Monday, September 21, 2015

NFL Week 2 Wrap: Giants Give Another One Away; Patriot Quiet Buffalo; Romo TKOd; Green Bay Exact a “Little” Revenge; Jets Win

The second week of the NFL season again brought some expected results, some surprises, a couple late wins and a slew of aborted comebacks, together with a few more big injuries. Things started on Thursday with a 31-24 victory by the Broncos over the Chiefs, when a second Jamaal Charles’ fumble led to the game-winning recovery with a mere 27 seconds left on the clock. On Sunday, the Chargers mounted a late drive against Cincinnati only to fall short 24-19 after Philip Rivers threw an interception (in the same game he broke Dan Fouts’ record for career Chargers touchdowns), the Giants fell short again failing on four straight pass plays at midfield to lose 24-20 to the Falcon and the Bills impressive fourth quarter comeback (19 points to 3) fell short 40-32 after an interception on their last drive. Um, weren’t the Bills supposed to have a great defense? Not against the Patriots, it appears, as New England makes an early statement in their attempt to make it two straight Super Bowls.

In the other early games on Sunday, the Redskins quieted their critics for at least one week with a 24-10 home victory over the Rams, the Vikings beat the Lions 26-16 (with Peterson gaining 192 all-purpose yards), the Steelers reminded the Niners that one week does not a season make (43-18) and the Buccaneers piled the misery on the reeling Saints by beating them 26-19 at the Superdome. Elsewhere, Manziel recorded his first victory as a starter for Cleveland with two long touchdown passes in a 28-14 victory over the Titans (though he only finished 8 of 15 for 172 yards in a clearly “controlled” performance). The Panthers moved to 2-0 with a 24-17 victory over the 0-2 Texans, who are somehow among the top 10 richest teams in world sports, and the Cardinal did the same after beating the lowly Bears 48-23 on four touchdown passes from Carson Palmer. Jay Cutler went out injured with a hamstring pull and Tony Romo would follow a couple of hours later.

Romo was in what appeared to be the cream of the afternoon lineup as DeMarcus Murray tried to exact some revenge on his former team and help the Eagles bounce back from a disappointing loss. Both finished the game disappointed. The Eagles offense was non-existent in the first half (21 total yards) as concerns about Sam Bradford seemed to come to full fruition and the Cowboys continued to shoot themselves in the foot (pun intended) with 10 penalties and several missed catches ending promising drives – along with a strong defensively stand by the Eagles from first and goal at the 1 saving the home team four points. The half ended with what seemed like the longest drive in the history of the NFL, in the real time it took, with one penalty after another (about equally split) before the Cowboys wasted time from the five yard line, added one more penalty, got a penalty against the Eagles and ultimately had to settle for three points and a 6-0 halftime lead. The second half started with another poor Eagles drive, with Murray caught in the backfield twice, before a blocked punt gave the Cowboys a 13-0 lead. Then things got really interesting, in a bad way, with Romo fumbling the ball and breaking his left clavicle as they were driving for what probably would have been a game killing TD.  Many more penalties and turnover followed on the way to a 20-10 Cowboys win, as Bradford threw an interception from the two-yard line and another as the Eagles finally started to drive effectively, sub QB Wheaton fumbled a play before Bradford gave it right back and the Cowboys committed one penalty after another (a record 18 by the end of the game for 142 yards). That was coupled with five turnovers, though Brandon Weeden was 7 for 7 with a TD after coming on and the Eagles got a late consolation TD. The Cowboys are now 2-0, but will need to play with more discipline with a backup QB, who has more career interceptions than touchdowns, if they are to stay in the hunt for a playoff birth while, as I predicted, the Eagles are struggling. Relying on two quarterbacks with among the worst career QB ratings ever, one looking eerily like a young Ben Affleck and the other like a male model, is just not a strong approach to winning games. On top of this, the Cowboys might have pulled off the equivalent of a Joe Barry Carroll for Parrish and McHale trade by letting Murray go to the Eagles, as he had a second poor rushing game in a row.

In the other afternoon games, the Dolphins and Jaguars found themselves tied at 20 early in the second half, the same score in the Ravens Raiders game at the same moment. Only three more points were scored in the first game, with the Jags winning on a late chip shot 23-20, while the Raiders got their first win of the season 37-33 over the struggling Ravens, with a go ahead touchdown in the final 30 seconds. Sunday night brought us the matchup of the weekend, as Green Bay tried to exact some revenge for two losses in a row to Seattle, including the late collapse in the NFC Championship Game last season that cost them a Super Bowl birth. Green Bay largely dominated the first half, but failed to get it in the end zone from the one-yard line right before halftime, settling for a 13-3 lead. Seattle scored the next 14 points before a Green Bay field goal brought them within one. In the fourth quarter another impressive Aaron Rodgers drive capped by a touchdown and two-point conversion gave Green Bay a seven point lead. Wilson threw an interception on the next possession with about seven minutes left followed by a series of rugby like scrums, with Seattle’s E.J. Wright ejected, before a time consuming short drive resulted in a field goal to make it 27-17 with less than two minutes left. A final fumble by Seattle wrapped things up, to leave the Seahawks 0-2 and Green Bay getting that revenge and, maybe, a home game against Seattle if they meet in the playoffs.  

Monday night football pitted the New York Jets against an Indianapolis Colts team trying to get back to winning ways after the opening game loss to the Bills. For the first three quarters, the Jets defense was imperious, with Darrelle Revis having three turnovers himself (an interception and two fumble recoveries; one right at the goal line). But the Jets offense was almost as inept and they were only up 10-0 going into the fourth. Then Luck came alive and led the Colts on a 90-yard drive that brought them within 3, before the Jets finally gave Fitzpatrick some freedom on the offensive end and returned the favor leading the Jets all the way down the field to answer and make it 17-7. There was still time for the comeback kid, but he threw yet another interception for the 10th turnover by the Jets in two games to essentially wrap things up with about five minutes left (leaving Luck 18 of 34 for 227 yards with 1 touchdown and 3 interceptions!). The Jets went on a nice time-eating drive, including a key third down completion for Fitzpatrick, to ultimately kick a field goal and seal the deal, with about a minute on the clock. The loss was bad news for the Colts, who would have to become the first team in NFL history to get to the playoffs two years in a row after going 0-2. The Jets, on the other hand, can now claim the best defense in the league, a quality running game and a quarterback who appears, at least for the moment, to be less prone to mistakes than the last three disasters they have had at that position. Could the Geno Smith freak injury be a blessing in disguise? Could it finally be their year? As I Jets fan for many years, I doubt it.  

Some thoughts on Week 2:

It Ain’t Over til the Giants Blow the Game
Two weeks, two blown games. The Giants were again suspect in their time management, again dropped catchable throws (including one on fourth down that would have kept the drive alive) and again lost a game they should have won. The final score was 24-20, after they lost the fourth quarter battle 14-0, leaving the surprising Falcons at 2-0 and looking like a force to be reckoned with given their improved defense. The Giants led 13-10 at halftime and 20-10 going into the fourth quarter before the Atlanta offense, behind Ryan and Julio Jones, struck the suspect New York passing defense for two touchdowns. Truly terrible from Manning, Coughlin and a team that has been pretty terrible over the past eight years but for two surprise Super Bowl wins over the Patriots.  Coughlin took over in 2004, in Eli Manning’s first year, and after a 6-10 season, led the Giants to the playoffs three years in a row, culminating in the upset win over the undefeated Patriots 17-14 in 2007. Since then, they have only made the playoffs two times in the past seven years, losing to the Eagles in 2008 and again surprising the Patriots 21-17 in the 2011 Super Bowl. Now at 0-2, their record in 11 years is 96-82, though 8-3 in the playoffs with two rings. As a Jets and Cowboys fan, I would take even one of those rings over everything that has happened in the past 20 years, but the Giants have largely been a regular season disappointment under Coughlin and Manning, with the error prone brother of one of the best quarterbacks in history to blame for most of those successes, and failures. As a result, a team that could easily be 2-0 continues to be an enigma. The only good news for the Giants is the Eagles look abject on offense and the Cowboys will be playing without their two best players for the foreseeable future.  

The Unpredictability of Predictability
Last week the Niners defense looked incredible in shutting the Vikings down completely until late in the game. This week they were lit up by the Steelers to the tune of 43 points and 453 total yards, even as they held Pittsburgh to 84 rushing yards and crushed them in time of possession with almost 40 minutes. The difference was Roethlisberger’s 369 passing yards and the Steelers being five for five in the Red Zone. The same can be said of the Buffalo defense, which was supposed to be among the best in the league before giving up 40 points and over 500 yards to the Patriots. The Eagles, after last week’s second half display, seemed likely to score some points against an oft-suspect Cowboys’ defense. Instead they were completely inept and shutdown, with Murray following the statistical trend of most running backs to have a fall off in productivity after a workhorse year (21 carries for 11 yards in two games). The Eagles problems run deep, as Chip Kelly’s constant tinkering has cost him some of his best offensive weapons, a reasonably capable quarterback and the offensive line he needs to run his fast paced offense. They were strong defensively, but it wasn’t enough to beat a battered and mistake-prone Cowboys team, led by 14 tackles from returning LB Sean “the General” Lee.

Meanwhile, Cam Newton, the most underrated quarterback in all of football, threw for two touchdowns and scored a third on the ground to get the Panthers to 2-0 and make them rivals for the impressive Falcons, another early season surprise. Johnny Manziel also had two throwing touchdowns, Dalton had three and Winston ran for a touchdown and threw a second as all four of these maligned quarterbacks led their teams to victory. On the flip side, Peyton Manning is 2-0 but 20 points below his career QBR, completing less than 60 percent of his passes for an average of 5.07 per attempt with three touchdowns and two interceptions so far this season. Drew Brees is 0-2 with only 1 touchdown pass, to go with one interception, in two games of action. And Marcus Mariotta was brought back to earth in a 28-14 loss, with two fumbles and seven sacks surrounding a decent 21-37 for 252 yards and two touchdowns (though two additional fumbles and an interception were luckily called back for defensive penalties). Ultimately, it appears that the only thing one can predict from one week to the next is that Belichick will get the best of Ryan whenever they meet (since the reverse situation early in their matchup) and that predicting things is kind of hard.

Early Troubles for Some “Pretenders?”
Getting back to those Giants, several teams that some thought would make a run at division titles or the playoffs find themselves 0-2, including the New Orleans Saints, the Detroit Lions, the Ravens, the Eagles and those same ole Giants. There was some suspicion the hype around the Giants might be overwrought, along with the Saints, who lost some offensive potency while their defense got worse. But the Lions appeared like a team that could make some noise this year, with more consistent play from their quarterback and better defending. Instead they have started 0-2 and need to get going quickly to salvage the season, with suspicions among many that Matthew Stafford will never quite live up to the hype. This is even truer with the Eagles, who were abject against the Cowboys offensively (particularly Bradford and Murray) and not good enough on defense or in special teams as they now sit 0-2 and searching for answers. Buffalo were brought back to earth, as were the Niners and Tennessee. And the Ravens without Suggs look like a much more suspect defensive unit – sitting at 0-2 for the first time in the Harbaugh reign. It’s still too early to make any definitive assessments of teams, but the Patriots, Cardinals and Green Bay appear to be the early in form team in the league with questions surrounding all of the other 2-0 teams. The Bengals are better than last year but one still worries about relying on Dalton long term, the Broncos might be flattering to deceive with a Manning clearly below his best and two somewhat lucky wins, the Falcons and Panthers are yet to show if they can sustain their play on both ends of the ball and the Cowboys suddenly find themselves without their two biggest stars.

Best Penalty in Football
I’m certainly not the first person to note that professional football has a suspiciously close proximity to homoerotic literature of a certain ilk. Plays generally start with a man in tights and shoulder pads grabbing a ball from between the legs of another man. We then have “tight” ends and “wide” receivers trying to catch a “pass” from their on-field leader or running backs carrying balls for gains or losses all while ends and inside and outside linesman fight each other to see who can “score”. If a pass play goes wrong, the quarterback is “sacked” or a defensive back might be called for interfering with one of those passes. When a team can’t get past third down, they have to take a punt on that “drive” or try to kick a ball between two “posts.” The infamous coach turned announcer John Madden only added to this tendency making getting “down and dirty” the key statistically- difficult-to-assess attribute of players. And slow motion, close-up replays of the key “action” from a game is one of the main reason a sport that only has about 21 weeks of action is still the highest earner among the big four. On top of all this (pun intended), “penetration” on the offensive and defensive end is really the keys to every game, along with “turnovers.” This is all made more ironic by the fact that the NFL is arguably the key battleground alongside Hollywood in the struggle to rescue American masculinity. In what must be an attempt to address these many oversights, the best penalty in the league is without question “illegal touching.” Enough said, I think.

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