Sunday October 10th, 2010

Musings, observations and the occasional insight from a field-goal filled Week 5 of NFL action ...

• Two short weeks. That's about all it takes in today's NFL to completely flip the script. Two weeks ago, the New York Giants looked like an undisciplined disaster in a penalty-strewn loss at home to the Tennessee Titans, and the buzzards were already starting to circle the head of New York's embattled coach, Tom Coughlin. Some observers even had Bill Cowher measuring the drapes in Coughlin office, and the opinions of one Tiki Barber were again in demand.

But a mere 14 days later, the Giants (3-2) look far more dominant than disastrous. A 17-3, sack-filled win over the visiting Bears last Sunday night got New York headed in the right direction, and on Sunday at Houston's Reliant Stadium, the G-Men fairly well dismantled a Texans (3-2) team that was the toast of the NFL entering Week 3.

(N)ot F(or) L(ong), indeed.

Houston, beaten 34-10 by the Giants, just showed us the other side of how quickly fortunes can change. The Texas were riding high with their 2-0 start, but in Weeks 3 and 5, they dropped a pair of home games against the Cowboys and Giants -- losing by 14 and 24 points -- and now look remarkably similar to the recent Houston teams that never seemed able to either stand prosperity or make the playoffs.

The Giants' refocused defense suddenly looks for real, giving up just 13 points in its past two games. The Texans' once-unstoppable offense suddenly looks fraudulent, having scored just 23 points in the losses to the then-0-2 Cowboys and 2-2 Giants. All that newfound resilience and maturity on display in Houston in its wins over Indianapolis and Washington, that's so September.

Both teams, we should note, are still tied for first place in their divisions. But now it feels like they're hurtling in opposite directions, with the Giants coming off their most complete game of the season, and the Texans coming off their worst showing yet. That could and probably will change again, of course. Let's give it another two weeks and see where the season takes the Texans and Giants. It has been an eventful ride already for both franchises in early 2010.

• Houston quarterback Matt Schaub has seven touchdowns and five interceptions this season. In his last three games, he has thrown for three of each, with a passer rating of 77.7 in the loss against Dallas and 53.1 in the loss to the Giants. I know Schaub's very good, but he won't be great in my book until he can consistently deliver when the pressure's on. He does it sometimes, and other times, not so much.

• I'd love to know what Calvin Johnson thought of that 21-yard, game-deciding catch by Bucs receiver Michael Spurlock in the final seconds of Tampa Bay's 24-21 upset at Cincinnati. Really, NFL, that was a reception? Even though Spurlock clearly used the ground to help secure the ball as he landed, and the ball ended up moving in his arms as he came in contact with the ground anyway?

To repeat myself from Week 1, I'm not sure I know what a legal catch is any more. I was almost positive Spurlock's catch would be reversed by replay, because I thought the cameras clearly showed he failed to maintain possession once he hit the ground. The way I saw it, Johnson's nullified game-winning catch against the Bears in Week 1 was about three times more of a catch than Spurlock's upheld reception against the Bengals.

Why do I think we're in for another four of five days of raging debate about this latest call, and that the NFL's rules for the possession of a reception just got more confusing than ever?

• Just another undisciplined losing effort by the Cowboys, who have kind of specialized in those throughout a good bit of the Wade Phillips era. The talent's there, but I don't think Dallas will ever do the little things that it takes to win big in the NFL. And that should be dawning on even Jerry Jones by now.

• Big, impressive win for the Titans at Dallas, and now the AFC South is my favorite division in the league. Houston, Jacksonville, Tennessee and Indianapolis are all 3-2, tied for first and tied for last. That's the kind of year it has been so far in the NFL.

Kyle Orton kept up the aerial assault for the Broncos, rolling up 314 yards of passing against the Ravens' top-ranked pass defense. But after Baltimore took a 17-0 lead in the second quarter, it felt mostly like Orton was wracking up garbage-time yards.

• Cardinals rookie Max Hall defeating the defending Super Bowl champion Saints in his first NFL start is a tremendous story. But Hall had better learn how to avoid contact better than he did in the first half, when Saints defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove slammed into him on that scramble at the New Orleans 2. There's tough, and then there's dumb. In the NFL, dumb usually gets you a seat on the sideline and a spot on the IR.

• Where exactly has that Cardinals defense been all season? With Arizona's defense putting 14 points on the board courtesy of return touchdowns by defensive backs Kerry Rhodes and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, the Saints are officially in some trouble. Not to mention undisputed second place in their division for the first time since before the 2009 began.

• Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha is bucking for my all-overrated team this season. He was called for three penalties against the Chargers, and that's not a shut-down corner. That's the kind of cornerback at which the other team loves to throw.

Jason Campbell deserves a dose of credit for helping lead Oakland to its first win over San Diego in seven years, despite the shock of being buried on the bench in recent weeks. I'm not sure Campbell will ever be the guy for Oakland head coach Tom Cable, who clearly prefers Bruce Gradkowski. But the ex-Redskin hung up 159 yards passing and one touchdown in relief of the injured Gradkowski on Sunday, and that steady showing helped Oakland to its biggest AFC West victory in Cable's tenure.

• I think they got hosed on the Spurlock call, but that doesn't absolve the Bengals entirely. The defending AFC North champs let a Bucs team that won three games last year pin a third loss on them, dropping Cincinnati to below .500 at 2-3, two full games behind first-place Baltimore.

Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer turned in another puzzling performance, throwing three interceptions, with just 209 yards of passing and a completion percentage of only 58.3. Palmer looks like he's losing confidence by the minute, and I can't remember the last time I thought he looked like one of the game's elite starting quarterbacks.

• Maybe Chad Ochocinco will tweet Sunday night and tell us what he was doing when that game-turning interception bounced off his hands to Bucs safety Sabby Piscitelli in the final 25 seconds of the fourth quarter.

• Kudos to Josh Freeman and the Bucs for hanging in there against the Bengals and finding a way to get it done. I think I'm on to Tampa Bay's plan of attack this season. The Bucs have beaten Cleveland, Carolina and Cincinnati, and are obviously intent on getting a win against every NFL city or state that begins with a C. Alas, Chicago isn't on Tampa Bay's regular-season schedule, so a four-game sweep appears out of the question.

• I know the Chiefs weren't going to beat the Colts on the road by playing it entirely safe, but Todd Haley might want to dial it back a bit on the risk-taking front. Kansas City's game-opening onside kick didn't work -- it's the second onside Haley's called for in two games -- and the Chiefs got zero points on their 15-play first drive because they went for a 4th-and-2 near the goal line and failed.

In a game that finished 19-9 Indy, those calls arguably cost Kansas City six points, so they weren't insignificant.

• I'm more impressed every week with the Chiefs' young secondary, and Kansas City's defense has been superb, in general, for most of the season. Holding the Colts to four field goals and one touchdown gets Indy beat on most NFL Sundays. Kansas City has given up just one non-garbage time touchdown in its past two games.

That's why it's a shame quarterback Matt Cassel is still holding his team back at times. I did see at least three drops by Kansas City pass catchers (Dwayne Bowe, we're looking in your direction), but Cassel just can't threaten a defense consistently yet. He finished with 156 yards passing and no touchdowns.

• The Chiefs were trying to line up for a 51-yard field goal attempt with 1:12 to go at Indy, but something was missing. Namely, a holder. Kicker Ryan Succop kept looking over at the sideline, and finally Dustin Colquitt, the team's punter and holder, came racing on to the field. That's the first time I've seen that one. You wouldn't think the punter/holder had that much to keep track of in terms of responsibilities.

• With the 3-0 Chiefs losing, not only is it the first time since 1970 that no one in the NFL made it to 4-0, but also it's the earliest the grumps known as the 1972 Dolphins had to spring for their big annual champagne toast to themselves. Drink up, Mercury Morris. You're relevant for another year.

• So I'm watching the Jaguars-Bills game early Sunday afternoon and the announcers point out that Buffalo quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick plays the position while wearing his wedding ring. (You don't think he's scuffing balls, do you?)

I found that fact both bizarre, and almost impossibly cool, all at the same time. Here's to you, Mrs. Fitzpatrick. Maybe it'll become a trend.

Come to think of it, if he thought it gave him an advantage, Tom Brady would probably wear all three of his Super Bowl rings out there every week.

• Speaking of married quarterbacks, maybe we know a little bit more why Brett Favre felt somewhat hesitant to come back to what seemed like such a great situation in Minnesota this season. With this Deadspin story, it strikes me that Favre might have considerably more to lose by playing this season than just some football games.

• What a brutal week for the Packers, to lose a fourth-quarter, 10-point lead at Washington and the services of four key contributors in NFL sacks leader Clay Matthews (hamstring), tight end Jermichael Finley (knee), tight end Donald Lee (shoulder) and defensive tackle Ryan Pickett (ankle). Then, in the postgame, came the news that quarterback Aaron Rodgers suffered a concussion during overtime.

Green Bay was banged up coming into Week 5, and now the Packers figure to be in near-crisis mode when it comes to health as they prepare for a visit from Miami and Minnesota over the next two weeks.

The Packers simply can't be taken seriously as a Super Bowl contender at the moment. Green Bay has little killer instinct and it keeps letting inferior teams hang around all game. Green Bay's final seven possessions at Washington ended in four punts, two missed field goals by Mason Crosby and the interception that set up the Redskins' winning field goal in their 16-13 upset.

But the carnage wasn't completely confined to Green Bay's depth chart. In the early Sunday games, Broncos rookie receiver Demaryius Thomas (head/neck), Rams receiver Mark Clayton (right leg), Browns quarterback Seneca Wallace (ankle), Colts running back Joseph Addai (shoulder) and Lions receiver Calvin Johnson (shoulder) all exited their games with injuries.

It's not getting any easier for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to make the case to the players for an 18-game regular season, is it?

• Jacksonville is another 3-2, tied-for-first-place club that has dramatically reversed its course in the span of the past two weeks. The Jaguars were down 10-0 early at Buffalo, then proceeded to rip off 36 of the game's next 46 points to win comfortably, 36-26.

With wins over the Colts and Bills, Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio is officially off the hot seat.

Shaun Hill isn't about to bump Matthew Stafford out of the starting lineup in Detroit, but he's not a bad insurance policy to have on hand as your backup quarterback. Hill can play some. There are plenty of teams that could use a passer capable of posting a 21-of-32 day, for 227 yards and three touchdowns.

• Have we ever seen worse quarterbacking than we had to endure in the Bears' 23-6 beat down of the Panthers? Carolina rookie Jimmy Clausen was 9-of-22 for 61 yards and one interception -- and he was the most efficient passer in the game. Bears starter Todd Collins finished 6-of-16 for 32 yards and four picks, before being yanked in favor of Caleb Hanie.

Clausen actually got benched too, with former Carolina starter Matt Moore re-entering the picture in the second half. Moore didn't exactly reclaim the starting job, however. He completed 5-of-10 passes for 35 yards and two interceptions in his relief stint.

• I knew ex-Panther Julius Peppers would be ready to play when the Bears visited Carolina this week, but that was one of the interceptions of the year he made against Jimmy Clausen. Tip it up in the air, then dive and pick it off just above the turf. That's about as good as it gets for a defensive lineman. The only one better on Sunday was Atlanta's Kroy Biermann's against Cleveland, which the defensive end tipped, dove to catch and then got up to return it for a touchdown.

• After the Lions rookie's Peppers-like highlight-reel interception, score it Ndamukong Suh 1, Sam Bradford 0. But I have a feeling the 2010 draft's top two picks will have another chance or three to go at it before their careers are over. And for the record, I think the Lions are one of the best 1-4 teams I've ever seen. I think the Rams would at least agree with me on that one.

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