Wednesday, November 18, 2015

NFL Week 10 Wrap: Cowboys Season Unravels; Seattle in Trouble; Panthers & Pats Keep on Trucking

The Games

The week got started on Thursday night with the classless return of Rex Ryan and his Buffalo Bills to Met Life Stadium and a matchup with the Jets team that rightfully sacked him after another awful season. Ryan once seemed like a nice guy who had a big mouth but a kind heart; he increasingly looks like a “character” or maybe even “caricature” of an NFL coach. Sure he had the last laugh as the Bills held off a late Jets comeback to win 22-17, but naming Enemkpali as the co-captain (the guy who broke Geno Smith’s jaw) showed the kind of guy Ryan really is. On Sunday morning, two games with big ramifications took place in Wisconsin and Tampa. The Detroit Lions finally ended a 24-year losing streak at Green Bay, winning 18-16 after a last second 51-yard field goal by the Packers fell well short and the Cowboys lost for the seventh game in a row, again ceding a fourth quarter lead to fall 10-6. Dez Bryant appeared to be interfered with on the end zone interception that ended it, but probably could have put up more of an effort to snatch a ball that seemed very catchable. If the penalty had been called, the Cowboys would have had the ball at the one yard line with plenty of time to run at least two or three plays.

The Eagles blew a lead against the Dolphins after their starting quarterback Sam Bradford went out with a shoulder injury and concussion, losing 20-19. Good ole Mark Sanchez came in to “un”save the day (a habit of his as the anti-Super Man), throwing an interception in the end zone when they could have won with a field goal.  The Chicago Bears continued their recent renaissance, crushing the Rams 37-13 behind a big day from Jay Cutler (19 of 24 for 248 yards and 3 touchdowns). Todd Gurley was held to 45 yards on 12 rushes as Nick Foles had another average day, only going 17/36 for 200 yards and a pick. Both teams moved to 4-5 in what is increasingly shaping up as a packed Wild Card chase. Meanwhile the Jags tagged the Ravens for another last second loss, this time on a field goal with no time left to win it 22-20. Flacco had a big day with 316 yards on 34 of 45 passes, but had two picks to undermine his three touchdown tosses.

The Panthers moved to 9-0 after struggling early against the 2-7 Titans, with Cam Newton putting in another efficient performance on the way to the 27-10 win. And the New Orleans Saints continued to confound with their play from one week to the next, getting absolutely demolished 47-14 by a Redskins team that moved to 4-5. Kurt Cousins was the hero, throwing for four touchdowns and 324 yards on only 20 completed passes (out of 25 throws), while Drew Brees had an off day, tossing two interceptions and only completing 19 of 28 for 209 yards.

In the late games, the Giants hosted the Patriots in a matchup that pitted one of the few coaches in the league with a winning record against Bill Belichick; with Tom Coughlin 3-0, including the two Super Bowl rings he stole from his old friend. This was the game of the season so far, back and forth throughout before a 54-yard field goal with 1 second left gave the Patriots the 27-26 win. The Giants (now 5-5) will look back at a few plays that cost them the game, including a sack of Manning in the fourth quarter that cost them a shot at three points, the overturned touchdown catch by Odell Beckham, poor time management that gave Brady plenty of time for the comeback, a missed interception on the final Patriots drive that would have sealed it and failing to stop the Pats on a fourth and 10. It is the third game already this season the Giants could, and probably should, have won. The Patriots, on the other hand, will feel good at 9-0, having essentially already won the AFC East, and having beaten one of their fiercest rivals in the league. But they lost key receiver Edelman in the first half and will hope he doesn’t have an extended stay on the sideline. In the other late games, the Chiefs made it two losses in a row for the Broncos (29-13) as Peyton Manning played one of the worst games of his career before being benched. The Vikings dented the Raider’s playoff hopes with a 30-14 hiding that pushed them a game above the struggling Packers in the NFC North.

The Sunday night game saw Seattle hosting Arizona in a game that would go a long way to determining the winner of the NFC West. Arizona jumped out to a 19-0 lead, but a Seattle touchdown before halftime gave them a sliver of hope. After trading scores, Seattle’s defense stripped Carson Palmer on two straight possessions, scoring touchdowns on each turnover to forge ahead 29-25. Palmer then led the Cardinals on an 83-yard touchdown drive to retake the lead and then scored a long touchdown by Ellington on the next drive to punctuate the win, though they needed to recover an onside kick to preserve the final 39-32 win. Palmer threw for 363 yards and 3 touchdowns, though he also threw an interception and lost two fumbles. Russell Wilson, on the other hand, was 14-32 for 240 yards with a touchdown and a pick, earning a measly QBR of 13.8. At 4-5, Seattle is now in danger of missing out on the playoffs altogether, while the Cardinals have essentially wrapped up the NFC West. Monday night matched the 8-0 Bengals against the 3-5 Texans, and has often been the case in recent years, the Texans upset their Northern neighbors. The Bengals offense suddenly wilted under consistent pressure, only able to muster two first field goals in a dull 10-6 loss, with Bengal’s killer T. J. Yates coming on to lead the Texans on the game-winning fourth quarter drive.

Some thoughts on Week 10

Why Bad Teams Lose (and occasionally win anyway)
The Jets head coach Todd Bowles might want to take some lessons in math. After going for it on fourth down twice in the last six minutes inside their opponents 25, Bowles lost the game 22-17. Last time I checked, three + three = six, and thus a 23-22 win. On top of that was the inability to pound it in from the two or, from a different vantage point, to get the 13 yards they needed to take the lead after a blocked punt. Yet it wasn’t just Bowles decision making that cost the Jets, as Fitzpatrick had a below par game, the defense spotted the Bills a huge lead and a mix-up on fourth down cost them the game late. Detroit did their best to blow their game late against the Packers as well, after going up 8 points with a minute and a half left, their kicker missed his SECOND extra point of the game. The Packers then drove down the field and scored, only to just miss their own two-point conversion. The resulting onside kick headed toward the man the Lions would most trust to hold onto it (Calvin Johnson), though he somehow bumbled it and gave it to the Packers. Their short drive got it into field goal range, but the 51 yarder was side footed and the Lions won at Green Bay for the first time in three decades.

The loss of the day, though, goes to a coach who doesn’t seem to garner enough scrutiny, even as he appears to lose more close games than any other in the league. Jason Garrett has now overseen seven straight losses for a Cowboys team that came into the season as prohibitive Super Bowl favorites. Sure they lost their starting quarterback and best receiver, and then one of their top two running backs, but they have been either ahead or tied in the fourth quarter of six of those seven losses. The team has too many turnovers, too many penalties, too many key mistakes, poor time management, the inability to hold leads, a really average defense and a penchant for blowing games late. Garrett’s record as the head coach now stands at 43-38 and he has played a mere two playoff games, winning won (they probably should have lost) and losing one (they probably should have won). But let’s look more closely at those seasons. In his first three, the Cowboys finished 8-8 and one game out of the playoffs. In each of those seasons, they played an NFC East rival with the chance to seal the division and a playoff birth in the final game. And they lost each of those games. Last year, he did lead them to a division title and a playoff birth, but they were lucky to beat the Lions after a bad call and really should have won the game against the Packers (even as he had no control over “the catch that wasn’t.”). Garrett cannot be fired after all the injury woes the Cowboys have suffered, but I think there is a strong argument that this should be his final season in charge of the underperforming Dallas Cowboys. Given Jerry Jones’ decision making since his ex-friend Jimmy Johnson left, one assumes he will sign him to a lifetime contract after they just miss out on the playoffs by losing the final game of the season.

Is Peyton Manning Done?
Peyton Manning had one of his worst games as a professional quarterback on Sunday, going 5 for 20 for 35 yards and 4 (no, that is not a typo) interceptions. He was also sacked twice. It was such a bad performance Manning earned a quarterback rating (not QBR) of 0.0. It has of course emerged today that he has a plantar fascia issue that affected his performance, but serious questions must still be asked. Overall this season, he has 9 touchdown passes versus 17 interceptions, has a completion percentage under 60 (59.9), is only averaging 6.77 yards per attempt and has a QBR (45.0) that ranks 29th. The truth is, besides the impressive game against the Packers, Manning has been among the most mediocre (or bad, if you like) quarterbacks in the league since the middle of last season. His body is falling apart on him, his throws (which were never tight spirals) are like flailing ducks half the time and he is getting close to doubling his touchdown total with interceptions.

It used to be that teams could win championships with a dominant defense and a passable offense, but those days appear to be long gone. Seattle is the closest we’ve seen, but their dominance over the past few years has owed a lot to one of the better statistical quarterbacks in the league and a dominant rusher in Marshall Lynch. Since that offense’s performance has declined this year, so have their fortunes. The Broncos might have flattered to deceive with their early start, but this does not look like a team that can win a playoff game, much less go to and win the Super Bowl.

Maybe a few week’s rest will allow Manning to come back stronger, but his performance in this game and the late interception that cost them the comeback against the Colts, together with his overall performance this season, fails to give one much confidence that he is doing much else this year besides breaking some more records and, in a small way, tarnishing the tail end of a spectacular career. The solitary Super Bowl victory is the presumptive reason he returned, but I believe that ship sailed two seasons ago in a Super Bowl that was over before it had really begun. On a more positive note, many great quarterbacks from Dan Marino to Dan Fouts to Richard Todd (just kidding) would have gladly taken that one ring and called it a career.

Are these Panthers for Real?
The Panthers now stand at 9-0 and in firm control of the NFC South. If they keep playing like this, they should also take home field advantage into the playoffs. Last year, their 7-8-1 record led many to question whether division winners should even get an automatic spot in the playoffs, before they beat the Cardinals in the Wild Card game 27-16 and gave the Seahawks a scare before ending up on the wrong side of a 31-17 scoreline. And lest us forget, this is the same team that went 12-4 two years ago before losing to the Niners 23-10 in the divisional round. So, are the Panthers now a serious Super Bowl contender? They have had some quality wins, including a 27-23 road win over the Seahawks, a 27-16 victory over the Eagles, a 29-26 win over the Colts and a 37-29 victory over the Packers. But those wins are looking a little less impressive as time goes on and we see flaws in each of those other teams. Their other opponents have been more suspect, but nine wins in a row is nine wins in a row. Looking forward, they face the Redskins (H), Cowboys (A), Saints (A), Falcons (H), Giants (A), Falcons again (A) and Bucs (H). They could easily fall back into the pack if they let up at all, but those are all winnable games.

In total defense, the Panthers rank a middle-of-the-road 11th, the same position they earn in points allowed per game (20.4). They are 12th in total passing yards allowed and 13th against the run. Offensively, they rank 16th in total yards; 27th in passing yards per game (216.6) but tied for first with Buffalo in rushing (142.3 yards per game). Yet even with those yardage numbers, they are fourth in points scored per game (28.5), behind only the Patriots, Arizona and Cincinnati. And that is the number that matters most. One reason they have scored so many points on a relatively average offense is their plus six turnover margin, good for third in the league behind only the Giants and Patriots. The incredible statistic here is they are tied for 17th in giveaways, with 12, but have forced the fourth most takeaways including a league-leading 13 interceptions (tied with two others).

Cam Newton might be one of the biggest reasons for the impressive first half of the season, though one might be surprised to learn that he is having his worst statistical season by just about any measure. His QBR (52.9) is the lowest in his five-year career, his completion percentage is down (53.7 versus 58.8 overall), his yards per carry (4.7) is below his career average of 5.4, and his yards per attempt (7.4), though better than the previous two season, is below his first two years. His TD/INT (14/9) is more or less on par with his career (91-63), though he has yet to lose a fumble this season. The difference then is his leadership skills and ability to play better when the game is on the line. Newton’s number do not put him among the elite quarterbacks in the league, at least this season, but there is still a perception among most football experts that he is now among the best in the league and has the tools to raise his game to the next level.

On the evidence so far, one would say the Panthers are for real, but might not be quite ready for the big time unless the defense improves and Newton plays marginally better going forward. On the other hand, if they keep getting key turnovers, continue to score at their current rate and play defense a little better, they could certainly go all the way.

Playoff Picture
It appears the playoff picture got a little murkier this week. For one, the Packers lost for the third game in a row and seem to be an offense without an identity. That appears to put the Carolina Panthers at the head of the pack out of the NFC, though I still wonder about their ability to get all the way to the Super Bowl, as mentioned above. In the AFC, the Broncos were so profligate offensively that the unthinkable happened – they benched Peyton Manning (after he completed one more pass (5) than interceptions (4) in his first 20 throws of the game). The Bengals finally lost. And the team that has represented the NFC in the past two Super Bowls is now 4-5; Seattle in case you’ve been living in a cave without Internet or cable reception.

The Patriots are still the cream of the AFC and, realistically, of the NFL, and the competition around them seems to be crumbling. Is a second Super Bowl appearance in a row in the offing? The Steelers could still have something to say about it, though I am doubtful Big Ben can carry them far enough on his rather sizable shoulders. The Bengals are still 8-1 after a one-off loss on Monday night, but have never proven themselves in the playoffs. And Denver is not moribund quite yet. One other team to watch might be an odd choice, but the Colts have shown some of their old magic on occasion this season, and are really shooting to finally get past the Patriots and to the big game.

In the NFC, the Panthers are the only remaining undefeated team and, barring a late season collapse, could be playing all their playoff games at home. The Vikings are in the ascendancy as well, and now have a one game lead over the Packers after winning their fifth in a row. With their running game and defense, decent play from Bridgewater should keep them in the conversation for a potential Super Bowl appearance. Meanwhile, the up and down Giants have arguably the best quarterback in the NFC at present and with all of their offensive weapons could be a team to watch, assuming they even make the playoffs. And don’t count out those Cardinals, who have the most explosive offense in the NFC, if not the league.

At present, I still like the Patriots to come out of the AFC and will switch from the Packers to the Cardinals for the moment. There is still a lot of football to go this season, though, and things can change quickly.

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