Sunday was one of the most bizarrely entertaining days of NFL action in history. It featured some thrilling finishes, major surprises, controversial decisions and calls, and shakeups in the standings that cannot be scripted.
It also marked the first Sunday in years I’ve spent watching the NFL without internet access. Normally I’m quite active on the message boards and Twitter, but because I’ve been without web access at home since Thursday (thanks Comcast!), my viewing was strangely quiet. I kind of liked it, able to make my own opinions on games without influence of others and focus more on action than reaction. I might try it again sometime and would encourage y’all to do it too.
$.01--I got into a Twitter fight with a frequent reader and respectable football thinker this week about the Cardinals. I maintained they are for real, a dominating defense with just enough opportunism on offense to make them dangerous. My sparring partner derided the Cardinals as being products of freakish luck, certainly unable to sustain their undefeated record thanks to lousy quarterback and offensive line play. I’m not normally one to gloat (much), but after Sunday’s performance I will welcome all to what has been a very lonely Cardinals bandwagon.
The 24-0 first half was punctuated by what is becoming trademark Cardinals football. The final play of the half saw the Eagles with the ball at the Arizona three-yard line, poised to claw back into the game with a late score. Instead, Kerry Rhodes thumped an oblivious Mike Vick and forced a fumble which James Sanders scooped up and took to the house for a 98-yard fumble return that pushed the margin from 17-0 to 24-0. Eagles Coach Andy Reid’s blank bemusement spoke volumes.
I’ll admit to expecting the Eagles to mount a spirited comeback in the second half, even after having their heart wrenched at the end of the first half. Arizona would have none of that, allowing just two field goals while grounding and pounding their way to an easy victory. Ryan Williams got some sweet redemption, racking up some strong runs down the stretch to atone for last week’s near-catastrophic fumble. Kevin Kolb had a strong day quarterbacking against his old team, while the man he was traded for, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, got flagged twice and beaten for a long Andre Roberts catch-and-run that got called back. Kolb averaged almost 10 yards per attempt and threw two TDs while reintroducing the football to Larry Fitzgerald, always a good decision.
But the story for Arizona is defense. The Cardinals kept Philadelphia out of the end zone. They sacked Mike Vick five times and hit him on at least eight other attempts. They forced three fumbles, all of which the Cards recovered and took advantage of for points. In back to back weeks Ray Horton’s unit has allowed just one touchdown to New England and Philadelphia, holding each to less than 20 points. This D is for real, people, and as long as they keep it rolling, there is no reason to think the Cardinals cannot sustain this impressive start.
$.02--The Sunday Night affair was an entertaining contest between the Patriots and Ravens. In a case of sweet vengeance that must have made Ray Lewis tear up a little, rookie kicker Justin Tucker made a chip shot field goal as time expired to lift the Ravens to a 31-30 comeback win over the Patriots.
This was a game notable for a couple of things. First, the ability of both teams to move the ball on long scoring drives that showed balance between run and pass. Starting at the end of the first quarter the teams launched five touchdown drives in six possessions, three by the Ravens and two by New England that went more than 80 yards. Joe Flacco and Baltimore tacked on another 92-yard drive to close to 30-28, finding Torrey Smith for his second touchdown on what has to be the most emotionally draining day of his life. Flacco wasn’t done tearing apart the Patriots defense, quickly driving them into position for Tucker’s field goal. I’ve been hard on Flacco throughout his career, but in the last two contests against New England the Ravens QB has been masterful. He was completely in command, throwing strikes and keeping a great tempo which the Patriots improved defense stood little chance of slowing down. It was one of the best quarterback performances I’ve seen against a Belichick defense, and it raised the Ravens to 2-1 while dropping the Patriots to the unfamiliar depths of 1-2.
Also notable were the penalties, all 24 of them. They might want to check the umpire for elbow issues after all the flags he threw. Early on the officials were too passive and saw a physical game between heated rivals nearly get away from them. In order to squelch that surliness, everything became a penalty. Unfortunately for both teams, nearly every one of the flags was deserved; I’m not sure I’ve seen more clutching, post-whistle jostling, and yapping in a game not involving the Raiders in my lifetime. This was a good test for the replacement officials and the NFL’s mandate for coaches and players to show them more respect. And while there were a couple of missteps, the replacements largely earned the respect by calling it tightly and correctly. Fans of both teams will vehemently disagree with that assessment, but both are so accustomed to having the official kowtow to their aura of infallibility. I found it rather refreshing seeing penalties actually getting called instead of the NBA-esque star treatment the Pats and Ravens both normally receive. Bill Belichick, who grabbed an official after the game apparently trying to protest Tucker’s close-shave kick, obviously felt differently.
$.03--Detroit and Tennessee played one of the wildest games in NFL history, which ultimately went to the Titans 44-41 in overtime. While it was exciting, it was not a work of art.
The Titans broke their season-long first half TD drought on a gadget play on a punt return. Nate Washington caught a touchdown pass off of the back of Lions defender Jacob Lacey, who never did get pointed in the right direction as Washington raced to the end zone. Chris Johnson had four runs that lost at least three yards. Matt Stafford got injured while chasing down a fumble return for a touchdown on a play where Alterraun Verner just flat out stole the ball from Brandon Pettigrew. Detroit scored a touchdown with 18 seconds left, then recovered a beautiful onside kick that somehow caught the Titans unaware. They scored again on the final play when linebacker Akeem Ayers tapped the ball directly to Titus Young for the touchdown. There were questionable calls from the officials, and some other officiating gaffes that gave extended life to both teams. The teams combined for over 1000 yards and 54 first downs.
This game made my head spin. There were runs of points and momentum that were more like a basketball game than football. Lions RB Mikel Leshoure made his debut a strong one with 100 yards rushing and a touchdown along with another 34 yards receiving, albeit one yard short of what they really needed. Jake Locker played far and away the best game of his young career, carving up the Lions for 378 yards that were punctuated with several long plays and third down conversions while avoiding the head-scratching throws and not getting sacked.
Once again the Lions struggled in the red zone, and it ultimately ended their day when another iffy coaching decision by Jim Schwartz backfired on the final play, a confused and half-hearted QB sneak on 4th and 1 when a field goal would have extended the game. Matt Stafford continues to have major issues when the field is shorter, and Scott Linehan’s offensive calls go from aggressive to predictable when it’s 3rd down on the opponent’s side of the field. Jason Hanson kicking four field goals is only good for his fantasy owners, not the Lions. This team needs to convert more opportunities and leave fewer points on the field. Opposing offenses have figured out how to seize those same sorts of opportunities against the Lions, who remain undisciplined (10 penalties, plus two declined and two offsetting) and prone to unacceptable levels of missed tackles and blown coverages. The Lions sit alone in last place in the NFC North, and if they don’t begin to address the numerous issues that continue to plague them, they’re going to be there for a long time.
$.04--Minnesota shocked the world by hanging San Francisco with a loss. Perhaps more impressive, it was a game where Minnesota played really well more than San Francisco playing poorly. Minnesota did exactly what teams must do to the powerful 49ers--strike early and force them play catch up. Christian Ponder was poised, escaping pressure and scrambling for a 23-yard TD that made it 14-3. Extending the lead to two scores was a huge play, and the way Ponder did it, slicing and dicing his way past the vaunted linebackers and laying out for the score, was a defiant statement in the face of Jim Harbaugh’s roughneck style.
The 49ers showed their mettle with the opening drive of the 2nd half. Really it started with the opening kickoff, which Kyle Williams nearly took to the house. The Vikings defense held the Niners to a field goal, but the quick success indicated that the Niners were back in business after a lethargic first half. They followed that up with a quick stop and ensuing TD to close to 17-13, sucking the life out of the Metrodome faithful. At that point it looked like it was black curtains for the Vikings. I wrote down in my notes that this is why the Niners are the best team in the league, trying to anticipate the story line I expected to unfold.
But the home team came to play and showed some mettle of its own. Ponder straddled the line between effective game manager and playmaker, mixing up his targets with crisp, accurate throws across the formation. The one-handed TD reception by Kyle Rudolph, while clearly offensive pass interference, was an excellent communication between QB and receiver at just the right time. The Vikings secondary played far and away its best game of the year, helped by some ineffective routes and drops by Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree down the stretch. In short, it just seemed like the Vikings wanted this game more than the Niners. You might recall that a certain someone said the Vikings could get out to an unexpectedly big start, and this certain someone is feeling better about that statement.
$.05--That sound you heard Thursday night was the collective dropping of jaws from the football cognoscenti. Not only did the New York Giants win in Carolina despite not having Hakeem Nicks, David, Diehl, or Ahmad Bradshaw, they laid a whipping on the Panthers that was so ferocious, so complete that PETA nearly got involved. It was that cruel for the Panthers, who were seen by many (myself included) as ready to take a big step forward in Cam Newton’s second season.
Any step the Panthers have taken has been backwards. They came out completely flat and overconfident in a Week 1 loss to a more physical, more focused Buccaneers team. A Week 2 win over the struggling Saints convinced me that the Tampa Bay game was an aberration, a lesson learned. After watching the Giants so thoroughly dominate all phases of the game from beginning to end, it’s pretty clear the victory over New Orleans is the red herring.
I’m tempted to chalk this game up to the Giants being so much better, but I covered that last week in their breathtaking comeback against the Bucs. To me this game was about the failures of the Panthers. It starts with Cam Newton, though he is far from the only problem. The Giants, like the Bucs before them, took away the easy stuff and tempted Newton to make more high-risk/reward plays with the confidence that their pressure could thwart most of the reward. They made him a pocket passer as much as possible, and Newton still has a way to go in that aspect of his game. The inability to lean on the running game to ease pressure clearly crushed the Panthers game plan, as Mike Tolbert saw more snaps than Deangelo Williams while Jonathan Stewart sat out. His receivers did not get great separation against an injury-ravaged secondary, and this is a problem that isn’t going away’ other than Steve Smith, the Panthers wideouts are not quick off the line and are better at more intermediate and longer routes, not the quick-hit passes that can blunt a pass rush and cross up the coverage.
…and then there’s the Carolina defense. As several astute football minds have pointed out, building a 4-3 defense around speedy linebackers is a recipe for disaster. Giants RB Andre Brown weighs more than both Jon Beason and Thomas Davis, and it showed when they tried to slow him down. The front four is unimpressive and lacks a dynamic player, which puts all the pressure on the backers. Against teams like the Giants, with a smart quarterback, a power runner, and receivers that aren’t afraid to operate in the middle of the field, that’s simply asking too much of even the very talented Panthers backers. The offense will have better days and will be able to outscore some teams, but this Carolina defense sure looks like something that will not be a quick fix.
$.06--With the Niners loss, there will be a new team atop most NFL power polls this week. I strongly suspect you will see the Atlanta Falcons ascending to the #1 spot after they pounded the previously undefeated Chargers in San Diego. This was the most lopsided affair of all the Sunday games thanks to the Falcons continuing to play sharply on both sides of the ball.
Matt Ryan kept his name on the short list of legit MVP candidates with a very strong performance: 30-for-40, 275 yards, 3 TDs. He did throw a red zone INT the only blemish on what was otherwise a commanding performance. His three TDs went to three different receivers, once again displaying Ryan’s confidence in using the whole field and his whole arsenal of impressive weapons. I love the offensive wrinkles new OC Dirk Koetter has implemented, going at a quicker pace and taking more chances to let playmakers make plays. It suits Ryan perfectly, and it keeps Julio Jones, Roddy White, and Tony Gonzalez all engaged all the time.
The Atlanta defense was arguably even more impressive. Safety Thom DeCoud picked off two passes and recovered a fumble. Fellow safety William Moore also forced a turnover as the Falcons repeatedly punched San Diego in the mouth and laughed at their bloodied nose. They turned Philip Rivers into a whining, sniveling finger pointer as they discombobulated the home team early and often. Atlanta is the most consistently strong team I’ve seen so far this year.
Offensive: Maurice Jones-Drew. The Jaguars running back did what he always seems to do against the Colts, marauding for 177 yards and a touchdown as Jacksonville notched their first win of the year. His 59-yard TD changed the flow of the game after Indianapolis had jumped out early. So much for needing preseason reps. Jamaal Charles, Matt Schaub, and Matt Ryan belong in the conversation.
Defensive: JJ Watt. The Texans defensive end notched 2.5 sacks, batted down two more passes (that’s 8 in 3 weeks), and continually harassed Peyton Manning as the Texans got the win in Denver. Tim Jennings and Thom DeCoud deserve mention.
Special Teams: Darius Reynaud. Tennessee’s return man broke one return for a touchdown, but that wasn’t his best play. He also threw a touchdown pass (technically a lateral) on Music City Miracle 2.0, engineering the Titans first TD.
Assistant Coach: Kevin Gilbride. The Giants OC dialed up a masterful plan in their evisceration of the Panthers on Thursday night, seizing control from the first snap and never taking the foot off the gas.
The Best of Times, The Worst of Times: Alan Lowry, Titans Special Teams Coordinator. Lowry dialed up Music City Miracle 2.0 in the first half to get the Titans on the board, a cross-field throwback on the punt return that caught the Lions woefully out of position. Darius Reynaud then stole the momentum back at precisely the right time with a 105-yard kickoff return that was extremely well blocked. But Rob Bironas missed two field goals, and the onside kick coverage that allowed the game-tying TD was simply brutal.
$.08--5 NFL Quickies
1. I caught some of the ESPN pregame noise and got the distinct impression that Keyshawn Johnson was under the influence of something. He was almost incoherent and vacillated wildly between being recalcitrant and goofy. It’s already the weakest of the four Sunday morning network shows (CBS, Fox, NFL, ESPN) and this week proved that both Keyshawn and Mike Ditka (stubborn and uninformed as always) need to be replaced.
2. Bears corner Tim Jennings continues to play extremely well in the early season. His deflection led to a Major Wright INT/TD that iced the Rams, the second time this year Jennings has tipped a ball to a teammate for an INT. Look for Jennings to earn a Pro Bowl berth if he can keep up his aggressive, active play. I wouldn’t argue if he’s Defensive Player of the Month for September.
3. Josh Freeman’s line at the two minute warning: 6-for-20, 39 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT. His second pass of the day went for a TD, and Freeman did not complete a pass that traveled longer than four yards until he hit Vincent Jackson for a big gain on 4th and 9 at the two minute warning on a play where the Bucs initially intended to punt and concede. Something about playing hard every minute, right Coach Schiano…?
4. Robert Griffin is electrifying, but he really needs to learn to pick his spots and protect himself better. Nobody can take the kind of pounding he does on a weekly basis and last 16 weeks a year for multiple years. See: Michael Vick. Nice win for the Bengals.
5. Two very impressive streaks came to an end on Sunday. Bengals RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis fumbled for the first time in his NFL career, spanning 590 touches. And Niners QB Alex Smith threw his first interception since Thanksgiving, a span of 239 straight attempts without an INT. Neither will come within 50% of those efforts ever again.
Two bonus quickies:
1. There are two winless teams. Most people are not surprised that Cleveland is 0-3, but if you had the Saints at that record, go buy some lottery tickets and invest in a crazy web-based startup. I knew the Saints were going to fall back (I forecast a 6-10 season) but I had no idea they would be this bad. Blowing a big lead to the previously awful Chiefs is indicative of major problems in New Orleans.
2. Hopefully we have seen the end of the “icing the kicker” phenomenon after what happened in Miami. The Dolphins blocked Nick Folk’s potential game-winner in overtime, only to have it waived off because of a sideline timeout. Folk gets the reprieve and nails it, giving the Jets an improbable comeback-from-ahead divisional road win. That’s the second time in his career Folk has won a game on those exact circumstances, having the blocked kick negated by an icing timeout and then booting the winner.
$.09--5 College/Draft Quickies
1. Did some scouting breakdown of Wisconsin RB Montee Ball, who is not having as strong of a season behind a vastly lesser line than he had in front of him a year ago. I like Ball’s forward lean and the way he finishes runs with power and determination, and he has improved nicely in pass protection. But his lack of vision is readily apparent, and he doesn’t have enough shiftiness to make things happen past the first level unless the run is exceptionally blocked. Ball, who changed the pronunciation of his name to mon-TAY, is a legit contemporary NFL back but at this point I wouldn’t go higher than a 4th round pick to get him.
2. Also spent some time watching tape of Ohio State DT Jonathan Hankins. I’ll say it up front--I think he’ll be a better pro than Utah’s Star Lotulelei. Hankins has a more consistently quick first step and is a more natural pass rusher. There is more than a little Kevin Williams to his game. I’ve seen four games now, two from last year and two this season, and other than some struggles with cut blocks and recognizing trap blocks, Hankins is ready to start on most NFL D-lines right now. Sure looks like a top 10 pick, though this draft appears top-heavy on defensive front 7 talent.
3. Kansas State stunned Oklahoma in Norman, a game that highlights the amazing descent of Sooners QB Landry Jones and his NFL draft prospects. A top 20 fixture in nearly every preseason mock draft, Jones has painfully regressed to the point where he appears undraftable. The arm has never been great, and those kinds of QBs must have excellent decision making, pinpoint accuracy, and preternatural poise. Jones has displayed none of those qualities, and it was never more evident than Saturday night. His KSU counterpart, Collin Klein, doesn’t have half the God-given talent of Jones but is a more effective player because he’s unflappably confident and knows how to make plays. If the draft were today, I suspect both would be 6th round picks. For Klein that’s a blessing, for Jones a near-unprecedented (hello Jevan Snead!) free-fall.
4. At what point does Michigan coach Brady Hoke pull the plug on Denard Robinson as a quarterback and put in someone remotely familiar with all the things Shoelace cannot do in the passing game, which is essentially everything except throwing the ball hard. Hoke has to see that he is wasting Robinson by asking him to run the complete offense, and the supporting talent is wasted because Robinson cannot properly utilize them. The loss to Notre Dame was an embarrassing cascade of quarterbacking ineptitude not seen since, well…since three weeks ago when Michigan played Alabama. You did recruit a backup plan, right?
5. Hey Buffalo Wild Wings in Webster, TX--I know this is (sort of) Aggie country, but on what figures to be the best night of college football all year you might want to curb the TAMU bias down a little. Michigan/Notre Dame was on two screens, while LSU/Auburn got one big screen and a corner TV. Oklahoma/Kansas State got the same treatment as the SEC heavyweight bout despite a big contingent of Sooner backers. The Florida State/Clemson game, arguably the biggest of a big night, was nowhere to be found. But we could watch the Aggies beat up on South Carolina State on six big screens and two lesser TVs, plus the audio feed. That game went from 14-7 to 42-7 in less than a quarter of football, while two top 15 teams squared off completely out of sight. It wouldn’t kill you to change one screen. It also wouldn’t kill you to speed up the service, either.
$.10--This cent initially started out as part of the college/draft section, but I quickly lost control and it spiraled into its own entity. Saturday was a fantastic day to be a fan of the little guy in college football.
This seems counterintuitive. As the BCS raises the stakes with their ever-expanding mega-conferences, the divide between the haves and have-nots should be growing. Instead it appears to be shrinking, and it’s not necessarily just that the little guys are getting better players than they used to. The BCS power schools still gobble up about 490 of the top 500 high school seniors every year. It’s not that successful coaches stick around at lesser programs to keep the system in place; Larry Fedora (North Carolina), Jerry Kill (Minnesota), Brady Hoke (Michigan), Kevin Sumlin (Texas A&M) and Brian Kelly (Notre Dame) are among the many recent émigrés from quick-hit success at non-BCS programs to big time college ball, a list that grows every year. The facilities arms race has escalated far beyond what a MAC or Sun Belt school can possibly offer, even though many programs at the “mid-major” level have upped the ante there as well. When I was a student at Ohio University in the early 1990s, the Bobcats training facilities and weight room were inferior to many of the top high school programs in the state. Now the Cats (44-10 winners over Norfolk State) have a great new facility with the latest in equipment and training technology, but it pales compared to Ohio State or LSU or even bottom-feeding BCS programs like Illinois and Kansas.
The Illini and Jayhawks were among the many big boys victimized on Saturday. Louisiana Tech blew out Illinois 52-24 in Illinois, while Kansas got tripped up by Northern Illinois. Central Michigan won at Iowa 32-31 after a week of Chips fans calling for their own head coach to be fired. UAB and UTEP legitimately scared Ohio State and Wisconsin, respectively. Louisiana Monroe, already victors over Arkansas, lost a 47-42 barn-burner to Baylor a week after losing at Auburn on a Hail Mary pass that ended the first half. Western Michigan, fresh off a week where they nearly upset Minnesota, thumped Big East member UConn. Ball State shocked Big East bowler USF a week after beating Indiana for the third year in a row.
I wish I could come up with a concrete reason why these events keep happening. Maybe the little guys get the David vs. Goliath complex, a la the NCAA basketball tourney. Perhaps the people who evaluate high school talent overestimate the players headed to big school and underestimate the lesser recruits. Gimmicky schemes are all the rage, and some just match up well with others no matter the disparity of talent. I like to think there is some sort of karmic sense of football justice going on, but that’s probably a bit delusional and dreamy. But I’ll happily keep taking all this #MACtion.
Via Jeff Risdon/RealGM
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