What I Saw, Turkeygasm 2013

Blair Miller > WHAT I SAW – TURKEYGASM 2013

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.

Follow us on Facebook and @TFQuarter

A Special Thanksgiving Thursday Edition

Welcome to TFQ’s annual Turkeygasm, folks!

Hope you’ve dusted off the tryptophan blues and shopped off that family time-induced hangover this Black Friday.

Q: How would families survive holidays without alcohol? A: Pot, I guess.

Q: What’s sexier than turkey dinner?

Turkey tan lines

Thank god this bird got a Brazilian job….

A: Thanksgiving Day football!

Week 13 is bursting with intrigue.  The Saints start their batshit crazy 4-game stretch, the Chiefs get another crack at the Broncos, Tennessee-Indy all of a sudden could help decide the AFC South, and who knew Chargers-Bengals would have the potential ramifications it does?

But first we get the annual trifecta of Thursday games, and while parts of the day weren’t pretty there was a lot of exciting things going on, so let’s get to it.

Detroit (7-5) wins vs. Green Bay (5-6-1), 40-10

I SAW the Lions rip off 37 straight points en route to a 40-Burger over the Packers.

It was a milestone day in the Motor City in numerous ways:

According to the Fox Broadcast:

Thursday’s victory was the first Thanksgiving Day win for the Lions since 2003.  (Keep in mind that Detroit plays on Thanksgiving Thursday every year.)

Detroit had its most rushing yards in a game since 1997, with 241.

Surprisingly, the win was QB Matthew Stafford’s first against Green Bay.

The Lions not only snapped a two-game losing streak – they beat the Packers for the first time in six chances.

According to ESPN Stats & Information:

The 30 points was Detroit’s largest margin of victory on Thanksgiving Day since 1997 and their biggest win over Green Bay on Turkey Day in 21 meetings.

The win was also the Lions’ largest over the Pack since 1973.

Coming into Thursday, the Motor City had lost 15 out of 16 overall to the Cheeseheads.

I SAW the Packers suffer their first 5-game winless streak since 2008 (which includes a tie last week).  In The Most Obvious Non-Coincidence Dept., those five games are the ones QB Aaron Rodgers has been unable to play in or finish since breaking his collarbone.

It’s too early to write off Green Bay’s playoff hopes – they could conceivably run the table and squeeze into January with a 9-6-1 record – but they’re on the ropes worse than Ali was against Foreman in the Rumble in The Jungle.  On Thursday both sides of the ball came out flat for the first time this season, with disastrous results.  In fact, only one other team in the last decade has been outgained by more yards in a game:

Largest Single-Game Yardage Margin – NFL, Last 10 Seasons

Year Team Opponent Margin
2005 Eagles Niners 441
2013 Lions Packers 435
2009 Patriots Titans 432
2012 Niners Bills 417

(ESPN Stats &Information)

Remember that silly game in the snow when Tom Brady and Randy Moss made a joke out of the Titans?  The Lions gave it to the Packers as hard as that on Thursday.

Let’s say that Detroit gave Green Bay a Thanksgiving Day Shocker, Turkey-style….

turkey shocker

I SAW Lions DE Ziggy Ansah notch his sixth sack of the season, the most among NFL rookies this season.  What’s more impressive is that according to ESPN Stats & Information all six of them have come as part of a 4-man pass rush.  In other words, no Lions were blitzing on those plays to overwhelm the opposing offensive line.  On the other hand, tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley attract enough attention from blocking schemes that Ansah rarely sees any double teams.

Nevertheless, not bad for a kid who never played football until 2010 at BYU.

I SAW Lions LB DeAndre Levy make his league-leading sixth interception Thursday.  He’s been a huge presence in a pass defense replete with weaknesses.

I SAW the Reggie Bush experiment continue with high success.  It was roundly believed that the Lions offense desperately needed a playmaking running back to open up the playbook, and Bush had done just that.  His line on Thursday: 20 carries for 117 yards (5.9 average) and a TD, plus 5 receptions for 65 yards (13.0 average).  The numbers are even more impressive if you consider that backfield mate Joique Bell had 19 carries of his own (for 94 yards), most of which came in the second half to burn clock once the lead was established.  When the game was more in question, Bush had 132 yards from scrimmage in the first half.

From a broader perspective, the former _____ winner (I can’t say “Heisman” because he had his award earned while at USC stripped for financial violations) had his seventh 100-yard rushing game of the season.  Only Jamaal Charles (9) and Matt Forte (8) have more.

Conversely, another running back wasn’t able to sustain his own success in the game….

I SAW Packers RB Eddie Lacy get bottled up by the Lions front seven on Thursday.  The rookie tailback had been a godsend in Wisconsin for much of this season, but not in this game.  He gained just 1.6 yards per rush (16 on 10 carries) and didn’t have a run longer than 4 yards.  Overall, Green Bay fail to record a rushing first down all game.  According to Elias Sports Bureau, it was the first time since 1990 that the Packers failed to record a first down on the ground in a game.

I SAW Packers CB Sam Shields return from a hamstring injury to play some of the better defense on Lions WR Calvin Johnson I’ve seen this season – at times.  In a testament to the unstoppable force that is Megatron, Johnson still put up 101 yards and a touchdown on 6 catches.

Dallas (7-5) wins vs. Oakland (4-8), 31-24

I SAW the Raiders snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Oakland started off great.  Dallas handed them a fumble on the opening kickoff that they returned for a touchdown.

TRIVIA BOMB:

According to Elias Sports Bureau, Raider Greg Jenkins’ fumble return for a TD off of the opening kickoff on Thursday was the first time that had happened since the Saints’ Tyrone Drakeford pulled a scoop-and-score against the Panthers in 1999.

Then, for the whole first half the Silver & Black marched down the field on America’s Team like they were America’s doormat, at one point converting six straight first downs, five of which came on completions by the surprising rookie QB Matt McGloin.  The Penn State alum looked great in the first half, but after halftime a usually weak Dallas defense decided to shut down the league’s 5th-best rushing attack, holding it to 51 yards for the game.  When the Cowboys D was able to focus on McGloin, they carved him up in the glavin like a TurFrink-y and the chains stopped moving.  After a conversion on the first play of the second quarter, Oakland didn’t get another first down on offense until the fourth quarter and was never able to regain momentum.

I SAW the Raiders take it to Dallas in the first half, with a confidence not seen from the Silver & Black for several years. 

I’ll say this about Oakland: They’ve shown a lot more character than I expected them to in head coach Dennis Allen’s second year on the job.  I admit I didn’t have much faith in his ability to keep the team together through what would surely be tough times that would include the usual bad breaks, like Mad Made Of Glass RB Darren McFadden’s 685th injury of his 6-year career.  The quarterback position has undergone the sort of flux – the birdbrained trade for Matt Flynn in the hopes he’d win the starting job, the ascension of Terrelle Pryor to uber-talented but awfully flawed status, followed by being forced to start Mr. Afterthought, Matt McGloin – that can derail a franchise’s season.  It’s not like the Raiders are taking the league by storm or anything.  After all, they have twice as many losses as wins.  But they’ve looked really good for stretches, and through the darkness have found several players that they might be able to depend on as they continue to rebuild after the salary cap purgatory that the final years of late owner Al Davis (not to mention the dooming trade for Carson Palmer afterward) relegated them to.  I’m thinking RB Rashad Jennings, CB Mike Jenkins, and even McGloin, be he a competitor with Pyror for the starting job, a la the Nick Foles to Pryor’s Michael Vick, or a solid backup that any team would like to groom.

Of course, it could all fall apart at a moment’s notice like it so often does in Oaktown.  But that looks less likely than usual.

I SAW Cowboys QB Tony Romo turn around a dud of a first half with a perfect second half.

Really.  After an 11-of-20 yawner in the first half – including a second quarter during which Oakland outgained Dallas 135-0 in total yards until a 2-minute drill from the ’Boys – Romo rebounded with a sterling 12-of-12 second half and finished with a 101.7 passer rating.  How’d the Big D quarterback turn it around?  By keeping it short and simple, stupid.  According to ESPN Stats & Information none of Romo’s second half passes traveled more than 14 yards downfield….

Here I go!  This is the moment when I succumb to my Romophobia and have to point out the quarterback’s shortcomings despite his good play.

I might as well just throw a title on this repetitive criticism….

A Romophobic Outburst

Over the last week or two I’ve been hearing the same comment from experienced former pro QBs-cum analysts like Kurt Warner and Phil Simms: One of the main reasons for Romo’s improved performance this season is that the Dallas coaching staff has simplified the offense, narrowing Romo’s options on reads so that he makes less mistakes.

Does that sound like an elite quarterback to you?  Will we ever hear that about Brady, Manning, Brees or Rodgers?

I SAW – by god, it’s true, I did see – the Cowboys stick with the run game instead of panicking when they fell behind on the scoreboard.  I’ve harped on this for at least a year, but Dallas’ offense – particularly skittish QB Tony Romo – desperately needs balance in order to succeed.  On Thursday they found some, in stark contrast to earlier in the season:

Cowboys Rushing – 2013 Season

First 11 Games Thursday vs. OAK
Rush Play % Of Total 31.6* 46.0^
Rush Yards per Game 79.7 144
Rush TD 6 3

(ESPN Stats & Information)

*-3rd-lowest rate in NFL

^-Team’s 2nd-highest rate of the season

It paid off in scoring, too.  Somehow this was RB “Don Juan” DeMarco Murray’s first game of his career with multiple rushing touchdowns.  How can that be?

Baltimore (6-6) wins vs. Pittsburgh (5-7), 22-20

I SAW another vintage hard fought match between these two bitter rivals.  It’s generally close, though: According to the NBC Broadcast, Steelers versus Ravens has been decided by an average margin of victory of 5.4 points per game since 2008.  That’s the lowest margin of victory for any divisional rivalry in the NFL over that span.

So, as is so often their tendency, Baltimore and Pittsburgh traded blows in a game during which points were at a premium and players dropped like flies.  The heaviest injury moment came late in the game when Steelers rookie RB LaVeon Bell got hit so hard in the helmet on a TD attempt that it went flying and Bell had to be helped off the field after a scary moment of what looked like a loss of consciousness.  It seems like at least one violent collision of this sort happens in every game between these two teams.  Pittsburgh eventually scored on that drive to cut the Baltimore lead to two points with just over a minute left, when an Emanuel Sanders dropped pass in the end zone on what would have been the tying two-point conversion lost the game – albeit on a tough ball to catch.  But I always say: If the pass hits you in the hands you’ve gotta do what you’re paid to do – catch the damn ball.  After that, all the Ravens needed was a failed onside kick attempt to enhance their playoff hopes.

I SAW an early 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 Steelers Defense

I’ve been fairly critical of the play of Ravens QB Joe Flacco since being signed to that humongous contract in the offseason, mostly because he hasn’t played nearly well enough to justify the elite status of that deal.  According to ESPN Stats & Information, Flacco had completed just 52 percent of his passes against five or more pass rushers coming into Thursday night’s game – good for a ranking of 31st among 38 eligible quarterbacks.  Not exactly the poise under pressure one hopes to see from a guy getting paid over $100 million.

But against Pittsburgh on Turkey Day Flacco was hardly the usual basted bird that he has been against the blitz.  He went 7-for-10 against five or more rushers Thursday night, his highest completion percentage against additional pressure so far this season.

Gee, I wonder if the aging Steelers defensive backs had anything to do with that?  CB Ike Taylor made some good plays at times, but overall the group looked a step behind all night – literally and figuratively.

If S Troy Polamalu’s silly, undisciplined gambles didn’t work every once in a while he wouldn’t be a decent safety, let alone one that many consider a potential Hall Of Famer.  Polamalu was up to his usual stare at the quarterback, lose the receiver he should be covering antics against Baltimore on at least two plays: The long completion on a bomb to WR Torrey Smith to the Pittsburgh 1-yard line near the start of the game, and in the second half when he abandoned his man, RB Ray Rice to rush Flacco.  On the latter play, it was all Polamalu could do to jump desperately at the ball while it sailed over his hands and to a wide-open Rice for an important first down.  How a player as “seasoned” as Polamalu would make such a decision is beyond me.  He likely streaked towards Flacco because he read the play somewhat accurately.  But if he knew the play was going to be a pass and saw that Rice was releasing to the flat and thus wasn’t going to block him, there’s simply no way the safety could have gotten to the quarterback in time to influence the play before the pass was thrown.  The pre-snap defensive alignment gave no indication that another defender was going to be able to rotate into the space vacated by Polamalu, either.  The play was vintage stink from Polamalu: Smellin’ of Troy.

troy McClure

(Fox Broadcasting)

It was all part of a bigger picture depicting a set of DBs that was overmatched against a receiving corps that has been struggling to produce this season.

I SAW the Ravens defense go about its usual business.  It might not be as outstated as it has been in years past when it was led by future Hall Of Famers Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, but it’s getting the job done and still retains some of its previous identity.  I bet you didn’t know that Baltimore has allowed the least rushing TDs in the NFL this season – they allowed just their second one on Thursday.  LB Terrell Suggs hasn’t had the impact he usually does, but his fellow ’backer Daryl Smith has done an excellent job of manning the defense after Lewis’ retirement.  Add the usual deft acquisitions like DE Elvis Dumervil (free agency), LB Arthur Jones (drafted this year) and CB Corey Graham (signed before last season from Chicago and is really coming into his own) that have upheld the tough physical standards of this D, and all of a sudden the Ravens look ready to push their way into the playoffs.  Well, maybe not so much on the road.  The D gives up two TDs more on average on the road than at home.  (ESPN Stats & Information)

I SAW Steelers WR Antoino Brown have a quieter game than usual but still maintain a singular level of production.  He only managed 5 catches for 59 yards against the tough Baltimore corners, but Brown is the only player in the NFL this season to record at least 5 catches and 50 receiving yards in every game.  (ESPN Stats & Information)

I didn’t think so a year ago, but it’s looking more and more like the Pittsburgh brass made the right decision inking Brown to a big deal last year and letting Mike Wallace walk via free agency last summer.  (Wallace has been the most disappointing free agent acquisition this side of Atlanta’s Steven Jackson.)

I SAW Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin get dirty with Ravens KR Jacoby Jones on a kickoff return late in the third quarter.

Check out the footage.  Pretty bush league, yet kinda funny.

I know Jacoby Jones was on Dancing With The Stars, but that doesn’t mean he wanted to tango with Tomlin while he was streaking down the sideline en route to what, to me, looks like what could have been a touchdown had Tomlin not tried to use his ass to impede Jones, with a hilariously aloof look on his face…looking up at the scoreboard where he surely saw Jones heading his way.

Tomlin told the Associated Press, “I always watch the returns on the JumboTron. It provides a better perspective for me.  I lost my placement as he broke free and saw at the last second how close I was to the field of play.”

Riiight.  Either way, this was no dance.  This was more like some Public Enemy shit.  Tomlin bum-rushed Jones’ show.

bum rush the show 

STAY TUNED FOR THE REGULAR WEEKLY EDITION OF WHAT I SAW, WEEK 13 – HERE AT TFQ.  IN THE MEANTIME, ‘LIKE’ THE FIFTH QUARTER ON FACEBOOK.

What I Saw, Week 12 – 2013

Blair Miller > WHAT I SAW – WEEK 12, 2013

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.

Follow us on Facebook and @TFQuarter

Away from the game(s)

I SAW a wacky weekend in the NFL, making the playoff picture get sexier, if not cloudier.  The whole NFC North went winless this weekend; New England made Denver look bad and themselves look awfully resilient at the same time; numerous Wild Card contenders made big statements, led by the Chargers and Cards.  There are so many teams in the mix.

How I CURRENTLY see it:

AFC

 (1) DENVER (9-2): I’m not a hater – Clockwork Orange is something to behold as an offense – but I’m not going to buy a Peyton Manning-led team making it to Super Sunday until I see it.  The future Hall Of Famer has flopped in the playoffs and big games more often than not.  Sunday night’s loss reminded us of the question, if the elite offense has an off game in the postseason, could the flawed D keep them in it?  That being said, there’s still a status gap between them and the rest of the conference right now.

(2) NEW ENGLAND (8-3): Sunday’s crazy comeback aside (remember – behind every great comeback is a long stretch of playing like shit to dig a hole), this team takes the other bye week almost by default.  That, and because of the injuries to Cincinnati’s defense.  The Patriots are arguably as weak all-around as they have been during the Belichick-Brady era, but it’s still the Patriots we’re talking about and now they’re inside Peyton Manning’s head again.  Oh – and their closing regular season schedule: @ Houston, Cleveland, @Miami, @Baltimore, Buffalo.  The only way I see things going south for New England is if that Ravens game means more than it should to either team.  Bottom line: In so many ways I feel like this team’s postseason life was shortened when DT Vince Wilfork went down, just like Cincy’s was when they lost their own anchor on the D-Line, Geno Atkins….

(3) CINCINNATI (7-4): The Bengals come out of this week’s bye into a gauntlet that will ultimately determine the winner of the AFC North: @Chargers, Colts, @Steelers, Vikings, Ravens.  That Week 17 tilt against Baltimore could be for all the marbles.  Cincy has too many weapons on either side of the ball to give the division away.  Will the North champ snag the third seed?  That depends on the mind-boggling Colts just as much as it does on the Bengals.

(4) INDIANAPOLIS (7-4): What the eff is up with the Colts?  They’ve sunk like a stone the last few games.  You can say that QB Andrew Luck has played against some solid defenses the last three weeks (the Rams, Titans and Cardinals).  I say he’s regressed without WR Reggie Wayne in the lineup.  You can bet that a game breaking possession wideout to compliment speedster T.Y. Hilton will be one of GM Ryan Grigson’s top priorities in the offseason.  For now, if they can’t do a 180 the Colts will be backing into the playoffs faster than Brüno’s boy toy backs into a fire extinguisher.  Hey, it worked for that little Asian guy, and it worked for the Ravens last season.

(5) KANSAS CITY (9-2): No team outside of Indy or Arizona looks as different over the span of the last two weeks as the Chiefs, and now with some key injuries mounting for their headline-making defense (LBs Tamba Hali and Justin Houston join DE Mike DeVito in the infirmary) KC has gone from a contender for the top seed to one that has to be mindful of the teams breathing down their necks for the fifth spot.  It doesn’t help that their rematch against Peyton Manning and the Broncos comes next week, but head coach Andy Reid will keep his team steady enough to make it into January. 

(6) SAN DIEGO (5-6): My gut usually hates the ’Bolts but then I showed it the remaining sched: Bengals, Giants, @Broncos, Raiders, Chiefs.  Those are some tough games.  However, I feel like this team has some weird potential to play up to their opponents – especially QB Philip Rivers.  Also, note that 4 of San Diego’s last 5 are at home in fairer weather, which favours their style of play.  The next two weeks against teams that need to win just as badly as they do in Cincy and New York will likely determine SD’s fate.

THE CONTENDERS/GLOB OF 5-6 TEAMS (from best to worst):

TENNESSEE: This team could very well sneak into the playoffs.  WR Kendall Wright is starting to fulfill his potential and the defense is regaining some of its swagger from the old Jeff Fisher-Gregg Williams days.  In fact, it’s going quite low under the radar that defensive coordinator Jerry Gray is being assisted by none other than the Bountygate icon Williams himself.  The Titans also get Jacksonville and Houston to finish the season.

BALTIMORE: The defending champs may very well have to take the AFC North from Cincy to make the playoffs.  They only face one more team that currently has a losing record and they’re not exactly heading into the home stretch with a head of steam.  The Ravens offense ranks 30th overall and 25th in scoring.  Can you really see it getting any better than it is right now?  It won’t be enough.

PITTSBURGH: Maybe it’s head coach Mike Tomlin, maybe it’s the stubbornness of him and his elderly leaders in the locker room.  Maybe it’s the emergence of WR Antonio Brown (no one burns CB Joe Haden like that) and rookie RB LaVeon Bell.  Maybe the Steelers aren’t so dead after all.

MIAMI: This team is intriguing right now.  It could all fall apart on a moment’s notice but they’ve got the obvious chip on their shoulder from Bullygate, they made a bit of a statement by putting Carolina on the ropes all game, and it kinda looked like QB Ryan Tannehill maybe sorta was starting to develop a vibe with disappointing WR Mike Wallace on Sunday.  In a way.

NEW YORK JETS: If you COMBINE the passer ratings of QB Geno Smith from the last two games you get 34.4.  Total.  Rigor mortis is starting to set in for this offense.  It’s not enough to extend their season – even if the pass defense gets their shit together.

NFC

(1) SEATTLE (10-1): The best team in the NFL – the one with the least amount of weaknesses, anyway.  Having a bye this late in the season (too late, if you ask me) can always threaten to upset a team’s mojo but Seattle’s roster is too good all over the place to slump too much.  If they secure home field advantage they should be the odds-on favourite to take the conference – and the whole shebang.  If offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell keeps the play calling balanced (translation: don’t forget to feed RB Marshawn Lynch the rock) and WR Percy Harvin’s return from injury frees up the field for QB Russell Wilson this team is going to be tough to beat anywhere, let alone in the city with the best home field advantage in the NFL.  I’ve been seeing Seattle’s elite defensive backs give up a few more big plays than usual, but that shouldn’t last…once they’re all healthy again.  The one thing that could bite Seattle in the ass right now: Cornerbacks Brandon Browner (injury) and Walter Thurmond (suspension) are out for at least a month and 4 weeks, respectively.  CB Richard Sherman is going to have to iron out the few kinks he’s shown in his game in recent weeks to help S Earl Thomas carry that unit.

UPDATE: Word is that Browner could be suspended for a year for another drug violation.

While we’re on it, how many Seattle players need to get suspended for violating the NFL substance abuse policy before it becomes seen as an institutional issue?  C’mon man?  C’mon (head coach) Pete Carroll.

(2) NEW ORLEANS (9-2): I was flip-flopping between the Saints and Panthers for the NFC South crown – and the teams haven’t even played the two games against each other yet – but I’m looking at this on a weekly basis and the Saints looked better to me this week than the Panthers did.  Rob Ryan really has the defense flying all over the field in a way that the franchise desperately needed.  As much as QB Drew Brees spreads the ball around (see New Orleans wins @ Atlanta, 17-13) I worry how dependent he is on TE Jimmy Graham.  But if both players stay healthy it shouldn’t matter since this offense gets players free downfield as consistently as any in the NFL – and if they’re not open Brees throws them open.  All of that being said, ’Nawlins has to play in Seattle next week, followed by Panthers-Rams-Panthers.  If they lose two of those three games, they could lose the division.

(3) DETROIT (6-5): The NFC North looked awful this week, and the Lions were no exception.  There are so many key injuries in this division that it’s turned into a bit of a soupy mess at the “top”.  It’s no coincidence that the leader in the division is the only team that has had a healthy quarterback all season.  (Ironically, they also have the best backup in Shaun Hill.)  The offensive line in Detroit has been improved, but credit QB Matthew Stafford for improving on his reads and getting the ball out faster this season to cut down on plays under duress.  The Lions have been the least injury-bitten North team thus far, and I think the Stafford, Calvin Johnson and (to a lesser extent, especially lately) Reggie Bush attack is going to nab them a crucial win or two on the way out of the regular season.  But their pass defense is among the biggest flaws of any NFC playoff team.  Moreover, NFL Network’s Marshall Faulk is right when he says that this team plays without discipline.

(4) PHILADELPHIA (6-5): I just can’t go with Dallas, though they look just as likely to take the NFC East as Philly does.  Let’s just put it out there right now: Whoever wins the division won’t seem deserving of a home game in the Wild Card Round, but that’s what they’ll get.  Like Seattle and Cincy, the Eagles have a weird late bye week this week, and how new head coach Chip Kelly and his team negotiates the week off could play a large role in determining their future.  QB Michael Vick admirably admitted to the media that current starter Nick Foles should remain under center, which could help stabilize Philadelphia’s mindset for the remaining games.  The defense, however, needs a miracle to be stable.  They could end up costing the Eagles a playoff berth, but I think the offense will bail them out just enough – including during that huge Week 17 game in Dallas that looms huge on the horizon.

(5) CAROLINA (8-3): A huge part of me envisions the Panthers wining the South because I doubt if the Saints can come out of their lethal 4-game stretch that starts next week with enough wins to stay ahead of resurgent Carolina.  Mind you, two of those games are against those same Panthers, so the future is tantalizingly unclear.  This doesn’t get said enough, but the more passing-oriented the NFL becomes, one can argue that defense becomes all the more crucial and Carolina’s defense is playing like the best unit in the conference these days.  What I like about this team the most is that despite its youth it’s showing serious moxie.  Over the last few games something different has gone wrong for Carolina – on Sunday it was their uncharacteristically low conversion rate on third down (6-of-17) – but they keep gutting out wins.  It would be a huge boost for the Panthers if their running game could produce like it did against the Dolphins (136 yards).  You’ve gotta love these teams that are too young to know any better.  Overall, this team scares the rest of the NFC – and it should.

(6) SAN FRANCISCO (7-4): I still can’t not see the Niners playing in January, but at times it’s hard.  They can look just as lost as they do good.  On Monday night they handled a vulnerable Redskins team.  Next week they hope to get WR Michael Crabtree back, but reports are uncertain.  The biggest worry at the moment isn’t so much the inconsistent play of QB Colin Kaepernick as it is the inability to get RB Frank Gore and the ground game going.  Gore has averaged just 60.4 yards per game over the last five, and the Niners rank 22nd in the NFL in time of possession.  That’s not San Francisco football.  The notion of team identity can be overused at times, but if a group has built one and it loses it, “identity” can be an issue.  The Niners have only partially gotten back to their identity since a bad start to the season.  If they can’t find it, it’s going to be a long winter.    Having LB Aldon Smith return to form after a troubling season would certainly help.

THE CONTENDERS (from best to worst):

ARIZONA (7-4): BEWARE THE CARDINALS!  Aside from a head-to-head tiebreaker that the Niners hold over them – with the rematch awaiting, in what could be a humongous Week 17 game – Arizona could be in the postseason if it started this week.  How did this happen?  An always-understated defense that is back among the best in the league after adjusting to the departure of coordinator Ray Horton (who’s doing just fine up in Cleveland) is the main reason.  But the other side of the ball seems to be adjusting to a new coaching staff themselves.  QB Carson Palmer’s timing under new head coach Bruce Arian has sharpened, which has in turn helped cut down on quarterback pressures allowed because the ball is moving more crisply down the field.  No one wants to play this team right now.

CHICAGO (6-5): Aside from the Packers, is there another team whose fate has been more determined by injury than the Bears?  The headliner is the absence of QB Jay Cutler (who might be due back soon) but it’s the defense that is ravaged by injury, particularly the interior of the line.  Case in point: The 40-Burger they allowed to the Rams on Sunday.  To make matters worse, RB Matt Forte left that loss with a groin injury.  In other words, if this team makes any moves toward the playoffs late in the season they’re going to be limping while they do.

GREEN BAY (5-5-1): That tie against the Vikings on Sunday could end up killing the Packers.  Obviously their fortunes depend upon the return of QB Aaron Rodgers, but wow has rookie RB Eddie Lacy ever done a great job keeping the offense in games in the star’s absence.  Here’s Lacy’s weekly rushing yard totals since missing Green Bay’s Week 3’s loss to Cincy and then resting on a Week 4 bye: 99, 120, 82, 94, 150 and 73 before laying an egg against the Giants with 27 yards two weeks ago.  But against the Vikings on Sunday he rebounded with 110.  Green Bay’s main concern is their defense.  They’ve sustained so many injuries on that side of the ball that even Minnesota QB Christian Ponder was able to post a 100+ passer rating on them.  The D won’t be able to elevate them high enough to overcome that notch in the tie column.

ST. LOUIS (5-6): It seems like the Rams alternate between drawing scoffs from pundits when its implied that they’re a good team to taking down teams with authoritative, physical performances.  Defensive ends Robert Quinn and Chris Long lead a punishing front seven that can give the best offenses headaches.  The rookie duo of RB Zac Stacy and WR Tavon Austin have developed a feel for the game that is making the offense good enough to steal games when their D flexes its muscle.  If the Rams don’t make the playoffs they’re going to make life difficult for some teams that are trying to play on – St. Loo plays the Niners, Cardinals, Saints and Seahawks before the season is over.

DALLAS (6-5) and NEW YORK GIANTS (4-7): The Cowboys beat the Giants in a nail biter Sunday, but we all know that both of these teams are whacky enough that anything goes for the remaining weeks.  It’s likely they’ll have to win the East to make it to the playoffs.  The Cowboys are the more likely possibility at this point, but they’re just as talented at bungling up the best-made plans as the Giants have proven to be.  For aesthetic reasons, let’s hope both of these teams are watching from the couch in January.  Edge: Dallas, with a 4-0 division record over the G-Men who basically need to run the table to stay alive.

I SAW reason to mention a team on its bye that I didn’t include in the AFC playoff contenders – the Bills.  At 4-7 I just don’t think they have the healthy personnel to make a push.  Having WR Stevie Johnson and RB C.J. Spiller in and out of the lineup has been too much to endure while grooming rookie QB E.J. Manuel.  But this team is no pushover.  I’m not sure how this snuck up on me, but coming into Week 12 Buffalo led the NFL in sacks and interceptions.

Byes: Buffalo, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Seattle

TNF- New Orleans (9-2) wins @ Atlanta (2-9), 17-13

I SAW one of those classic games that by most accounts shouldn’t be close, but ends up being so because it’s a divisional game and the team playing a disappointing season ratchets up the pride meter against a familiar foe.  Add to that the fact that no one likes to get schooled during prime time, and you get a hard-fought game.

Atlanta jumped out to an early score on the first drive but fell behind by halftime, which has been the case in every Atlanta game since Week 7.  In the end, they ended up losing their fifth straight to clinch the first losing season in Hot-Lanta since 2007.

The Dirty Birds made a late push for the win Thursday night but ultimately their O-line ended up being their demise once again….

I SAW the Falcons have a number of issues to address in the offseason – among them a pass rush – but the biggest concern has got to be the offensive line.  There my not be a group in the NFL with slower feet than Atlanta’s hogs.  The Saints tallied a team high this season of 5 sacks – 4 of which came in the second half when it really mattered.  And Falcons QB Matt Ryan was under duress far more often than that.

About that pass rush….

I SAW the ineffectiveness of the Atlanta pass rush stick out like a sore thumb against the Saints and QB Drew Brees.  Brees was 11-for-17 with 134 yards and a TD when the Falcons sent 5 or more rushers Thursday.  Actually, the Falcons lead the league with 14 TDs allowed on plays with 5 pass rushers or more.  (ESPN Stats & Information)  Sure, Atlanta needs help at safety, but their corners aren’t bad at all and no defensive back squad can keep up with opposing receivers when quarterbacks are given the amount of time that the inept rush allows them.

I SAW the most direct way to put a finger on Atlanta’s problems this season: The Falcons rank 30th in turnover differential with -12.  You can do all sorts of other things, but that sort of number has a way of erasing all other good deeds – just like how doing well in that category can cover up other shortcomings.  (Kansas City, I’m looking in your direction.)

I SAW Saints QB Drew Brees continue to spread the ball around like it’s fucking Nutella.

Nutella

Has there ever been a more effective equal opportunity passer than Brees?  Last week he hit 11 different receivers in a win against the Niners.  On their first scoring drive Thursday night he hit 4 different Saints on third down.  On one drive!

I SAW one huge improvement to the Saints offense has been its downfield passing attack, largely due to the return of TE Jimmy Graham to full health.  (Oh – and the return of that Payton coach guy.)  Graham was in and out of the lineup last season due to injury but this year he and Brees have connected on the deep ball in a way that has the quarterback’s mojo back after a season of struggles in that department.  According to ESPN Stats & Information, last year Brees tied for the NFL league with 10 interceptions on throws of 15 yards downfield or longer.  This season he has just two picks in those situations, and both his TD passes on such throws (13) and Graham’s receptions (6) lead the league this season.  In fact, Brees has been downright lethal when going long:

Drew Brees Passing 15+ Yards Downfield – This Season

Category Production NFL Rank
Comp % 53.5 2nd
Yards Per Game 136.6 1st
TD 13 1st

I SAW Saints DL Cameron Jordan have his way with the Falcons O-line Thursday.  He lined up on the edge, inside, and manhandled whoever was tasked with trying to stop him.  When the dust settled Jordan had 3 tackles – 2 for loss – 2.5 sacks, 4 QB hits and a pass deflection.

I SAW what could be considered a changing of the guard game at tight end.  There’s no question that Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez is the G.O.A.T. at the position.  But Saints TE Jimmy Graham is the one most likely to take the torch.  On Thursday – almost certainly the last game the two men will play against each other – Gonzo watched with his 4 catches and 43 yards as Graham Shaqed the crossbar, put up 100 yards and a TD, drew double coverages to free up the underneath areas for the backs to catch the ball and also tied the NFL record for 100-yard receiving games in a season at the position, with 6.  The man he tied?  Why, Gonzalez, of course – who did it twice, in 2000 and 2004.  (Elias Sports Bureau)  Gonzalez also made career catch 1,300 in the game, second only to the incomparable Jerry Rice.

One more note on Graham: According to ESPN Stats & Information the tight end had 26 yards after contact against Atlanta, which is a career high.  That surprises me.  It can mean two things, or both: That Graham is more of a route runner than a guy who makes moves after the catch, or that Brees is so good at getting him the ball in stride at the right place and time that the yards Graham legs out after a catch end up being untouched until he’s tackled or reaches the end zone.    

I SAW Falcons RB Steven Jackson have a decent game, with 63 yards on 16 rushes and a touchdown.  Too bad it was his first good game of the season after being what I thought of as the highest value free agent acquisition of the offseason.

Dallas (6-5) wins @ New York Giants (4-7), 24-21

I SAW the Cowboys tie the Eagles for the NFC East lead with 5 games left.  Let the typical late season shitstorm that is that division begin!

I SAW one key to beating the Giants exposed: Take WR Victor Cruz out of the game.  Dallas locked down on the speedy slot receiver, who was targeted just four times on Sunday.  According to ESPN Stats & information that makes just the fourth time in Cruz’s short career that he has been thrown at four times or less.  (Three of them came in his first six pro games.)

I SAW more “see, Romo is clutch!” talk, making me roll my eyes.  Yes, Cowboys QB Tony Romo did put together a clutch win against the Giants on Sunday.  Yes, he’s the most proficient closer in the league right now, strictly in terms of game-winning drives:

Most Game-Winning Drives, 4th Quarter/OT – Since 2011

Drives
Tony Romo 11
Matthew Stafford 10
Andrew Luck 10

(ESPN Stats & Information)

Look at the company Romo keeps on that list.  Do you think of those guys as established clutch players?  Maybe Luck – if he’d been doing it for more than a season and a half.

Furthermore, I plan to investigate this in the coming months once Romo’s season is over, but I question how many of Romo’s “clutch” wins have come in so-called “must win” games.  I don’t consider Sunday’s big game one that placed too much pressure on Romo since the Giants needed the victory much more.  It feels to me like when the stakes are higher, the Cowboys QB lays eggs.  Research pending – I want to base my Romophobia on data.

I SAW Cowboys RB “Don Juan” DeMarco Murray gain 86 yards on 14 carries – a gaudy 6.1 average.  It can’t be overstated how helpful it is for Dallas to play with balance on offense.  A productive running game helps take the heat off of a suspect offensive line when they have to pass block.

I SAW shame on Cowboys LB Bruce Carter and S Jeff Heath for just standing there like pylons while Giants TE Brandon Myers got up from the turf and waltzed into the end zone after a lunging reception.  (The TD cut the Dallas lead to 8 points.)  Pathetic.

I SAW a bullshit roughing the passer penalty called on Giants LB Mathias Kiwanuka that negated a Dallas turnover.  True, Kiwanuka did hit Cowboys QB Tony Romo in the head area, but he tried not to and was pushed into the quarterback by a Dallas lineman.  If roughing the kicker/punter is nullified when the opposing player is blocked into the kicker/punter, shouldn’t that apply to these situations as well?

I SAW Cowboys CB Morris Claiborne leave the game with a hamstring injury.  How many more injuries can Big D’s D take?

Carolina (8-3) wins @ Miami (5-6), 20-16

I SAW what would have sounded like the silliest thought in September: The Panthers have won seven straight and a playoff bye is within reach.

QB Cam Newton didn’t have a great game on paper, but he showed some house-sized balls when he set up WR Steve Smith for a 19-yard catch and run on fourth down and 10 on his own 20-yard line, trailing by 3 points in the final minutes of the game.  The drive ended with :43 seconds left and a winning TD for the Panthers.

Carolina’s win streak is their best since 2003 (STATS LLC) and with two slugfest wins against the Niners and Patriots coming into this game, there’s no team in the NFL that’s throwing its weight around like head coach Ron Rivera’s squad and their smash-mouth defense.

Will Carolina look past the Buccaneers, next week’s opponent?  They’d better not – with two games against division-leading New Orleans looming, the sky’s the limit for this club.

I SAW – whoa!  I saw Dolphins WR Mike Wallace!

The disappointing and highly paid free agent acquisition caught 5 balls for 127 yards and a TD Sunday against Carolina.  He only caught 50% of the balls he was targeted on, but for a guy who hadn’t caught a touchdown since Week 2 I’m sure Miami will take it.  It would be a huge boost for the ’Fins if Wallace could sustain his production for his team as they push for a playoff berth.

I SAW Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill fuck up the end of a game again, only this time it actually cost his team the game.

Sure, they needed a prayer to take the win against the Panthers, but with scant seconds left and Miami on the Miami 40–yard line with no timeouts Tannehill took the snap, juked, dodged, shucked, jived, beeboped and scatted around with the ball as though he was waiting for the clock to run out – which it did – and then he took a sack.  Game over, there you go, Panthers – wrapped and bagged.

This comes after a game during which Tannehill quizzically ran out of bounds instead of throwing the ball away while nursing a lead near the end of a game.  Luckily the ’Fins beat the Chargers despite Tannehill’s Week 11 blunder, but he paid for the dumber one on Sunday.  I’m thinking that the coaching staff needs to work on teaching their young QB to appreciate the virtues of throwing the ball away.

I SAW the Miami running game’s productivity in the previous game prove to be a mirage.  I bet the Dolphins wish Sunday’s 16 yards on 13 carries from the running backs was the mirage.  Ouch.

Arizona (7-4) wins vs. Indianapolis (7-4), 40-11

I SAW perhaps the most surprising 40-Burger of the season to this point by the Cardinals – their most points in a game this season.  Arizona’s wins are getting less and less surprising as the weeks go by.  The surprise is how easily the Colts have lied down for two of their last three games.

Man, the Colts have fallen on hard times.  They look totally lost, and head coach Chuck Pagano seemed grief-stricken after the game.  Without a reliable possession receiver QB Andrew Luck looks worse at times than he ever did during his rookie season a year ago.  (His 163 yards on Sunday was the second lowest total of his pro career.)  Aside from an aberration of and 80-yard, 5.7 average day from Donald Brown two weeks ago the coaching staff have been grasping at straws trying to find a consistent ball carrier.  And the defense is mistake-prone and very vulnerable downfield – and that was before Indy lost their best defensive back, CB Vontae Davis.

The Colts’ slump isn’t the only recent surprising development that was apparent in this game….

I SAW Cardinals QB Carson Palmer enjoy a mini-resurgence. He’s beaten up on the AFC South over the last three weeks, averaging 324.7 passing yards per game against the Texans, Jags and Colts and he’s looked really good while doing it.  Palmer has cut down on the bad decisions as well, throwing just 2 interceptions over the last four games, and continued to elevate WR Michael Floyd (104 yards on Sunday after 193 against Jacksonville one week ago) while connecting with wideout Larry Fitzgerald for two touchdowns.

That second Palmer TD throw to Fitzgerald was a thing of beauty, the quarterback not being able to step into the throw but arming it out there with mustard and right on target.  Plamer’s showing more of these sorts of moments in recent weeks than he has in years.  Maybe new head coach Bruce Arians and his staff has some new throwing routine that has injected life in to Palmer’s once-dead arm.  To paraphrase Springsteen, maybe some things that die someday come back.  Maybe the resurgence is mostly psychological.  Whatever the reason, Palmer looks legit these days, and he has the maturity to command the huddle during the high-pressure moments that loom on the horizon.   It sounds almost insane, but as long as the running game can sustain some balance on O (120 yards against the Colts) the playoff picture might be Palmer’s to paint.

I SAW the Cardinals join the Panthers as the pair of shocking teams that no one wants to play.  Arizona is riding a 4-game win streak behind head coach Bruce Arians, who tapped into Chuckstrong as an interim head coach, leading the Colts to a similarly rapid ascension. 

I SAW the Cardinals defense continue another great season.  Against a weak Indy offensive line, Arizona was able to lock down receivers with their superior DBs and ’backers, which allowed the D-line to have an extra heartbeat’s worth of time to get to QB Andrew Luck.  The results were convincing: According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Cards pressured Luck on a career-high 15 dropbacks and did so while sending added pressure at their lowest rate this season (29 percent of Colt dropbacks).

I SAW PROPS to Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald for becoming the youngest player in NFL history to reach 11,000 receiving yards.  He beat Randy Moss by 137 days.

San Diego (5-6) wins @ Kansas City (9-2), 41-38

I SAW the Chiefs take another hit to their psyche – and their roster.

Anatomy of A Mini-Slide

In losing two games in a row after a 9-0 start, Kansas City also may have lost two of their best defenders.  Linebackers Tamba Hali (ankle) and Justin Houston (elbow) both left the game with injury, with Houston’s situation looking much more dire.  KC got one sack on Sunday to end their drought in that department, but that hardly serves as ample consolation for a team that might have to play without their two best sack artists.

To make matters worse, the 40-Burger the Chargers hung on the Chiefs on Sunday took some of the shine off of a newfound dominance at Arrowhead stadium with the Broncos coming there to face Kansas City next week.  On top of KC’s failure to get a takeaway at home for the first time this season San Diego made it look easy to march up and down the field against the Chiefs in their own house:

Chiefs Defense At Home This Season

First 5 Games Sunday
Points per Game 12.6 41
Yards per Game 304.8 491
Pass Yards per Game 227.6 387

(ESPN Stats & Information)

Put differently, the Chiefs allowed 65 points total all season at home coming into Sunday when the ’Bolts needed just 60 minutes to put up 41.

Chargers QB Philip Rivers abused the vaunted Chiefs D on the most important sort of play: third downs.  According to ESPN Stats & Information, Rivers completed a paltry 42.3 percent of his passes on the penultimate down during their recent three-game slump but he got well against Kansas City: 11-of-13 for 199 yards on third down.  That’s incredible for any QB – and unacceptable for any defense.

All of a sudden, the defense that was widely viewed as the NFL’s best this season is in serious damage control mode at the worst possible time.

I SAW a sick throw by Chargers QB Philip Rivers to Seyi Ajirotutu to win the game in the clutch.  Perfect timing, perfect trajectory to beat the closing safety and get over the outstretched hands of the cornerback.  You don’t get any better then that.

Is it me, or did Rivers and the Chargers do most of their damage on the left side of the field?  That’s something the Chiefs coaching staff has to notice and address with in-game adjustments.

Is it me, or is the fun that player-analysts and broadcast personalities have with Ajirotutu’s name racist?  The name’s truly not hard to pronounce; his last name is practically spelled phonetically.  Why does everyone have to either celebrate when they pronounce it properly, or just give up as a joke?  Nobody ever did that with (Caucasian) Brett Favre, whose name is much more counterintuitive in terms of pronunciation.  But nobody ever says anything about this.  I guess we are, after all, living in a culture that champions former Toronto Blue Jay Munenori Kawasaki for acting like an exaggerated Asian stereotype.

I SAW the Chargers continue to get loads of production from two players on offense that few expected to put up the numbers that they have:

RB/WR/Little Guy Who Does Whatever Danny Woodhead had 207 total yards against the Chiefs on Sunday, with a receiving TD and a rushing score.  This is by no means the first time the departure of starting back Ryan Mathews from a game due to injury has been a blessing in disguise.  (Is it really in disguise?)  Woodhead is a true (former) Patriot in that he finds ways to make himself available in space way more than his physical stature would indicate.  It’s Woodhead’s Swiss Army knife style of offense that has filled a missing role for QB Philip Rivers since the departure of Darren Sproles to the Crescent City.

WR Keenan Allen has become Rivers’ most reliable target this side of TE Antonio Gates – in his rookie season.  I did not see this coming when the Chargers took Allen in the third round of the draft, but after a slow start he’s had 4 100-yard receiving games and Rivers has targeted him at least 9 times in four games as well.  That’s a lot of trust in a first year wideout, and Allen has rewarded his quarterback for it.  He just needs to get a better sense for the end zone (3 TDs so far this season), but that’s not a knock on the guy.

I SAW a telling state about the limitations of QB Alex Smith and the Chiefs offense.  I’ve been saying for years that Smith is flat-out unproductive when asked to throw downfield beyond 10-15 yards.  On Sunday he was 3-of-3 for 85 yards and a TD on throws 15 yards or more downfield.  Don’t let that success hide the lack of attempts. Coming into the weekend, Smith had managed a ghastly 2.2 completions per game on such throws this season.  RB Jamaal Charles has been amazing this season – only Philly’s LeSean McCoy has more than Charles’ 122.1 total yards from scrimmage per game, and Charles ran for 115 and scored twice Sunday – but it’s clear that won’t be enough unless the Chiefs can find another way to generate big plays.  It’s hard to see them coming from Smith at this point.

I SAW PROPS to Chargers TE Antonio Gates for becoming the fourth tight end in league history to amass 700 receptions and 9,000 yards.  (STATS LLC)

Baltimore (5-6) wins vs. New York Jets (5-6), 19-3

I SAW the Ravens keep their playoff hopes alive, thanks in large part to the resurgence of WR/PR Jacoby Jones, who had 103 yards on four receptions and 108 yards on 5 punt returns.  Jones hadn’t been the same since getting injured on opening night of the season, but on Sunday he moved the chains and set his team up with great field position.  Baltimore is going to need more of that sort of impact from Jones in the following weeks – starting with a huge Thanksgiving tilt against archrival Pittsburgh on Thursday.

The Ravens D played well too, forcing three turnovers and holding the opposing offense to 1-for-12 on third down.  But hey, that offense belongs to the Jets….

I SAW the game of Jets QB Geno Smith continue to deteriorate, especially in the pocket, which is unfortunately where his coaches want him to be:

Geno Smith Inside The Pocket – 2013 Season

First 10 Games Sunday vs. Ravens
Completions per Game 15.1 7
Completion % 59.0 38.9
Yards per Att 7.5 5.4
TD-INT 7-16 0-2

(ESPN STATS & Information)

Come to think of it, now that I’ve looked at those numbers again, Smith has stunk in the pocket all season.

In the first half, the Jets 5.0 yards per play with Josh Cribbs taking the snap on 5 plays out of the wildcat formation.  With Smith under center over the same span they averaged 2.7 (CBS Broadcast).

I heard analyst (and former GM) Charley Casserly declare on NFL Network this week that the Jets would be well served to draft another QB in next years’ draft if a highly rated one is available at their spot.  Ouch.

I SAW Ravens QB Joe Flacco go 14-of-18 with 249 yards and a TD against four pass rushers or less on Sunday.  (ESPN Stats & Information)  I say: Who cares?  Those numbers came against the Jets, who have one of the worst pass defenses in the NFL.  Coming into the weekend Flacco had thrown just 6 touchdowns against 10 interceptions with no blitz.  That’s pretty damn bad for a $100 million quarterback.  Those should be the situations that an “elite” QB makes few mistakes.  But Flacco’s an average QB who had one great playoff run.

Pittsburgh (5-6) wins @ Cleveland (4-7), 27-10

I SAW the Steelers do their best Giants impersonation by starting the season 0-4 and playing them back into playoff contention.  They’ve now won three straight.  Pittsburgh wants to take the rest of the season one game at a time.  They don’t have much time to move on to the next game – they face archrival Baltimore on Thanksgiving Thursday in just four days.  For now I’m sure the Steelers are just glad the Ravens game is actually relevant for them.

I SAW Browns WR Josh Gordon play so well on Sunday that he performed the rare feat of taking a game over despite his team losing by a large margin.  The second year beast of a wideout tied a franchise record with 14 receptions in a game, and set a new one with 237 yards receiving.  It seemed like Gordon was everywhere, catching every manner of throw.  What a game for a rising NFL star.  I predict he’ll become a star due to the fact that he’s putting up huge numbers without a good quarterback.

The only problem?  No one else can do a thing in the passing game for the Browns offense:

Browns QBs By Target – Sunday vs. Steelers

Gordon All Other Browns
Comp-Att 14-17 13-35
Yards Per Att 13.9 2.1
TD-INT 1-0 0-1
Drops 0 2

(ESPN Stats & Information)

I SAW Browns QB Jason Campbell leave the game with a head injury after having his helmet slammed to the turf on a sack.  Too bad for the 31-year old Eriq La Salle lookalike, who had been letting his Soul Glo in recent weeks in what was a mini-revival of his moribund career.

In stepped sophomore disappointment Brandon Weeden who answered boos from the home crowd by pick-ing up where he left off – literally – when he served up a pick-6 to Browns CB William Gay in the fourth quarter to seal the game.

I SAW Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger continue his dominance against the Browns.

TRIVIA BOMB:

Big Ben’s 16-1 career record against Cleveland is tied for the best record against a single opponent by any QB in NFL history.

Best Record Against Single Opponent – QBs To Debut In 1950 Or Later*

Player W-L-T Opponent
Ben Roethlisberger 16-1 Browns
Roger Staubach 16-1 Giants
Tom Brady 21-2 Bills
Len Dawson 20-2 Broncos
Bob Griese 18-2-1 Bills

(Elias Sports Bureau)

*- Minimum 15 starts

Roethlisberger is also an impressive 37-11 against the rest of the AFC North in his career.  (STATS LLC)

I SAW the Steelers improve to 25-5 against the Browns since 1999.  (STATS LLC)  It’s hard to envision Cleveland turning the franchise around without at least one signature win against Pittsburgh.

St. Louis (4-7) wins vs. Chicago (6-5), 42-21

I SAW the battered and depleted Bears defense reach rock bottom Sunday against the Rams.  Chicago had better hope that was rock bottom, at least.  Sure, rookie RB Zac Stacy has been a godsend for a disappointing St. Louis offense, but when another rookie Benny Cunningham teams with Stacy to lead the team to an eye-popping 261 yards on just 26 rushes not counting three QB kneel downs.  Jesus!  Treadmills don’t get run on that much.

It gets worse: 213 of those 261 yards came before contact – the most given up in one NFL game this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information.  The D in the Windy City is so battered that it can’t even stop a breeze and everyone else in the league knows it.  The numbers show a brutal slide while the roster started to thin out:

Bears Run Defense By Week – 2013 Season

First 6 Games Last 5 Games
Yards per Rush 3.8 5.9
Yards Before Contact per Rush 2.2 4.1
TD 5 9
Fumble Recoveries 8 0

(ESPN Stats & Information)

I SAW myself unsure about what to do with these Rams.  The QB position is occupied by a bum (Kellen Clemens) after their franchise passer went down for the year (Sam Bradford).  The defensive backs – namely Cortland Finnegan, who is now done for the year, and Janoris Jenkins – have really regressed from last season’s tenacious campaign.  St. Loo was in the toilet from Week 2 to Week 9, going 2-6 in that span.

And then they take the Colts out to the woodshed, to the tune of 38-8, then a bye, then this 40-Burger on the Bears.  We now know Indy isn’t the team we thought they were, and Chicago is a walking infirmary, but those are two very dominating performances.  Their division is likely too competitive for them to make the playoffs at this point, but this is a dangerous, weird team.

I SAW Rams WR Tavon Austin show his otherworldly speed in the open field again on Sunday with a 65-yard TD run.  Yes, it was against a shoddy Bears defense (see above), but according to STATS LLC it was the rookie’s fourth straight TD this season from beyond midfield.  The great Gayle Sayers is the only other player in league history to have three 50+yard touchdowns in a two-game span.  (NFL Network)

Think Austin should have been getting the ball sooner, (offensive coordinator) Brian Schottenheimer?  Brutal.

I SAW a funny moment in this game, when Rams DE Chris Long ran onto the field to keep his little brother, Bears OL Kyle Long out of a skirmish.  Many are calling it brotherly love, but I can’t tell if that’s what it was, or if Chris wanted the first crack at lecturing baby bro about proper behavior.  Check it out – you be the judge.

 

Tampa Bay (3-8) wins @ Detroit (6-5), 24-21

I SAW – don’t look now, but the Buccaneers have now won three straight and…never mind, don’t look.  But they did sneak away with one….

First, a TRIVIA BOMB:

The 2013 Bucs join the 1978 Cardinals as the only teams in NFL history to win three straight games after losing their first eight.  (STATS LLC)

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

Thief In The Night Award

Tampa Bay Bucs

For almost the whole fourth quarter neither team seemed to want to win this game.  Tampa Bay squandered two opportunities: They blocked a Lions punt only for Ryan Lindell to miss a gimme field goal; they took a false start penalty that backed Lindell up to a 50-yard field goal that he pulled wide left.  Meanwhile, Detroit looked lethargic on offense until QB Matt Stafford found WR Calvin Johnson inside the Tampa Bay 5-yard line, but Megatron lost a handle on the ball and the Bucs were there to gladly take both it and the game.  Mind you, that wasn’t the only way that Detroit helped engineer Tampa Bay’s theft….

I SAW the Lions turn the ball over five times – four of which came on interceptions from QB Matthew Stafford.

As mentioned in my playoff picture in Away from the game(s), the Lions are an undisciplined team.  Still, despite prevailing opinion the statistics don’t support the fact that Stafford forces the ball to WR Calvin Johnson with disastrous results.  According to ESPN Stats & Information, Sunday marked the first time since Week 10 in 2011 that Stafford threw multiple interceptions when targeting Megatron.  (He was 7-for-14 for 115 and two INTs against the Bucs when looking for Johnson.)  And the killer pick – inside the Bucs’ 5-yard line within the final minute of the game – was actually an unbelievably well thrown ball by Stafford, put on a rope off his back foot and right in Megatron’s gut.  The problem was that the ball was jarred loose and possessed by a Tampa rookie Johnthan Banks before it hit the ground, which effectively ended the game.

For all their iffy performances as a team this season, this marks the first time Detroit has lost two straight games and hold the lead in the NFC North via a tiebreaker with Chicago.  They’re going to need to play with more focus to hold onto the division – starting with a Thanksgiving Day showdown with Green Bay this week.

I SAW the lone Lions turnover not caused by a Matthew Stafford interception come when WR Kris Durham caught a ball near the sideline and somehow ended up flipping the pigskin up in the air as he flew out of bounds, trying to change his grip on the ball.  It was one of the weirder fumbles I’ve seen in a while.  It looked almost intentional, the way Durham managed to lose the ball the only way he could have to enable a Buccaneers recovery.

I SAW Buccaneers WR Tiquan Underwood prove himself to be the Kid to QB Mike Glennon’s Play. house-party

(New Line Cinema)

Okay, so maybe Glennon is white.  Whiter even than Chris “Kid” Harris (who isn’t white).  But at least Underwood rocks the Bel Biv Devoe flattop:

Tiquan-Underwood

(www.espn.com)

That shit is Poiiiiiiiisuuuuun.

I digress.

The Lions got Tiquandoed by Underwood:

TRIVIA BOMB:

Underwood’s 85-yard TD catch is the third longest in franchise history.  The other two were by Willie Drewery in 1990 and ’91 – both thrown by Vinnie Testaverde.  More of a TRIVIA GRENADE, but I’m all over any chance to refer to The Testicle.

It was Underwood’s time to live, with a career-high 108 yards en route to his first multi-TD game and an unexpected outdoing of All-World Lions WR Calvin Johnson.

I SAW Lions WR Nate Burleson catch seven balls for 77 yards and a TD in his first game since breaking his arm while trying to reach for a sliding pizza box while driving home.  (Yes, you read that correctly.)  Burleson’s return could make a huge difference in the Motor City in terms of spreading the field.

Green Bay (5-5-1) ties vs. Minnesota (2-8-1), 26-26

I SAW the first tie game in NFL history played after each team scores a field goal in OT.  The new overtime rules – whereby the team that kicks off gets a chance to answer if the receiving team scores a field goal but not a TD – have only been applied to regular season games since last season.  I looked back, and this was also just the second time under the new rules that both teams scored a field goal on their first possession.  The other one was Texans versus Jaguars last season, when Houston wideout Andre Johnson had a huge game, including the winning TD grab in extra time.

I SAW Packers LB A.J. Hawk sum up his team’s sentiment after this tie (via the Associated Press): “I think to everybody around here, it feels like a loss, for sure.”

As mentioned in my playoff picture in Away from the game(s), this tie could really come back to haunt them during the playoff race.

Green Bay can’t worry about that now.  What they need to do is get healthy, starting with CB Sam Shields, who’s battling a bad hamstring.  Head coach Mike McCarthy said on Tuesday that QB Aaron Rodgers “felt really good” throwing the ball, but still isn’t ready to play this Thursday.  Rodgers will be back at some point and the Green Bay offense isn’t exactly sputtering in his absence thanks to RB Eddie Lacy (again, see Away from the game(s)) and some capable spot duty from backup quarterback and whirling dervish Scott Tolzein.  It’s the defense that needs to get well in the meantime, particularly against the pass, particularly right now.  They travel to Detroit to face Megatron for Thanksgiving and if the Pack can’t come up with a win they’re probably sent packing for the offseason.

I SAW the first game this season that Vikings RB Adrian Peterson truly carried his team to…a non-loss.   AP had 146 yards and a TD on 32 carries.

It was yet another milestone day for Peterson, who played his 100th career game on Sunday.  He ended up passing the great Barry Sanders into third all-time for rushing yards through a player’s first 100 games:

Most Rush Yards Through First 100 Career Games – NFL History

Player Yards Through 100 Games
Eric Dickerson 10,818
Jim Brown 10,403
Adrian Peterson 9,846*
Barry Sanders 9,766

(ESPN Stats & Information)

*- Stats updated by TFQ to include Week 12

I SAW Vikings Letroy Guion get juked on a hilarious spin move by Packers QB Scott Tolzein en route to a TD.

Guion done got shook.  Honestly, how does a spin move executed several yards away from the would-be tackler work?

I SAW Packers QB Matt Flynn play in relief of a struggling Scott Tolzein (who went just 7-for-17 before being relegated to the sideline).  For the sake of both quarterbacks and my nausea level, let’s just leave it at that.    

I SAW Vikings WR Greg Jennings’ season continue to suck.  While boos from the Lambeau faithful showered down on the former Packer he managed just 2 catches for 29 yards.  He also dropped a crucial third down pass with 2:11 left in overtime.  36 receptions for 439 yards and 2 TDs through 11 games was hardly what the Vikings brass expected when they signed Jennings to a fat 5-year, $45 million deal in the offseason.

And it’s not like his quarterback was having an off day….

I SAW Vikings QB Christian Ponder have a rare good game: 21-for-30, 233 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT, 103.9 rating.  A good game, not great.  In fact, Ponder’s three best passer ratings this season have come against the injury-riddled Packers defense twice, and against the porous Redskins pass D.  In other words, Ponder isn’t doing much to convince the Minnesota front office that he’s their quarterback going forward.  The problem with the situation at that position in Minny is that if they draft another passer they hardly have a decent veteran to teach a rookie the ropes.  What they do have, however, are three shitty passers getting paid good cash – Ponder, Josh Freeman and Matt Cassel.

Tennessee (5-6) wins @ Oakland (4-7), 23-19

I SAW the Titans occupy one of those “if the playoffs started today blab, blah” Wild Card spots with a win over the Raiders.  I don’t think there’s been a quieter team than Tennessee all season.  They lost their sophomore QB, Jake Locker just as he seemed to be getting his groove on – twice – and no one took much notice.  Apart from the travails of RB Chris CJ1K Johnson the Titans have been anything but in the media.  But here’s what we have: A team that is about as average as it gets on paper that plays hard and is learning how to win tough games under third-year head coach Mike Munchak.  Some playmakers are beginning to emerge too.  Second year WR Kendall Wright is proving that it wasn’t just RG3 and the Baylor air attack that made him good – the wideout has averaged 6.8 catches over the last 5 games, played mostly with subpar QB Ryan Fitzpatrick.  CB Alterraun Verner is tied for the NFL lead with 5 interceptions and plays a lockdown style of coverage that you wouldn’t expect from a corner getting thrown to often enough to snag that many picks.  The linebacking corps is quietly becoming one of the more consistent groups in the AFC.

I admit – I don’t want to see this team in the playoffs because they’re so bland aesthetically.  But they’re a tough, tough team built largely after the image of the franchise’s hay day under head coach Jeff Fisher and Munchak himself as a player (as well as offensive line coach Bruce Matthews).

What’s more, Fitzpatrick is stepping up, as evidenced by his game-winning TD to Wright with ten seconds left on Sunday.  How long is it until Fitzy starts throwing those head-shaker interceptions he’s so good at?

I SAW some sources, like ESPN Stats & Information and NFL.com. conjuring up a QB controversy in Oakland now that Matt McGloin has played well for 8 quarters.  I just don’t see it unless the franchise has stupidly already given up on Terrelle Pryor as their starter and want McGloin to audition for the job.

Jacksonville (2-9) wins @ Houston (2-9), 13-6

I SAW the first truly meaningless game of the season.  Falcons-Bucs came close last week, but Atlanta was arguably hanging onto an improbable chance at the postseason by their fingernails.

Let’s leave this steaming log be, with this.

It’s not that I don’t care about this game, it’s that I shouldn’t.  Nor should you.

 

SNF- New England (8-4) wins v. Denver (9-2), 34-31-OT

I SAW a nice gift from the football gods on Sunday night.  Rarely does the game most observers would mark down as the best matchup when the schedule comes out turn out to be the game of the regular season, but that’s what we got from Broncos-Pats.

To be honest, sometimes I like to let a game like this stand on its own without much discussion, like a good movie.  But that would make me a bad blogger, wouldn’t it?  It was a crazy, crazy game that had a bit of everything, with some TRIVIA BOMBS thrown in for good measure:

A shearing wind to turn game plans upside down (see below) and inspire a vintage Bill Belichick moment when the Pats head coach instructed his captains (to their collective shock, according to Logan Mankins) to choose to play with the wind and give Denver the ball if they won the coin toss for OT.

New England scoring on their last 5 possessions of the second half to put together the biggest comeback in franchise history after trailing 24-0 at the half.  The game also marks Denver’s biggest blown lead ever.  (Elias Sports Bureau)

A mind-bending 11 fumbles combined by both teams.

The lowest passing yardage output by Broncos QB Peyton Manning since the final game of the 2009 regular season.

According to the NBC Broadcast, Broncos QB Peyton Manning had been 52-0 (including two playoff wins) in games during which his team held a lead of 22 points or more.

I’ll let my boy Kerry Byrne at ColdHardFootballFacts.com show you all you need to know about what he accurately calls Manning’s “mis-performance.”  Byrne is among the league’s best number sleuths, and he does a typically thorough job of unpacking it.  Here it is.  Call it a TRIVIA NUKE.

I SAW the game ultimately get decided by a costly error by Broncos WR Wes Welker.  This game was Welker’s hyped-up chance for redemption against the team that cast him away in the offseason in favour of the so-far disappointing Danny Amendola.  I remember back in his days in Indianapolis that QB Peyton Manning would talk about how he had to keep receivers happy, making sure he fed certain players the ball at the appropriate time – without forcing the issue, of course.  With this in mind, I expected Welker to have a big night, but the wind and vintage disruptive play from the Pats DBs didn’t allow it.  (What does New England head coach Bill Belichick know about banging Manning receivers that the rest of the NFL can’t seem to figure out?)  Welker managed just 31 yards on four receptions. 

Welker’s biggest impact of the game was a negative one that lost the game.  In the waning minutes of overtime, New England punted the ball.  Welker was the returner, after Trindon Holliday got benched for mishandling the ball a few times.  Surely the wind played a factor on the last punt of the game – the ball was kicked into it, which tends to make the ball dip downward more drastically at the last second.  As the return man, it’s Welker’s job to decide when he will either catch the punt or let it bounce, and if he decided upon the latter, he has to start calling out a code word, waving his arms and whatever else his team has decided on as a signal to the punt return blockers that the ball was going to bounce on the turf.  Those blockers are too busy getting downfield and lining up their blocks to keep an eye on the ball, so they depend on the returner to let them know when they should start looking to the sky and locating the pigskin so that it doesn’t hit them and potentially cause a turnover.  Welker waited far too long to make his decision; he started waving his arms to warn teammates a split second before the ball hit the ground.  You could see poor Tony Carter jerk in a “shit – the ball’s coming down and I have no idea where” reflex as it glanced off of him and New England recovered the ball to set up the winning field goal.  That gaffe is on Welker, as he admitted postgame (via NFL Network’s Game Day Final).

I SAW Patriots QB Tom Brady play with amazing poise and arm strength in a crucial third quarter during which his team mounted a comeback while he threw into that nasty wind.  For me, this was one of Brady’s best performances.  (None of the fuckups that put them in a 24-0 hole can be blamed on him.)

You could tell how badly Brady wanted this win once the comeback bid extended into overtime.  How often do you see him so enraged by a missed call that his team needs to take a timeout to avoid a delay of game penalty while he chastises the officials, which happened during extra time?

I SAW whatever sexy strategizing was planned for this game essentially go out the window once the weather went as cold and windy as it did.  You could tell that both starting QBs, Denver’s Peyton Manning and New England’s Tom Brady, had trouble handling the ball in the elements, and there were other hard-ball turnovers by others as well (see below).  Enter a banner day for Broncos RB Knowshon Moreno, albeit in a loss: 224 yards on 31 carries (6.1 average) and a TD.

If there was any doubt how significant the wind was, look no further than when New England elected to choose the end that had them playing with the wind for OT instead of receive the kick.  You’d never see that with the old overtime rules, but even then it’s still pretty rare to see that sort of decision.

I SAW the Patriots commit two turnovers in the first 5:30 of the game and hand the Broncos 14 points basically right out of the gate.  Credit LB Von Miller.  He returned a Stevan Ridley fumble for a TD (see below) and then strip-sacked Pats QB Tom Brady to set up Denver’s next score.

It got worse.  RB LeGarrette Blount coughed up the rock minutes later to give New England three lost fumbles – the most in the first quarter during the Bill Belichick era, setting up the largest halftime deficit of Belichick’s career.  (NBC Broadcast)

But if you think the Patriots have been resilient in the face of their own mistakes during the Belichick era, you’d be right.  According to ESPN Stats & Information, since Belichick took over the team in 2000 the Patriots have the best record in the NFL in games when they commit at least three turnovers:

Best Win Percentage In Games With At Least 3 Turnovers – Since 2000

Team W-L Win Pct
Patriots 15-25 .375
Eagles 19-34 .361
Bears 22-45 .328
Giants 19-45 .297

Pretty impressive to play with a target on your chest for over a decade and only have 25 games with 3 turnovers.

I SAW Broncos QB Peyton Manning look brutally uncomfortable in the cold Foxborough weather.  Manning was wincing, squinting and looked generally annoyed by the elements.  More importantly, he was fidgeting and playing with that glove he was wearing on his throwing hand about as much as Nomar Garciaparra used to make sweet OCD love to his batting gloves.  You can bet that Manning has some compulsive tendencies of his own, and wearing a glove certainly seems to fly in the face of them.  That’s not to be taken lightly as Denver gears up for more cold weather games.

I SAW Patriots DE Chandler Jones play like a beast Sunday night.  The Pats need more of that from him – stat. 

I SAW the Broncos defense have a lot of improvements to make, mostly in the passing game.  They surely never planned to be without cornerbacks Champ Bailey and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (who left the game with an injury) but Denver’s coaching staff has to find a way to address the lack of depth in the defensive backfield that was exposed Sunday night.  Pats WR Julian Edelman was wide open deep on too many crucial plays.

I SAW that Patriots RB Stevan Ridley is just killing the Pats offense in recent weeks.  I mentioned last week that Ridley may have fumbled his way out of town at season’s end.  Then, Bill Belichick, a head coach notorious for a deep doghouse, lets Ridley start the game and what does he do?  A loose-armed lazy spin on New England’s first drive that allowed the Broncos to knock the ball loose and LB Von Miller worked a scoop-and-score to give Denver an early lead.

MNF- San Fran (7-4) wins @ Washington (3-8), 27-6

I SAW Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan sum this game up well, via NFL.com: “We haven’t gotten dominated like that since I’ve been here.”

Washington gained 30 yards in the second half – the lowest amount by any team this season, and it was the first time in 68 college and pro games combined that an RG3-led offense didn’t score a TD.  (ESPN Stats & Information).  Jesus.

I don’t really know how it started, but Shanahan’s QB Robert Griffin III has become quite the punching bag for the media in recent weeks, and he’s starting to let it get to him, as his awkward and death stare-infused postgame press conference indicated.  (The low point: When RG3 asked a reporter who questioned his leadership what that guy does to be a leader at his place of work.  True story.)

I don’t want to join the “character assassination”, as Shanahan and Griffin have termed the treatment of the quarterback, but it’s safe to say that the second year pivot looked awful Monday night.  My editor Count Yorga hit the nail on the head when he observed that RG3 got hit by the Niners D harder than another Griffin, Brian Griffin, who was fatally hit by a car in the most recent Family Guy.

My take?  Griffin still isn’t the same after knee surgery.  Sure, there have been a number of medical marvels in pro sports in recent years, which can lead us to assume that RG3 should be just fine, but look at the NBA’s Derrick Rose, who missed a whole season rehabbing a similar injury (and sadly is out for the season again).  The fact is, sometimes it still takes until a full season has passed for that knee to be back to its normal explosiveness and the mind to return to its comfort zone.

Furthermore, not every good quarterback should be automatically expected to be the leader of his team – no matter how much he’s paid, or how well he plays.  It’s not like every starting QB’s jersey gets a “C” stitched on it, especially in their second year.  It sucks, too, because the exaggerated criticism certainly doesn’t help the chances of Griffin or his team.  Nor does his undersized O-line, the lightest group of its kind in the league. (ESPN Broadcast)  RG3 has now been sacked four times in three straight games.

I SAW Niners LB Ahmad Brooks strengthen his case for Defensive Player Of The Year Monday night, with 7 tackles – 3 for a loss – 2 sacks, 2 QB hits and a pass defensed.  There is no true shoe-in for the award at this point, but Brooks leads the pack in my mind, not just for his usual rangy plays but because he adapted his game to include more pass rushing when star LB Aldon Smith had to leave the team for personal reasons.  I feel like Brooks got a taste for the quarterback while filling in for Smith and now he’s continuing to terrorize opposing quarterbacks.

I SAW Niners QB Colin Kaepernick answer the critics for at least one week with a 235-yard, three touchdowns, 134.5 rated performance.  Let’s just leave it at that, and not climb all over all the read option quarterbacks for just one day….

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

IN THE MEANTIME, FOLLOW US ON FACEBOOK AND @TFQuarter

What I Saw, Week 11 – 2013

Blair Miller > WHAT I SAW – WEEK 11, 2013

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.

 Follow us on Facebook and @TFQuarter

Away from the game(s)

I SAW that we aren’t in Kansas (City) anymore, Toto.  Nor is an undefeated team.

A wild Week 11 came in like a tornado.  With tornados, actually.  Real ones.  A massive storm front that contained tornados ended up affecting several games, especially Baltimore at Chicago, which was postponed about 2.5 hours.

On a serious note, at least 6 people were killed in the severe weather, which is awful.

On a much-less-serious note, when she was swept away by a different tornado Dorothy never saw a Land of Oz quite like the NFL landscape this weekend.

Maybe we can blame the Tom Brady-Giselle Bundchen Halloween costume for setting the stage a few weeks ago:

brady-gisele-halloween

(thebiglead.com)

But we all know that BradyPants doesn’t lack for courage, so who’s going to take us down the yellow brick road that was Week 11?

wizard-of-oz-original1

(Warner Bros. Pictures)

The Scarecrow: Head coach Jim Schwartz and the Lions

Detroit was clinging to a 4-point lead in the fourth quarter against the Steelers and had driven to the Pittsburgh 10.  It was a no-brainer: field goal to make it a 7-point cushion.  Instead, Schwartz and his special team staff engineered a different sort of no-brainer: a fake field goal.  Punter Sam Martin – always depend on the punter for an athletic play in crunch time – took the direct snap as the holder and not only did he not have a hope in hell of getting the first down, but he fumbled the ball to Pittsburgh.  The Steelers drove the field to score and take a 3-point lead of their own.

Schwartz continued to play the scarecrow after the game, quizzically defending his lack of fear in making the dumb call.  It just goes to prove, you don’t have to be a coward to do something stupid.  If only Schwartz could have given some of his overwhelming courage to a flock of zebras….

The Lion: Referee Clete Blakeman and his crew in the Pats-Panthers game.

These courage-less zebras take the cake this weekend for picking up a pass interference flag on the final play of the game, denying New England a chance to score from the 1-yard line because the ball was deemed uncatchable after the fact.  Generally speaking, if a throw lands anywhere in the vicinity of the intended receiver 9.9 times out of 10 pass interference gets called when a defender is face-guarding the receiver, never looking back to the ball and draping his arms around the target.  It didn’t get called when Panthers LB Luke Kuechly did those things to TE Rob Gronkowski on the last play of the game with the Pats trailing by 4.

You can write it off to a home field call, or the notion that a game shouldn’t be determined by a blah-blah-blah.  The game wouldn’t have been determined on the call anyway – it would have only given New England another chance from the 1-yard line.  Bottom line: A no-balls non-call by the refs.

Uncatchable my ass.  If you re-watch the play the only reason the ball was uncatchable was because Gronk got Kuech-ed early enough for it to look that way.  If the linebacker isn’t blocking the tight end from the path of the ball, it’s hard to believe that Gronk couldn’t have gotten a hand on Brady’s pass.  The possibility of merely touching the ball is enough to determine catchability.  Overall, what’s most frustrating is that the officiating team took off for the tunnel immediately instead of explaining the call to the coaches and/or the crowd, which the league has tried to make a priority.

The Tin Man: Jaguars defense

This one’s tough.  I’m not about to directly accuse anyone/team of lacking all heart but Jacksonville’s D at least looked like they had an itty-bitty Grinch one on Sunday.  Cardinals QB Carson Palmer looked like himself, circa 2006 against the league’s 24th-ranked pass defense.  His wideout, second-year bust-til-now Michael Floyd looked like Randy Moss, averaging 32.2 yards per reception.  Well, maybe DE Jason Babin showed some heart – but in the wrong way (see Arizona wins @ Jacksonville, 27-14).

What an adventure in Oz so far!

Before finally getting to the Wizard, though, we were intercepted by a Munchkin, some 5’8” umpteen-string tailback named Bobby Rainey trying to capture us for the ugly Wicked Witch of the NFC South.  (see: Tampa Bay wins vs. Atlanta, 41-28)  It was a close call in the end, but we escaped when Atlanta’s wart-infested 2013 edition got a house dropped on them.  Or rather a woodshed, as a team that was winless just two games ago dropped a 40-Burger on a team that went to the NFC Championship last season.  Who’s melting now, Hot-Lanta?

Falcon down

(draketoulouse.com)

Oh, what a world, what a world!!

Now that we’ve steered clear of that ugly bitch, we’re finally at the Wizard – in typical anticlimactic fashion.

The Wizard….

The true Wizard of Oz turned out to be more human than some may have expected.  Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome didn’t have to hide behind a curtain after his team lost to the Bears in a classic mudder, but he did have to resort to an ambulance to take him away from the castle and to the hospital instead of leaving on the team plane, after he “didn’t feel well”.  (Newsome is apparently in good health and resting at home.)

In the end, there was no victory for the only 9-0 team left in football, no happiness “Somewhere Over the Dwayne Bowe”.  (Unless, perhaps, he’s smoked some of what he got pulled over with during the bye week.)  Kansas City lost to Denver in the most hyped game of the season so far, but it’s not the end of the world, Aunt Em.  In two weeks’ time the Chiefs can tap their red shoes together, say, “there’s no place like home” and host the Broncos at Arrowhead for the rematch.

Byes: Dallas, St. Louis

TNF- Indianapolis (7-3) wins @ Tennessee (4-6), 30-27

I SAW two teams coming off of bad losses to bad teams face each other Thursday night.

Tennessee gave the Jags their first win of the season last week, but bounced back right away at the start of this game behind RB Chris Johnson (see below), which might not be a surprise against a team that had been outscored 49-3 in the first half of their two games prior to Thursday night.

But after getting walloped by the Rams last week, the Colts turned the tide and in the process may have found their identity on offense.  Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton used his star QB Andrew Luck to take the lead in the third quarter, but the second half was defined by a grinding run game that, frankly, should have been a staple of Indy’s O weeks ago.  The Colts won their 15th straight game when they’ve held the lead in the 4th quarter, and they did it in a fashion befitting Hamilton: 24 rushes for 99 yards in the second half that chewed up almost 20 minutes of clock.

As Luck’s former coordinator at Stanford, Hamilton helped instill the current bread and butter in Paolo Alto: Run, run, hit the tight end on hot reads, run, pass deep on single coverage that happens when the D tries to stop the run, run and then win.  That’s what the second half looked like in the Music City on Thursday night.  The Colts should have been playing like this even before WR Reggie Wayne was lost for the year (ACL).  Maybe it was issues with timing or something else but with the home stretch of the regular season on the way, favoring the ground game is a good plan for this team.

The only part of it that still surprises me?…

I SAW Colts RB Donald Brown have 14 carries for 80 yards and teammate Trent Richardson get 8 for 22.

Maybe that shouldn’t surprise me.  After all, according to ESPN Stats & Information, since Richardson joined Indy in Week 3 after a trade with Cleveland he’s averaged 2.8 yards per rush and Brown has put up 6.1.  Brown’s rush average is the second-best in the NFL over that span and the only other back to average Brown’s 2.4 yards after contact since Week 3 is Adrian Peterson (2.5).

Is Brown’s output in part motivation to win the starting job?  (Keep in mind that this backfield should be doubly crowded than it is right now, with onetime starters Vick Ballard and Ahmad Bradshaw out with injuries.)  Is he a change of pace from the more physical Richardson?  Does he know the offense better than Richardson?  The last possibility is most likely.  Whatever the cause, I’m not so sure that it’s a knock on Richardson – yet.  It might actually be possible that Richardson won’t jive with this offense until next season or maybe the playoff run.

I SAW another one of those “why can’t he do that more often?” games from Titans RB Chris Johnson.  His line for the first 10 minutes and/or 2 drives of the game by Tennessee: 8 rushes, 70 yards, 2 TDs.  The second touchdown was a thing of rugged beauty.  CJ2K looked more like AP on that man’s run.  You just don’t normally see Johnson take a direct hit like that and keep his legs pumping.  Why can’t he do that more often?  

Why couldn’t he do it for more than one quarter?  After that hot start, Johnson had 16 yards on 9 carries while the Colts mounted a comeback.  Only 6 of those yards came after halftime.  If only Johnson could find that middle ground more often. He’s so hot-cold.  According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Titans are 3-12 when he rushes for less than 10 yards in the second half.

I SAW one of the iconic Ivy League schools against the Ivy League of the west.  That’s right, this was Harvard – Titans QB Ryan Fitzpatrick’s alma mater – v. Stanford, Colts QB Andrew Luck’s school.

Advantage: Stanford.  Luck’s line wasn’t eye-popping – 23-for-36 (63.9%), 232 yards and an 82.2 rating.  But he ran for a TD, had a few other timely scrambles and made much better decisions overall while rebounding from his worst game of the season last week against the Rams.

If you feel like Luck hasn’t had to endure failure that often in the NFL, you’re not far off.

TRIVIA BOMB:

Andrew Luck has yet to lose back-to-back games as a pro.  According to Elias Sports Bureau he’s the third quarterback since the merger to go 26 starts to begin his career without losing consecutive games.  The other two: Dan Marino (33 starts) and Kordell Stewart (28).

I SAW the Colts win 9 of their last 10 against division opponent Tennessee.  This rivalry game got pretty chippy at times, too.  The low point came when Colts LB Erik Walden ripped off the helmet of Titans TE Delanie Walker during a play, then when Walker confronted him, Walden head-butted the tight-end’s bare head while wearing his helmet.  A referee was standing right there, too.  How that doesn’t get a man ejected is beyond me.

New Orleans (8-2) wins vs. San Francisco (6-4), 23-20   

I SAW the Niners fall to 2-4 this season against teams that are currently at .500 or better.  It’s beginning to look more and more like San Fran has dug themselves a hole that they won’t be able to climb out of in time.  Barring some sort of epic collapse by the Seahawks, which leads the NFC West by three games now, the Niners can’t be ranked any higher than fifth in the playoff conference seeding.  Not the best position to be in when you can’t beat winning teams.

I SAW Niners QB Colin Kaepernick have yet another off game in his second season as starter.  While few dispute that he isn’t living up to offseason expectations, the reasons for his subpar play are harder to pin down.  In fact, I see several issues.  Among them:

The simplest argument is that Kaepernick doesn’t have the same array of targets around him that he did last season when he took over the job from Alex Smith.  The team’s top wideout Michael Crabtree still hasn’t come back from an off-season Achilles injury.  WR Mario Manningham is only now returning to every-down shape after injury rehab of his own.  TE Vernon Davis has been in and out of the lineup.  Furthermore, these injuries have forced free agent acquisition Anquan Boldin to assume a much bigger role in the offense than the third down security blanket he was signed to be.  One missing ingredient that I haven’t heard anyone mention is FB/TE Delanie Walker, who was an important jack-of-all trades in the offense last year but left via free agency.  So it’s safe to say that Kaepernick is playing with a short deck.  The numbers tell the tale in terms of his over-dependence on Boldin and Davis when looking downfield – the only two Niners to catch touchdowns this season:

Colin Kaepernick By Target On Throws 15+ Yards Downfield – 2013 Season

Davis/Boldin All Others
Comp % 10-14 7-17
Yards per Att 6.4 2.2
TD-INT 2-0 0-1

(ESPN Stats & Information)

And then there’s the read option and/or Kaepernick’s running ability.  Where’s that been all season?  On the surface, he has been productive.  He has rushed 56 times for 335 yards – 6.0 yards per carry.  But he rushed for 415 yards last season despite not getting the starting job until nine games into the season.  Beyond the numbers, there’s no aggressiveness to his running game, almost as though he and the coaching staff are trying to prove he’s a capable pocket passer more than letting him use his dual threat ability to read and react to the defense.  Remember – this is a guy who set an NFL record for rushing yards by a QB in a game last January.  Also, Kaepernick reportedly worked on his speed in the offseason.  We have to take him at his word on this, because he’s been able to run freely about as much as a chicken on an industrial farm.

Maybe it’s true that defenses have figured out how to stop Kaepernick in the run game, but I don’t buy it.  He hasn’t tried to run enough to prove that theory.

On a simpler level, I don’t even see the Niners running plays out of the pistol formation much anymore.  That was the position that gave defenses so much trouble last season, read option or not.  Even RB Frank Gore benefitted from the pistol, and his numbers have dropped off as well.

I SAW Niners LB Ahmad Brooks make a crazy-athletic self-tip interception to set up a Vernon Davis TD catch that gave San Fran a 17-14 lead.  Brooks isn’t just an underrated linebacker – he’s among the 3-5 best at his position in the league.  But that doesn’t exempt him from the new stance towards roughing the passer penalties….

I SAW the officials call roughing the passer on Niners LB Ahmad Brooks with 3:12 left in the game and New Orleans trailing by 3 points.  The call kept a crucial drive alive, setting up the first of two Saints field goals that would win the game.

People can complain all they want.  Yes, maybe Brooks never contacted QB Drew Brees’ head.  But everyone should know by now that the refs are – rightfully – instructed to err on the side of caution, so clotheslining a quarterback at top speed and driving him into the ground at the end of doing so will get a flag.  If you’re close enough to hit the passer and the ball is already gone, just wrap him up or don’t hit him at all.  Either way, don’t follow through on the contact you do make.  As VP of officiating Dean Blandino explained on NFL Network’s Total Access:

You can’t make forcible contact to the head or the neck area, even if the contact starts below the neck and rises up.  If there’s force to that contact, it’s a foul. Watch the initial contact, maybe around the shoulder, but it rides up into the neck area and brings the quarterback down with force.”

I SAW Saints kicker Garrett Hartley go 3-for-3 on field goals in the fourth quarter of a close-fought game.  The longest one was 42 yards, so that may not seem like much to write home about.  But after missing 4 of his last 6 coming into the game, it was important for Hartley to regain some confidence as the battle with Seattle for home field advantage in the playoffs intensifies – not to mention the task of holding off the red-hot Panthers in their own division.

I SAW Saints WR Marques Colston become the franchise’s all-time leader in receiving yards, with 7,923.  Not bad for a Round 7 pick from Hofstra.

Chicago (6-4) wins vs. Baltimore (4-6), 23-20-OT

I SAW this game get delayed by the severe weather front that swept through the northeast Sunday, providing a gentle mind fuck in terms of usual timing for those of us who get every game at home on TV.  It was a happy distraction during the first half of the 4:00 games, though, going into overtime on a sloppy-ass field so chewed up by the weather and the players that the referees and the team captains who went out to midfield for the coin toss for OT were stomping down clumps of sod as though they were at a polo match.  By the second half the middle of Soldier Field looked like a pigpen.

Aside from being a starting baseball pitcher I can’t think of any harder sport to adjust to a weather delay than football.  To come back to harsh conditions only makes it that much harder.  The rain was pelting, and play was visually complicated by the constant flag-like whipping of people’s pants on the sidelines.  Neither QB played well, which isn’t shocking, but one came away with a win….

I SAW Bears QB Josh McCown lead his team to another win in relief of injured Jay Cutler.  Chicago went into a severe weather delay trailing by 10 points, but came back to win in extra time.  As mentioned above, the weather didn’t make for a sexy stat line, but the backup QB took care of the rock.  Actually, in four games and two starts this season McCown has yet to turn the ball over.

McCown’s coy self-deprecation when asked after the game about throwing in the windy conditions was amusing.  He told the Associated Press, “It’s definitely one of those days where you look across the field and [see Ravens QB] Joe Flacco and look on the sideline and [teammate Jay Cutler]’s over there, and I’m like, ‘Can I borrow somebody’s arm?’ ”

I SAW an early 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.

Chicago Bears

I’ve been critical of the Ravens’ failure to establish a running game all season, but the injury-depleted Bears came through for Baltimore in a way that could get the moribund group out of its funk.  One thing’s for sure: If a Ray Rice season-high of 131 yards on 25 carries and team totals of 41 runs for 174 yards doesn’t get them out of a funk, nothing will.

Until Sunday, Rice had been colder than leftover stir-fry.  In fact, his 47-yard run in the first quarter topped his game total in any previous showing this season except for 74 against the Dolphins.  Jinkies!

I SAW the Bears defense score their fourth TD on an interception this season, tied for tops in the NFL.  But they’re going to need even more production from the D heading down the stretch….

I SAW Bears DE Julius Peppers have 2.0 sacks to equal his total coming into the game.  In his 12th season Peppers hasn’t made much noise.  With the defensive roster full of injuries and QB Jay Cutler in and out of the lineup Peppers need to turn back the clock and give his team some more big plays that steal away field position in the weeks to come to keep Chi-Town in the playoff hunt.

Philadelphia (6-5) wins vs. Washington (3-7), 24-16

I SAW the Eagles snap a harrowing 10-game skid at home and in the process complete a leap from worst to first in their division (for now).

That’s right – Philly holds a half game lead in the NFC East over idle Dallas as they head into their own bye riding a three-game win streak.  The last time first-year head coach Chip Kelly’s team played the Redskins was in Week 1 when they looked about to take the league by storm with a new offensive style.  In the meantime, Philadelphia has endured a lot of tribulations on defense while their offense continues to produce at a breakneck pace.  But in the rematch Sunday, the D came through….

I SAW the Philly defense play its best game of the season thus far.  It wasn’t able to limit ’Skins QB Robert Griffin III when he broke things to the outside, but it sure made life difficult when RG3 was hemmed in the pocket.

Robert Griffin III – Sunday

Inside the Pocket Outside the Pocket
Comp-Att 12-27 5-8
Yards Per Att 5.0 16.0
TD-INT 0-1 2-0
Sacks 4 0

(ESPN Stats & Information)

That lone Griffin interception came on the final drive of the game, when the second-year QB made a horrible decision to air it up under pressure, sidearm and off his back foot on third down while trailing by 8 points.  The ill-advised throw was intercepted by Eagles Brandon Boykin.  It looked as though RG3 was trying to throw the ball away through the back of the end zone, but the toss was far too casual and should never have happened.  Griffin even put his hands to his forehead in regret the moment he threw the ball.  But it should be noted that pressure from the Eagles forced the bad decision.  If Philadelphia is going to come out on top of the weak NFC East they’re going to need more pass pressure like the sort they had on Sunday.

I SAW Redskins QB Robert Griffin III continue to follow a trend of growing pains for second-year QBs after good rookie seasons.  It’s no longer appropriate to let RG3 off the hook for being set back by knee rehab; he’s back to full strength and seeing the whole field.  So the 17-of-35 (48.6%), 264 yard, 2 TD, 1 INT game stands as legitimately bad, without excuse.  In fact, both touchdowns came on Johnny Football-esque fortunate tosses up for grabs that just happened to go in Washington’s favor.

I don’t think Griffin is being unsafe with his body on runs or holding the ball too long, but over the course of this season it’s clear that defenders have made it a priority to hit him as hard as they can whenever the opportunity presents itself.  There are QBs who have played more recklessly with their bodies this season (Michael Vick, Terrelle Pryor, Ben Roethlisberger, to name a few), but none have taken the beating that RG3 has.  I’m not sure what head coach Mike Shanahan and the coaching staff can do about that, but it’s affecting Griffin’s play.  You can tell the clock inside of his head has sped up – he’s anticipating contact and making bad decisions.  Any quarterback would.

I SAW Eagles QB Nick Foles take advantage of a slow, poor tackling Redskins defense for big gains.  According to ESPN Stats & Information, Foles had a season-high 188 yards of his passing total come after the catch.  In fact, 3 of his 4 longest pass plays against Washington (including two screens) were thrown 2 yards downfield or shorter.

Foles is now 4-1 in relief of Michael Vick, which should kill any talk of a QB controversy.

I SAW that for all the press QB Nick Foles has gotten for his surprising production in replacement of Michael Vick there is another player that really makes this offense click: RB LeSean McCoy.  The league-leading rusher finished with 77 yards on the ground and 73 yards through the air.  Let’s give credit to McCoy’s conditioning.  When head coach Chip Kelly came to Philadelphia with his up-tempo style, it was widely assumed that Shady and sophomore Bryce Brown would have to time-share in the backfield, but Brown has been an afterthought at best.  McCoy has to be in tip-top shape to stay on the field as much as he does while his offense scampers around the gridiron.

New York Giants (4-6) wins vs. Green Bay (5-5), 27-13

I SAW the Giants continue to turn their season around.  They have now gone 4-0 after a 0-6 start.  There have been improvements on offense to be sure, but it’s on the defensive side of the ball where big strides have been made.  On Sunday, Big Blue’s D forced three turnovers from the Packers and held arguably the league’s hottest running back, Eddie Lacy, to 27 yards on 14 carries (1.9 average).  In fact, according to ESPN Stats & Information Lacy was hit at or behind the line of scrimmage on 10 of those rushes.

Don’t look now, but New York is a legit contender for the NFC East crown.  You can bet the rest of the league is going to get pretty nervous as this team gets closer and closer to making the postseason.  Let’s just say it wouldn’t be the first time the G-Men made a bit of a playoff run after an awful September.

I SAW Packers QB Scott Tolzien’s performance on Sunday serve as a good example of how, counter to conventional wisdom, shorter passes can be more nuanced, more read dependent, and as such more challenging than many types of longer throws.

Tolzien on throws 15 yards downfield or longer: 6-6, 0 INT

On throws shorter than 15 yards: 18-28, 3 INT

(ESPN Stats & Information)

I SAW the Packers sustain more injuries.  Sure, they weathered numerous roster dents en route to a Super Bowl win three years ago, but this is getting a bit much.  Losing QB Aaron Rodgers has obviously been the biggest blow, but the defense is in shambles.  Among the wounded on Sunday were Green Bay’s two starting cornerbacks, Sam Shields and Casey Heyward, and Eli Manning picked apart their replacements – that was, until one of them went down too – James Nixon.  Oh, and DT Johnny Jolly left the game with injury as well.

I SAW Giants DE Jason Pierre-Paul put the game on ice when he plucked a pass by Packers QB Scott Tolzien out of the air – about 10 feet in front of the quarterback – and return it to the house.  As impressive as the play was physically, it was the mental aspect of JPP’s big move that was most impressive.  According to Giant Justin Tuck (via the Associated Press) Pierre-Paul predicted he’d pick the pass off during a timeout prior to the play.

I actually put this one on head coach Mike McCarthy and/or his belief that his play calling is limited with Tolzien under center.  For JPP to make that sort of Cracker Jack-timing play I’m thinking Green Bay had been running too many passing plays with a 3-step drop, which gave the Giants end a good sense of the timing for when the ball would come out.  

I SAW Giants WR Rueben Randle starting to earn the trust of QB Eli Manning.  Randle caught his sixth TD in as many games on Sunday, proving himself as a more desirable second option to Victor Cruz than the invisible Hakeem Nicks.

Pittsburgh (4-6) wins vs. Detroit (6-4), 37-27   

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

Maybe another team snuck away with a win to a greater degree than the Steelers did, and maybe they own the theft in large part to a bad decision on a fake field goal attempt by Detroit.  (See: Away from the game(s))  But Pittsburgh clinched this award with their retro uniforms.

Hamburglars.  Bumblebees. Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence in Life.  Whatever.  Those freaky duds are glorious, like Will Ferrell sexy.  In my world, the more striped and brown or orange a uni can get, the more fun it is to watch.

I SAW the Lions look like they were about to take control of the NFC North last week, after gaining a 1-game lead over the Bears, who had lost QB Jay Cutler again due to injury.  With the Packers having to endure life without their own starting QB Aaron Rodgers, Detroit could have pounced on an opportunity.  Instead they now sit tied with the Bears and looked like they regressed on defense.

I SAW the Lions mount a serious air attack on the Steelers – in the first half.

Everyone was concerned about the weather prior to the game, but the Pittsburgh weather wasn’t too inclement and Detroit’s passing game precipitated a boatload of balls for yardage in the first half hour of game time.  The Lions at halftime: 327 passing yards (52 rushing).  WR Calvin Johnson: 6 catches for 179 yards and 2 TDs – the 10th highest total in a full game this season.

It wasn’t just the Lions that went off, though.  Both teams combined for 605 yards through the air, the most in the NFL in a first half this season.  Steelers WR Antonio Brown also had a huge half: 110 yards on 5 grabs and 2 TDs himself.

The second half was a different story, however, especially for the Lions.  They struggled their way to 16 passing yards in the final two quarters and Megatron was held without a catch on three targets.  Worse, Stafford went 0-for-10 in the fourth quarter as Detroit lost the game.

TRIVIA BOMB:

Oddly enough, Sunday marked the third time in Calvin Johnson’s career that he has gone the whole second half without a reception. (ESPN Stats & Information)

With this second half letdown in mind, it was the opposing QB who stole the day….

I SAW Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger play his best game of the season so far.

It’s been a tough year for Big Ben, who now has to deal with mounting rumors that he is unhappy with both his contract and the state of his team.  Most specifically, NFL.com’s Ian Rappaport reports that Roethlisberger was unhappy that combative offensive coordinator Todd Haley was retained this season, which is only surprising if you ignore the fact that Haley is an asshole.  In a story on the Chiefs by TheMMQB’s Peter King last week, Dwayne Bowe told the reporter that head coach Andy Reid allowed him more input than he’d had in previous years – several of which came under Haley.  Bowe said, “Some coaches have an ego.  Some coaches want to win.  Andy’s that [second]kind…” The only other head coaches Bowe has had since Reid were Haley and Romeo Crennel, who is about as egotistical as the Buddha he resembles.  Do the math.

I digress.  Roethlisberger torched the Lions defense for 29-of-45, 367 yards, 4 TD, 0 INT and a 119.4 rating en route to his second fourth quarter come-from-behind win this season and the 31st comeback victory of his career.  (STATS LLC)

I SAW Steelers WR Antonio Brown show why he was signed to a 5 year, $42.5 million contract extension prior to last season.  Pittsburgh inked Brown to that deal, banking that he would evolve into a player who would justify letting Mike Wallace go in free agency last summer.  Wallace has been a huge overpriced disappointment in Miami and while the Steelers miss having two reliable scoring threats out wide, Brown has come through.  He leads the league in receptions with 74, and although almost all of his 7 catches for 147 yards and 2 TDs on Sunday came in the first half, that outburst put the Lions D into such an overcompensation mode in the second half that it freed up routes underneath to the tight ends and backs.  Brown is quickly growing into a reliable number one option at wideout.  He’s always had the speed and the moves, but now his new role has forced him to learn to polish his route running skills.  When a player of his talent does that, it tends to pay dividends.

I SAW Steelers S Troy Polamalu tell The Dan Patrick Show his take on gauging when to retire.  “When your knowledge for the game becomes more than your athleticism for the game, it’s time to start coaching.”

Jesus.  If that’s the case, Polamalu’s gonna have to hit the books if he wants to retire before 2020.  There’s no player in the league who benefits more from his talent yet gets burned by his reliance on instinct than the 10-year safety.  Troy was up to his usual self on Sunday, staring at the quarterback instead of guarding his man.

I SAW PROPS for Lions QB Matthew Stafford for throwing his 100th career TD pass at the fourth-quickest pace in league history.

Fewest Games To 100 Pass TDs – NFL History

Player Games To 100 TD
Dan Marino 44
Kurt Warner 50
Johnny Unitas 53
Matthew Stafford 55
Peyton Manning 56

(Elias Sports Bureau)

This accomplishment blows me away, and is a testament to both Stafford and WR Calvin Johnson (who has 65 of those 100).  Everyone on this list has two arguably Hall Of Fame-worthy talents on the other end of their passes.  Marino had the Marks brothers – Clayton and Duper.  Warner had Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt.  Unitas had Raymond Berry and Lenny Moore.  Manning had Marvin Harrison, and Edgerrin James stretching the defense in the backfield.  Stafford and Johnson have played without a viable second option the whole time.  Very impressive.

Stafford also passed Bobby Layne for the franchise record for career passing yards.  And he’s only 25 yards old.  Crazy.

I SAW that the same problem that has plagued the Lions throughout head coach Jim Schwartz’s tenure finally came back to haunt them on Sunday.  The defensive front seven has been resurgent this season but it can’t hide the deficiencies in the defensive backfield forever.  Detroit ranks 30th in the NFL against the pass and in this air-it-out era that won’t get you enough wins in December and/or January – just ask their NFC North rivals, the Packers.

Seattle (9-1) wins vs. Minnesota (2-8), 41-20

I SAW the return of Seahawks WR Percy Harvin to the field for the first time this season and the first time wearing a Seattle uniform.  Head coach Pete Carroll and his medical staff have been clear about not rushing Harvin back after his hip surgery.  (The ’Hawks are especially mindful of Harvin’s previous run-ins with management in Minnesota about handling him after injuries when he was a Viking – a big part of what started the trade talks that brought the talented wideout to the Rainy City.)  As such, Harvin’s impact on the game was measured – but significant.  He had only one reception for 17 yards, but it was a slick one-handed job to keep a drive alive.  He also had one kickoff return – for 58 yards.

It’s hard to find a weakness on the Seattle roster.  If there was one, it could have been at receiver once Sidney Rice was lost to injury.  (The O-line hasn’t played as well as last season either, but starting tackles Russell Okung and Breno Giacomini returned on Sunday themselves.)  If Harvin can return to form it’s going to be very tough to beat this team – especially if they secure home field advantage throughout the playoffs, where they haven’t lost in 13 straight games.

I SAW Seahawks QB Russell Wilson hit the bench early in the fourth quarter of this blowout, but not before dazzling spectators with skill as he put up a career-high 151.4 passer rating.  At the end of the first half, Wilson dropped a sweet touch pass into the arms of WR Doug Baldwin for a TD.  Then, before he was taken out of the game in the fourth quarter, Wilson got in touch with his inner Brett Favre and shoveled the ball in between two defenders to RB Marshawn Lynch, who reminded us that he is just as much the force that propels Seattle’s offense as Wilson by scoring 3 TDs against the Vikings.

At this point, Wilson is looking like the most developed second year passer out of the fine crop that emerged last season.  The reason is simple: He’s on the best, most balanced team, so he doesn’t have to force the issue like, say, Robert Griffin III or Andrew Luck.

I SAW Vikings QB Christian Ponder continue to prove that his team’s search for a dependable passer isn’t over yet.  Ponder’s line: 13-22, 129 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs, 1 FUM, 53.0 rating.  It’s worse than it looks, though.  Ponder’s two picks were only three passes apart, and each of them were ugly.  First, he threw way behind RB Adrian Peterson, and then he was right on target…if the target was Seahawks Walter Thurmond’s stomach.

Someone explain to me why this team is paying QB Josh Freeman $2 million to hold a clipboard for half a season while Ponder stinks it up.

Buffalo (4-7) wins vs. New York Jets (5-5), 37-14

I SAW the Jets continue their win-loss flip-flop campaign by getting wind-whipped in blustery conditions in Buffalo.

TRIVIA BOMB:

The Jets are the first team in NFL history to alternate wins and losses for the first 10 games of its season.

Rookie QB Geno Smith got clocked in the midsection by DT Marcell Dareus during the Jets’ first possession and never found his rhythm en route to an 8-for-23, 3-interception, 1 fumble, 10.1-rating shit stain that also included a pick-6.

It was a very windy game, but the performance of Buffalo’s QB hardly helps support that defense….

I SAW Bills QB EJ Manuel play a great game under extremely windy conditions even though both of his starting wide receivers sat out due to injury.  Like so many NFL games across the northeast on Sunday, Buffalo got hit by storms that made passing difficult.  Manuel seemed undeterred, going 20-for-28, 245 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INT and a 121.9 rating to give his team something to hang its hat on going into the bye week having snapped a three-game skid.

I SAW Bills rookie WR Marquise Goodwin score on another deep bomb, this time by burning Jets CB Antonio Cromartie.  Goodwin might end up being a one-trick pony if he doesn’t learn how to run routes, but his speed is eye-popping.  He’s one of the fastest players in the NFL at top speed.

I SAW the Jets’ pass defense get further exposed against a subpar offense.  New York’s run D is top-notch but Bills rookie E.J. Manuel continued a trend by taking it to the Jets via the pass.  Gang Green ranks 22nd or worst in the NFL in pass defense, pass TDs allowed, and interceptions.

I SAW a mistake-prone second quarter undo the Jets.  Buffalo put up 17 points over a 2:50 span just before halftime, largely due to turnovers by QB Geno Smith (see above) and a comatose level of production on offense.  N.Y.’s final 5 possessions of the first half: 4 yards, no first downs and two turnovers on 13 plays.  (STATS LLC)

This game wasn’t the only one decided by a big second quarter….

Cincinnati (7-4) wins vs. Cleveland (4-6), 41-20

I SAW the Bengals coast to victory on a franchise record for points in a quarter, scoring 31 in the second frame against the Browns.  Cincy scored every which way but loose – a blocked punt, fumble return, field goal – to put this one to bed by halftime.

It’s a good thing that Cincinnati had such a good start too, because QB Andy Dalton was allowed barely any room to breathe while he scraped out scores thanks to good field position.

TRIVIA BOMB:

Andy Dalton’s 93 yards passing are an NFL-record low for a QB with 25 attempts and 3 TD passes in a game.  (Elias Sports Bureau)

With the Ravens losing in OT, Cincy strengthens its hold on the AFC North after suffering back-to-back overtime losses of their own.  Now the Bengals head into a bye week to prepare for a 5-game stretch to finish the season, 4 of which are against teams with losing records; 3 of which are home games.

I SAW the Browns epitomize dink-and-dunk offense.  According to ESPN Stats & Information, Browns QB Jason Campbell was 26-of-50 for 174 yards and a pair of interceptions on passes 10 yards or shorter.  No NFL QB since the start of the 2006 seasons has thrown as many short passes in a game.

In all, Campbell’s 56 attempts are the third most in Cleveland history.  The running game is playing well too, which means the Browns D is giving them a lot of opportunities to run plays.  But it’s not going to make much of a difference if Campbell is throwing three interceptions and the team is turning the ball over on special teams.

I SAW Browns CB Joe Haden continue to prove himself as an All-Pro caliber cornerback against elite WR A.J. Green.  Any doubts of Haden’s dominance of Green on Sunday?  He had as many catches – 2 interceptions, one of which he returned for a TD – as Green did, and one of Green’s grabs came on a trick pass from fellow wideout Mohamed Sanu.

I’m hard pressed to think of a corner other than Seattle’s Richard Sherman who is playing at a higher level than Haden.

I SAW Cincy LB James Harrison jump from the side of a milk carton to the stat sheet on Sunday, with his first interception as a Bengal and his first since 2010 when he was a Steeler.  (STATS LLC)  For the season the thirty-five year-old former Defensive Player Of the Year has just 22 tackles, 2.0 sacks and a fumble recovery.

Another Bengals ’backer has been much less M.I.A. this season….

I SAW Bengals LB Vontaze Burfict loom large once again.  He had a strip-6 (a fumble forced that he also returned for a TD) during that huge second quarter and finished with 15 tackles and a defensed pass for the game.

Burfict leads the NFL in tackles in his second pro season, with 118.  Coming out of Arizona State he was a raw talent who lacked discipline and wasn’t in great shape.  After a strong rookie season some wondered if he would suffer a lapse in focus.  If anything, Burfict is playing better than last year, showing sharper instincts.  He shoots to the ball as aggressively as any defender in the NFL.

Miami (4-6) wins vs. San Diego (5-5), 20-16

I SAW Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill nearly blow the game for his team.

The sophomore quarterback ran out of bounds with the ball when he should have thrown it away on Miami’s last possession, giving San Diego the ball back with almost 2 minutes left to win the game.  Why Tannehill left the field with the ball still in his hand is anyone’s guess.  Nevertheless, the ’Fins D buckled but didn’t break, letting the ’Bolts get within the Miami 30-yard line but denying a score.

The Bullygate-weary Dolphins win for just the second time in their last seven, but don’t look now – they still have a very real chance to make the postseason.

I SAW a stat that proves how inept the Dolphins receiving corps has been in recent years: Charles Clay’s 78 yards after the catch on Sunday is the second highest single game total by a Miami player during the last 6 seasons.  (ESPN Stats & Information)

Paging Mike Wallace….Mike Wallace, you’re wanted on the stat sheet…Wallace?

I SAW Karma holding serve for perhaps a bit too long for the Dolphins.  Since the legendary 41-38 OT win in the playoffs for the 1981 season (think Kellen Winslow being carried off the field) the Chargers are 0-7 in Miami.

I SAW Dolphins TE Charles Clay continue to be a strong player for his team.  Clay had arguably his best game of the season, catching 6 of his 7 targets for 90 yards and a TD.  This team desperately needs a short-yardage receiver to come through on hot routes while opposing defenses blitz their asses off against the porous Miami O-line.

I SAW the Chargers lose their third in a row.  Their story this season in a nutshell: QB Philip Rivers is playing well, and yikes.

I SAW the Dolphins run for 104 yards.  That doesn’t sound like much – it isn’t – but considering how comatose the Miami ground game has been, 5.5 yards per carry as a team helps the worst pass protection in the NFL.

Tampa Bay (2-8) wins vs. Atlanta (2-8), 41-28

I SAW one of the more surreal “every season is different” moments Sunday, when the Buccaneers hung a 40-Burger on the Falcons and in the process give both franchises the same win-loss record this season.  I don’t think too many people (outside of Tampa) are surprised by the Bucs’ record, but for Atlanta to be mired in a 2-win season at the end of Week 11?  No one saw that coming.

No one saw this coming either….

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

 

The Timmy Smith Where The Hell Did That Come From?? Award

In his rookie season of 1987 Redskin RB Timmy Smith had zero starts and 126 total yards in the regular season.  In what is to date perhaps the most surprising performance in NFL history, Smith made his first career start in the Super Bowl against the Broncos and rushed for a Super Bowl-record 204 yards.  (Smith would never again rush for more than 107 yards in a game and was out of the league two seasons later, but this award is concerned with that initial out-of-nowhere display.)

Bobby Rainey, RB, Bucs

Everyone is forgiven for not noticing a Bucs waiver wire move last month – the one when they signed a 5’8”, 212-pound tailback.  Stuck deep in the depth chart for his third team in two seasons, Rainey blew the world away on Sunday when he got 30 carries for 134 yards and a touchdown, plus a receiving TD.  After injuries to starter Doug Martin and backup Mike James, Rainey has been huge despite his short stature.

To be fair, this performance hasn’t happened in a vacuum.  Rainey scored the go-ahead TD last week and will surely see more action as the season winds down for the Bucs.  But with all due respect to the guy, let’s not hold our breath waiting to see if he makes a roster next year.

I SAW the Falcons lose their fourth straight – by a combined score of 135-61.  It’s the longest losing skid during the Mike Smith-Matt Ryan era, and time to move on from this sad train wreck.  This write-off of a season in Cold-Lanta isn’t nearly enough to endanger the jobs of Smith or GM Thomas Dmitroff – owner Arthur Blank said as much to the Associated Press – but it’s enough to want their season over with.

I SAW Buccaneers rookie QB Mike Glennon continue his impressive play this season.  When Tampa By selected Glennon in Round 3 of the draft, it was roundly expected that he would see mere spot duty in his first year while then-starter Josh Freeman kept the spot warm for him.  Freeman ended up freezing his ass to the spot with ice-cold play instead, and had it torn off like a tongue on a metal pole in wintertime, packaged and sent with him to Minnesota.  Enter Glennon, who has played with a surprising amount of poise, field vision and accuracy that reached so high a level on Sunday that it requires a trip back to a more testacle-y time to match it.  That’s right – Glennon’s 87 percent completion percentage (on 20-for-23 passing) against the Falcons is the second-best day in team history in terms of accuracy.  The best was in Week 2 of the 1992 season when none other than Vinny Testaverde threw for 88 percent.  (ESPN Stats & Information)

I SAW PROPS to Falcons TE Tony Gonzalez who now has 16 seasons with 50 or more receptions.  Only the great Jerry Rice has more, with 17.  (ESPN Stats & Information)

Unfortunately Gonzalez almost certainly could give a rat’s ass about those sorts of statistics.  This shit stain of a season was hardly what Gonzalez had in mind when he let his team talk him out of retiring this season to come back for one more try at a Super Bowl ring.  Whoops.

Arizona (6-4) wins @ Jacksonville (1-9), 27-14

I SAW Cardinals QB Carson Palmer put up four bills.  It was Palmer’s day to live – he went 6-for 6 on his opening drive, a short slant was sprung for a 91-yard TD and at another point the ’Zona pivot threw three straight completions of 20+ yards.

Best of all?  Palmer went without an interception for the first time this season.  (Really?  Jesus.)

Arizona has now won three straight.  Believe it or not, crazier than me walking on air, they’re in the playoff hunt.

I SAW Cardinals WR Michael Floyd come through in the Where The Hell Has That Been? Department, hauling in 6 passes for 193 yards and a TD.  A testament to the shittiness of the Jags defense (see Away from the game(s)): Floyd had just 464 yards all season before Sunday, or 51.6 yards per game.  Teammate Larry Fitzgerald had just 61 yards on as many catches in the game, but you know he’s ecstatic to finally see something good come from all the double coverage he attracts.

I SAW perhaps the most embarrassing stat so far this season:

The Jaguars took until Sunday, their 10th game, to score their first TD in the state of Florida this season.  For the geographically impaired: Jacksonville is in Florida.  (The Jags scored a “home” TD in Week 8, in Wembley Stadium, London.)

I SAW Jaguars DE Jason Babin get all Kahl Drogo on RB Andre Ellington, ripping off some of his dreadlocks, brandishing them in their air and then tossing them aside like horse innards.  Jesus, man.  Just give the guy his hair back and move on.  And respect the first two rules of Fight Club.  

I SAW Jaguars RB Maurice Jones-Drew run for 23 yards on 14 carries.  Pray for MoJo.

Oakland (4-6) wins @ Houston (2-8), 28-23

I SAW myself rubbing my eyes and blinking.  What is this Matt McGloin shit?  Did Professor Fink take over the NFL?

frink

(FOX Broadcasting)

McGloin passed all over the Texans’ glavin, throwing for 197 yards, 2 TDs and a 105.9 passer rating.  Houston was content to invite McGloin to throw the ball against weak pressure (see below), and the rookie came through.  After coming from Penn State and the uber-scandal there, dealing with the Silver & Black misery must seem like a walk in the park.  McGloin is the 17th quarterback to start a game for Oakland since 2003 – whaaaa? – and he made it a memorable start to an undetermined pro career.

TRIVIA BOMB:

According to Elias Sports Bureau Matt McGloin is the second undrafted player in the modern draft era (since 1967) to have 3 TD passes, no INTs and a win in his first career start.  The other was the unforgettable Todd Philcox for the Browns in 1992.

I SAW the Texans extend their franchise-worst losing streak to eight games as head coach Gary Kubiak returned from a mini-stroke.  Kubiak spent the game in the upstairs booth, massaging his tender brain through another torturous showing by his players.

Being relegated to the booth by doctors didn’t stop Kubiak from sending his quarterback to the pine, though.  After watching starter Case Keenum struggle his way through the first 2+ quarters, Kubiak replaced him with former starter Matt Schaub to a chorus of boos from the home crowd.  That’s it, loyal fans.  When your team needs a break in a close game, why not boo the new guy on the field?  In all, 2-for-16 on third down isn’t good for a coach’s health.  Neither is what unfolded between Schaub and one of the franchise’s cornerstones….

I SAW Texans WR Andre Johnson get into a shouting match with QB Matt Schaub near the end of the game, which led to the wideout immaturely walking off to the locker room before the end of the game.  The verbal altercation came after a bad Schaub interception in the end zone on fourth down to kill a drive that could have given Houston the lead during the final minute.  I don’t know what Johnson said to his quarterback, but it’s clear on the replays that Schaub looks at Johnson and says, “you stopped on the route”, to which the receiver took exception.  The thing is, both of them were probably right – and wrong.  Schaub put up a shit throw.  Johnson did appear to pull a Frank Costanza and stop short.  Ultimately, Johnson shouldn’t have left the field – and he certainly shouldn’t have given such a candid interview in the locker room after the game, when he didn’t exactly deny that he was disgruntled to be playing for a team in disarray, playing the tell-all “I’m under contract, so I have to swallow this” card. 

I SAW the Texans continue to miss defensive leader LB Brian Cushing.  Take a look at these numbers for the defense in non-blitzing situations since Cushing was lost for the season in Week 7:

Texans Pass Defense, 4 Or Fewer Rushers – This Season

First 6 Games Last 4 Games
Comp % 50.8 65.7
Yards Per Att 6.1 9.0
TD-INT 2-0 5-0

(ESPN Stats & Information)

While we’re on the topic of the Houston defense, their run D wasn’t so hot either….

I SAW Raiders RB Rashad Jennings have a huge day against a reeling Texans defense.  Playing in relief of the Man Made Of Glass, Darren McFadden, Jennings had 150 yards and a TD on 22 carries.  According to ESPN Stats & Information, he had 109 yards after first contact, the most in a game by any player this season.  Note, though, that 73 of those yards came on his 80-yard TD scamper – the most such yards on a single run this year.

SNF- Denver (9-1) wins vs. Kansas City (9-1), 27-17

I SAW the champagne go Pop! for the 1972 Miami Dolphins – still the only undefeated team in NFL history.

I SAW an interesting game that, somehow, in my opinion both teams can be happy with.

At first it looked like the Broncos might put up a big early lead, but the Chiefs answered back to score their first offensive TD in 7 quarters.  This offense has been scrutinized throughout KC’s improbable start – and rightfully so – but it awoke enough from its slumber in the mountains Sunday night to make this one a game.  Despite a so-so stat line, I thought Chiefs QB Alex Smith looked better throwing downfield than he had all season.

If I’m KC I’m upset about the loss, but still come away with a lot of positives.  There was three times when the defense could have intercepted Broncos QB Peyton Manning – two of which could have been returned for touchdowns.  Overall, the team answered the call even though they fell short.  In fact, given the performance, I’d still take the Chiefs over Denver in bad weather.

More on the bright side for Kansas City: They’re still tied with the Broncos atop the AFC West (and the conference) and Denver has to play New England in prime time next week, then the travel to Arrowhead for the rematch of Sunday night’s game.  However….

I SAW one looming concern for the Chiefs: Their league-leading pass rush has gone cold.  According to the NBC broadcast Kansas City had zero knockdowns of a hobbled Peyton Manning.  That gives the defense just 1 sack over their last three games.  Mind you, KC went 2-1 over that span, so the D isn’t just a one trick pony.  But linebackers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali will need to rediscover their sack skills if the unit is going to continue to dominate.  Losing DE Mike DeVito for any length of time won’t help matters.  DeVito left Sunday’s game with a knee injury.  He’s been a key component in occupying blockers so that the ’backers can wreak havoc.

The other side of the coin is that the Broncos game isn’t much of an indication of a lack of penetration on defense because they chose not to try and get to Manning as part of their game plan.  To wit: Kansas City sent 4 pass rushers or fewer on 34 of Manning’s 40 dropbacks.  However, if that’s your strategy you’ve go to contain the receivers of the Clockwork Orange offense and the Chiefs failed at this, giving up a season-high 189 yards after the catch.  (ESPN Stats & Information)

I SAW the main priority for the Chiefs to address in the offseason: speed at the skill positions on offense.  Yes, RB Jamaal Charles is shaping up as one of the biggest game breakers the league has seen and Dexter McCluster can bust one, but Denver’s defenders were around the ball a lot more than they usually are and it’s not because they found better closing speed all of a sudden.  A downfield-oriented tight end would fit in very well in this offense.  Credit goes to the Broncos defense, but too often it looked too easy for them.

I SAW one way that Broncos QB Peyton Manning left his imprint on this showdown: The quiet game had by Chiefs S Eric Berry, whose name is usually called much more often that it was Sunday night.  Through a variation of check downs to run plays and looking Berry off in the passing game, Manning helped neutralize one of the game’s premier safeties and he did so in typical Manning fashion: with his mind.

Manning’s brain will have to continue to work overtime while he negotiates a tough slate of games in the near future on bad ankles.  Both of the quarterback’s feet were taped up tighter than Bill Belichick’s lips after a loss, and it could be the case that his ankles pose a problem for quite a while.  He was very tight-lipped about their condition after the game, and the quieter Manning is about his ankles, the more they are likely to be a problem.  If either wheel ends up going flat, so does Denver’s season.

I SAW cause to direct attention to someone we haven’t heard much about this season:

Chiefs OT Eric Fisher, the first pick of the 2013 draft.

When was the last time we got halfway through November with barely a mention of the performance of a #1 overall draft pick in their rookie season?  The consensus seems to be that Fisher is struggling to adapt to the speed of premier pass rushers (he played at small-school Central Michigan in college), but his travails have been overshadowed by his team’s surprising success.  If KC starts to falter, expect the criticism of Fisher to gather steam.

I SAW Broncos rookie RB Montee Ball continue to run his way out of the dog house with two TD runs.  Ball started off the season with a case of fumbilitis, but has since taken good care of his namesake.  Starter Knowshown Moreno still gets the majority of the carries in this offense (he had 27 on Sunday), but tends to fade late in the season so it’s good that the Broncos are building Ball’s confidence heading down the home stretch.

I SAW Broncos LB Shaun Phillips come through again when fellow ’backer Von Miller couldn’t.  Phillips had been a welcome disruptive player during Miller’s 6-game suspension for violating the NFL drug policy, and when Kansas City focused on him Sunday night, the former Charger stepped up again: 10 tackles, 2 QB hits, 2 passes defensed and 1.5 sacks.  Phillips deserves a lot of credit for helping the Denver defense in his first year with the team and the 32-year old is my leading candidate for Bargain Of The Year, having been signed to a 1-year, $1 million deal last summer.

I SAW that if history is any indication one of the teams from this game could be involved in Super Sunday.

TRIVIA BOMB:

This is the first time since 1948 that two teams in the same division started 9-1 or better.  In the previous 4 cases, one of the teams ended up in the Championship Game.  (ESPN Stats & Information)

MNF- Carolina (7-3) wins vs. New England (7-3), 24-20

I SAW the second-most surprising success story of the season (the Chiefs take the cake) win their sixth straight.  The Panthers are rewriting their reputation thanks to a defense that is playing at an elite level.  After Kansas City gave up 27 to the Clockwork Orange Broncos Sunday night Carolina’s D now leads the league in points allowed (13.5 per game) and is the only squad in the NFL to rank in the top 5 in overall defense, passing defense and rushing defense.  They also took over with the longest active streak of consecutive games with a takeaway, with 14.  (New England had a 36-gamer snapped in the same game.)

Sure, maybe the Panthers won on a missed call by the refs (see Away from the game(s)) but even Patriots Tom Brady and Bill Belichick admitted that New England shouldn’t have let the game come down to that play.  A win is a win, after all.

Carolina is now a legit contender for a first round bye in the playoffs.  They trail division leader New Orleans by just one game and they still get to play them twice in this regular season.

I SAW that, though the Panthers defense is the main reason for their turnaround this season, QB Cam Newton is their barometer:

Cam Newton – 2013 Season

First 4 Games Last 6 Games
W-L 1-3 6-0
Comp % 57.5 67.4
TD-INT 6-5 10-3

(ESPN Stats & Information)

Mind you, football is a very comprehensive sport – even statistically.  Carolina’s defensive domination gives Newton and the offense good field position, more possessions and as a result help tire out the opponent’s own D.  But Newton’s numbers in wins and losses are telling.

It doesn’t hurt when your O converts 8 of 11 third downs.  In fact, credit Newton for the lion’s share of that success too, as per ESPN Stats & Information.  At least six of those conversions were his doing.  He ran four times on third down for 56 yards – all first downs – and two of his three TD passes were on third down.

Moving the chains with his legs on the penultimate down is nothing new to the third-year wunderkind.  His 31 scrambles for first down on third down leads the NFL since he entered the league in 2011.

I SAW this game get characterized by long, grinding possessions.  In fact, according to ESPN Stats & Information the 14 combined drives Monday night is the fewest in an NFL game since 2008.

I SAW Patriots RB Stevan Ridley possibly buy himself a ticket out of town at season’s end.  Head coach Bill Belichick isn’t one to tolerate turnovers and Ridley leads NFL running backs this season with 3 lost fumbles even though he missed time due to injury.  In fact, Ridley is tied for the most RB fumbles over the last two seasons, with 5.

I SAW Panthers DE Charles Johnson go down with an injury in the second half.  Losing Johnson would be very bad for Carolina.  Everyone likes to gush over LB Luke Kuechly – and rightfully so – but Johnson is the leader of the D, the locker room presence. It looked like he knew the injury was serious at the time, too.  He had one of those vibes of frustration, those “this is our year, the worst time for me to go out” sort of moments when the medical staff came out to look at him.  However, Johnson ended up playing again before the game ended, so hopefully it’s not as bad as it initially looked.

I SAW myself not wanting to take away from Ted Ginn Jr.’s winning TD grab, but the Panthers wideout pushed off big time.  But that’s nothing new.  Offensive pass interference is the least called penalty in football.

I SAW Panthers WR Steve Smith prove again that he is one of the strongest guys in the NFL, pound for pound.  Patriots Aqib Talib is a beast of a corner at 6’1”, 205 pounds and Smith tussled with him through handsy defense, shoves, altercations and the like to get the better of Talib.  After the game, Smith was his usual hilarious trash-talking self.  With reporters he also referred to Talib as “another notch in the bed post” (via CBSsports.com).  Man, I’m going to miss Steve Smith when he’s gone.

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

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