Keeping Score

Dallas’ Disaster and Aaron’s Athletics: Three Lessons Learned From NFL Week Four

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Matt Ludtke / Getty Images

Aaron Rodgers #12 of the Green Bay Packers exits the stands after scoring a touchdown against the Denver Broncos at Lambeau Field on October 2, 2011 in Green Bay, Wisconsin

TIME’s Sean Gregory breaks down the lessons from football’s fourth week.

Disaster Brewing in Dallas. The Dallas Cowboys are 2-2, and by no means out of the running in the NFC East. But Dallas’ two losses could not have been more brutal. On opening weekend, Dallas was up on the New York Jets, 24-10, but quarterback Tony Romo turned the ball over twice down the stretch, and the Jets won that game, 27-24. On Sunday, Dallas set a new low. The Cowboys, hosting the surprising 3-0 Detroit Lions, jumped out to a 27-3 lead over Detroit right after halftime. But Romo then threw two straight interceptions that were returned for touchdowns. The Lions’ Bobby Carpenter, a former Cowboy and groomsman at Romo’s wedding this summer, picked off one errant pass and returned it 34 yards for a score. A third Romo interception late in the fourth quarter set up the winning touchdown, a 2-yard pass from Dallas-born Matthew Stafford to his favorite target, wide receiver Calvin Johnson. Detroit won, 34-30. It was a wonderful homecoming for Stafford. As for Romo, if he blows a few more leads – this was the worst collapse in Cowboys history – he’ll be running out of town.

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Aaron Rodgers Has A Little Brett Favre In Him.  No, Rodgers is not a professional ditherer. But just like Favre, his former teammate, Rodgers is a tough guy who can take a hit. Somehow, Rodgers keeps getting better. On Sunday, during Green Bay’s 49-23 win over Denver, he threw for a career-best 408 yards, with 4 touchdown passes, and he rushed for two more scores. In the third quarter, with Green Bay leading 28-17, Rodgers showed off his underrated athleticism. On a second and goal, from the Denver eight-yard line, Rodgers took off: he collided with Denver’s Jonathan Wilhite, spun toward the goal line, and stretched out his arm into the end zone. Rodgers was originally ruled down, but instant replay overturned the call: touchdown. Rodgers can’t run like Michael Vick. But it was a gritty, physical play, and Rodgers showed he can do more than just deliver a (very) pretty pass.

Kickoffs Returns: Far From Dead.  In an effort to improve player safety, NFL owners voted this offseason to move kickoffs up five yards, to the 35-yard line. This change, the thinking went, would both increase touchbacks and cut down the running distance for the coverage team. The shorter the sprint, the less force on the inevitable collisions. Coming into the season, many players, coaches and fans whined incessantly about the new rule. Kickoff returns, one of the most exciting – and violent – parts of the game, would become yawners.

Sunday proved, once again, the wrongheaded nature of all that complaining. If anything, kickoffs have become more thrilling, as kickers are booting the ball deeper into the end zone. And return men who are taking a little risk – running the ball out, instead of kneeling for a touchback – are reaping rewards. In the first quarter of the New York Jets-Baltimore Ravens game Sunday night, for example, Joe McKnight of the Jets ran the ball seven yards out of the end zone, and then another 100 yards for a touchdown. The 107-yard score was the longest in Jets history. (Baltimore beat the Jets, 34-17). In fact, during the first four weeks of this season, we’ve already seen four kickoff return touchdowns of more than 100 yards. In all of 2010, teams scored six kickoff return touchdowns of more than 100 yards.

These elongated returns are exciting. So all those critics of moving up the kickoff should now be cheering this rule.

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Sean Gregory is a staff writer at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @seanmgregory. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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