Tuesday, October 18, 2011

NFL Week 6: The Packers and the rest

The Colts and Packers are perfect through six games; everyone else seems jumbled somewhere in between. Mike Carey saves the NFL from itself.
  •  The Lions finally ran out of breaks: even though they forced two turnovers and had none themselves, two long runs by Frank Gore set up 10 points Detroit couldn't afford to give up. Stafford completed only 56% of his passes, and the Lions were just 2 of 15 on third downs. Their plan to force Alex Smith to win it for the 49ers did not work at all, and if it hadn't been for a surprise reversal on Nate Burleson's catch in the end zone, they might not even have been close in the fourth quarter. (Related note: at what point does the NFL realize that its ridiculous criteria for end zone catches is a safety issue for receivers? If a catch isn't made until the receiver comes to a complete stop with the ball and poses for at least 10 pictures, he's a legal target, and do we really want defenders trying to separate receiver from ball at a point where the play is instantly over once possession is established, or receivers falling into safety netting or photographers or whatever?)
  • San Francisco might be a seriously flawed team, but it's only the case on one side of the ball. As long as the defense keeps it close, they should have a chance to win those games. Alex Smith did throw a key touchdown pass, but he completed just over half of his passes, and only a couple for decent gains. If Detroit had added another score to their early 10-0 lead, it's doubtful the 49ers could have come back. You can't build a winning team without a passing game in the NFL; Harbaugh will learn that come playoff time. (The 49ers are a lock; I doubt any other NFL West team will win 5 games.) Penalties might also be a problem. This isn't the kind of offense that can convert 2nd-and-20 or 3rd-and-17 more than once a month, not when you know their best play is a draw to Gore.
  • Carolina had the chance to make a statement in Atlanta, and the statement was "still a bad team." Cam Newton had a just-a-rookie game for a change, the defense still isn't any good, and there isn't much to suggest that the Panthers have a running game aside from Newton. Granted, you can't fix a 1-15 team in one season, but Newton's performance over the last few weeks may have caused people to forget that. Carolina is still a bad team in a weaker-than-expected division.
  • Atlanta finally paired a good effort from its defense with a good game from the offense, but then it was Carolina's defense. A team that was supposed to contend for the NFC title is instead sitting at an unimpressive 3-3 and traveling to play a 5-1 Detroit squad that may be as angry on Sunday as their coach was yesterday: it'll be a great chance for the Falcons to prove that they really are contenders, but they'll have to play a better game than they've shown to this point. Right now, Atlanta doesn't seem to be in the same class as New Orleans, and they're not exactly on track for a wild-card spot, not at .500 with some tough games (including both Saints games) coming after their bye.
  • Curtis Painter is showing that he can complete passes in the Indianapolis offense, which is no mean feat when they can basically put up signs saying "Don't bother stopping the run, we'll stop ourselves", but he hasn't shown that he can get anything other than underneath completions unless a defender is nice enough to play flag football when Pierre Garçon is the receiver. This team isn't good enough to rely on 14-play drives to score touchdowns: Painter has to be able to get the ball downfield. (Easier said than done with the Colts' OL, I suppose.)
  • Unlike Painter, Andy Dalton did complete some longer passes, but once again, the Bengals are having trouble getting into the end zone. They put up decent yardage totals but scored just two offensive touchdowns, and they were in danger of losing to a bad Indianapolis team prior to Garçon's fumble and Carlos Dunlap's game-clinching return. Cincinnati is making the most of its easy early-season schedule, but two games remain with both Pittsburgh and Baltimore, and they will have to learn to score  touchdowns if they want to make a serious run at a playoff spot. 
  • Sam Bradford threw a lot of passes, got a lot of yards, and the Rams were soundly beaten again. I think at this point, people have figured out that he wasn't all that ... it's funny how counting stats are so easily overrated when the team is winning, but placed in proper context when the team is losing. (That should tell you something about the average person's ability to understand context.) The easiest non-divisional game St. Louis has left is at Cleveland, so if the Cardinals and Seahawks aren't nice enough to gift-wrap a game, the Rams could well match the 2008 Lions. Would it be worth trading down from #1, knowing that someone will want to select Andrew Luck? Hopefully Rams fans won't have to find out.
  • With Detroit's loss, Green Bay is alone atop the NFL at 6-0; well, alone in record. It should have already been clear that they were alone in quality. At this point, the Packers look exactly like defending Super Bowl champions that got better as players healed. The Rams actually slowed Green Bay's running game effectively and held the Packers to 4 of 13 on third downs, but the 93-yarder to Jordy Nelson turned a 10-0 game into game over at 17-0 (this Rams team couldn't score 10 on most teams), and after the Rodgers-to-Driver TD, McCarthy could put the offense on cruise. The Packers should have an easy win over Minnesota before their bye; after that, asking when they might lose is probably the same question as asking when they'll rest their starters. Their first post-bye game is at San Diego, so that might be a test, and they have back-to-back road games against the Lions and Giants, but right now, Green Bay looks good enough to beat anyone, anywhere.
  • Here's the difference between being a rising team and a contender: a Bills team just looking to improve would have considered the Giants loss a good sign, in that they were able to play a decent team on the road and nearly steal a win. This Buffalo team has to be looking at it as a disappointment, given the competition they'll face in the division and for wild-card spots. Perhaps their two long first-quarter touchdowns made the game closer than it should have been, but the Bills were still in a position to win it late in the fourth until Fitzpatrick's second interception gave the Giants a chance to win it themselves. Losses like this could leave the Bills at 9-7 or 10-6 looking in instead of at 10-6 or 11-5 and planning for January road games.
  • The Giants are lucky they pulled this game out. After their bye, they host the Dolphins, which should make them 5-2, and then we'll find out how good they are: with a six-game stretch against New England, San Francisco, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Green Bay, and Dallas, if New York isn't a playoff-caliber team, their record will reflect it. Four of those six games are on the road, and one of the remaining two is the Green Bay game, so if the Giants do make the playoffs, they'll have earned it.
  • Blaine Gabbert had another unimpressive day, which gives you an idea of how bad Luke McCown was playing, and also an idea of how difficult it must have been for Jack Del Rio to make that move. (Yes, I'm going to bring this up every week it looks like the Jaguars don't have a good QB.) If it really was a good decision, then it means that Garrard was playing so poorly that Del Rio would rather choose between an untested rookie and a tried-and-failed veteran. Still, the Jaguars deserve credit for keeping this game close. It's a shame they don't have a better quarterback, though, because neither Tennessee nor Houston looks like a solid team, and with a decent offense, Jacksonville could be contending in the division.
  • The Steelers don't look anything like a contender. Roethlisberger had another unimpressive game; Pittsburgh is lucky that Jacksonville isn't really in a position to win close games, not until Gabbert becomes more accustomed to games at NFL speeds. The Steelers visit Arizona in a game that will look nothing like their Super Bowl matchup, but they then host New England and Baltimore, followed by a game at Cincinnati before their Week 11 bye. Unless Mike Tomlin can figure out how to fix the problems we've seen in the last few weeks, that stretch of games could well put Pittsburgh in a hole that not even a favorable post-bye schedule can help them escape.
  • The Eagles finally tore up the emperor's new quarterback, revealing Rex Grossman as what we all thought he was, but after building a 20-0 lead, Philadelphia went scoreless the rest of the game. Michael Vick was banged up again and still doesn't look capable of running this offense at maximum efficiency; it's possible that the Redskins are actually a good team, even with the Rex Grossman Experience, and that the second-half performance by the Eagles' offense is excusable, but it's more likely that somehow this collection of five-star free agents is just another mediocre team in the pool of NFC teams described as Not Like Green Bay.
  • Four of Washington's five games have been close this year, and the exception was the season opener against the Giants. It's hard to say if Shanahan needs to stick with John Beck or if it's worth taking a chance on the Rex Grossman Experience moving forward. Maybe the Eagles' defense was playing as advertised ... but if that's so, then San Francisco and Dallas should expose the same weaknesses we saw Sunday. Is Washington better off getting Beck first-team reps to prepare him for those games? The Carolina game might be a good time for that. (My guess is that Shanahan will start Grossman in Carolina, where he'll put up big numbers, and everything will appear to be fine until the Bills sack him six times and San Francisco intercepts him four times. You can't fake being a good QB, and Grossman isn't one; he's already reverting to form.)
  • The Browns have the misfortune to be in a surprisingly tough division at a time when a lack of talent and a new coach will probably keep them at the bottom of the division. Colt McCoy may become a decent quarterback; the question is whether he'll have enough time in a single system to become one in Cleveland. Browns fans were very happy to be awarded an expansion franchise when Modell took the original Browns to Baltimore, but there's yet to be any signs that Cleveland 2.0 is anything like the Jim Brown version of 1.0. (As with the Lions, it's understandable that young fans might not realize that Cleveland's not always been like this, whether it was during those days or even the Bernie Kosar days.)
  • The injury to Jason Campbell may be a worst-case scenario for both Campbell and the Raiders. Oakland really looked like they could give San Diego a run for their money in the West (a necessity, given the depth of the AFC). Without him, though, it'll be tough, especially if he does miss the rest of the season. Kansas City, the bye week, and Denver give whoever his replacement is three weeks to get in sync before the tough part of the schedule: four games against the NFC North plus two games with San Diego. (Miami and Kansas City are thrown in to pad Oakland's win total.) Can Kyle Boller do well enough to keep Oakland competitive? It's not impossible for someone like Carson Palmer to come in cold and pick up the offense, but even if Mike Brown would free up Palmer, and even if the Raiders could afford to give Cincinnati what they need for him, there's no guarantee that he'd be 100% by the Denver game, and a weak performance against the Chiefs could cost the Raiders a shot at the division. When you can't be sure how many wins you'll need to make the playoffs, you have to win games against weaker opponents.
  • There wasn't really much that Gary Kubiak could take away from the loss at Baltimore. The Texans without Andre Johnson and Mario Williams aren't as good as the Ravens? Well, we knew that. Next week's game will be a better test. The Texans don't necessarily need to win at Tennessee to win the division, but if it's not close, it'll be a sign of a bigger problem. Houston seems something like the AFC equivalent of Detroit: when the passing game is working, they can seem unstoppable, but if you shut down the pass, you shut down the team.
  • The Ravens have to be looking at that Tennessee game and wondering what might have been. Granted, they've looked good enough outside that game to believe they'll be a playoff team at the very least, and with Pittsburgh's struggle, Baltimore could very well win the North, but they don't have much of a lead on either the Steelers or the Bengals, and it's too easy to stumble once or twice and find yourselves looking up when you should be looking down. The Ravens played a sloppy game (-2 in turnovers, 3 for 11 on third downs) and got away with it because their opponents were missing key players. They may not be so lucky the next time they play poorly.
  • Tony Romo's play may be far from consistent, but few people have questioned Dallas' defense. Against New England, they did almost everything necessary for a win – 3 sacks, 4 turnovers – but their performance on the final drive wasn't good enough. New England moved 80 yards in 10 plays, getting the ball with 2:31 left, and they faced a third down only once on the drive. Three times, New England got more than 10 yards on first down. Keep in mind that the Patriots had only one timeout left, so any play to the middle of the field would have made it difficult to score. They certainly don't deserve all the blame, and New England's offense is one of the best in the league; it's just a shame that the final drive may be what people remember. If Dallas makes the playoffs, the defense will deserve more credit than they're likely to get.
  • Well, here we are again. Going into the bye week, the Patriots stand atop the AFC at 5-1, and the loss to Buffalo looks less important (as a potential tiebreaker) each week. New England obviously has defensive issues, but I'll again draw comparisons to the Colts' Super Bowl champs: if your offense is good enough during the season, you only need a solid defense for three weeks, the playoff weeks. The Patriots bent a lot against Dallas but made the Cowboys kick from the red zone twice, and that turned out to make the difference. Buffalo will have to visit Dallas later this season, and the Patriots will host the Giants; obviously this kind of evens out, but right now it seems that the Bills are giving away the advantage they gained from that Week 3 win over New England.
  • Just when we thought New Orleans was running away with the South, the Bucs brought them right back into the race. Drew Brees will want this game back: any time you're -4 in turnovers, you can bet there are mistakes you made that had an impact on the final result. The fact that Tampa Bay only won by 6 says quite a bit about what the Saints' defense was able to do, and of course losing a road game doesn't hurt as much as losing at home does, but Sean Payton has to be feeling the pain of more than just his sideline collision today. Fortunately, New Orleans gets two of the three remaining winless teams next, St. Louis and Indianapolis, followed by the Bucs' return visit to New Orleans. The Saints are also a Week 11 bye team, and if they beat Tampa Bay and then Atlanta (in Atlanta), they should be 8-2 and safely in command of the South.
  • Josh Freeman did a good job Sunday against New Orleans, getting Tampa Bay back into the playoff picture. The Bucs' losses to Detroit and San Francisco don't look so bad now that both teams are 5-1, and a win against Chicago would go a long way toward keeping Raheem Morris' team in the hunt, but they'd better win it: after their bye, they have a four-game stretch that is one of the toughest in the NFL, with a home game against Houston among road games at New Orleans, Green Bay, and Tennessee. 
  • Donovan McNabb was actually 19 of 24 against Chicago, believe it or not. Does that make up for turtling in the end zone? Probably not. (You had to see it to believe it: with the blitz coming, McNabb simply ducked down in the end zone, costing Minnesota two points, when all he had to do was lunge forward to set up a couple of runs up the middle and a punt out of the back of the end zone.) That signing had to be one of the worst moves in the offseason: in a division with arguably the best pressure in the NFL, the Vikings sign a guy who is probably the worst combination of old and formerly-mobile and who has bad mechanics to boot (not that he'll admit it), and as a result, he's been sacked 16 times in Minnesota's six games, fifth-worst in the NFL. The Vikings don't need much of a passing game when the run is working as well as it is, but they're not getting anything at all with McNabb at the controls. Christian Ponder looked good enough in mop-up time that you have to wonder if it isn't time to make the switch. McNabb isn't getting any better, and Ponder can use all the reps he can get. (Joe Webb certainly couldn't do any worse, either.)
  • Hey, look! Jay Cutler isn't the problem! Well, he certainly wasn't a problem on Sunday. The Bears steamrolled Minnesota in every aspect of the game, looking exactly like a team that earned an NFC Championship spot last season. Granted, that may say more about the Vikings than the Bears, but keeping in mind that good teams blow out bad teams and mediocre teams squeak past them, this may be a good sign for Chicago fans ... well, except the ones that have been insanely chanting for Caleb Hanie. 
  • The Dolphins took another unsurprising step toward being the worst team in the AFC. They don't play the Colts, so they'll have to hope for some help from somewhere. Next week might be a challenge, though: the Broncos and TIM TEBOW come to town, and that might be Miami's best hope for a win. They face Kansas City on the road, and other than that, all the teams left on their schedule have shown some fight. The loss of Chad Henne and the reliance on Reggie Bush as a running back have killed what little offense the Dolphins had, and unless they can make a move at the trade deadline today, they'll have to rely on leftovers to fill the gaping holes on that side of the ball.
  • Mark Sanchez! Knows how to win! I'm sure Gruden said that about 50 times last night. One thing I don't miss about having only over-the-air TV is ignorant statements on MNF. Coming into the game, Miami's pass defense was 31st in DVOA and last in NY/A. Sanchez completed just 56% of his passes and averaged 7.1 NY/A. The Jets punted 8 times against one of the worst defenses in the NFL, in large part because of Sanchez's inability to move the ball in the air: New York called a pass play 10 times on third down. Four passes were incomplete, one was complete but short of the first down, Sanchez was sacked once, one play resulted in a Miami penalty for a first down, and the Jets converted two more for first downs and scored a TD on one. Even giving the Jets credit for the penalty, that's 40% on third downs. Compare that to the Dolphins' previous game against San Diego, where the Chargers called 11 pass plays on third down: San Diego converted four in the air, one from a scramble, and one by a Miami penalty; two more passes were complete but short, and the remaining three were incomplete. 45% doesn't sound much better than 40%, but the first downs came with 2, 3, 7, 8, 9, and 15 yards to go; the Jets' conversions were from 2, 7, 9, and 10. San Diego's median attempt was 9 yards, with seven attempts from 8 yards or more; New York's was 7, with 3 attempts from 8 yards or more. And this is Philip Rivers, who's a competent QB but not in the class of a Rodgers or a Brees. Sanchez simply isn't very good, and there's little evidence to suggest he ever will be ... but people will perpetuate this myth as long as the Jets' defense and special teams win games for the team.
No, no one's eliminated from playoff contention yet, although the Rams are 4.5 games out and the Vikings are 5 games back. There are 15 teams above .500, 8 in the AFC and 7 in the NFC. The only division that looks to be under control right now is (no surprise) the NFC West, where San Francisco has realized that you don't have to outrun the bear, you just have to outrun your fellow plodders. (I jest, of course: while the 49ers no doubt benefit from their weak division, their wins over 5-1 Detroit and 4-2 Tampa Bay look pretty good right now: they're a touch behind Baltimore for the best SRS in the NFL.)

Next week, the 49ers and Patriots rest to protect their 5-1 records while the Rams and Colts go on the road to continue their winless seasons. Green Bay visits Minnesota in a game that should vault them to 7-0 (reverse jinx, reverse jinx), while the best matchup of records once again features the Lions, as 5-1 Detroit hosts 3-3 Atlanta. The Falcons' record may need the win more than the Lions, but Detroit needs it for confidence reasons. A legitimate contender does not lose back-to-back home games.

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