What I Saw, Week 16 – 2013

Blair Miller > WHAT I SAW – WEEK 16, 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

HAPPY HO-HO, PIGSKIN FREAKS!

Santa football

I thought for this holiday edition of What I Saw I’d give us all a gift – me, for not writing as much as usual, and the rest of you for not having to read it.  (Especially my trusty proofreader/cat feeder/partner in crime Count Yorga.  Happy winter Jew-thingy, Yorga!)

I’ve eschewed the weekly analysis of every single game because let’s fact it, most of the non-playoff-relevant games can eff off while we stuff turkey and stuffing down our throats and accept presents we never asked for.  Besides, I plan to do a TFQ Postmortem on each team as the playoffs wind down, so stay tuned for that.

I’ve focused on some news, a la Away from the game(s), especially injury news, which I waited until today to have as updated as possible.  (Most players are ruled out by Friday because teams operate on an unwritten rules that if a guy can’t get any reps in practice before a Saturday walkthrough, he’s not going to play.)

After that, I’ve enhanced my Playoff Picture by beefing up on analysis of each team’s status in terms of seeding, et cetera, and also making predictions on what I think the final playoff teams will be, and where they’ll be ranked.  Enjoy.

Away from the game(s)

I SAW an NFL weekend largely defined by teams gaining more playoff leverage – several of whom sustained key injuries (see below).  Fortunately for fans of intrigue and confusion, Week 17 is shaping up to be the week of the spoiler, as a kaleidoscope of postseason scenarios could have some very plausible upsets end up shattering the January hopes of some contenders.

There were some weird moments to the week that was.

Among them:

The Chiefs go 1-for-8 on third down and get spanked by the Colts while the Panthers went 0-for-9 on the penultimate down and managed a huge win against the Saints to take control of the NFC South.  I tend to say that going 0-fer on third down won’t win you any games, but it might end up winning Carolina a second round bye.

New England and Baltimore combined for 62 rushing attempts and 263 yards in an early blowout sort of game that would usually see a box score full of passing.  Leave it to the Ravens to finally find a ground game – while suffering their worst blowout since 1997.

Any doubt that the Ice Tub Division, aka the NFC West, is the best division in football?  It’s like a mini-SEC out west, with three teams with double-digit wins (San Francisco, Seattle and Arizona) and a last-place team in the St. Louis that no one wants to play despite their spate of injuries this season.  The NFC North boasted three teams with double-digit wins last season, but those Packers Bears and Vikings teams pale in comparison to this year’s versions of the Seahawks and Niners.  How rare is this situation?  I did some digging….

TRIVIA BOMB:

Since realignment in 2002 a division has had three double-digit win teams in a season just four times: The AFC South in 2007 (Titans, Jaguars and Colts), the NFC South in 2010 (Saints, Falcons and Bucs), the NFC North in 2012 (Packers, Bears and Vikings) and this season’s AFC West crop (Niners, Seahawks and Cardinals).  Prior to realignment, divisions had at least 5 teams in them, so three teams with 10-plus wins happened more often.

I SAW more media criticism than usual leveled at Lions QB Matthew Stafford after Detroit played themselves out of playoff contention with a brutal OT loss to the Giants on Sunday.  Here’s a pretty concise take on the issue from Kurt Warner.

If you didn’t already think so, know that Stafford is officially a gunslinger.  He’s a special sort, though – not just a silly decision-maker in big moments, but also one whose footwork looks like James Brown’s used to while Bobby took it to the bridge.

I’ve defended Stafford’s varied arm slots on his throwing delivery before, because it can help a quarterback throw into windows against a pass rush – but only if done with discipline.  This season, Stafford’s discipline has waned considerably and the inconsistent throwing motion has spread to make for bad footwork.  I think the main cause of this has been the fact that WR Calvin Johnson is Stafford’s only consistent target downfield, and is so skilled that Stafford can get away with too much sloppy technique.

I’m sure many – perhaps even his coaches – will call for Stafford to throw with only one motion to address the problem.  I disagree.  Find a way to keep that advantage, but tighten up the rest of his technique from the ground up.  There’s not much wrong with Stafford that some off-season drills and another receiving threat can’t fix.

I SAW important injuries on potential playoff teams in Week 16.  People seem to be treating Bronco Von Miller’s knee tear as the most significant, but that’s just because Denver is the darling of the league at the moment while people are high sniffing Peyton Manning.  The loss of impressive S Kenny Vaccaro is a tougher blow to the Saints because the rookie is a big presence in both the run and pass game, whereas Miller is more specialized at pass rushing – not unlike Packer Clay Matthews who re-injured his thumb and whose status is unclear (hampering Green Bay’s chances of stealing the NFC North, as could RB Eddie Lacy’s ankle injury). 

Panthers WR Steve Smith has been ruled out for Week 17 with a sprained PCL tendon in his knee, but that’s good news after what appeared to be a much more serious injury.  If Carolina can secure a bye with a win against Atlanta, Smith can get three week’s rest.

At the league’s most important position, two quarterbacks on teams fighting for the AFC’s sixth seed have gimpy knees – Miami’s Ryan Tannehill and Baltimore’s Joe Flacco – but both seem likely to play without much impediment next week.

And somebody finally went there!  Yes, Pats head coach Bill Belichick of all people (it’s good that it’s coming from a voice that most people in the field respect) wondered aloud if the practice restrictions in the latest collective bargaining agreement might be linked to a perceived increase in injuries.

Speaking of the postseason….

Playoff Picture

(Seeding still my predictions.)

(Scenarios for each team as per the San Francisco Chronicle)

AFC

(1) DENVER (12-3): Clinched the AFC West and a bye in Sunday’s win against Houston.  Can secure home field advantage with a win or tie in Oakland, or a New England loss or tie.

The Broncos didn’t get a 40 burger but their QB, Peyton Manning, had a historic Fitty burger.  Fitty-one passing touchdowns, that is – an NFL single season record.  The Clockwork Orange offense rolls on, but it sputtered against a reeling Texans defense at times, gaining just 38 yards in the third quarter and punting on all four possessions in that frame.  It’s hard to evaluate the defense’s decent showing against Houston because that offense is so snake-bitten at this point.  Losing LB Von Miller for the playoffs is something they can weather – Miller missed the first 6 games of the season serving a drug suspension, and he’s had but 5 sacks in nine games – but a squad already spread thin loses some depth with Miller sidelined.  My other concern with this team is that they’ve had the same potentially momentum-sapping prelude to a playoff game that they had last season when they were upset by the Ravens: A weak set of opponents to end the regular season, followed by a bye.

(2) NEW ENGLAND (11-4): Clinched the AFC East Sunday.  Can still win home field advantage with a win against Buffalo and a Denver loss.  Can guarantee themselves a bye with a win/tie, or a loss/tie by Cincinnati and Indianapolis.

If it’s possible to be a dynasty over a span that includes a nine-year stretch without a championship (it isn’t), the Patriots are such a team.  On Sunday they won their 10th division title over the last 11 seasons.  New England is on the verge of their eighth 12-win season during the Belichick-Brady era.  (Until then the Pats had never won 12 games in a season.)

This season, however, the Patriots are more of an X factor than they usually are.  They look positively dominant in a game like last week’s pasting of the Ravens in Baltimore, yet they play down to teams a lot and both sides of the ball have been ravaged by injury.  In other words, it’s easy to picture New England going one-and-done in the playoffs or going to their sixth Super Bowl.

Was LeGarrette Blount’s 16-carry, 2 TD performance performance a sign of things to come, or are the Pats just mindfucking opponents again?  They’ll need to keep doing that sort of thing to keep rolling.  Not falling into a trap game against a sneaky-dangerous Bills defense next week in order to earn a bye will help too.

(3) CINCINNATI (10-5): Clinched the AFC South on Sunday.  Can secure a bye with a win against the Ravens and Patriots loss.

TRIVIA BOMB:

This is the first time the Bengals have made the playoffs in three straight seasons.  (The MMQB)

Cincy is undefeated at home with next week’s Baltimore game left to play there, and could benefit by getting a higher seed to potentially get an extra home game somewhere along the line in January.  But I think this team needs to maintain momentum more than take a week off.  I tallied up QB Andy Dalton’s totals in the four December games this season that followed Cincinnati’s bye week: 90-of-140 (64.3%) for 1,061 yards (265.3/game), 10 touchdowns, 1 interception and a 108.1 passer rating.  Dalton’s offensive line has allowed just seven sacks over that same span, on par with their fifth-lowest sacks allowed in the NFL (29) despite having to make adjustments due to injury.  Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has outdone himself again in the Why Is This Man Not A Head Coach Department, having his defense play at a top level despite key injuries, notably to DT Geno Atkins.  In the six games since Atkins went down the Bengals have allowed just one opponent to score more than 20 points on them.  In fact, you could make the argument that no team has played on through major injuries as seamlessly as Cincy has but sometimes all of that can turn out to be lightning in a bottle, momentum that can escape into thin air if given too much time off.  Either way, them beating Baltimore and New England losing to Buffalo is the least likely of the pertinent scenarios, so I’m locking them out of the bye week, but Cincy beware: Indy can still leapfrog you, since they face the Jaguars.

(4) INDIANAPOLIS (10-5): Clinched the AFC South on Sunday.  Can earn a bye with a win in Jacksonville, a loss by New England and a loss/tie by Cincinnati.

Some may be impressed by Indy’s last two showings, but it’s still a sign of the flighty play from the Colts under head coach Chuck Pagano.  That sort of thing can happen with an intense coach.  In other words, their defense looked good over the last two weeks, but it’s not a stretch to see it shit the bed come playoff time – or on Sunday against a Jaguars team that aren’t the pushovers they once were, for that matter.  You can say the same thing about the on again, off again offense.  With those things in mind, it doesn’t feel right that Indy is still in position to grab second seed in the AFC, but that’s where things are at.

I just can’t see this offense winning in the playoffs, so let’s hope they don’t crack the top three seeds.  It’s not all his fault (to say the least), but QB Andrew Luck needs to be playing better.  I know that finding a running game is a big part of the Colts identity under offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, but games like Sunday’s 34-carry, 4.0-yard average “outburst” from the committee of running backs isn’t going to be what wins when the games go to the next level.  In Hamilton’s defense, the play calling might be in part to protect an offensive line that has fielded seven different starting lineups this season – and Sunday was their fifth in five games.  (STATS LLC)  But come playoff time that patchwork unit will put all the more pressure on Luck, especially with Colts defense that tends to give up points.

(5) KANSAS CITY (11-4): Clinched a playoff spot, and are locked into the fifth seed.

The Chiefs have a chance to play spoiler to division rival San Diego next week, and they should try to do so, despite the game’s virtual meaninglessness.  No late-season game is meaningless, no matter what a team has clinched, and it’s not just because of potential injuries.  It’s also because of momentum.  The two motivations are at odds with one another, and I get the sense with Andy Reid that he won’t press his key starters into too much playing time in order to prevent injury, especially if the score gets anywhere near out of hand.

Sunday’s bad loss to the Colts at home doesn’t bode well for KC, because the two are likely to meet again in the Wild Card round (so long as Indy remains the fourth seed).  But it might not be such a bad thing for the Chiefs to have to play that game on the road.  Kansas City is 5-3 at home, and 6-1 away from Arrowhead Stadium.  What should be more concerning to the KC coaching staff is how easily the Colts offensive line handled their front seven.  This team desperately needs LB Justin Houston back, and this week might mark his return from a month-long absence due to an elbow injury.  Getting back a guy who has 11 sacks in 11 games this season usually helps.

(6) MIAMI (8-7): Can clinch the sixth seed with a win and a Baltimore loss/tie, a win and a San Diego win, a tie with a Baltimore loss and a San Diego loss/tie, or if Miami, Baltimore and San Diego all tie.  Simple.

I don’t think that the Dolphins are the sixth-best team in the AFC right now.  I’d probably give that to the Chargers or Ravens first.  But Miami has the most advantageous entry scenario of the contenders for the second Wild Card.  They get to host the Jets, who are 6-1 this season on the road and generally shitty.  New York might come out flat under the increasing expectation that head coach Rex Ryan is finished there.  I think the Ravens will lose to the Bengals.  The Chargers are a bit of a toss-up given their opponent might pack it in.  However, if there’s a way to blow it against Gang Green, Miami might be able to find it.

The Dolphins had a great chance to increase their playoff hopes with the lowly Bills but they shit the bed in goose egg fashion on Sunday, getting blanked in Buffalo, giving me an idea for the title of my next porn.  Blanked In Buffalo

buffalo sex

They came.  They needed their photocopier repaired.  They got blanked.  In Buffalo.  Coming soon from Vividplex Video, starring Ryan Tannehill and the armpit of the U.S.

Not only did Miami lose to the Bills and thus drastically hamper their playoff chances, but after a season of leading the league in times sacked, QB Tannehill succumbed to injury, suffering some sort of a knee injury.  He was able to return to the game, so hopefully for the ’Fins’ sake it won’t affect his performance against New York.  But that doesn’t mean that Miami shouldn’t be concerned about the safety of their quarterback behind an offensive line that differs greatly from its opening day incarnation.

If Sunday’s loss to Buffalo was any indication, the coaching staff isn’t keen on favoring the run to give their pivot breathing room.  How they only ran the ball 12 times in bad weather and the offensive line getting torn apart in the passing game is beyond me.

THE CONTENDERS

BALTIMORE (8-7): Can clinch a playoff spot with a win at Cincinnati and a San Diego loss/tie, a win and a Miami loss/tie, or a tie with a Miami loss and a San Diego loss/tie, a tie with a Miami tie and a San Diego loss, or a loss with a San Diego loss and a Pittsburgh loss/tie.

To make a sloppy story short, if the Ravens can’t handle the Bengals next week they’re most likely screwed.  I give Baltimore the edge over the rest of the contending pack out of respect for the defending champs, but they’re already backing into the end of the regular season more than they did last year.  During their pseudo-storybook season last year, Ray Rice converted a fourth-and-29 against the Chargers to keep their playoff hopes alive en route to a championship.  Sunday’s failed fourth-and-1 in the red zone against front seven-challenged New England might be the best snapshot of Baltimore’s failing defense of the title.

On a broader spectrum, the Ravens are “fresh” off one of their worst losses since the team moved from Cleveland.  The Baltimore D had been holding up its team’s back for some time now, but it snapped loudly while giving up a 40-burger to the Pats.

There are a lot of reasons to point to for the struggles of the Super Bowl champs.  One of them is the failure of QB Joe Flacco and the offense to connect on strikes downfield…and there are a lot of reasons to point to for that as well.  The loss of WR Anquan Boldin (trade) and TE Dennis Pitta (injury until two weeks ago) who both stretched the defense, the injury time served by WR Jacoby Jones, the failure of WR Torrey Smith to ascend to a number one option under those trying circumstances – whatever you want to ascribe the problem to, the evidence is clear: This season Flacco has three touchdowns and eight interceptions on throws 15 yards or farther downfield.  Last season he threw for 11 and 2, respectively.  (ESPN Stats & Information)  I thought while it was happening that the Ravens squeaked by on fluky deep balls last season, and maybe that’s the case.

CHARGERS (8-7): Can clinch a playoff berth with a win against the Chiefs and either a Miami loss/tie and a Baltimore loss/tie, or a tie and losses by both said teams. 

The Chargers’ fortunes are iffy because they face Kansas City, who might not give them their best shot since they’re locked into the fifth seed.  As I’ve mentioned above, I think KC should play next week’s game on the West coast as a regular game, but who knows.

All things being equal, San Diego has won three straight, and I still wouldn’t want to face Philip Rivers in a playoff game.  A few weeks ago I thought the Bolts’ favorable schedule would put them in the postseason, but they can’t control the actions in other games, and now they’ll probably find themselves on the outside looking in.

It’s a shame, because with the improved play of RB Ryan Mathews there might not be another team playing with more balance on offense than the Chargers.

PITTSBURGH (7-8): Needs a win, a Ravens loss, a Chargers loss and a Dolphins loss to force a 5-team tie for the sixth seed, which the Steelers would win by virtue of the second tiebreaker, record within the conference.  No biggie.

Actually, considering that Baltimore plays the Bengals, San Diego faces the Chiefs and Miami takes on the Jets (okay, that’s the weak link, but plausible) it’s not that outlandish to consider the Steelers as postseason participants.

Win and lose, Pittsburgh has been stymied by controversial plays over the last month: Head coach Mike Tomlin’s sideline box-out violation against the Ravens, WR Antonio Brown’s stepping out of bounds versus the Dolphins, and Sunday’s lateral-bacle in Green Bay.  Similar to Carolina’s miracle, the Steelers beat the Packers going 2-for-10 on third down.  QB Ben Roethlisberger has quietly thrown 19 touchdowns and 5 interceptions over Pittsburgh’s last 8 games.  He’s not blowing the lid off of stadiums in terms of yardage, but he’s grinding it out, Brady-style this season in large part due to the timely contributions of Brown.

However, this team truly stunk up the league through the first month-plus of the season.  In equivocal fashion, Pittsburgh both does and doesn’t deserve to make the playoffs.  Fitting, then, that both they and the football gods will decide their fate.

NFC

(1) SEATTLE (12-3): Clinched a playoff berth on Sunday.  Can secure the NFC West and home field advantage with a win/tie against the Rams, or a San Francisco loss/tie.  Verrrrry, veerrry eeeenteresting.  The Seahawks’ armor didn’t just show a kink, it got pried open and shit in by the Cardinals, who snapped Seattle’s 12-game home win streak by out-physical-ing the most physical team in the NFL.  The ’Hawks have to face the super-annoying Rams next week too, and almost have to win that game to take their division after weeks of looking like they had the conference in hand.

An even more concerning link: The running game.  To the casual observer, Marshawn Lynch is in usual beast mode, with 1,160 rushing yards – 6th in the NFL.  However, his production has dipped significantly over the home stretch, as evidenced by his fifth straight week averaging below 4.0 yards per carry in Sunday’s loss to the ’Cards.  The problem runs deeper:

Marshawn Lynch, Rushing By Week – This Season

Weeks 1-10 Weeks 11-16
Yards per Game 87.1 57.8
Yards per Rush 4.6 3.3
Avg. Yards After Contact 2.0 1.6
First Downs per Game 4.8 2.8

(ESPN Stats & Information)

QB Russell Wilson has been able to make due with a depleted receiving corps by utilizing play action all season, but unless you’re Peyton Manning play action only works as well as the running game.  If opposing defenses continue to be able to bottle up Lynch, Seattle’s January run might be shorter than many expect.

One note on the injured receivers: It has been hinted that Percy Harvin could go on injured reserve for the rest of the season.  If that happens it would be a frustrating development for both wideout and franchise, but despite barely playing all season Harvin is still a worthwhile investment – especially if you consider the expensive trade for him in the context of Seattle signing QB Charlie Whitehurst for 2 years and $8 million in 2010 before Whitehurst had thrown a regular season pass as a pro.  The Seahawks boast one of the deepest rosters in the league along with San Fran and Cincy, and can thus afford a few gambles.  Harvin might still pay out, just likely not this season.

(2) CAROLINA (11-4): Clinched a playoff berth Sunday.  Can win the NFC South and a bye with a win/tie at Atlanta, or a New Orleans loss/tie.  Also can secure home field advantage with a win and losses by San Francisco and Seattle.

On Sunday this team got all Lebowski and showed true grit.  Not only did they have to beat a Saints team that whupped them two weeks prior, but they had to take on the wrath of god and/or Mother Nature.  Honestly, watching the game live on TV, the game started to show some clouds, then a commercial break.  When FOX came back to the game it was monsoon season.  Strap on your bible belts, it’s the Tobacco Road Rapture!  Check out this petulant family in an awesome pre- and post-storm .gif.

http://s3.amazonaws.com/br-cdn/temp_images/2013/12/22/829073876.gif

Carolina has come a long way.  They could get to rest on a bye week before hosting their first playoff game since the Jake Delhomme interceptiongasm of the 2008 season.  A 12-win campaign would cap a surprising regular season for the Panthers, but don’t write off the Falcons, who have a handful of proud veterans (and one, TE Tony Gonzalez, whom teammates will be playing hard for in his last pro game) and gave the Niners a hard time Monday night.  In fact, after a potentially franchise-defining win against New Orleans Sunday Carolina had better be careful not to get their collective paw caught in a trap game.  An elite defense is usually a good preventative measure against upsets and the Panthers are playing like one, led by LB Luke Kuechly.

I personally think that experts are too quick to anoint elite middle linebackers, and I admit that trend had me skeptical about second-year ’backer Kuechly, who was moved to the inside partway through his rookie season.  No longer.  He had a Nightcrawler-like 24 tackles, one for a loss, a pass defensed and an interception while ranging all over the field on Sunday against a very good offense in arguably the franchise’s biggest regular season game since their 2003-season Super Bowl appearance.  (And I’m not even sure that edition had a regular season game calling for as much of statement as Sunday’s Saints game did.)  Since tackles became tracked stats in 1994, those 24 tie for the most in a game, with the Jets’ David Harris in 2007.  (NFL Media)  Kuechly was so…everywhere that I swear I started hearing –Bamf!– when Carolina’s D was on the field.

Nightcrawler_Bamf

(Marvel Entertainment)

Now, Kuechly & Co. will likely host at least one playoff game while coming off a 7-1 home record.  With Smith or without, this team should be feared.

(3) PHILADELPIHA (9-6): Clinches the NFC East with a win/tie in Dallas.

Same situation goes for the Cowboys but I was giving the East to the Eagles before the season-ending back surgery for Dallas QB Tony Romo, right about when Philly took Chicago out to a 5-floor woodshed Sunday night.

Some are focusing on the poor game Eagles QB Nick Foles had against Dallas in Week 7 but this is a different Foles now.  Think Foles is still on a hot streak?  He threw four incompletions against the Bears on Sunday, three of which were intentionally thrown away, the other one dropped.  According to ESPN Stats & Information, Foles is the first quarterback since the start of the 2008 season with at least 20 attempts in a game without one thrown off-target of defensed.  Worried that the crucial Week 17 tilt against Big D is in Texas?  Suck on these numbers I dug up:

Nick Foles Home Games vs. Road Games – NFL Career

Yards/Att Yards/Game TD INT Pass Rating
Home 6.96 188.7 9 4 87.4
Road 8.56 271.1 22 3 111.7

There’s also this guy named LeSean McCoy who just so happens to lead the league in rushing yards.  Over four December games so far this season Shady has caught at least 5 passes three times, averaged over 7 yards per carry three times, and scored 2 TDs twice.  No other running back is playing better this side of Jamaal Charles.

McCoy and Foles are playing at such a high level that it overcomes Philly’s bad defense – even if they weren’t facing the worst defense in the NFL this season in the Cowboys.  I think new head coach Chip Kelly will have Philly treating this game just like any other – in a good way.  It took some time, but this team’s buying into Kelly’s program is starting to pay dividends on the gridiron.

(4) CHICAGO (8-7): Can clinch the NFC North win a win/tie against Green Bay.

If the Bears are going to take the division from the Packers, they’re probably going to have to score a bunch to do it because their once-formidable defense is formidably awful.  Chicago has allowed opponents to post a 40-burger four times this season.  Coming into this season it had taken them nine years to allow that same total.  (ESPN Stats & Information)  Sunday’s 54-point debacle against the Eagles was just one point shy of the franchise record.

Chi-Town could have clinched their division with a win on Sunday instead of that egg they laid, and now the oldest rivalry in the NFL will decide who gets into January.  I get the sense that Packers QB Aaron Rodgers won’t be his usual self after 7 games off, and as injury-riddled as the Bears are, Green Bay has more banged up key players at the moment.  LB Lance Briggs made a glitch-free return for Chicago on Sunday.  To say his presence is a welcome sight for the D is an understatement.

This team’s fate is likely attached to QB Jay Cutler, who has been so-so overall in his two starts since being sidelined with groin and ankle injuries.  His line in those 2 games: 42-of-66 (63.6%) for 487 yards, 4 touchdowns, 3 interceptions and an 87.1 passer rating.  Two of the interceptions were on tipped balls against the Browns, but it’s safe to say that the Nutler has yet to find his groove.  I expect head coach Marc Trestman to lean harder on RB Matt Forte against the Packers’ 26th-ranked run defense and the offense to essentially win the day and usher the Bears into January.

If the Bears lose, here’s why.

TRVIA BOMB:

Ray Rice, Bryce Brown, Brandon Jacobs and Benny Cunningham had their only 100-yard rushing game of this season against the Bears defense.  (NFL Network)  From Elias: Because it stinks.

(5) SAN FRANCISCO (11-4): Can clinch the NFC West and a first round bye with a win at Arizona and a Seattle loss.  Can even secure home field advantage if those things happen and a Carolina loss/tie.

Assuming that the Niners will win in Arizona in Week 17 – which is by no means a given – there might be no hotter team in the conference.  San Fran has won five in a row and 10 of their last 12 games.  It’s fitting that the top team in the NFC will largely be decided by all four NFC West teams, each of whom face one another next week.  The Niners could easily end up on top of the West, given how hard the Rams, Seattle’s opponent, are to beat in divisional games under head coach Jeff Fisher.

Mind you, the Niners tend to paly close games – only two of their seven games since their bye week have been decided by more than 10 points – in large part because of an offense that still hasn’t been able to get the vibe flowing for QB Colin Kaepernick.  He’s been efficient over his last five games, posting a passer rating above 100 in four of them, but over the same span he hasn’t thrown for more than 275 yards, or accounted for more than 2 TDs.  I get the sense that offensive coordinator Greg Roman plans to let Kaepernick loose more, as the games get more meaningful.  The Niners will have to make sure than RB Frank Gore still gets at least 20 touches too, though.  I see no reason why Kaepernick can’t replicate some of his output from last season.  He’s getting more reps with the original offensive skill players now that WR Michael Crabtree has some games under his belt.  Keap struggled earlier in the season, but a dual-threat QB can’t use the threat of the run as much while trailing on the scoreboard because the opposing defense can favour the pass.  Now that San Fran’s D is playing more like its usual self and the scores are closer, look for more Kaepernick – for better or for worse.

(6) NEW ORLEANS (10-5): Can clinch the NFC South and a first round bye with a win against Tampa Bay and a Carolina loss.  Can secure a Wild Card berth with a tie and an Arizona loss-tie, an Arizona loss or a San Francisco loss/tie.

The Saints looked like their goose was half-cooked in Sunday’s loss to the Panthers.  New Orleans dominated many stats, except for turnovers and the score.  It was the sort of loss that can have a demoralizing effect on a team.  It didn’t help that head coach Sean Payton shook things up by replacing both the placekicker and left tackles.

New Orleans has lost 3 of its last 5 games.  Brees’ passer rating is above 115 in each of the two wins and below 80.5 in the three losses.  Protecting him from the opposing pass rush is crucial for success, but at times the Saints O-line has looked like a sieve, especially on Sunday and against the Seahawks three games ago.  Payton’s decision to elevate rookie Terron Armstead to protecting Brees’ blind side with no snaps on offense in the pros didn’t exactly solve any problems in that area.  According to The MMQB, the Panthers beat Armstead for three of their six sacks in Sunday’s game.  That’s a season-high for sacks allowed by the fleur-de-lys, by the way.  And now they have to go the rest of the season without S Kenny Vaccaro (see above).  I’ve said it before: It looks like Rob Ryan’s defense is burned out after a formidable improvement upon last season.  Now, it’s looking like the whole team is suffering from that affliction.  It’s possible that the Bountygate hangover-turned resurgence could be too much to bear for now.

THE CONTENDERS

GREEN BAY (7-7-1): Can clinch the NFC North win a win at Chicago.  Just like in the NFC East, the NFC North comes down to a Week 17 win-and-you’re-ingasm.

No playoff-eligible team going into next week has their fortunes more up in the air thanks to key injuries than the Packers.

The most surprising development in this regard (more even than the return of the quarterback, which I’ll get to in a moment) is that WR Randall Cobb has been practicing with the team and might play on Sunday.  That is huge for the Packers, who have gone without whom I think is Rodgers’ favourite target for 10 weeks.  Cobb’s presence will help suture Rodgers back into real-game speed if he can play.

Can star rookie RB Eddie Lacy rebound from Sunday’s ankle injury?  Cheesehead Nation better hope so.

Did LB Clay Matthews’ second injury to the same thumb hold him out of the deciding game against Chicago?  Well, that’s not a significant as Rodgers or Lacy, but Matthews embodies what little pass rush the Packers have.

One thing has been somewhat cleared up: Star QB Aaron Rodgers is going to start on Sunday against the same defense that broke his collarbone in Week 9.  What isn’t clear is how well Rodgers will perform.  I can’t criticize head coach Mike McCarthy for opting for one of the top 5 quarterbacks in the NFL, but how rusty will Rodgers be?  Meanwhile, backup Matt Flynn has played very well in Rodgers’ absence.  It would be silly to say Flynn should play, but I wonder if he doesn’t give Green Bay a better chance against in Chicago.

Con artist-cum-castoff-cum-starter again Flynn’s return to relative importance is wacky.  Flynn is one of the frontrunners for TFQ’s Take Our Shirt Award in the Upside Down Awards for in essence parlaying one great (six touchdown) game as a Packers backup in 2011 into a three-year $26 million deal with the Seahawks (with $10 million guaranteed), then, after doing sweet fuck all in Seattle, getting traded to the Raiders for a fifth round draft pick in 2014 and a conditional pick in 2015.  Oh, wait – Oakland also reworked Flynn’s deal to get him $6.5 million guaranteed this season.  Then, Flynn was released and ended up getting re-schkooped by Green Bay after Rodgers went down and backup Scott Tolzein sucked.  Circle of life.  Flynn shit the bed against the geriatric Steelers defense on Sunday, going 21-of-39 (53.9%) and a 69.6 passer rating.  But in the two games before that, against the Falcons and Cowboys he went a combined 50-of-71 for 557 yards, 5 touchdowns, 2 interceptions and a 105.2 passer rating.

Now Flynn will make way for Rodgers’ return, just like Josh McCown did for Jay Cutler with the Bears two weeks ago.  Dallas and Atlanta have two of the worst defenses in the NFL, so who is to say what sort of game Rodgers will spit out against the Bears after so much time off?  My call: Not enough to win the game.

Green Bay has a much better chance to make the postseason that one would have thought several weeks ago, but my gut tells me that they’ve simply weathered too many injuries to have enough left in the tank.  But I won’t be surprised if they make the playoff either.  If they do, with a healthy Rodgers, Cobb and Lacy, look out NFC.

DALLAS (8-7): Can clinch the NFC East with a win against Philadelphia.

As I said, I figured Dallas to lose this game prior to Cowboys QB Tony Romo’s being shelved for the rest of the season.  Give Romo some credit for playing through pain, though.  With a herniated disk in his spine that was actually causing issues all the way down his leg, he went 7-for-10 for 119 yards after the injury.  And now he’s done.  Perhaps mercifully, if you’re like me and you expected another big game flop from America’s Team and America’s favourite overrated, yet oft-criticized quarterback.

But let’s not consider Sunday night’s matchup with Philly a write-off just yet.  After all, Dallas has yet to lose within their division this season.  What’s more, the loss of Romo should force Big D to do what they should have been doing more often regardless: Run the damn ball.  RB “Don Juan” DeMarco Murray had a decent day Sunday – 22 carries for 96 yards (a 4.4 average), a rushing score and the game-winning touchdown reception – but in the bigger picture he became just the second ’Boys back since Emmitt Smith to rush for 1,000 yards in a season.  (Julio Jones was the other, in 2006, via STATS LLC)  A ground game is obviously all the more crucial in Week 17 in order to take some of the pressure off of backup QB Kyle Orton, who has thrown just 15 attempts over the last two seasons combined.  Murray’s totals over the last 3 games: 58 carries, 376 yards, and 2 rushing TDs.  He’ll need to match that pace or better if Dallas is going to make it into January.  But who really wants to see that happen, now that they’d end up being the crappiest team in the playoffs?

Some have noted that Dallas held the vaunted Eagles offense to 3 points in their October meeting, but Big D’s D has regressed a lot since then, and LB Sean Lee won’t play next week to boot.  That puts all the more pressure on the offense, then.

I’m tired of everyone climbing on top of embattled defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin.  He may very well be fired in the offseason, but he’s just the messenger.  His Tampa Two defense isn’t worth shit without a 4-man pass rush, and owner/GM Jerry Jones did little to make that happen, roster-wise.

Some thoughts on Orton: At one point in his career, before Detroit’s Sean Hill played great in relief of Matt Safford in 2010, I thought Orton was the best backup in the pros.  But he’s spent the last two years turning 31 and not playing in games.  Let’s rewind to the 2011 season, during which he started 8 games – 5 for the Broncos, then 3 for the Chiefs after Denver cut him.

The bad: 59.5 percent completion rate, 1,758 yards (219.75 yards/game) 9 TD, 9 INT and a 77.8 passer rating in those eight starts.

The good (and this is reaching): Orton threw just one pass (an incompletion) in his first game as a Chief, but had his best statistical performance of that season the following week – 23-for-31 (74.2%), 299 yards and a 104.1 passer rating.  On one hand, putting up a game that good after a mid-season trade, without knowing the offense for very long, indicates Orton might exhibit some decent poise against the Eagles next week.  On the other hand, that good game in ’11 came against the Packers who ranked dead last in pass defense that year.

My own personal scouting report from that period: A very serviceable pro who throws a good deep ball, knows his limitations and doesn’t try to do too much.  But he’s also Peyton Manning-slow, and while Dallas’ offensive line ranks tied for 8th-best in the NFL this season in terms of sacks allowed, they still gave up 35 of them with an athletic passer who can move in the pocket in Romo.  Not to sound like a broken record, but the run game will have to keep the Eagles pass rush honest, and if Philly ends up creeping that eighth defender up to the line of scrimmage Orton is the right QB to take some deep strikes off play action.  But he won’t be able to lead the Cowboys to enough points while their defense gets schooled by the Eagles’ balanced attack.

ARIZONA (10-5): Can clinch a playoffs berth with a win against San Francisco and a New Orleans loss/tie, or a tie and a New Orleans loss.

Well, I said last week that if the Cards were going to make the dance they were going to earn it by beating the Seahawks and Niners.  Upset number one is in the bag, now on to number two.

The chirping from the desert has already begun, with ’Zona head coach Bruce Arians saying that Niners WR Michael Crabtree isn’t the same player since coming back from his Achilles injury.  Arians might have just been answering a question in earnest, but you can bet that his Week 17 adversary Jim Harbaugh already has Arians’ comments posted on the proverbial bulletin board.

I expect this game to be a slobber-knocker.  Both teams are able to play with a “no respect” chip on their shoulder, looking for a physical statement win with which to go into the playoffs.  After an under-publicized first half of the season, the elite Cardinals defense has returned to form:

Arizona Defense – This Season

Weeks 1-7 Weeks 8-16
Points per Game 23.0 17.5
Yards per Play 5.2 4.4*
Rush Yards per Play 97.0 73.6*
3rd Down Conversion % 40.7 32.5

(ESPN Stats & Information)

*- Best in NFL

The good folks at ESPN Stats & Information give some more great numbers to help explain Arizona’s improvement.  According to them, the Cardinals send 5 or more pas rushers on 48.4 percent of dropbacks, most in the NFL.  Nevertheless, during the second half of the season defensive coordinator Todd Bowles (a rising star of a coach, in my opinion) has found ways to calls less blitzes while getting more production out of a standard (4-man) rush:

Arizona Defense With 4 Or Fewer Pass Rushers – This Season

Weeks 1-7 Weeks 8-16
% Of Plays 44.4 57.3
Completion % 65.8 56.8
TD-INT Differential +2 -2

This is what Niners QB Colin Kaepernick will be facing – not to mention RB Frank Gore having to take on the league’s top run defense.  Not only could San Fran lose this game, but the Arizona D could kill any chance for momentum on offense as the Niners head into the postseason.

I’ll be surprised if the Cardinals rushing attack will be able to get much done in Week 17, so it’s on QB Carson Palmer, who had been hot until last week’s four interceptions against Seattle, but the Niners cornerbacks can be had.  I wouldn’t want to challenge rookie safety Eric Reid over the middle, but if Palmer can connect on some deep strikes outside the numbers to his big wideouts Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd it could loosen up the formidable San Fran D.

The bigger problem for the Cardinals is needing the Saints to lose to the Buccaneers.  Tampa Bay has been very tough as of late, but I just don’t see Sean Payton and Drew Brees losing that game, so as good as they’ve been this season, Arizona is going to be left on the outside looking in.

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

IN THE MEANTIME, FOLLOW US ON FACEBOOK AND @TFQuarter

Advertisements

What I Saw, Week 15 – 2013

Blair Miller > WHAT I SAW – WEEK 15, 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 later edition of What I Saw than unusual….With no Thursday night game to start the week early – thank god, see below – I was hoping to hold out and hear more news about injuries and the Cowboys debacle.  While we got more juice on the Romo saga (see Green Bay wins @Dallas, 37-36), as of this posting the status of Aaron Rodgers is still unclear (I’ll say more about that in the same section), Wes Welker is likely not going to play this Sunday with a concussion but that’s not yet official, and Joe Flacco will play against the Pats, but with a brace to protect his sprained knee.

UPDATE (Friday, Dec 20, 2013): Rodgers has been ruled out for Sunday’s game by Mike McCarthy; league and Broncos sources say that Welker is likely to miss the remainder of the regular season.  That report was updated by NFL Network’s Albert Breer, who says that Welker will play in Wk 17 if he passes concussion protocol next week.

On that note, let’s roll!

I SAW a hangover weekend after one of the wildest times ever in Week 14.  Let’s call it hangover week – as I’m sure many of us have felt over the last day or two as Xmas parties start to dance in our heads like Jameson gumdrops.

There were some entertaining moments – it’s the NFL, for Christ’s sake – but it seemed like the top teams weren’t interested in seizing opportunities to gain playoff leverage, and there were a handful of blowouts.  Seven teams had a chance to clinch something in terms of the playoff on Sunday but only one did (the Chiefs clinched a berth).  Apart from the Patriots game, even the close ones were uninspiring.

But – in the Be Thankful For What You’ve Got Department, Sunday’s 763 points scored was the most in one day in NFL history. (ESPN MNF Broadcast)  Let’s also cross-reference that with the We’re All Shamelessly Desensitized To Scoring Department.

I SAW another one to add to the We’re All Shamelessly Desensitized To Scoring Department – Passing Division.  According to NFL Media, there have been 722 touchdown passes, the most through the first 15 weeks of any season.  The previous high was 663 in 2010.  An increase of 59 passing TDs is nothing to bat an eyelash at.

I SAW what might be the year of the anti-elite QB.  By that I mean that injuries and the like have forced so many expensive pivots to the sidelines in favour of what looks like a Salvation Army parade.  According to ESPN Stats & Information Washington’s Kirk Cousins became the 16th quarterback to start a game this season with a 2013 cap figure of less than $1 million.  For the record, Cousins’ figure is $598,172.  The lowest cap figure for a starting QB this season so far: Scott Tolzien, at $261,176.

I SAW the last Thursday Night Football game of the season in Week 15.

Thank fucking god.  That insult to the intelligence of any fan during commissioner Roger Goodell’s push for increased player safety is frankly too tiring.  Football’s condensed weekly slate is one of its hallmarks and adds to its unique anticipation-analysis-catharsis cycle; I remain wary of a schedule that doesn’t allow more than 2 days in between NFL games.

Playoff Picture

(seeds & order are predictions)

AFC

(1) KANSAS CITY (11-3): I know, I know.  And I drink a lot.  And the Broncos have the tiebreaker of having swept Kansas City.  And the Chiefs play the Chargers and Colts to finish the season.  And the Broncos play the Texans and Raiders.  And Denver’s Clockwork Orange offense is the shit.  And KC might rest players if they can’t control their own destiny.  And they only look their best against bad teams.  And.  To be sure, KC’s recent 3-game losing streak took the shine off of Cinderella’s slipper, placing their success further under the radar than when the team was the undefeated darling of the league.  The MMQB’s Peter King even went so far as to say that “Nothing happened at the top of the AFC race. Absolutely nothing” – a careless appraisal considering that the Chiefs are now tied with the Broncos atop the AFC West.  But I truly believe that the Chiefs are the AFC team with the least flaws.  They also play the best complimentary football (all three phases lifting one another) in their conference.  They might very well still pull a patented KC one-and-done in January – and if they do I’m betting QB Alex Smith will be the reason why – but until then I’m a believer…more of one than I would have ever expected in August.

(2) NEW ENGLAND (10-4): They really shit the bed last week, losing in Miami when they could have taken the lead for the first seed in the AFC.  It was bound to happen, though.  The Patriots had been walking a razor’s edge, playing down to inferior opponents.  Speaking of razors, Gillette Stadium: New England gets the privilege of closing out against Buffalo at home, but in the meantime have to travel to Baltimore next week to face an archrival Ravens team fighting for its playoff life.  I talk about the Saints’ need for home field advantage in at least the Divisional Round, but without a defense that travels well New England isn’t playing well away from home.

Patriots – This Season

Home Road
W-L 7-0 3-4
Points per Game 29.9 22.9
Opponents’ Points per Game 20.7 23.7
Turnover Differential +8 -2

(ESPN Stats &Information)

(3) CINCINNATI (9-5): All of a sudden their Week 16 game against the Ravens is enormous.  It’s actually possible that the loser of that game won’t make the playoffs if Miami or San Diego grabs the sixth seed.  I still like the Bengals by a whisker, just because they face the Vikings next week while Baltimore has to host a pissed-off Patriots team.  Either way, Cincy sure didn’t look very interested in January while laying that egg against Pittsburgh Sunday night.  It’s possible that the injuries they’ve weathered are starting to tire out those who have picked up the slack.  But this team is still a sleeper on offense: In the AFC only Denver, New England and Kansas City have scored more points.

(4) INDIANAPOLIS (9-5): I’m tired of writing about the Colts.  Isn’t it just perfect that they whupped a shitty team?  These guys are maddening.  What’s even more maddening is that they could very well beat a more deserving team in the playoffs, especially since they get a home game.  (If there isn’t a better example this year for realigning home field advantage according to win-loss record, I’d like to see it.)  Despite their flighty play, Indy has gone 29 games without back-to-back losses.  (STATS LLC)  Now, if they can just lose in Week 17….

(5) DENVER (11-3): So blow me – I don’t like this team.  The Clockwork Orange offense is a thing to behold, but I’m not beholden to this team as a postseason contender.  I don’t care of you’re the Greatest Show On Turf (those Rams teams had an underrated defense, coordinated by Lovie Smith, by the way) – you can’t win a Super Bowl with a defense that ranks 22nd against the rush (105.4 yards/game) 23rd overall (371.5 yards/game) and 24th in points allowed, with 26.6 per game.  Not even the most prolific offense in history likes knowing that history indicates they have to put up 27 points to win.  I’ve also said it before, and I’ll say it again: With his resume of egg laying, QB Peyton Manning needs to win at least one big playoff game before I believe in this team.  Their solace is that they get the easiest remaining schedule of any team according to win-loss record: The Texans and Raiders, at a combined 6-20.

(6) MIAMI (8-6): I want San Diego or Baltimore here, but the brass tax is Bills-Jets.  Those are the Dolphins’ last two opponents of the regular season.  Miami has a hold on the ever-precious momentum factor as well, having won three in a row and snapped a seven-game skid against the Pats on S9unday.  It’s crazy, but the Dolphins are still capable of winning the AFC East (they won’t).  Head coach Joe Philbin deserves consideration for Coach Of The Year just for having his team in the playoff picture with WR Mike Wallace taking until recently to produce, as well as the Bullygate scandal that not only threatened the climate in the locker room but also cost two starting offensive linemen.

THE CONTENDERS

SAN DIEGO (7-7): Man, that Week 17 game against the Chiefs could be huge.  I realize that the Dolphins have a 1-game lead on the Chargers and a softer schedule, but I still think San Diego can take the sixth seed by bringing their A Game, which is a preferable state to be in going into the playoffs either way.  San Diego has only looked more unstoppable on offense as the weeks have gone by.

BALTIMORE (8-6): They won a grinder on Monday night – just their second road win of the season – and they’ll have to keep doing that to either end up a Wild Card or AFC North champ.  Facing the Patriots and Bengals to end the season isn’t exactly consolation.  Neither is the fact that their field goal kicker was the only Raven to score against Detroit.  I’ve been quick to criticize QB Joe Flacco and the failure on the part of offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell to utilize the running game, but there’s even more issues with the Baltimore offense.  Wither WR Torrey Smith?  He has yet to catch a TD longer than 15 yards downfield this season.

NFC

(1) SEATTLE (12-2): The Seahawks are still technically the only team to have clinched a playoff berth in the NFC – but that’s all they’ve clinched.  They only have to win one of their remaining games (against the Cardinals and Rams) to clinch home field advantage throughout the postseason.  Seattle’s defense is first in the NFL in terms of scoring, overall and passing yards allowed, tenth in rushing yards allowed.  The ’Hawks aren’t without their flaws (and remember what Denver did with a cakewalk December last season), but while every other team in the league other than Kansas City has been showing more and more flaws, the beast of the NFC just keeps rolling.

(2) CAROLINA (10-4): I have the Panthers here because I expect them to beat New Orleans next week at home to gain the upper hand in the NFC South.  After that, they have to win in Atlanta – which could be a trap game, and thus a decent barometer of where this young team’s head is at en route to the postseason.  Carolina’s defensive backs are still the weakest link on the team, but Captain Munnerlyn knows how to make the most of turnovers.  He’s returned a remarkable 5 of his 7 career interceptions for touchdowns, including one last week against the moribund Jets.  The Panthers suffer from the same disease as the Chiefs in that most of their wins have come against inferior teams, but that doesn’t make them any less dangerous in the sudden death crucible that is the playoffs.  Besides, they came as close as most teams to beating the Seahawks in a Week 1 12-7 loss – and that was before they got rolling on their recent hot streak.

(3) CHICAGO (8-6): QB Jay Cutler wasn’t exactly dreamy in his return from injury, but he’s still the best quarterback on the Bears.  Josh McCown did a great job.  Now he rivals the Lions’ backup Shaun Hill as the league’s best understudy.  My point is that he’s best applauded, and then hoped to not be seen again for some time.  There’s no shame in that; it’s a problem every NFL team wants.  Chicago’s defense might be their undoing – they have to face the up-tempo Eagles next week – but the Lions are moving backwards (again) and the Packers still likely have to win in the Windy City to pass Da Bears in the standings.

(4) PHILADELPHIA (8-6): I see the Eagles winning the NFC East in part due to reason and in part due to disinterest in watching the Cowboys stink up the postseason.  Philly did nothing to raise confidence by laying down against the Vikings on Sunday.  That loss served as a harsh reminder that the two worst defenses in the league reside atop the NFC East – Philadelphia’s and Dallas’.  The Eagles rank third-last in total yards allowed, and second-last in pass defense. Philly plays the Bears next week and Dallas gets Washington before the two teams face one another in Week 17.  If Sunday was any indication, the Redskins are playing with pride, and the Chicago will give up chunks of yardage to the Eagles’ high-octane offense.  Bottom line: The Eagles get gouged by the best WR combo in the NFL next week (Chicago’s Alshon Jeffrey and Brandon Marshall) and, well, let’s just say that I’m not going to trust the Cowboys to take a win-and-you’re-in game at the end of the season.  They lose those.

(5) NEW ORLEANS (10-4): After beating the Cardinals and the Niners, having to face the NFC West this season finally came back to bite the Saints in the ass.  The Seahawks two weeks ago and then the Rams threw an upset win in their face on Sunday blew them out.  You could consider the St. Louis an afterthought game for New Orleans, with it being sandwiched in between two huge games against division rival Carolina, but all December games are heavy with importance.  New Orleans might rank up there with Seattle as the two toughest places to play, but the Saints are a much more flawed team on the road than the Seahawks.  If Drew Brees and company can’t beat the Panthers next week they could end up playing away from home to start the postseason.  Recently, when I watch this team I start to wonder if the players are starting to look burned out, particularly on defense where the roster hasn’t quite caught up with new coordinator Rob Ryan’s aggressive style.  I don’t think any other team needs a home game to start their January run than New Orleans, which has lost 4 of 5 on the road.

(6) SAN FRANCISCO (10-4): It’s strange that the Niners are, in reality, a step away from watching the playoffs at home because they are arguably the second-best team in the NFL, let alone the conference.  I expect them to win 12 games – they finish out hosting Atlanta, then in Arizona – and see a January rubber match with Seattle at some point.  San Fran isn’t just good; they’re finding their groove and gathering momentum at just the right time.  WR Michael Crabtree’s value as a solid third option downfield was epitomized by his Td on Sunday being the first scoring reception on the team this season by anyone other than Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis.  This team has won four straight.  They’ll need to win five more in a row to make it back to the Super Bowl.

THE CONTENDERS (All of whom would need to win the division, apart from Arizona.)

DETROIT (7-7): No longer controls their own destiny after an ugly loss to the Ravens on Monday night.  The Lions have the luxury of facing the Giants, then the Vikings to finish the regular season, but those are just the type of games that a frustrating team loses. Detroit has lost four of their last five games, and according to ESPN Stats & Information they have dropped the most passes, thrown the most interceptions and committed the most turnovers in the NFL during that span.  I’ve heard about the improved defense all season, but QB Matt Stafford and the offense knows they have to score 25 points to win (the Lions give up 24.2 points per game, ranking 16th in the NFL).  For whatever reason, this team tends to regress when they have to press on offense, so that’s a foreboding formula in the Motor City.  I agree with NFL Network’s Willie McGinest, who pointed out that every other NFC North team lost their QB for an amount of time and the Lions needed to pounce on that.  They didn’t.  You burn, you learn.

GREEN BAY (7-6-1): You’ve got to love a murky playoff picture that allows a team like the Packers to keep slugging away at teams, fighting for their postseason lives while their elite quarterback can do nothing but watch from the sideline (for now).  When they tied the Vikings in Week 12 then got thumped by the Lions the following game I thought that hope among the Cheeseheads would be as decayed as a block of stilton by now, but Green Bay has won their last two and, if you can believe it, can win the NFC North if they win out (versus Pittsburgh and at Chicago).  Amazing.  I’m a huge believer in momentum, and the Pack sure as hell gathered a lot of it in their epic comeback win in Dallas on Sunday.

DALLAS (7-7): The vultures are so horny while hovering over the Cowboys right now that those aren’t droppings you hear pelting the team’s dying carcass from above.  In blowing a 24-point lead to the Packers Sunday Dallas assured itself of a fourth straight season with at least seven losses.

TRIVIA BOMB:

Sunday’s loss to the Packers was the first time in 43 such games in franchise history that the Cowboys lost a game after leading by at least 20 points at halftime.  (ESPN Stats & Information)

QB Tony Romo has a choking problem but the D is the real problem in Big D.  Even as an admitted Romophobe I can see that the quarterback is pressing under the expectation that anything less than 30 points will likely lose games.  (The Cowboys allow 27.5 points per game, ranking 26th in the NFL.)  I get into that more below, in Green Bay wins @Dallas, 37-36.  The other problem – a discussion for another day – is that the Cowboys aren’t going to go anywhere in the playoffs with Jason Garrett as head coach.  He wouldn’t know situational football if it handed him a pink slip, which is what owner Jerry Jones should do.

ARIZONA (9-5): Well, if the Cardinals make the dance, they’ll have certainly earned it.  Their last 2 games: At Seattle, against San Francisco.  They’re doing it in several unexpected ways too.  One of the worst offensive lines I’ve ever seen last season gave up a league-leading 58 sacks.  This year Cardinals QBs have gone down just 38 times.  Part of that is due to the poised play of QB Carson Palmer, whose resurgence after what seemed like a case of dead arm is also surprising.  Many – including myself – had written off DE John Abraham when the Falcons tossed him to the trash heap last summer, but for a cool $4.6 million over 2 years (only $1 million of that guaranteed) he’s given Arizona 11.5 sacks, his most in a season since 2010.  The arrival of head coach Bruce Arians in the desert might not be much of a coincidence along many of these lines.  I’ve mentioned before that the championship window for this team is uncertain but for now they might very well be the best team not to make the playoffs this season.

TNF- San Diego (7-7) wins @ Denver (11-3), 27-20

I SAW a lot of websites call this game the “upset of the season”.  Really?  A team in a win-or-go-home situation that is on an offensive hot streak beating a team that has been gradually showing more and more weaknesses is the biggest upset of the season?  Seems like a desperate need to give things a “best” title.  I’m not saying this game wasn’t an upset, but I can tell you that I was surprised more by other results this season (say, the Colts over the Broncos and Seahawks) than Thursday night’s, which I wasn’t really surprised by at all.

I SAW the Chargers keep their playoffs hopes alive with a big win in Denver.  The Bolts ended the Broncos’ divisional win streak at 10 games and flex their muscles on defense.  Okay, so maybe the group was overachieving but that can easily morph into a gathering of momentum at just the right time.  At one point in the second quarter San Diego held Denver’s Clockwork Orange offense to 13 yards on 13 plays – a stretch that included three consecutive three-and-outs and just one first down.  QB Peyton Manning had a passable stat line – 27-of-41 (65.9%), 289 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT, 92.4 passer rating – but a lot of that was produced near the end of the game when Denver was playing catch-up.

In fact, the Chargers dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, as evidenced by an eyebrow-raising 177 to 18 advantage in rushing yards.  San Diego RB Ryan Mathews is also finding his groove at just the right time.  His 127-yard night was the first time all season a back has surpassed 100 yards against the Broncos.  Lately his moves look crisper than ever and he’s finding his way around the edge very quickly.  Another Charger, however, has been grooving all season long….

I SAW Chargers QB Philip Rivers spin it all night.  He was positively on.  Every big ball was on a perfect trajectory and a bulls-eye.  The net result was an efficient use of his mere 20 attempts: 12 completions for 166 yards, 2 touchdowns, no interceptions and a 120.0 passer rating.  Rivers was talking shit all game like his usual self, too.  The way he’s rolling, I wouldn’t want to take him on in a playoff game – especially if the run game can add balance and play keep-away when necessary (see above).

I SAW Chargers WR Keenan catch two touchdowns, giving him four in the last two games.  The first one was awesome.  It takes a certain amount of fun-balls (maybe that’s the most apt term for football players with an energetic approach to their game) to hurdle a defender while you can tell that another potential tackler is in position to rock you before you land on the ground.  Give Allen credit for taking the initiative and making the move so fast that S Mike Adams couldn’t gather himself to put a hit on the receiver.  Allen was the eighth wideout drafted but he’s exceeding the pack taken above him in terms of productivity this season.  I don’t want to oversimplify via comparison but after almost two seasons lost while trying to find its way, the San Diego offense has rebounded behind a triple threat of targets for QB Philip Rivers.  TE Antonio Gates is the mainstay, while Danny Woodhead stands in for Darren Sproles and while Allen isn’t the physical beast that Vincent Jackson was, he’s the crucial downfield piece the equation needs.

I SAW the Broncos O-line look more vulnerable than usual.  Cory Luiget was tearing them apart for most of the game.  He only had one tackle for a loss and one QB hit but as usual with Broncos QB Peyton Manning you’re not going to bring him down or put him under duress in time.  Instead, the key is to force him to dump the ball because he anticipates pressure well (sometimes too well) and functions less well with less room to step up into his throws.  In other words, don’t be fooled by the Denver offensive line holding the Charges to just one sack and 2 QB hits.  They didn’t maintain a passing pocket and they couldn’t open up any holes for the running game.  That has got to be a concern for the coaching staff going forward.    

I SAW Broncos QB Peyton Manning play just fine without WR Wes Welker.

Sure, Denver lost a game they were expected to win.  Sure, the offense wasn’t churning out yards like it usually does.  But, as mentioned above, the Chargers shrunk Manning’s pocket.  Also, Andre Caldwell fill in capably in the slot position usually played by Welker, with 6 receptions for 59 yards and two touchdowns.

Green Bay (7-6-1) wins @Dallas (7-7), 37-36

I SAW Cowboys QB Tony Romo choke.

A Moment of Romophobia

Romo threw two interceptions in clutch time to essentially lose his team the game.  Both of the picks were very athletic catches by Green Bay defensive backs.  On the first (and most controversial) one the throw wasn’t awful. Kudos to Packers CB Sam Shields for a great fingertip pick, but Romo put the throw in a place where either defender or target could catch it and that’s not a good idea.

The media world blew up when head coach Jason Garrett verified during his postgame press conference that the play had originally been called a run but Romo had audibled to a pass based on the defensive alignment.  It’s been a while since I’ve seen a coach throw his QB under the bus like that…typically that doesn’t happen, and usually Garrett defends Romo to a fault.  Maybe Romo is wearing even the blandest of coaches thin.

What’s more, Troy Aikman was on the ball when he noted that the Cowboys should have been running the ball instead.  But that sounds like a broke record, doesn’t it?

In fact, days after the loss offensive coordinator Bill Callahan told the media that he made a mistake in giving Romo the option to check down to a run.  Translation: After more than seven seasons as a starter in the pros Romo isn’t savvy enough to make those decisions on his own.

One last knock on Romo: We all see stats that make arguments on either side for the embattled Dallas QB.  Here’s some convincing numbers to go against the douchebag as clutch:

Tony Romo In The Fourth Quarter – Since 2011, Game Within 7 Points

First 10 Minutes Last 5 Minutes
Completion % 66.1 60.3
Yards per Attempt 9.4 6.5
TD-INT 16-0 2-8
Passer Rating 131.5 59.7

(NFL Network)

I SAW other obvious problems with the Cowboys, especially the defense.  Dallas made the change to a 4-3 scheme by hiring Tampa Two guru Monte Kiffin.  The problem is that the scheme has to get a pass rush with four linemen or else it’s fucked, and the personnel along the line is woefully inadequate to do so.  It doesn’t help that DeMarcus Ware has been disappearing often in games, like he did on Sunday against the Packers.

I SAW the Packers score a TD with less than 6 minutes to go in the fourth quarter to close the deficit to 6 points, at 30-36.  Green Bay kicked the PAT.

I don’t get these moves.  You’ve gotta go for 2 there so that a Dallas FG doesn’t make it an 8-point game.  No harm in being down 6 instead of 5.  But then again no head coaches seem to agree with me.

I SAW an outstanding TD catch by Cowboys WR Dez Bryant in traffic to give Big D a 12-point lead late in the game.  At the same time, it’s crazy that a Packers defender didn’t get a mitt on the ball first, and if only the mercurial wideout could keep his head on his shoulders….

I SAW Cowboys WR Dez Bryant whip a water bottle around on the bench, and then leave the field with over a minute left because, according to Bryant, he was going to cry.

My new nickname for Bryant should be Glen Davis.  Both are big babies, even prior to Sunday.  Dez needs to keep his emotions in check.

Glen Davis drool

I SAW the Packers defense do their best Cowboys impersonation, allowing the Dallas offense to gain a franchise-record 332 yards in the first half.  That might win the moribund NFC East, but it wont’ suffice in January.

I SAW the status of Packers QB Aaron Rodgers remain unclear, as of late Thursday.  The star quarterback has been throwing well, but isn’t yet medically cleared.  Call me nuts, but I think that Green Bay should go with backup Matt Flynn next week in a must-win instead of Rodgers, who is bound to be rusty.

Chicago (8-6) wins @ Cleveland (4-10), 38-31

I SAW the Return Of The Nutler!

Cutler birdx2

I’m back, bitches!  Roberto – get me my jersey!

The first game for Bears QB Jay Cutler since spraining his ankle in a game on November 10didn’t start out too sexily as he threw two first half interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown.  Both of those picks were on tipped balls, however, and the quarterback and his team overcame those plus another fumble that was returned for six to best the Browns and keep their tenuous hold on the NFC North lead.

Cutler’s line: 22-of-31 (71%), 265 yards, 3 TD, 2 INT, 102.2 passer rating.  Not bad at all, considering that his 2 picks happened during the first 22 minutes of the game, during which the Bears scored just three points – and that Cutler undoubtedly had some rust to know off after sitting out almost a month and a half.

Did Cutler learn anything while watching backup Josh McCown play so well in the meantime?  It’s early and difficult to say.  But here’s a possibility: Looking to more receivers, more often.  Cutler often gets tunnel vision for his elite wideout Brandon Marshall, but the emergence of WR Alshon Jeffrey and McCown’s success in spreading the ball around while putting it up for grabs and letting receivers too much of the work might be something is trying to integrate into his game, if Sunday’s numbers are any indication.

Jay Cutler By Target – Sunday vs. Browns

Brandon Marshall All Others
Comp-Att 6-13^ 16-18*
Yards 95 170
Yards per Att 7.3 9.4
TD 1 2

(ESPN Stats & Information)

*- Both incompletions to Matt Forte

^- Both of Cutler’s interceptions came on throws to Marshall

Obviously those numbers indicate that Cutler still has eyes for Marshall – not that there’s anything wrong with that.  Marshall is, after all, still one of the top 3-5 receivers in the NFL.  Any change, especially after a prolonged absence on Cutler’s part, will be more gradual than one game.  But 18 attempts to the rest of his targets with a strikingly high success rate should help impress upon Cutler the benefits of picking up a few tendencies from his backup.

The impressive TD catch by Jeffrey is a good example of Cutler having some faith in his receivers to use their superior physicality in order to win battles for deep balls, instead of trying to thread needles like he usually does.  It sounds crazy to say, but on NFL Network this week Kurt Warner said that when he made the adjustment from The Greatest Show On Turf in St. Louis to having the top WR duo in the NFL – Larry Fitzgerald-Anquan Boldin – in Arizona (with a time of stink as a Giant in between) he actually learned from McCown, then his backup, to put the ball in places where his big wideouts could win battles, as opposed to finding fast guys on the run like he did as a Ram.  If Kurt Warner can learn from McCown, it’s not much of a stretch to surmise that Cutler could pick up a thing or two from him as well.

I SAW that the Browns needs to address the glaring lack of talent at running back in the offseason if they’re truly serious about turning the franchise around.  Many teams are proving that you don’t need household names in the backfield in order to have a balanced offense, but Chris Ogbonnaya and Edwin Baker are more like outhouse-hold names.  Christ, head coach Rob Chudzinski and the coaching staff had to hand off to TE MarQueis Gray twice in order to try and get something going on the ground.  Gray had 30 yards on two carries, but overall Cleveland managed just 93 rushing yards – against the worst run defense in the league (Chicago came into the game allowing 157 running yards per game).     

I SAW Browns WR Josh Gordon have a quiet game by the standards he’s set this season: 3 catches for 67 yards and a touchdown.  Nevertheless, Gordon’s 1,467 receiving yards give him an average of 122.25 receiving yards per game in 2013.  As The MMQB’s Peter King points out, that’s about 40 yards more than the franchise record for a season, set by Mac Speedie (85.7) 65 years ago.

That’s PROPS.  In his best season Jerry Rice averaged 115.5 yards per game – and if Gordon could have maintained that pace while playing all 14 games so far (he was suspended for the first two), he’d be on pace for the first 2,000-yard season ever.

Miami (8-6) wins vs. New England (10-4), 24-20

I SAW the Patriots get Karma Sutra’d.  (When life comes back to eff you in the ass.) They had been tempting fate for too long, and it wasn’t going to last.   But this result just shows that New England is still paying down, aka is the better team.

I SAW the Dolphins snap a 7-game losing streak to the Patriots, New England’s longest win streak ever against Miami.  Check out the dominance in the series until Sunday – and the drastic reversal of fortune:

Patriots Head-to-Head vs. Dolphins – Since 2010

First 7 Games Sunday vs. Miami
W-L 7-0 0-1
Points per Game 31.1 20
Points per Game Differential +17.1 -4

(ESPN Stats &Information)

I SAW Dolphins defensive back Michael Thomas have a great storybook game.  Peter King is all over it like press on new here.  Call me a Scrooge but the problem with storybook games is their heavy romanticism – and I’m a romantic.  Thomas was a hopeful subpar player who got a moment to shine, and kudos to him for shining.  But he could just as well end up a bum…remember David Tyree?

I SAW Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill go off Sunday against a weak Patriots defense.  I don’t want to say that Tannehill is a better quarterback than Colt Ryan Luck but he’s underrated and waaaay hotter than Luck right now.  

I love that Tannehill has been a quiet, yet striking presence as a leader on this team through Bullygate and the travails that come with a perennially disregarded team fighting for the playoffs.  His 25-of-37 (67.6%), 312, 3 TD, 0 INT and 120.6 performance came against a slumping Pats defense, but Tannehill has been cobbling together winning days while his receivers rotate disappearance acts.  Tannehill seems for real.

I SAW a shattup-a-your-face about Gronk being injured.  It was the defense that lost this game, as it should have lost a few others that Brady pulled out of the fire at the end.  When receivers Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman combine for 23 catches, 270 yards and a TD – and Brady puts up 364 yards, you’d expect a win.  If anything, the absence of rookie starting wideouts Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobkins hindered Brady’s pass completion rate: 61.8.  If you consider that the average height of Brady’s last three targets in the end zone on Sunday had an average height of 5’11”.  As such, the offense wasn’t really hampered.  If you think that, Miami’s defense is much better than you realize.

On the other hand….

I SAW some weakness of the Patriots.

The Patriots fall to 3-4 on the road (they’re 7-0 at home).  That lack of domination away from home might be the most marked difference in this year’s edition of the Pats compared to most others during the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era.  Before this season, New England had only once lost more than two road games in a season since 2005: 2009, when QB Brady spent almost the whole season on inured reserve.

Here’s another weakness: Normally New England seals the deal against divisional opponents but this season they’ve lost 2 divisional games in which they held a ten-point advantage.  Coming into this season the Pats had been 39-1 against the NFC East with QB Tom Brady as a starter and a 10-point lead.

Minnesota (4-9-1) wins vs. Philadelphia (8-6), 48-30

I SAW the Eagles fail to gain the upper hand in the NFC east with a loss.  Then gain, that’s how the NFC East rolls these days.

I SAW Minnesota WR Greg Jennings jump off of the milk carton and into the box score.  Jennings became just the fifth Viking in franchise history to have at least 10 receptions, 150 receiving yards and a receiving TD, joining Randy Moss (twice), Chris Carter, A.C. Carter and Sammy White. (ESPN Stats & Information).  It was Jennings’ first 100-yard game of the season.

This is just one of the examples from this game of Philly’s ineptitude on defense.  Minny QB Matt Cassel also started off with going 9-for-9 with 163 yards and a TD in the first quarter en route to the highest passing yardage output (382) since Brett Favre wore the purple..

If the Eagles are going to make the playoffs, they’re going to need to either outscore people or overachieve on D.

I SAW the Eagles learn a lesson they didn’t need to learn:

Eagles Record By LeSean McCoy Rushes – Since 2010

W-L Win Percentage
20 or more Carries 14-2 .875
10-19 Carries 14-23 .387
Fewer Than 10 Carries 2-7 .222

(ESPN Stats & Information)

To wit: McCoy had just 38 yards and 8 carries in Sunday’s loss.

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

Vikings RB Matt Asiata run for three TDs in Sunday’s in over the Eagles.  Not only was it Asiata’s first career start, but he’s the first player in the NFL to rush for his three first touchdowns in his first start.  (NFL Media)  Alas, the top two Minny running backs, Adrian Peterson and Toby Gerhart, might be back nest week, so you’re out, shushie.

I SAW Eagles QB Nick Foles play his shakiest game to date despite a career-high 428 yards.  He missed on a lot of passes and looked like the clock in his head had shortened against a weak Vikings defense that sacked him four times.  I don’t think this game should dent peoples’ positive perception of Foles.  He still looks solid.

Carolina (10-4) wins vs. New York Jets (6-8), 30-20

I SAW the Panthers give up their most rushing yards of the season – 157.  I don’t see that as a concern because New York doesn’t have any other viable options in terms of scheme.

I SAW DeAngelo Williams jump out and play a big game.  It’s not exactly off of the milk carton material because Williams is in and out of healthy states too often to make that claim, but his 168 total yards on Sunday was a surprise.  According to ESPN Stats & Information it’s his most in a game in four seasons.  He should thank the screen pass dearly: He has 87 receiving yards off of those, third-most in a game this season.

I SAW that I’m liking the Panthers this season – big game for them this Sunday – but I am flat-out tired or writing about the Jets.  Sorry, Gang Green.  Your taste in a team blows.

St. Louis (6-8) wins vs. New Orleans (10-4), 27-16

I SAW a disparaging loss for the Saints, who now basically have to win in Carolina this Sunday to keep hold of the NFC South.  QB Drew Brees has been forcing it against this season, as evidence by 5 of his 10 interceptions this season coming on throws to All-Pro TE Jimmy Graham.

I SAW myself mention in the Playoff Picture (see above, in Away from the game(s)) that the Saints defense looked burned out under new coordinator Rob Ryan, then I saw this stat to support that claim: Over their first seven games of the 2013 season New Orleans forced 15 turnovers for 48 points.  Over the last seven games they have just two takeaways.  (And no turnovers or sacks against the Rams in Sunday.)  (STTAS LLC)

I SAW the Saints bench LT Charles Brown and release kicker Garrett Hartley, who made just 22 out of 30 field goal attempts this season.  I hear a lot of people saying that head coach Sean Payton is sending a message to his team, but that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me with the playoffs just three games away and the biggest game of the season looming on Sunday in Carolina.  I think Brown and Hartley were simply stinking it up, mostly started to do so in recent weeks, and thus had to go.

I actually wonder if the message can be anything but a negative influence on the players.  It doesn’t help that Terron Armstead, Brown’s replacement, hasn’t played a down on offense this season.  In fact, Armstead’s pro experience amounts to 17 snaps on special teams.  He blew many scouts away at the NFL combine last summer but that came after a college career at Arkansas-Pine Bluff.  Throwing him into the fray against a rabid Panthers front seven is quizzical to say the least.  For New Orleans’ sake, hopefully Payton and the coaching staff know something us outsiders don’t.

I SAW the best entry for the Rams in the Who Knows Who They Are Department: This seasons they have won 5 games by double digits and lost 5 games in double digits.  That’s whack.

Kansas City (11-3) wins @Oakland (4-10), 56-31

I SAW Chiefs RB Jamaal Charles in charge.

Charles in Charge-Jamaal

It started on the first play from scrimmage – a 49-yard screen pass that Charles took to the house.  It ended with a hilarious five touchdowns, nearly tying the NFL single game record.  Several of the scores were hilarious because Charles scored virtually untouched.  I’ve noted several times this season that Charles gains a higher percentage of his team’s offense than anyone else in the league, and now we see why.

Mind you, the Raiders defense is improved, but no match for Charles and his team blocking. I looked it up, and legendary Gale Sayers had his famous 6-TD day against a Niners team that allowed 402 points that season (1965), second only to the Vikings, with 403.  That’s why stats are so powerful – they’re remembered and/or communicated with more ease than the moments they attempt to quantify.   Credit also goes to the offense as a whole, which did maybe the best overall job of downfield blocking I’ve ever seen.  Most of Charles’ scores were virtually untouched.

I SAW the Chiefs continue to be one of those top teams in a single season that beat up on lesser franchises.  The last two weeks are a good indication of this.  According to NFL Media, Kansas City is the only team in NFL history to score at least 25 points in the first half of consecutive games.  (The Chiefs also did it in December 2002.)

While a team that earns its keep against inferiors is one to be wary of, I don’t care.  The Chiefs are a team riding momentum and confidence so far on their quest for a January run.  They need only to win three, maybe two, games to make in tie Super Sunday.

I SAW Raiders QB Matt McGloin squeeze out his first steaming deucer of his rookie season.  His four interceptions cost his team dearly, but by my count at least two of those were due to just trying too hard.  I hope McGloin gets a chance to compete for a starting job nest summer.

I SAW the Chiefs equal the best rebound season after a 2-win season.

Teams With Most Wins Following 2-Win Season Or Worse – NFL History

Team Year Wins
Chiefs 2013 11
Colts 2012 11
Dolphins 2008 11
Colts 1975 10
Raiders 1963 19

I SAW the Raiders commit seven turnovers on Sunday.  As I said about the Redskins (see: Atlanta wins vs. Washington, 27-26), that won’t win you games.

Think some fans in the Black Hole were bored by halftime?

 

Seattle (12-2) wins @New York Giants (5-9), 23-0

I SAW the Giants quarterback shit the bed in a virtually meaningless game.  With a brutal 5 picks on Sunday Eli Manning now has 25 interceptions this season.  Has now led the NFL in picks in 3 seasons out of his 10 played.  Worse, he’s heaved up 81 interceptions in his last 62 games.  For those of you scoring at home, that’s shitty.

Let’s drop a TRIVIA BOMB on Eli:

With 168 career interceptions as a Giant, Eli Manning passes Conerly for the franchise record.   He also has the most games with at least 4 interceptions in the NFL since his 2004 rookie season, with 5.  Mind you, Tom Brady’s on that list.  (ESPN Stats &Information)

I SAW the Giants gain only 54 yards while getting shut out on the first half.  After the break, they answered by not getting into Seahawks territory until half way through the fourth quarter…also while getting shut out in the second half.

I’m pretty sure I tied a toe tag on the Giants in early October…. This teams a dead man walking.

I SAW Seahawks CB Richard Sherman solidify his argument for Defensive Player of the Year, defending three passes and intercepting two.  I think Sherman’s put up the best performance of a defender this season, but in a race with no clear-cut favourites he’s suffered lapses and the drug violations of his fellow Seattle defensive backs could affect voters.  By the way, has there been a more open competition for that award in recent years?

Arizona (9-5) wins @Tennessee (5-9), 37-34-OT

I SAW, with all due respect to the Cardinals, a game involving two teams that won’t make the playoffs.  So we’ll be brief.

I SAW myself liking Arizona as a team for this year and perhaps next, but one stat I saw this week made me doubt myself: The Cardinals went 4-0 versus the shitty AFC South.  It’s the franchise’s first interconference sweep since realignment in 2002 (STATS LLC) and also a serious inflator of ’Zona’s win-loss record.

Nevertheless, the Cards have won six of their last seven but it will likely fall short of a playoff berth.  Arizona can – and likely will – win 10 games in 2013, but miss the dance.  That’s life in the Cold Tub Division, the NFC West.

I SAW a postscript for the Mike Munchak era in Tennessee (assuming he gets replaced in the offseason): The Titans lost their third straight game, and their eighth in their last ten.  What’s more, they also lost their fifth consecutive home game – their longest such skid since moving to the Music City in 1997.  (ESPN Stats & Information)  I personally like the job head coach Munchak has done thus far, but those numbers are hard to deny as motivation for dismissal.

I SAW that, according to the Associated Press, a mere few thousand or so stuck around to watch extra time after the hometown Titans fell behind 34-17, so let’s do the same thing and move on.

Indianapolis (9-5) wins vs. Houston (2-12), 25-3

I SAW a ho-hum game from ho-hum teams.

Although there is a scant possibility that disappointing Indy could jump up to the AFC’s third seed (but they need a lot of help for that to happen, including from themselves next week on a visit to Kansas City) I see the Colts a lock for the fourth seed and the Texans, well, they’re pretty much a lock for the number one pick in next year’s draft.  As such, let’s just take a quick glimpse at this game and move on.

I SAW Colts QB Andrew Luck: 19-of-32, 180 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT, 82.8 passer Rating.  You’re going to have to find a way to put up better numbers against much better teams than that, Luck.  Reggie Wayne, Schmayme – if you’re elite, you find a way.

I SAW PROPS to Colts De Robert Mathis.  Finally removed from the shadow of former teammate Dwight Freeney who spent this season on IR in San Diego, Mathis passed Freeney for the franchise marks for sacks in a season with 16.5 and career sacks with 108.  (Freeney has 16 and 107.5, respectively.)

I SAW PROPS to Hall Of Fame running backs Marshall Faulk and Eric Dickerson, who were inducted in to the Colts Ring of Honor at halftime.  Even though Dickerson spent the twilight of his career in Indianapolis, I’m surprised it took this long for his induction.

I’ll admit it – this PROPS is mostly because Faulk is my favourite TV analyst working today.  And as a player, no one since Gayle Sayers was as smooth with the football in his hands as The Nicknameless Marshall Faulk, as NFL Network anchor Chris Rose calls him.

San Francisco (10-4) wins vs. Tampa Bay (4-10), 33-14

I SAW Niners TE Vernon Davis become the first player in franchise history since 2001 (Terrell Owens) to score a receiving TD in five straight games.

I SAW PROPS to Niners RB Frank Gore for his seventh 1,000-yard rushing season in nine career seasons.  Gore’s career blossomed during a transitional time for the NFL.  The league became more and more horny about passing as his years have gone one, but he keeps churning those smart feet and legging out the dats.

I SAW nobody surprised by this result.  Yep.

Atlanta (4-10) wins vs. Washington (3-11), 27-26

I SAW the Redskins commit seven turnovers, the most by any NFL team in a game this season.  That’s not going to win games.  BUT: QB Kirk Cousins took the lion’s share of the blame after the game – something starter Robert Griffin III hadn’t been doing – and this team will rally around Cousins and LB London Fletcher who seems prepared to retire at season’s end.  I predict this team will come out strong and beat Dallas on Sunday.

I SAW Mike Shanahan elect to try for a winning 2-point conversion after a last-minute TD pass to WR Santana Moss instead of kicking the PAT and likely going into overtime.  If you didn’t think that the Redskins had folded up shop this season when they benched QB Robert Griffin III, it’s clear now that winning this month isn’t being taken as seriously as usual in D.C.

I SAW Redskins QB Kirk Cousins play a good game Sunday: 29-of-45 (64.4%), 381 yards, 3 TDs, 2 INTs, 94.8 passer rating.  If Cousins’ productivity feels reminiscent of that of his shelved teammate, it’s because it is – at least in a terribly small sample size.

Redskins Quarterbacks – Their First 2 Career Starts

Robert Griffin III Kirk Cousins
W-L 1-1 1-1
Teams Points per Game 34.0 32.0
Pass Yards per Game 263.0 355.0
TD-INT 3-1 5-3

Washington also was 5-of-10 on third downs.  Let the salivating over Cousins begin!  I keep hearing Pink Floyd’s “Money” while watching highlights of his performance against the Falcons.

Let this serve as an opportunity to remind people that head coach Mike Shanahan and his son, offensive coordinator Kyle, can still coach it up.  I won’t go quite so far as Marty Schottenheimer did on NFL Network when he said Shanahan is still the best coach in the business, but the soap opera of gossip that has swirled between the coach and his star quarterback RG3 – that, along with the recurring suckitude of Washington’s offense this season – has distracted from Shanahan’s status as an excellent coach.  It’s hard to envision even the elite coaches weathering a storm like the one in D.C. this season (don’t forget that Andy Reid was basically chased out of Philly last season with arguably less hardships endured to make it so) and Sunday’s game was potential evidence that the Shanahans are still good at having their quarterback prepared for success.

Mind you, it helps to prepare when you’re facing an atrocious defense:

Opposing QB vs. Falcons – This Season

    NFL Rank
Completion % 57.1 T-2nd
Yards per Attempt 8.0 4th
TD-INT Ratio 3.6 2nd

Falcons GM Thomas Dmitroff has some work to do this offseason.  Three rookies started in the defensive backfield Sunday.  They’re a good solid group of youngsters, but without a pass rush they’re being fed to the wolves.

I SAW PROPS to Falcons TE Tony Gonzalez who became the fifth player – and first tight end – in NFL history with 15,000 receiving yards.  He and Jerry Rice are now the only two players with at least 1,100 catches, 15,000 yards and 100 TD grabs.  (NFL Media)  We’re all going to miss you when you’re Gonzo.

Buffalo (5-9) wins @Jacksonville (4-10), 27-20

I SAW myself mention in Away from the game(s) that I’d spend less time on the meaningless games.  Remember that?  Buh-bye.

Nono – wait!  Both teams were eliminated from the playoffs with the Dolphins’ win.  That is all.

SNF- Pittsburgh (6-8) wins vs. Cincinnati (9-5), 30-20

I SAW a frustrating laydown job by the Bengals.

With losses by Denver and New England, Cincy was in a great position to gain playoff leverage.  Instead, they dropped their pants to Pittsburgh Sunday night.

As the playoff loom I don’t know what to think of Cincy.  That’s typical of this franchise under head coach Marvin Lewis.

I SAW the Steelers get closer to avoiding their first losing season in a decade, thanks to WR Antonio Brown who is fast becoming their most valuable player on offense not named Big Ben.  Brown had two TD in the first quarter – one on a reception, the other on a punt return – and over the past month has looked virtually unstoppable.

I SAW Bengals punter Kevin Huber get his jaw broke by Steelers S Will Allen on a block during a punt return.  The league has disciplined Allen.  My take is similar to Huber’s: Big hits happen in football.  While I would like to believe that Allen knew he was hitting the punter instead of a “regular” player, I know the chaos of a special teams play, and it’s at least possible that Allen didn’t know who he was leveling, that man being an almost-useless tackler.  At least.  I still call b.s., though.  Allen is a very aware player, and probably knew he was hitting the punter.

I SAW The MMQB’s Peter King detail Pittsburgh’s rebuilding task ahead of them:

At the NFL’s one-day meeting in Dallas last week, the league projected the 2014 salary at $126.3 million, a rise of just over $3 million from this year’s cap. That’s not going to do the Steelers any favors. As their contracts stand now for 2014—according to the underrated site overthecap.com—the Steelers are set to spend two-thirds of their cap on seven players: Ben Roethlisberger ($18.9 million cap number), LaMarr Woodley ($13.6 million), Ike Taylor ($11.9 million), Lawrence Timmons ($11.8 million), Troy Polamalu ($10.9 million), Heath Miller ($9.5 million) and Antonio Brown ($8.5 million).”  That’s a tough road ahead.

MNF- Baltimore (8-6) wins @Detroit (7-7), 18-16   

I SAW the first time I’ve started off a game with a kicker in appositive light.  Ravens K Justin Tucker set an NFL record: 15 or more FGs in four straight games, all of which being wins.

In the name of drunken Christmas parties and your eyeballs getting tired of my shit, I’m gonna leave it off quirky-styles, with a kicker.  I’ve covered my thoughts on the playoff hopes for the Lions and Ravens in Away from the game(s).  See you next week!

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

IN THE MEANTIME, FOLLOW US ON FACEBOOK AND @TFQuarter

HIGH POSTS – Raptors Republic podcast out today!

Blair Miller > HIGH POSTS

Our leading (and only) basketball writer gives his, um, blunted, unconventional – and occasionally obsessively detailed – take on recent happenings in the hoops world.

LIKE us on Facebook Follow us on Twitter @TFQuarter

Ballers!  My first instalment of High Posts for the 2013-14 is going to be a brief one, as I’m more mired in the NFL landscape as it nears playoff season.  Keep an eye out for more regular High Posts in late December or early January.

For now, I wanted to let my peeps know about my return to the Raptors Republic podcast.  Thanks to PhdSteve for welcoming me back after a busy semester at work; it’s nice to be back with him, Mike and Greg talking ball.  The podcast can be found here.  Here’s a bulleted list of what we rap on re-the Raps, courtesy Raptors Republic:

  • The Rudy Gay trade: thoughts from around the table
  • Is there a log-jam now at the PF? What about the PG spot? No picks came back? Is this nothing more than a salary dump? Will it change the offense?
  • Lots of people (i.e., Marc Stein) are reporting more is to come- if so: who is next?
  • SACTO fans think they won the deal- did they?
  • There are split views on this trade: some see this as a signal that the team is tanking- is this true? Or can it also be seen as an attempt to win the division?
  • Ujiri’s work so far: is his strategy of taking five nickels for a quarter a good thing?
  • Starting with the Lakers win and the SA game we explore the last 7 days
  • The week ahead: PHI, CHI, CHA
  • #tankforwiggins

There is 5 minutes of bonus material after the outro for those who want to hear more about Wiggins vs Florida.

That’s it for now, roundballers.  In the meantime, check out our weekly NFL column called What I Saw if you’re into the more oblong ball – and stay blunted!