie but goodie: The Same Old Jets, a ditty Herman Edwards absolutely despises and has been trying to tune out from the minute he took the job there in 2000. Sure, the suddenly Takeo Spikes-less Bills, Vikings, Cardinals, Packers and a host of others would love to hit a breakfast ball right about now. But, last I checked, none of those teams lost two-thirds of their quarterback depth chart in one afternoon. And none of those teams spent Monday night wondering who might have a phone number of Neil O'Donnell.

Most Valuable Player of the First 3/17ths Award: Cadillac Williams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers. As you might expect, this particular 3/17ths involved stiff competition, certainly after the previously discussed final game performances turned in by Tom Brady and LaDainian Tomlinson. But nobody has changed the tenor and course of their entire team the way the fifth overall pick out of Auburn has in Tampa Bay. Last year, it seemed the only way the Buccaneers could move the ball down the field was by punting it. This year, all they do is hand it to Carnell Williams again and again. And again. And again. It's turned Tampa Bay into a serious smash-mouth force and that's the sort of thing that permeates an entire team. Indeed, Tampa Bay fields the top-ranked defense heading into Week 4, something that dovetails perfectly into the concept of Cadillac as battering ram on the other side of the ball. With Williams pounding defenses, the Tampa Bay "D" remains well-rested and, thus, quite sharp and refreshed for when it does get on the field.

And Jon Gruden knows this. He knew it from the get-go. After Williams ran the ball a first game rookie-record 27 times in the Bucs' season opening win at Minnesota, Gruden was asked if he might risk running his ground-game stud into the ground. Said Gruden: "I don't even think about that, really. We're going to ride him as long as we can. That's why he's here. That's why we selected him No. 5 overall. This guy is our front-line back. He's a featured back, like any other featured back. He's going to be used like one. If he gets tired, he comes out of the game. If adversity strikes, it strikes. But this guy is wired. This guy's infrastructure is one that allows him to play a lot."

Got that? Gruden wasn't kidding. He has continued to feed the beast. The only rookie to ever start his career with three straight 100-yard rushing games, it stands to reason that Williams has amassed the most yards of any rookie through the first three games of his career, too. Indeed, this guy is wired. I love that line. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers would not be 3-0 with a future as bright as theirs without Carnell "Cadillac" Williams. That's why this guy is now wired with the very first MVP through the First 3/17ths Award. Congrats Cadillac.

Random Thoughts

Who knew? The installation of an e-mail address for readers of this page -- GetRichQuick@nfl.com -- turned out to be the greatest interactive hit since Pat the Bunny. Kids love it and, quite frankly, the planet Earth loves it. I'm pleased to say exactly 90 e-mails flooded the GetRichQuick@nfl.com inbox from around the world -- a handful from England (which definitely seems home to some hardcore NFL fans), one from Australia and even one from Israel, where a man actually named Israel e-mailed to point out how the Steelers have five games remaining on their schedule against teams that started 0-2, not including the Texans team the Steelers sent to their bye week at 0-2. By the way, Israel is right on the shekel on that one: two against Baltimore, at Minnesota, at San Diego and at Green Bay.

In terms of our former Taxation Without Representation friends from across the pond, you've got to love getting an e-missive like this one from Hastings, England:

Hi, I am hoping you can clear up a small point about playing jerseys. Recently, the Bengalis, Bills and Falcons have appeared in different colours from their usual team kits and then this week the Eagles play in black! What's going on with this continuous wardrobe changing that teams in the NFL are going through?

Kits! I love it! I might try dropping that one on Lincoln Kennedy this week and see the reaction. He might think I'm talking about the car from Knight Rider. Without question, the emails from England were the most well-written of the bunch, or lot as they may say.

As for domestic e-mails, one reader wrote to say how much he enjoyed the column but asked not to post that message for fear his boss might read it and know he's not exactly focused at work. Some e-mailers got on their virtual soapboxes to rant or rave about their teams or controversial zebra calls. But, by far and away, the hottest topic concerned a question posed last week in this space based on the endless promos for CSI: Miami broadcast during all the CBS games -- Is there a more badass cop on TV than David Caruso? The answer from most of you was a resounding: yes.

An overwhelming favorite for toughest cop on TV.  
An overwhelming favorite for toughest cop on TV.    
An informal poll of the inbox revealed you, the NFL.com users, believe Michael Chiklis on The Shield could take David Caruso down anytime, anywhere barehanded.

Wrote Matt W. from, what one could glean from his e-mail address, the University of Colorado:

Cliklis' character, Det. Mackey, would beat up his own mother if he thought she wasn't giving him enough lunch money. Put him toe-to-toe with Caruso, we'll even give Caruso a gun and leave Chiklis without one, and let the proverbial, and oddly appropriate, red-headed stepchild beating of our favorite NYPD Blue dropout begin. Of course before you can find all this out, you gotta stay up late but you better ask your wife if it's OK first...


Of course, there were others receiving votes in this poll: Ice-T of Law and Order: SVU (not to be confused with Law and Order: SUV, which, of course, tracks down vehicular crimes), Kiefer Sutherland from 24 and Caruso himself even got a couple votes of confidence. Some folks went old school, voting for Magnum P.I. (and Higgins) and even Chiklis from back in his days as The Commish, cancelled by ABC now 10 years ago!

Tough TV cop, or wimpy Naval washout? You be the judge.  
Tough TV cop, or wimpy Naval washout? You be the judge.    
But the best e-mail on the subject came from Raleigh, N.C., where reader Bill B. gets the nod for delving deep into Caruso's filmography to deliver the thumbs down on this hot-button, hard-pressing issue.

To me, David Caruso is still the wimpy girly-man, who got his pacifistic butt stomped by Louis Gossett Jr., nearly drowned in the Dover Dunker, and subsequently was DOR'd from Navy OCS in the movie classic Officer and a Gentleman. I felt that way when he was on NYPD Blue, and I feel that way today. Anything portraying him as a tough guy makes me cringe, then cackle with laughter.

I respect anyone who goes DOR on me. I had also actually forgotten Caruso was in that movie. One last thing: This week's promo for CSI: Miami was a classic -- Caruso in sunglasses, but no drawn gun, lamenting the submergence of a ship filled with evidence -- "We've got a crime scene that's sinking." Now onto other random thoughts...

  • Paul Maguire of the ESPN Sunday Night Football crew is the undisputed king of "Watch This." One of my biggest pet peeves is a sports television announcer telling me to "watch" or "look at" stuff during a replay. What else would I be doing when I'm watching or looking at the television? If you played the old TV drinking game -- i.e. taking a swig at every instance of someone doing or saying some designated thing -- and you had to imbibe every time Maguire says "Watch This" on Sunday Night Football, you'd be blacked out midway through the first quarter. I love Paul Maguire personally -- he was always a real nice guy to me while at ESPN and he has appeared on NFL Total Access but the "Watch This" madness must cease and desist. Message to Maguire: I'm already watching!
  • Hall of Fame announcer Don Criqui was on the call of the Browns-Colts this past Sunday -- the one millionth Browns broadcast of Criqui's illustrious career. From Sipe to Pruitt for Rutigliano all the way to Dilfer to Northcutt for Crennel, congrats Don!
  • I just got the DVD of the first season of Lost, which I'm told is going to knock Deadwood off my list as the best drama on TV. Apparently, I'm the only person who didn't see an episode of Lost last season. Here's one more secret revealed: I haven't seen a single frame of Desperate Housewives, either. The most I've seen of Eva Longoria on ABC was during the NBA Finals.
  • The entire city of Los Angeles was up in arms this past Saturday because the USC Trojans actually lost an entire half of football! After my smarmy advice for Oregon to duck this weekend against the top team in all of college football, the old Ducks actually led 13-0 after one quarter and 13-10 at the half. It had some people thinking the Trojans were vulnerable. Silly rabbit. All that happened, you see, is that USC decided it would run the ball in this game. In the end, USC wound up with 278 yards rushing and only 593 total yards. Matt Leinart still got his 315 yards passing and three touchdowns in his latest step on the Road to the Commissioner's Podium next April. By the way, don't think some Jets fans won't immediately abandon ship on a potentially permanently damaged Pennington and secretly pine for some scenario that winds up with Leinart wearing the green. Certainly if the season goes south under the stewardship of Brooks Bollinger, Vinny Testaverde or even, gasp, Neil O'Donnell in the coming weeks.
  • Is it true that after the Sebastian Coe biopic Four Minutes is shown on ESPN2, it will be followed up with Neil Everett and Sean Salisbury playing a round of Chariots of Fire Fact-or-Fiction?
  • My Larry King Line of the Week: If you don't like Curb Your Enthusiasm, you don't like funny.
  • The I-Analog Game of the Week: Titans at Rams. It's been six years now since the Titans wound up three feet shy of giving us the first overtime game in Super Bowl history in a game that made ABC television history. Super Bowl XXXIV was the very first Super Bowl broadcast in Hi-Definition by the people who brought you the concept of NFL games in prime time. (According to an extensive Google search, the first Super Bowl broadcast in HDTV came the year before when Fox showed us John Elway riding off into the sunset in twice the horizontal and twice the vertical resolution of analog television.) We give you this brief TV technology history lesson only as a backdrop for this week's installment of the I-Analog Game of the Week. Indeed, the analog-forever CBS broadcast crew of Ian Eagle and Solomon Wilcots were the ones in the booth for the Super Bowl XXXIV rematch brought to you in the magic of fuzzy, throwback 55-year-old analog television. CBS' three Hi-Def games of the week: Patriots-Steelers, Raiders-Eagles and Bengals-Bears.

Judging by the response, Ed here might just be missed during his bye week as well.  
Judging by the response, Ed here might just be missed during his bye week as well.    
* And, finally, super ref Bernie Kukar returned from an extremely early Week 2 bye clearly refreshed and raring to go in San Francisco. The Cowboys and 49ers spent the weekend at Bernie's, and Kukar's crew called a virtually flawless game, as far as I can tell. I might be a little biased, too. When Bernie called a roughing-the-passer penalty in the first quarter, I almost shed a tear. It dawned on me -- I missed him. Judging by some of the e-mails I got this week, many of you will get a little misty when the strapping Ed Hochuli takes his first week off. Maybe we'll cast a little spotlight on Ed and his considerable biceps next week.

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