What I Saw, Wk 11 2012

Blair Miller > WHAT I SAW IN WEEK 11, 2012

One Legendary Coach Bill Parcells-ism: “I go by what I see.”

Yogi Berra once said, “You can observe a lot by watching.”

This is What I Saw from the past week’s NFL action.

(A list of TFQ’s PROPS from this column will be posted monthly.)

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Away from the game(s)

I SAW the NFL go all archetypical on us, in threes, with three overtime tilts at once to finish the 1 o’clock games on Sunday and three straight weeks with a fitty-burger getting hung on a team.  (The Patriots posted one this week, following in the footsteps of the Ravens last week and the Bears before that.)  Thirdly, three backup quarterbacks were forced to start big games for their teams.  (Sorry, Nick Foles, you and your Eagles might not have a truly big game for at least a year.)  As usual, all that these zany moments from the weekend did was cast the league pecking order into what seems like further disarray.  However, upon close examination things might not be as undecided as they seem. …

I SAW that despite the parity monster having barged into the 2012 season, torn up the couch and pissed on the newspaper, the current playoff picture is surprisingly within view, and it’s not the jarring change of participants from last season that fans have been getting used to.  With just six weeks remaining in the regular season it’s worth taking a look at how things are taking shape.

The AFC leads the two conferences in terms of party-pooping postseason clarity.  There are actually only six teams out of those 16 with winning records heading into Thanksgiving weekend.  In order of seeding, if the playoffs were to start today:

  1. Houston (9-1)
  2. Baltimore (8-2)
  3. New England (7-3)
  4. Denver (7-3)
  5. Indianapolis (6-4)
  6. Pittsburgh (6-4)

Obviously there is room for movement, especially in a race for home field advantage throughout and the two byes.  And even though the Colts and Steelers looked very shaky on Sunday (especially Pittsburgh) it’s not hard to envision both teams backing into the playoffs.  Below them at 5-5 are the Bengals and they just aren’t consistent enough on defense and three of their remaining six games are against the Cowboys, Ravens and Steelers – all of whom will likely have a lot riding on those games as well.  After that it’s just the Chargers, Titans, Bills and the Dolphins at 6-4 and, well, you get the picture.

Over in the NFC things are a bit less settled, but not by much.  Eight teams currently sit above .500, with what one would expect as the sextet that will make it into January already in place:

  1. Atlanta (9-1)
  2. San Francisco (7-2-1)
  3. Green Bay (7-3)
  4. New York Giants (6-4)
  5. Chicago (7-3)
  6. T-Seattle (6-4)*

*-Same W-L as TB & MIN

The Bears are the obvious first pick for the team to falter but that’s dependent upon the health of QB Jay Cutler.  If the Giants weren’t the defending champs (and if more people would keep in mind that they’ve played poorly enough to miss two of the last three postseasons) they would be the ones most likely victimized – by one of the two 5-5 teams looming, their division rival in Dallas.  Frankly, as bad as the Giants have looked recently, the Cowboys need to be a lot better than an OT win against Cleveland in order to avoid a January gone fishing.  The other 5-5 team is New Orleans and even as an impartial observer the Saints are scary.  They could leapfrog both their division-rival Bucs and Vikings but their schedule is so tough (Niners, at Falcons, at Giants, Bucs, at Cowboys, Panthers).  On the bubble lie the Redskins, Lions and Cardinals at 4-6 but all three of those teams are too lopsided to persevere.  One thing that could liven up the NFC picture is the fact that the conference’s divisional play tends to be more closely played than in the AFC.

With all of these things in mind, the Seahawks should hold onto their berth, if not improve it, and unless another team can snake the NFC East away from the champs this group should be the one that plays in the playoffs.  (The final seeds are another matter, however.)

As far as parity is concerned, look elsewhere.  If this dozen holds suit nine of them played in the playoffs last season.

I SAW myself getting tired.  I hadn’t really felt the burn until this week, but the fact that there is no longer more than two consecutive days during any week of the season without football is getting exhausting and we’re only at the doorstep of US Thanksgiving.  Don’t get me wrong – I love the NFL – but sometimes I love it like an adult loves their spouse and their kids, and.…fuck, a break isn’t coming.…and I’m not saying I want one…but…I’m tired.  Damn, you, NFL.  I love you.

But it’s a hard love, one partly imbued with addiction.  If you’re reading this, you’re at least somewhat afflicted and happy about it.  But it’s a dirty addiction at times, particularly with the new knowledge about injuries.  Aaron Traister pondered these notions in a hard-hitting but poignantly grounded article for salon.com that deserves consideration, as he aligns his love for the NFL with the love-hate dynamic of a smoking habit.

Don’t misunderstand.  If the 24-7-365 ingestion of pro football does mix exhaustion, ecstasy and so many other vibes in a way that oddly parallels a smoking habit it’s still not an issue that’s scaring me away.  Give me another drag of this shit.  But full-contact football as we know it today is already changing – and will change dramatically over the next few decades.  About that there can be little debate.  In fact, in another article (that years ago would have seemed like a lone voice yelling crazy ideas like a religious zealot on a downtown corner) is gathering recognition from pundits as reputable as Sports Illustrated’s Peter King.  It’s by Stefan Fatsis on slate.com and it makes a concerted push to eliminate contact from youth football. 

Making the changes Fatsis proposes will diminish the hitting acumen at the top levels in a few decades’ time, once the kids age and the resulting effect in Pop Warner leagues trickles up.  If we were to watch how the NFL will be played in the future from our present perspective many of us – myself included – would be disappointed at the lack of violent collisions.

I think we’re all in that adjustment stage these days, and it’s not going to decelerate anytime soon – quite the opposite.  When people like NFL commissioner (and baby eater) Roger Goodell uses the term “culture change” it’s no exaggeration and it applies to both league and fan culture.  As King reported this week:

“I was talking to an NFL GM this week, and he recounted excitedly about a young player in practice hitting a veteran so hard they both got woozy, and he caught himself and said, ‘I shouldn’t be praising that now.’  He’s right.”

Too true.  I played football for six total years in high school and university, and I hit hard.    Every time I could.  Face first, most of the time.  I loved it.  I never lost consciousness but on one occasion I hit an opponent so hard that everything turned green, as though I was wearing tinted ski goggles.  Many times my body “vibrated” from head to toe for a few minutes after a hit.  (I used to call it humming.)  But ongoing neurological studies are uncovering more and more evidence that the low-to-medium grade impacts can do the real damage to a football player’s brain over the long term.  I estimate that I was involved in at least fifteen hundred such impacts.  So this stuff hits home for me, if you’ll pardon the expression.  When I pull one of those moves when I look for my glasses for half an hour while they’re sitting on the top of my head, at what point do I worry?  I try not to, but while big hits in the NFL still get my juices flowing like a sweet nicotine delivery the emotional hangover weighs in sooner than ever.

Still, what can I say?  If you’re like me you’re still hooked.  Screw the drag; I’m going out to buy a full carton.  Only these days when I light up I pray more and more for the crazy/brave athletes whom I write about every week.  I won’t like it when the dosages involve less hitting, but I know it’s for their own good.

I SAW that the league needs to be acting with decisiveness in order to send messages to players about head-to-head hits and they failed to do so in the case of Ravens S Ed Reed.  The NFL decided to suspend Reed for a game based on a helmet-to-helmet hit on Steelers WR Emmanuel Sanders Sunday night and, as stated in a press release, “repeated violations of the rule prohibiting hits to the head and neck area of defenseless players.” The NFL deemed Reed’s hit on Sanders his third violation in the last three years, but all that changed Tuesday when Reed’s appeal to the ruling was successful and the penalty was downgraded to a $50,000 fine.  Again – decisiveness is important in the implementing and upholding of new rules, and what now seems like an overreaction on the part of the league offices needs to be avoided in the future.  The players are already sensitive enough to these changes as it is.  If rulings come across as knee-jerk, like the one on Reed, it just makes things harder.  The last thing players want is a mixed message.

I SAW a rule that seems needlessly strict to me – one that I wasn’t aware of until Sunday’s Falcons game.  Atlanta head coach Mike Smith threw a challenge flag after a turnover and was penalized fifteen yards and the replay-review was negated for doing so since a turnover is now automatically reviewable.

At first glance, the spirit of this rule makes sense.  (It also applies to scoring plays.)  It’s analogous to the rule in basketball whereby a team is assessed a technical foul if a player or coach calls timeout when they don’t have any left to use.  It’s a delay of the game, and one that could be abused.

But isn’t the guiding principal behind instant replay to ensure that the correct call is made, even if not on the field?  This penalty further enhances the gimmicky game-within-a-game that is the challenge system.  If the call should be reviewed, it should be reviewed.   Penalize the infracting team with an unsportsmanlike conduct but adding the replay negation goes against making sure proper calls are made.

I SAW one personal (and fairly insignificant) pleasure I get every Sunday night, but I just like the Hall Of Famer and his delivery.  I’m referring to the opening of each NFL Network’s Gameday Final when the anchor introduces his or her co-hosts and Marshall Faulk shows his playful confidence:

Anchor: “…I’m here with Prime Time Deion Sanders, The Playmaker Michael Irvin and the nicknameless Marshall Faulk.”

Faulk (quickly and casually): “I be da man.”

I SAW some good sportsmanship within the NFL head coaching fraternity when Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll tweeted some well-wishes for division rival and former PAC-12 rival Jim Harbaugh after the Niners coach was treated for an irregular heartbeat:

Sending out best wishes to Jim Harbaugh for a quick recovery… Get well soon, we gotta alotta ball games left!”

I SAW last, and certainly not least – unless you’re fat bastard Rob Ford, and then you’re least – thanks to Deadspin for producing a .gif of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford falling flat while trying to turn and run with a football.  Ah, Rob, you know that no one with a fat gut like yours can turn that fast without getting taken down by it.  Live it up, Torontonians – your mayor got tackled by his own fat self.

Byes: Minnesota, New York Giants, Seattle, Tennessee

TNF- Buffalo (4-6) wins vs. Miami (4-6), 19-14   

I SAW a game as unsexy as thoughts of Flanders in a ski suit.

(deadhomersociety.com)

(We’ve posted this before, but c’mon.  Classic.  “Nothin’ at all!”)

How sexy have the Bills been in recent years?  This was their first nationally televised game in four years.  So in other words, they’ve been about as sexy as Will Farrell and his weirdly creased gut streaking the quad.

However, Buffalo lifted up its collective skirt within the first two minutes when Leodis McKelvin returned the first punt of the game 79 yards for his second such TD this season.

Next thing you knew, it was the Dolphins that looked as sexy as Nick Tortelli.

(http://xfinity.comcast.net)

Proper, but not sexy.

To wit: Miami shat out 2 3-and-outs to start the game and WR Brian Hartline fumbled the ball away to kill the ’Fins third possession.  Miami figured out how to shake its own skanky booty when Marcus Thigpen took his own punt return 96 yards to the house, but it didn’t last.  At All.

It took the Dolphins until 3:50 left in the third quarter to get into Bills territory on offense.  In their last two games their offense has gone 5-for-23 on third down with zero 20+ yard plays and zero touchdowns.  That shiny new car smell that Tannehill had been emanating during September and October has turned to stink.  He killed both of his team’s last two drives in an attempt to come back with interceptions, giving him two touchdowns, five picks and an 0-3 record in the last three weeks.

His backfield partner, RB Reggie Bush didn’t fare much better either.  After being benched for fumbling during Miami’s second drive two games ago Bush followed that up with a ten carry, 20-yard performance.

What has happened to this offense?  NFL Network’s Mike Mayock made a good point in-game when he mentioned that opponents are no longer concerned about Miami’s receivers beating them deep and as such DBs are playing them short, making the whole field feel as compact as the red zone.  That sort of water is too shallow for Dolphins – or most teams, for that matter.

In all, this unsexy game from both teams may have nailed the coffin shut on Miami’s playoff hopes because now they have Seattle, New England and at San Francisco over the next three weeks.

I SAW myself mention this already last week, but how come Bills RB C.J. Spiller wasn’t getting more handoffs before this season?  The guy can make moves in a phone booth and that’s not a skill tailbacks just pick up all of a sudden.  It’s simply not enough to say that Spiller was getting looks late last season; he should have been getting them from the get-go.  Everyone used to get sticky pants over the rushing average of Chiefs RB Jamaal Charles but check this out (from NFL Network):

Most Yards Per Rush – Running Backs, Single Season (min. 100 ATTs)

Player Year Yards per carry
Beattie Feathers 1934 8.44
C.J. Spiller 2012 7.01
Dan Towler 1951 6.78
Keith Lincoln 1963 6.45
Mercury Morris 1973 6.40
Jim Brown 1963 6.40

(A big shout-out to the late Beattie Feathers, who was also the first 1,000-yard back in NFL history that same record season.

New England (7-3) wins vs. Indianapolis (6-4), 59-24

I SAW the Patriots offense continue at a torrid pace, making each week look like a Pro Bowl score – for them, at least.  New England not only leads the league in scoring by more than five points per game but in the last three games the Pats have averaged 47.0 and forced nine turnovers.

More specifically there has been the deluge of scoring from TE Rob Gronkowski, but that’s taking a hiatus (see below).

But the true story of this game was the Patriots D…

I SAW Colts QB Andrew Luck break Peyton Manning’s rookie record with his fifth 300-yard game of the season.  However, Pats head coach Bill Belichick and his defense were in the rook’s kitchen all game on Sunday, forcing Luck into four turnovers that led to 21 points for New England, including two pick-sixes.  Overall, Luck’s 334 yards were offset by three interceptions, a 54 percent completion rate and a 63.3 passer rating, which in turn kept Indy’s defense in a tough spot while they fought uphill to try and prevent a sixty-burger.

According to NFL Network, making life difficult for first-timers is nothing new for Belichick teams.  Since 2003, quarterbacks facing the sleeve-cut one may win the game, but it’s not easy:

QBs Vs. Belichick For First Time Since 2003

W-L 10-5
Comp % 57.5
Pass Yards/Gm 209.4
TD-INT 67-77
Passer Rating 72.2

I SAW that Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is often fond of taking offenses out of their comfort zone, namely by making life difficult for the top receiver.  Sunday was no exception.  According to ESPN Stats & Information, Colts WR Reggie Wayne came into the game as the NFL leader in targets and receptions with 105 and 69, respectively.  Though Indy’s QB, Andrew Luck, still threw to Wayne fifteen times Sunday, the results weren’t as positive as usual:

Andrew Luck-to-Reggie Wayne in 2012

First 9 games Sunday
Comp % 65.7 46.7
Yards per attempt 8.9 4.8
TD-INT 3-5 0-3
First down % 47.6 26.7

With an array of safety help and physical play from their cornerbacks, the Pats made sure that it wouldn’t be Wayne who beat them.  If Indy wants to get back on track, it might help if Luck can find a way to get the ball to Wayne on the road, where the QB has thrown no TDs and six INTs targeting Wayne.

I SAW that regardless of not being able to make any big plays, Colts WR Reggie Wayne tied Cris Carter’s NFL record with 58 straight games with at least three catches (STATS LLC).  That’s a very underrated milestone.

I SAW Patriots QB Tom Brady put up his 28th career game with 300 yards and 3 TDs.  I crunched the numbers and that ranks Brady fourth all-time in that category, but note how much it seems to matter to his team when he plays that well.

QBs with 300-yard, 3 TD games, career

Player # of 300-yd, 3 TD gms W-L
Drew Brees 34 26-8
Dan Marino 33 20-13
Peyton Manning 31 23-8
Tom Brady 28 26-2
Brett Favre 27 20-7

I SAW newly-acquired Pats CB Aqib Talib get beat on an early TD by WR T.Y. Hilton.  Talib then more than made up for it with a 59-yard interception return for a touchdown that put New England ahead 21-14, giving them a lead they would never relinquish.

Expect more big plays from Talib.  Trading for him gives the Patriots defense a boost that may be needed even more than anticipated…

I SAW a day of very mixed feelings for TE Rob Gronkowski.  The bad news first: Gronk is expected to be out for at least a month after breaking his forearm on a PAT.  (He had surgery Monday morning.)

The good was more extensive.  With seven catches for 137 yards and two touchdowns Gronk put in his 13th career multiple TD game (including playoffs) and third consecutive double-digit TD season – a first for a tight end, and he did it in his first three tries.  His scoring pace transcends his position:

Most TD Catches in first 3 seasons (NFL History)

Player Rec TD
Randy Moss 43
Jerry Rice 40
Rob Gronkowski 37
John Jefferson 36
Bob Hayes 35

Unfortunately for Gronkowski, he may not have an opportunity to add to this number but to put it in perspective, consider what ColdHardFootballFacts pointed out:  NFL Network named Hall Of Fame tight end John Mackey the best in history at the position.  Mackey had 38 career TDs; Gronk already has 37.

I SAW that it’s more crucial than ever that Patriots TE Aaron Hernandez prove his own worth in the absence of Rob Gronkowski.  Spacing out opposing defenses is always a hallmark of the Pats offense with QB Tom Brady, and that duty now falls squarely on Hernandez.  He’s versatile enough that he can do what WR Randall Cobb does for the Packers – lining up everywhere, from wideout to tailback – but with more power.

I SAW Colts QB Andrew Luck make several impressive plays despite playing arguably his worst game of the season, with some throws that were horribly off-target (but that’s what a Belichick defense does; make a passer uncomfortable – see above).

One play stood out, while the rookie was under duress during a completion to WR T.Y. Hilton in the third quarter.  Luck was stepping up in the pocket and had to have felt the hand of Pats LB Rob Ninkovich pulling on his jersey.  Luck is so strong though (and he knows it) that he still took time to pump fake before getting the ball downfield.  That’s Roethlisbergeresque body strength.  What can’t Luck do exactly, in physical terms?

I SAW one thing to help calm the nervous hearts of New England fans as they prepare for life without Gronk: Since the midway point of the 2010 season the Patriots are 18-0 in the second half of the regular season.

Atlanta (9-1) wins vs. Arizona (4-6), 23-19

I SAW an early nominee for one of TFQ’s Upside Down Awards, given following the Super Bowl:

Karma Sutra Award

When life comes back to fuck you in the ass.

This game was a shocker – karma sutra in two ways at once.  First, after Bronco Peyton Manning threw three interceptions in the first quarter in Atlanta during a week 2 Falcons win Matt Ryan turned around and threw a hat trick of oopsie-doodles of his own in the first quarter Sunday (see below).

But the 9-1 Falcons overcame their quarterback’s bad day and the karmic circle gave them a reach-around near the end of the game.  Last week in New Orleans, Atlanta TE Tony Gonzalez dropped a fourth down pass to kill the game in what would be Atlanta’s first loss of the season.  On Sunday it came back around when Cardinals WR Cousin Larry Fitzgerald was a less-than-Perfect Stranger on a last-ditch fourth down drop of his own.  One has to feel for Cousin Larry.  Balki Bartokomous could throw him a better ball than rookie sub Ryan Lindley did, and a throw on his hands may have taken Fitz off-guard.

I SAW that this game was ugly but a huge confidence builder for the Falcons because their MVP candidate, QB Matt Ryan, couldn’t have played much worse.  Before Sunday Ryan had never thrown more than three interceptions in a game but he slid five out of his rear against the Cardinals.  If you think that winning a game with a performance like that is rare, you’re right.  According to Elias Sports Bureau The Mattural is just the fourth QB in league history to throw five picks and no touchdowns but still win the game.  The last one do to so was Packer Bart Starr in 1967 (against the Bears).

So Atlanta gutted out a win.  That not only gives the defense a psychological boost but also could loosen up Ryan now that he knows he can shit the bed and still leave the field with a smile.  This could be a huge step forward for Hot-lanta, on so many levels.

I SAW the Cardinals come of their bye week and drop their sixth straight game.  Head coach Ken Wisenhunt is playing the QB situation like he’s a cracked-up craps player in an alley with a few stinky slices of cash but who can blame him?  He has no one good to put under center.  After starter John Skelton stank it up with a 2-for-7, 6-yard start the last option was rookie Ryan Lindley.  He came in and smelled like Limdburger while he threw for 64 yards and the offense as a whole managed 178 for the game.  ’Zona romped for 48 yards in the second half, eight of which came in the fourth quarter.

With the way the Cardinals have been playing for some time now, that week 2 upset of the Patriots looks like a period piece.

Philadelphia (3-7) wins @ Washington (4-6), 31-6

I SAW Sunday’s meeting for last place in the NFC East dig a deeper hole for the Eagles.  Their losing skid is now at six games – their longest in-season losing streak since dropping seven straight since 1994.

Philly came into the game with an NFC-worst -11 turnover differential.  Make that -14 after this game to go along with nine penalties on Sunday.  As a reminder that the crux of their offensive issues lies with the O-line, guard Jake Scott committed two first quarter false starts.  Scott has been with the team for less than a week.

On the first career start by QB Nick Foles: A 21-for-46 (45.7%), 204 yard, 0 TD, 2 INT, 40.5 rating against the 29th-ranked passing defense of the Redskins should show onlookers that the only controversy surrounding the Eagles quarterbacks is how shitty they’re playing.  (Remember – From Koy Detmer, through AJ Feeley and Kevin Kolb, Reid is generally outstanding at preparing young QBs for relief starts.)

On that matter: Starting Eagles QB Michael Vick’s concussion might be the unfair catalyst that pushes him out the door in Philly.  Axing coach Andy Reid might be on the way too, but that will be a tough decision to make since Reid is a QB guru and this franchise needs one to either groom Foles for the starting job or scout a quarterback for a high draft pick in the draft this year or next.

I SAW Redskins QB Robert Griffin III trump his previous rookie performances this season – ones that were already superlative.

Comp Att % YPA Yds TD INT Rating
14 15 93.3 13.3 200 4 0 158.3

That’s a perfect passer rating and four times more TD passes than incompletions.  Four times more TD passes than incompletions.  What does RG3 think this is, Baylor?

Note Griffin’s 13.3 yard per attempt, indicating that the seemingly average 200-yard output was achieved largely by long throws.  And he didn’t milk one receiver either, completing passes to nine different players.  In other words, there is no way to poke holes in this statistical performance.  (Hence the perfect passer rating.  Take that, non-believers of the stat.  See also New Orleans wins @ Oakland, 38-17.)

Griffin might not possess the size of Andrew Luck and Cam Netwon, or the bloated stats the latter put up last season.  But he’s arguably the most accurate and all-around efficient rookie passer ever.  Another nugget: Eagle Nick Foles – RG3’s counterpart on Sunday and a fellow rookie – has thrown three interceptions already this season in 78 attempts.  Griffin has thrown three interceptions all year, in 277 throws.  Only New England’s Tom Brady has thrown as few picks as that; Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers has thrown double.

There’s a line from Griffin’s Subway commercial: “… when the weak and distracted are resting on their reputations…” On Sunday RG3 could have been talking about the rest of the league.  Obviously that’s an exaggeration.  But at times this season Griffin’s play has been, well, hyperbolic.

I SAW insult to injury – literally – for Philadelphia when star RB LeSean McCoy left the game due to a concussion with about two minutes left in a blowout loss.  Reports have said that Shady isn’t feeling as shady as Vick did immediately after his concussion weeks ago but the tailback’s status for the next game is uncertain.  Maybe it will take him having lost a Pro Bowl tailback before Eagles head coach Andy Reid realizes what he’s missed by underplaying the talented McCoy.

I SAW that it’s not clear whether or not firing Eagles head coach is the answer in Philadelphia but after looking at some numbers from ESPN Stats & Information, it’s likely that his decision to fire defensive coordinator Juan Castillo and replace him with Todd Bowles was a bad one:

Eagles Defense in 2012

Under Castillo Under Bowles
Games 6 4
Comp % 52.7 78.4*
TD-INT 7-7 11-0
Yards/att 6.3 9.4*

*worst in NFL since week 7 when Bowles took over

Those numbers aren’t meant to indicate that Bowles can’t coach a defense.  As mentioned in What I Saw, Wk 8 Castillo was given a raw deal given the state of the unit when he took over.  But the risk Reid took in axing Castillo should yield more results than a plummet in performance. 

I SAW that the Redskins play four of their last six games against divisional playoffs, so even if they don’t qualify for the playoffs they’ll have a lot of say into the matter of who does within the NFC East.  As if the rest of the division didn’t already rue the arrival of ’Skins rookie QB Robert Griffin III.

I SAW poor Brandon Meriweather get another bad break Sunday.  The oft-injured Redskins safety played in his first game of the year against Philly and blew out his knee in a non-contact injury.  Best wishes, Brandon.

Green Bay (7-3) wins @ Detroit (4-6), 24-20 

I SAW the Packers spring into the lead in the NFC North, which seemed highly unlikely just four or five weeks ago.  This victory was Green Bay’s fifth straight and ninth straight against divisional opponents.

The Packers are starting to look eerily reminiscent of their 2010 championship team, with a MASH unit and gathering momentum into winter despite the injuries.  There are a lot of key players missing time, but of particular note is that four linebackers sat out on Sunday and Green Bay still won the game.  They have had six significant players miss at least three games so far this year.  One difference between this unit and the Super Bowl winners two years ago is that a few of the star players – Greg Jennings (groin), B.J. Raji (ankle), Charles Woodson (collar bone) and Clay Matthews (hamstring) – are due to return in time to get their groove on before the postseason.  Add to this the notion that the Pack is still angry from their early playoff exit last year and if I were an NFC team this would be the last team I’d want to see in the playoffs at this point.

I SAW Packers WR Randall “Don’t Call Me Tex” Cobb continue his impressive play by catching nine of a career-high targets on Sunday.  (ESPN Stats & Information).  If you’d have said that wideouts Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson would miss multiple games at the same time prior to Cobb’s emergence I’d have said the offense would struggle.  However, they’ve picked up their pace.  Credit QB Aaron Rodgers, as usual, but credit Cobb as well. 

I SAW a From The Milk Carton To The End Zone Award get earned by Packers TE Jermichael Finley on his second quarter TD Sunday.  His last foray into the end zone was in week 1 against the Niners.

I SAW that Lions WR Calvin Johnson (5 rec, 143 yds, 1 TD) and the running game (84 yds and 1 TD for Mikel Leshoure) are finally clicking.  So much of the blame for Detroit’s poor play now lies with the defense (especially an underachieving line) and the O-line, the latter of which contributes to Stafford’s erratic execution.  Stafford completed only 43.6 percent of his throws on Sunday.  He’s done worse but three times in his 2-plus season career and all of those came during his rookie campaign.

The last element failing this team is the special teams, and/or overall return TDs allowed.  M.D. Jennings’ pick-6 in the third quarter was the seventh return TD allowed by Detroit.

Houston (9-1) wins vs. Jacksonville (1-9), 43-37 OT

I SAW an unbelievable, milestone-filled scoregasm in Houston…

I SAW an early nominee for one of TFQ’s Upside Down Awards, given following the Super Bowl.  It’s taken a while to challenge Lions-Titans from week 3, but we have another contender for the

“What-Just-Happened-I-Can’t-Breathe-And-My-Pants-Are-Full Game Of The Year”

First off, this game has a QUADRUPLE PROPS – clearly none of them go towards defense.  Jags All-Pro RB Maurice Jones-Drew and Texans Ben Tate (arguably the best two- of a one-two RB punch in the NFL) didn’t dress for this zany yardage fest but they weren’t needed.  One of the biggest upsets of the season wasn’t meant to be, but it wasn’t without OT drama and some individual performances for the ages…

I SAW the Texans become the first team in league history to score twice in overtime.  Jaguar K Josh Scobee and Texan K Shayne Graham each booted field goals during extra time but with 2:30 left in OT (after Jacksonville failed to convert on fourth-and-ten near midfield) Houston QB Matt Schaub connected with WR Andre Johnson on a wideout screen pass and ’Dre did the rest.  48 yards and a TD later Houston improved to 9-1.

On to the PROPS fest, led by the first pair of wide receivers ever to both have 200+ receiving yards in a single game, combining for a yardage outburst for the ages: 21 combined grabs for 509 yards and 24.2 yards per reception…

I SAW PROPS to Texans WR Andre Johnson catch 14 balls for 273 yards.  Both are career highs and the yardage total is a franchise record.  Coming into this game Johnson had but three 100-yard games since the start of 2010 – a period during which the former All-Pro wideout had been beset by injuries.  Johnson has told numerous media outlets that he feels healthier than he has in years.  It shows.  His stride is more effortless than it has looked in some time; last year he likely wouldn’t have beaten the safety on the game-winning TD catch-and-run.

I SAW PROPS to Jaguars WR Justin Blackmon.

Welcome to the NFL, rookie.  Blackmon had just 250 receiving yard this season until Sunday when he racked up almost as much, with the third-most receiving yards for a rookie in a single game:

Most Rec Yds By A Rookie (Single Game)

Player Year Yds
Jerry Butler 1979 255
Jerry Rice 1985 241
Justin Blackmon 2012 236
Eddie Kennison 1996 226

Blackmon’s huge day was highlighted by an 81-yard TD catch-and-run that was helped by shoddy tackling (see below) and gave Jacksonville the lead in the fourth quarter.  But Houston’s quarterback had something to say about that…

I SAW PROPS to Texans QB Matt Schaub for not only a historic day but leading two TD drives in the fourth quarter to force overtime.  Schaub threw for a career-high five touchdowns.  He also completed a franchise-record 43 passes – the most of any NFL quarterback this season.  His yardage was the second-most of all time:

Most Passing Yards In A Game (NFL History)

Player Passing Yds                             Season
Norm Van Brocklin 554 1951
Matt Schaub        527 2012
Warren Moon 527 1990
Boomer Esiason 522 1996
Dan Marino 521 1988
Matt Stafford 520 2011

I SAW PROPS to Jaguars QB Chad Henne for an off-the-bench performance for the ages.

Starting quarterback Blaine Gabbert injured his elbow and left the game in the first quarter.  It’s unlikely that the second-year pivot will start once he’s healthy because Henne stepped in and with little preparation threw for 354 yards, 4 TDs and no interceptions.  Hall Of Famer Steve Young (1987) is the only other QB since the 1970 merger to come off the bench and put up 4 touchdowns and no picks.

UPDATE (21/11/2012): There will be no QB controversy in Jacksonville, at least this season.  The Jags placed Gabbert on injured reserve for the remainder of the season with right forearm and left shoulder injuries.  Let ‘er rip, Chad!

I SAW the Texans’ most glaring weakness rear its ugly head again on Sunday.  It wasn’t just the overall numbers from Henne and Blackmon that exposed Houston’s defensive backs.  Two big passing TDs were allowed by brutal missed tackles.  (The scores by WRs Cecil Shorts and Blackmon)

Is this truly a chink in the Texans’ armor?  Consider that only four QBs this season have thrown at least 4 TDs and no interceptions and two of them (Henne and Packers QB Aaron Rodgers) have done so against Houston.

I SAW Jaguars WR Cecil Shorts caught his fourth TD of 39 yards or longer this season.  Considering the limited duty he’s had for much of the year that’s impressive.  For the first time in years outside of a Rush concert, Jorts are in style!  Now guard him, DBs…

I SAW another unnecessary reason to indicate that this isn’t Jacksonville’s year.  The Jaguars have lost three road games in overtime this season.

Tampa Bay (6-4) wins @ Carolina (2-8), 27-21 OT

I SAW the Buccaneers win five of their last six games to stay in playoff contention.  Head coach Greg Schiano sure looks and talks like George W. Bush but he can lead his subordinates to success nonetheless.  On Sunday they played poorly but gutted out a win with eleven points in the last five minutes of regulation and then kept their heel on Carolina’s neck for the OT win.  That could turn out to be a big step forward for the franchise; we’ll see.  RB Doug Martin has attracted a ton of media attention (he rumbled for another 138 yards against the Panthers) but it’s QB Josh Freeman that deserves recognition.

During their 5-1 run Freeman has led the Bucs with an eye-popping 21-7 TD-INT ration and a 94.6 passer rating.   Note SI.com’s Peter King’s apt take on  Freeman’s season:

“We forget Freeman is 24 years old. He’s six months younger than Ryan Tannehill. He’s with a new head coach, Greg Schiano; a new quarterback coach, Ron Turner; a new offensive coordinator, Mike Sullivan; with a new franchise receiver in Jackson, a new tight end in the rejuvenated Clark and a new franchise running back in Doug Martin. And here comes Freeman off a terrible 2011, playing the best football of his pro life.

Denver (7-3) wins vs. San Diego (4-6), 30-23

I SAW the Broncos stake a three-game lead in the AFC West with a win over the Chargers that was closer than the final score would indicate.

San Diego has now lost five of its last six games and they looked ugly in doing so.  At halftime the ‘Bolts were about as electric as rubber, having converted only two first downs.  Midway through the third quarter their defense had scored the only points of the game for San Diego, courtesy of a pick-six and a safety.  What’s worse is that watching the game one didn’t even feel as though either moment was going to give the Chargers momentum.  This is a team playing with no edge whatsoever.

I SAW Broncos QB Peyton Manning tie his boss, Hall Of Famer John Elway with his 148th career win, both of whom sit at second place all-time behind Brett Favre (186).  After crunching the numbers, Peyton is on pace for a 4,700-plus year in terms of passing yards (his career high is 4700 in 2010).

I SAW that Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning has come up against his first challenge this season, beyond his neck/nerve injury.  RB Willis McGahee is going to be out 6-8 weeks after suffering an MCL tear in his knee and a broken leg.  In theory Manning should be able to adapt to such a loss but we’ll see.  The luxury of keeping defenses honest for the first time in years during his career shouldn’t be overlooked.  Darren Sharper said on NFL Network that he’d talked to a few Bronco players and they believed that, after Manning, McGahee was the team’s MVP.

UPDATE (21/12/2012): The Broncos placed McGahee on injured reserve due to the injury.

I SAW that the Chargers offensive line is an under-recognized problem.  According to ESPN Sports & Information San Diego running backs were hit at or behind the line of scrimmage on nine of their 23 total rushes and they ran for at least five yards before contact but twice.  That’s piss-poor, but Denver deserves credit…

I SAW the Broncos defense play at an elite level.   Even the uber-competitive Chargers QB Philip Rivers had to admit after Sunday’s game that Denver’s 2012 defense is “the best defensive team they’ve had since I’ve been playing them.”  According to STATS LLC when Rivers hit WR Malcolm Floyd in the third quarter it broke a string of 26 straight stops for the Broncos on third down – the longest streak in the league since 2002.  There is one obvious catalyst for this defensive surge…

I SAW Broncos LB Von Miller continue his stellar play.  His three sacks on Sunday put him in the NFL lead in that category, and put him in the running for Defensive Player Of The Year.  Miller’s speed and economy of movement through swim and rip moves while streaking to the passer is something else.  Only the great Hall Of Famer Derrick Thomas of Kansas City’s 25 QB takedowns through his first 25 games tops Miller’s 24.5.

I SAW PROPS to Broncos LB Von Miller for ending a sack celebration by rolling around and doing the same silly-armed jumping jacks as the video game character Sonic The Hedgehog.  In fact, Miller told the Associated Press that he intentionally paid homage to the blue-spiked speedster.

(http://www.gamespot.com)

New Orleans (5-5) wins @ Oakland (3-7), 38-17

I SAW the Saints creep back to .500 on the season. Watch out.  QB Drew Brees is seeing the field as well as ever and he’s not pressing as much as he was earlier in the season, in large part due to the fact that the defense – while still giving up yards in bunches – is making more of those big plays downfield that we’re accustomed to seeing from ’Nawlins.

However, the uphill battle for New Orleans is just getting going.  Their next three games are against current division leaders: The Niners, Falcons and Giants.  Jinkies!

I SAW the Raiders accrue more first downs, pass yards and total yards than the Saints but still find a way to get blown out.  Blame New Orleans QB Drew Brees.  He’s thrown 16 TDs and no INTs during an ongoing 7-0 run against the Silver & Black.

Brees also extended two streaks, both NFL records: The well-publicized 53rd straight game with a passing TD and completing 20 passes for the 46th straight game.  That second one is more impressive than a casual observer might appreciate.  It’s surprising that such a tear hasn’t been mentioned much, even with the overshadowing of the touchdown streak.

I SAW more evidence to support passer rating as an indicator of team success.  (See also: Washington wins vs. Philadelphia, 31-6)  As noted by ColdHardFootballFacts, Saints QB Drew Brees has had a 110+ passer rating in his teams’ five wins and has put up a rating below that number in five losses.

I SAW the Raiders allow 135 points in their last three games.  Only three other teams have allowed that many points during a 3-game stretch – the Titans and Browns in 2004 and the Niners in 1980 (Elias Sports Bureau).

Dallas (5-5) wins vs. Cleveland (2-8), 23-20 OT

I SAW Cowboys QB Tony Romo get sacked a career-high seven times, yet still last through his third straight game without throwing an interception while winning the first overtime game in the history of the young Cowboys Stadium.  According to STATS LLC it was the first time in six games that Big D has won when Romo gets sacked at least five times.

Oh, it was an ugly win.  Dallas gained just 68 yards in the first half – its worst such output in almost 5 years.  They have games against two divisional foes – Washington and Philly – in the next two weeks.  If the Cowboys can’t seize the opportunity to make a playoff push owner Jerry Jones needs to either hit the reset button or admit that he’s been gradually lowering his standards for success over the last 15 years.

I SAW that Browns KR-PR-RB-WR Josh Cribbs needs to be let out of his cage.  When asked about his diminished role in the Cleveland offense, Cribbs said,

“I feel caged. I’ve talked to the head coach, but there’s no point. Obviously they feel like everybody that’s in front of me is a better athlete. I disagree.”

I SAW Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan admit that this game against his former employer was personal (via NFL.com):

“Any time you pour everything into it and apparently management didn’t see it as good enough, of course it’s personal,”

A Ryan holding a grudge and/or taking something personally?  Who knew?

I SAW Browns rookie RB Trent Richardson just barley miss becoming the first Cleveland rookie with three consecutive 100-yard games rushing (STATS LLC).  He finished with 95.

I SAW that if you don’t think that America’s Team has been mediocre at best for years, consider that the Cowboys have a regular season record of 125-125 since 1997. (STATS LLC)

New York Jets (4-6) win @ St. Louis (3-6-1), 27-13

I SAW a blowout victory for New York.  That’s just great, but this win had the feel of the Jets game against Indy four weeks ago in the sense that their opponents’ off game was more responsible for the outcome than good play by New York.  When RB Bilal Powell bails you out (with the first two rushing TDs of his career), your offense has problems.  This group should get pasted on Thanksgiving Thursday night by their archrivals, the Patriots.

I SAW that Rams QB Sam Bradford has been sacked at least once in 26 straight games, which is the longest active streak in the NFL (STATS LLC).

I SAW the Rams go five straight games without committing a turnover.  According to the  Associated Press that’s the NFL’s longest such streak since 1950.

I SAW that even when the Jets win they act like losers – at least LB Bart Scott did. 

Cincinnati (5-5) wins @ Kansas City (1-9), 28-6

I SAW the Bengals climb back to .500 on the season, with the help of a sick one-hander by WR A.J. Green, who extended his streak of consecutive games with a TD catch to nine, tying him for third all-time. 

I SAW Bengals DT Geno Atkins continue to become the most powerful interior defensive lineman in the league, at 24 years of age.  So far this season blockers are virtually powerless against his strength.  Once Atkins gets his hands on them it’s a slow walk backwards for any guard or center.  On Sunday he led the team (very rare for a tackle) with six tackles and he forced two fumbles.

I SAW PROPS to a dead man.  No joke.  Well, it’s a great joke, but one enacted by a dead man.  According to the Associated Press a large portion of Chiefs fans came to Arrowhead Stadium clad in black in a group protest/mourning of several of the team’s employees.  One man took it the farthest step that anyone can take by dying and requesting that his cause of death be grief from Kansas City’s season.  That’s about as low as a team can go. 

SNF- Baltimore (8-2) wins @ Pittsburgh (6-4), 13-10

I SAW the attack of the flying rib monster again in Pittsburgh. For the second week in a row the Steelers have lost a quarterback to a rib injury.  Ben Roethlisberger dislocated his first rib and apparently can’t even glare at his prickish offensive coordinator Todd Haley without his heart exploding.  I kid; it’s a very serious injury, though.  Byron Leftwich broke the rules nature has imposed upon his body when he ran fast enough to lose all balance, fall and break his ribs on a most-unexpected TD run (see below).  Enter Charlie Batch for next week.  Why Pittsburgh – with a starting quarterback who plays to contact – hasn’t addressed their backup QB situation more than they have is a mystery to me.

I SAW Pittsburgh sign free agent and former Steeler, WR Plaxico Burress.

On the surface this move might look desperate but I like it.  It gives newly-thrust-into-the-fray QB Charlie Batch a huge target and the QB disaster in Steeltown will have such a significant impact upon the offense that installing a new wideout with size is a quicker improvement than waiting for any unprepared quarterback to get involved.  Burress might not make an instant impact on the stat sheet but he will immediately command respect in coverage solely due to his height and reputation and that could free up other receivers.

I SAW the Return Of The Ball Yoda: BAL CB Chris Johnson stripped Steelers WR Mike Wallace in first quarter and Reed was right there to scoop it up.

I SAW the Steelers turn this game into just the sort of slugfest that they needed it to be – a Ravens-Steelers slobberknocker.  But they lost.  By a Jacoby Jones return TD, his third this season.  Baltimore won its twelfth straight game in the NFC North and fourth straight when Pittsburgh has to play them without their star QB, Ben Roethlisberger…

I SAW a delightful start to the game for Leftwich.  First he drew a long pass interference penalty on CB Cary Williams when WR Mike Wallace burned him deep.  Several plays later he was flushed right toward a wide open half of the field and rumbled down the sideline, made an ass out of S Bernard Pollard who got deked out by the QB by cutting it back inside instead of running out of bounds, and ran it to the house.

However, Leftwich clearly hurt his throwing shoulder when he fell on it in the end zone and was in noticeable pain on the sidelines trying to limber up during Baltimore’s next drive.

Those who are familiar with Leftwich know that he is one of the most exemplary QBs in terms of fearlessness despite physical deficiencies.  Remember – this is the guy who broke his leg in a game at Marshall and kept playing on a crucial comeback drive, with his O-linemen carrying him down the field after each completion.  A guy like that isn’t terribly flappable.  I’m thinking Swayze in Road House: “Pain don’t hurt.”

MNF- San Francisco (7-2-1) wins vs. Chicago (7-3), 32-7

I SAW the Niners remind the world who it is that has the best defense in the league.  Recently the Bears D has been hogging all the headlines while amassing NFL bests in takeaways (30) and interceptions (19) heading into Monday night.  Yes, backup QB Jason Campbell started in place of concussed Jay Cutler for Chicago but the former Redskin and Raider is no bum and RB Matt Forte makes defenses play honest.

But San Fran’s defense is the best in the league at playing it honest while still flying toward the ball, so they bottled up the Bears’ running attack and DE Aldon Smith ran wild against shoddy blocking (see below).  Meanwhile, San Francisco’s own backup QB, Colin Kaepernick, helped make it a lopsided first half, with the Niners outgaining Chicago 249 yards to 35.  In essence, this one was over at halftime.

I SAW the Bears fall into a tie with the Packers in the NFC North thanks to their second straight loss after a six-game winning streak.  Green Bay currently holds the tiebreaker but these teams still must meet once more before the regular season ends, so it could be a very interesting December in one of the NFL’s toughest divisions.  Much of it will depend upon starting QB Jay Cutler’s rehab from the concussion he’s suffering from.  It didn’t bode well on Tuesday when Cutler told the media that he likely wouldn’t play next week, but would “definitely” play again this season.  That sounds like a guy who doesn’t expect to be back immediately.

I SAW that though Bears CB Tim Jennings is known for being a sure tackler, Niners WR Mario Manningham lost him in the blink of an eye on a reverse-spin while catching a pass during the second half.  If Manningham could sharpen his route running and get open consistently he’d be a starter on most teams.  Instead he gets lost on depth charts too often.

I SAW that the Niners defense is so impressive as a collective unit that individuals are seldom focused upon, but it’s time to start emphasizing the impact of second-year DE Aldon Smith.

Broncos LB Von Miller’s sack total has been ballyhooed since Sunday when he finished his first 25 pro games with 24.5 sacks – second only to Hall Of Famer Derrick Thomas in such a span (see Denver wins vs. San Diego, 30-23).  However, Smith wasn’t far off that pace.  Miller missed a game in his rookie season after wrist surgery, so coming into Monday night Smith was one game ahead of him and thusly had already played his 25th game last week.  Smith’s 23.5 sacks in that span are only one behind Miller’s more publicized feat, and in his 26th career game on Monday night, he blew up the Bears with an eye-popping 5.5 sacks – tied for fifth-most in a single game since sacks became a statistic in 1982.  Forget Miller; after looking up the statistic, Smith is on the verge of making history:

Most Sacks Over First 2 Seasons (since 1982)

Player Sacks
Reggie White 31.0
Derrick Thomas 30.0
Aldon Smith 29.0
Shawne Merriman 27.0
Jevon Kearse 26.0
Von Miller 24.5
Dwight Freeney 24.0

So, all Smith needs to do is get 2.5 more sacks to break the record for the most in a player’s first two seasons.  Miller will likely garner more attention for Defensive Player Of The Year and understandably so because, as mentioned, Smith plays on a defensive unit that is top-notch from top to bottom with at least half a dozen likely Pro Bowl players on it.  But that shouldn’t obscure the torrid pace he’s on.

I SAW Niners backup QB Colin Kaepernick have a huge game in his first career start – and he did so against one of the best defenses in the NFL.  The sophomore quarterback from University of Nevada completed 12 of his first 14 passes and threw for 126 yards in the first quarter alone.  Working with this momentum, San Fran went up 17-0 early in the second quarter on a Chicago defense that was allowing 14.8 points per game coming into Monday.  There’s been some talk about Kaepernick’s start in comparison to two other guys you may have heard of making their first starts for the Niners back in the day:

First Start with the 49ers

Player Year Comp-Att Yds TD-INT Rating Result
Joe Montana 1979 5-12 36 0-0 49.3 Lost by 3
Steve Young 1987 5-6 80 1-0 158.3 Lost by 2
Colin Kaepernick 2012 16-23 243 2-0 133.1 Won by 25

This comparison makes me nervous on a number of levels, the most important one being that it might only serve as a good example of the change in passing games and preparedness of young QBs compared to decades ago.  It certainly isn’t grounds for a quarterback controversy…

I SAW myself in a state of familiar frustration.  A quarterback controversy in San Francisco?  Really, fans and media?  Really?  Monday night was one game.  One game.  I’ve never been a strong supporter of Alex Smith, but one game and spot duty in the weeks leading up to it doesn’t prove enough to risk messing up the hard-fought progression of starter Alex Smith.

Colin Kaepernick played a great game but I thought he looked somewhat stiff with his footwork and body control in the pocket, especially when stepping up.  Everyone’s a critic…

Seriously, though… The Bears were clearly unprepared for the versatile second-year QB and the read handoff fake that has been made well-known by Tim Tebow, Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III.  Chicago also employs the vanilla, keep-it-honest Tampa 2 scheme.  The jury should be out on Kaepernick until he faces a team that will give him multiple formations and varied blitz and coverage packages – if he even gets that chance.  Head coach Jim Harbaugh has said that he will “ride the hot hand” with his two quarterbacks, but as much as the media has taken that inch and ran with it, that’s a very vague statement which could still mean Smith is the guy going forward.  In fact, it’s my guess that the coach is going to stay with Smith but is merely trying to keep future opponents in the dark, much like he may have done by waiting until the weekend to declare Smith inactive for the Monday nighter.

I SAW Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh now in a position where he has to choose between two quarterbacks.  Hmm… Start a guy who dazzled in his first career start with a style that is hard to prepare for, or start the regular starter who leads the NFL in completion percentage (70 per cent)… Hmm…

That, folks, is the NFL equivalent of a first-world problem.

UPDATE (22/11/2012): SI.com’s Jim Trotter reported late Wednesday night that Harbaugh has told both Smith and Kaepernick that the latter will start Sunday vs. the Saints.

STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK FOR WHAT I SAW, WEEK 12 – HERE AT TFQ. 

IN THE MEANTIME, ‘LIKE’ THE FIFTH QUARTER ON FACEBOOK.

 

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