Musings, observations and the occasional insight from a Week 5 that got better and better as the day unfolded. ...
• I know you can't spell either Denver or Dallas without the letter D, but the irony is that no one saw any sign of D all day in this instant classic, a 51-48 Broncos win over the suddenly below .500 Cowboys Sunday at AT&T Stadium.
For the Broncos, Von Miller, the team's suspended pass rushing outside linebacker, can't come back soon enough. He's eligible to return after sitting out one final game, next week's bye week, I mean, visit from winless Jacksonville. And veteran cornerback Champ Bailey (foot) could help matters, too, if he can finally return to the field.
For the Cowboys (2-3), unbelievably, all anyone is going to be talking about this week is the game-deciding interception Tony Romo threw to diving Broncos linebacker Danny Trevathan with 1:57 remaining. That was really the only mistake Romo made all day, but his career's finest game was ruined by it, thanks to the last-second 28-yard Matt Prater field goal it set up.
Romo threw for a team-record 506 yards and five touchdowns against Denver, but his pick took the spotlight off a Cowboys defense that allowed Peyton Manning to throw for 414 yards, with four touchdown passes and another score on the ground. The teams' combined 99 points are tied for the fourth most in league history, and it was only the fourth time in NFL play that both teams scored at least 48.
Denver joined Kanas City and New Orleans as the three remaining undefeated teams at 5-0, but it can't be feeling particularly invincible right now. Not after Romo carved up the Broncos, feeding his pass-catchers enough that three posted 100-yard games: receiver Terrance Williams had four catches for 151 yards and a touchdown; Dez Bryant had a monster six-catch, 141-yard game with two scores; and tight end Jason Witten chipped in with seven receptions for 121 yards and a touchdown.
As bad as the Cowboys defense looked, at least it exited the game in better shape than Denver's. The Broncos lost three starters on defense, with cornerback Chris Harris suffering a concussion, and defensive end Robert Ayers and linebacker Wesley Woodyard both injuring shoulders.
The Broncos and Manning roll on, while Romo's reputation for game-turning mistakes just got reinforced. But in many ways, both teams might want to put this one behind them as quickly as possible.
• The doubters were plentiful last season when the Indianapolis Colts came out of nowhere to go 11-5 and make the AFC playoffs with a rookie head coach and a rookie quarterback. Indy was the feel-good story of the year in 2012, mainly because of the way the team rallied around coach Chuck Pagano in his battle with leukemia, and the way Andrew Luck seamlessly replaced Peyton Manning and kept reeling off fourth-quarter comeback victories.
But you had to wonder if the turnaround Colts could duplicate that blueprint for success this season without the benefit of such an emotional cause to play for, or a coveted last-place schedule to fatten up on. Indianapolis and Luck wouldn't sneak up on anyone this time, and there's never any repeating of the karma necessary to play the role of the league's sentimental favorites. History says that type of lightning never strikes twice.
But while the Colts may not make for as good a story this year, they're clearly a much better team than last season's surprise winners. They proved that emphatically on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium, rallying to knock off the undefeated Seattle Seahawks 34-28, in a game that displayed the Colts' resilience, depth of roster and emergence among the NFL's elite class.
Down 12-0 in the first quarter, and 25-17 in the third quarter, Indy scored 17 of the game's final 20 points and hung a defeat on a Seattle team that knows a little something about fourth-quarter magic itself. But unlike last week in Houston, the Seahawks weren't fortunate enough to run up against quarterback Matt Schaub and his pick-six machine on this particular Sunday. Luck doesn't gift-wrap games and give them away in the fourth quarter. He steals them, and then seals them.
Lo and behold, the hard-charging Colts are now 4-1 and in sole possession of first place in the AFC South. For division opponents Tennessee (3-2), Houston (2-2) and Jacksonville (0-5), it must seem like old times, looking up at Indy in the standings. In the span of three games, the Colts have throttled two of the NFC's top heavyweights in San Francisco (27-7 on the road in Week 3) and the Seahawks, and signaled that they are a force to be reckoned with in their division, the AFC and in the Super Bowl chase.
And while we're at it, is it possible we've all over-looked Luck just a tad, in terms of his standing in 2012's spectacular quarterback class? Washington's Robert Griffin III is such a unique dual-threat talent, and Seattle's Russell Wilson's stardom was so unexpected, that perhaps we've actually short-changed Luck's accomplishments in the first 21 regular-season games of his NFL career.
In improving his record as a starter to 15-6, Luck posted his ninth career fourth-quarter comeback, finishing 16-of-29 for 229 yards, with two touchdowns, a key two-point conversion pass to Reggie Wayne and nary a pick in the highly anticipated head-to-head matchup with Wilson. Luck sputtered with three consecutive three-and-out drives to start the game, but the Colts twice overcame Seattle leads, and the ex-Stanford star once again showed the ability to close out a game, throwing for 132 yards and a touchdown in the second half, on 11-of-16 passing.
The even better news for Indianapolis is how many different players contributed to Sunday's signature win. From second-year receiver T.Y. Hilton's five catches for a career-best 140 yards, including touchdowns of 70 and 29 yards, to Delano Howell's 61-yard touchdown off a blocked second-quarter Seattle field goal attempt, to cornerback Darius Butler's game-clinching interception of Wilson with 1:23 remaining, the Colts are finding multiple ways to beat opponents.
Indianapolis' Robert Mathis is another playmaker not to be forgotten. With another two sacks -- including a strip sack of Wilson at the end of the first half -- Mathis has 9.5 sacks in five games. Who said he needed to play second fiddle to pass-rusher Dwight Freeney? Even running back Trent Richardson, while not posting big statistics (18 runs for 56 yards, 3.1 average) helped Indy's cause with a key third-down conversion late.
Five weeks into the 2013 season, Indianapolis has made it clear last year was no fluke. We now know the Colts had far more than just the Cinderella narrative on their side in 2012. They were an emerging team, taking a first sizable step. But they're already on their way to bigger and better things, as the impressive conquest of Seattle showed. After next week's trip to San Diego for a Monday-night appearance, Indianapolis will get to measure itself against visiting Denver and Peyton Manning in Week 7, the biggest challenge going in today's NFL.
At this point, the only thing Indy won't be able to duplicate from its successful 2012 formula is its underdog status. That's gone, probably for good.
• Now we definitely know things are different in New Orleans this season. Drew Brees didn't throw for 300 yards against the Bears on the road at Soldier Field, and the Saints still won 26-18. Brees entered the game with an NFL-record nine straight 300-yard passing efforts, but he threw for "only'' 288 yards and a pair of touchdowns against Chicago.
The Saints are 5-0 for the first time since their Super Bowl season of 2009, and this was their most impressive win of the season in a lot of ways. New Orleans had three home wins and a 15-13 squeaker at Tampa Bay earlier this year, but beating the Bears in dominating fashion on the road was a confidence builder.
The Saints even showed they have a running game, or at least a productive running back. When they throw him the ball, that is. Pierre Thomas, a Chicago native, burned his hometown team with nine catches for 55 yards, including touchdown receptions of 2 and 25 yards. Thomas also chipped in 36 yards on 19 carries, keeping the Bears defense honest when it came to playing the run.
Next week's glamor game is easy to spot: The Saints at New England. The Patriots (4-1) lost for the first time, falling 13-6 at Cincinnati, but it's still Brees versus Brady, so not much of the luster has been lost.
• What a brutal few weeks it's been when it comes to quarterback carnage. Week 5 got underway with Cleveland's Brian Hoyer and Buffalo's EJ Manuel both going down in Thursday night's Browns' win, with Hoyer cruelly lost for the season due to an ACL injury and Manuel expected to miss four-to-six weeks with a knee sprain.
Then came Sunday, when Philadelphia's Michael Vick was forced to leave the Eagles' win over the Giants with a hamstring injury that is still being evaluated. The same fate belonged to Jacksonville's oft-injured Blaine Gabbert, who was knocked from a loss in St. Louis with a hamstring pull.
This after Tennessee's Jake Locker (hip), Oakland's Terrelle Pryor (concussion) and Minnesota's Christian Ponder (rib) all were hurt in Weeks 3-4, resulting in at least one game missed each. Yeah, I think they'll be a market for Josh Freeman's services all right. There might never be enough league-wide depth at the quarterback position.
• On Vick's injury, that's what you get with No. 7. You live by his ability to make plays with his legs, and sometimes you die with him running the ball. He carried seven times for a productive 79 yards in the win over the Giants, but he didn't even make it to halftime without getting hurt. That's the same double-edged sword his game has always presented.
And now here comes backup Nick Foles, who probably started the quarterback controversy debate in Philly, throwing for 197 yards and a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns in relief of Vick.
Eagles rookie head coach Chip Kelly said Vick will be his starter when he's healthy again, and I take him at his word. At least at the moment. Philadelphia's offense is more explosive with Vick under center, and Kelly covets that quick-strike ability.
That said, Foles did a very nice job in Philadelphia's much-needed win, posting a 114.9 rating with 16 completions in 25 attempts and taking just one sack. If Foles has to play next week at Tampa Bay, at least he'll be on familiar ground. His only win as a rookie starter last season was a 23-21 comeback effort at the Bucs in Week 14. That was Andy Reid's last coaching victory in Philadelphia.
• Oh, and don't forget to call them the first-place Eagles. Thanks to the Cowboys' loss at home to Denver, the NFC East is officially completely under water. Dallas and Philadelphia are tied for the top spot at 2-3, with Washington taking its bye this week at 1-2, and the woeful Giants sitting 0-5 for the first time since 1987.
• Love that Bengals defense, and have for two seasons now. But that Bengals offense? Not so much. Cincinnati's seven-point win over New England keeps things in a three-way knot atop the AFC North, with the Bengals, Ravens and Browns all standing 3-2. But that red-zone interception, Andy Dalton? That was a mistake you simply can't continue to make if Cincinnati is to be taken seriously as an AFC Super Bowl contender.
• The Dolphins, with back-to-back losses after that 3-0 start, aren't ready to slug it out with the heavyweights in the AFC. Not with pass protection becoming such a glaring weakness in Miami. Baltimore was ripe for the taking on Sunday, but the Dolphins gave up another six sacks of Ryan Tannehill and lost 26-23 in a back-and-forth struggle with the defending Super Bowl champions.
Miami's offensive line is abysmal. Tannehill has been dropped 24 times in five games, and the Dolphins lost 35 yards due to sacks against Baltimore. At least Miami has some time to try to find a fix up front. The Dolphins are on their bye in Week 6, before getting a visit from Buffalo in Week 7.
• For a good bit of the day, the Ravens seemed to be staring at the reality of being under .500 this late in the season for the first time since 2008, John Harbaugh's rookie year as the team's head coach. But Baltimore's stars really showed up when needed in Miami. Running back Ray Rice ran for a season-high 74 yards, scored twice and caught six passes for 28 yards. No. 1 receiver Torrey Smith came through with six receptions for 121 yards, including a long gain of 41 yards. Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs abused Miami on the pass rush, collecting three of his team's six sacks.
Most importantly, quarterback Joe Flacco bounced back from that five-interception debacle in Buffalo last week, throwing for 269 yards and leading Baltimore on scoring drives of 80, 72 and 94 yards on the Ravens' first three second-half possessions. That took the game from a 13-6 Miami lead, to a 23-13 Baltimore advantage. Not bad considering the Ravens dressed only three healthy receivers against Miami: Smith, Tandon Doss and Deonte Thompson. Marlon Brown (thigh) and Jacoby Jones (knee) were inactive, and the team released Brandon Stokely on Saturday.
• Speaking of interceptions, Eli Manning threw three more in Week 5, all in the fourth quarter. He has 12 in five games, and seems to be forcing things more than we've ever seen before. At 0-5, the Giants aren't dead, because they're only two games out of first in the wacky NFC East, with 11 games remaining. (I know, I know, but it's true. Facts are stubborn things.) No 0-5 team has ever made the NFL playoffs, but maybe no 0-5 team has ever had a division this bad to hang around in.
Still this is as ugly as it gets on both sides of the ball for New York. The Giants had a 21-19 lead late in the third quarter and wound up losing by 15 points. New York's defense has given up at least 31 points in all five games this season, and there hasn't been a team that started that porously on defense in the NFL since the 1954 Chicago Cardinals. Was the 36-21 loss to Philly progress in any way? Only given that the Giants had lost by a combined 69-7 in its most recent two games.
• I'm starting to think the officials don't know what a safety looks like any more. Maybe they've gone the way of the legal catch, and are nearly impossible to define. For the second week in a row, I saw a safety not called on a play that really looked like a safety. It happened on that carry by Giants running back David Wilson against the Eagles, when Wilson was hit on about the 1-yard line and driven back into the end zone. (Wilson hurt his neck on the play and left the game for good.)
I get the concept of forward progress, but in this case, Wilson came free in the end zone without being tackled, and tried to run again. Philadelphia at that point tackled him, and he was still awarded his forward progress at about the 2. It was a generous interpretation, to say the least.
Last week, there was another dubious decision made by the game officials in the Titans-Jets game, when New York's rookie quarterback Geno Smith seemed to be tackled in the end zone. The officials all kind of looked at each other on that play, waiting for someone to make the call. Finally it was decided Smith's forward progress was just beyond the goal line and he was given a very gracious spot, avoiding the damaging two-point play.
• Carolina was coming off a bye and the positive vibes of that 38-0 blowout of the Giants in Week 3, but now the Panthers (1-3) are right back at square one on offense. Slow-starting Carolina lost 22-6 at Arizona, and it's the fifth straight year that the Panthers have been 1-3 or worse after four games.
How bad did Carolina look offensively? Cardinals quarterback Carson "I used to be good'' Palmer threw three interceptions, and he was the game's "hot'' quarterback. Panthers quarterback Cam Newton tossed three picks, fumbled once and was sacked seven times, including for a safety. Newton even hit a game official with one of his errant throws.
The Cardinals improved to 3-2, but make no mistake, they're not a juggernaut. This was a game Carolina had every expectation to win, and it wasn't even all that competitive. Arizona has a quality defense, but the Panthers look lost once again early in the season on offense, and that's another brick in the wall when it comes to head coach Ron Rivera's ultra-shaky job status.
• Every time you think Jacksonville's misery can't deepen, it does. The Jaguars put up a good fight at St. Louis, before losing 34-20, but the loss of rookie offensive left tackle Luke Joeckel to a season-ending broken ankle is another disheartening development for Gus Bradley's winless team. Jacksonville, of course, just days ago traded former starting left tackle Eugene Monroe to Baltimore and shifted Joeckel, the draft's No. 2 overall pick, from right tackle to the left side.
Getting receiver Justin Blackmon back in the lineup after his four-game suspension was a plus for Jacksonville, and he contributed a 67-yard touchdown reception on his first touch of the season. But his five-catch, 136-yard day was offset by the loss of Joeckel, and the Jags took another body blow when starting quarterback Blaine Gabbert left the game with a hamstring injury.