Monday, November 21, 2011

NFL week 11: Now we know ... what, exactly?

Posted with lightning speed to make up for last week. If the Patriots blow it, then yes, I have awesome reverse jinx powers, and yes, I am available for hire.

So after all that, we know ... um ... well, Green Bay has a really good offense, San Francisco has a really weak schedule, and that's about it. (Actually, Green Bay's schedule has been significantly weaker than the 49ers'. Of course, with Detroit twice and the Giants, Bears, and Raiders once each, that'll change a bit.) Playoff contenders who can win a couple of games over the next 2-3 weeks may find themselves resting in Week 17 while the pack of teams below them scrabbles frantically for a postseason spot.
  • The Jets aren't really that far out of the playoffs. They're ninth right now, trailing Denver and Tennessee on conference record, and just a game behind sixth-place Cincinnati. So that doesn't look bad. But the sweep by the Patriots means that the division is all but out of reach, and the loss to Denver not only throws them back into the pack, but gives them a direct competitor with a head-to-head win. With Buffalo, Washington, and Kansas City up next, Rex Ryan's team could certainly be 8-5 in three weeks, but then Buffalo was probably counting wins the same way until recently, Washington nearly beat Dallas, and Kansas City ... OK, that one's a New York win.
  • Mel Kiper had an interesting take (subscription required) on the Tebowne. (Of course that's what it'll be called. Don't be silly.) Basically, his point is that it's all very well to run an offense that ignores the forward pass as much as possible, but like pretty much every other gimmick, the read-option offense John Fox is running will be picked apart by a league that tapes every single play to be examined in detail. Once that happens, what are they going to do? Tebow's accuracy, as mentioned here every week, is far below that of an average NFL quarterback, and that's in the Tebowne. What would it be in a conventional offense? Also, what happens if he gets hurt? Do you think Brady Quinn can run this offense? Ha ha. Ironically, Orton would be better suited to it, given his experience with the spread offense at Purdue and the pseudo-option they ran from time to time. It's only worked against the Raiders, who have a bad defense ... and within a week, the Chiefs, who also have a bad defense, shut it down pretty well. Denver's schedule isn't particularly strong, but Chicago and Minnesota will probably eat up the read option, and Buffalo and New England will test Denver's defense. If Tebow can't learn to throw accurate passes soon, Fox may regret moving away from the NFL-caliber QB currently on his bench in favor of the decision that says all you need to know about Josh McDaniels.
  • Cam Newton, on the other hand, deserves a good bit of credit. He is running an NFL offense, and he's doing a darn good job of it. Granted, in Steve Smith, Newton has what Tebow does not – an excellent receiver who will go and get it if he can reach it – but on the other hand, Tebow is not a rookie, he's a second-year player who's taken over a mediocre offense and helped to make it putrid. Newton is a rookie who's taken over a putrid offense and helped to make it pretty good. Think about it this way: if you could make a team from Carolina's offense and Jacksonville's defense, two of the more overlooked units in the league, it'd probably be a top-five team. The Panthers are 8th in DVOA on offense; the Jaguars are 3rd on defense. Instead, the worst defense in the NFC does things like give up 49 points and nearly 500 yards to what's nearly a bottom-quartile offense in Detroit. (Yeah, Newton's 4 interceptions contributed to those points, but not so much to the yards.) Ron Rivera did a good job rebuilding the offense; next year, the defense has to come first.
  • Third verse, same as the first: the Lions make silly mistakes and fall behind big, then come roaring back to win. The Dallas comeback looks better as the Cowboys improve, but the Minnesota game still looks bad, and this game even worse. Stafford made some bad decisions once again; fortunately, Carolina's defense is so bad that it was only a matter of time before things turned around. Don't read too much into his 335-yard, 5-TD performance. It may have built his confidence heading into Thursday's showdown with the Packers, but the problems that plagued Detroit against San Francisco and Atlanta are still there, and it's hard to imagine that a team this unsound can beat a team like Green Bay, even with the struggles the Packers have had on defense. Sure, Detroit has scored 42 or more three times already, something they haven't done since 1952, and they've come back from double-digit halftime deficits three times, something they've never done before ... but confidence and momentum don't make plays for you. The Lions can't fall behind Green Bay by 17 and expect to win. 
  • Blaine Gabbert was surprisingly effective with the short passing game against Cleveland, converting 7 of 15 third-down opportunities, but the Jaguars crossed midfield exactly once in the first three quarters, and their last-minute drive stalled at the 1. Their defense again did all that could be expected of it, and again their offense did just enough to lose. Jacksonville has lost road games by 29, 6, 4, 10, and 4 this season. The blowout at the Jets would have been a loss no matter what (and that was the McCown Experience anyway), but this team could arguably be 6-4 and in the thick of the playoff race with even a mediocre offense. Whoever is Jacksonville's coach next year (the odds of Del Rio being retained are still slim, I think, particularly after he claimed not to know about the decision-making and playcalling on the final series from the 1) must look for a number of players on offense: help for the OL, depth at WR (if not a top WR), and a QB who can run an NFL offense. It's a shame that the defense is playing so well and the team is struggling so much.
  • ESPN's stat pages are so poorly written ... when you sort within a particular group, sometimes the data you get is not the same as the data you just saw. For example, when you look at kickers, they're sorted by field goals made to date, but if you sort by attempts, you get last week's data. Typical ESPN. Of course the NFL's site actually returns a Page Not Found error, which is even worse. The page was found, idiots. I was just on it. I had to go to Yahoo to get sortable stats. Anyway, the point is that Phil Dawson is just 4 of 6 from 20 to 29 yards, the only kicker in the NFL to miss two in that range. He's missed one from 40 to 49, and he's dead-on from 50-59 (6 of 6, leading the NFL in makes and tied in attempts with Janikowski, who's made 5, and Cundiff, who's made 1 – anyone want to ask John Harbaugh about those decisions?), and now he's only 2 of 3 from 30 to 39. Fortunately, it didn't cost the Browns, but if they hadn't stoned the Jaguars at the 1, that missed kick would have been more noticeable. Of course the blame would have been misplaced: when you put up just 14 points, the kicker is not your biggest problem. The Browns have kept most of their games close, so the problems aren't as apparent as they are on other teams (like Indianapolis), but Cleveland has yet to win a game by more than one score, and they've scored more than 17 points just once, against that Colts team in a 27-19 victory. Jacksonville and St. Louis have matched that; every other team, including the Colts, have scored more than 17 at least three times. (New Orleans and Green Bay have done so every game this year.)
  • The latest entrant in "Can you outscore Green Bay?", the Bucs, lost by only 9. They were the sixth opponent to score 20 or more points on the porous defense. (That's not a lot for an average NFL team, but it is a lot for an unbeaten team. Anyway, back to the Bucs.) Josh Freeman had a pretty good game, but did throw a pair of interceptions, and Tampa Bay would have loved to have those drives back. It's hard to blame the defense for getting shelled by the Packers, but then this is not your average Tampa Bay defense, either. I mean, St. Louis held the Packers to 24. Aqib Talib can't cover everyone at once. Gerald McCoy can't be your only threat on the defensive line. (Well, Adrian Clayborn is doing a nice job in his rookie season, but where's the rest of the pressure from the line?) Last year, people were praising Raheem Morris' young, talented team for getting into the playoff race and staying there until a late loss to Detroit pushed them out. This season, it almost seems like the Lions ended their hopes early: the Bucs are 11th and have losses to fellow wild-card contenders Detroit and Chicago. That effectively puts Tampa Bay four games back of both teams with six to play, and that's just not going to happen. The Bucs might run the table (unlikely, with games at Atlanta and Tennessee and home against Dallas), but even so, I doubt they'd pass four other teams and also get the Lions or Bears to lose at least four of six.
  • Detroit's defense may drop a bit as a result of their Carolina performance, but let's say that they're still a top-5 defense. Chicago is the only other team Green Bay has played who has anywhere near the Lions' quality at defense (and in fact, the two teams are comparable on defense, 4th and 5th prior to Week 11 games). The Packers' performance was its worst of the year, and it was still pretty good: 392 yards, 5 of 13 on third downs, 3 three-and-outs prior to garbage time, only one turnover. They forced only two turnovers and had a three-and-out after each one. All that, and they never trailed, led most of the game by at least two scores, and won by 10. The Bucs made too many mistakes to pose a challenge for Green Bay; the Lions have more potential, but then they just gave up 35 to Carolina. It's hard to see this team dropping a game until (unless) they rest their starters, but then last year's Chicago team had a better defense than this year's Packers do, and when Cutler went down, they ground to a halt. (And remember the Packers were shut out by Drew Stanton and the Lions when Rodgers suffered a concussion and missed most of the game.)
  • The Bills have gone from 5-2 and in good position in the East to 5-5 and lucky to be in the race for a wild-card spot, and even that's in doubt with the Jets and Tennessee up next, two teams tied with them at 5-5. The other losses were understandable, but this loss, I don't know. This looked like the old Bills, not the new Bills. I don't know that history plays much of a role in most games, but if you've just endured a difficult season, when you begin to struggle, it's got to be hard to avoid thinking "yep, just like last year." Buffalo is definitely a better team this year, but it's not hard to see them finishing 5-11. 
  • I saw someone trying to praise Reggie Bush for scoring touchdowns. (It was on Yahoo somewhere. They do a good job of investigating stories, but have virtually no analytical content. Every story boils down to "Ooh, shiny!") Touchdowns are obviously important in terms of scoring, but they aren't so important that everything else you do should be ignored, especially as a running back, or in Bush's case, "running back". Sunday's stats: 15 carries, 32 yards, 1 touchdown. Four receptions on five targets, 34 yards. Which was better? Hint: not the running. Here are his runs: 3 on 1st and 10 (fail), 3 on 1st and 10 (fail), -2 on 1st and 10 (fail), 2 on 1st and 10 (fail), 2 on 1st and 10 (fail), 6 on 1st and 10 (success), 5 on 2nd and 4 for TD (success), 4 on 2nd and 17 (fail, not really his fault), 11 on 1st and 10 (success), 0 on 1st and 10 (fail), -4 and 2nd and 10 (fail), 0 on 1st and 10 (fail), 1 on 1st and 10 (fail), 0 on 2nd and 9 (fail), 1 on 2nd and 8 (fail). If we leave out the good-luck-on-that play, it's 3 of 14, which is not really good. Buffalo's defense is not that good, and still Bush struggled to get anything on most carries. (Those weren't just average failures. Needing 4 on first down, Bush got 2 yards or less 6 times in 10 carries.) Daniel Thomas is a running back. Reggie Bush is a wide receiver. (Side note: USC players are overrated. Draw your own conclusions about the Pac-12.)
  • The Raiders are not only leading the West, but are just a game out of first overall in the AFC ... and they have a tiebreaker edge over Houston thanks to a head-to-head win. Could Oakland actually get a first-round bye? With Chicago, Green Bay, and Detroit on the schedule, they'll have to earn it, but with Houston likely to struggle in Schaub's absence, and considering the obvious flaws in Baltimore (offense) and New England (defense), it's entirely possible. The Raiders put this one away early (24-7 at halftime, 27-7 after three) and then sat on the ball to win, although they probably should have thrown the ball more in the second half: Michael Bush had an uninspiring 3.6 YPC day (30/109). Then again, Palmer had just 164 yards on 17 of 23, so maybe they were only going to get short gains even if they did throw more often. Up next: the Bears without Jay Cutler. Time for Oakland's weak defense to teach Chicago fans that Caleb Hanie isn't the answer to anything.
  • Christian Ponder threw three interceptions, fumbled once, and was sacked five times, so it's not like he had a great game, and Oakland's defense isn't that good. (I think I just said that.) This is not going to be one of those games that people use as an example of the wisdom of the switch at QB. This game showed why Vikings fans might be watching the worst team in the NFC. St. Louis might be worse on both sides of the ball, I guess, so maybe second-worst, but there's no question that Carolina has something Minnesota doesn't: a functional offense. People are rightly bashing Denver for the Tebowne, but the Vikings deserve just as much criticism for building a run-heavy offense in a league where passing is the way to win. They're just now realizing that it won't be enough to find someone to throw short passes and hand off 30 times, especially not with a defense that has trouble stopping just about anyone. 
  • Not Tony Romo's Fault. No turnovers, 23 of 37 for 292 and 3 TDs ... if the Cowboys had lost this game, it would not have been Romo's fault. Blame special teams for their struggle: a holding penalty after a 63-yard punt that backed the Cowboys into a hole they couldn't escape, a 23-yard punt out of that hole, a 32-yard punt return after the next drive that set up another Washington touchdown, another 55-yard punt return that resulted in no points ... even if Dallas manages to hang on to the East lead, they'd better be hoping that Detroit is the top wild-card team, because the next-best team is Chicago, and their special teams are great. Washington's, believe it or not, are bad. Devin Hester might get 300 return yards against these coverage units.
  • Rex Grossman was ... uh ... not bad. Dallas' defense is pretty good. The return of Good Rex, if that's what this is, is too late to get Washington back in the race in the East, but it might mean that Washington can look to fill spots other than QB in next year's draft. Prior to this game, that was looking almost like an obvious move for the Shanahans. Of course Voldemort could demand that they pick up the best available QB anyway, or trade a few picks to get one (Washington actually has an extra 3rd and an extra pick somewhere else, with a 6th or so going to New Orleans), but if someone keeps him out of the room, Washington might be able to build more strength on the lines. Their picks will be valuable, too: Washington's just 3-7 against the sixth-easiest schedule in the NFL so far, and they have the fourth-hardest schedule remaining, with games left against both New York teams and New England.
  • Cincinnati had a nice comeback against Baltimore, particularly given that A.J. Green was out, but they have to be kicking themselves for the turnovers that set up the need for a comeback. Dalton's last two picks, both in Cincinnati territory, set up short fields that gave the mediocre Baltimore offense easy opportunities to score. Baltimore's scoring drives were 4, 5, 8, 1, and 1 plays ... yeah, I know, "1 plays" doesn't look right, you know what I mean. The one real sustained drive ended in a field goal. If they'd made the Ravens work harder on offense, they might have had a chance to steal a road win, and then Pittsburgh would be leading the division and Cincinnati would be the top wild-card team. (Interesting that North teams currently hold both #1 seeds and all four wild-card spots.) Next week's game at home against Cleveland should be an easy win, and then they can prepare for the big game at Pittsburgh the following week.
  • Can you really win a championship with just defense? Baltimore's offense is bad and their special teams are worse, but somehow they manage to do just enough to win over and over again. Granted, there is enough time left in the season for pretty much any contender (other than Green Bay and San Francisco) to go down in flames, but when you consider that Baltimore's only loss to a fellow contender is to Tennessee, a team well down in the AFC standings, the Ravens are actually in a really good position. This Thursday's game against San Francisco is easily their hardest remaining game; if they win that, it's not a stretch to see them at 12-3 going into the season finale at Cincinnati, and that will definitely be #1-seed territory. (Only three other teams have just 3 losses, and one is Pittsburgh, the team Baltimore swept.) Certainly Flacco will have to be more careful with his passes if the Ravens are to make a playoff run, but they could well be making that run in Baltimore ... and possibly Indianapolis too.
  • Seattle did well to pick up a win on the road, but they're still not a good team. I have no idea how this team beat Baltimore and the Giants but lost to Cleveland. With Philadelphia, Chicago, and San Francisco still on the schedule, they can have a reasonable impact on the NFC playoff race, but unlike last season, they'll be nowhere near it. 
  • The Rams' "how'd they do that?" win was the New Orleans game, of course, the one that buried any chance of the Saints getting a break during the first round of the playoffs. Any thoughts of a happy second half that started after the Cleveland win ended after a 7-point outing against the Seahawks. If St. Louis doesn't beat Arizona at home Sunday, they'll be 2-14 and wishing that the Colts had signed a QB in the offseason. (At worst, the Rams would pick fourth, and that's still not a bad position to be in.)
  • Yeah, Skelton had a bad game, but San Francisco's defense is strong (it's their offense that's weak). Putting in Bartel to figure out what he can do was probably a good idea, but let's not be throwing Skelton away just because he had the worst game of his short career against a team much better than the Cardinals. It's hard to believe that this team is just three years removed from that fourth-quarter rally that nearly became only their second league title in 87 years. (Yeah, the franchise goes back that far: they were actually around in the APFA days as well.) Just as Detroit has risen from 0-16 to 7-3 and a possible playoff run, Arizona has fallen from that 9-7 team that, like the Colts two years before, improbably hosted the conference championship game and won to make it to the Super Bowl (but unlike the Colts, couldn't take home the trophy). This team looks like it's years away from contending again.
  • San Francisco's remaining regular-season tests will come from the AFC, starting with the Ravens, in Baltimore, on a short week. They have that game and a Monday night game against Pittsburgh to help them figure out what needs to be tweaked for the playoffs (hint: passing), and then four practice games against divisional opponents before they get a first-round bye, and trust me, nothing is going to stop them from getting that bye. The rest of the division is so bad that they could rest Alex Smith and Frank Gore and still finish as the #2 seed. (Remember that New Orleans has three conference losses. Even if the 49ers fall to both Baltimore and Pittsburgh, they'd still be 11-1 in conference play.)
  • Jake Locker, welcome to the NFL. Remember that if Chris Johnson is in the game, you have no running game. (12 carries, 13 yards. Locker nearly beat that on a single carry.) Three of Tennessee's five losses have been by seven points or fewer; a running game wouldn't necessarily have helped in any of those games, but it sure couldn't have hurt. Just like Tebow is the poster child for QB W-L record as the dumbest statistic in football, Johnson is the poster child for not giving a RB a blockbuster contract. There is too much available talent (Exhibit A: Kevin Smith, who was, granted, an RFA) to justify putting so much of your cap into that position.
  • Matt Ryan did have a pretty good game against the Titans, although the last three drives prior to putting the game away were 12 plays, field goal; 6 plays, punt; and 9 plays, fumble. Atlanta converted only 4 of 12 on third down, putting Tennessee in position to make a late run. Fortunately, the Falcons ran out the clock on their last drive, but you get the feeling that they just don't have the skill on offense necessary to win playoff games. With Julio Jones out, this looks just like the team that needed to draft him in the first place, the team that is supposed to have decent talent (White, Gonzalez, Ryan, Turner) but doesn't seem to get enough out of it. Sure, they beat the Lions, but Chicago and Green Bay dispatched them easily, and you already know about the New Orleans game. I don't think Ryan has lived up to his ridiculous nickname ... he looks pretty much like any other young QB, not quite sure of what he's doing, just talented enough that he can make you look good, not quite talented enough to avoid critical mistakes in big situations. 
  • Oh, Philip Rivers ... here's a gift-wrapped chance to get back into the game, and you throw an end-zone interception. San Diego's special teams gave Chicago possession three times in four drives in Charger territory, and all four of those drives resulted in touchdowns, but San Diego was still within reach prior to that mistake. Rivers' final interception on the next drive (on his next pass!) sealed the game. Rivers' 4.4% interception percentage is third-worst in the league, better only than Kyle Orton and The Rex Grossman Experience. His 5.9 ANY/A is solidly middle-of-the-pack. He's been sacked 25 times, fourth-worst in the league, but that's a function of passing attempts: the three guys who are worse, Roethlisberger, Bradford and Tarvaris Jackson, all have significantly fewer attempts. The running game isn't the problem in San Diego, but the passing game has been, and a lot of that is on Rivers' shoulders, I think.
  • The injury to Jay Cutler isn't going to be as big of a deal as you think during the season, but it's probably going to prevent the Bears from making a Super Bowl run this season, just as it did last season. The Bears just use their offense as an occasional way to finish off drives: the heart of the team is the defense and special teams, and Sunday, that was true yet again. The defense didn't sack Rivers and only hit him once, but did get two big interceptions to stop fourth-quarter drives, and you probably read about the big returns. The one thing about this streak, though, is that it's come mostly against weaker teams. Detroit's the best team of the group, and their qualifications are sketchy. Tampa Bay, Minnesota, and San Diego aren't that good, and the Bears stomped only one of those three teams. They have only two games left against decent opponents, so that should be enough for Chicago to make the playoffs as long as the return teams continue to work magic. If Hanie or his backup have to move the offense 70-80 yards, though, the Bears could have problems.
  • DeSean Jackson just doesn't get it. Yeah, the rule about 15-yard penalties canceling out is silly (especially when there are opposing personal fouls and nothing happens), but it is what it is. You make a big play and your first reaction is not just to flip the ball at Giants on the sideline (and it's hard to imagine he didn't know exactly who the target was), but to continue to mock them after you make your way back onto the field ... dumb. Just dumb. Distractions? The Eagles haz them already. They should give Jackson the boot: sit him for the rest of the year. He just got back from a one-game suspension for basically putting himself above the team (go all in: either sit everything out or participate in everything, otherwise it looks like you're being lazy to get out of meetings, which he probably was), and this is his reaction? Let the NFLPA protest. They like lost causes. Deactivate him and leave him at home. Keep him away from the guys who are working hard to get Philadelphia back in the playoff race.
  • The Giants need to be really careful. A win would have put them virtually even with New Orleans, with Monday night's game giving the winner a one-game-plus lead for the #3 seed in the NFC. The home loss dropped them to 8th in the conference; there's a cliff between them and the 4-6 teams, but those include Seattle and Philadelphia, two teams who've beaten the Giants, and a loss to New Orleans would put New York too close to the edge. (At least the Giants split with the Eagles. They'd lose a tiebreaker to Seattle because of the head-to-head loss.) With Green Bay after the Saints game, it's not unreasonable to see the Giants at 6-6 and falling quickly out of the playoff picture ... and their next game after that is a Sunday night game at Dallas, who has Miami and Arizona next and might well be 8-4. 
  • Nobody really thought the Chiefs had a chance at New England, did they? OK, let's move on.
  • New England is now in a virtual tie with Houston for first in the conference, with Baltimore just behind them due to playing one fewer conference game. The Patriots play neither team, which means, well ... if the Eagles don't stop the one-dimensional Patriots this week, expect to see boring old Bill Belichick at 13-3 and sitting at home during the wild-card round, waiting patiently for the next victim in Foxborough. I'll read their schedule to you, and you stop me if you hear a game they might lose. Indianapolis (hahahahaha), at Washington, at Denver, Miami, Buffalo. Right. Me either. This team shouldn't be that good, not with the defensive problems they've had, but remember the 2006 Colts? Their offense was great, their defense was not ... and then in the playoffs, the defense turned in three great games, and the offense made up the difference the one time the defense couldn't get it done. You don't have to dominate the regular season (as the defending champion Packers will tell you), you just have to win in the playoffs. 
Playoff teams are starting to separate in the NFC: good news for the Lions and Bears, because a Giants collapse might mean that Atlanta is the only remaining team that might pose a threat. (Good for the Bears, who have a win over Atlanta; bad for Detroit, who lost to them.) In the AFC, it's still a big mess from top to middle. The only thing we know is that Indianapolis is still the worst team in the league. Hey, the second-worst team in the conference is on a three-game winning streak, and the third-worst team has one of the best defenses in football. In the NFC? Well ... how about that Newton kid?

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