What I Saw, Wk 13 2012

Blair Miller > WHAT I SAW – WEEK 13, 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 myself thinking about a scene from the film The Professional, when a crooked cop named Stansfield (played with hyperbolic perfection by Gary Oldman) is about to kill a young girl named Mathilda (a 13-year-old Natalie Portman) but decides otherwise upon becoming grief-stricken, having just been informed of the murder of one of his colleagues.

Death… is… whimsical today….

Oldman and Portman

It sure was on Saturday.

December began with a string of heart-wrenching events across the league, varying in degree but each of them nonetheless serve as saddening reminders that sports do not exist in a vacuum.

On Saturday (December 1st) morning Cleveland police were called to investigate the Browns’ equipment shed, where, as FOX News’ Jay Glazer reported, they found the body of team employee Eric Eucker.  Eucker had taken his own life by hanging himself there.

On the same morning, Chiefs LB Jovan Belcher shot his girlfriend, Kassandra M. Perkins, nine times, drove to the team facility and shot himself in the head right in front of GM Scott Pioli, head coach Romeo Crennel and defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs.  Left stranded in the wake of Belcher’s murder-suicide is his and Perkins’ three-month old daughter, Zoey.*

I usually hold the opinion that, if there is a hell, there is a special place there for suicide-murderers.  While I admit that Belcher’s status as an NFL player could possibly influence my feelings, what really has me reacting a bit differently in this case is some of the backlash unleashed upon two particular media figures – Bob Costas and Peter King.  Costas has come under intense fire for voicing anti-gun sentiments during halftime of the Sunday night game on NBC.  Many people have even called for Costas to lose his job.  I suppose, then, freedom to purchase and/or collect deadly weapons exists in some special moral bubble, whereas freedom of speech can join Belcher.  King?  Well, as was evident in his MMQB Tuesday Mailbag, the SI.com writer is an insensitive Belcher supporter just because he wasn’t calling for the man’s soul to be burned at the stake.

Ironically, what’s striking is the lack of sensitivity on the part of either of those groups.  How does it honour anything to sling arrows after a dark, tragic event?  I digress; such matters don’t even come close to the gravity and significance of the lives lost and how they were “taken.”  Hopefully all of those involved will persevere.

As one last cold gesture, death also took the life of Grady Allen, father of Raiders head coach Dennis Allen.  The 66-year old former NFL linebacker died Monday night of cardiac arrest.

*Zoey, the daughter of Belcher and Jenkins, is actually relatively financially secure, thanks to the NFL collective bargaining agreement and such situations.  According to NFL Network’s Ian Rappaport, for the next four years Zoey’s estate or guardian will receive $9,000 per month ($109,000 per year).  The year after that, it changes to $48,000 for the fifth year.  Then, until she’s either 18- or 23-years old – depending upon whether or not she goes to college – she gets $52,000 a year.  I bet a number of the same people who want Costas fired will now consider Zoey a freeloader. 

I SAW something on an opposite tip – a story about the positive.

A wise friend of mine once said that being a father means learning from your children.  That attitude isn’t necessarily the norm in this day and age.  Also, the relationship(s) between coaches and players tend to have a paternal tint.  Most exceptional leaders should approach their jobs with the same attitude that the aforementioned quote conveys, to do so takes humility and courage.   Ravens head coach John Harbaugh has shown that he possesses both through the way that he handled a near-player revolt weeks ago, as reported by Yahoo’s Mike Silver.

I SAW another wild NFL week.  It started with a hard-fought Thursday nighter and finished with an exciting Monday night upset.  The high point came during a near-overwhelming half hour on Sunday that started around 4:00.  Three games timed out so well, with San Fran at St. Louis and Seattle at Chicago both going deep into overtime while the slower-progressing barnburner that was Indy at Detroit wound to a close.

When the dust settled… that only happened in the AFC.

  1. Houston-y (11-1)
  2. New England-z (9-3)
  3. Baltimore (9-3)
  4. Denver-z (9-3)
  5. Indianapolis (8-4)
  6. Steelers (7-5)*

*- same record as CIN

  y- clinched playoff berth

  z- clinched division

The rest of the surviving field sits at 5-7, are long shots at best and, strangely, all play in the AFC East: the Jets, Dolphins and Bills.

The Patriots and Broncos clinched the AFC East and West, respectively.  The Texans clinched a playoff berth, and the also-playoff bound Colts aren’t going to steal the AFC North from them.  What’s more, all of those division leaders are gathering steam, having all gone undefeated in at least their last six games.  (Denver is one better, with a seven game streak.)  The lone kafuffle is in – surprise! – the always-competitive AFC North, where the Ravens have both the Steelers and Bengals looming in the rear view mirror.  As it stands, those three teams are fighting over two spots; the rest of the field is set.  Yawn.

The dust picked up in the NFC, actually.  The Falcons clinched the South division, but the rest of the conference is wild – not just the NFC West.

  1. Atlanta-z (11-1)
  2. San Francisco (8-3-1)
  3. Green Bay (8-4)
  4. New York Giants (7-5)
  5. Chicago (8-4)
  6. Seattle (7-5)

 z- clinched division

An overtime-splosion forced the Niners’ to lose their tight grip on the NFC West.  After their loss to the Rams and the Seahawks’ win over the Bears – both in OT – only 1.5 games separate the two teams.  Chicago’s loss also gave Green Bay the lead in the NFC North – pending their rematch next Sunday night.  In the NFC East, the Redskins’ win over the Giants pulled both themselves and the Cowboys (at 6-6) within one game of the defending champs.  The other two teams left at 6-6 are the Bucs and Vikings, who likely need too much help to survive.

The most exciting part is that head-to-head matchups could decide the day.  San Fran travels to Seattle in Week 16 and in Week 15 Chicago hosts Green Bay.

Irony bomb: The Packers were aided by the Seahawks’ win over the Bears – the same Seattle team that stole a win from Green Bay on a controversial, referee lockout-ending Hail Mary ruling in Week 3.

The bye weeks are done, the playoffs loom….

TNF- Atlanta (11-1) wins vs. New Orleans (5-7), 23-13

I SAW that you’ll have to forgive Saints QB Drew Brees if he and his teammates stunk like rotten eggs at times Thursday night.  After all, the New Orleans team bus got bombarded by eggs at the Atlanta airport when the team arrived, and last year’s NFC South champs left town with a rotten taste in their mouths.

Thanks to a Bucs loss (see Denver wins vs. Tampa Bay, 31-23) the Falcons clinched the division and kept pace with the Texans for the NFL’s best record at 11-1 while snapping a four-game losing streak to the Saints.

Brees told his teammates during the pregame speech, “It’s our division.  They know it, we know it.”  Well, consider the Falcons ignorant for having won the NFC South two of the last three years, then.  New Orleans may have Atlanta’s number – they are still 11-3 against the Dirty Birds since Brees came to ’Nawlins – but someone should show Brees the standings.

 

I SAW Falcons RB Michael Turner rip off a 35-yard run on the first drive of the game.  It was 11 yards short of the total rushing yards Atlanta had in their Week 10 loss to New Orleans.  The Falcons O-line, eager for revenge, came out strong and freed up the tandem of Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers for 71 yards on five carries (14.2 yards per carry) on a TD-scoring opening drive.

In fact, the whole first quarter was a feel-good resurgence, made possible in large part by the Saints D….

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

Tony Robbins Defense Award

Sometimes all an offense needs to do in order to get its confidence back is play against a bad defense.  Sometimes one team’s D stands above the rest in terms of being a get-well tonic for slumping O-s.  This award goes to the defense that most consistently made their opponents feel better about themselves

The Saints Defense

The tacklers wearing the fleur-de-lis were back to their old early-season ways on Sunday, tackling like flowers and helping a struggling facet of their opponents’ offense get back on track.  Before the weekend the Falcons’ ground game had been coming out of the gates about as fast as a dead horse, averaging a sad 3.2 yards per carry between the tackles in the first quarter.  (ESPN Stats & Information)  However, against the NFL’s worst defense overall and against the run Atlanta sprung out with 13.6 yards per rush in the same situations.  In fact, their 96 total rush yards in between the tackles during the first quarter is the third-most such yardage given up this season.  For what it’s worth the second-most total was also yielded by New Orleans.  (That was against the Eagles; the Titans allowed the most so far this season, letting the Bills rack up 111.)  Of course, even Tony Robbins can’t make something feel good forever….

I SAW that even the feel-good suckiness of the Saints defense couldn’t stop the Falcons offense from looking far too vulnerable for a 11-1 team.  After a productive first quarter and ten more points during the first leg of the second quarter Atlanta went almost two full quarters without a first down conversion on offense.  The Dirty Birds got pretty grimy during that span, going oh-fer on five straight possessions, giving up 18 first downs to the Saints and getting outgained by 289-30.

This win was a tough one, against their fiercest division rival.  But there are times when the Falcons look like a team way more uncertain of their identity than any 11-1 team I’ve ever seen.  They used to be a rushing team, but that facet of their game has been inconsistent at best.  QB Matt Ryan was an early front-runner for MVP but bad games against bad teams – a 3-INT, 59.4 rating in a loss to Oakland and a 5-INT, 40.5 rating against the Cardinals – have sullied those chances.  Lastly, in a big game, during a tough stretch, Atlanta didn’t get its most dependable player involved.  WR Roddy White had gone 78 games since Week 15 of 2007 with at least one reception in the first half.  On Sunday he had zero grabs on just two targets in the first 30 minutes.

Atlanta is arguably the best team in the league.  But they have yet to show a truly reliable strength.  This team keeps rotating methods with which to win.  That could be a sign that either it is flying by the seat of its pants, or it has multiple ways to win.  Time will tell.

I SAW New Orleans QB Drew Brees have arguably the worst game of his career – when his team needed him the most.  It started when he threw two interceptions and helped the Saints go down 17-0 midway through the second quarter, looking every bit as out of sync as the team did to start the season.

Still, New Orleans is tied for the most comeback wins this season (3) after trailing by 10+ points and they made a game of it, but not without some low moments….

I SAW Saints QB Drew Brees look lonely without suspended head coach Sean Payton.  After having to burn a timeout in the second quarter to avoid a delay of game because RB Darren Sproles didn’t line up in the right spot, Brees chewed out his running back, then wandered off on his own to a solitary spot on the field with his hands on his hips, thinking.  Usually he would be consulting with his offensive-minded head coach at such moments.  At the risk of stating the obvious, Sunday looked like the game in which Brees missed Payton the most this season.

Mind you, on the next play Brees threaded the needle on a deep pass up the middle to WR Lance Moore and sparked a TD drive to get things going for ’Nawlins and cut the lead to 17-7.  The Saints almost scored another touchdown just before the half but a Sproles score was called back because of illegal contact by TE Jimmy Graham. Then Brees dumped another pass to Sproles with only 12 seconds and no timeouts remaining.  The offense couldn’t get its shit together and the clock ran out in the first half with New Orleans late to snap the ball at Atlanta’s five-yard line.

Like I said, the Saints looked like they missed their head coach more than ever.

More on Brees’ stinker:  He heaved up a career-high five interceptions Thursday night to follow up on the two pick-6’s he threw just four days earlier against the Niners.  Seven interceptions: The same amount Brees threw all season as a Charger in 2004.

In a “good luck having bet on that in Vegas” moment, Brees now leads the NFL in interceptions, with 16.  He looked desperate and sloppy Thursday:  According to ESPN Stats & Information the Saints QB attempted six passes of 30 yards or more, which is the most such throws he’s made in a game in the last five seasons.  Brees was picked off twice on those throws and both were underthrown.  It marked the first time since Week 15 last season that he had underthrown a receiver on throws that long.

I SAW PROPS to Saints QB Drew Brees, who saw his streak of consecutive games with a TD pass end at an NFL-record 54.  New England’s Tom Brady looms behind him with a still-alive streak of 44 (see below) but that’s doesn’t take away from this lofty standard of consistency.  There are some who wish to undervalue this record but there’s a reason it stood for 52 years until Brees passed Johnny Unitas.

I SAW the Falcons continue to outdo (Braves MLB All-Star closer) Craig Kimbrel.

Trivia bomb: Atlanta has won 46 of their last 47 games when having a fourth quarter lead. (NFL Network).  Their only loss came against the Saints, in 2010.

I SAW PROPS to Falcons TE Tony Gonzalez for his 10th straight season with at least 70 receptions, which ties him with former Raiders WR Tim Brown for the all-time NFL record.

NFL Network’s Mike Mayock said during the broadcast that Gonzalez told him he’s 95 percent sure that this is his final NFL season.  Hmmm…. Gonzo was saying he was 99 percent sure at the start of the season….

I SAW Falcons QB Matt Ryan improve on his home record.

Highest Win Percentage At Home (min. 25 starts)

Player W-L-T Win Pct.
Daryle Lamonica 37-4-2 .893
Matt Ryan 32-4 .889
Joe Flacco 32-5 .865
Tom Brady 73-12 .859
Otto Graham 30-5 .857

Note that Pats QB Tom Brady has maintained a comparable rate of success – with double the amount of wins.  He also calls an outdoor stadium with inclement weather home.  Just sayin’.

There’s no doubt that Ryan knows how to bring the bacon at home.  But his own statistical performance this season indicates that he shines brighter outside of Georgia dome:

Matt Ryan, 2012

Home Away
W-L 6-0 5-1
Comp % 63.3 71.6
YPG 274.2 324.2
TD 7 15
INT 9 4
Rating 78.9 110.2

It’s just another complication with evaluating this Falcons team….

Kansas City (2-10) wins vs. Carolina (3-9), 27-21

I SAW PROPS to the max for Romeo Crennel, who coached his team to a victory after what is by far the most traumatic experience prior to a game ever experienced by a head coach when he witnessed LB Jovan Belcher kill himself in the awful second act of a murder-suicide one day before kickoff.  (See Away from the game(s).)

No one would have ever held it against Kansas City if they had come out flat to start the game.  But the grief-stricken Chiefs rolled 74 yards on six plays for a TD on the first possession of the game.  That’s more surprising than it might seem, given that it had been 28 straight playing weeks – dating back to December 26, 2010 – since KC had scored a touchdown on the opening drive of a game.  (Elias Sports Bureau)

In all, perhaps one of the more heartwarming things about the win over the Panthers was the vociferous fan support at Arrowhead Stadium.  As told by Chiefs QB Brady Quinn (“…they were amazing.”) and other Chiefs players, the same crowd that had been riding them all season showed their support.

I SAW Chiefs QB Dr. Brady Quinn, Medicine Woman salve the pain of many with one of the best games of his career.  At one point he completed a career-high 14 straight passes en route to going 19-for-23 against the Panthers – a franchise record 82.6 percent (min. 20 attempts).  The scoring drive that opened the game (see above) was the first TD drive Quinn had led since December of 2009.  To finish his day at work, he leant some perspective to an illogical situation.

I SAW Panthers QB Cam Newton run for 78 yards against the Chiefs.  In doing so he became the first QB in NFL history to rush for over 500 yards in each of the first two years of his career.

Newton has looked great over the last three weeks.  The games were against the porous pass defenses of Tampa Bay, Philadelphia and Kansas City, but a turnaround has to start somewhere.  If owner Jerry Richardson knows what’s good for him he won’t stick with head coach Ron Rivera, no matter how well Newton plays.  Rivera seems to have lost that team, and seems ill-suited to the all-around demands of his position.

I SAW two Chiefs jump off of the milk carton and into the end zone: TE Tony Moeaki and WR Jonathan Baldwin each caught their first TDs of the season.

St. Louis (5-6-1) wins vs. San Francisco (8-3-1), 16-13 OT

I SAW the Rams and Niners come within 26 seconds of being the first two teams to tie each other twice in the same season since 1963.  (The Eagles and Steelers did it that year.)  But Greg Zuerlein nailed a 53-yard field goal to force overtime and then booted the 54-yard winner.

This game was Dickensian, a tale of two kickers.

Zuerlien – the rocket-legged rookie whom many have dubbed Legatron, but Marshall Faulk has named the funner Young Geezy – became the first NFL kicker in history to tie a game at the end of regulation with a 50+-yard field goal and then follow it with a 50+-yard winner in OT.  Young Geezy is now 7-for-11 from 50 yards or longer this season – one behind the single season league record set by Morten Andersen (1995) and Jason Hanson (2008).  The 54-yarder in overtime almost went over the net behind the uprights.  Watching Zuerlein kick is like watching Bubba Watson smash drives.

On the other side is San Fran’s David Akers, who last year set a league record with 44 field goal conversions.  This year is different.  After Rams punter gave the Niners a gift with a 14-yard overtime punt to midfield, Akers squandered the chance by missing a 51-yarder.  Akers is now only 7-for-15 from 40 yards or longer this season and the vultures are circling over his job in a demanding city whose coach clearly doesn’t wait long for people to come around….

I SAW Niners QB Colin Kaepernick play his worst game since taking over for Alex Smith.  As Michael Irvin likes to say, let’s be real.  An 83.9 passer rating and 84 yards rushing does not make for a bad game in and of itself.  However, his intentional grounding play in his team’s own end zone (resulting in a Rams safety) was a result of him trying to make something happen and, worse, his spastic hiccup of an option pitch that went several feet over the head of WR Ted Ginn Jr. resulted in a return TD for St. Louis.  (See below.)  Criticism of San Fran’s head coach Jim Harbaugh is mounting as his offense has scored just three touchdowns in the last two games under Kaepernick.

Harbaugh is unlikely to make another QB switch anytime soon.  For one thing, Kaepernick seems to have a short memory when it comes to mistakes.  He went 7-for-9 on the drive that followed the safety including several tight, challenging throws.  After the fumble-TD in the fourth quarter the kid completed another demanding pass and then ripped off a 50-yard run.

Just as telling is Kaepernick’s energy and how it spreads to his teammates.  The Niners’ new starter is no stranger to success, having set an FBS record with three straight seasons of 2,000 yards passing and 1,000 yards rushing at the University of Nevada – as pointed out by Sports Illustrated’s Jim Trotter.  According to Trotter, when Keapernick released a tough clutch completion to TE Delanie Walker against the Saints two weeks ago RB Frank Gore heard the quarterback shout “Yeah!  You motherfuckers!”  Gore elaborated on the impact of his new starting QB’s contagious attitude:

The guy is just a football player.  He’s just out there playing.  On one of my carries, he’s like, ‘Run the hell out of it.’  That gets you going, seeing your quarterback out there like that.

That sounds like a guy who’s cut from the same cloth as his intense but fun-loving NFL QB cum-head coach, Harbaugh.  It also doesn’t sound anything like Alex Smith.  Kaepernick put his team in position to win the game in overtime, only to see kicker David Akers miss a field goal.  (See above.)  That’s not nearly enough reason for Harbaugh to go back to Smith.  But the current starter has adjustments to make, challenges to overcome.  One of the theories behind playing Kaepernick is that his arm strength and ability to run the ball to the outside prevents opposing defenses from being able to stack up against the run game and short passing routes.  On Sunday the Rams called that bluff.  As Gore himself put it to the Associated Press, “They put their whole team in the box.”  It worked out for St. Louis and other teams will take notice.  If Kaepernick is going to justify his coach’s decision he’s going to have to make defenses pay for stacking the box as the season progresses.

I SAW that Jeff Fisher has been one of the most underrated head coaches for almost two decades now.  This year is no exception.  The term “culture change” gets overused when a new coach takes over a moribund franchise but with a 4-0-1 record in the NFC West, Fisher has done just that.  Expect this team to stay relevant for years to come.  Next step: improving play against non-divisional opponents.

Rams, 2012

vs. NFC West vs. Rest of NFL
W-L 4-0-1 1-6
Opponents Pts/Gm 14.0 28.1
Margin Of Victory +7.4 -11.9
Turnover Margin +5 -7

(ESPN Stats & Information)

I SAW Niners LB Aldon Smith set an NFL record with 31.5 sacks in his first two seasons, passing Hall Of Famer Reggie White.

I SAW Rams CB Janoris Jenkins show he’s got some Ed “Ball Yoda” Reed in him.  The rookie padawan was in the right place at the right time Sunday when he scooped up Niners QB Colin Kaepernick’s bad lateral for a TD.  That gives Jenkins three return touchdowns in the last two games.  (He returned two interceptions for TDs against the Cardinals.)

I SAW a horrible incompletion call late in the game on Rams WR Austin Pettis.  The wideout caught a pass, clearly had possession of it for a while, and then the ground knocked the ball loose as he was tackled.  The play was reviewed but still botched.

I SAW another indication that head coach Jim Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke have their players guzzling the team’s Kool-Aid.  Last week they signed LB NaVorro Bowman to a five-year contract extension worth $45.25 million.  ($25.5 of that is guaranteed.)  According to NFL.com, TE Vernon Davis, CB Carlos Rogers and DL Ray McDonald all agreed to restructure their own deals to make cap room for Bowman’s $7.5 million signing bonus.  What’s more, the NFL’s best quartet of linebackers – Patrick Willis, Bowman, Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith, all four of whom are of Pro-Bowl caliber – are now signed through 2015.  Impressive.

Seattle (7-5) wins @ Chicago (8-4), 23-17 OT

I SAW the Seahawks win just their second road game this season and first one against a good team.  (They beat the Panthers in Carolina in Week 5.)  In doing so they knocked the Bears off of their perch atop the NFC North and crept to within a game and a half of the NFC West-leading Niners.

The loss was Chicago’s third in its last four games.  How quiet was Soldier Field at the end of the game, when Seattle WR Sidney Rice appeared to trade his consciousness for a winning overtime touchdown?

(After the game Rice told the press that he was “alert” the whole time after being rocked at the goal line by Bears S Major Wright.  Really?  You were alert as your forearms were stuck in that upward and grisly telltale position that is becoming all too familiar after big hits?  Hopefully Rice isn’t lying and/or downplaying the moment in order to stay on the field next week.)

Trivia bomb: The ’Hawks have won just six road games under Pete Carroll.  Two of those have been in Chicago.

I SAW reason to BEWARE the Seahawks. *  Their defense is among the best in the league and their offense is starting to show that it’s no weak link.  Seattle gained 459 yards against the third-ranked defense in the NFL coming into Sunday – and it was a balanced output of 283 via the pass and 176 rushing.  The biggest improvement has come at the quarterback position….

*– All of this being said, if the four-game suspension of CB Richard Sherman gets upheld this is a different team.  His partner on the corner, teammate Brandon Browner elected to drop his appeal and thus will begin his four games this coming week, which means he will be available for the playoffs if Seattle gets there.  Ironically, as Sherman’s appeal process allows him to keep playing for now, it also threatens having the sentence translate into missed playoff games if it is upheld.  At least with Browner sitting out now it lessens the number of games that both members of arguably the league’s best cornerback tandem will be out at the same time.

I SAW Seahawks QB Russell Wilson continue to show he belongs in the same breath as fellow first year dynamos, Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III.  Russell entered Sunday having led the NFL with a passer rating of 128.6 in November and was riding a rookie-record streak of three consecutive games with a passer rating of 125 or higher.  (STATS LLC)

As with Luck and RG3, Wilson is playing beyond his years when it matters most.  The former Wisconsin standout led his team on two 12-play TD drives – one 97-yard possession to take the lead near the end of regulation, and another 80-yarder to win the game in OT after the Bears tied the game with a last-second field goal.  Again, this is a rookie on the road against what was the third-best defense in the league at the time.  Check out how Russell elevated his game as clutch time began, according to ESPN Stats & Information:

Russell Wilson Sunday vs. The Bears

First 9 Drives Last 2 Drives
Comp-Att 14-25 9-12
TD-INT 0-0 2-0
Rush Yds 24 47
First Downs 8 11

Seattle is starting to integrate the zone read option into the offense more to make better use of Russell’s athleticism and it worked.  Russell gained 22 rushing yards on three such plays during the final two drives on Sunday, which in part helped him go 5-for-6 with a TD pass on play-action passes.

Chicago got schooled when San Fran and Colin Kaepernick used the read option in Week 11 as well.  Considering that the Niners, Seahawks and Redskins all use that scheme and could all be in the playoffs, Bears fans should be worried.

I SAW that ’Hawks quarterback Russell Wilson is cool under pressure too – literally.  When the Bears sent five or more pass rushers (translation: blitzed at least one defender more than the four linemen) the rook went 6-for-7 for 75 yards and a TD.

He isn’t getting the same praise as Griffin and Luck, but Wilson is quietly climbing the list of rookie QBs in terms of touchdowns:

Most Passing TDs By An NFL Rookie

Player Year Passing TDs
Peyton Manning 1998 26
Charlie Conerly 1948 22
Cam Newton 2011 21
Andy Dalton 2011 20
Dan Marino 1983 20
Russell Wilson        2012               19
Jim Plunkett 1971 19

I SAW Bears WR Brandon Marshall continue to justify the trade that reunited him with QB Jay Cutler in the windy city.  Marshall caught ten passes for 165 yards – including a long jump ball with less than 20 seconds left in regulation to set up the field goal that would force overtime.  Sunday marked Marshall’s sixth 100-yard game of the season.  He is second in the NFL with 1,182 yards.

I SAW Bears RB Matt Forte catch a TD on a play when he lined up wide as a receiver.  New offense coordinator Mike Tice doesn’t do that sort of thing enough with Forte.

I SAW a great yards-after-the-catch TD by Seahawks WR Golden Tate to take the lead late in regulation.  It happened in part thanks to uncharacteristically shoddy tackling technique from the Chicago defense.

I SAW the Bears sideline start to look like a rerun of ER, and not just any episode – one of those cast-depleted write-offs that focused on Eriq La Salle.  Chicago came into the game with a myriad of injuries, including last week’s loss of starting guards (Chris Spencer and Lance Louis) and return specialist Devin Hester, as well as having missed rookie WR Alshon Jeffery for several weeks.  Then they lost WR Earl Bennett and S Chris Conte during Sunday’s game.  But the worst blows came on the final drive in overtime when CB Tim Jennings and LB Brian Urlacher were both knocked out of the game.

The most serious of all those injuries is to Urlacher, the defensive leader who is reported by the Chicago Tribune to have suffered a grade 2 hamstring strain and could be out for the rest of the regular season, if not longer.  In the immediate future, it’s going to be tough sledding for the Bears defense to stop Vikings bionic RB Adrian Peterson without him.

In the name of La Salle, maybe this team could patch itself together with some Soul Glo

Soul Glo logo

Pittsburgh (7-5) wins @ Baltimore (9-3), 23-20

I SAW an early candidate for one of TFQ’s Upside-Down Awards at the end of the season:

Thief In The Night Award

Pittsburgh Steelers

In the history of this rivalry, winners are about as prone to thievery as Lymon Zerga.

Lymon Zerga

(http://www.11points.com)

Seven of the last eight regular season meetings in this back-and-forth, black and blue rivalry have been decided by three points.  In fact, according to Elias Sports Bureau this rivalry has been defined by tight scores from the start: Since Baltimore’s first season in 1996 the Steelers and Ravens have played 15 games against one another that have been decided by three points or less.  That’s the most such games between divisional opponents in the league over that span.

To pull off the most recent heist, the Steelers had to turn to an unlikely participant – much like how the same Saul Bloom that conned Terry Benedict as Zerga in Oceans’ Eleven had to show up at the last minute to impersonate a Swiss doctor in the sequel.  On Sunday it was soon-to-be 38-year old third string QB Charlie Batch who won the day.  Batch pulled his own Lookie-loo on the Ravens; while defenders looked for the struggling Batch that put up an awful 38.7 passer rating one week earlier against the Browns, they were caught unaware by a Batch who threw for 276 yards.  If you don’t think that surprised Baltimore’s defense, consider that in 80 career appearances Batch has matched or surpassed that single game yardage total but three times.

Batch and the Steelers offense inadvertently duped the Ravens by mustering just 93 total yards in the first half.  But the gig was up when Pittsburgh came out of the locker room and put together a 78-yard TD drive to tie the game at 13.  The next thing Baltimore knew, Batch orchestrated two scoring drives in the final 10 minutes of the game to steal the game, the silverware, and part of the Ravens’ chances for a first round bye in the playoffs.  First he found TE Heath Miller who pulled a great, fully extended dive to the pylon for a touchdown, and then Batch orchestrated a 61-yard game-closing drive that ended with a Shaun Suisham field goal.

DOUBLE trivia bomb:

The fictional name Lymon Zerga sounds like the Spanish phrase “la monserga” which can be understood in English as a person who is a pain in the butt.  (imdb.com)

According to ESPN Stats & Information, this is the third season with multiple starts in Batch’s career as a Steeler.  In both of the other seasons Pittsburgh reached the Super Bowl (and won it in ’10).

I SAW the Ravens snap their 12-game win streak within the NFC North, leaving them tied with the Colts from 2004-06 for the longest such run since realignment in 2002.  (STATS LLC)

Baltimore also saw their 15-game home winning streak snapped with Sunday’s loss.  Who handed the Ravens their only other home loss in the last two years?  You guessed it  – the Steelers.

More important than either of those streaks, though, is the fact that this loss could cost the Ravens the second seed in the AFC because the Broncos are one of the hottest teams in the league, and they could end up taking that first round bye from Baltimore.  The two teams face each other in two weeks, which should be a game with huge implications.

There was another streak that was broken….

I SAW Ravens QB Joe Flacco throw his first interception in five games against the Steelers.  Flacco continues to be an awful negotiator for himself in a contract year.  His numbers aren’t awful, but no one’s writing home about his 60.5 percent completion rate so far this season, and he has gone missing for too many long stretches in games to justify the “elite” contract he’s been vocal about seeking.

Of course it doesn’t help that his coordinator chronically botches game plans either…

I SAW Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron have another one of his “Ray who?” moments.  In other words, he once again underutilized RB Ray Rice.  The All-Pro, do-everything-but-Cam-won’t-let-him tailback gained 44 yards on his last two carries of the third quarter – one of them a 34-yard touchdown.  Then, in a game that Baltimore needed to help secure a first round postseason bye, guess how many touches Rice had in the fourth quarter?  Zero.  Granted, Cameron only had eight offensive plays to work with in the final 15 minutes, but Rice’s 13 touches – one reception and a mere twelve rushes – were his least since Week 1.  Funny that it cost Baltimore the game.  Does Cameron have incriminating photos of his employers?  He’s been bungling calls for years now but never seems to be on the hot seat.

I SAW that the Steelers have lost ten fumbles after receptions this season.  That’s not going to do it.

I SAW Ravens LB Terrell Suggs suffer a torn biceps Sunday.  Word so far is that he could still play, but who knows?  Even if he guts it out, that’s not good news with Washington and Robert Griffin III looming this week….

I SAW Steelers CB Ike Taylor suffer what is now being called a broken ankle in this game.  According to the Associated Press Taylor will be out at least 3-6 weeks.  Imagine if Pittsburgh has to face Denver in the playoffs, without their two most consistent DBs (S Ryan Clark cannot play in high altitudes due to a medical condition).

Houston (11-1) wins @ Tennessee (4-8), 24-10

I SAW the Texans improve upon last season’s franchise-record 10 wins – and there’s still four games to go.  Houston also improved to 6-0 on the road this season.  They’re the only team in the NFL that remains unbeaten away from home.

I SAW PROPS: Business as usual for Texans DE J.J. Watt, who had a sack – extending his franchise single season record to 15.5 – and batted down his 14th and 15th passes.  Watt joins Hall Of Fame DE Reggie White as the only players with at least 15 sacks and 13 passes defensed in a season.

I SAW the whole Houston defense run wild over Tennessee, with six takeaways and six sacks of QB Jake Locker.  This is the most talent-stacked D this side of San Francisco.  Case in point:

I SAW Texans rookie LB Whitney Mercilus have two sacks and a fumble recovery against the Titans on Sunday.  While San Fran might have the best starting linebacker quartet in the NFL, it seems as though Houston has talented ’Backers coming out of the woodwork with each injury.  Check out the LB corps for the Texans – if all of them were healthy: Brian Cushing, Connor Barwin, Brooks Reed, Mercilus and Barrett Rudd.  The difference is that the individuals in this crew are bigger and more specialized than the Niners’.  They might not be as adept in pass coverage as Patrick Willis, Ahmad Brooks and NaVorro Bowman, but all of them can wreak havoc in the backfield.  DE J.J. Watt notwithstanding, Houston’s LBs are the backbone of this 6th-ranked defense.

I SAW Dowell Loggains take over as Titans offensive coordinator for the fired Chris Palmer.  The job change certainly didn’t help the offense – at least not yet, and at least not for sophomore QB Jake Locker, who threw three interceptions and lost two fumbles on Sunday.  In all, the Tennessee offense committed six turnovers, allowed six sacks and the receivers dropped several balls.

Firing a coordinator has become too easy a scapegoat move for embattled head coaches.  (See: Reid, Andy.)  Loggains and his players deserve more time to work together, but hopefully continued poor play by an offense in such situations only serves to put head coaches in hotter water.  Specifically, it’s safe to say that Mike Munchak has done little to prove his worth at the job.

New England (9-3) wins @ Miami (5-7), 23-16

I SAW the Patriots win their sixth straight game and clinch their fourth straight division title, thanks to QB Tom Brady’s first career December win in Miami.  New England is now guaranteed its 12th straight winning season despite finishing with a season-low 321 yards on offense.  What has many people touting this team as a Super Bowl contender is the resurgence of the defense.  Although the Pats forced the ’Fins into only one turnover Sunday, they’ve had 13 takeaways in the last four games.  With the scoring machine of an offense that they have on their sidelines, if the D can just get the ball back a few times a game it could win the day.

I SAW wither, Miami?  Since their ballyhooed matchup against Indianapolis they’ve gone just 1-3 – and though I know there aren’t really any flukes in the NFL, their lone win over Seattle during that span comes pretty close to one.  On Sunday they looked unprepared at home, with a roughing the passer call, a fumble lost and a botched punt resulting in 17 Patriots points.

I SAW Pats QB Tom Brady make history yet again.  On Sunday he became the first QB to win ten division titles in his career (with presumably more to come).  Brady has also thrown 25 TDs in eight seasons:

Most Seasons With 25 Pass TD – NFL History

Peyton Manning 14*
Brett Favre 11
Tom Brady 8*
Drew Brees 8*
Dan Marino 7

(ESPN Stats & Information)

*- including this season

What’s more, Brady extended his streak of consecutive games with a touchdown pass to 44 – ten games behind the now-finished record of Drew Brees.  (See: Atlanta wins vs. New Orleans, 23-13.)

I SAW Patriots WR/PR Julian Edelman go down for the season with a foot injury.  As a result the team signed an old roster member, Donte’ Stallworth.  However, Stallworth won’t be able to replace Edelman’s impact in the return game….

I SAW Patriots WR Wes Welker – the biggest dink in the dink-and-dunk, lord of the speed cut – continue to grab dinks at a dizzying pace.  (I’m dizzy just thinking about the imagery there.)  On Sunday against the Dolphins he caught 12 passes – all of which came on throws ten yards downfield or fewer.  Only one other receiver has more catches on such short throws in a single game this season: Wes Welker, in Week 5 against the Broncos.

Sure, they’re all short “easy” passes, but clearly Welker is insanely prolific at catching them – more so than anyone, actually.

Most Games With 10 Receptions – NFL History

Player Games
Jerry Rice 17
Wes Welker 17
Marvin Harrison 16
Andre Johnson 16

(STATS LLC)

It took Rice, the best receiver ever, 285 games to achieve that feat.  It’s taken Welker just 136.

Put this one in the pile of “system” records, a la Emmitt Smith’s career rushing yards mark.  Much Like Barry Sanders would say (if he cared about numbers), Rice would say, “sure, let me turn and catch perfect passes after taking two steps all game.”

Indianapolis (8-4) wins @ Detroit (4-8), 35-33

I SAW just another day at the office, another barnburner win for a Colts team en route to their sixth win in their past seven games.  All of this from a team asking about as much of their rookie quarterback as any NFL team ever has, and playing without its head coach.

Trivia bomb: According to STATS LLC, the last time Indy scored a game-winning TD as time expired was way back on September 30, 1990.  I checked it out: WR Bill Brooks caught a pass from QB Jack “Don’t Call Me Pierre” Trudeau to beat QB Randall Cunningham and the Eagles, 24-23.

Current Colts QB Andrew Luck was barely two years old that day….

I SAW Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck continue to persevere through some rough rookie moments and lead his team to victory.  The Stanford grad threw 30 incompletions and a season-high three interceptions.  (Luck has now thrown 13 of his 16 interceptions away from home.)  Midway through the fourth quarter, Detroit led 33-21.

Cue the late-game Brazill-Dazzle that Luck is already so often capable of.  He found WR LaVon Brazill for a TD (the wideout’s first as a pro) that cut Detroit’s lead to five points with 2:39 remaining.  Then Luck took advantage of a poor punt by Lion Nick Harris that gave Indy the ball at their own 25 with 1:07 left by marching down the field and finding WR Donnie Avery for the winning score on a fourth-and-ten as time expired.  According to Elias Sports Bureau it was the fourth time since the NFL merger in 1970 that a rookie threw a game-winning TD pass with no time remaining in regulation.

(The other three: Brown Tim Couch in 1999 against the Saints, Lions Matthew Stafford against the Browns in 2009 – the separated shoulder game – and Seahawks Russell Wilson on the most asterisked Hail Mary completion in recent memory against the Packers earlier this season.  Check out this highlight sequence of Stafford’s win against Cleveland– one of my favourite mic’d-up sequences of all time.)

On Sunday, Luck effectively offset his career-high three picks with another career high: Four TD passes – two of them in the final three minutes.  What a finisher Luck has already become, and this is no Vince Young mirage.  Sure, he makes too many undisciplined deep throws, but he’s already asked to do almost as much as his Hall Of Fame predecessor Peyton Manning did.  But Luck has a better arm than Manning, and his ballcarrying speed is already graduating from underrated to bona fide.  His 3,596 passing yards as a rookie are already just 143 behind Manning’s mark in 1998, and 455 behind current first-year record holder Cam Newton with four games to go.

More importantly, Luck is making good on his potential.  He has now won a record number of games by a rookie QB drafted first overall in the Super Bowl era (STATS LLC), passing Sam Bradford (the Rams) in 2010 and Jim Plunkett (the Pats) in 1971.

Gasp-breathe…. Okay.  Just one more nugget to smoke on Luck’s pro success thus far….

I SAW Colts QB Andrew Luck get his fifth career game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or OT, tied for the most by a rookie since the merger:

Most Game-Winning Drives in the Fourth Quarter Or OT By A Rookie since 1970

Player Year Drives
Vince Young 2006 5
Ben Roethlisberger 2004 5
Andrew Luck 2012 5
Andy Dalton 2011 4
Matt Ryan 2008 4

(Elias Sports Bureau)

Anyone still doubt the historic change in poise and preparedness among contemporary quarterbacks?

I SAW more that needs to be said about that final play.

The Lions defense lined up in what looked like a sort of prevent defense, with only four down linemen near the line of scrimmage, five defenders lined up in a row about 10 yards past the line of scrimmage, and two DBs standing in the end zone.  Why would head coach Jim Schwartz (he of defensive pedigree) or defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham ever run that alignment in the red zone, with the game on the line?  Low and behold, the defenders got all bunched up and their wires crossed on their assignments, leaving Avery wide open – in no small part because no defender in that situation could have covered the area from the 5- to the 10-yard line!  Case in point: The space was vacated so thoroughly by Detroit’s defense that Luck practically ran into the end zone with his receiver.

Schwartz said in his postgame press conference, “if we don’t give [Luck] a place to scramble he never finds [Avery] dragging across the field.”  But you only had four pass rushers, Jim, and no one at the second level to come up to help if Luck rolled out.  That’s flawed strategy at best.

I SAW PROPS for Lions WR Calvin Johnson who racked up 171 more receiving yards against the Colts.   That gives him 1,428 for the season – the most reception yards through twelve games since Hall Of Famer Lance Alworth.  That total also puts Megatron on pace to break the great Jerry Rice’s single season record of 1,904 in 1995.

And to think that Johnson started this season slowly…. At this point last season he had 1,092 yards.  It certainly doesn’t hurt to have 125 yards or more for the fifth straight game, matching a league record set by the Lions’ own Pat Studstill in 1966.

Hey – that’s the second Studstill shout-out we’ve had this year on What I Saw!  Anyone remember the other one?  Hint:  See What I Saw, Wk 8 – New England wins vs. St. Louis, 45-7)

I SAW Lions head coach toss a harsh but amusing diss at embattled WR Titus Young.  The second-year wideout has been benched since Week 12 when, against the Packers, he repeatedly lined up in the wrong spot – and did so on purpose, according to NFL.com.  During Wednesday’s press conference, Schwartz announced that Young was due to undergo knee surgery, “you know… Unless he doesn’t show up for it.”

I SAW that it’s all but official now that the Lions are a letdown, and last season might have been the aberration.  Remember when the one thing that could be said about Detroit was that they finish games strong?  According to Elias Sports Bureau Detroit is the second team in league history to lose three straight games in which they led in the final two minutes of the game.  (The 1-15 2000 Chargers are the other.)  They’re also the third team in NFL history to lose three straight at home when having a fourth quarter lead.  That’s shitting the bed worse than Spud did in Trainspotting.

Trainspotting shit

Green Bay (8-4) wins @ Minnesota (6-6), 23-14

I SAW the Packers win their tenth straight game in the NFC North.  They’ve also won 24 of their last 26 regular season games at Lambeau Field.  The team had a solid but unspectacular game, but who cares?  Green Bay is now tied with Chicago atop the division with a huge potential tiebreaker coming up this Sunday night in the flex-game rematch at Soldier Field.  Huge game.

I SAW Vikings RB Adrian Peterson continue his mind-boggling bionic return from reconstructive knee surgery.  21 carries for 210 yards and one touchdown that came on an 82-yard sprint up the sideline during which his stamina and breakaway speed already looked more complete than it did a few weeks ago.  According to Elias Sports Bureau Peterson is the first player in NFL history to have two games of 200+ rushing yards with a 10+-yard average per carry.  (He had 224 yards in 20 rushes against the Bears in 2007.)

Unbelievable.

I SAW injuries continue to plague the Packers.  First of all, their receivers can’t stay in games.  Greg Jennings came back after a long stint out of the lineup with a groin injury, only to see Jordy Nelson re-aggravate a hamstring injury.

RB James Starks scored Green Bay’s first rushing TD in seven games…. Then, in true Packers fashion, he suffered a knee injury and is likely done for the season.

Add these issues to an already-depleted defense that might get S Charles Woodson back next week, and this team is hurting in a way reminiscent of the Super Bowl team from two years ago.  Is this team accustomed to this sort of strife, and thus can persevere down the stretch?  Or have they sustained too much physical and mental stress from injuries to finish strong?  Only time will tell.

I SAW, speaking of injuries, the Vikings shut down their dynamic WR Percy Harvin for the season, putting him on injured reserve for the remainder of the season.  According to NFL Network, it turns out Harvin partially tore an ankle ligament when he was hurt weeks ago, and though he can run at full speed in a straight line he remains unable to make cuts.  Expect QB Christian Ponder to continue to struggle without his only viable threat at receiver.

I SAW Happy Birthday to Aaron Rodgers, who turned 29 on Sunday.  He is now the same age as Browns rookie QB Brandon Weeden.  Just sayin’.

Denver (9-3) wins vs. Tampa Bay (6-6), 31-23

I SAW the Broncos clinch the AFC West by riding a third quarter smackdown to their seventh straight win.  In the early going, this game lived up to its under the radar billing (over their last six games before Sunday Tampa Bay and Denver had scored 32.6 and 30.5 points per game, respectively) while the two teams played to a field position 10-7 stalemate at halftime.  But the Broncos came out in the second half and retook the lead with a 21-0 outburst in the third to all but seal the game.  In the end, Denver scored 30-plus points for the sixth time during their win streak.  Last year under the jars-of-clay slow Tim Tebow offense the Broncos surpassed that output only twice all season.  That’s what a healthy Peyton Manning will do for you – especially once he develops a rapport with his receivers….

I SAW that if anyone was wondering how long it would take Broncos QB Peyton Manning to develop timing with his receivers, look no further than the TD pass to WR Demaryius Thomas in the third quarter.  Manning threw the ball to a spot in the end zone without having any visual indication when and/or where Thomas was going to cut.  The ball reached its target at the perfect moment.

During the game Manning passed Dan Marino’s 4,967 career completions for second-most in NFL history behind Brett Favre’s 6,300.  According to Elias Sports Bureau Manning also sits alone at second – one behind Favre – with 71 3+ TD games.

I SAW, speaking of rapport, Bucs QB Josh Freeman is really developing one with Manning’s former favourite tight end, Dallas Clark.  The two have hooked up for 15 receptions and 3 TDs in the last 4 games.  Through the first 8 games they connected for 19 catches for one score.

I SAW Buccaneers rookie wunderkind RB Doug Martin get held under 60 yards rushing for the second straight game.  Sunday also marked the first game for Martin as a pro that he failed to have a rush of 10 yards or more.

Credit Denver’s defense, which is peaking at the right time.

I SAW Denver LB Von Miller score his first career TD on a 26-yard interception return.  Surely it’s the first of many.

Cincinnati (7-5) wins vs. San Diego (4-8), 20-13  

I SAW the Bengals win their fourth straight game.  They’ve scored an average of 28.3 over that span.  Unfortunately this team can play as well as it wants, but with Big Ben due back for the Steelers and the Ravens and Colts ahead of them with softer schedules to play, Cincy needs help to make the postseason.  Still, at this point, with the way they’re playing, they can’t blame themselves if they don’t.

I SAW the Chargers fall deeper and deeper into despair.  They’ve now lost their fourth straight and seven of their last eight games.  It’s mathematically possible that they can make the playoffs… Much like how it’s mathematically possible that I will end up dating Monica Bellucci.

Welcome to the team where talented rosters equate to mediocrity.  Since their last playoff appearance in the ’09 season the Chargers are 21-23.  There are four games left in head coach Norv Turner’s sixth campaign as head coach and already San Diego is guaranteed to finish at .500 or worse for the third time in the last five years.

It’s time to banish Norv back to the land where he belongs – and thrives: The realm of coordinators.  Just please keep him there, no matter how well he coaches again.  Wade Phillips too.

Come to think of it, it might be time to banish the whole team.  On Sunday the ’Bolts were blacked out on television in Southern California for the second straight game and the third time this season.

Time to take the franchise for a permanent trip?

I SAW Bengals DT Geno Atkins get another sack, giving him 9.5 for the season.  The numbers don’t tell the whole story, though.  Atkins is taking over the middle of the field with brute strength.  He has power and a low center of gravity reminiscent of Hall Of Famer John Randle.

I SAW Chargers QB Philip Rivers add to his fourth quarter turnover total.  He now has eleven on the season – tops in the league.  That’s not good.

Part of the problem is that the franchise never did much to replace WR Vincent Jackson, who departed for Tampa Bay as a free agent.  Former Saint Robert Meachem was signed, but that hasn’t exactly worked out.  On Sunday he had zero targets for the second straight game – his fifth game this season without a reception.  Whoopsie-doodle.

Buffalo (5-7) wins vs. Jacksonville (2-10), 34-18

I SAW our first truly meaningless, craptastic contest of the season.

I SAW the Bills win for the third time in eight games to somehow stay mathematically alive for the playoffs, proving that even math itself can be daft.

Buffalo QB Ryan Fitzpatrick didn’t care much for probability on Sunday.  He had to finish the game without his two top receivers – Donald Jones, who was inactive with a bad calf and Stevie Johnson, who left the game with a hamstring injury – his starting center and right tackle.  But Fitzpatrick led his offense on five straight scoring drives to put the game out of reach.  Take that, overpriced contract!

I SAW Bills RB Fred Jackson rush for 109 yards.  His teammate, RB C.J. Spiller scored on an impressive 44-yard run that essentially put the game out of reach for the Jaguars.

When healthy – which has been seldom – this might be the best one-two punch in any backfield in the NFL.  (Though Arian Foster and Ben Tate might argue that from Houston.)

I SAW Jags QB Chad Henne struggle for the first time this season, completing a measly 18 of his 41 passes.  It was bound to happen sooner or later.  Jacksonville might be making a mistake if they think their search for a consistent starting quarterback has ended with Henne.  There’s a reason he was turfed out of Miami.  He threw one pick, and was stripped of the ball by a certain resurgent defensive end….

I SAW Bills DE Mario Williams finally start to play well.  He now has five sacks in his past three games and six in the five since having wrist surgery.  He now has 9.5 sacks – just 6.5 left to equal the amount of millions he gets paid this season.

I took a look back at most of Williams’ sacks over his career.  On a startling majority of them he appeared to beat his blocker with a swim move.  This entails sweeping one arm around and over an opponents’ head while running across his chest.  It’s a common move to gain space among players of all positions, but in my opinion Williams seems to use it more than most pass rushers.  There are two key components to a successful swim move: Footwork and the non-swimming hand, which jams the opponent in the opposite direction as the arm sweeps by above.  This is relevant in Williams’ case because a bad wrist can weaken the jam move with the lower hand, thus rendering his go-to move seriously ineffective.

Maybe the wrist injury was a bigger factor than most of us had realized, and maybe Mario is back to his Super ways.  Of course, a lot more games need to be played well by him in order to justify that 6-year, $96 million contract.

New York Jets (4-8) wins vs. Arizona (5-7), 7-6

I SAW our second truly meaningless, craptastic contest of the season.

I SAW the two teams in the league with the most god-awful QB situations go head to head.  Each QB the Jets and Cardinals have put under center this season might get cut by most other NFL teams and Sunday didn’t exactly prove otherwise, as the offenses stalled more than Redd Foxx’s truck in Sanford & Son.

Sanford & Sons

I SAW Jets QB Mark Sanchez get benched for the first time in his professional career – for good reason.  Cardinals S Kerry Rhodes intercepted him on New York’s first play of the game.  Three interceptions later (and 10-for-21 with 97 yards – ugh) something had to give.  After all, Sanchez has been so dirty this season that he’s committed at least two turnovers in eight starts this season.  Since biblical backup Tim Tebow was still out with two broken ribs the Jets QB with the best arm finally went under center: Greg McElroy, who came into the game and threw the winning touchdown on his first NFL drive.

Think that’s funny?  McElroy’s college stats don’t exactly take a back seat to Sanchez’s:

College Careers

Sanchez McElroy
W-L 14-2 24-3
Comp % 64.3 66.3
TD-INT 41-16 39-10
Yards/Attempt 8.1 9.2
Round Drafted 1st 7th

At any rate, until Wednesday it wasn’t clear whom Rex Ryan would go with next week as his starter.  The Jets head coach tried to do a Jim Harbaugh impersonation by tap-dancing at the podium around the matter of who will play QB by saying he had three qualified pivots… it’s just that Ryan looked more like he was doing it from the short bus than Harbaugh does.  Ryan’s ploy was about as graceful as a pregnant yak, or as a New York Post headline described the situation, “Mirage A Trois.”

That’s probably why the act didn’t hold up, as Ryan has announced he will stick with Sanchez as the starter.  While most numbers aren’t on Sanchez’s side, one is: $8.25 million.  That’s what Sanchez is due next season in guaranteed money, so the Dirty One isn’t going anywhere.  Mind you he might not start next year, since, as NFL Network’s Tom Waddle put it, “the Jets can win with Sanchez, but not because of him.”  Waddle’s right.  The only time Sanchez succeeded consistently was when the team was so talented that he was the supporting cast, making the contract extension GM Mike Tannenbaun signed him to in the offseason seem all the more stupid.

I SAW that the Cardinals’ QB situation isn’t much better than the Jets’.  Third stringer Ryan Lindley stunk up the New Meadowlands in historic fashion with 72 yards on 31 pass attempts.  Lindley is the second quarterback in the Super Bowl era with less than 75 yards and at least 30 attempts.   (ESPN Stats & Information)  The other was Stan Gelbaugh in 1992 against the Eagles.  When you’re mentioned in the same company as Stan Gelbaugh it’s time to get benched.

So to the bench Lindley has gone, now that head coach Ken Wisenhunt has re-named John Skelton the starting QB.  This quarterback carousel is filled with nothing but dead horses.

Understand that Arizona can’t run the ball either, as was evident Sunday, when they gained just 67 yards rushing against the Jets’ 30th-ranked run defense coming into the weekend.  In fact, 40 of those yards came on a fake punt, so, yeah.  The Cardinals suck on offense.  Poor Larry Fitzgerald.

I SAW PROPS to Cardinals CB Patrick Peterson for a jumping one-handed cradle interception that sent Jets QB Mark Sanchez to the pine.

The Arizona defense has been showing weaknesses but they’re still one of the most talented defenses in the league.  They’re just not good enough to carry a team with an offense that’s capable of going 0-for-15 on third down, as ’Zona’s did on Sunday.

I SAW that Jets K Nick folk couldn’t have picked a worse time to play a game of H-O-R-S-E.  He hit the left upright on a 46-yard missed field goal and then followed that up with a 52-yarder off of the right upright later on.

Cleveland (4-8) wins @ Oakland (3-9), 20-17    

I SAW our third truly meaningless, craptastic contest of the season.

I SAW the Browns win for the fourth time in seven games and the Raiders lose their fifth straight.  Cleveland matched their win total from last year, and Oakland is now officially eliminated from the playoffs for the tenth straight season.

I SAW Browns QB Brandon Weeden pass for a career high 364 yards.

With all due respect to the players involved, the rest of this shit-stain of a game is best left to pass in silence.

SNF- Dallas (6-6) wins vs. Philadelphia (3-9), 38-33

I SAW a big game for Dallas go down in the Death Star Sunday night.  Since Emperor Jerry Jones’ new stadium was built his players have played like clumsy, dumb Stormtroopers inside it.

But the Cowboys snapped an eight game losing streak in Sunday night games, on the strength of its offense.  QB Tony Romo had a 150.5 passer rating – the highest of his career as a starter.  (He went 2-for-2 for a 158.3 rating in mop-up duty during a game in 2006.)  But most people are willing to admit that Romo is an inconsistent performer.

The most notable success for Big D on Sunday was the return of The Lover, RB “Don Juan” DeMarco Murray, who started after missing six games with a sprained foot.  Murray looked gimpy at times, but the need for his presence was clear: head coach Jason Garrett called three straight running plays for his tailback to start the game.  They were the first rushing plays ran by Dallas after calling 52 straight passing plays to finish the last game – their Thanksgiving Day loss to Washington.

Time out….!  This might be the best evidence yet that Garrett is an awful play caller.  It doesn’t matter who’s healthy, or what the score of the game is.  No team should ever go a whole half of football without a running play.  Does Garrett hold a Playstation controller on the sideline?

Reality did its best to point out the err of Garrett’s ways when, on third-and-3 – an ideal situation to at least give the appearance of running the ball – he took Murray out of the game for the first time.  Romo was sacked.  Cue the forehead slap.

I SAW that Cowboys WR Dez Bryant has come alive in a big way.  On a micro scale, his second half surge helped win the day for Dallas.

Dez Bryant By Half, Sunday

First Half Second Half
Target % 5.9 50.0
Receptions 1 5
Reception Yards 14 84
Reception TD 0 2

(ESPN Stats & Information)

Most reassuring was that Bryant didn’t drop any of the passes thrown his way.  (But that shouldn’t obscure the fact that the Eagles DBs are playing worse than any other such group in the second half of this season.)

On a macro level, over the last four games the third-year wideout has averaged 7.3 receptions, 118.75 yards and has caught six total touchdowns.  If this can carry over into next season and give Romo another receiver he can trust other than TE Jason Witten it could be a huge step forward.

I SAW Eagles rookie RB Bryce Brown put up another huge stat line Sunday, with 169 yards and two touchdowns.  In his first two career starts, Brown has rushed for a staggering 347 yards on 43 carries – an 8.1 average – and four TDs.

Unfortunately in fumbling four times in those same two games Brown has shown that he bears too much resemblance to his teammate, QB Michael Vick in that he seems capable of putting up huge numbers but can’t seem to keep the football against their body when they run.  There’s almost no doubt that the coaching staff has communicated this to both players, and yet they still can’t be disciplined on the field.  Until Brown can get that right his production comes at a price.

I SAW Cowboys QB Tony Romo throw his 166th career TD pass, giving him one more than Hall Of Famer Troy Aikman for the franchise record.

In the second half Sunday night Romo threw three TDs and completed all of his 10 passes.  He’s only the fifth quarterback to do so since the millennium, all of whom threw exactly three TDs each.

QBs With 3+TDs and 100% Completion In The Second Half Since 2000

Player Year Completions Opponent
Tony Romo, DAL 2012 10-10 PHI
Drew Brees, NO 2011 12-12 CAR
Josh Freeman, TB 2010 9-9 SEA
Aaron Brooks, NO 2003 8-8 NYG
Jeff Garcia, SF 2000 9-9 DAL

(Elias Sports Bureau)

I SAW Eagles head coach Andy Reid name Nick Foles the team’s starting QB for the rest of the season.  Michael Vick has not yet passed stage four of the NFL battery of concussion tests, but this move has likely been made both out of concern for Vick’s health and to see if Foles can show signs that would indicate to the franchise what they should be planning to do at that position in the years to come.  So far, Foles is improving each week.

I SAW NFL Network and NFL.com make news out of the fact that Cowboys owner Jerry Jones admitted to cheering for the Redskins Monday Night.  No shit he would!  New York leads the division and a loss to Washington helps Dallas’ slim playoff hopes more than the opposite does.  It’s gratuitous reporting like this that inaccurately sustains the Cowboys’ image as America’s Team.

MNF- Washington (6-6) wins vs. New York Giants (7-5), 17-16  

I SAW the first meaningful December game in D.C. in a long time.  Washington looked out of the playoff picture a month ago at 3-6, but now with the Giants’ loss and a Cowboys win the NFC East is up for grabs.  The ’Skins are in the thick of it, riding a three game winning streak during which they have outscored their opponents by an average of 11 points, and everyone knows why…

I SAW Rookie QB Robert Griffin III ready to go in front of the home crowd Monday night.  His 13-for-21, 163-yard day was good enough to amount to a 101.9 passer rating.  He also ran five times for 72 yards.  Remember how horny we all were when Panthers QB Cam Newton set a rookie rushing record for a quarterback with 706 yards?  Griffin now has 714 with four games remaining.

Considered on their own, RG3’s passing and rushing stat lines don’t tell the whole story.  He clearly took over this game, but how?  The answer lies in the combination of both his passing and running skills and the offensive scheme that tries to maximize the threat of both.

As ESPN analyst Jon Gruden aptly stated, Griffin puts defending players “in conflict.”  What the former head coach and QB coach means is that the Redskins offense relies on the zone read handoff and various rollout passing packages to isolate numbers mismatches against the defense.  In other words, the goal is to create situations where one defender is caught in a space where he must choose between two players to cover (or two defenders making similar choices against three opposing players).  The math is simple; a defender can’t cover two people at once.  The execution is another matter.  It takes a special sort of quarterback to be quick, athletic, smart and patient enough to find those mismatches and exploit them with precision timing and deft ball fakes.  He has to hold the ball – either during a option handoff or on the run with a teammate trailing him for a potential lateral – and make the right decision(s) to get it up field once the defender has favored one of the options.

However, so far all I’ve done is describe what Tim Tebow did last year in Denver.  What makes Griffin so unique is his throwing ability.  Newton has a great arm, but he doesn’t yet have the precision and touch that RG3 does.  That scares the hell out of defenses.  At times it even confuses them.  Both happened on Monday night.

The fear: New York’s pressure-oriented defense had zero tackles for a loss in the game – a sign that the ballhandling from RG3 and the running game had the defending champs’ front seven on their heels defensively.  This was also evident in the fact that the seam pattern was open all night for Washington.  The part of the field that this pattern is run to is typically policed by linebackers and safeties, but those positions also have big responsibilities in terms of trying to hem in the multitude of angles Griffin and his backs can choose to take once the ball is snapped.  Over time what ends up happening is the defensive ends and ’backers start getting soft on outside contain, which only adds to the disarray….

The confusion: The initial move to isolate defenders in numeric mismatches is made via handoff fakes.  A read option system usually uses at least one ball fake per play, and that wears on the minds and quick-twitch muscles of the front seven, resulting in bad discipline.  Case in point: In the second half Monday night Giants DE Jason Pierre-Paul bit so bad from the defensive end position on a fake inside handoff that led to a long RG3 run that he dove into the middle of the line while Griffin had already taken it outside.

The coup de grace is the pistol formation.  In it, the quarterback lines up just four yards behind center for a long snap, as opposed to the usual seven yards in a shotgun formation.  The running back also lines up about three yards directly behind the QB.  What this does is increase the tempo because the entirety of ball fakes, reads, and rushing angles happen closer to the line of scrimmage than usual and as a result each play out of the pistol develops faster.

Washington used the pistol 223 times this season.  The next closest team is the Bills, with 44 plays out of the formation.  Monday night is a microcosm of the success the Redskins have had with the setup:

Redskins Offense By Formation vs. Giants

Pistol Other
Plays 32 20
Yards 259 111
Yards Per Rush 8.2 3.0

(ESPN Stats & Information)

Also, while in the pistol 101 yards were gained on 7 rushes that employed the zone read option.

Not to take away from Griffin – as mentioned, it still requires a special athlete to make it work – but this offense is more dangerous as a scheme than people realize.  It takes the principles of the Wildcat fad and makes them feasible and more unpredictable.  It’s also nothing new.  The read option fake used to tear defenses apart before the passing game took over football at all levels.  Other schemes come and go because defensive coordinators figure out ways to stop it.  The option never got figured out; it just got, ahem, passed over in favor of the sexier air attack.

If there’s a way to teach one player to defend two potential ballcarriers at once, well, there isn’t.  Combine that with the more recent innovation of the pistol formation, add a quarterback whose arm can excel in a traditional passing offense and you’ve got something special.

I SAW the Giants see their steak of 26 straight games won on the road when holding a halftime lead snapped.  According to STATS LLC, you have to go back to 2006 against Tennessee for the last time this happened.

I SAW Washington become the first team in league history to have a rookie QB (Robert Griffin III) throw for 2,000 yards and a rookie RB (Alfred Morris) rush for 1,000 yards in the same season.

I SAW myself wondering: Has there ever been a rookie quarterback more prepared for the media as Robert Griffin III, who said after the game that teammate and fellow first-year pro RB Alfred Morris had his vote for Rookie Of The Year?  Moments earlier during the same postgame press conference RG3 was asked a repetitive question and he smoothly chastised the reporter, saying he’d “already [gone] through that.”  What’s so engaging about Griffin is that he handles striving for excellence so naturally that it spreads to his demeanor, to the extent that he almost casually demands the best from everyone around him.  That’s a leader.

STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK FOR WHAT I SAW, WEEK 14 – HERE AT TFQ. 

IN THE MEANTIME, FOLLOW US ON FACEBOOK.

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2 thoughts on “What I Saw, Wk 13 2012

  1. Pingback: What I Saw, Wk 14 2012 | The Fifth Quarter

  2. Pingback: What I Saw, Wk 15 2012 | The Fifth Quarter

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