INDIANAPOLIS -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight from an entertaining Week 7 while awaiting the spectacle of P. Manning's big homecoming in Colts-land. ...
• Maybe it's all those household activities they abstained from at the behest of their head coach last week, but these New York Jets are clearly living right these days. How else to explain the game-deciding penalty that went their way Sunday in overtime at MetLife Stadium, when Rex Ryan's team benefited from an obscure new rule that had yet to be called all season until now?
Patriots rookie defensive tackle Chris Jones was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct on a missed Nick Folk 56-yard field goal attempt after he got behind a teammate and pushed him into the offensive formation at the line of scrimmage. Given new life, the Jets quickly took advantage of the break, with Folk kicking a game-winning 42-yard field goal moments later to seal New York's dramatic 30-27 win over New England.
The Patriots and their fans can and probably will scream about the call, but it was actually a victory for player safety, because that rule was instituted in an effort to make the game safer in the scrum that is the line of scrimmage on field goal tries. The rule is on the books and there was going to be a first time at some point.
Unfortunately for New England, the timing of the flag was devastating. Instead of being set up with prime field position to mount a game-winning drive of their own after Folk's miss, the Patriots were essentially finished as soon as the call was made. Given a mulligan, Folk remained perfect on field goal attempts, improving to 14-of-14 as the Jets climbed above .500 at 4-3, just a game behind first-place New England (5-2) in the AFC East.
The Patriots might fixate on that controversial call, but they have only themselves to blame for not being able to put the pesky Jets away after building a 21-10 lead. The tenor of the game changed early in the third quarter when Tom Brady -- last week's comeback story hero against the Saints -- threw an uncharacteristic pick-six to Jets second-year safety Anthony Allen, who returned it 23 yards to give New York hope and re-energize the crowd.
The injury-plagued Patriots got the boost they were needing with the return of tight end Rob Gronkowski (who tied a career-high with eight catches for 114 yards), but Brady and the New England offense weren't sharp enough to pull out another miracle win this time. The Patriots were just 1-of-12 on third down, not converting until the fourth quarter, and Brady finished 22-of-46 for 228 yards, with four sacks and just a pair of field-goal drives after halftime.
Rookie quarterback Geno Smith had his moments, but you have to give most of the credit for the win to the Jets' stout defense, which has been legit all season long. New York picked off Brady for the first time since 2011, and registered its first interception of any kind since Week 1. You remember Week 1. It's when the Jets got their season off to a fortuitous start, winning narrowly on a long Folk field goal after a late personal foul penalty by Bucs linebacker Lavonte David pushed New York into makeable field-goal range.
The Jets, of course, don't mind being both lucky and good. They were supposed to be a season-long train wreck in 2013, remember? So much for that supposed given. New York snapped its five-game losing streak to New England, and ended the Patriots' 12-0 run against division opponents. The Jets still haven't won two games in a row, alternating wins and losses every week this season. They won't be favored to break that pattern next week at AFC North-leading Cincinnati (5-2) either. But they're hanging tough, making the most of every break they get, and starting to build a little mojo as a team capable of much more than we presumed.
And when they win in such unlikely fashion like they did again Sunday, Ryan probably even lets them get back to taking care of their household duties.
• It would appear my AFC Super Bowl pick isn't looking as silly as it did in September. The first-place Bengals won another thriller on the road Sunday, staving off Detroit 27-24, thanks to a second consecutive game-winning Mike Nugent field goal, this one from 54 yards on the game's final play. Nugent beat the Bills in overtime with a 43-yarder last week on the road, and Cincinnati (5-2) is suddenly a team that has a little steel in its spine.
The best news for the Bengals is the way third-year quarterback Andy Dalton, as very much needed, is stepping up his game. Dalton made big plays against the Lions, and he's meeting the challenge posed by those who said his inconsistency was the only thing keeping Cincinnati from elite status in the AFC. Dalton had a few throws he could have executed better, but he completed 24-of-34 passes for a whopping 374 yards, with three touchdowns and nary an interception. And he stretched the field vertically like he needs to, finding A.J. Green on an early 82-yard touchdown bomb, and connecting with Green six times for 155 yards and that score overall.
It wasn't all good news for the Bengals though. Cincinnati lost its No. 1 cornerback Leon Hall in the first quarter to what is reportedly a season-ending Achilles tear, and also later saw linebacker Rey Maualuga and defensive tackle Devon Still leave the game with injuries.
But a second straight road win improved Cincinnati to 2-2 in that department, and that's a good sign for the season's second half. The Bengals go home next week to face the Jets, but then complete a stretch of four road games in five weeks with trips to Miami and Baltimore in Weeks 9-10. Finding a way to win the late, close games is getting to be a welcomed habit in Cincinnati.
• That Josh McCown, he's no Caleb Hanie. The Bears lost their 45-41 slugfest at Washington and their starting quarterback Jay Cutler with a groin injury, but Chicago can't blame McCown. The Bears backup entered in the second quarter and wound up with a dazzling 119.6 passer rating, throwing for 204 yards and a touchdown on 14-of-20 passing. His scoring pass to tight end Martellus Bennett with just under four minutes remaining looked like a game-winner, at least until Robert Griffin III led Washington on an 80-yard touchdown march in response, getting a 3-yard Roy Helu scoring run to finally vanquish Chicago.
There's no word on the severity of Cutler's injury, but he could barely walk off the field, while leaning on a team official. That makes the Bears' Week 8 bye particularly well-timed, but then come NFC North showdowns at Green Bay and home against Detroit, the two teams Chicago is fighting for division supremacy. If Cutler is out for long, at least the Bears have a fighting chance to stay afloat with McCown.
• Those Washington special teams are proving special in all the wrong ways. Chicago's Devin Hester went practically untouched up the right sideline for an NFL-record-tying 81-yard punt return against the Redskins, a week after Dallas burned Washington for two long returns last Sunday night.
I wouldn't want to be first-year Washington special teams coach Keith Burns about now. He got some support last week from Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan, but there is a limit to the reservoir of patience on that front. The win will help disguise the issue somewhat, but the coverage units are a full-blown problem in D.C.
It was Hester's first scoring return of any kind since November 2011 -- a 28-game drought -- and his 13th career punt return touchdown. It gives him 19 career return touchdowns, tying Hall of Famer Deion Sanders' league record. Can't help but think that might just represent Hall of Fame credentials for Hester, too, even though he's not accomplished at another position like Sanders was at cornerback.
• No Julio Jones. No Roddy White. No problem in Atlanta. Harry Douglas had himself a day in Atlanta's desperately needed 31-23 win over winless Tampa Bay. Douglas has always possessed intriguing talent, but he matched that with production against the Bucs, catching seven passes for 149 yards and a touchdown, with six of those catches and 140 of those yards coming in the first half. That yardage total in the opening two quarters beat his career-best game by seven yards.
With Jones out for the rest of the year with his foot injury, and White missing the first game of his career with a hamstring issue, Douglas needs to flash that kind of output plenty in the coming weeks if the Falcons (2-4) are going to dig out of their early season hole and make a late run at their fourth consecutive playoff trip.
• There have been plenty of larger than life characters in the NFL's rich history, but I'm not sure any of them were as much fun as Bum Phillips, the former Oilers/Saints head coach who passed away Friday at 90. Phillips was an absolute original who looked and sounded like he was born to be a football coach in Texas.
He didn't have a pretentious bone in his body, and my all-time favorite Phillips quote was always his wonderfully distinctive and succinct description of why Miami's Don Shula was football's greatest coach: "He can take his'n and beat your'n, and take your'n and beat his'n.''
Exactly. You can't say it better than that. Rest in peace, Bum.
• Revenge is best served cold, but it works in the heat of South Florida quite nicely as well. Dan Carpenter, the onetime Dolphins kicker, got a little payback on Sunday, helping beat his old club on Buffalo's behalf. Carpenter nailed a 31-yard field goal with 33 seconds remaining to provide the final margin in the Bills' 23-21 road win. Miami released Carpenter in August and he got roundly booed by the Fish's crowd, which I'm sure made his game-winner all the sweeter.
It was a gritty win for Buffalo, which led 14-0 early but once again found a way to keep things tight down the stretch. The Bills (3-4) are still in last place in the AFC East, but they're not the soft team of years gone by. Denver and Buffalo are the only two teams to score at least 20 points in every game this season, and now the Bills finally have a road victory and a division win to show for their hard work.
• That's three losses in a row for Miami, whose 3-0 start looks mirage-like. Coming off their bye, the Dolphins were ragged and lost a home game to a Buffalo team whose starting quarterback (Thad Lewis) was making just his third career start. It's the kind of ugly loss that will serve as a strong buzz kill for whatever momentum and excitement Miami generated among its fan base early this year.
Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill regressed with Sunday's outcome. He threw a first-quarter pick-six to Bills defensive back Nickell Robey, and it was his late fourth-quarter fumble on a Mario Williams sack that set up Buffalo's game-winning 31-yard field goal. All told, Tannehill had three turnovers, which negated Miami's improved running attack and pass protection.
And don't look now, but in couple weeks, this loss to Buffalo might hurt even worse. Miami has a trip to New England next week, followed by a short week and a Thursday-night visit from Cincinnati in Week 9.
• Here's hoping the NFL gives Logan Ryan's crotch-grabbing, backward jump into the end zone all the attention it deserves this week in terms of a punitive response. The Patriots rookie cornerback picked off Jets quarterback Geno Smith and took the interception 81 yards for his first career touchdown.
But he felt the need to turn around and face the trailing Jets tacklers as he neared the goal line, and then leaped backward in the end zone, with one hand on the ball and the other on his crotch. Very classy, Logan.
So much for acting like you've been there before.
• The Eagles' showing in their 17-3 egg-laying loss to visiting Dallas ought to serve as the smelling salts under the nose of Philly fans. Chip Kelly's offense got nothing accomplished against a Cowboys defense that hadn't exactly been impenetrable of late.
I guess it's Michael Vick's job at starting quarterback once again. Nick Foles was mostly dreadful (80 yards passing) before leaving with concussion symptoms in the fourth quarter, and rookie Matt Barkley went 3-for-3, with interceptions tossed on each of his possessions.
Philly's loss dropped it below .500 at 3-4 and snapped its hope-inspiring two-game winning streak. But the Eagles have only beaten bad teams (Washington, N.Y. Giants and Tampa Bay) and lost to every quality opponent they have faced (San Diego, Kansas City, Denver and Dallas). When Philly went scoreless in the first half, FOX was reporting that it was the first time in Kelly's entire head coaching history that one of his teams had been blanked in any half.
The Cowboys were hardly sharp themselves on offense, but Dallas has its first two-game winning streak of the season and is in sole possession of first place of the NFC East at 4-3. Given the state of their competition in the division, there's absolutely no reason Dallas shouldn't run away with the East. To put it another way, I'd be shocked if the Eagles at the Cowboys in Week 17 was meaningful for both clubs.
• Chippy, feisty, or cheap, you pick the adjective. But Carolina's 30-15 beatdown of the visiting Rams did not put two disciplined football teams on display in Charlotte. There was way too much emotion flowing on both sides of the field at times, and you can't be shocked to learn that tightly wound Panthers receiver Steve Smith was in the middle of much of the jawing, pushing and skirmishing.
The Rams didn't just lose their cool and the game, they might have lost their quarterback, Sam Bradford, to a serious knee injury.He was hurt on the sideline with about five minutes to go, and it's hard to see St. Louis keeping up in the rugged NFC West if he's out for any significant amount of time.
Carolina has a defense that's really starting to exert its will, and the Panthers set the tone for the bruising, physical style of play that the game featured. And now the stakes get a little higher for Carolina, which is 3-3 with a chance to get above .500 for the first time in head coach Ron Rivera's three-year tenure on the road against Tampa Bay on Thursday night.
Speaking of tight ends in the Bengals-Lions game, I don't know what Jermaine Gresham really did during that brief time in the locker room in the first half to "clear his head,'' but something about his time in timeout worked. After being called for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in the second quarter for appearing to push away an official, Gresham was seen leaving the field. When he returned, though, he was an effective threat, making catches of 30 and 22 yards in the second half and finishing with four receptions for 64 yards.
• I'm not sure what convinced me to pick Jacksonville to upset the visiting Chargers in Week 7, but that's the last time this season I give the Jaguars the benefit of the doubt. Jacksonville lost 24-6 to San Diego and is now the first team since the 1983 Houston Oilers to get to 0-7, dropping each game by a double-digit margin.
Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers picked Jacksonville apart, completing his first 14 passes of the game. On defense, San Diego held the punchless Jags to six points, sacking Chad Henne six times. The Chargers simply never let Jacksonville have any hope it was going to win the game, and the Jaguars went meekly once again. I thought I saw some improvement from Jacksonville in last week's closer-than-expected loss at Denver, but obviously I was mistaken.
• Gary Kubiak's team took another L Sunday in Kansas City, but the Texans head coach didn't lose out on his gamble that third-string quarterback Case Keenum was the guy to give his floundering team a spark. Keenum seemed more than ready for his close-up in Houston's 17-16 loss to the Chiefs, and that at least bodes well going forward. Because the Texans (2-5) haven't gotten much in the way of quality quarterbacking from either Matt Schaub or T.J. Yates of late.
Playing in his first NFL regular-season game, Keenum was a very respectable 15-of-25 for 271 yards, with one touchdown and no interceptions. His only glaring mistake was a late-game fumble when hit from behind by K.C.'s Tamba Hali, but there are a lot of veteran NFL quarterbacks who would have coughed that ball up, too.
Kansas City's pass rush is currently the gold standard in the NFL, but Keenum played with a sense of poise and was under control for most of the game, keeping the Texans within striking distances of the Chiefs, who are now 7-0 and still waiting for the first failure of the Andy Reid era.
Keenum's ability to execute was the brightest development for Houston, but offsetting it was the loss of inside linebacker Brian Cushing, who suffered a serious knee injury when he was blocked low by Kansas City running back Jamaal Charles. It was the same knee in which Cushing tore his anterior cruciate ligament last year, and this injury certainly looked every bit as devastating as that one did. The Texans were not happy with Charles at all for going at Cushing's knees with his block, and I'd be surprised if that play didn't become a focal point for the renewal of the low-block debate.
According to FOX Sports' Jay Glazer, Cushing texted Glazer with the news that he both broke his left leg and suffered a torn lateral collateral ligament, which would end his season.
• It suddenly seems like that two-game 49ers losing streak was months ago. San Francisco might not have started the season as we expected in the opening three weeks, but the 49ers look like they've fairly well figured things out at this point. San Francisco dominated Tennessee 31-17 to run its winning streak to four games, and Jim Harbaugh's team now heads across the Atlantic to take on 0-7 Jacksonville in London next week.
Going the other direction, figuratively, not literally, are the Titans, who have dropped three in a row after their impressive 3-1 start. Tennessee got quarterback Jake Locker back in the lineup against the 49ers, but he looked rusty, still a bit gimpy, and only a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown passes made the score look respectable.
• Don't sleep on the Steelers, who have scratched their way back to 2-4 and now have reason to think they might have something to do with the AFC North race after all. Pittsburgh beat visiting Baltimore 19-16, in a game that looked pretty much like every other smashmouth Ravens-Steelers game we've ever seen.
The best news for Pittsburgh is that its running game is becoming a weapon, with rookie second-round pick Le'Veon Bell producing 93 of the Steelers' 141 rushing yards on Sunday.
As for the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens, their Week 8 bye looks like it will come when most needed. Baltimore has lost three of four after starting 2-1, and has yet to establish any sort of consistency on offense.