Wednesday, November 09, 2011

NFL week 9: road teams rule

The top of the AFC draws more closely together as the bottom begins to separate. Green Bay shows yet again how vulnerable they are, but hold on to win, as 9 of 14 games go to road teams, the most since some week I don't know about. (I'd check on p-f-r but I can't get through right now.)
  • Big win for the Jets, and some credit is due to Mr. Sanchez. He had two turnovers, but completed nearly 75% of his passes and converted 6 of 11 on third downs. As usual, the defense had a lot to do with the victory, but they didn't carry Sanchez the entire way this week. (Bad news: a red zone interception on their first drive. Good news: TD drives of 79 and 84 yards to put the game away.)
  • This was Buffalo's chance to put some distance between themselves and the Jets and Patriots, but instead of being a game up on New England and two on New York, they're in a three-way tie, and with a game coming up in New York, they could find themselves fighting for a wild-card spot if they can't return the favor after Thanksgiving. On the other hand, even though the Bills have struggled against good defenses, six of their eight remaining games are against weaker defenses (Miami twice, New England, Denver, Tennessee, and San Diego), so they may slip into the playoffs without having to work out those issues. Success, on the other hand ... well, even the wild-card round might work out if they can get the top spot, because it will almost certainly be the AFC West champ, but the divisional playoff would be against an AFC North or AFC East team, most likely with solid defense.
  • So yeah, Seattle's not returning to the playoffs. Tarvaris Jackson: 17 of 30, 0 TDs, 3 interceptions. Marshawn Lynch had a pretty good game, but you can't win on running alone unless you have an exceptional defense, and Seattle's defense is far from exceptional. (Their run defense is actually pretty good, but this isn't the right year for that to matter.) Jackson, surprisingly, is playing much better than Charlie Whitehurst did, but QB is still a position of need for Seattle. All those of you desperately hoping that Seattle chooses Matt Barkley so that he and Carroll can go down in flames together, raise your hands ... 
  • Tony Romo didn't exactly tear up the Seahawks' secondary, but he did throw for 279 yards and two scores with no interceptions and no fumbles. The Cowboys converted nearly 50% of their third-down tries (6 of 14), so even though they struggled once again to get to the end zone, they did keep Seattle's offense off the field to a reasonable extent: time of possession was split. This doesn't sound too bad, but keep in mind that Seattle's defense is not that good. Dallas should have destroyed Seattle, especially at home. This is simply not a playoff-caliber team. 
  • Speaking of playoffs, the Falcons climbed back into the NFC race with their shredding of the Colts. Matt Ryan is still having issues (14 of 24, including an interception at the 6 that was returned for the Colts' only score), but as long as Atlanta can beat bottom-feeders, they can hang in the wild-card race. This week's game against New Orleans will give them a shot at the division: lose, and they're probably out of it. Win, and suddenly they're even with the Saints. 
  • No surprises Sunday in Indy: although the Colts did do a pretty good job most of the time, the two plays on which Julio Jones got loose turned the game from a long shot into an impossibility. Atlanta's defense is strong, so it was unlikely that Painter would get too much done, and indeed he didn't. Time to look ahead to Jacksonville and Carolina: if there is a chance to avoid joining the 2008 Lions, those games would be it. 
  • I can't explain Miami's win at Kansas City. Moore was 17 of 23 with 3 touchdowns and no interceptions, but the Dolphins converted just 3 of 10 on third down. Miami only ran 47 plays ... they did gain a lot on those plays, but they didn't force turnovers, and they didn't have long punt returns, so I guess they just made the most of the chances they had. They did stop the Chiefs four times on downs, including twice on the Miami 3, and did hold them to three three-and-outs deep in Kansas City territory, so maybe that was a contributing factor. At any rate, it was a huge win for Miami: they avoid 0-for-2011 and maybe give Sparano a few more weeks as head coach. (On the other hand, it may have also made Reggie Bush look more like an actual RB, and that could be a burden for the next coach to bear.)
  • Any questions about Kansas City being a viable playoff contender? No? All right, let's move on. Exactly two teams since 1940 have split their first 8 games while being outscored by 70 points or more (no team won more than 4 games in that scenario): the 1989 Steelers and the 1965 Giants. The Steelers, the team that got blown out 51-0 by Cleveland in Week 1 and 27-0 by Houston (the Oilers) in Week 7, actually made the playoffs, slipped past Houston in overtime, and fell to Denver in the divisional playoffs. The Giants finished four games back of Cleveland in the NFL East and and were nowhere near the playoffs. I think this Chiefs team is closer to the Giants than the Steelers. 
  • Tampa Bay finished their split with New Orleans, to no one's surprise. They now have four losses, all against possible playoff teams, including losses to two possible wild-card competitors (Detroit and Chicago). Sitting tied for 8th at the halfway point, the Bucs can't afford to lose many more games: not only do they have to win games just to get in position, but they also have to pass at least 3 teams (depending on the tiebreaker with Dallas) to get where they need to be.
  • The Saints' defense did a good job sealing the win for New Orleans, keeping them in the drivers' seat in the South. That's kind of important, because with San Francisco and Green Bay at 7-1 and 8-0 respectively, New Orleans is looking at a #3 seed at best: should they drop out of the lead, they could well find themselves behind Detroit and Chicago or Philadelphia or Atlanta, depending on who seizes control of the other wild-card spot. As with most NFC teams, the weakness here is the defense, not the offense, so it's important for them to stand up against possible playoff teams.
  • Another game, another adequate offensive performance, another easy win for San Francisco, giving up just a 59-yard field goal at the end of the first half and a last-minute touchdown in the second half. There's no real need for Harbaugh to change anything, not with a five-game lead in the West, and with five games left against that division, even if they lose the other games (Giants, Ravens, Steelers), that's still 12-4, which should be no worse than a #3 seed and will more likely be a #2 seed; a win over the Giants would practically lock that away. They're still the NFC version of the Jets – Smith isn't going to win them many games and would likely lose a playoff game for them – but they don't have much choice right now. I wouldn't be surprised to see Harbaugh pick up a QB in the 2012 draft, though.
  • Turn out the lights, the party in Washington is over. Washington's now 3-5, three games back of the Giants and falling, and with no offense in sight, it's hard to imagine this team anywhere near the playoffs. They'll finish below .500, Shanahan will be fired, Voldemort will trick someone else into coaching the team, and the process will repeat itself. The franchise has won two playoff games in 12 seasons with Voldemort as owner (sadly, one of the two wins was over Detroit in Snyder's first year, 1999) ... actually, let me continue that parenthetical thought. In 1999, they beat Detroit but lost to Tampa Bay. In 2005, they beat Tampa Bay but lost to Seattle. (You may remember that Seattle team from the Super Bowl with questionable officiating.) In 2007, Seattle messed up the pattern and beat them again. It would be nice to say that Snyder ruined the franchise, but actually they'd missed the playoffs six straight years prior to his purchase. (Yes, the Lions were playoff regulars and Washington was not. Yes, this is the same universe.) He has, however, prevented them from getting any kind of continuity. It's interesting to think that someone close to my age knows so much less about football despite having so much more of a chance to affect a team. It's also interesting to see how many businessmen are more than willing to hire people to run their other businesses, especially in industries where they don't have knowledge, and yet they insist on being hands-on owners in an industry where they have almost no knowledge. Keep it up, Voldemort!
  • More of the same from Cleveland. The defense does what they can, but they get no help from the offense. Next year, the transition to the new offensive scheme should be complete, but there's no telling who'll still be around. Randy Lerner is another 40ish owner who's done nothing to distinguish himself among his peers: one playoff season (2002, his first as owner), one 10-win season that did not result in playoffs, and nothing else. (Well, he did do something: he reinforced the idea that the Belichick coaching tree is virtually worthless.) Cleveland fans wanted an expansion franchise to replace the Browns; more and more, it looks like they got an expansion franchise. They won't finish at the bottom of the AFC thanks to the Colts, but they won't be any closer to contending than they were last year, or the year before ...
  • The Texans are pulling away from the rest of the South, much as they've seen Indianapolis do season after season. With the Titans' surprising loss, suddenly a division title looks almost like a guarantee, especially with Andre Johnson due to return soon (if not against Tampa Bay, then perhaps after their Week 11 bye). Wade Phillips has once again picked a good horse to hitch himself to: Houston's fifth-ranked pass defense has played a significant role in the Texans' franchise-best start, but as at his other stops, there's little to connect to Phillips other than timing. Gary Kubiak doesn't likely care much, as long as they can continue to play at that level. Houston is one of the few teams that seems to have talent on both offense and defense, even with Mario Williams out for the year. That might give them an advantage over unbalanced teams like New England and the Jets.
  • Meh offense, solid defense ... the Bengals keep winning. I still think Mike Brown's locked in a closet somewhere and has no idea that his team is tied for the best record in the AFC. Just think, if they hadn't lost to Denver ... anyway, even though Cam Newton is getting all that attention in Carolina, Andy Dalton's done, well, hmm. He's barely above replacement level and significantly worse than Carson Palmer was last season, so what is it, exactly? Ah, it's the schedule. Cincinnati had the second-hardest schedule in the league last season, but has played the 25th-hardest schedule to date. It won't get much harder after this, so expect the Bengals to be in the North hunt (and the wild-card race) until the end.
  • The Titans are in very much the same situation as Tampa Bay in the NFC: 1.5 games out of first, tied for 8th in the conference, far enough back that they can't afford too many losses. When the two teams play after Thanksgiving, it'll likely be the end for one team's hopes, if indeed either team is still in the hunt. Finishing their home stand 1-2 likely means it's the Bucs who'll be the playoff contender: with games remaining at Atlanta, Buffalo, and Houston, Tennessee would almost need to win the rest just to have a shot at the playoffs, and that means beating both Tampa Bay and New Orleans in Nashville. 9-7 probably wouldn't be good enough anyway, but you've got to start somewhere, and in this case, "somewhere" is Charlotte. Lose to the Panthers, and the Titans can start planning for 2012.
  • TEBOWTEBOWTEBOW report: 10 for 21, 124 yards, 2 touchdowns. No turnovers, though, so he got that part right. His career-high single-game completion percentage is 55.6%, last season against Houston's awful pass defense. This year, he's up to 46.4% after the Oakland game. When he gets enough attempts to be eligible, he'll be next-to-last in the NFL, ahead of only Blaine Gabbert. Curtis Painter, on a significantly worse team, has completed 53.3% of his passes. Kyle Orton, the guy "responsible" for all of Denver's losses to date, completed 58.7% of his passes. The Broncos are winning despite TEBOW; don't let the media tell you otherwise. (When Orton leaves next season and Denver has no QBs at all, McDaniels' destruction of the franchise will have been complete.)
  • Oakland's special teams did them no favors Sunday. An 85-yard punt return for a touchdown, a 41-yard kickoff return to set up another short field (actually, that drive ended with a missed field goal) ... that plus three interceptions by Carson Palmer cost the Raiders a chance to take the lead in the West and bury Denver for good. Palmer will have the chance to post another 300-yard passing game at San Diego this week, and he'll need it: even in a weak division, you get only so many chances, and I think this may turn out to be one the Raiders couldn't afford to blow. I will say that Oakland seems to have chosen well with respect to replacement QBs ... makes you wonder what would have happened if the Colts had traded a couple of picks to pry Palmer out of Cincinnati instead of picking up Collins. (It's fair to say that Palmer wouldn't have left for a situation where he might not be the dominant QB, but then Campbell isn't out for the season and was playing well in Oakland, so there's no telling what'll happen in late December, not to mention next year.) 
  • The Giants could have gone into Foxborough and lost, and no one would have been that surprised. They'd still be in first place in the East, they'd still have a good shot at the division, and we wouldn't have thought twice about it. Instead, they come away with a win, and not just a win, but a win on a last-minute drive. True, New England's defense is nothing like what it once was, but that doesn't mean that a drive on the road in those situations is easy, and Manning deserves credit for making it happen. The OL kept him clean (the Patriots recorded no sacks), and although Eli completed just over half of his passes, he was 4 of 5 on the first touchdown drive (plus a defensive PI call) and 3 of 6 on the second drive (plus another defensive PI). Just enough to get the job done. This was a huge start to New York's grueling second-half stretch (technically this was the last game of the first half for them, but you know what I mean). Another difficult game is up Sunday: a loss to San Francisco would make it hard for the Giants to get a first-round bye, but a win could push them closer to a shot at the #1 overall seed in the conference.
  • Four turnovers, two touchdown drives yielded in the last half of the fourth quarter ... this looks almost like an ordinary team, not a Patriots team. Lack of pass pressure is definitely an issue, and it's noteworthy that despite that problem (or perhaps because of it), Albert Haynesworth is no longer on the team. New England's remaining schedule is pretty soft, so they could still make the playoffs, but don't be surprised if they end up visiting the Jets or Bills and getting whacked in January. I just don't know if you can fix personnel issues this late in the season.
  • The one thing the Rams are doing well is avoiding interceptions. They have the third-fewest interceptions per drive, behind only the 49ers and Lions. They're dead last in points per drive and 26th in starting field position, though, and you could see that in the Cardinals game. They did not start a single possession in Cardinals territory, and they settled for field goal attempts on four of seven drives that reached Arizona's half of the field (the other three ended in punts). You'd think it was because they were having Bradford dump the ball off underneath instead of pushing it into coverage, but he's completing just over half of his passes ... if he is dumping it short, he's not even doing that well. Something has to change to take some of the pressure off the defense: there aren't too many games in NFL history where a team recorded two safeties and lost. (Denver did against Seattle during a loss in 1983 and Buffalo did the same against Houston in 2003; two other teams recorded two safeties on 10/5/2003, but they both won.)
  • Kevin Kolb should sit out this week as well. He's not going to gain anything by going up against his former team. Arizona is still a lousy team, even after their win over St. Louis, and they're going to lose to the Eagles no matter who is at quarterback. Better that he gets healthy for the return engagement in St. Louis than that he rushes back and gets pounded by the Eagles' and 49ers' defenses. Larry Fitzgerald managed to get a TD in the win, but it's small consolation: not only is he stuck on yet another bad team, but he's running about 20-30% under his normal receptions pace. (Strangely, his YPC is a career-high 17.0, well above his 14.9 in 2008. Maybe opponents just can't believe that Kolb or Skelton actually found him?)
  • Aaron Rodgers was very efficient yet again in San Diego, but yet again the defense nearly gave the game away at the end. Mike McCarthy has to be concerned about a team that forced only two punts and nearly gave up a 21-point fourth-quarter lead ... it's one thing for Dallas or Minnesota to give up a lead like that, but they're not contenders, and those were first-half or third-quarter leads anyway. It would have been hard to fault the offense if the Packers had lost that game. It's easy to say that that won't happen again, but the Chargers had a second-tier offense that instead looked like Green Bay's for much of the second half; the defense cannot perform like that against the Giants and possibly the Lions if Green Bay is to run the regular-season table, and if anything happens to cause problems on offense, this team could come to a crashing halt.
  • The two first-quarter mistakes Philip Rivers made may have cost the Chargers the game, but Rivers deserves credit for getting the team back into a position to make a run at a win. Antonio Gates looks to be either recovered from his latest injury or strong enough to fight through whatever pain remains. Mike Tolbert's doing a good job replacing Darren Sproles. The defense is really the area of concern, although it's hard to assign them much blame for failing to slow down the Green Bay juggernaut. They do have to play better against Oakland and Denver, though, and the Chicago game in between may be a good test as well. Jay Cutler will make mistakes if you let him.
  • The Ravens pulled off a dramatic sweep of the Steelers, giving them the inside shot at the AFC North title and a likely first-round bye (or possibly even the #1 seed, given that neither the South nor the West seems capable of producing a 12-win team, and the East may well beat each other up). The offense still doesn't look that good, but they did turn the ball over only once; John Harbaugh may be lowering his expectation to where Flacco is expected only to be a caretaker, rather than a problem-solver, and that might be more in line with the QB's recent level of performance. Flacco's still around his 2008 numbers rather than what he posted in 2009 and 2010, and that may not be enough to lead the Ravens to a Super Bowl win, or even to an appearance in Indy if they should face a team like the Jets in the playoffs. The Ravens need to know that the offense can get a touchdown or two when it's needed, and while that did happen Sunday night, it's not happened often enough to make this truly a championship-caliber team, even at 6-2.
  • Pittsburgh's defense allowed Baltimore to convert an amazing 14 of 21 third-down opportunities ... six drives of 10 plays or more ... although they gave up just one drive of more than 50 yards, that happened to be the game-winning drive, and it came after a drive that started at the Steelers' 46 and gained just 19 yards in 6 plays. Pittsburgh has come up short in both games against Baltimore, and with Cincinnati winning games against weaker opposition, there's a real possibility that those games might leave the defending AFC champs at home during playoff time. This Sunday's game at Cincinnati isn't necessarily a must-win game, but losing it would give Pittsburgh three division losses, all to teams ahead of them in the standings. It's one thing to look at the games against St. Louis and Cleveland as must-win games, but another to actually win them; don't overlook the boost the Browns might get if they knew they could knock the Steelers out of the playoffs with a January win at Cleveland.
  • Chicago did two important things Monday night: they beat a potential playoff competitor, and they kept Cutler from being sacked. They have the opportunity to do exactly the same thing Sunday, and repetition of the later event will have a direct impact on their ability to repeat the former. Giving up third-down conversions seemed to be an issue for the Bears, and they did have weaknesses in both aspects of their offense (two fumbles by Forte, just over 50% completions from Cutler), but a road win is a road win, and there's a huge difference between being 5-3 with a chance to tie for second in your division vs. being 4-4 with the possibility of falling three games back plus knowing you've lost the head-to-head tiebreaker. Chicago probably won't catch the Packers for first in the North or the NFC, but then they got first-hand experience last year that tells them home-field advantage isn't always necessary. Their next step is to beat Detroit; the rest can wait.
  • The NFC isn't strong enough to count most teams out of the hunt yet (except for the NFC West; San Francisco is in and the others are out), but the laughably-named Dream Team doesn't have much time to get things fixed. The Eagles are three games out of first, with a loss in hand against the first-place Giants, and they're two games out of the second wild-card spot, with losses in hand against both the Bears and Falcons. A loss November 20 at the Giants will likely end all playoff hopes; Dallas and Tampa Bay are both a game ahead of the Eagles, and there's no way Philadelphia could overcome even a three-game deficit in the division, much less a four-game deficit with the Giants holding a sweep. Win that, and they still might have to win out to take the division, which means beating the Patriots and Jets in Philadelphia.
Not much has changed; I guess the AFC West really is that bad, and no team in the AFC really seems to be that good, but then each week Green Bay seems determined to show how badly their defense can play, so I wouldn't suggest that Packers fans start checking with their Indianapolis-area friends about crashing in early February. (Hint: don't ask me. Hell no. Stay outside in the cold, freaks.) The NFC will probably see some separation in the next couple of weeks, but the AFC might have a number of teams in play all the way through Week 17. We'll see.

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