Tuesday, October 27, 2015

NFL Week 7 Wrap: Patriots Stop Jets; Steelers Lose; Dolphins Win; Arizona Back on Track

Seattle kicked off Week 7 with a season saving 20-3 victory over the Niners, on the back of another terrible Kaepernick game (completing 13 of 24 for 125 yards and a QBR of 9.0). Wilson threw two interceptions himself, but was otherwise solid as Marshall Lynch ran for 122 yards on 27 carries with a touchdown. In the early Sunday game in London, Buffalo came storming back from an early 27-13 halftime deficit to close to within three, but ultimately lost by that margin 34-31 to the Jags. The Redskins scored a late touchdown to sneak past the Bucs 31-30, the suddenly flat Falcons won 10-7 over the Titans, the Vikings cruised past the listless Lions 28-19 and the Dolphins won their second on the bounce under interim coach Dan Campbell 44-26 over the Texans. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh third-stringer Landry Jones was brought back to earth in a 23-13 loss to the Chief (though he did throw for 209 yards on 16/29 with 1 TD and 2 INTs, after a slow start).

The Colts came storming back from a 27-0 deficit to draw within 6, but were unable to stop New Orleans in the final 3:02, after just missing out on recovering an onside kick for the second game running and a Brees toss on third down meant the Saints could run out the clock to win 27-21. Luck was horrible early, but finished 23 of 44 for 333 yards with 3 TDs and 2 INTs. But the Colts fell short for a second week running and are now 3-4. In Massachusetts, the Patriots came back from a fourth quarter deficit to win 30-23 at home against the Jets, a team that impressed in a loss. In the late games, the Chargers fell way behind the Raiders and their late comeback was for naught as they lost 37-29 while the Cowboys blew a game against the Giants where they ran at will and controlled possession but five turnovers in the second half and a muffed punt return with a chance to tie it late, losing 27-20.

In the Sunday night game, Carolina continued to impress, beating the Eagles 27-16 to move to 6-0. With the Eagles down eight, Bradford threw a pretty good pass to Miles Austin on fourth and nine that would have given them a lifeline, but the ball went right through the ex-Cowboy’s hands and the game was over when the Panthers kicked a field goal after running down the clock. Bradford had a decent game, completing 23 of 42 for 180 yards, though he was without a touchdown pass, lost a fumble and threw an interception. Cam Newton was worse, going 14 of 24 for 197 yards with a TD and three picks, but it mattered little as the defense held strong for most of the game and the running backs and Cam combined for over 200 yards rushing. For the Eagles, Murray was held to 65 yards on 18 carries while Ryan Matthews went for 97 yards on only six carries, including a 63-yard burst for a touchdown. The loss, combined with a Giants win, means New York open up a one-game lead at the top of the NFC East.

Monday night matched the 1-5 Ravens against an Arizona side that has lost two of its last three games. The Ravens jumped out to an early lead, but the Arizona offense came alive and built a 16-point lead in the fourth quarter before some bad coaching, some bad punting and dropped coverage almost cost them. The game should have been out of reach before the Ravens got back in it, but a missed extra point meant Baltimore could tie it with two touchdowns and two two-point conversions. The first TD came after a blocked punt gave them excellent field possession. The Ravens then converted the two-point conversion. The Cardinals were a first down away from winning the game, but inexplicably threw the ball on second down and ultimately gave the ball back to Flacco and the Ravens with enough time to drive down the field. They did just that, all the way to the 5-yard-line with :16 seconds left on the clock. But a offensive penalty and excellent open field tackle put Flacco under added pressure and a blitz with time running out caused the Super Bowl winning QB to toss the ball up for grabs and it was picked off. Incredibly, the Ravens (now tied for the worst record in the NFL with the Lions) have had the ball with a chance to tie or a win a game in each of their six losses, but have failed to convert each time. Barring a miracle, it will be only the second time they have missed the playoffs with Harbaugh in charge. On the other side of the field, Arizona will have to ask some serious questions of themselves after a number of terrible plays in the last five minutes or so, but still got the win to move to 5-2, evening up Carson Palmer’s career record at 75 (and making him 18-4 in his last 22 with the Cards).

Some thoughts on Week 7:

New England Win; Jets Impress in a Loss
The Patriots found themselves down four heading into the fourth quarter after 11 dropped passes by receivers together with an impressive Jets defense held their high-flying offense for much of the game. Yet the field goal that extended the Jets lead should have been seven points, after Brandon Marshall dropped a touchdown pass right in the letters. New England drove down the field on two consecutive drives, as Brady completed 13 of 15 passes, to take a 10-point lead with just over a minute on the clock. The Jets drove down the field and then connected on a 55-yard field goal before recovering the ensuing onside kick, for only the second time in 15 attempts by Nick Foles. But time was not on their side and a completed pass was followed by an offensive penalty that saw the game end 30-23. Some serious questions emerged in Todd Bowles’ time management, allowing the Patriots to roll off a lot of it before their last touchdown. But it is the sort of loss, to arguably the best team in the NFL at present, that can actually build confidence and the performance of Fitzpatrick and the defense will certainly give the Jets the sense they can drive on and earn a playoff spot. Fitzpatrick actually has the 5th best total QBR in the league at present and Chris Ivory, who started slow, leads what is arguably the best running game in the league. Combined with the best defense, this is a team that might be going places, if they can keep their cool and continue to perform at this level. On the other side of the ball, the Patriots showed why they might be favorites to repeat as Super Bowl champions, able to win close games and essentially count on Brady to get them out of trouble in close games.

What’s Wrong with the Seahawks?
The Seahawks won 20-3 over the Niners Thursday, getting to 3-4 and back in strong contention to earn a playoff birth. But is this a team that looks likely to return to the Super Bowl? Not on current form. The defense has been smothering in victories over the Bears (26-0), the Lions (13-10) and the Niners, but have given up 34 points to the Rams, 27 to the Packers, 27 to the Bengals and the same total to the Panthers. Their three wins have come against teams with among the worst offenses in the NFC and their huge homefield advantage appears to be long gone, maybe even for a likely Wildcard game. On the offensive end, the return of Lynch should help immeasurably, but the makeshift offensive line is just not giving Russell Wilson enough time to find his receivers. And those receivers are not as impressive a corps as most top quarterbacks have at their disposal. Maybe more important than any of this, the team’s swagger appears to be missing, maybe a result of the heartbreaking last second loss in the Super Bowl last February. One must remember that they came out of the blocks slowly last season, before just missing out on a second straight Super Bowl victory, but a third straight trip seems a long shot on current form.

Cowboys Collapse Continues as Giants Rebound
In the Saints game, a missed pick call came a play before Brees threw a long TD pass to win in overtime. Today, the Cowboys had a 31-yard touchdown pass called back in the second quarter for a pick that was anything but, costing them four points, as they had to settle for a second field goal and a 7-6 deficit. On the ensuing possession, Hardy’s third sack in two games forced the Giants to punt and the Cowboys drove down the field to score for a 13-7 lead. A penalty by the Cowboys, an overturned interception and a long completion for ex-Dallas special teams specialist Harris led the Giants to a field goal and a 13-10 score. The Cowboys had a minute left but failed to get going and settled for the three-point lead. Those four points were costly as the Giants turned things around in the second half.

The Cowboys started the second 30 with a decent drive until Rodgers-Cromartie jumped the coverage, picked off Cassel’s and cruised into the end zone to give the Giants a 17-13 lead. On their next possession, another Cassel interception, on an underthrown pass just outside the Giants end zone reminded of how much the Cowboys miss Romo. The Giants charged down the field from the one, but had to settle for a field goal again, and a seven-point lead with 3:18 left in the third quarter. The next Cowboys possession brought a third interception in a row for Cassel, when the Cowboys were closing in on field goal range. The Cowboys were leading the time of possession, the rushing yards battle and had more first downs, but three turnovers saw them down 7. On the ensuing possession, the Cowboys ran six straight times, before the second of two great throws from Cassel was caught by Street on the sideline of the end zone to tie the game up at 20. Just when the Cowboys had some momentum back, Harris bit them again, running the kickoff back 100 yards to again put the Giants up by seven. The Cowboys ran the ball down the field yet again, but failed on a fourth down and the Giants were able to run the clock out after Cole Beasley fumbled a punt with over a minute left on the clock.

The Cowboys are now 0-4 without Romo and might have a hard time winning a game before he returns. They are running the ball well and playing decent defense at times, but collapsing at the wrong times in games, making huge mistakes and are too often unable to finish drives with seven points. Today it was the three straight interceptions by Cassel that essentially killed them, though the 100-yard runback from ex-Cowboy Harris had to especially smart. Even with all those mistakes, they still had a shot at the end until Beasley muffed the final punt of the game to seal it for the Giants. It was a truly terrible game and might just end the Cowboys hopes of staying in the playoff hunt. Looking at the schedule, they still have to play the Seahawks, the Eagles, the Dolphins, the Panthers, at Green Bay, the Jets and the Bills. A record of 9-7 looks like the best they can do and that is unlikely to be enough to get into the playoffs unless the Eagles and Giants continue to falter. The Eagles might, but the Giants look to have steadied themselves a little after being destroyed by those same Eagles last Monday night.

Whose Hot and Whose Not?
Rookie Todd Gurley continued to defy the naysayers with 128 yards on 19 carries and two TDs. On the other side, Josh McCown had another solid game, going 26 for 32 for 270 yards, but was sacked four times and failed to register a touchdown pass in a 24-6 loss. Brady again showed why he is arguably the greatest quarterback of all times, at least when it comes to winning, with two fourth quarter TD drives to squeeze past the Jets. Harvard-grad and veteran Fitzpatrick continued to impress himself for the Jets in a loss. Luck started slow but finished strongly, though it was not enough to overcome a 27-0 deficit, and serious questions must now be asked about the 3-4 Colts. After early struggles, the beleaguered Redskins quarterback Cousins led the team to four touchdowns and a field goal in just over a half, including a game-winning drive, on the road to a 31-30 comeback victory. Teddy Bridgewater also played well again going 24/34 for 316 yards and two TDs as the Vikings ended the Lions one-game winning streak. Meanwhile, the mercurial Ryan Tannehill went an incredible 18 for 19 for 282 yards and four touchdowns as Miami crushed the Texans 44-26 to move to 3-3. Derek Carr was also hot in a blowout win over the Chargers (24/31, 289 yards, 3 TDs without a turnover) as Philip Rivers threw two first half interceptions before padding his number when the game was out of reach. As mentioned above, Sam Bradford was decent but not spectacular in losing to a Cam Newton who played poorly but still led his team to victory.

Way too Early Predictions on the Playoffs
We have not yet reached the halfway point, but why not offer early predictions on the playoffs teams for each division? In the AFC, it’s hard not to pick the Patriots to win the AFC East and to garner home field advantage throughout the playoffs, and the 2½ game lead for the Bengals makes them the favorite to brush past Pittsburgh and win the North. I still think the Colts will have enough to win the weak AFC South and Denver has almost no competition in the West, unless the Raiders go on a serious run and luck catches up with the Broncos. The two wild card teams I like are the Jets and the Steelers at present, with Miami and Buffalo in the mix and the Raiders a long shot possibility.

In the NFC, I think the Giants win the relatively weak East (with my poor Cowboys sitting out the playoffs yet again), the Green Bay Packers win the North, the Panthers sneak by the Falcons in the South and the Cardinals win the West. If I’m right, the Falcons look likely to be one of the wild cards and I like the Vikings to take the other. A lot of teams are in the hunt, though, with the Rams moving to 3-3, the Seahawks the strongest 3-4 team in the league (though see above) and a host of others having a shot including the Saints, the Eagles and even, though I seriously doubt they stay in contention, the Cowboys and Redskins.

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