Tuesday, October 13, 2015

NFL Week 5 Wrap: Patriots, Bengals, Broncos and Atlanta Stay Undefeated; Dallas in Trouble; Detroit Moribund

Week 5 started with a Thursday night matchup between a Luckless Indianapolis and Texans. The 40-year-old Matt Hasselback, in relief of the injured Luck, threw two touchdowns on the way to the victory, as the Colts moved to 3-2 while the Texans fell to 1-4. A third straight victory for the Colts all but erased the 0-2 start and put them in the driver’s seat in the weak AFC South, where the other three teams have a combined three wins to 11 losses.

In the marque matchup of the morning slate, the Bengals found themselves down 17 to the Seahawks in the fourth quarter, then reeled off 17 straight points before scoring a winning field goal off the crossbar to complete an improbable comeback against the best defense in football over the past few seasons. The Bengals moved to 5-0 while the struggling Seahawks fell to 2-3. The Falcons also woke up late to keep their undefeated record, rallying against the Redskins in the fourth before an OT pick-6 won it 25-19. The Bear scored all 15 second half points to push the Chiefs to 1-4 (18-17). And the Browns came back in the second half as well, beating the 1-4 Ravens 33-30 in OT. In the other morning games, Tampa Bay won a tight one over the Jags 38-31, the Eagles offense got churning in the second half to smash the Saints 39-17, the Packers survived two interceptions by Aaron Rodgers, his first at home since 2012, and the Bills offense struggles continued, but their defense kept them close and they ultimately beat the Titans on the road 14-13.

The afternoon saw the Cowboys trying to stop the rot against an undefeated Patriots team many believe is currently the best in the NFL. After the way the Cowboys defense has played the past two weeks, the first half was a surprising defensive battle until the Patriots scored 10 points in the last three minutes to take a 13-3 lead. The Cowboys, other than the 10 play, 47-yard drive that results in a field goal, punted the ball after three and outs six times, totally a measly 17 yards of offense (for a total of 64 yards for the mathematically challenged). Meanwhile, the Cardinals offense exploded in the second quarter for 28 points, thanks to four first half turnovers by the 0-4 Lions, to take a 28-7 lead after 30 minutes. And the undefeated Broncos found themselves down 7-3 to the Raiders at the half, after another Derek Carr touchdown toss and a interception by 39-year-old Charles Woodson iof a 39-year-old Peyton Manning pass in the end zone.  The second half saw the Patriots pull away from the Cowboys with far too much ease on the way to a 30-6 victory, while the Cardinals completed their route of the Lions 42-17. The Broncos again found a way to win, based predominantly on another dominant defensive display, as Carr threw a costly pick-6 on third down within field goal range, down 9-7 with 6:53 to play. The Raiders did pull within six with 1:40 left, but a failed onside kick allowed the Broncos to hold for the 16-10 win. Oakland is much improved, but still find themselves 2-3 after three turnovers and 3 points in the second half, while the Broncos moved to 5-0 without any truly convincing victories.

Sunday night pitted the suddenly hot Giants against the truly not Niners, with Kaepernick having among the worst numbers of any quarterback in the league. It was a back and forth affair with the Giants leading 13-6 at halftime, before a combined 38 points in the second half. Peyton Manning had a record breaking game that culminated in a touchdown pass to Larry Donnell with 21 seconds left to win it 30-27, a catch that could rival all but the best of Odell Beckham’s long highlight reel. Manning finished the game with a record 41 completions on 54 attempts for 441 yards with 3  TDs and a pick, breaking the record for wins by a Giants quarterback with 102. Kaepernick finally had a decent game, completing 23/35 for 262 with 2 TDs and no INTs (also running for 23 yards on three carries), though he still couldn’t keep the Niners from falling to 1-4. The Giants, on the other hand, are now in first place in the NFC East.

Monday night had the Steelers facing the Chargers, both teams trying to escape a 2-3 record against undefeated division leaders. The Chargers outplayed the Steelers for much of the game, but too many penalties (7 for 54 yards, though most in the first half), a missed field goal, three dropped interceptions, a pick-6 by Rivers (who otherwise had another great game, going 35 of 48 for 365 yards and two touchdowns – both to the returning Antonio Gates) and a defensive collapse in the final drive all contributed to the 24-20 loss. After going ahead by three on their last offensive possession of the game, the Chargers left a struggling Michael Vick with 2:56 to drive the ball 80 yards. The oft-maligned quarterback converted two third downs, one with a long run, then drove the team to the half yard line with 5 seconds left. Many coaches would have simply kicked the game-tying field goal and taken their chances in overtime, but not Steeler’s coach Tomlinson. The announcers assumed a quarterback sneak and quick timeout would follow (if they didn’t score), but instead they pitched the ball back to the best running back in the league, and after being seemingly stopped, powered forward to just cross the line with no time on the clock. If he did not get that extra push forward, pundits would have been talking about the boneheaded decision; instead he might have saved the Steelers stuttering season. The Chargers now stand at 2-3 and will have to hope for a Wild Card birth, with questions about the coach surfacing again – arguably the only reason Philip Rivers has yet to make a trip to the Super Bowl.

Some thoughts on Week 5:

Are the Jets for Real?
As a Jets fan for far longer than I’m willing to admit, I have lived through years and years and years of disappointment. Hope is really all Jets fans have to live on since the miracle Super Bowl win way back in 1969. Since then, they have been to the AFC Championship Game on four occasions, but always come up short. They had a real shot to beat the Colts in 2009, before a second half collapse cost them in a 30-17 loss. They lost the next year at the same stage to the Steelers in a close 24-19 game they probably should have won. Going back to 1982, there was the famous 14-0 loss to Miami, when A.J. Duhe had two interceptions of Richard Todd, who went a nauseating 15-37 on a muddy field. They got back in 1998, but were beaten handily by the Broncos 23-10. And that is all out of 13 trips to the playoffs and another 31 seasons that ended with the final game of the regular season since 1969. Now the Jets sit at 3-1, with the only blemish a tough loss to the Eagles, where they did not show up until the second half on either side of the ball. The 27-14 victory over Miami early on Sunday in London, included 425 total yards, a career-high 166 for Chris Ivory and a decent performance from Fitzpatrick, who was 16-29 for 218 yards with a touchdown and an interception (but also a 58-yard pass early that set the tone for the win). The only reason Miami stayed close was 14 penalties for 163 yards by the Jets, including two long pass interference calls that allowed Miami to score their first touchdown.

So how good are these Jets? They have beaten the Browns, the Colts and Miami, three teams that have struggled in the early going of the season. But they have been impressive defensively except for the first half of the Eagles game, have been running the ball relatively well and have a quarterback who, though he will never be top tier, might be able to flourish in a more controlled environment. The real test comes after a very winnable game over the Redskins next week, before trips to the Patriots and Raiders in back-to-back games. My perspective is that this is a team that could and should challenge for a playoff spot, if they cut down the mistakes, stay on the right side of the positive turnover ratio and get some luck along the way. Looking at the rest of the season, it is not hard to see the team getting to 10-6; though as a Jets fan, I could also see them losing out and firing their new coach. Only time will tell and, well, tomorrow is another day.

Cowboys Troubles Worsen
It is rare over the course of a season, but a coin toss might well cost the Cowboys a playoff birth. After their offense came alive when it counted driving 91 yards to draw even against the Saints last Monday, Drew Brees drove the ball down the field with little resistance before a missed field goal attempt forced overtime. But given the second half of the game, the coin toss all but guaranteed the Saints would be in a good position to win and it only took two plays to confirm that suspicion. Weeden did not have a terrible game, completing 16 of 26 passes for 246 yards with a TD and no interceptions, but that paled in comparison to the supposedly injured Brees who went 33 for 41 for 359 yards and two TDs. The Cowboys had good chances at three interceptions, however, and really need to work with their corners and safeties on catching the ball, as this was not the first game this year where turnover opportunities went wanting. The big problem for the Cowboys is in their defense, as they are having a hard time stopping opposing teams. It was at the heart of the Falcons comeback two weeks ago and played a big part in that loss. Against the Patriots, the Cowboys held up well for most of the first half, before the Patriots had 4 straight scoring drives that resulted in 24 points, essentially ending any chance of a comeback (the fifth drive ended on a missed fourth and inches, though they were in field goal range). It was the third straight game where the Cowboys defense could not stop the opponent, essentially all but guaranteeing defeats without Romo and Bryant. The struggles started right before halftime against the Falcons, and haven’t really abated much since.

With the upcoming schedule, the Cowboys will have to find a way to beat at least one or two of their tough opponents, including a matchup with a Giants team that suddenly looks a lot better. For now, the defense appears to be a liability that adds to some questionable play calling and the loss of so much offensive firepower, all jeopardizing the playoff birth most predicted before the season began. To put the defensive struggles into perspective, the Cowboys are 14th in the league in yards allowed, 19th in points allowed, 18th against the pass and 11th against the run. They also do not have a turnover since the Week 2 win over the Eagles. And Brandon Weeden added his 11th loss in a row as a starter, with the last four coming with the Cowboys. Time for Matt Cassel?  

A Week Without Officiating Controversy: Whew!
In the Cowboys-Saints game last weekend, the touchdown that sealed it came one play after a clear pick that wasn’t called by the officials, a play that resulted in a Cowboy starter injury. The breakdown for Brees’ 400th TD pass (only the fourth player in history to accomplish that number) came from the substitute and another Cowboys DB who had a combined three plays this season. The Saints seemed to be running picks throughout the game, and are not the only team to be getting away with it far too often this season. But the call in the Seahawks game was much worse, costing Detroit a chance at a go ahead touchdown with two minutes left (from the one-yard line). If the batting call had been made correctly, it is quiet plausible to envision a 1-4 Seahawks team. After some questionable calls throughout the young season, Sunday and Monday were relatively controversy free, a nice break for embittered officials.

Hot or Not?
Josh McCown completed 36 of 51 passes for a record 457 yards as the Browns came from behind to win and move to 2-3. It has been an up-and-down start for the starter, after an early-season concussion, but it’s hard to ignore his 73.9 QBR, four TDs versus only one interception and 66 percent completion rate (for a decent 7.61 yards per attempt). Over in Tampa Bay, Doug Martin rushed for over 100 yards for a second game in a row, with two touchdowns in their 38-31 victory over Jacksonville. In a Seattle loss, one bright spot was rookie running back Thomas Rawls, who rushed for 169 yards and a TD on 23 carries. Why he wasn’t in the lineup for the OT possessions is a real head scratcher, particularly given the fact that the Seahawks punted on their last six offensive possessions (including the two in OT). Russell Wilson had another below-par game, completing 15 of 25 for 213 yards, with a TD and a pick (53.0 QBR), helping the Bengals on the way to the comeback from 17 down. Given that comeback, we might also put the entire Seattle defense in the “cold” category, a week after only giving up 10 to the reeling Lions.

Speaking of those Lions, Matthew Stafford’s numbers don’t look terrible, completing 65 percent of his passes for an average of 6.24 per attempt, but only five TD passes along with five interceptions and a lost fumble have a lot to do with their winless start, and he was benched after throwing his second of the game. Another QB who has decent looking numbers but is losing is Brandon Weeden, who is completing an ungodly 76.3 percent of his passes for a 72.4 QBR but has been unable to win any of the three games he’s started. One problem is he only has two TD passes in four games, along with one interception and, though his yards per attempt is 9.34, his inability (or unwillingness) to throw the ball down field has cost the team in a big way as the opposing defenses stack the line.

Aaron Rodgers had one of his more average days as a QB, giving up his first interception at home since 2012, adding a second, and only completing 19 of 30 for 241 yards. Those numbers look exceptional when compared with Nick Foles of the Rams though, who completed only 11 of his 30 passes for 141 yards and four interceptions. The only good news for the Rams in the loss was the continued success of rookie Todd Gurley, who rushed for 159 yards on 30 carries. There were serious concerns of how he would adapt to the NFL and whether his recovery from a turn ACL would go smoothly – those are largely gone now. Worse than Rodgers in a win, was Peyton Manning, who completed 22 of 35 for 266 yards, with no TD passes and two interceptions. His regular season QBR of 55.4 and 5 interceptions to go with 6 TDs will be a concern, though mitigated by the 5-0 start. Colin Kaepernick might be making his claim to most overpaid player in world sports today, putting together a stomach turning season so far, including going into the game against the Giants tied for the most missed open receivers (26) in the league so far. He was completing 62.1 percent of his passes for only 6.27 per attempt, with 2 TDs, 5 INTs and 3 fumbles (for a QBR of 38.6). Sunday was better, but is this really the guy who can turn the franchise around? Michael Vick will be forgiven for another average game, as he led the Steelers on the game winning drive, but his numbers were again below par – 13/26 for 203 with a TD pass and a pick. His season QBR of 13.9 really says everything we need to know (even as his quarterback rating stands at 96.1!).

The hottest player in the league is, arguably, Tom Brady, who has completed 72.2 percent of his passes for 8.36 per attempt, with 9 TD passes and 0, yes zero, interceptions. His total QBR of 83.1 is third best in the league, only behind the injured Roethlisberger and the other early contender for MVP – Andy Dalton. Dalton is completing 67.2 percent of his passes for 10.23 per attempt, with the same 9 touchdown passes and only one interception. He seems to have taken his game to another level, but will need to win a playoff game, after four straight years of one and done in the postseason, to convince us he has really taken that next step. In fact, as hard as it is to believe, the Bengals have not won a playoff game since way back in 1990 – when they beat the now renamed and relocated Oilers 41-14 in a Wild Card game. Finally, Eli Manning should get a nod for what is turning into a decent start to the season, third in the league with 1,417 yards so far. He is completing 66.5 percent of his passes for 7.19 per attempt with 10 TDS and only 2 INTs (though he does have 3 fumbles).

Early Season Predictions

The Patriots just keep on rolling, crushing the battered Cowboys rather handily. The Packers were less impressive, but still moved to 5-0 with their win over a Rams team that beat Arizona last weekend. The Bengals mounted an impressive comeback against the Seattle defense, jumping to 5-0 themselves, and the Falcons kept up their impressive early season form, coming from behind to beat the Redskins. Arizona bounced back from their loss last week to blow out a Detroit team that could easily go 0-16 on current evidence, only a year after a good season that only ended when they lost a playoff game to the Cowboys as a result of a pretty terrible call. So who is the cream of the NFL crop at the moment? The Patriots have been impressive on both ends of the ball and could definitely go undefeated heading into the playoffs, but have tough matchups coming up. The Bengals also continue to impress and could go far if they can get over their 25-year playoff funk. And the Broncos could certainly have something to say about the AFC representative in the Super Bowl, even as none of their wins have been terribly convincing. The Packers do seem like the best of the NFC, though both the Falcons and the Cardinals are certainly making their own case as Super Bowl Contenders. At the moment, I still think predicting an Aaron Rodgers versus Tom Brady matchup to end the season is a pretty safe bet, but the one thing the NFL has shown us in the opening five weeks is that nothing is guaranteed.  

No comments: