What I Saw, Wk 16 2012

Blair Miller > WHAT I SAW – WEEK 16, 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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Happy HoHo & Holidays everyone!  I know most of you are still busy shoveling tryptophan leftovers into your gullets, so this week’s version is a bit more streamlined so you can go back to passing out on the couch to avoid your families and/or dishwashing duty.  For example, only playoff-relevant games have been covered because after all, no one wants to spoil the end of the season by thinking about the Jets – not even New Yorkers.  I’m looking forward to an action-packed and dense edition of What I Saw next week to close out 2012 and kick off the New Year!

Away from the game(s)

I SAW the Year Of The Records continue its crazy run.

Several more marks were either matched or surpassed in Week 16, making the NFL season look more and more like a chapter from the Guinness Book Of Records.  It seems like eye-popping milestones keep happening each week, many of which have set the table for even more significant tallies now that the season is winding to a close.

Numerous performances will be touched on below, but the two most monumental moments could come next week, since we could see two 2,000-yard seasons in 2012 – by Vikings RB Adrian Peterson and Lions WR Calvin Johnson.  Both players need solid days to reach two thousand, but that’s exactly what they’ve been doing week in, week out, so a truly historical year is likely on the way.  Peterson also needs 208 yards to break Eric Dickerson’s single-season rushing yardage record; Johnson passed Jerry Rice in the same category for receiving yards Saturday night.

Another less-ballyhooed milestone is also within danger: Michael Strahan’s single-season sack record of 22.5.  (Though many continue to consider that record with an asterisk, because of how QB Brett Favre – Strahan’s friend – slid to the ground and essentially gave Strahan the record.)  Texans DE J.J. Watt heads into Week 17 sitting at 20.5 sacks, and Niners LB Aldon Smith is at 19.5.

While the playoff race isn’t terribly suspenseful at this point (see below), the statistical achievements still make for an interesting final week of the regular season.  It’s like the NFL itself knows how to stay exciting.

I SAW the playoff picture get ever closer to being finalized.  The only two berths left undecided are in the NFC, but much remains to be seen in terms of how the postseason seeding will play out.

One blow against the parity monster: Since 1995, the NFL has not had less then five new teams making the playoffs in a season – until now.  Eight of last year’s postseason contestants have returned this time around, ensuring a possible maximum of just four newbies.

The AFC rankings look like this heading into the final Sunday:

  1. Houston-z (12-3)
  2. Denver-z (12-3)
  3. New England-z (11-4)
  4. Baltimore-z (10-5)
  5. Indianapolis-y (10-5)
  6. Cincinnati-y (9-6)

z- clinched division

y- clinched Wild Card

The one team that has fallen short that surprises many: The Steelers.  Given their myriad of injuries, though, maybe it shouldn’t come as a shock at this point.  I’ll say one thing: Offensive coordinator Todd Haley and QN Ben Roethlisberger need to the lab and work on their chemistry, and Haley had better learn to maximize the talent he has on the field or else his abrasive could once again plat too prominent a role, alienate his team, and have him looking for a job.

If you’re like me, you’re still rubbing your eyes when you see Indy up there.  Hopefully the Colts won’t let up after their unimaginable playoff run and end up being first round doormats.  Before that, Indy is entwined within some delicious irony in Week 17.  Both Broncos QB Peyton Manning – a recent cast off from Indy – and his biggest rival, Pats QB Tom Brady – who must consider Indy his best opponent over the years, granted it was due in large part to Manning – will be cheering for the Colts to win against Houston so that either team might wrest the home field advantage from the Texans.

And the NFC, where things are a bit dicier:

  1. Atlanta-* (13-2)
  2. Green Bay-z (11-4)
  3. San Francisco-y (10-4-1)
  4. Washington (9-6)
  5. Seattle-y (10-5)
  6. Minnesota (9-6)

*- clinched division & home field advantage

z- clinched division

y- clinched Wild Card

Still Alive:

            Chicago (9-6)

Dallas (8-7)

New York Giants (8-7)

The Giants?  Awww, the defending champs… We hardly knew ye – except for two of the last 5 years when you shat the bad and missed the playoffs.  New York needs to win against Philly, and have Chicago, Dallas, and Minnesota  all lose.  I’ll say this: If the G-Men get in, be afraid.  It would amount to divine intervention.

The Bears need to handle the Lions in Detroit and have the Vikings lose in order for Chicago to go through.  Minny can live on simply by winning in Green Bay – which might not be that simple, considering that the Packers could still be playing for the second seed in the NFC (and thus a bye, but if I was G-Bay, I wouldn’t want it – see: 4-game playoff run to SB two years ago, and last year’s 1-game curtsey after a week off).

In what feels like an endless repeat loop, the NFC title comes down to a head-to-head playoff.  This time it’s on Sunday night in D.C. when the ’Skins host the ’Boys.  Winner takes the NFC East and the fourth seed.  If Dallas loses, they’re done for the season.  If Chicago and Minnesota lose earlier in the day, then Washington will have clinched a playoff berth.  Interesting…If those teams lose, will the Redskins go balls-out in the night game against Dallas to ensure themselves a home game in the first round, or will they play it safe?  If I were head coach Mike Shanahan (which I’m not; my blood pressure is much lower – my face doesn’t look like a cooked red beet in the middle of the fourth quarter), I’d take the balls-out route.  It’s better to ride momentum….

I SAW myself believe, as mentioned last week, believe that this season’s Super Bowl champ will be one of the teams that peaks at the right time.  I know – this leaves out the Patriots, Niners, Texans, Ravens (ugh)  – and maybe Falcons, Colts.

But here’s my Ascension List, in other words, the hottest teams (in order of hotness):

Seattle (Monica Belluci – wow.  Really?  It can’t be.  No.  Right?  Argh.)

Green Bay (Kate Upton – hot.  You know it, you keep looking for flaws.)

Denver (Mila Kunis – always feels different, but there’s something steady…)

Washington (Jennifer Lawrence – performs at higher level than age should allow.)

SO what I’ve tried to do this week is just extract what I think are the most important and/or most entertaining few points from each game.  One week of full-league betting to go!

Saturday Night Live:

Atlanta (13-2) wins @ Detroit (4-11), 31-18

I SAW that one thing that must be on the mind of the Falcons – however much they deny it – is that they’ve been here before during the Mike Smith-Matt Ryan regime.  The head coach and QB, respectively, helped their team secure home field advantage throughout the playoffs two years ago (2010).  The result: A one-and-done showing, when they got throttled by the eventual Super Bowl champs, Green Bay.

Sure, Ryan equaled a career-high with four touchdown passes, but Atlanta once again failed to put their boot in the throats of their opponent Sunday, letting Detroit get within five point during the fourth quarter.

I’ve mentioned it numerous times this season, but it bears repeating: The better – and worse – the  Falcons have played, the more pressure they might be putting on that first playoff game.  They already know that they’ll have a week off to think about that.  Let’s see how they handle this week.  Do they sit their starters early, or play it safe?  Last year, the Packers ended opting for the former, and QB Aaron Rodgers and the rest of the team looked rusty after almost three weeks off.  In other years, teams have taken the extra time and marched to a title.  Though neither Smith’s nor Ryan’s jobs are in jeopardy, there’s a lot riding on the next month in Hot-lanta.

I SAW that the Lions kinda suck.  Really.  They’re the most disappoint team in the league after an 11-win season last year, and they’re riding the NFL’s longest active losing streak at seven games.

I SAW that defensive backs everywhere must feel like pleading Starscream’s line from the old Transformers TV series:

Starscream-Megatron

“Megatron, please!”

Scream all you want, bitches.  Lions WR Calvin Johnson, aka Megatron, broke Jerry Rice’s NFL record for receiving yards in a season.

Most Receiving Yards in a Season, NFL History

PLAYER YEAR REC YARDS
Calvin Johnson 2012 1,892
Jerry Rice 1995 1,848
Isaac Bruce 1995 1,781
Charley Hennigan 1961 1,746
Marvin Harrison 2002 1,722

It had escaped my memory that Rice and Bruce both broke the previous record in the same year.  Bruce is hugely underrated.  He’s a system receiver?  Look at Rice.  Don’t let the system take away from a player.  After all, what is a successful receiver if not a product of the system?

With that in mind, some have argued – including ESPN’s Jon Gruden and SI.com’s Peter King – that Johnson has caught a lot of “meaningless” yards late in games.  (Gruden’s quote.)  What would they have the wideout do?  Loaf it?  To come within 2,000 yards a player needs to excel in multiple situations.  Let’s not look for reasons to take away from the accomplishment.

However, one last thought:

I don’t want to take anything away from a robot that can turn into a revolver, but he truly is the only desirable offensive option on the Lions.  The fact that Stafford is an exceptional strong-armed QB that can work the intermediate in/out cuts that suit the manimal-esque game that Johnson plays doesn’t hurt either.  That’s what makes Rice so impressive – he wasn’t the only option on a perennially stacked Niners team but still set the statistical standard.

On the other hand, it’s not like Johnson has been free of double teams at all this year….He’s a beast.  He’s Megatron.

Trivia Bomb:

Calvin Johnson has caught at least 10 passes in four straight games, the longest streak in NFL history. (STATS LLC)

I SAW that Detroit has a lot of problems, but finding the end zone might be the biggest one.  QB Matthew Stafford is a good pivot, but needs to work better with a shorter field.  He has had no problem finding his primary receiver, Calvin Johnson, when the throws are deep – Johnson has 39 receptions on throws at least 15 yards downfield this season (a career high – ESPN Stats & Information) – but the end zone is a chimera for the fourth-year pivot.  He is on pace for a second straight 5,000-yard passing season, but he has only 17 TD passes.  Last Sunday was a microcosm of Stafford’s season: He threw for 443 yards – the most passing yards in NFL history in a single game without any TDs.  (ESPN Stats & Information)

Washington (9-6) wins @ Philadelphia (4-11), 27-20

I SAW two teams that have headed in completely opposite directions since their first game against one another earlier in the season.

The Redskins and Eagles were 3-6 coming into their last meeting.  Washington hasn’t lost since, and the Eagles have sunk ever deeper into a despair that will likely lose head coach Andy Reid his job.

The ’Skins haven’t won the NFC East since 1999.  All Hail RG3!!!

I SAW that all eyes will be on Sunday Night’s game: Dallas at Washington, for the NFC East title.  Perhaps just as important is the ongoing recovery of the sprained knee of  Redskins QB Robert Griffin III….

I SAW a nice message for anyone still pushing the “black quarterbacks aren’t mentally competent enough to play in the pros”, with their Cro-Magnon selves, via Thom Brenneman:  Washington’s first delay of game penalty of the season came in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s game.  That’s a black rookie playing quarterback for all of five quarters, by the way.

I SAW Eagles head coach Andy Reid receive a polite farewell in the stadium he helped build.  (Well, metaphorically at least.  Even with his trademark utility belt strapped at his equator, the spherical Reid likely isn’t building any structures anytime soon, let alone Lincoln Field.)

Anyone wishing to gloss over Philly’s season should consider this: The Eagles have the same win-loss record as the Raiders.

But the drama that seems to follow Reid around like a virus isn’t over yet.  QB Nick Foles has a broken hand and will have to miss the last game of the season.  In his place, the deposed Michael Vick will start – he was a begrudged healthy scratch from the lineup Sunday.  Awwkwaaaaaaard….

Indianapolis (10-5) wins @ Kansas City (2-13), 20-13

I SAW the Colts become just he second team in league history to win at least 10 games after losing at least 14 the previous season.  (STATS LLC)

I SAW the Colts clinch a trip to the playoffs, and they did it in the clutch, thanks to their rookie quarterback – again.  In fact, Colts QB Andrew Luck pulled off his seventh game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime this season.  That’s tied for the most in a season during the Super Bowl era.

QBs With Seven Game-Winning Drives in 4th Quarter, OT in a season – Most, NFL History

YEAR PLAYER
2012 Andrew Luck
2009 Peyton Manning
2003 Jake Delhomme
1999 Peyton Manning
1998 Jake Plummer
1989 Don Majkowski
1979 Brian Sipe

(Elias Sport Bureau)

Shout-out to Majik hour, back in the day in Green Bay!

I SAW PROPS to Colts QB Andrew Luck for breaking Cam Newton’s rookie record for passing yards.  (Newton had 4,051 yards last season; Luck sits at 4,183 with one more game to go.)

I SAW the Chiefs rush for 352 yards as a team Sunday – the most this season, and the highest total ever by a team in a losing cause.

Don’t think that Indy’s playoff opponents won’t notice that.

And, thanks to Vikings RB Adrian Peterson and Broncos QB Peyton Manning, many of us aren’t noticing another amazing comeback from injury….

I SAW Chiefs RB Jamaal Charles equal a record that was also matched by Titan Chris Johnson earlier this season.  On Sunday Charles joined CJ2K and the great Barry Sanders as the only three running backs to have three runs of at least 80 yards in a season.

Charles ran for 165 yards on Sunday – in the third quarter.  Wow.  His 226 total yards also gave him three 200-yard rushing games in his career (two of which happened this season), which ties Larry Johnson for the franchise record.

Charles isn’t getting as much publicity as Adrian Peterson, but his performance after his knee injury last season ins only slightly less incredible than that of Adrian Peterson’s.

I SAW that thought they may not end up “winning” it, but is there a team more deserving of the first pick in next year’s draft than the Chiefs?  Alas, this is the least top-heavy draft in recent memory..

Green Bay (11-4) wins vs. Tennessee, (5-10), 55-7

I SAW the Packers continue their torrid pace – they’ve won nine of their last ten games – by taking it up another notch in hanging a fitty burger on the Titans.  Actually, the 55 points Green Bay put up on Sunday is the third highest in a game in franchise history – and we’re not exactly talking about a team with average offenses over the years.  The Super Bowl champs from two years ago scored on nine of their first 11 drives, not counting one that ended the first half.  In other words, the Pack rolled over Tennessee like a steamroller over Otto in A Fish Called Wanda.

steam roller-fish called wanda

(MGM Entertainment)

“I’m sorry I ate your fish!

I SAW one huge development for Green Bay that has gone unnoticed: Sunday marked the sixth time in the last seven weeks that the Packers have rushed for over 100 yards.  They missed that facet of their offense dearly in their playoff upset loss to the Giants last season, and it’s the last thing opposing defenses want to hear.

I SAW PROPS to Packers WR/KR Randall Cobb for breaking RB Ahman Green’s franchise record for total net yardage.  Cobb sits at 2,342 total yard on the season – 92 more than Green did in 2003.

I know – total yardage isn’t the sexiest record.  But I bring it up because it’s a reminder of Green’s hugely under-recognized 2003 season, during which he rushed for 1,883 yards.  The reason no one ever remembers Green’s remarkable season is because Ravens RB Jamal Lewis gained 2,066 that year.

Minnesota (9-6) wins @ Houston (12-3), 23-6

I SAW the Texans drop another game, putting themselves in a must-win situation next week if they are to secure home field advantage.  The game marked the first time since 2006 that Houston failed to score a TD on offense.

Two things that must be worrisome for Houston after Sunday:

Their running game fell flat on its face.  RB Arian Foster ran for 15 yards on 10 rushes, and was hit behind the line of scrimmage on 6 of those.  (ESPN Stats & Information)

QB Matt Schaub proved ineffective – nay, brutal – with the ground game taken away.  His line from Sunday: 18-for-32, 178 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT, 72.1 rating.  Head coach Gary Kubiak can’t be impressed that, after dominating the conference for most of the season,  his team is giving playoff opponents a blueprint to beating them.

I SAW the Vikings on a three-game winning streak.  Their star tailback, Adrian Peterson, crept closer to the single-season rushing record (he needs 208 yards to pass Eric Dickerson’s 2,105) with one of the most hard-to-tackle 86-yard performances I’ve seen in a long time.  It’s still so hard to fathom how powerful Peterson is.  He occupies space in a more predatorial way than any non-defensive player in the league.

I SAW that a win next Sunday for Houston isn’t a gimme by any means.  The Colts get their cancer-surviving head coach, Chuck Pagano, back – and the Texans are 0-10 all-time in Indianapolis.  Whoops.

Trivia bomb: If Peterson gets the rushing record he’ll have rushed for 200 yards against the Packers twice this season.  But two other players have also danced all over a team twice in one season for the double-century rushing mark, and both also did it en route to 2,000 yards: Jamal Lewis in 2003 against the Browns, and O.J. Simpson in 1973 against the Patriots.  Simpson actually has three 200-yard games that year.  What a killer.

I SAW that, in my mind, the Vikings’ Leslie Frasier deserves consideration for Coach Of the Year.  I thought Minny would contend with Jacksonville for the worst record in the league, but with one week to go in the regular season this this team has one foot in the postseason.   Mind you, it doesn’t hurt to have arguably the an inspiring hard worker on the roster….

I SAW Vikings rookie K Blair Walsh boot a 56-yarder in the second quarter that tied the franchise record for longest field goal.  Walsh is now 9-for-9 this season in 50+-yard field goals, an NFL record.  No one has hit that many, let alone with an unblemished record.  Talk about getting top value out of a sixth round draft pick.

Cincinnati (9-6) wins @ Pittsburgh (7-8), 13-10

I SAW the Steelers bow out of playoff contention, thanks to another interception in clutch time by QB Ben Roethlisberger.  (He threw on in OT last week against Dallas.)  Don’t just blame Big Ben, though.  This is an old team, and one that seemed gassed on Sunday after all the things they’ve been through this season.

Now, instead of making the playoffs Pittsburgh needs to beat Cleveland next Sunday to avoid their first losing record in head coach Mike Tomlin’s tenure.

I SAW the Bengals overcome the perennial doubters and make the playoffs in consecutive seasons for just the second time in franchise history.  The other time was in 1981-82.  They did it in style, too, snapping a five-game losing skid to the Steelers.

I SAW a tough end to the season for Steelers TE Heath Miller, who tore his ACL, which will require surgery.  I thought Miller had the best season of his career.  He was by far the most dependable member of the offense, and bailed out his quarterbacks on numerous big third downs all year.

Miller’s moment provided a telling indication of how injury-riddled the Steelers roster has been this season.  When he went down in the fourth quarter, and already-hurt DE Brett Kiesel had to come out and help Miller off the field: Miller and Kiesel hurt

(CBS)

You know your team is banged up when you have guys coming out in sweatpants to help other guys off the field.

New Orleans (7-8) wins @ Dallas (8-7), 34-31 OT

I SAW the Cowboys lose the game, setting up a winner-takes-all game for the NFC East next Sunday night.  If Dallas loses, they can’t win a Wild Card spot.  It won’t help that their Pro Bowl DE DeMarcus Ware will go into the game with a bad shoulder.

I SAW that Cowboys WR Dez Bryant is no longer figuring out the pro game – he’s on a tear that only a tuned-in player could rip off.  On Sunday Bryant had a career-high 224 yards receiving.   In his last 8 games: 800 yards and 10 TDs.

His second TD was a great show of raw power when he ran right through an attempted head-on tackle near the goal line, but he never tucked the ball away, so the kid still has to

I SAW yet another maddening press conference by Cowboys QB Tony Romo following a loss.  I’ve read blank notepads that dispense more useful comments than Romo.

I SAW Saints CB Johnny Patrick provide a snapshot of New Orleans’ season on defense, which has been historically awful.

Patrick had sickeningly bad coverage on Dallas WR Miles Austin on the game-tying TD with 15 seconds left in regulation.  Austin was open enough when the TV camera panned over that I assumed he had pushed off.  But there was no contact at all.  Instead, Patrick couldn’t have defended a back shoulder throw worse.  I’m pretty sure his coaches didn’t instruct him to spin around 360 degrees while (not) forcing a receiver to the corner.

Denver (12-3) wins vs. Cleveland (5-10), 34-12

I SAW the Broncos match the franchise’s second-longest win streak, at 10 games.  What’s especially impressive is that each win during the streak has been by at least seven points.  Only four other teams in NFL history have done so.

Longest Win Streak In A Season With Each Win By 7+ Points, NFL History

Team Year Length Of Streak
Colts 2005 13
Bears 1942 11
Broncos 2012 10
Niners 1997 10

(Elias Sports Bureau)

I SAW Broncos QB Peyton Manning raise his passing TD total this season to 34, passing Warren Moon and Brett Favre for the third-most passing touchdowns in a season by a QB at age 36 or older.  Only Y.A. Tittle and Steve Young have more, at 36 apiece.  (ESPN Stats & Information)

Baltimore (10-5) wins vs. New York Giants (8-7), 33-14

I SAW that we can almost put the defending champs to bed.  Entering Week 15, the Giants were in first place in the NFC East.  Now they need a win against the Eagles on Sunday and a TON of help to make the playoffs.

If there’s an efficient way for a Super Bowl-winning team to bow out without making the postseason the following year, I’m pretty getting outgained 533 yards to 186 on offense is the way to do it.  This after losing 34-0 to the Falcons the week before.  The G-Men are now 2-5 in their last seven games, and truly do have no one to blame but themselves for their sorry season.

To me, New York has shit the bed.  DE Jason Pierre-Paul disagreed, via the New York Daily News, when asked about making the playoffs: “Do we deserve it by the way we played?  Do we?  I don’t think so, man.  We went out there and pissed on our legs.”

Do tell, JPP.

Sometimes when you get into a habit of “flicking the switch” you get caught with it in the “OFF” position too much.  Many are asking, “what’s happened to the Giants?”  But all that’s happening is history repeating itself — 2008 season after winning SB.  This isn’t so much a clutch team as it is an inconsistent one.  Winning the Super Bowl doesn’t absolve a team of being inconsistent.

I SAW the Ravens clinch the AFC North – finally!  Baltimore is now assured of a home game during the first round of the playoffs.

I SAW Torrey Smith wake up in a big way.  After a stretch of bad games, the second-year wideout came out of the gates in a flurry, with a 6-yard TD catch, then he had to fight through tight coverage deep by CB Corey Webster at the last minute to make a tough over-the-shoulder reception to the Giants’ 1-yard line.

New England (11-4) wins @ Jacksonville (2-13), 23-16

I SAW the Patriots avoid consecutive losses in December for the fist time since 2002.  (STATS LLC)

I SAW frustration.  What the hell are we supposed to gloss from this game?  One can’t even truly say that it was good for the Patriots’ confidence that they puled out a tough game.  It’s not any given Sunday against the Jaguars.  One wins against the Jaguars.

I SAW Pats WR Wes Welker pass Jerry Rice and Andre Johnson for the most 10-catch games in NFL history, with 18.

I SAW Patriots QB Tom Brady throw a TD pass in 47 straight games, tying that Johnny Unitas record that was so hallowed when Saints QB Drew Brees passed it earlier this season.

Chicago (9-6) wins @ Arizona (5-10), 28-13

I SAW the Bears snap a disastrous three-game losing streak.  Big deal.

Chicago looked good, but so might the 2007 winless Lions against that Arizona team.  Against one of the worst teams in the league the Bears had some special team hiccups for a squad known for its execution in that department.  What’s more, RB Matt Forte is banged up after re-aggravating an ankle injury.  Ironically, the Bears need to beat the Lions next week, and cheer for their archrivals, the Packers, to beat the Vikings in order for them to make the playoffs.

I SAW the Cardinals continue to set the passing game back decades.  Arizona has not thrown a TD pass in six games.  In the last five games ’Zona QBs have thrown 12 interceptions – four of which have been turned for touchdowns.  In the Christmas spirit, Jesus Christ!

Brian Hoyer is next up at the position, making him the fourth quarterback to start for the Cardinals this season – each of which have sucked beyond belief.

What’s next in the search for a competent quarterback in Arizona?  YouTube?

SNF- Seattle (10-5) wins vs. San Francisco, (10-4-1), 42-13

I SAW the Seahawks suck.  Really, guys – you can’t score fifty again?  Buh-mer.

But let’s give the guys some slack.  After all, Seattle has outscored its last three opponents 150-30, making the scoreboard look more like one from a game at USC when head coach Pete Carroll was there.  According to SI.com, that’s the NFL’s best three-game offensive tear since 1950, when the Rams put up 163.

Again, like above with the Packers, this is how Seahawks’ opponents have felt the last three weeks:

steam roller-fish called wanda

(MGM Entertainment)

Seattle’s first 10-win season since 2007 came thanks to the team snapping a three-game losing streak to Jim Harbaugh’s Niners.

You could tell the crowd wanted this win badly too.  The always-raucous 12th man in Seattle was even louder than usual, as the frustration on the face of Niners QB Colin Kaepernick while calling a few time outs to prevent delay of game penalties indicated.  Kudos to NBC and reporter Michelle Tafoya for a cool in-game demonstration with an on-field microphone during the game.  Tafoya clearly had to scream into the mike simply to be heard, and when she backed up just two steps away from it, she was inaudible.

I SAW that it would be hard to avoid hand wringing in San Francisco.  A divisional foe that they may have to face again in January just pasted the Niners.  What’s worse, DL Justin Smith is rumored to have a slight tear in his triceps and his status for the playoffs is unclear.  Add the season-ending injury to WR Mario Manningham and it’s borderline scary how quickly San Fran’s fortunes seem to have turned….

I SAW Seahawks LT Russell Okung allow zero sacks and zero QB pressures against the Niners’ sack machine, DE Aldon Smith.  That’s the kind of play Seattle will need going forward – solid protection for their rookie QB….

I SAW Seahawks QB Russell Wilson throw a career-high 4 TDs against arguably the best defense in the NFL.  Wilson needs just two more touchdowns through the air to break Peyton Manning’s rookie record of 26.

Maybe some of Wilson’s scores shouldn’t count towards that milestone….A rookie’s not supposed to put up numbers like this over his last seven games:  6 wins, 1 loss, 15 TDs, 2 INTs, 65.9 percent of his passes completed and 8.5 yards per attempt.  (ESPN Stats & Information)  Wow.

Not  many rookies take aside the rest of his team’s first-year players in the locker room after a huge win like Sundays’ and tell them, “We got work to do tomorrow.  Come in and get your lift in” either.  That next day was Christmas Eve, by the way.  That’s a leader beyond his years.  That’s a soldier.  In fact, Russell Wilson looks like an all-growed-up version of Michael from The Wire:

Michael-The Wire

HBO)

Russell Wilson

(© NFL)

I SAW Seahawks QB Russell Wilson’s wife in the stands….she’s white.

Please, Rob Parker.  When you get back from your suspension for making racist comments about Robert Griffin III and his white spouse, speak out on this.  Wilson’s clearly a “cornball brother”, right? Poor Parker.  He comes straight from the streets, surrounded by sellouts.  Please, Parker.  You took graduate studies at Columbia.  A private school!  You’re not a journalist – you’re the Papa Doc of sports media.  (See: 8 Mile)

Who’s the cornball brother, again?

STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK FOR WHAT I SAW, WEEK 17 – HERE AT TFQ. 

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What I Saw, Wk 15 2012

Blair Miller > WHAT I SAW – WEEK 15, 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 Statement Sunday in the NFL.  With so many attention-fetching matchups – and finally more than three 4:00 EST games to give more viewing balance – there was a sense that big things could happen in Week 15, that time was coming for some key teams to give us a better sense of their identities.  To wit: Sunday marked the latest day of the calendar in NFL history that six games were played between teams with winning records (NFL Media), and 13 of the 14 teams scheduled to play at 1:00 EST still had a chance to make the playoffs.

True to form, Sunday morning felt like going up the first hill of a roller coaster, slowly click-clacking upward in anticipation of the rush that’s about to come with a near-full slate of meaningful games.

Statements indeed.  It wasn’t long before Week 15 started to look like a scene from Deadwood, with more people getting taken out to woodsheds than Al Swearengen could curse at.

Al Swearengen

(HBO.com)

“It’s for you.  It’s a thirty burger, cocksucker.”

Some questions were answered, others not so.  But there wasn’t a whole lot of suspense once the games got rolling.  Ten teams scored at least 30 points en route to a victory and only one of them – San Francisco over New England – was even close. Only four of the sixteen games were decided by eight points or less.

The blowouts, oh the blowouts.  The two coups de grace were the Falcons shutting out the defending champ Giants by 34 points, and Seattle putting up a ridiculous second straight fitty burger, this time up in Toronto against the Bills.

Some rookie quarterbacks continued to shine, some who’ve been around a while continued to suck.  In all, there weren’t a lot of surprises this past week, but somehow the whole atmosphere still made for an exciting experience.  It didn’t hurt that the best matchup turned out to be the most entertaining game – and in prime time, no less – when the Niners may have made the most significant statement in terms of playing late into January.

I SAW, speaking of January, the playoff picture clarified somewhat:

In the AFC, three divisions have now been clinched:

  1. Houston -z (12-2)
  2. Denver –z (11-3)
  3. New England –z (10-4)
  4. Baltimore –y (9-5)
  5. Indianapolis (9-5)
  6. Cincinnati (8-6)

z-clinched division   y-clinched playoff berth

Still Alive:

Pittsburgh (8-6)

Miami (6-8)

You read that right – the Dolphins are still alive.  They need to run the table and have the Steelers and Bengals both go 0-2.  As far as the two latter teams, so much of their postseason fortunes depend on the result of their head-to-head tilt this coming week in Steeltown.  The Ravens still control their own destiny, but have now lost any mathematical chance for a first round bye.  As far as the Big Three (Texans, Patriots, Broncos) are concerned it’s tough to predict how the seeds will end up, but all Houston has to do to clinch the top seed is win one of their remaining games – against Minnesota, then a big Week 17 matchup with Indy.

There’s a lot  more surprises in the NFC:

  1. Atlanta -z (12-2)
  2. San Francisco –y (10-3-1)
  3. Green Bay –z (10-4)
  4. Washington (8-6)
  5. Seattle (9-5)
  6. Minnesota (8-6)

z-clinched division   y-clinched playoff berth

Still Alive:

Chicago (8-6)

Dallas (8-6)

New York Giants (8-6)

Who would have guessed a month ago that the Super Bowl champion Giants and the Bears would sit at 8-6 and be on the outside looking in?  It’s a shocker.  But it’s only due to tiebreakers that they would be ineligible for the playoffs, were they to start today.  Chicago is arguably closer to the precipice: If they lose just one game while Minnesota wins just one, they’ll go fishing for January.

Based on remaining schedules, it’s likely that the NFC East will send just one team to the postseason, so the three-team deadlock for that division title (between Washington, Dallas and the Giants) should be an interesting trip down to the wire (again) with a tantalizing rematch between the ’Skins and ’Boys going down on the last day of the regular season.

The Seahawks are the clear favourite for a playoff spot.  They even have a chance to swipe the NFC West from the Niners, and given the way Seattle has been playing as of late anything’s possible.

I SAW, hovering alongside the playoff anticipation, the possibility that three rookie QBs – Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson – could be starting playoff games.

Only two more weeks to go until the playoffs are set!

TNF- Cincinnati (8-6) wins @ Philadelphia (4-10), 34-13

I SAW the Eagles guarantee themselves their first season with double-digit losses since 2005, and they did it in similar fashion to the way they’ve been losing games all year: By stinking up the turnover category worse than the insides of a Tauntaun.

It started early and it didn’t let up.  WR Jeremy Maclin fumbled the ball just two plays into the game to set up a Bengals TD.  At the end of their next possession, eagles punter Mat McBriar confused one of his blockers’ asses for the punt returner and kicked the ball into it.  Cincy fell on the ball and gladly scored a field goal with it.

Inexplicably, Philadelphia made it until the third quarter without committing another turnover.  They even caused two turnovers of their own in the second quarter… snapping a drought of 22 quarters without a turnover.  (STATS LLC).  Wow.

Then, things got hilariously bad.  During the third quarter Philly ran 10 offensive plays from scrimmage.  On three of those plays the Eagles lost yardage, and on three of the final four plays of the quarter they turned the ball over.  It was a meltdown of epic proportion.

All of this is mere evidence of the obvious: Philly has spent more time on the losing end of the turnover battle than almost every team this year, with an NFL-high 34 giveaways and just 12 takeaways – the same as the hapless Chiefs.

That is how head coaches get fired (cough, cough, Romeo Crennel).

I SAW that it’s time to bench Eagles RB Bryce Brown until he learns how to protect the rock.  His latest gaffe was the exclamation point at the end of that third quarter Philly barf fest (see above), and it was returned for a touchdown that essentially put the game out of reach.  I don’t care how many looks the coaching staff wants to give him as evaluation for next year.  The evaluation is in: Brown makes a young fumble-prone Tiki Barber look flawless.  Yes, he is a talented rookie.  But his four fumbles lost this season already ties for the most among all RBs in the league this season – and he didn’t start getting more than five carries per game until four weeks ago when starter LeSean McCoy was lost with a concussion.  McCoy is expected to return to practice this week, so there should be little excuse not to teach the rook a lesson: Run with the ball against your body or you won’t run at all.

I SAW the Bengals play themselves into a position to clinch their second straight playoff berth with a win over the Steelers next week.

A win’s a win, but the Cincy offense that had been schooling opponents for the batter part of a month hasn’t looked nearly as sharp over its last three games.  QB Andy Dalton hasn’t looked good over that span.  On Thursday he was actually taking extra steps on his dropbacks – eight steps on seven-step dropbacks, four steps on three-step dropbacks.  Not only did that mean he took too long to throw the football, and thusly help the Eagles’ defense rack up a season-high six sacks, but it’s also a concerning sign of sloppiness in an area where very basic technique is concerned.  How offensive coordinator Jay Gruden has even allowed this flaw to manifest itself during actual games is anybody’s guess.  It’s tough to envision the Bengals being anything more than a one-and-done playoff team if Dalton can’t get back on track.

Luckily for Cincinnati, the Eagles basically gave this game away with a knee-slapping third quarter (see above), and they have a reliable running back to lean on.  On Thursday night the Bengals improved to 6-0 when  BenJarvus Green-Ellis get 19 carries or more, and the tailback is gathering momentum, with four of those wins coming in Cincy’s last five games.

I SAW Eagles DE Brandon Graham play an outstanding game.  What a game he had: 6 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 3 QB hits and 1 tackle for a loss.  The former Michigan standout’s impact on Thursday’s game was even better than those numbers indicate, as he dominated any Bengals blocker assigned to block him.  Graham has been thriving outside of the wide 9 scheme that was scrapped upon the firing of then-defensive coordinator Juan Castillo, and he seems to be buoyed by the confidence the team showed in him when they cut Jason Babin several weeks ago.

Denver (9-5) wins @ Baltimore (11-3), 34-17

I SAW Ravens QB Joe Flacco profess, “We’re a 9-5 football team and we feel like we’re 0-14 right now.”

Jinkies!

The struggling QB’s Chicken Little demeanor is somewhat understandable.  Baltimore has lost three straight games, they’ve lost two in a row at home for the first time since December 2007 (Associated Press), and even though they’d lost the first two of those three games by just three points apiece all three losses were worse than the scores indicate – even Sunday’s embarrassing blowout.  (The Ravens trailed 31-3 in the fourth quarter and played much of the final 15 minutes in front of a near-empty stadium.)

Still, with a Steelers loss to Dallas, Baltimore backed its way into at least a wild-card berth and clings to a one-game lead over Pittsburgh and Cincinnati in the AFC North.  Emphasis on the “backed its way in” part….

I SAW the Ravens play their first game under newly promoted offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell.  How did Caldwell do in terms of play calling?  Well, on one hand it’s kind of hard to tell for sure.  On the other hand, it’s only hard to tell because of how bad the Baltimore offense sucked.  In other words, the squad had seven three-and-outs Sunday – the most by any team in the NFL this season – so there wasn’t much of a sampling pool because Caldwell was unable to finesse any success out of his offense.  In all, Baltimore was 1-for-12 on third down.  Less diplomatically: It’s hard to tell how much Caldwell sucked because of how much he sucked.

Want to get off to a bad start?  Try going three-and-out on three of your first five possessions, total 21 yards on 12 plays with three punts and a fumble in the first quarter.

Some things haven’t changed under Caldwell, if not gotten worse.  One common perception is that former coordinator Cam Cameron was fired last week because RB Ray Rice had been underutilized.  With Caldwell at the helm Rice had just 15 touches for 41 yards on Sunday, with season lows in yards from scrimmage (41) and per touch average (2.7 yards).  (ESPN Stats & Information)  Baltimore tried to get Rice the rock on 19 plays (12 rushes and three catches on seven targets), but none of those came on those twelve third down plays.

Let’s give Rice some credit, because he must be losing his mind these days over his lack of involvement in the Ravens offense.  Sunday was frustrating, and it’s par for the course – it was already the fourth game this season that Rice failed to touch the ball on third down.

More importantly, Baltimore has proven itself as the playoff contender the least unsure of its identity this side of Chicago.

I SAW the Broncos extend their league-high winning streak to nine games.  They came into the game having never won in Baltimore in five tries – and surely expecting a gamer opponent than the sad-sack Ravens team they found waiting for them.

Once again QB Peyton Manning had a so-so game by his own standards, but in a good way because Denver continues to strengthen around its new quarterback.  The 45 rushing attempts the Broncos took on Sunday are the most by a Peyton Manning team in a game he has started (ESPN Stats & Information).  Look at how much of a difference the running game made, making Baltimore’s defense more vulnerable to the play-action pass than usual:

Ravens Defense vs. Play-Action Passing, 2012

First 13 Games Sunday vs. Denver
Comp% 63.5 72.7
Yards/Att 9.2 12.1
TD 2* 1

*T-fewest in NFL

What’s more, the 5th-ranked overall defense is looking great while showing the tendencies that defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio’s Jacksonville squads exhibited when he coached there: A suffocating run defense and ruthless, hard-hitting play from the cornerbacks and pass rushers.  Denver isn’t just the hottest team in the NFL – they might also be quietly becoming the most well-rounded one too.

I SAW PROPS to Broncos QB Knowshon Moreno for his second straight 100-yard rushing game after scraping the barnacles off his ass, which he’d accumulated on the bench for most of the season until injuries forced him into action.  Ironically – or in a twist of karmic retribution – nagging injuries had robbed Moreno of his potential throughout the first three years of his career, but this year he is finally 100 percent healthy, and he’s showing it.

The highlight of Moreno’s day came during a carry when he went all Sith Lord and jumped over Ball Yoda, Ravens S Ed Reed.  Not to take anything away from Moreno since it was a gorgeous, graceful move, but Reed suffers from Troy Polamalu disease, meaning that he dips his head down too often before contact.

I SAW Denver QB Peyton Manning win his 11th game as a Bronco.  That’s the second-most victories since the merger for a player 35 or older in the first year with a new team, trailing only Brett Favre and The Testicle, who was a godsend for Bill Parcells in New York.

Most Wins, 35 Years Of Age Or Higher, With New Team

Player, Team Year W-L (as starter)
Vinny Testaverde, Jets 1998 12-1
Brett Favre, Vikings 2009 12-4
Peyton Manning, Broncos 2011 11-3

(Elias Sports Bureau)

I SAW Ravens WR Torrey Smith go down with a concussion when his head slammed on the turf at the end of a catch attempt in the second half.  It’s a significant loss for Baltimore, but the second-year wideout had already been lost in the aimless shuffle within this offense with just five receptions and 68 yards in his last three games, and no touchdowns in his last five.

I SAW Ravens Joe Flacco continue to contend for this year’s Bad Negotiator award.

After talking a big game leading into this, the final year of his rookie contract, Flacco is completing less than 60 percent of his passes and has not played well since beating perennial doormat Oakland five weeks ago.  The lowest point of his season came in the first quarter Sunday, when he telegraphed a short pass to WR Anquan Boldin that Broncos CB Chris Harris returned for a Denver-record 94-yard INT return for a score.

It can be damning for a young star to play a seemingly influential role in the ousting of a coach (offensive coordinator Cam Cameron was fired last week amidst rumors that he and his quarterback didn’t mesh), only to struggle as much if not more once the change is made.  It will be interesting to see how Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome handles the quarterback situation in the offseason – particularly if Flacco continue to struggle under new offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell.

Atlanta (12-2) wins vs. New York Giants (8-6), 34-0

I SAW the Falcons make one of the biggest statements on Statement Day, Dirty Bird-ing all over the team that knocked them out of the playoffs last season.  Atlanta dominated the Giants in all three phases one week after a loss to Carolina that fed skeptics’ argument that the Falcons were overrated.

Or, maybe they still are due to disappoint in the playoffs and Sunday was just part of the pattern.  After all, Atlanta has played 49 straight games without a two-game losing streak – the longest active streak in the NFL.  (STATS LLC)  This team knows how to bounce back from a loss.  It has yet to prove that it can win a playoff game.

I SAW Giants head coach Tom Coughlin during his postgame press conference: “Atlanta was very, very good. We were very, very bad.  There’s no excuse for what happened here.”

Nope.  New York came into Sunday in control of its own playoff destiny, with many expecting them to commence a late-season surge reminiscent of last year and 2007 when they snuck into the postseason en route to winning the Super Bowl.

Instead, they suffered their fourth loss in the past six games – in overwhelming fashion.  No defending Super Bowl champ had been shut out by more than 27 points in NFL history until Sunday.  The defeat was Big Blue’s first regular season shutout loss since laying a 24-0 egg against Philly in 1996, and their worst shutout defeat since a 35-0 nosedive against Dallas in ’95  (New York lost a playoff game 23-0 to Carolina in 2005) (STATS LLC).

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Teams that make a habit of turning their seasons around late eventually end up paying for it.  The Giants can still win the NFC East over the Redskins and Cowboys, but they’re the team with the least momentum in their division.

However, that’s pretty much what most of us were saying about the Giants after they got drubbed 49-24 last year against the Saints….

I SAW that New York has endured many of the same pitfalls they encountered on their way to winning it all last season – an injury-ravaged defensive line, an inconsistent and unproductive running game, iffy play from the offensive line – but of the things that have changed this year is QB Eli Manning’s connection with WR Victor Cruz on big plays, and it’s taken the overall explosiveness out of the offense.

I checked out the numbers: This season, Manning is tied for ninth-best in the NFL with just eight completions of 40 yards or longer.  Last year, he led the league with 18 such completions.  Not surprisingly, Cruz’s production has dropped from second-best in the league in 2011 with nine receptions of 40-plus yards, to just three this year (T-18th).

Cruz’s stats – 79 catches, 1,019 yards, and 9 touchdowns – are far from disappointing.  But on their way to the championship last year, the Giants benefitted from opposing defenses having to respect New York’s big-play capability, and Manning reminds me of Kurt Warner in that he is more comfortable throwing deeper touch routes.  This aspect of the G-Men’s offense likely needs to wake up if they are to have a chance to defend their title in January.

I SAW Falcons QB Matt Ryan have a much-needed bounce-back game.  While posting a career-high 142 passer rating, Ryan broke his own franchise records for completions and passing yards in a single season and looked more like his early-season-MVP-candidate self.

There’s more to the Mattural’s improvement this year than the emergence of WR Julio Jones.  Under more pressure due to a floundering run game Ryan has gotten better at trusting his system and his receivers, and thus spreading the wealth.  (Case in point: third WR Harry Douglas has had 27 targets over the last six games.)  New offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter has been a big help in this category.

I SAW Giants QB Eli Manning come out of the tunnel and throw a ball to Assante Samuel on the second play of the game.  If Samuel played for New York, and Manning were an elite quarterback it would have been just another completion by an elite quarterback.  Instead it was yet another brain fart by a quarterback who makes a quizzical amount of bad decisions for a guy who knows how much his team’s fortunes tend to rise and fall with his performance.

Eli is a very good quarterback.  On Sunday, he set the franchise record for career completions, passing Phil Simms at 2,576.  (STATS LLC)   But when was the last time an elite quarterback went 13-for-25 for 161 yards and a 38.9 passer rating?  (The rating was Manning’s lowest since a 2007 game against the Bills.)  Before they became elite.  Keep trying, Eli.

I SAW The Gambler bait another player into embarrassment Sunday.  Falcons CB Assante Samuel gets beat a lot, but he’s no loser.  His 22 pics since 2009 lead the league.

Dallas (7-7) wins vs. Pittsburgh (8-6), 27-24 OT

I SAW something that hasn’t been seen that often in recent years in Dallas: Money well spent.  The Emperor (Cowboys owner) Jerry Jones tends to overspend dough like Montgomery Brewster during a certain deal.

Brewesters millions

(Universal Pictures)

Sometimes the Emperor showers his underlings with money and they proceed to dominate the galaxy, like in the 1990s.  Since then, the piles of money tend to go to stormtroopers sent to do an admiral’s job.  Even the shiny, three-year old Death Star Jones built for this Cowboys hasn’t seen nearly as much success as he would like.

But on Sunday, one expensive asset paid off like it has all year.  Jones unloaded 50.1 in galactic credits over 5 years – 26.5 of that guaranteed – for free agent top tier cornerback Brandon Carr.  It was widely known that for defensive coordinator Rob Ryan to run his freewheeling scheme he needed corners whom he could leave out on an island.  Dallas drafted Morris Claiborne in the first round of this year’s draft to pair up with Carr, but the rookie has been somewhat inconsistent.  Carr, however, has been a rock.  He’s been steady all season, and in overtime on Sunday he broke on a pass by Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger for the biggest turnover of the Cowboys’ season.

The play set up the winning field goal, and allowed Dallas to keep pace with Washington and New York for the NFC East title, as well as a playoff berth.

If the ’Boys don’t make it to the playoffs, they will have fallen short of that goal for the third year in a row and fourth time in the last five seasons.  However, with their hot play of late – they’ve won three in a row amidst adversity – doesn’t it seem more and more that The Emperor will keep the team and coaches intact, even though they’ve overstayed their welcome?

I SAW that Dallas needed Sunday’s win more than Pittsburgh did, and at this time of year such a factor often forecasts the victor.  But with the exception of the Charlie Batch hero game against Baltimore three weeks ago, the Steelers looked gassed and are giving away too many games.  If they can’t wake up from this spell they’re in – especially in terms of bad tackling in defense – they’ll sleep right through into the New Year.

I SAW the Steelers miss CB Ike Taylor.  One of the more underrated cornerbacks in the league, Taylor has missed the last two games with a fractured right ankle.  On Sunday, Dallas QB Tony Romo killed Pittsburgh with throws outside the numbers – an area that the quarterback usually can’t make use of without screwing up.  According to ESPN STATS & Information Romo was 21-for-29 (72.4 percent) with 234 yards and a touchdown when throwing to the outside.  Combine this with last week’s results during a loss to the struggling Philip Rivers and the Chargers, and it hasn’t gone well.

Steelers Defense Outside The Numbers, 2012

First 11 Games Last 2 Games (w/o Taylor)
Comp % 52.5 70.0
Yards/Att 5.8 7.4
Att/TD 26.1 12.5

The Steelers need Taylor back to shore up their pass defense because this defense lacks the speed and discipline to chase players down on completions at the edges.  One player in particular showed this on Sunday.

I SAW Steelers S Troy Polamalu shamefully throw his body to the sideline near Cowboys RB DeMarco Murray in a poor excuse for a tackle attempt during a long first quarter gain.  Then, later in the game, Polamalu whiffed horribly when diving over and past WR Dwayne Harris, allowing a gain that set up the tying TD.

That’s what happens when you have flawed technique and try to throw your head into people as a habit.  Now that Polamalu’s body has started to fail him he no longer covers up the deficiencies in his game with the occasional clutch “instinctive” play (read gamble).

I SAW Cowboys WR Dez Bryant continue to impress.  His line wasn’t eye-popping – 4 receptions for 59 yards and a TD – but he now has eight touchdowns in the last six games.  More impressively, a once uncommitted and lackadaisical talent is playing with more discipline – and gutting it out by playing with a broken left index finger that will require surgery.  Bryant’s grit was most obvious on a short reception in the second quarter when Tony Romo’s throw was thrown on target but Bryant resorted to trapping it against his shoulder pads with his healthy hand.  Some might say it’s a stretch – and I’ve never been a fan of the mercurial wideout – but Bryant has been the catalyst for Big D winning eight of their last ten games.

I SAW that Cowboys WR Dez Bryant deserves a lot of the credit for Dallas’ recent run, but so does QB Tony Romo.  The quarterback has thus far reversed his trend of shitting the bed in December:

Tony Romo In December, As Starter

2006-11 2012
W-L 8-13 3-0
Comp% 62.4 68.8
Pass Yards/Game 243.0 304.0
TD-INT 29-20 6-1
Passer Rating 86.0 107.4

(NFL Network)

One weird note: Sunday’s TD connection between Romo and TE Jason Witten was their first of the season.  What’s up with that?

I SAW reason to wonder: Has there ever been a better, calmer quarterback in a collapsing pocket than Steeler Ben Roethlisberger?  His David Copperfield act to create an opportunity for a TD completion to TE Heath Miller to tie the game at 10 before halftime was sublime.

Part of his secret is that Roethlisberger is one of the best pump fakers in the NFL.  His hands are so big and so strong, his strength and body control so solid that he can not only make the most convincing fake throws, but he can also pull a ball down mid-throw once he sees if defenders are jumping the route of an intended receiver.  That last ability is quite rare.  CBS analyst – and former Super Bowl MVP quarterback – Phil Simms rightfully pointed out during the game how rare it is to see a QB who is able to do that.

That being said, Big Ben essentially gave the game away in overtime.  His lazy throw and a similarly sloppy out route by WR Mike Wallace helped make CB Brandon Carr’s game-clinching interception possible.  The overtime turnover was reminiscent of the Peyton Manning interception three years ago on a throw intended for WR Reggie Wayne that Tracey Porter returned for the game-winning touchdown for New Orleans against Indianapolis in the Super Bowl.

I SAW Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger criticize his team’s play-calling on offense and lack of no-huddle on Sunday….  The incident was significant enough that the oft-downplaying head coach Mike Tomlin felt compelled to address the matter in a subsequent press conference.

Big Ben didn’t name names, but that’s because he doesn’t have to.  Pittsburgh’s offensive coordinator, Todd Haley, isn’t exactly known as a Snuggy Bear, and it’s no secret that Roethlisberger and his coach don’t get along well.  In fact, the abrasive Haley hasn’t gotten along well with any of his quarterbacks; at the least, he gives outsiders the impression that this is what he does to listen to someone:

Todd Haley head push

(Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Minnesota (8-6) wins vs. St. Louis (6-7-1), 36-22

I SAW the Vikings stay alive in the playoff hunt on the legs of their bionic man, RB Adrian Peterson.  Forgive me if I take the road more travelled and heap praise – statistical and otherwise – on Peterson for a while.

AP’s getting as much coverage as the other AP (Associated Press).  He entered the day with more rushing yards than 23 teams, and his 212 yards on 24 carries (an 8.8 average) against the Rams accounted for more than two thirds of Minnesota’s 322 yards.  His career-best season total of 1,812 yards leaves him just 293 yards shy of Eric Dickerson’s all-time record of 2,105.  (Peterson is actually ten yards ahead of Dickerson’s total at the same point during his historic1984 season.)

Peterson has gained ground on the record thanks to the most yards over an eight-game span in NFL history:

Most Rush Yards In An 8-Game Span, NFL History

PLAYER YEAR YARDS
Adrian Peterson 2012 1,313
Eric Dickerson 1984-85 1,292
Earl Campbell 1980 1,245
Larry Johnson 2005 1,244

(NFL Network)

That’s an average of 164.1 yards per game over that span.  For those of you scoring at home, put a check in the “holy shit” column.

Put another check in that column: Peterson has six games this season with 150+ rushing yards, which is one less than the great Earl Campbell’s single season record – and AP still has two games left to try and tie the Texas Rose.

Most Games With 150+ Rush Yards In A Single Season, NFL History

Player Year Games With 150+ Yards
Earl Campbell 1980 7
Adrian Peterson 2012 6
O.J. Simpson 1973 6
Jim Brown 1963 6

(Elias Sports Bureau)

That’s some pretty sick company right there.  Peterson also stands with Simpson and Tiki Barber as the only three backs with four 200-yard rushing games during the Super Bowl era – and the Viking superstar has done it in just under six seasons.

Perhaps the most telling aspect of Peterson’s stellar season after returning from reconstructive knee surgery is that analysts are considering the 147 yards per game that he needs to average for the last two games to reach 2,106 as a virtual lock.  (Keep in mind that the Packers have already clinched the NFC North and may rest some of their defenders against the Vikes in Week 17.)

Imagine that: “Oh, yeah.  147 yards per game?  No problem.”

Peterson’s not guaranteed to break Dickerson’s record – by any means.  But the respect he’s building along the way makes it seem that way, and that’s pretty amazing given what he went through last December when he tore up his knee.

I SAW the Rams see their playoff hopes dashed after snapping a three-game win streak.  That shouldn’t obscure the fact that head coach Jeff Fisher’s team is at least one or two years ahead of a typical rebuilding schedule after gutting their roster in the offseason.

I SAW Vikings K Blair Walsh tie an NFL single-game record with three made field goals of 50+ yards against the Rams – a feat that has been achieved only seven times before in league history, most recently by the Browns’ Phil Dawson.  (ESPN Sports & Information)

Shoutout to Dawson, who is perhaps the most underrated kicker ever.  I know; I called a kicker underrated.

I SAW a good question: Is it really necessary for Sam Bradford to throw 55 passes in a game like this?

I SAW Rams RB Steven Jackson become the 15th player to rush to 10,000 yards with one team.  He is just 91 yards shy of an eighth-straight 1,000-yard season.  It’s too bad Jackson has had to “thrive” on a team in disarray for most of his career.

Washington (8-6) wins vs. Cleveland (5-9), 38-21

I SAW the Redskins win their fifth straight game following their Week 10 bye.  How timely was Washington’s week off this season?  After its Week 9 loss to Carolina the team was 3-6 and vaguely talking about next season.  But during their break QB Robert Griffin III’s teammates elected the rookie as a captain and must have spent the time wisely, refining their offensive execution, patching up holes on defense left by several key injuries and bonding as a team.

The result: RG3 came out and played arguably the best three and a half-game stretch ever by a first year quarterback.  (He had a passer rating just below 135 over his last four starts, which is a record for a rookie over a 4-game span.)  The ’Skins gained so much confidence during their longest winning streak since 2007 that they moved into a three-way tie with the Giants and Cowboys in the NFC East by beating the Browns Sunday – and they did it without their star QB, who sat out with a sprained knee….

I SAW Washington’s other rookie quarterback, Kirk Cousins, get the nod against Cleveland Sunday.  All Cousins did in relief of Robert Griffin III was pass for 329 yards – more than RG3 has had in a game this season – while calmly leading his team to a crucial win in their hunt for a playoff spot.

The game didn’t start off that well for Cousins, though.  Much like his team this season, the Michigan State grad started off iffy, throwing incomplete on his first three attempts.  The third miss was intercepted by S T.J. Ward and returned to the Redskins’ 6-yard line to set up a Browns touchdown.

Like RG3 before him, Cousins showed poise beyond his years by hanging in there and trusting the offensive game plan.  As discussed two weeks ago in What I Saw (see: What I Saw, Wk 13), that game plan involves the use of the zone-read option fake to create momentum in the running game by placing defenders in numeric mismatches, which in turn puts those opponents on their heels and opens up the passing game.  Through Sunday, Washington has passed for an NFL-leading 1,980 yards this season following play-action fakes and Cousins continued that trend, throwing for 229 yards (69.6% of his total) thanks to play-action (ESPN Stats & Information):

Kirk Cousins Passing, Sunday

Play-Action Passes Non-Play-Action Passes
Comp-Att 15-19 11-18
Yards/Att 12.1 5.6
TD-INT 2-0 0-1

Bear in mind another similarity to RG3 at this point: The high percentage of play-action passing is merely a function of the Redskins’ offensive scheme – it is NOT, like in some other cases, an indication of any sort of passing deficiency on Cousins’ part.  Witness his gorgeous, accurate deep throw to WR Leonard Hankerson while rolling out on a play-action bootleg for a 54-yard touchdown late in the first quarter.  That play essentially got Washington’s offense on track Sunday, and demonstrated Cousins’ ability to make NFL throws.

I SAW the Redskins assure themselves their first non-losing season since gong 8-8 in 2008.  Make no mistake – this is a dangerous team.  The ’Skins only have to beat two teams they’ve already won against this season (Philly, Dallas) to win the NFC East for the first time since 1999.  They were already surging behind Robert Griffin III, but now that they’ve handily won a game without him, Washington can forego the assumption that it’s RG3 alone who makes this team successful.

Two other key players showed their worth on Sunday….

I SAW Redskins WR Leonard Hankerson continue to grow into his role as a big contributor in a season of new faces in D.C.  Maybe it’s because he hailed from “The U” (Miami) during some dark years for the college, but given how solid his fundamentals are – and his 4.43 time in the 40-yard dash at the NFL combine last year – how did Hankerson fall to 79th pick in the 2011 draft?

I SAW Washington RB Alfred Morris continue his excellent season with 2 more rushing TDs against Cleveland.  For the year, the rookie has 280 carries for 1,322 (4.7 average) and 9 touchdowns.  Morris joins the ranks of whomever among Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson doesn’t win Rookie Of The Year as the losing candidate that would likely have won the award any other year.  Despite this, Morris has been just as much of a catalyst for the Redskins offense as RG3 has.  After all, the zone-read option doesn’t benefit a team like it has Washington without both options posing a legitimate threat, and Morris had made that possible.

He’s not the only rookie tailback from Pensacola turning heads this year….

I SAW Browns RB Trent Richardson and Redskins RB Alfred Morris relive their childhood.  According to The Chronicle-Telegram, the two rookies were rivals in little league in their hometown of Pensacola, FLA.  On Sunday Morris got the best of his more-publicized counterpart (87 yards rushing versus 28 and the victory), but they found the end zone twice apiece.

I SAW, speaking of Richardson, the rookie showed his immense strength on a 6-yard TD run during which he dragged half the Redskins defense across the goal line.  You’ve gotta love it when a kid who’s basically already proven himself this season on a team with no real playoff hopes keeps running like it’s the last play of his career.

I SAW the Browns snap their winning streak at three games on Sunday, and their very faint playoff chances were dashed.  If, as has been rumored, head coach Pat Shurmur’s future in Cleveland rested on winning out the rest of the season, well….

I SAW the Redskins faithful experience a relieving end to an era of shit quarterbacks.

Look at this list of ineptitude since 1993 (bearing in mind that Rypien pretty much regressed into an average-at-best QB after winning the Super Bowl for the 1991 season:

Washington Quarterbacks, Since 1993

Mark Rypien

Rich Gannon

Cary Conklin

Paul Blake

paul-blake-necessary-roughness

(Paramount Pictures)

Heath Shuler

John Friesz

Gus Frerotte

Jeff Hostetler

Trent Green

Brad Johnson

Jeff George

Tony Banks

Shane Matthews

Patrick Ramsey

Danny Wuerffel

Tim Hasselbeck

Paul Crewe

Paul Crewe-Longest Yard

(Paramount Pictures)

Mark Brunell

Jason Campbell

Todd Collins

Donovan McNabb

Rex Grossman

John Beck

Robert Griffin III

Kirk Cousins

(NFL Network)

Gee, how come the ’Skins haven’t enjoyed much success over the last two decades in a QB-driven league? (Sure, there are some good names on this list – Gannon, McNabb, Brunell, Green, for instance – but each of them wore a Redskins uniform either well before or well after their good seasons.)

Obviously I kid about the two guys named Paul, but who knows?  Perhaps they could have improved the offense with their clutch play.  Washington fans have endured 21 quarterback letdowns over the last 20 years….

I don’t want to be premature, but after all those disappointments the ’Skins seem to have two good QBs on their roster at the same time.

At some point the question will become: Can this team afford to keep Cousins on their roster once his four-year contract expires and another team offers up a Matt Flynn-like ransom to try and lure him away?

Green Bay (10-4) wins @ Chicago (8-6), 21-13

I SAW the Bears lose for the fifth time in their last six games.  They were booed several times at home on Sunday while they managed just 67 yards of offense in the second half and 190 for the game.  At this point Chicago’s tail spin is getting so intense it feels like the only hope this team has to recover is if that tailspin goes so fast that they fly with it, like in Super Mario Bros. 3.

RaccoonMario

(Nintendo Entertainment)

Hey – remember Bears head coach Lovie Smith’s press conference upon being hired to the position in 2004?  When he stated his first goal was to “beat the Packers”?  Well, Chicago has now lost to Green Bay six straight times, and eight out of the last nine meetings.

Surely there’s a lot more going on to have Smith on the hot seat in the windy city – such as having missed the playoffs in four of the past five seasons, and at risk of being the second team during the expanded playoff system (which began in 1990) to miss the postseason after starting the season 7-1.  But in an ironic way he’s certainly shot himself in the foot with that bold pronouncement eight years ago.

I SAW Bears QB Cutler lay another egg against the Packers Sunday.  The Nutler was cracked: 12-for-21, 135 yards passing, 1 TD, 1 INT and a 72.5 rating against what was only the 17th-ranked passing defense in the NFL.  His interception came at an awful time, as it set up a crucial Packers TD before halftime.  (But it wasn’t his fault – see below.)  Green Bay has been hugely inept against the pass for the last two years, but that hasn’t stopped Cutler from throwing 10 interceptions against them in their last five meetings.

I SAW the Packers clinch their second straight NFC North title.  This team is still in contention to earn the second seed in the conference, and thus a first round bye.  However, given how out of sync Green Bay looked with the extra time off last year after steamrolling the rest of the NFL during the regular season, maybe that’s not such a good thing.  Yes, the Pack also sat many players for the ending of the regular season last year and likely won’t have that luxury this time around, but maybe for some teams – especially a momentum-heavy team like Green Bay – playing straight through until a potential Super Bowl game is the preferred method.

Speaking of momentum, after starting the season 2-3 the Packers have gone 8-1, looking more like the team that peaked at the perfect time en route to the Super Bowl win two seasons ago instead of the aforementioned squad that flew high and then sputtered in the 2011 postseason.

I SAW Packers QB Aaron Rodgers have another big game.  His stats were nice – 23-for-36, 291 yards, 3 TD, 0 INT, 116.8 rating – but his throw on the run to WR Randall Cobb during a touchdown drive late in the first half was even nicer.  At the risk of sounding like a broken record, there is no better QB in the NFL at throwing on the run.  It’s all about his impeccable footwork and body control.

I SAW Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers make like ESPN and go 30 before 30.

On Sunday Rodgers surpassed 30 TD passes in a season for the third time before turning 30 years old.  That ties Dan Marino for second in that category; both men trail only Brett Favre, who did it five times.  (ESPN Stats & Information)  (Rodgers turns 30 on Dec 2 next year, so he can pass Marino but he can’t catch his old teammate.)

I SAW Bears WR Brandon Marshall give an emotional press conference after Sunday’s loss, one that he had to cut short for fear of breaking down.

Say what you will about Marshall: He’s a beast; his moods are too unpredictable; he’s a good teammate; he’s a disruption.  Just don’t say that he doesn’t put his heart and soul into his career.

Marshall wasn’t the only one who was overtly intense for Chicago….

I SAW Bears WR/KR Devin Hester run a bad pattern to cause QB Jay Cutler’s untimely interception before halftime (see above).  Hester didn’t go across the face of the safety, who was playing zone coverage.  Expecting his receiver to be in the proper spot, Cutler threw it there, and Packers S Casey Hayward was there waiting.

I’ve never seen Smokin’ Jay that angry on the bench afterwards.  Like WR Brandon Marshall, you could tell how hard the Nutler wanted to win this one.

I SAW Packers WR James Jones have his first three-touchdown game and fourth multiple-touchdown game of his brief career.  He now leads the league with 12 TD receptions.  For a guy who drew the ire of his coaches and his QB Aaron Rodgers for too many drops and running poor patterns until October of this season, Jones has been overrated by some – particularly the Sports Illustrated’s Peter King, who at times shows the amnesia typical of a mainstream journalist.  However, Jones does seem to be “getting it” and coming into his own.  I think the fact that injuries to wideouts Jordy Nelson and Greg Jennings have forced Jones to play a more important role in the Packers offense has enhanced his focus.  We’ll see if that persists next season, once the roster is healthy again.

I SAW PROPS to NFL Network’s Marshall Faulk.  Bears rookie WR Alshon Jeffery got flagged for offensive pass interference three times on Sunday.  Only one of those calls looked legit.  (For some perspective, Titan Kenny Britt is the only player in the league to have been called for offensive PI three times all season.)

During Gameday Final, Faulk burned the game’s officials for a bad job, saying “Steve Javie will call that every time.”

(Javie is a not-on-my-watch NBA referee notorious for bad, ticky-tack foul calls and knee-jerk technical foul calls.)

I SAW that if the Packers have anything to worry about at this point it’s the confidence – and performance – of their kicker.  Mason Crosby missed both of his field goal attempts in the huge game on Sunday, and has now missed a kick in eight straight games.

Houston (9-5) wins vs. Indianapolis (12-2), 29-17

I SAW a pride win for the Texans after getting blown out by New England last week.  Much like their NFC counterpart with the same record – Atlanta – Houston doesn’t get the respect that a team that has lead their conference usually deserves.  Fair or not, their seasons will be by and large appraised by the playoff results.  In the meantime, shaky confidences got a boost Sunday, starting with their quarterback.

I SAW that Texans QB Matt Schaub has yet to play in a playoff game in his career.  (Remember – he was injured last year when Houston experienced the franchise’s first trip to the postseason.)  Even a seemingly coolheaded guy like Schaub must have that on his mind with January fast approaching.  After a brutal loss last week to the Patriots during which Schaub missed badly on a number of throws it was important for him to play well in a big game against the division rival Colts Sunday – especially since Houston has to face Indy again in Week 17, and home field advantage throughout the playoffs could still be up for grabs.

Schaub’s performance wasn’t exceptional – 23-for-31, 261 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT, 109.7 rating – but sometimes all that’s needed to bounce back after a bad outing is a line like that one.  Besides, he did what was arguably most important: Re-establishing his connection with his star wideout….

I SAW Houston WR Andre Johnson have another huge game Sunday: 11 catches on 13 targets for 151 yards and 1 touchdown.

It’s safe – and nice – to say that Johnson is officially back to monster size after a few years of subpar play while fighting a myriad of lower body injuries that started with a bad hamstring.

Trivia bomb: On Sunday Johnson became the third-fastest player to reach 11,000 yards in NFL history, behind Tory Holt and the great Jerry Rice.  Man, is Holt ever underrated….

I SAW another underrated player.  Texans RB Arian Foster is one of those guys whom is revered in fantasy leagues but too often left out of the discussion when the topic of “best running back” comes up.  Talent can be a tough qualifier – who isn’t talented in the NFL? – and as such sometimes the numbers do tell the tale.  With two games remaining, Foster already has 1,313 yards rushing and leads the league with 14 touchdowns.  He now has three straight seasons with at least 1,200 yards on the ground, even though he missed time last season due to injury.  That doesn’t make Foster on par with Adrian Peterson, but it puts him in the elite conversation.

I SAW the Colts end their three-game winning streak in a game that could have clinched them a playoff berth.  Now Indy has to win one of their two games left – against Kansas City, then Houston at home.  One would expect the Colts to handle the Chiefs, but maybe their tank is running low after an emotional season….

I SAW Colts QB Andrew Luck needs just 22 yards passing to reach 4,000 and 74 to break Cam Newton’s rookie record of 4,051 – with two games to play.

I’ve been more critical of Luck this season than I have of his fellow rookie pivots, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson.  In Luck’s defense, RG3 has a top-notch running game and Wilson has taken much longer to get going than Luck or Griffin.  But for the last three weeks in a row – with his team in the midst of a playoff race – Luck has failed to complete 50 percent of his passes.  That’s not good.  Could it be, surprisingly, that Luck is the least disciplined of the three QBs?

To be fair, Luck had some fierce competition in his face Sunday….

I SAW PROPS to J.J. Watt.  Holy shit; J.J. Watt.

Apparently it wasn’t enough for Houston’s sophomore defensive end to play the first fourteen weeks of the season on a reign of terror not seen since Armin Tamzarian lorded over Springfield Elementary.  No, this Armin had to toss aside his copy of Swank and tear apart the Indianapolis offense like a Swingline stapler through an offensive line of toy soldiers.

Maybe toy soldiers would have fared better against the onslaught that Watt unleashed upon Indy’s offensive line in Houston on Sunday.  Sure, the Colts were missing center Samson Satele and right tackle Winston Justice, but Watt had 10 tackles, 6 of them for loss, 3 sacks, 4 quarterback hits and a forced fumble that happened at the Houston 1-yard line.  Read that again.

What that tells me is that there isn’t anything that Watt can’t do from the defensive end position in a 3-4 defense.  (Understand that this position is very rarely asked to defend a receiver.)  For just the third time this season, Watt didn’t record a pass deflection.  This was a big bounce back game against a banged-up O-line, so instead of doing what he does best – control an area, waiting to perfectly time tipping a pass – Watt took over the game, essentially making sure his team won.

Watt now has 19.5 sacks this season, which is tied for the league lead with Aldon Smith of the Niners.  According to ESPN STATS & Information, the Texans DE has 34.5 disrupted dropbacks (sacks+passes defensed+interceptions).  That’s 15 more than the next-closest player – also Smith.

That, folks, is the Defensive Player Of The Year.

Seattle (9-5) wins @ Buffalo/Toronto (5-9), 50-17

I SAW the Seahawks give another team a paddling.  Last week, the Cardinals bent over for the ’Hawks to the tune of 58-0.  This week, the Bills got their asses slapped raw.  Seattle is playing like Fred O’Bannion’s paddle from Dazed And Confused.

paddle-dazed and confused

(Gramercy Pictures)

That’s Ben Affleck, by the way.  And maybe his paddle says “QB Badass” in honour to Russell Wilson, but we’ll get to that.

First, the anatomy of two paddlings:

Trivia mega-bomb:

The Seahawks are the third team in NFL history to score 50 points in back-to-back games, and the first since the Giants in 1950.  (STATS LLC)

From Elias Sports Bureau:

Seattle has scored 108 points in their past two games which is tied for third all-time with the Patriots who accomplished this feat earlier this season.

The ’Hawks have won by a combined 91 points in their last two games – the largest combined advantage in a two-game span since the 1941 Bears.

This team also scored 78 unanswered points from December 2 through Sunday.  That’s the longest such streak in franchise history.

In the words of Jasper from The Simpsons, that’s a paddlin’.

jasper-simpsons--paddlin

(20th Century FOX)

I SAW reason to turn now to Seahawks QB Russell Wilson.  Any remaining Russell naysayers who disagreed with Seattle’s choice to take the quarterback in the third round of this year’s draft had better keep quiet for now.

This game is truly calamitous:

Another Trivia bomb:

Russell became the first player in NFL history with three rushing touchdowns and one passing TD in the first half.  (NFL Network)  In fact, at the two-minute warning of the first half the rook had gone 9-of11 for 164 passing yards, 1 passing TD, no interceptions – and 72 yards on 6 rushes with 3 rushing TDs.  Unbelievable.

He still isn’t getting the press that Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III are getting, but Wilson now has 21 passing TDs, tied with Cam Newton for second all-time among first-year quarterbacks.  Only Peyton Manning (26) has more.  (STATS LLC)

Between 1960 and 2011 only two rookie QBs had started in a game during which their team scored at least 50 points.  Wilson has now done it two games in a row, and is the only one to pull it off on the road.  (Elias Sports Bureau)

If this guy ends up winning his division – via a big game against the Niners next week –  and Washington falters, who wins Rookie Of The Year?

I SAW PROPS to Bills RB C.J. Spiller for reaching 1,000 yards rushing.  He needed only 154 carries to do it – the second-fastest behind Bears RB Beattie Feathers in 1934.

I SAW, according to the Associated Press that the Bills and Toronto-based Rogers Communications (the ownership behind the MLB Jays) are close to a deal to extend the annual series in Canada’s capital, which expired after this game.

Torontonians may want to reconsider this.  The NFL and the Bills want to push the notion that Toronto is a “second home for” Buffalo?  According to the Associated Press fans were spotted wearing Troy Polamalu jerseys and began chanting “Let’s go Blue Jays!” during the game.

In the fans’ defense, due to the trades that the Jays have made this offseason, Tom Brady could announce he’s gay and start selling tickets to a pay-per-view orgy, and most Torontonians wouldn’t notice or care at the moment.

New Orleans (6-8) wins vs. Tampa Bay (6-8), 41-0

I SAW an outcome that might be the biggest head scratcher of the season.  A team trying for a playoff berth – Tampa Bay, sporting one of the hottest offenses coming into Sunday – can’t even score a single point against the worst all-around defense in the league.

The Bucs showed zero sense of urgency while losing their fourth straight game and bowing out of the postseason.

What’s more, QB Josh Freeman lost a fumble and threw four interceptions.  Let’s hope that he can persevere and not regress to the Josh Freeman of last season that fell apart in the face of adversity.

I SAW the Saints defense get a shutout – something not even the almighty Tim Tebow saw coming.

Trivia double-bomb:

Ranked last in the NFL in defense, New Orleans recorded the franchise’s first shutout since 1995.  It was also their first home shutout since 1991.

It was also the third-worst shutout that Tampa Bay had ever had laid on them, and that’s saying a lot given how bad the team sucked it up for the first few decades of their existence.

One of the keys for the Saints was to make the Buccaneers offense one dimensional, and they did that by shutting down the talented rookie RB Doug Martin to the tune of 16 yards on nine carries.  Maybe that heavy workload coach Greg Schiano had been heaping on Martin finally caught up with him….

I SAW Saints QB Drew Brees throw for 300 yards and four TDs in a game for the 17th time in his career, passing Dan Marino for the most such games in NFL history.  It’s a bit premature to assume Brees has fully recovered from his 3-game, 9-interception funk.  After all, Tampa owns the league’s worst passing defense.

I SAW Bucs LB Adam Heyward get in a shoving match with coach Brian Cox, who was one of the toughest linebackers around during his own pro days.

Luckily for Heyward the skirmish was broken up.  Yeah, Cox isn’t getting any younger but one gets the feeling this fight would turn out like the similarly age-mismatched bout between Nolan Ryan and Robin Ventura.

Arizona (5-9) wins vs. Detroit (4-10), 38-10

I SAW the Lions solidify their claim for the most disappointing team in the NFL this season.  (Sorry, Jets, too many of us expected you to suck hard.)  Detroit won 10 games en route to the playoffs last season.  In their 2012 season they’ve already lost 10 games.  This game was the topper – getting dominated by a team that was coming off of a 58-0 loss.

According to the Associated Press, Lions head coach Jim Schwartz said after the game that he was “as mad as I’ve been for a long time.”  For the hotheaded Schwartz, that’s saying a lot.

Detroit’s quarterback, Matthew Stafford, said that he’d played “about as bad as I could play.”  In all fairness, he could have played worse, but he sure gave it a good try, going 24-of-50 while throwing three interceptions – two of which were returned for touchdowns.

Riding a six-game skid, the Lions must face the Falcons on Saturday night.  But their season was over long ago.

I SAW the Cardinals win for the first time since beating the Dolphins on September 30.  And to think that waaaay back then Arizona was 4-0.

In fact, the average NFL season seems so drawn out these days that it feels like we’d need 1.21 gigawatts to go back there.

I SAW Lions WR Calvin Johnson become the first player in NFL history with consecutive 1,600-yard receiving seasons.  (STATS LLC)  His seventh straight game with 100 yards receiving ties a league record.

You know you’re doing something great when you enter into Rice territory on two fronts: Megatron needs 182 yards to break Jerry Rice’s single-season record of 1,848.  His 3,348 yards over the last two seasons have already exceeded Rice’s record, set in 1995-95.  (NFL Media)

I SAW Cardinals RB Beanie Wells run for three touchdowns.  No offense to Beanie, but he really is the most talented player that Arizona can give the ball to. (Cousin Larry Fitzgerald is the most talented in general, but he needs a non-shitbag quarterback to get him the ball.)

I SAW PROPS to Arizona S Adrian Wilson for becoming just the sixth player in NFL history with at least 25 interceptions and 25 sacks in a career.  Take a look at all of the recent players who occupy that list:

At Least 25 Interceptions And 25 Sacks In A Career, NFL History

Player Interceptions Sacks
Ronde Barber 47 28.0
Brian Dawkins 37 26.0
Rodney Harrison 34 30.5
Ray Lewis 31 41.5
William Thomas 27 37.0
Adrian Wilson 27 25.5

(ESPN Stats & Information)

It’s a good thing that safeties didn’t garner the same attention from Hall Of Fame voters as wide receivers do, or else there would exist the same danger of a logjam of eligibility there.

(Sacks didn’t become an official stat until 1992, but I’ve never heard any football historian argue that a defensive player prior to that is toiling in HOF obscurity because of it.)

Carolina (5-9) wins @ San Diego, 31-7

I SAW the Chargers lose for the eighth time in their last ten games, and they did it in typically maddening fashion – bowing down to the woebegone Panthers just one week after beating the playoff-contending Steelers.

You want offense?  If you’re a ’Bolts fan you might be better off running a bubble bath and getting the toaster.  On Sunday it took the Chargers until the fourth quarter to run their third offensive play in Panthers territory.  Wow.

It is now finally official: San Diego will miss the playoffs for the third straight season.  They’ve also assured themselves of their first losing record since 2003.  If this doesn’t get head coach Norv Turner and GM A.J. Smith fired, what will?

I SAW the Panthers win consecutive games for the first time since last December.  It’s too little too late, but at least the emotionally fragile sophomore QB Cam Newton has regained his confidence, with no interceptions and a passer rating of 95 or higher in each of the last five games.

I SAW that the confidence of cocky Chargers QB Philip Rivers has to be taking a hit this season.  His twelve fumbles are the most in the NFL, and he has 47 turnovers since the start of last season.  Ouch.

I SAW that there has been no running back as disappointing as Chargers RB Ryan Mathews since he entered the league three years ago.  This season, he has more broken clavicles (2) than touchdowns (1).  That stat is its own joke.

Miami (6-8) wins vs. Jacksonville (2-12), 24-3

I SAW what fans considered a meaningless game.  Consider that this was an in-state “rivalry” (I’m pretty sure both teams need to not suck to make a rivalry…), yet the stadium was only half full, and, according to the Associated Press, “just a few thousand” fans stayed until the end of the game.

I SAW the Jaguars tie the franchise record for losses, set during their inaugural season in 1995.  On Sunday they held the ball for just 14 minutes in the final three quarters.  (STATS LLC)

I think it’s time for Jaguars owner Shad “Shaka” Kahn to perform this 80s classic for his employees.

Oakland (2-12) wins vs. Kansas City (4-10), 15-0

I SAW balls bouncing off of guys’ faces like gay porn, the Chiefs get shutout for the first time in two years and the Raiders win a game without scoring a TD for the first time since 2000.

That’s enough of that.

SNF- San Francisco (10-3-1) wins @  New England (10-4), 41-34

I SAW the rain come down in Foxboro, and with it a wet and wild game that saw the NFL’s two best teams in terms of execution combine for eight fumbles, three interceptions, 51 first downs and 75 total points – not to mention a blown 28-point lead, then a reassertion of that lead by the Niners in a pseudo-upset.

Generally, San Francisco is far too good a team to consider a win over any team an upset on their part, but in this case they handed New England their first home loss in December in a decade.  In fact, it had been 21 straight games since the Patriots had lost a game in the second half of the regular season.  The Pats deserved to lose this game.  They committed as many turnovers at home as they had all season coming into Sunday night (4), and fell behind 31-3 – the largest deficit for New England in the history of Gillette Stadium.

That being said, the Patriots did make a game of it….

I SAW New England show a resiliency that could actually help them in the long run, despite having lost the game in the end.  Yes, Niners All-Pro DL Justin Smith left the game during their comeback (which could be a huge story to keep an eye on for Sunday night’s SF-SEA bout), but the Pats now know that they are never out of a game.

The Patriots are an offensive machine – duh! – that ran a ridiculous 92 plays in Sunday’s game.  Employing their breakneck speed of execution, QB Tom Brady threw a career-high 65 attempts (wow – no wonder he was left out of practice Wednesday) while leading his team to four touchdowns in less than fifteen minutes against the best all-around defense in the NFL.

The Niners gained the upper hand, should these two teams meet again in the Super Bowl in New Orleans, but they and every other future Pats opponent can’t relax with any lead.

I SAW the Niners take another big step in their journey to try and reestablish the San Francisco dynasty of old.

This team has the best D in the NFL, but their offense continues to make its case as a force to be reckoned with.  With the win Sunday night, the 2012 edition of the Niners became the first since the 2003 version to put up multiple 40 burgers in a season.  They also rushed 31 times for 180 yards (5.8 average) against what was the eighth-ranked run defense coming into Sunday.

Then there’s QB Colin Kaepernick.  It’s not every day you see a quarterback fumble four times in a game but still keep his poise and come through in the clutch for the win.  Kaepernick is now 4-1 as a starter since Alex Smith’s concussion, with 202 rushing yards over that span.  He’s completing 65.6 percent of his passes, and while doing so he’s also shown that he can make the intermediate-to-long throws with velocity that Smith was unable to pull the trigger on.  It looks like head coach Jim Harbaugh knew exactly what he was doing when he made the controversial decision to stick with his second year pivot once Smith was able to play again.

I SAW the Niners clinch at least a wild-card spot with the win Sunday.  Next week they run into another recent scoring juggernaut in the Seahawks – again on Sunday night.  Keep in mind that the NFC West title is still up for grabs between these two teams.  Big game.  Huge.

I SAW two Niners assert themselves to win the game in the clutch for San Francisco:

After New England came back in epic fashion to score 28 straight points and tie the game at 31, it took just two plays for the Niners to regain control.

First, rookie LaMichael James took advantage of a huge hole in the Pats kickoff coverage to rip off 62 yards, down to the New England 38-yard line.  It’s about time the explosive college player from Oregon asserted himself into a game.  It’s taken injuries to get his chance, but don’t be surprised if he’s won the support of his coaches with some displays of north-south quickness in the last two games.

Next, QB Colin Kaepernick saw single coverage on WR Michael Crabtree, and the teammates took advantage as the wideout took a short pass and sprinted his way to the end zone to give the Niners back a lead that they didn’t relinquish.  Crabtree was a beast in college, but has been a disappointment most of the time during his three-year career.  I’ve often thought that he hadn’t gotten his body right health-wise until recently.  The last thing the rest of the NFC needs to see is Crabtree realizing his potential as a game-changing wideout.

I SAW Trivia bomb: The Patriots have scored 506 points.  It’s the fourth time they’ve reached 500 – an NFL record.  I know he gets a ton of credit already, but is there a better all-around head coach in the history of the league than Bill Belichick?  He presides over a revolving door in terms of assistant coaches, and yet the defensive guru also oversees one of the best offensive dynasties of all time.

I SAW PROPS for Patriots Wes Welker for becoming the first player in NFL history with five 100-catch seasons.  He passed Marvin Harrison, Brandon Marshall (who has 100 this season) and the great Jerry Rice to do so.

MNF- Tennessee (5-9) wins vs. New York Jets (6-8), 14-10

I SAW the Jets go back where they deserve – out of playoff contention.

New York’s offense made me want to pull out a videotape of a 1930s college game just to get the bad taste out of my mouth.

Jets QB Mark Sanchez did the best he could to lose this game for the Jets, but in the end he and his team had one last chance.  No problem: the QB simply kicked a low shotgun snap out of his own hands to nail the coffin shut on his team’s season.

Sanchez was at his dirtiest Monday night, with four interceptions and that last fumble.  He looked too much like an even-more-emaciated Johnny Galecki in the postgame press conference, inspiring little more in his employers than “keep me ’cause you have to.”  (Remember: the Jets must pay Sanchez over $8 million next year no matter where he plays.)

Even the Human Hand Job,  ESPN analyst Jon Gruden called Monday’s game “an amazing night of futility for the Jets offense.”

50 turnovers over the last two seasons by Sanchez makes a great point, but Heath Evans put it best on NFL Network when he pointed out that the Jets defense “shielded the inevitable for the last two years.”

And with that, New York has elected to go with Greg McElroy as the starter next week.

A day late, a dollar short?  Try a season late, $8.25 million short – as in the $8.25 million the team must pay Sanchez next year, thanks to a mind-numbing $50 million contract extension GM Mike Tannenbaum gave him this past summer.

I SAW Titans RB Chris Johnson write the names of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on his cleats.  On Monday night, those cleats made history with a blistering 94-yard touchdown run.

We all know CJ2K can lay an egg at any given moment.  But he’s also one of the most explosive tailbacks the NFL has ever seen.  Johnson is now just the third player with multiple 90+-yard touchdown runs in a career. The other two: Ahman Green and Bo Jackson.  (Elias Sports Bureau)

The Titans back also has three TD runs of at least 80 yards this season.  That has happened just twice before in league history: Barry Sanders in 1997 and Johnson again, in 2009.  Pretty Impressive.

In a rare telling moment during one of ESPN’s tiresome gimmicks, CJ2K was timed at 10.78 seconds during the broadcast during his 94-yard run.  I know – it’s just an eyeball timing job.  But it’s still impressive, given the fact that Johnson didn’t run in a straight line the whole way, and he visibly pulled up near the end.

CJ2K hasn’t lost a step; he just misplaces it from time to time.

I SAW the NFL experience its first Tim Tebow-exclusive drive all season.  Cue a three-and-out.  Forgive the Titans defense if it didn’t respond in SCTV Count Floyd-like fashion.

countfloyd

Scary, scary!!

By the way, Tebow has now been on the field for just 76 offensive snaps so far this season.  What’s up with that?

I SAW newly re-acquired Jets WR Braylon Edwards offer this perspective following New York’s disheartening loss (via NFL.com):

“All we can do is come back and work on Wednesday. We may not be headed to the post season dance but our pride is still on the line”

Only a man who had been with this team for less than a week could still speak of pride.

STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK FOR WHAT I SAW, WEEK 16 – HERE AT TFQ. 

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What I Saw, Wk 14 2012

Blair Miller > WHAT I SAW – WEEK 14, 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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This week has only allowed me to post an abbreviated version.  Next week will be another full-length edition.  Thanks as always, faithful readers.

Away from the game(s)

I SAW the bounty scandal drama wind to a close – maybe.

At the very least, the bureaucratic quagmire that started way back on March 2 with the NFL’s announcement of an investigation against the Saints for having a system that paid their defensive players for injuring opponents has now reached a decisive end, as far as suspensions are concerned.

While there has been no retraction on the rulings handed down on the coaching and front office personnel – the suspensions for GM Mickey Loomis (8 games), head coach Sean Payton (the whole season), then-defensive coordinator Greg Williams (indefinitely; he is currently on the Rams’ payroll) and assistant coach Joe Vitt (6 games; he is serving as interim coach during Peyton’s ban) are either served already or upheld – the accused players saw each of their suspensions reversed by former league commissioner, Paul Tagliabue, who had been called in to serve as an objective adjudicator.  DE Will Smith, LB Jonathan Vilma and DE Anthony Hargrove have had their suspensions lifted, but were still found guilty of conduct detrimental to the league.  Fujita, on the other hand, has been cleared of all allegations.

Let’s be clear here: Tagliabue did indeed affirm the original findings of the league – that players were involved in a pay-for-play system.  One of his chief reasons for reversing the suspensions was that he observed during his extensive experience within the league (Tagliabue was a legal representative for the NFL prior to becoming commissioner) that players feel compelled to follow coaches’ orders, lest they be waived or given a scarlet letter for insubordination, or both.  In other words, the neutral party was unable to deny the allegations in their description(s), but rather decided that the players were all but forced to obey the orders of their superiors with regards to the bounty system.  In the end, one could argue that the suspensions given to Loomis, Payton, Vitt and Williams were appropriate – if not lenient in some cases, considering that the finger now points at them more than it had before this ruling.  The news today is strangely reminiscent of the Code Red ruling in A Few Good Men, when two soldiers are dishonorably discharged but cleared of murder for causing the death of a fellow soldier by initiating a brutal and illegal fraternal punishment that was ordered by their superiors.

A Few Good Men-Dawson & Downey-blogspot-com

(blogspot.com)

Along the way the differentiation between the Saints’ illicit program and any explicit intent to injure has fallen down the semantic rabbit hole – which is likely no accident on either side of this issue, an attempt to save face for all involved as the case became more and more of a bugaboo.  Was there a system in place to pay players beyond the terms of their contract, based on performance?  Yes.  It is clear that this system included rewards for injuring players?  That’s another matter that is conveniently not made clear by Tagliabue’s ruling.

This could have repercussions for Vilma’s ongoing lawsuit against Commissioner Roger Goodell, since the official statements issued on Tuesday did little to shed light on the matter of the defensive captain’s own personal bounties issued.  As Tagliabue states in reference to Vilma’s apparent $10,000 bounty on Minnesota QB Brett Favre, the testimonies of Williams and colleague Mike Cerullo hold up:

“Neither was shown to be not credible on the specific issue of whether Vilma offered a bounty on Favre.”

In fact, Tagliabue’s decision was both harsh on Goodell and unforgiving about the accused players’ actions:

“… Moreover, there is evidence in the record that suggests that Commissioner Goodell could have disciplined a greater number of Saints’ players for the events that occurred here.  This sad chapter in the otherwise praiseworthy history of the New Orleans Saints casts no executive, coach or player in a favorable light.”

As such, Vilma’s legal representation issued a response, stating satisfaction with the lifting of the linebacker’s suspension but that unfair allegations remain since Vilma continues to deny offering money to teammates to hurt other players.

At the end of A Few Good Men, feelings were divided.  It felt like no one really won – save for the vindication of taking a smug authoritarian (played by Jack Nicholson) down a peg.  Actually, it feels like everybody lost in this one – especially Goodell, as SI.com’s Michael Rosenberg points out in an even-handed take on the events.

With this scandal and his manipulative musings in TIME magazine last week (see below), Goodell clearly suffers from a serious deficiency:

Handle truth gif

(tumblr – robbedpattinson)

I SAW NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell featured in a cover interview for TIME magazine.

Most of the interview sufficed for glad-handing between a progressive-yet-embattled league chief and a publication willing to help him proliferate certain league propaganda.

Most of the content was benign.  The majority of the ensuing analysis of the article has focused on Goodell’s musing over eliminating kickoffs from the pro game.  (The proposal: A scoring team would get the ball at their own 30-yard line with the choice between punting the ball or attempting a 4th-and-15 play on offense.)

Goodell’s motivation is grounded in an improvement on player safety by eliminating the high-impact hitting that happens on kickoffs.  If only the commissioner were as concerned with player safety as he claims to be.  By instituting Thursday night games all season – for which players typically get three days’ rest – and continuing to push for an 18-game regular season, Goodell has ably demonstrated that the safety of his players (read: product) is not his top priority.  If anything, this sort of proposed rule change will serve as ammunition for the league for an 18-game season, since they could argue that they are making the game safer.  Sure, then let’s offset that improvement on safety by adding games.  Brutal.

I SAW the playoff picture get more interesting – not necessarily because of the race for postseason berths, but rather because the pool of contestants seems to be leveling out.  Each “top” team in the league failed to reassure this weekend, with the exception of the Patriots.  (See: New England wins vs. Houston, 42-14.)

Let’s start in the AFC.  On Monday night, Houston laid down in Massachusetts faster than Mitt Romney did in 2003-07.  That game all but removed any intimidation factor for the Texans, who might end up controlling the conference’s top seed.  Much like for Atlanta (see below), Houston’s glaring weaknesses open up the playoff picture like the jaws of life.  Baltimore’s loss to Washington may have lost them a first round bye in the playoffs – which Denver is also positioning itself for, but thanks only to a sloppy win against Oakland.

The rest of the field:

  1. Houston-y (11-2)
  2. New England-z (10-3)
  3. Denver-z (10-3)
  4. Baltimore (9-4)
  5. Indianapolis (9-4)
  6. Pittsburgh (7-6)*

*same record as CIN

y- clinched playoff berth

z- clinched division

Having lost to San Diego, Pittsburgh’s chances to take the sixth seed look up to be up in the air against Cincinnati.  The two teams meet in what is sure to be a huge Week 16 tilt.  (The Jets are one game behind them, but let’s hope for now that we won’t have to vomit at the notion of one of the wild card games.)  It seems like Indy is a shoe-in for January, but keep in mind that they have to play the Texans twice in the last three weeks of the regular season.

The NFC is more undecided – as has been the case so far this season.  At the top, Atlanta’s weak showing that everyone was waiting for has burgeoned the hopes of the rest of the conference’s contenders, much like Houston’s drubbing at the hands of New England did for the AFC. (See above.)

All NFC East teams stepped up.

  1. Atlanta-z (11-2)
  2. San Francisco (9-3-1)
  3. Green Bay (9-4)
  4. New York Giants (8-5)
  5. Seattle (8-5)
  6. Chicago (8-5)

z- clinched division

There is a trio of teams lurking at 7-6: Washington, Dallas and Minnesota.  With their QB Jay Cutler banged up with a bad neck and a myriad of other injured players, the Bears are the fastest falling team in the sextet.  The Redskins had been the hottest team in the league, but now their future is aligned with the health of their banged-up star rookie QB, Robert Griffin III (See: Washington wins vs. Baltimore, 31-28.)  Even if the bionic Adrian Peterson keeps running away with yards for the Vikings their chances aren’t exactly stellar.  Dallas?  Who knows?

Overall, many teams that had once looked like contenders appear as though they could be one-and-done in the playoffs – if they make it that far.  Which brings to mind the biggest question at this time of year: Who is peaking with January around the corner?  Timing has been everything; only two of the last seven Super Bowl winners held one of the top two seeds.  The Texans, Falcons, Bears, Ravens and Steelers certainly haven’t played like champs as of late while teams like the Patriots, Niners, Seahawks – and to a lesser extent the Broncos, Packers and Colts – are gathering momentum.

A competitive playoff field is arguably more rewarding than a playoff race, and at this point in the NFL season we are fortunate to have both.

If you think this season has been exciting, you’re right.  In four games on Sunday the wining points were scored in the final two minutes or OT, which makes it 47 total such games this season – tied with 2003 for most through 14 weeks since the merger (nflmedia).

Let the fourth quarter of the regular season begin!

TNF- Denver (10-3) wins vs. Oakland (3-10), 26-13

I SAW the Broncos win their eighth straight game – the fourth-longest single season win streak in the team’s history.  (Elias Sports Bureau)  It wasn’t the prettiest victory, but it was a victory nonetheless – one in which Denver honed its ability to control the clock, winning time possession, 37:19 to 22:41.  They also swept the series against the Raiders for the first time since 2006 and they did it in part on the strength of a surprising ground game….

I SAW PROPS to Denver RB Knowshon Moreno for coming up big: 32 carries for 119 yards and a touchdown.  His average wasn’t anything to write home about (3.72) but the fourth-year pro’s carries were a career-high, which is all the more impressive considering he had been mired on the practice squad for much of the season until injuries forced him into action.

A dependable ground game makes all the difference for Broncos QB Peyton Manning and thus the offense as a whole.  Manning has relied on play action passing plays for much of his career, and having someone to take the load off of him is important.  The loss of starting tailback Willis McGahee to injured reserve was very underrated.  A resurgence by Moreno would be equally so.

I SAW Broncos CB Champ Bailey intercept Carson Palmer at the Denver 3-yard line in the first quarter. The line of scrimmage was the Broncos 22-yard line.  I took a look, and that’s the closest all season that the 2012 version of the Orange Crush has come to a red zone takeaway.  Their defense has been more than solid and it’s picking up steam.  Adding some tighter play at the doorstep of its own end zone wouldn’t hurt.

I SAW the Raiders extend their losing streak to the longest they’ve suffered since 2007, a six-game skid.  This was a team playing with a head coach, Dennis Allen, on the sidelines after having lost his father to a sudden heart attack.  Even with the emotional motivation this team just wasn’t good enough to handle Denver, which is the hottest team in the league.

I SAW Denver QB Peyton Manning win his tenth game in a season for the twelfth time as a starting QB, more than any other quarterback in NFL history.

Manning also became just the second pivot ever to throw 5,000 completions.  He needed just 221 games to reach the milestone – 18 fewer than it took the only other QB to have as many completions, Brett Favre.

I SAW the man made of glass, Raiders RB Darren McFadden.  After a four-game layoff for a badly sprained right ankle the oft-injured tailback tore off a 36-yard run on the first play from scrimmage on Thursday night, but later left the game after re-injuring the same ankle.  Over the last three seasons RUN DMC’s legs have been tricky to say the least, playing in only 29 out of a possible 45 Oakland games over the last three seasons.

I SAW Broncos LB Von Miller get another sack on Thursday night, giving him at least one QB takedown in six straight games.  Miller is having an amazing career so far, easily surpassing that of his look-alike, T.E. Russell, aka Hank from the Sean Astin – Louis Gossett Jr. classic, Toy Soldiers.

MSDTOSO EC029

(TriStar Pictures)

Von Miller

(NFL Network)

Washington (7-6) wins vs. Baltimore (9-4), 31-28 OT

I SAW the Redskins win their fourth straight game for the first time since 2008.  They came out victorious thanks in large part to a big start and a crazier finish.

Washington jumped all over the depleted Baltimore defense, with four 20+-yard plays in the first eleven minutes of the game and 168 total yards in the first quarter – the most by any team in the opening 15 minutes this season.

Rookie QB sensation Robert Griffin III worked the middle of the field in the passing game, just as he did last week once he saw he had linebackers and safeties on their heels because of the threat he poses as a runner.  (See: Washington wins vs. New York Giants in What I Saw, Wk 13.)

In fact, the ’Skins gained 163 yards in on their first two possessions alone – but that accounted for 38.5 percent of their game-total 423.  After the first quarter, Washington was only able to score six points as they fell behind 28-20 until the final drive of regulation, when things really got interesting….

I SAW

Rookies Attack !

mars attacks!

(www.film.com)

FOUR first-year pros on the Redskins’ side took over the end of this game as though they were storming the White House in a Tim Burton movie.

First, RG3 and his offense got the ball on their own 15-yard line with 4:47 left in regulation.  After inching down the field, Griffin took off running on the seventh play of the drive and Washington fans got a taste of disaster when Ravens DT Haloti Ngata slammed into the quarterback’s leg as both players were flying through the air, whiplashing RG3’s leg around and giving him what turned out on Monday to be a first-degree knee sprain.  But at the time the injury looked much more serious.  Fellow rookie QB Kirk Cousins came on for the next play – a crucial third down – and drew a pass interference play to keep the drive alive.  Griffin bravely returned in the next play and went 2-of-4 for 37 yards to get his team to the Baltimore 26-yard line before having to leave the game for good.  (RG3 has practiced sparingly this week and is questionable for this week’s game against the Browns.)

Second, Cousins returned to the game.  Instant poise, just add light rain.

In the drizzle in D.C. the kid calmly completed two straight passes to score a TD.  For the scoring pass, the former Michigan State pivot stepped out of the pocket to the right and put up a touch pass under pressure that he must have known had to be perfect.  The throw had to be lofted just barely over the tip attempt of CB Chris Johnson but get there fast enough to beat Ball Yoda – just a small matter of a future Hall Of Famer ball hawk Ed Reed closing in on intended target Pierre Garcon.  Result: touchdown.  Cousins kept it himself and punched in the two-point convert to force overtime.

TRIVIA BOMB:

The Redskins became the first team in the Super Bowl era to have two rookie quarterbacks lead fourth quarter comebacks in the same season.  (STATS LLC) Cousins and RG3 also became the first two rookie QBs to throw a touchdown pass in the same game since Dallas’ Jerry Rhome and Craig Morton in 1965.  (Elias Sports Bureau)

Third, with the youth movement well under way, Baltimore started off extra time by going three-and-out and punting to yet another rookie, Richard Crawford.  The seventh-round pick had just recently won over punt return duties from a struggling Brandon Banks and made his coaches look good by motoring 64 yards with the ball – all the way to the Ravens’ 24-yard line.

Fourth, rookie kicker Kai Forbath walked on and booted the 34-yard game winner.  Forbath has yet to miss a field goal in 14 attempts during his pro debut.

It used to be that a team that had to depend on so many first year players was doomed.  Now – similarly to the Colts in the AFC – these teams are winning clutch games to keep their teams’ playoff hopes alive.  Credit the increased technology and coaching techniques to prepare young players.  Credit the same raised standards at the college level.  Credit the players.  Credit the growth hormones in our water tables and food….Hell; I don’t know.  Credit everything.  It’s just amazing to watch.

I SAW all of the harsh critics of Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan for drafting two quarterbacks this year shuffling around, staring at their shoes – myself included.  The second of those two QBs, Kirk Cousins, became the first pivot to come off the bench in a game, throw a game-tying TD in the final minute of regulation AND go on to win the game since Derek Anderson did it for the Browns in 2006.  (ESPN Stats & Information)

Sure, a handful of plays late in a game against an unprepared defense doth not make for full vindication for Shanahan.  And being mentioned in the same breath as Anderson isn’t much to write home about.  But the decision to take Cousins high in the fourth round doesn’t look like as much of a Shanahan shenanigan as it once did.  Maybe the coach was being realistic about his prized starter, Robert Griffin III and all the hits he would take, and thus wanted a viable backup for situations just like Sunday.  Maybe not.  But the win over Baltimore might just get Washington into the postseason for the first time since a wild card loss in 2007.  Maybe that’s worth a third-round draft pick….

I SAW the Ravens lose a chance to clinch the AFC North.  It’s like The Wire out there – things are not going Baltimore’s way.  On Sunday the team lost back-to-back games for the first time since 2009.  The Ravens have played close games lately, going just 2-2 in their last four games, all of which were decided by three points.  If they’re not careful they could go from a tight grip on the second seed in the AFC to playing on the road all postseason – or watching it from home.

I SAW that Redskins WR Pierre Garcon is huge for this offense.  Washington is 6-1 with Garcon active and 1-5 without him.  In his last three games: 17 receptions, 279 yards and a TD in each contest.  In fact, it’s also impressive how well the ’Skins sustained an offense without him.

I SAW the Ravens fire offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.  Only the timing of the decision should surprise anyone who has watch Baltimore slog through games on offense at times this season.

Ironically, Ravens RB Ray Rice had 121 yards on 20 carries while Cameron had been under fire for not utilizing the All-Pro tailback enough.  But losing this game was the straw that broke the camel’s back.  23 total touches for Rice is still not enough in a game of this magnitude – and it marked just the fifth time in thirteen games this season that Rice has 20 carries.  Couple that with what has seemed at times to be a tenuous relationship with QB Joe Flacco, and, well, the writing’s been on the wall for what seems like as long as cave drawings.  Why it took head coach John Harbaugh this long to pull the plug is anyone’s guess.

Baltimore’s QB coach – and former Colts head man – Jim Caldwell replaces Cameron.  Expect Baltimore to run even more no-huddle offense now.  Flacco loves it, and though Caldwell has never called plays in the pros before he’s got solid experience with helping manage the hurry-up offense for years with some guy named Peyton in Indy.  The no-huddle should also help keep pressure off of Flacco, who at times looks very shaky against blitzes.

I SAW Redskins rookie RB Alfred Morris continue to be underrated.  While his two fellow rookies at QB stole the show, all Morris did was gain 122 yards on 23 carries (5.3 average).  That’s three games in a row Morris has had with 110+ yards on the ground, and according to ESPN Stats & Information Sunday was his fifth game with more than five rushing first downs – third-most in the NFL behind Texan Arian Foster and Patriot Stevan Ridley.  Robert Griffin III is the centerpiece of Washington’s offense, but Morris is the catalyst, keeping defenses honest for the zone-read option.

I SAW Ravens WR Anquan Boldin wide open in the end zone twice for touchdown grabs – because Redskins CB DeAngelo Hall sucks.  On the first score Hall had help over the top on a double move, but one can’t expect that help to get there in time when you release the receiver inside the 10-yard line because you’re staring at the QB!  On the second TD Hall incomprehensibly stopped and stood still in man-to-man coverage, with his back to Boldin.  Then, in the third quarter Boldin went up the sideline on a catch and all Hall did was grab the wideout’s jersey with one hand and run with him for over 10 yards.

The next step for the Redskins is to outgrow bums like Hall in the defensive backfield.  When he isn’t getting burnt he’s yapping off.  That’s never a good combination.

Minnesota (7-6) wins vs. Chicago (8-5), 21-14

I SAW the Bears continue their tailspin, having lost four of their last five games.

The first half of the 2012 campaign is now a distant memory.  Chicago began the season 1-7 against a weak-ass schedule, but now that their quality of opponents has gone up their record has gone down (1-4 since).  The Monsters of the Midway gave up an average of just 71 yards rushing through their first six games.  In the next six, they’ve been gouged for 136 yards per – and the squad is without their leader Brian Urlacher to boot.  Sunday also marked their first loos to Minnesota in seven meetings.

To say that this team is in a precarious position, slumping as it is – and now with QB Jay Cutler banged up again with a bad neck – would be an understatement.  Could the timing be worse?  This week ahead Chicago hosts Green Bay in a game that could decide the champion of the NFC North.  The Bears can still make the playoff if they lose that game, but how much more of a beating can their collective psyche take?  As I said above in Away from the game(s), playoff success is largely about momentum and Chocago has been steadily pissing their away.

UPDATE (14/12/2012): It was reported late thursday night that Cutler also has a sprained MCL, and that he will play Sunday against Green Bay.

I SAW little doubt that Bears WR Brandon Marshall understands the magnitude of his team’s next game – against the Packers.  As he put it to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

“This is the biggest game of my career.  I’m excited about it.  I’ve had this game marked since we played them last. [Charles] Woodson, those guys, they do a lot of talking, so this is personal for me. We all know the rivalry. We all know what’s at stake. I’m going to play it like it’s my last game.”

Actually, all the manimal of a receiver has to do is play like he has in almost every game this season.  Marshall currently leads the NFL in receptions, with 101, and he’s doing it with no other viable threat to take double coverage away from him.  (Chicago’s best candidate in that department, rookie Alshon Jeffery, has spent much of the season injured.)  2012 marks Marshall’s fourth 100-reception season – I looked it up, and that already ties the record for most such seasons in a career, with Marvin Harrison, Jerry Rice and Wes Welker.  Sure, Welker can surpass that mark this season, but it has taken the Pats wideout nine seasons to accomplish the feat, as opposed to Marshall’s record pace of six years.

If it wasn’t already painfully obvious that the Bears had long been starving for an elite receiver, consider another number: With three games remaining, Marshall has already tied the franchise record for 100-yard receiving games in a season.  Take a look at the list of superstars he’s with:

Most 100-yard Receiving Games, Bears History

Player Year 100-yard Games
Brandon Marshall 2012 7
Jeff Graham 1995 7
Harlon Hill 1954 7
Ken Kavanaugh 1947 7

(ESPN Stats & Information)

Few people outside of Chicago have even heard of the other three players.  And just four Bears in 65 years have had a season with seven 100-yard receiving games?  That number is also due to the dearth of talented passers during that same span, bit it’s still an awful number.

I SAW Adrian Peterson.  Either that or I saw a Six Million Dollar Man, an indefatigable running machine that the Vikings have replaced their star running back with since he tore up his knee less than a year ago.

He started the season by shocking everyone with his level of play.  Last week he showed he’s reattached the afterburners with a long breakaway run.  On Sunday Peterson added to the unbelievable with a career-high 31 carries.  He gave the Bears the Lee Majors treatment early with 104 yards and two touchdowns in the first quarter.  In all, AP had 154 yards, becoming the first player with seven straight 100-yard rushing games since Titan Chris Johnson (2009-10).  He also became the first player in NFL history to make this noise as he runs with the ball.

At this point, Peterson is the league’s Most Valuable Player, but it’s going to be hard for any running back to win the award as long as the passing game is dominating the playing field and the mindsets of voters.  (Deion Sanders often says, “the MVP isn’t the MVP award, it’s the MVQB.”)  In a way, though, that same QB-centric mindset makes the point: With 1,600 rushing yards, Peterson needs to average 133.4 yards per game over the last three games to get 2,000 – in an era that privileges the passing game, while playing on a team with a bad quarterback that justifies defenses putting eight men in the box all game, on a reconstructed knee.  With all due respect to Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, Adrian Peterson is having the most noteworthy season and is dominating games for his team is a more impressive manner.

There is the argument that a close MVP race shouldn’t go to a player who comes from a team that doesn’t make the playoffs.  The Vikings might still qualify for the postseason.  If they don’t get there it will be because of their QB – Christian Ponder squeezed out another log Sunday: 11-for-17, 91 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT – and not because of their RB, who is the main reason that his team even has a chance to play in January.  In the end, none of the other MVP candidates are playing like a superhuman government project.

6 million dollar man-hark-com

(www.hark.com)

I SAW Vikings rookie S Harrison Smith have another big game: 7 tackles, a QB hit, a pass defensed and an interception that he returned for a 56-yard touchdown.  It’s early in his career (obviously) but Smith looks like the versatile and confident leader that this defense needs.

Dallas (7-6) wins @ Cincinnati (7-6), 20-19

I SAW tragedy strike the NFL yet again this year, as Cowboys nose tackle Josh Brent was charged with intoxication manslaughter after driving drunk, crashing his car, and in the process killing his close friend and teammate, linebacker Jerry Brown.

This is an awful situation for all involved.  It is at this point where the NFL needs to consider drastic measures top prevent DUIs among their coaches and players.  Something like having a driver for every individual sounds ridiculous…until more people die.

I SAW the Cowboys win the fourth of their last five games to stay alive for the postseason by overcoming a nine-point deficit in the final minutes, thanks to a comeback led by QB Tony Romo.  His 25 completions gave him a team-record 349 for the season.  He set another team mark by completing 17 straight passes, extending back to the previous game.    As usual, the game didn’t go by without some awful passes by Romo, but in the end he was able to lean on WR Dez Bryant (see below) and pull the game out of the fire.

The Bengals had won four in a row before Sunday, and needed this win to help them in their own playoff race.  But Cincy’s defense – which had been riding high, having allowed just three touchdowns in the last four games – suffered a hiccup and couldn’t hold on when it counted.  If they can’t get a win on Thursday against Philly really tough game against Pittsburgh awaits in two weeks.

Interestingly, the Bengals fate might, to a certain extent, rest in the Cowboys’ hands.  Big D now goes home to the Death Star for two weeks to host those same Steelers, followed by the Saints.  Whatever happens in those matchups, there’s a good chance that the Week 17 showdown against Washington.

I SAW Cowboys WR Dez Bryant continue his hot streak.  He has now caught a touchdown in five straight games, and on Sunday he became the first Cowboys receiver in three years to break the 1,000-yard barrier.

It used to be that Bryant couldn’t stay relevant for long enough in games but this year he’s been big in the second half:

Dez Bryant Receiving Statistics By Half, 2012

First Half Second Half & OT
Catch % 59.1 76.6
Yards 355 673
TD 0 9
30+-yard Plays 3 5

(ESPN Stats & Information)

This level of performance has been slow in the coming for the troubled receiver.  If you didn’t think Bryant could catch a break in his young star-crossed career, think again.  Bryant broke his left index finger in Sunday’s game.  By all accounts the decision to play Bryant next week against Pittsburgh rests with the player himself – and he says he plans to play.

STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK FOR A BACK-TO-USUAL-LENGTH LOOK AT THE NFL WITH WHAT I SAW, WEEK 15 – HERE AT TFQ. 

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