Tuesday, November 03, 2015

NFL Week 8 Wrap: Seattle and Saints Get Back to .500; Dallas Crisis Worsens; Bengals, Pats, Denver and Carolina Remain Undefeated

The Games

Many were starting to talk about a Miami Dolphins renaissance after the team won their first two games after axing coach Joe Philbin, but the Patriots brought the expectations back down to earth after absolutely pummeling the Dolphins 36-7, to move to 7-0 on the season. In the early Sunday game, the Chiefs moved to 3-5 after putting an equally impressive pounding on the reeling Lions 45-10. Apparently changing an offensive coordinator hours before taking a flight across the Atlantic is not enough to solve the Lions woes. A series of close 1 p.m. games came down to the final moments, with the Saints, Ravens, Vikings and Bengals all able to pull out nail biters. The Chargers lost on a last second field to the Ravens, who have suffered all six losses this season with a chance to drive for the tying or winning score in their final possession. Both now stand at 2-6 and pretty much out of playoff contention.  The Vikings scored 13 in the fourth quarter to sneak past the 2-5 Bears 23-20 and move to 5-2. The Giants and Saints engaged in a shootout to end all shootouts (more on this below), but some questionable calls by the Giants down the stretch and a costly penalty on a late punt meant they ultimately lost 52-49 on a last second 50-yard kick from a Saints spot kicker making his first attempt for the team.

In Pittsburgh, the return of Roethlisberger was derailed by an injury to running back Bell as the Bengals moved to 7-0 for the first time in franchise history (16-10). In a battle of after thoughts, the Texans moved to 3-5 after beating AFC South rivals Tennessee 20-6. The Niners season continued to stall as they lost to the surging St. Louis Rams 27-6 after another outing to forget for Kaepernick (though he did avoid throwing any interceptions). The Rams got 100 yards from Todd Gurley yet again and Nick Foles was efficient if not spectacular going 14 of 23 for 191 yards and a touchdown. The Falcons, on the other hand, took another step backwards from their early start, losing 23-20 to Tampa Bay in overtime. Atlanta has lost two of its last three and their offensive production has declined rather precipitously. Meanwhile, the Cardinals ran an impressive second half, where they outscored the Browns 24 to 0, to a 34-20 win, and moved to 6-2.

There were only two late games, the Jets at Oakland and the Seahawks at Dallas. The Jets fell behind 20-6 at halftime after losing their starting quarterback, before a late comeback was derailed by several head scratchers from new head coach Todd Bowles, who punted the ball on fourth and 7 with 3:19 left down by 14 points before running a draw on third and 21 in his next possession. However, trying to win with one of the stupidest quarterbacks in all of football is tough and Geno Smith’s performance appeared to be the proximate cause of their ultimate 34-20 loss to the Raiders (even as he went 27 of 42 for 254 yards, with 2 TDs and a very costly INT). Smith was knocked out for a couple plays in their final drive and Fitzpatrick had to come back in with an injured left thumb f before Geno returned to throw three straight incompletes to seal the win for the Raiders, though his final throw at the goal line really should have been caught by Brandon Marshall. The Seahawks and Cowboys played out a surprising defensive battle, given the Dallas struggles on that side of the ball most of the year, with Seattle finally putting together two quality quality drives in a row down 12-10 late in the fourth quarter to take a 13-12 lead with 1:06 left on the clock. The Cowboys were out of timeouts when Cassel started the drive on his own 20, having gone 13 for 22 for under 100 yards against the tough Seattle defense. Besides earning a 15-yard roughing the passer penalty, Cassel looked like the backup he is on that final drive, with three poor throws, a sack and a knocked down pass on fourth and 21. The Cowboys are now in real danger of missing out on the playoffs after such high expectations coming into the season while the Seahawks moved back to 500.

Sunday night brought us another marques matchup, pitting the undefeated Denver Broncos and their impressive defense against the undefeated Packers and the best quarterback in football. Defense won this game big for the Broncos, as they cruised to a 29-10 victory, smothering Aaron Rodgers while Manning had his best game of the season. Monday night brought us the last undefeated team in the NFC, the Panthers, versus a struggling Colts team at 3-4, with their star quarterback Andrew Luck suddenly looking incredibly ordinary with the 30th QBR in the league (38.3), completing only 56.2 percent of his passes for a 6.66 average with 11 TDs versus 9 INTs. Rumours claim he might be playing with bruised or broken ribs and maybe that explains the problems, but it has certainly been noteworthy that they have been a better team through the first seven games when he was on the bench. Luck continued his struggles through the first three quarters, only accruing 30 yards in passing offense. Cam Newton was not that much better in the pouring rain of the first half, but two strong drives led the Panthers to a 23-6 lead midway through the fourth quarter. The missed extra point on the last Carolina score gave the Colts a whiff of hope and suddenly Luck came alive, leading the team to 17 unanswered points and overtime. A number of calls went in their favor in the final drive of regulation and Luck was fortunate not to have his final pass before the tying field goal dropped rather than picked off in the end zone.

The Colts won the coin toss and a fine return to the 42 left them with a short field. Luck ran the ball on three straight plays and got them close to field goal range before a fine tackle on third down left them with a 50-yarder to take the lead. Vinatieri put it through the uprights to take a 26-23 lead. Newton then completed a long pass on the subsequent drive before a drop by Ted Ginn Jr. cost Newton and the Panthers a sure touchdown. The drop did not faze Newton, however, as he completed two straight passes on the way to a game tying field goal. On the next possession, Luck’s luck ran out as a deflected pass was intercepted and the Panthers went on to win on a 52-yard field goal. The Panthers moved to 7-0 while the Colts fell to 3-5, though they are sharing the lead in the AFC South.

Some thoughts on Week 8

A Shootout to Remember
In the third highest scoring game in the history of the NFL the Saints kicked a 50-yard field goal on the final play to beat the Giants 52-49. It was the first field goal attempt of a game where Drew Brees threw a record-tying seven touchdown passes for the Saints and Eli Manning six for the Giants. Brees went on 40/50 for 511 (without a single sack) and Manning went 30 of 41 for 350. The game included a number of records, including the seven touchdown passes, the combined 13 touchdown passes and for Brees, who now passed Manning for most games with at least five touchdown passes (10), while he became only the second QB in history to throw more than one 500 yard game. Among the other crazy stats: four running backs averaged over five yards a carry, 17 receivers caught passes, among the 18 accepted penalties, seven gave the Giants first downs, there were 64 first downs, 861 net passing yards and 1,030 combined total yards. For the Giants, it was yet another game they probably should have won – or at least got to overtime. A missed catch by an inexplicably open receiver on first down on their final drive led to a quick three and out and a punt sent right at a dangerous returner, who took it across midfield and then got an additional 15 on one of the costliest facemask penalties you will ever see. On that final Giants drive, after the missed completion and only five yards on second down, a run up the middle might have been enough to push extra time, but the Giants went for it and failed. Together with the two late collapses to start the season, the Giants have missed out on a chance to take control of the NFC East. The Saints, on the other hand, have won four of their last five and are now back in the playoff hunt after looking abject early in the season. It was ironically their tight win over the Cowboys in overtime a few weeks back that appears to have turned their season around, while piling pressure on the Cowboys.

Injuries Continue to Pile Up
The NFL is a physical league and one expects injuries to occur every week. However, as debates about the violence of the game and the potential long-term effects on players of the hits they deliver and receive, several additional injuries stood out this week. Right before halftime in the Seattle Cowboys game, the Seahawks Ricardo Lockett was hit on a punt return and appeared knocked out on the field, before being carted off with in protective headgear (he has ligament damage to his neck). The Jets suffered a huge blow, as their highflying quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick was out with a left thumb injury in the first half, replaced by the floundering Geno Smith. Both are day-to-day going forward, though Fitzpatrick will have to have surgery at some point in the future. The Steelers suffered a devastating injury to running back Le’Veon Bell, whose knee was bent back on a tackle by Bengal’s defender Burfict, which tore his MCL (the Bengal defender appeared to celebrate the injury in an ugly footnote to a physical game). Other injuries include Reggie Bush of the Niners (knee), Donnell of the Giants (neck), Bears running back Forte (knee), Haden of the Browns (concussion), Lions standout receiver Calvin Johnson (ankle), Saints running back Khiry Robinson (lower leg) and, in an otherwise heartening afternoon, a torn Achilles for veteran Steve Smith of the Ravens, who might have had his last catch as a pro (moving him to 10th on the all-time list).

The injury roster before this week even began is too long to recount here but includes the Chiefs losing Charles for the season, the Cowboys losing Romo and Bryant for the whole of this losing streak, the Steelers playing without Roethlisberger for several weeks and the Saints being without Brees for a couple of games. Injuries are to be expected, but there have been more to key players this season than in recent memory, derailing playoff teams and piling up the evidence that the long-term future of the sport might require some rules changes to stay viable.  

Peyton Silences Critics in Big Win
Manning is not the quarterback of two years ago, when the Broncos set all sorts of single season records on the way to a Super Bowl they ultimately lost. He might not even be the quarterback of last season who, for all his struggles, finished with 39 TD passes to 17 interceptions and 4,727 yards. And even as he again failed to secure a touchdown pass, and threw a pick, the 7-0 start for his Broncos team owes much to a night in which he completed 21 of his 29 passes for 340 yards (an impressive 11.7 average) and was not sacked. In the winning effort, Manning tied Brett Favre for most career victories at 186, and is certain to surpass that record in the coming weeks. I would still be worried about the overall dip this season, as he is still stuck on 7 TD tosses versus 11 interceptions, has his lowest completion percentage (62.8) since 2001, is on track to be sacked 27 times, has his worst quarterback rating since his rookie year (75.1) and a QBR of only 52.1 (21st in the league at present). But this game will certainly quiet some of his loudest critics, at least for a week.

The Broncos also improved their running game, running for 160 yards on 34 carries. Yet it was the defense that really impressed, holding arguably the greatest quarterback in the league to 77 yards on 14 of 22 passing (with three sacks) and the running game to a combined 90 yards on 21 carries. Yes, 77 yards! Even losing the turnover battle 1-0, they were still able to pull off the convincing 29-10 victory, with the Packers scores coming after important Broncos penalties. With this defense, a decent running game and a more controlled Manning, Denver has to be considered as a team that could surprise everyone and get back to the Super Bowl to give their quarterback a final shot at a second ring.

Separating the Pretenders from the Contenders
There is little doubt the Packers, Patriots, Broncos and Bengals should be teams to reckon with when the playoffs finally arrive. Beyond them, questions start to emerge. The Bengals impressed on the defensive end as Dalton had his first bad game of the year, but was still able to lead the team down the field for the go ahead touchdown on the way to a 16-10 victory over a Steelers team that finally got Big Ben back on the field. One has to believe this Bengals team is one that has real potential to do some damage this year throughout the playoffs. The Steelers, on the other hand, might struggle, even with Big Ben. This is made more troubling by a tough schedule the rest of the way and the prospects of facing either the Patriots or Denver if they want to get back to the AFC Championship Game. The Raiders look like a team that could slot into a Wild Card with some luck while the Jets are suddenly vulnerable after potentially losing Ryan Fitzpatrick for the foreseeable future. The Colts are, of course, still in the mix, as are Miami and Buffalo, given relative parity beyond the top teams. But none of those teams seem to be in the mix to represent their conference in Super Bowl L.

In the NFC, the Packers lost their first game of the season to the stalwart Denver defense, with some questions emerging about an offense that appears to be sputtering in recent weeks, though they might still be the cream of the NFC crop. The Panthers are now the only undefeated team in the division and suddenly become part of the Super Bowl conversation. This puts the Falcons in a precarious position of sorts, as they have lost two of their last three games to NFC South opponents, and their once high-flying offense has stuttered throughout the past three games, including the unimpressive 10-7 victory over the Titans. With the Panthers continuing to look good and the Saints surging, one wonders if the Falcons might be fully grounded before the season is done. The Cardinals look like the team to beat in the NFC West, though Seattle has slithered back to 4-4, giving them an outside shot at actually winning the division. The Cowboys are in real danger of missing out on the playoffs, though the continued inconsistency of their compatriots in the NFC East might give them a shot if they can win their next two before Romo’s return. Meanwhile, the Wild Card race is wide open, with the exception of the NFC East, with the Falcons at 6-2, the Vikings at 5-2, the Rams at 4-3, the Saints and Seattle at 4-4 and a few others at 3-4.

At present, I still like the Patriots to meet the Packers in the Super Bowl, but I think we have to start taking the Broncos and Bengals seriously in the AFC and consider the viability of Carolina or Arizona coming out of the NFC.

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