What I Saw, Wk 12 2012

Blair Miller > WHAT I SAW – WEEK 12, 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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for Thursday’s games

Away from the game(s)

I SAW another wild weekend that brought an end to US Thanksgiving and brought more intrigue to the NFL playoff picture.  There’s a logjam in the NFC postseason race that’s worse than the one in B.J. Raji’s toilet after the long weekend.  Three of the top four AFC teams gutted out character building wins without key players (Houston, Denver and Baltimore) and the fourth – New England – made cranberry sauce out of Rex Ryan and his Jets.  (For thoughts on the three Thursday games, read What I Saw, Turkeygasm 2012.)  But that’s not to say things in that conference are settled by any means.

The NFL also did its best DEA impression, with four drug busts announced over the weekend – the most significant ones being handed down to the Seahawks.  (See Miami wins vs. Seattle, 24-21.)  In fact, there’s a chance the latter could impact the playoff picture as much as any player that will step onto a field over the next two months.  Maybe the most intriguing storyline is in San Francisco, where head coach Jim Harbaugh’s jive turkey gobble poker face hides his laughing at the outside world for thinking he has a problem at quarterback.

As Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is fond of saying, the real season doesn’t start until after Thanksgiving.  So, let’s giv’r.

I SAW the playoff picture needs a redo since last week’s summation.  (Is anyone surprised?)

Let’s get to the AFC first, which in comparison is a yawner.  If the playoffs ended today:

  1. Houston (10-1)
  2. Baltimore (9-2)
  3. New England (8-3)
  4. Denver (8-3)
  5. Indianapolis (7-4)
  6. Pittsburgh (6-5)*

*- same W-L as CIN

Miami is the next-ranked team at 5-6, followed by a glut of teams unlikely to make a push at 4-7 (the Jets, Chargers, Titans and Bills).  Essentially, the Colts, Steelers and Bengals are battling for the last two spots, while the top four are all but locked in for January with seeding to be determined.  That one-game gap between Denver and Indy is a much bigger talent gap than that number indicates and unless Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger resurrects himself from the depth of the training room no one is going to challenge the top group.  So while there is much that remains to be determined in terms of byes and home field there isn’t a whole lot of suspense here.

The NFC, on the other hand, is a glorious mess:

  1. Atlanta (10-1)
  2. San Francisco (8-2-1)
  3. Chicago (8-3)
  4. New York Giants (7-4)
  5. Green Bay (7-4)
  6. Seattle (6-5)*

*- same W-L as TB, MIN

Washington, Dallas and New Orleans also loom at 5-6 – especially the Redskins, who are one of the hottest teams in the league over the last two weeks.  Should the ’Skins continue to surge and the Giants falter, things could get really interesting.  (The Cowboys could too, but…. c’mon.)  Otherwise, only one NFC East team will make it to the postseason.  The Seahawks were the favourite to hang onto the sixth seed, but now their future is in serious doubt thanks to potential drug suspensions.  (See Miami wins vs. Seattle, 24-21.)  Either way, with three games separating nine teams – and each of them capable of rising or falling quickly – it’s too hard to predict at the moment.

I SAW the death of a sports nerd this weekend, as Ed Anzalone announced that he will no longer attend games as the famous Jets fan Fireman Ed – the persona known best for leading the J-E-T-S chant.

I SAW reason to take a moment and further note the tear that the Patriots are on.  (The Pats- Jets game was covered fully in What I Saw, Turkeygasm 2012.)  Without their All-Pro TE Rob Gronkowski in the lineup the broken slot machine that is the New England offense keeps paying out – to the tune of 190 points in their last four games!  That’s old-school scary.  According to Elias Sports Bureau only two other teams have had a bigger four-game output: the 1950 Los Angeles Rams (208 points) and the 1948 Chicago Cardinals (195).

The rest of the league should take notice that a decent portion of these points were either directly or indirectly (due to field position, etc.) due to a defense that is improving and rediscovering its knack for big plays.  If this keeps up, the Patriots will yet again be one of the favorites to win the AFC – something that is about as common as Ed Hochuli doing curls in front of a mirror.

Yes, New England has lost two Super Bowls in the last five years.  But can their dominance over the last decade-plus – and the varied ways in which they’ve done so – truly be overrated?

San Francisco (8-2-1) wins vs. New Orleans (5-6), 31-21

I SAW NFL Network report that Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh is “mum on [his team’s] QB dilemma” after Colin Kaepernick led San Francisco to a win in his second straight start after replacing starter Alex Smith who has been out with a concussion.

Dilemma?  Mum?  Huh?

First of all, Harbaugh has been far from “mum” on the topic.  He just hasn’t conveyed much of anything.  As mentioned in Away from the game(s), Harbaugh is using some of the same jive turkey gobble/empty rhetoric he described reporters using several weeks ago.  Just yesterday Harbaugh sang this doozy during a press conference when asked for the umpteenth time who the starting quarterback is for his team:

“Alex Smith is our starting quarterback. He has not done anything to lose that job.  In fact, he’s playing at a very high level. Also, Colin Kaepernick, you can’t categorize him as a backup quarterback, because he’s started games and played very well in those games.”

Wow; thanks for clearing that up, Jim.  If that’s not jive turkey gobble talk, I don’t know what is.  Maybe the guys in the locker room have an idea what Harbaugh is planning to do with the QB position for the rest of the season but for the general public it’s anyone’s guess.

What can’t be overlooked is that Harbaugh has also implied Smith is still being held out of games because of long-term health and/or concussion concerns.  What also can’t be overlooked is that Harbaugh has a gift for not saying anything conclusive; so for all we know Smith has played his last game in a Niners uniform.  Or maybe the oft-embattled starter will lead his team into the playoffs.  Don’t hold it against me if I take Harbaugh’s planned announcement on Wednesday of who will start next week with a huge water softener-sized bag of salt as far as the rest of the season in general is concerned.

All of this being said, there is no “dilemma”; at this point it seems reasonable to believe that either quarterback is capable of winning games for the Niners.  One start wasn’t enough to judge Kaepernick on.  Two starts isn’t necessarily enough either, but it’s certainly more of a step in the right direction – especially if you look at the numbers when added with the second half in St. Louis, after Smith left the game:

Colin Kaepernick In 2+ Games Since Smith’s Injury

Comp Att % Yds TD INT Rating Rushes Yds Rush TD
43 65 66.2 591 3 1 132.3 18 103 2

The quarterback he came in for wasn’t exactly laying an egg this season either:

Alex Smith, 2012

Comp Att % Yds Yds/Gm TD INT Rating W-L-T (as starter)
152 217 70.0* 1731 192.3 13 5 104.1** 6-2-1

*- 1st in NFL

**-5th in NFL

That’s no dilemma.  It’s a “problem” any coach would love to have.  Now the question might be: Has Harbaugh seen enough out of Kaepernick to make a medium- to long-term switch?  He must be thinking it; his doublespeak about who the Niners starting QB is can’t be solely to throw off opposing defenses.  And the coach has earned the benefit of the doubt thus far in terms of knowing what’s best for his team, no matter what the outside gobblers might be clucking about.

More on that thought: One thing that is undervalued with a QB – despite the increasing leadership role quarterbacks play for team chemistry – is the way other players go all out for them.  No one has lain down with Smith on the field, but Kaepernick’s all-around influence on offense has his teammates on an up-tempo tip.  Harbaugh’s players might be more intimately connected with their coach (and vice versa) than any other roster-coach combination in the league.  The coach drafted Kaepernick in the second round last year; he wants him to take over someday.  It already looks like the players might too….

I SAW the Saints and their hot streak run right into the brick wall that is the Niners defense.  QB Drew Brees was under duress for much of the afternoon, getting sacked five times.  The pressure threw off his timing on a number of occasions, most notably on San Francisco interceptions by LB Ahmad Brooks and S Donte Whitner that were both returned for scores.  They came as part of a 21-0 spurt that changed a 14-7 ’Nawlins lead into a 28-14 advantage for San Fran.

According to STATS LLC, Sunday was the first time that the Niners returned two picks for six in the same game since 1995 when Ken Norton Jr. – one of the best middle linebackers of the nineties – returned a pair against the Rams.

Another less-recognized thing the San Francisco defense did was stuff New Orleans’ run game.  Handing the ball off had been one of the keys to the Saints success as of late – they had rushed for 140+ yards for three straight games heading into Sunday – but the fourth- ranked rushing D in the league held them to 59 and you can’t be one-dimensional on offense against the Niners.

I SAW an FYI: Niners QB Colin Kaepernick looked quite good but he didn’t exactly light up the worst defense in the league either.  To be fair, it was his second career start in a raucous Superdome and he does throw the ball with high velocity, but not eye-poppingly so.  The latter in itself can be deceiving: The ball hangs a bit in the air, but that gives it touch and/or catchability as well, reminiscent of Troy Aikman.  Kaepernick’s throws might not thread too many needles but they are efficient when the proper read is made.

I SAW myself not impressed with benched Niners QB Alex Smith’s downtrodden body language after new starter Colin Kaepernick scored a rushing TD to put San Fran ahead 7-0 in the first quarter.  I get it, you’ve had a hard road and now you’re riding the pine for leading the league in completion percentage.  Your team just took the lead in a huge game.  Smile; evidently people are watching.

Increasing the frustration for Smith while he visibly stewed on the sideline was the notion that Kaepernick was beating defenders with the spread option shotgun read handoff that Smith himself helped usher into college and pro football playbooks at the University of Utah with Urban Meyer.  Kaepernick is faster and more athletic than Smith but the near-disorienting speed with which the NFL goes through new schemes is exemplified when an early performer of the spread becomes a bench-warming observer and unknown pioneer in less than a decade.  That’s what happens when trends produce success, followed by an influx of physical talent that gets redirected from other positions.  Translation: Kaepernick is doing what Smith did at University of Utah eight years ago but he’s more physically gifted than Smith; it’s just the evolution of things.  It wasn’t that long ago that guys with the athleticism of Kaepernick, Tim Tebow, Robert Griffin III, Cam Newton, Johnny Manziel or Braxton Miller would play at other positions than QB – arm be damned.  (In Tebow’s case his arm is damned.  To hell.)  Now it’s the other way around.  Coaches covet dual threat pivots whose physicality freezes defenses with the spread option.  Smith helped make that change with Urban Meyer in college, now he might lose his job to someone more athletically able to perform the job in all its various dimensions beyond throwing.  That’s life, Alex.

UPDATE (28/11/2012): That’s life, indeed.  Today Harbaugh announced his decision to stick with Kaepernick as starting quarterback for next week’s game.

I SAW PROPS for the Niners offensive line from Hall Of Famer Troy Aikman.  During the FOX broadcast the former Cowboys quarterback said that San Fran’s O-line is the best he’s seen since he started broadcasting twelve years ago and it also reminded him of the blocking unit he used to play behind.  That’s no light compliment, given that the Dallas offensive line of the nineties was probably the best and most dominant one I’ve ever seen play.  (Which is part of the reason for a widely-hled belief that RB Emmitt Smith was not as talented as his career rushing yardage record might indicate.)

I SAW Niners RB Brandon Jacobs get his first carry this season midway through the third quarter.  Getting called into the game must have taken Jacobs off guard.  He’s lucky he still had his helmet at this point in the season.

I SAW PROPS to Niners DE Aldon Smith who got his 30th career sack Sunday.  In doing so he joined Reggie White and Derrick Thomas who took 31 and 30 games to do so, respectively.  It’s taken Smith just 27 games to match the feat of those two late Hall Of Famers.  (Broncos LB Von Miller might accomplish that too; he has 25.5 sacks in 26 career games.)

Atlanta (10-1) wins @ Tampa Bay (6-5), 24-23

I SAW the Falcons stay tied with the Texans for the NFL’s best record this season in a tight one against the Buccaneers.  Atlanta QB Matt Ryan went nine-for-ten with 100 yards in the fourth quarter en route to sealing his seventh win against his divisional rival in his last eight tries.

I SAW the Falcons walk another dangerous tightrope.  The Line keeps wavering more and more for them, and one has to wonder if the crucial lapse will come at a crucial moment… Of course, they could win out and take the Super Bowl too.

I’ll say this: If close games build character, then over the last few years Atlanta has Daniel Day-Lewis beat.  Someday soon they may have drank the rest of the league’s milkshake.

“I…drink…your…milkshake!

Case in point: The Falcons’ seventh win of seven points or less ties the NFL record for teams that have started the season 10-1 or 11-0.  The only other team to do so was the 2006 Colts, who won the Super Bowl after starting 11-0.  In fact, 6 or more such wins in that span appears to be pretty good for one’s chances at playing on Super Sunday:

Most Wins By 7-Or-Fewer Points in an 11-0 Or 10-1 Start

Team Year # of Wins by 7 or less Result
Falcons 2012 7 ???
Colts 2006 7 Won Super Bowl
Colts 2009 6 Lost Super Bowl
Broncos 1984 6 Lost Divisional Rd.
Raiders 1976 6 Won Super Bowl

I SAW PROPS for Falcons RB Michael Turner tying WR Terance Mathis for the franchise career TD record, with 57.  As Chris Berman might say, chances are (your chances are) that’s awfully good.

I SAW an amazing instinct-driven interception by Bucs CB Ronde Barber, who is evoking memories of the great Darrell Green.  Not only did the 37-year old get his 47th career pick; he also tied the legendary Jim Otto for the 7th-most consecutive starts in NFL history, with 210.  (STATS LLC)

The Falcons could use just a fraction of that longevity at cornerback…

I SAW that Atlanta’s most pressing concern is at CB.  Brent Grimes went on IR in September, and now Dunta Robinson had to leave the same Sunday with a concussion and Asante Samuel was in and out of the game with a lingering shoulder injury.

Let’s see how much that figures into Thursday’s rematch against the Saints – the Falcons’ lone loss of the season came in game one.

Cleveland (3-8) wins vs. Pittsburgh (6-5), 20-14

I SAW the Steelers cough up more balls than Jenna Jameson.  Four fumbles in first half, three of them by three different running backs.  That’s not exactly the best way to support 37-year old third string QB Charlie Batch with the ground game.  Better things were not ahead either.  While clamoring for a comeback, RB Chris Rainey had his leg twisted awkwardly and coughed up the pill.  It was one of Pittsburgh’s eight turnovers in the game – three interceptions and five fumbles, with one of the latter coming at the end of a final-play desperate lateral sequence to end the game.  Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin lost only his second game to Cleveland by watching his team turn the ball over the most times since seven in 1989 against the same Browns.  It’s also the first time an NFL team had forced eight turnovers since the Saints did it to the Rams in 2001.  (STATS LLC)

It’s not like the Steelers RBs were playing well despite the fumbilitis either.  As a group they averaged just 49 yards after having averaged over 120 per game for five straight contests.

I SAW desperate times get even more desperate for the Steelers.  Even their stopgap signing of WR Plaxico Burress failed miserably.  The only quantifiable impact the 6’5” wideout had on the game was a drawn pass interference penalty in the red zone.  On two targets, Plax had no receptions – one of which was arguably a drop.  Were just two targets really in the game plan, or was it more that QB Charlie Batch shouldn’t even be on an NFL field during a game?

For at least a few years now the Steelers have tempted fate by not drafting or tapping the free agency market to improve the roster depth behind the constantly banged up Ben Roethlisberger.  Fate got the message, because it’s not a stretch to envision next week’s game at Baltimore as the deciding game in Pittsburgh’s season.  (Although their week 16 game against Cincinnati could be another vital game.)  It will be interesting to see what happens with Big Ben as the week goes on.  His injury has been amply described as something that can’t be rushed or played through, but will he really stand idly by next week?

Trivia bomb: In every season since 1999 during which the Steelers have lost a game to the Browns they have also failed to make the postseason.  (STATS LLC)

I SAW Steelers RB Chris Rainey score a funny sloppy seconds rush TD, getting bottled up and knocked backwards on an and-goal attempt – only to bounce it outside for six.  You’ve gotta wrap up the ballcarrier, Browns defenders.

I SAW a late-game Trent Richardson fumble fall through the cracks.  The Browns RB clearly lost the ball before going down, but since the Steelers had no timeouts or challenges left the next play was snapped, the bad call of a non-fumble stood, and Pittsburgh lost a chance for a decent comeback attempt in the process.

The play should have gotten a look from the booth, but because only scoring plays and turnover are reviewed it didn’t happen.  I’ve ranted about this before and I will again until the NFL adopts the review-any-close-play system that exists in college.  Under the current rules, plays that seem like (or are) turnovers or scores but are ruled otherwise aren’t subject to automatic review.  Not only can that screw a team over like it did the Steelers on Sunday but at some point an official is going to call a TD/turnover on a play he or she is unsure about just to cover their butt and make sure it goes to the booth, which means a bad call could stand without indisputable evidence.  Let the technology in, people.  Expand the review system and get more calls correct.

Chicago (8-3) wins vs. Minnesota (6-5), 28-10

I SAW the NFL win that has come with the greatest cost so far this season.  The Vikings ran into an angry Bears team that had been thumped Monday night by the Niners but Chicago got shredded in the process.  WR/KR Devin Hester was knocked out of the game with a concussion.  (Concussions have now become like hamstring injuries in their lack of predictability – a guy could come back next game and show no signs, or be out for weeks with plateaus or setbacks in rehabilitation.)  Hester’s injury was just the tip of the iceberg.  RB Matt Forte left the game with what is being reported as a high ankle sprain.  CB Charles Tillman also left with a bad ankle.

The most, um, crippling injuries were sustained by two relatively unknown players when both of the Bears’ starting guards – Lance Louis and Chris Spencer – went down with knee sprains.  Louis was placed on injured reserve thanks to a controversial blindside hit from Vikes DE Jared Allen during a Minnesota interception return.  Consequently, Gabe Carimi had to play the whole second half after being benched earlier in the week for stinking all season.  Awkwaaard…

Forte’s injury is significant, but at least they have Michael Bush to back him up.  Losing both starting guards is likely the worst thing that can happen to a running game, and the line has been downright awful all year in pass protection as well.  (It has given up 21 sacks since week seven – most in the NFL over that span.)

I SAW the Bears defense step up and carry the team like it so often does.  On the first play from scrimmage DL Henry Melton sacked Vikings QB Ponder and LB Nick Roach put Chicago in position for the first TD of the game by forcing RB Adrian Peterson to fumble.  An interception by S Chris Conte and a blocked field goal by DE Julius Peppers helped put the game away.  It seems like any Bears defender on the field can come up with a game-changing play at any moment.

I SAW cause to wonder: Is there any other team that suffers as bad a drop-off in performance when they lose one player as Chicago does when QB Jay Cutler misses time?  The best two contenders have got to be Denver, who backs up QB Peyton Manning with superstar Brock Osweiler and Green Bay, where the only notable thing Graham Harrell has done in relief of QB Aaron Rodgers is fumble on the first play of his pro career.  But there isn’t the statistical evidence to support those claims like there is for the Bears over the last two seasons:

Chicago With and Without Jay Cutler, last 2 seasons

With Cutler Without Cutler
W-L 13-2 1-6
Pts/Gm 28.7 13.1
Pass Yds/Gm 198.2 129.9

ESPN Stats & Information

I SAW Vikings QB Christian Ponder continue to look lost without top target WR Percy Harvin in the lineup: 51.2% completion rate, 159 yards, 1 touchdown and 1 interception.

Another indication that Ponder has yet to evolve beyond a dink-and-dunk passer, consider this, according to ESPN Stats & Information: Minny’s second-year QB went 0-for-8 on passes longer than ten yards.  Four of them were deflected and three were overthrown – one of those resulting in an interception.

I SAW that it doesn’t help Minnesota’s offense when the coaches don’t use RB Adrian Peterson in the proper situations.  The star tailback had his fifth straight 100-yard rushing day on Sunday but continued to be underutilized on third and fourth down, seeing just one touch on 20 such plays – and seven of those were short yardage plays.  In fact, the Vikings have had 48 short yardage plays on third and fourth down so far this season and have given the rock to Peterson on just 11 of them (22.9%).   That doesn’t make much sense, unless the staff is trying to keep their precious back out of potential pileups in the middle of the line, but that can happen on any running play.

I SAW Bears WR Brandon Marshall catch 12 passes for 92 yards to become the first Chicago wideout to have a 1,000-yard season since Marty Booker in ’02.  This is also Marshall’s sixth consecutive 1,000-yard season.

Miami (5-6) wins vs. Seattle (6-5), 24-21

I SAW the Dolphins flounder along with just two touchdowns through thirteen quarters midway through the third quarter on Sunday when someone in Miami pulled a Crash Davis…  “Betcha a hundred bucks I can get us a rainout.”  It seemed to work…

I SAW even that brief stint of (artificial) precipitation prove insufficient to make the Seahawks feel at home.  Seattle is 5-0 at home this season in the oft-overcast Pacific Northwest and 1-5 on the road with all of those games being played in either good climates or domes.  Their defense gave up 17 points in the final nine minutes, letting the Dolphins wake up from an offensive slumber.  (See above.)  In fact, Sunday marked the first time in seven years that Miami had come back from a seven-point deficit in the fourth quarter to win.

It’s weird to see Seattle struggle in these situations.  Its style – crushing defense and a run game – befits what would typically be transportable success.  One has to wonder if there is any significance to the geographical/travel factor.  There sure is for Miami: they are now 12-1 at home since 1997 against teams from the West Coast.

I SAW Seahawks QB Russell Wilson have his second impressive game on the road this season (the first was in Detroit): 21-of-27 for 77.8%, 224 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INT and a 125.9 rating.  Too bad his defense failed him for once.  That might happen again soon…

I SAW BOTH starting cornerbacks for Seattle, Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner, get slapped with 4-game suspensions for Adderall use.  Sherman has played the Ben Johnson, “I drank from someone else’s water bottle” card….  That didn’t work for the former sprinter and it probably won’t work for Sherman, who has become one of the best corners in the NFL.  Add to that the fact that Browner is also a Pro Bowl-caliber defender, and the Seahawks are in big trouble.  Both players are appealing their suspensions so if games will be missed it won’t be next week.  But the sword of Damocles is hanging over this team.  Be it in the playoff race, the playoffs or the start of next season – or all of the above – Seattle has a problem looming on the horizon.

Denver (8-3) wins vs. Kansas City (1-10), 19-7

I SAW Broncos QB Peyton Manning reach 3,000 yards passing for the 14th season in his career, passing Dan Marino for second place all-time.

Most 3,000-Yard Passing Seasons In NFL History

Player 3,000-Yard Seasons
Brett Favre 18
Peyton Manning                    14
Dan Marino 13
John Elway 12

I SAW the Chiefs…

Ugh.

The defense is bad, the roster is injury-riddled and the quarterback position is in disarray.  What about the playcalling?  To call Kansas City’s approach on offense conservative is a huge understatement.  The unit has gone more than 11 quarters without a touchdown, dating back to the first quarter against Pittsburgh on November 12.

But it’s not just the end product; it’s the mindset, as evidenced by the fact that on Sunday the Chiefs didn’t give the ball to star RB Jamaal Charles once on 14 third down plays.  That just can’t happen.

I SAW Dr. Brady Quinn, Medicine Woman put up another nauseating stat line: 13-for-25 for 52%, 126 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT, 49.8 Rating.  At this point the question has clearly shifted from “will there be a new QB in Kansas City next season” to “will a new general manager pick the next QB” because all the current muscular pivot is worth is a good hunky cuddle in the wilderness.

(fanpop.com)

I SAW Broncos WR Demaryius Thomas coming into his own over the last seven games and developing a good rapport with QB Peyton Manning:

Demaryius Thomas On Targets, 2012 Season

First 4 Games Last 7 Games
Comp % 60.0 71.4
Yards/Att 9.3 12.3
30+ Yard Plays 2 9
1st-Down % 34.3 50.0

ESPN Stats & Information

I SAW something that no one saw coming.  Once-discarded Broncos RB Knowshon Moreno stepped off of the scout team and into an 85-yard rushing performance in relief of the injured Willis McGahee.  I mentioned last week that the loss of McGahee to injured reserve was a huge one, and anyone who thought rookie Ronnie Hillman College was going to be able to carry the load must have had the circulation to their head cut off by the elastic waistband on their Zubaz pants.  Hold on….

Sinbad for Chiefs QB!  He knows everything.

(slacker.com)

Indianapolis (7-4) wins vs. Buffalo (4-7), 20-13

I SAW the Colts continue to roll towards the playoffs.  The offense is clicking and the defense is gelling but the most underrated cause for Indy’s strong play is the interim head coaching being done by offensive coordinator Bruce Arians in relief of cancer-stricken Chuck Pagano.

No one expected Arians to get an impromptu head coaching audition this season to the extent that he has – least of all Arians.  It could be an interesting offseason for him and the Colts.  There’s a lot to be said about loyalty, especially after what Pagano has been through.  But Arians can’t be blamed if the opportunity of his lifetime comes up and he takes it.  Strangely enough there hasn’t been any head coaching firings yet this season but you can bet heads will roll in early 2013 – and that Arians will be on many lists for potential replacements.  He seemed to command a quiet respect from his players in Pittsburgh and now that same esteem he commands from a roster is more obvious under the media spotlight.

I SAW Bills DE Mario Williams Sack Colts QB Andrew Luck three times, his most takedowns in one game since week 2, 2010.  The expensive free agent isn’t back to Super Mario status but at least he isn’t playing like a plumber who’s eaten the blue shrinking mushroom.

I SAW PROPS to Bills RB C.J. Spiller, who ran 14 times for 107 yards.  Sunday marked his sixth consecutive game with at least 100 yards from scrimmage, which is the longest such streak for a Buffalo player since the great Thurman Thomas did it in 1992-93.  (STATS LLC)

I SAW Colts rookie WR T.Y. Hilton continue his emergence, becoming the first player in the storied franchise’s history to catch a TD pass and return a punt for a score in the same game.

Hilton might become Luck’s favourite target over the years but let’s not forget the straw that stirs the drink….

I SAW PROPS to Colts WR Reggie Wayne for breaking Cris Carter’s league record for consecutive games with multiple catches, with 59.  Wayne’s eight catches on Sunday also got him past Art Monk and Derrick Mason on the all-time career receptions list and placed him on the doorstep of the top 10.  (One cool thing about the list is that Wayne, former teammate Marvin Harrison and Hines Ward are the only players to play with one team for their entire career.)

Most NFL Receptions, Career

Rank Player Receptions Years Teams
1 Jerry Rice 1,549 1985-2004 3
2 Tony Gonzalez 1,218 1997-present 2
3 Marvin Harrison 1,102 1996-2008 Colts
4 Cris Carter 1,101 1987-2002 3
5 Tim Brown 1,094 1988-2004 2
6 Terrell Owens 1,078 1996-2010 5
7 Isaac Bruce 1,024 1994-2009 2
8 Hines Ward 1,000 1998-2011 Steelers
9 Randy Moss 970 1998-present 5
10 Andre Reed 951 1985-2000 2
11 Reggie Wayne 946 2001-present Colts

 

Jacksonville (2-9) wins vs. Tennessee (4-7), 24-19

I SAW Jacksonville complete Mission: Seemingly Impossible by winning their first game at home this season.

In the process, the Jags also snapped a seven-game losing streak, telling Jags owner Shad “Shaka” Kahn something good.

I SAW Jaguars QB Chad Henne guide his team to a win in his first start in over thirteen months on Sunday, with two TD passes and a 108.0 passer rating – which seems about 2 touchdowns and 108 points’ worth of passer rating better than the level of productivity sophomore Blaine Gabbert had been playing at.  Much like how teammates seem to intensify their focus around Niners QB Colin Kaepernick (see Niners win @ New Orleans, 31-21), Henne is lifting the Jaguars.

I SAW Titans QB Jake Locker play like shit against a shit defense: 23-for-40 for 57.5% and a 64.7 rating versus the second-worst defense overall in the NFL.  So far he and Blaine Gabbert – Locker’s injured counterpart on Sunday – are the most disappointing quarterbacks taken out of last year’s ballyhooed draft class.

Tennessee came into the game rested off a bye week and having won two in a row prior but their hopes for a playoff berth flopped through the air and thudded to the turf like one of Locker’s passes.  As is so often the case, poor efforts by players like Locker and RB Chris Johnson didn’t shoulder the blame.  Rather, offensive coordinator did when he got handed a pink slip on Monday.

I SAW JORTS stay in fashion!  Jaguars WR Cecil Shorts set a franchise record with four 50+-yard receptions in a season.  It almost makes me wanna…. Nah.

Cincinnati (6-5) wins vs. Oakland (3-8), 34-10

I SAW the Bengals win their third game in a row by a combined score of 93-29.

What to make of the Bengals?  They’re certainly a hot team that has a decent chance at making the playoffs but they still have to play the Steelers, Cowboys and Ravens this season.

One thing’s for sure:  If trades can be evaluated in part by the two teams’ next meeting afterward, the Carson Palmer trade was a fleecing of the Raiders.  Oakland’s QB produced a silver steamer in the city he used to call home, completing just 55.8 percent of his passes with one TD, one INT, one fumble lost and a paltry 146 yards.  As a team, the Silver & Black dug themselves a 24-0 hole by halftime, giving up 289 yards in the opening half (their most this season) and gaining just 83 yards offensively over the same span (their least since late in the 2010 season).  The Raiders have now given up an average of 42.25 points during a four-game losing streak.

I SAW Bengals WR A.J. Green catch 3 passes for 111 yards, snapping his streak of nine games with a TD grab.  However, rookie wideout Mohammed Sanu picked up the slack with 5 receptions for 2 TDs.  Sanu now has four touchdowns in the last three games, but only 11 catches.  Sanu’s emergence is a big boost for the passing game, at the very least because it could free up A.J. Green.  The next step is to look his way more often at other parts of the field besides the end zone.

I SAW Bengals DT Geno Atkins break Dan Wilkinson’s franchise record for single-season sacks by an interior lineman, with nine.  According to ProFootballFalk.com via SI.com’s Peter King, Atkins has 40 pass disruptions on 300 pass rush snaps.  That’s Warren Sapp-good.  The difference is that while Sapp relied heavily on natural quickness and athleticism Atkins dominates with unparalleled strength and he’s only 24 years old.

St. Louis (4-6-1) wins @ Arizona (4-7), 31-17

I SAW two teams reunite after a game that sent both of them into awful slumps.   Since the Rams win over the Cards in week five, St. Louis has gone winless in five games and Arizona has lost every one, extending its losing streak to seven games after starting 4-0.  Funny how top-notch the NFC West looked in September.  Now two of its teams are in disarray.

I SAW first-year Rams CB Janoris Jenkins return two interceptions for touchdowns on Sunday.  No rookie had done such a things since Bobby Franklin took two back to the house for the Browns in 1960.  Jenkins’ performance was sorely needed – St. Loo had gone five straight games without forcing a turnover.  Give the rook credit.  After violating team policy two weeks ago Jenkins pulled himself together and ran his way out of head coach Jeff Fisher’s doghouse.

I SAW that Cousin Larry Fitzgerald won’t ever get out of his basement job at the Chicago Tribune with help like this.  Cardinals rookie QB Ryan Lindley blended in perfectly with the rest of the teams’ pivots by throwing four interceptions in his first pro start.  More specifically, Lindley was 0-for-6 with two picks when targeting his star WR at least 15 yards downfield.  (ESPN Stats & Information)  Again, that sort of line just blends right in with an agonizing season for Fitzgerald:

Larry Fitzgerald Receiving 15+ Yards Downfield, Last 2 Seasons

2011 2012
Receptions-Targets 28-63 6-29
Yards/Att 13.9 4.8
% Of Att thrown off-target 34.9 69.0

ESPN Stats & Information

Baltimore (9-2) wins @ San Diego (4-7), 16-13 OT

I SAW that this game was won and lost on third down.  The Ravens were 12-for-24 on the penultimate down for the game, and 8-for-13 in the second half and overtime.  The Chargers, meanwhile, went just 3-for-15 in the game.

Well, okay, maybe a fourth down play had something to do with the outcome as well….

I SAW a gutty-as-hell checkdown pass get stretched for a first down conversion on fourth-and-29 by Ravens RB Ray Rice during the field goal-tying drive that forced OT.  Baltimore LB Terrell Suggs said during the postgame press conference that prior to the snap he “was thinking we needed a miracle.”  What happened wasn’t so much a miracle, but if that play wasn’t the sealing nail in the Chargers’ coffin I’d like to see what is.

Two more thoughts on one of the biggest fourth down plays of the season:

Watch the replay and see how Rice knows where he needs to get for the first down, staring at the yard markers while diving at the end of the play.

WR Anquan Boldin’s crushing block on S Eric Weddle sprang Rice for the last leg of the distance.  It knocked Weddle out of the game and was just the sort of play that is supposed to draw a penalty these days.  Just sayin’.

I SAW the Chargers continue to hone their skill at coming from ahead to lose close games.  San Diego has now thrice blown second half double-digit leads.

SNF- New York Giants (7-4) win vs. Green Bay (7-4), 38-10

I SAW one hell of a bounce-back win for the Giants.  The Packers are still without three of their best players – WR Greg Jennings, S Charles Woodson and LB Clay Matthews – but New York needed a confidence builder and got one.  It came quickly too; the 31 points scored by the G-Men in the first half being the most they’ve scored in a half all season.

They won largely by beating up QB Aaron Rodgers.  It was reported during the broadcast that Rodgers likes to practice what he terms “non-rhythmic throws” so that his comfort zone doesn’t suffer too much while under pressure.  Well, he sure got to practice that Sunday night.  Twice Mathias Kiwanuka, who, surprisingly, played a lot of the game at defensive tackle, sacked Rodgers five times.  (Kiwanuka is usually a linebacker.)  According to ESPN Stats & Information Rodgers was under duress (sacked or hit while throwing) in 51.5 percent of his dropbacks.  That’s the highest percentage in the NFL endured by a qualifying QB in a single game this season.

I SAW that the injury bug got more comfortable buzzing around the Giants.  Safety Kenny Phillips made his first start since week four, only to be knocked out with another knee injury.

Worse, RB Andre Brown left the game with a broken fibula.  With Ahmad Bradshaw battling foot problems and rookie David Wilson playing lost, Brown’s presence in the backfield was very important.  Head coach Tom Coughlin was abnormally dismal when discussing the injury and its significance after the game.

I SAW Giants QB Eli Manning pass Phil Simms for the most career TD passes in franchise history, with 200.

MNF- Carolina (3-8) wins @ Philadelphia (3-8), 30-22

I SAW the Eagles sink, sink, sink farther into a slump that is now seven games long.  WR DeSean Jackson broke multiple ribs and is now on injured reserve.  What’s worse is the way the players have clearly given up on themselves, as evidenced late in the game.  (See below.)

I SAW that, at the very least, the Eagles front office has given up on its own team.  On Tuesday it cut DE Jason Babin, who was a pro-bowler each of the past two years and has 36 sacks in his last 43 games.  Head coach Andy Reid explained that releasing Babin allows Philly to give playing time to its younger players, namely Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry – the latter having just played his first pro game Monday night after missing the first ten due to injury.

While on the surface this seems like a heartless move by the Eagles, this might not be the case.  Letting Babin go gives him an opportunity for another team with playoff aspirations to pick him up off waivers.  According to Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke, any franchise that does will owe the defensive end about $1.65 million for the rest of the season, plus $4.225 million in 2013 and $6 million in ’14 and ’15.  The Bengals or Lions seem to be the most logical choice (both defenses employ the wide-nine scheme Babin thrives in) but maybe another playoff team will pull the trigger.

UPDATE (28/12/2012): So much for Babin’s future looking up.  Today he was picked up by  the Jaguars.

I SAW Eagles rookie RB Bryce Brown take this game by storm – kinda.  In his first start since his senior year in high school Brown gaveth – his 178 yards are the fifth-most by a player in his first career start during the Super Bowl era (Elias Sports Bureau) – and Brown taketh away by fumbling twice, once in Panthers territory.

Credit goes to Brown for a huge coming out party, but that’s also some pretty bad defense by the Panthers. According to ESPN Stats & Information Brown ran for 142 of his yards before contact – fourth most by any player in a game this season and nearly as many such yards as starter LeSean McCoy had in the previous four games combined.

I SAW that Eagles defensive coordinator Todd Bowles didn’t step into a good situation when his predecessor, Juan Castillo was fired five games ago.  But things have only gotten much worse since he’s taken over.  According to the Philadelphia Inquirer Bowles’ defense is allowing almost a full yard more per play (6.01) than Castillo’s did (5.13), the last three opposing QBs have completed 75 percent of their passes against Philly under Bowles, without throwing a single interception.

In fact, since Bowles took over quarterbacks have thrown 13 TDs and 0 INTs.

BUT the lowest of the low came with three straight offside/encroachment calls in a row deep in their own territory as the Panthers drove to score the game-sealing TD with under five minutes remaining.  (The Philly fumble on the following kickoff didn’t exactly salve the wound.)   There is no defense in the NFL that has looked as bad as the Eagles’ since Todd Bowles took over as coordinator.  Don’t mistake Bowles for Todd Bridges* when he’s staring at his players with his arms extended in confusion.  At least when he was working Willis knew what he was talkin’ ’bout.

*-I encourage you to read the imdb.com bio on Bridges.  I had no idea stars wrote their own bios under “Anonymous” on that site.  This one makes Bridges sound like Sidney Poitier.  Hilarious.

Seriously, though.  This is never a comment that should be made lightly but the Eagles players look as thought they’ve given up.  Big time.

At this point Philadelphia needs to run the table in order to make 8-8 – the final record that was declared “unacceptable” by owner Jeffrey Lurie prior to the start of the season.  It’s time to go to bed and pee in it like Arnold used to when he and Willis shared a bedroom.  Put it this way:  As the game ended the Philadelphia fans were tired of booing.  That’s like a Kardashian getting tired of being unemployed.

STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK FOR WHAT I SAW, WEEK 13 – HERE AT TFQ. 

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

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