Musings, observations and the occasional insight from a Week 9 full of surprises and entertaining close games. ...
• With these Jets, you can save the quaint "Any Given Sunday'' motto the NFL has long lived by. New York has made "Every Other Sunday'' its official mantra, and probably should trademark it one of these days.
I don't know what to make of Rex Ryan's consistently inconsistent team at this point anymore than anyone else does, but you certainly know what you're going to get from the Jets: a loss on even-numbered weeks, and a victory, sometimes in statement-like fashion, on odd-numbered weeks.
Like New York's emphatic 26-20 upset of the high-flying New Orleans Saints in Week 9, a thunderclap of a victory that continued the Jets' remarkable two-month pattern of alternating wins and losses.
Are they legitimate playoff contenders at 5-4? They are when they play like they did on Sunday, with a dominating defensive front that swarmed Drew Brees and a running game straight out of Ryan's "Ground and Pound'' playbook of those deep 2009-10 playoff runs. But it's this kind of performance, and the promise it holds for the postseason, that only serves to make last week's 49-9 utter embarrassment at Cincinnati all the more puzzling, perplexing and maddening.
Which is the "real'' Jets team? I suppose the only answer thus far in 2013 is both. They're capable of playing solid winning football, with a blueprint featuring defense and a running game that works well with the early development level of rookie quarterback Geno Smith, he of the eight touchdown passes, 13 interceptions and three fumbles lost this season.
And they're capable of melting down and experiencing bitter defeat when they don't take care of the football, like their losses at New England, at Tennessee and at Cincinnati so vividly illustrated.
Smith (8-of-19 for 115 yards) had no turnovers for only the second time this season, and the Jets posted their most impressive victory yet, besting a Saints team that came in 6-1 and playing well on both sides of the ball, their only loss coming in the final seconds at New England in Week 6. Chris Ivory, the ex-Saint, churned for 139 revenge-minded yards of the Jets' 198 rushing yards total, and New York's defense rebounded in a resounding fashion from the egg-laying against the Bengals, sacking Brees twice, picking him off twice and generally playing in the Saints backfield for most of the game.
True, New Orleans lacked receiver Marques Colston (who sat out with an injured knee) and running back Darren Sproles (who left early with a concussion), but that should not cheapen the Jets' win in any way. New York's defensive line has become a force this season, and Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson, Quinton Coples and Damon Harrison are creating some serious havoc for opposing offensive lines. The Saints simply couldn't block the Jets' front for most of the day, and that kind of pass pressure goes a long way toward covering up New York's deficiencies in the secondary.
If you were scoring at home, it wasn't the Rex Ryan versus twin brother Rob Ryan showdown that mattered in this game. It was Rex's defense against the pedigree of Sean Payton's Saints offense, and Rex won that one. Handily.
The Jets are getting by with very modest talent at the skill-level positions, and their depth there took a hit Sunday when receiver Jeremy Kerley left the game with a serious elbow injury. No wonder the running game and defense were forced to ride to the rescue, because the passing game (still playing without receiver Santonio Holmes and tight ends Jeff Cumberland and Kellen Winslow) was virtually non-existent at times against New Orleans. New York's "weapons'' against the Saints were Greg Salas, David Nelson, Joshua Cribbs and tight end Zach Sudfeld. The group combined for seven catches for 128 yards, despite none starting the regular season on New York's roster.
It's a wild, up-and-down ride these Jets are on, and any and all rollercoaster analogies apply. Maybe we shouldn't be trying to figure them out. Maybe we should just enjoy them. After all, we've seen Rex Ryan take teams to the AFC title games with defense, a running game and a young, mistake-prone quarterback who can manage the game well at times. The big surprise is we didn't think he had that formula in place again this season in New York.
The best news for Jets fans? No loss will be forthcoming next week. Count on it. New York takes its bye in Week 10, breaking the pattern of even-week defeats. And with only one game remaining against a team that currently has a winning record -- at Carolina in Week 15 -- the Jets' playoff drive may fully take shape and shed its every other Sunday existence yet.
• No more calls, please, we have a winner. Nick Foles is the Eagles' franchise quarterback until further notice. That's what an NFL-record-tying seven-touchdown pass game can do for a guy. Especially one making just his ninth career start.
Foles staked his claim to a long-term future as Philadelphia's starter in the Eagles' 49-20 destruction of Oakland, throwing seven touchdown passes in roughly the first 40-plus minutes of the game. Three of them were to receiver Riley Cooper, who also had a career day.
Provided Foles can stay healthy -- he missed parts of the past two games with a concussion -- this ends all the Michael Vick drama in Philly. When Vick's hamstring finally heals, he'll be Foles' backup, while rookie Matt Barkley continues to be looked upon as a young passer who can aspire to the No. 2 role in 2014, once Vick has left.
It's another stunning twist at quarterback in Philly, where stunning twists seem to be the norm. The Eagles offense had scored just three points total in the past two games, with Foles, Vick and Barkley all playing at times, but then hung up seven touchdowns in lightning fashion at the Raiders.
Foles finished 22-of-28 for 406 yards, the seven touchdowns and a perfect 158.3 passer rating, before giving way to Barkley in the fourth quarter.
Oh, and as far as those questions about the NFL starting to catch up to Chip Kelly's offense? I wouldn't put that premise to any Oakland defenders about now.
• Even if it takes another half season to finally play out, you would think even Greg Schiano knows it's curtains for him in Tampa Bay by now. Sunday in Seattle had to be rock bottom for the embattled second-year Bucs head coach: A 21-0 late first-half Tampa Bay lead becomes a 27-24 Seahawks victory in overtime, giving Seattle its largest comeback in franchise history.
The 0-8 Bucs just find a way to lose, no matter how promising the situation, just like they did in the bad old days in Tampa Bay, when they lost at least 10 games a season for 12 years in a row from 1983 to '94. Instead of applying some salve to a brutal season, and continuing to sell the notion that his team hasn't quit on him, Schiano now must explain how even a three-touchdown lead isn't quite enough to get the job done.
I really didn't think the Glazer family wanted to make an in-season coaching change in Tampa Bay, but after this collapse, all bets are off. If Schiano were asked to turn in his key card and parking space on Monday morning, after the long, solemn flight home from Seattle, it would surprise no one.
• As for the Seahawks, the comeback win over Tampa Bay was a show of resiliency and determination. You don't apologize for victory in the NFL, and all that really matters is that Seattle got to 8-1 and kept the train rolling toward the No. 1 seed in the NFC. With New Orleans' loss at the Jets, Seattle is the only one-loss team in the conference.
But it does seem like the Seahawks are starting to play down to the level of their competition a bit, with narrow wins at St. Louis on Monday night and at home to Tampa Bay. Granted, the return of Percy Harvin should help the offense, but Seattle's defense isn't looking quite as invincible as it did earlier this season.
• Yep, the injuries keep mounting, but so do the victories. And Tom Brady is still Tom Brady, too. The Patriots (7-2) have their issues, and plenty of them, but as long as they're still able to throw 55 points on the scoreboard, as they did in Sunday's 55-31 beatdown of visiting Pittsburgh, you have to keep New England on the short list of AFC Super Bowl contenders.
The Steelers made the Patriots work for this one, tying the game 24-24 in the third quarter after trailing by 14 at the half. But the New England offense that has been so piecemeal of late really had an impressive game, and that had to get the attention of the entire AFC. Brady threw for 432 yards and four scores without an interception, tight end Rob Gronkowski (nine catches for 143 yards, one touchdown) was back in game-wrecking form, and running back Stevan Ridley rumbled for 115 yards on 26 carries, with two scores.
All told, the Pats had three 100-yard receivers, a 400-yard passer and a 100-yard rusher. That'll work most gamedays. Once again, reports of New England's demise, while always popular, might have been premature.
• Simply put, the Redskins kept their season alive with that 30-24 overtime win at home against San Diego. And Washington only got to 3-5 at midseason because it came up with a massive goal-line stand late in regulation, with the Chargers having a 1st-and-goal from the 1. The Redskins held San Diego to a game-tying field goal, and then won in OT on a four-yard touchdown run by fullback Darrel Young, he of the three-touchdown afternoon.
Washington's win reminded me quite a bit of last year's heroics in the second half of the season, when the Redskins mounted that seven-game regular-season-capping winning streak that earned them their first NFC East title since 1999.
With the FedEx crowd going nuts, Robert Griffin III was making plays (23-of-32 for 291 yards), running back Alfred Morris (25 carries, 121 yards) was running hard and receiver Pierre Garcon was abusing the Chargers, catching seven passes for a career-best 172 yards, with a couple of highlight-reel grabs.
Wrote this last week, but I like Washington's position. The Redskins are just 1½ games behind first-place Dallas (5-4), and that's twice as close to first place as they were last season at this point, when they stood 3-6 through Week 9 and trailed the first-place Giants (6-3) by three games. Washington plays at Minnesota (1-7) on Thursday, and a win there, with four division games remaining, means a repeat in the NFC East is still within reach.
• There's probably going to be a sense of panic in Baltimore after the Ravens dropped to 3-5, losing 24-18 at Cleveland to tumble into third place, a half-game behind the 4-5 Browns. And for once it's not without reason. The Super Bowl hangover effect appears to be in full force in Charm City.
We're not used to seeing the Ravens lose to Cleveland (which last beat Baltimore in 2007), or drop three straight games, or go down in defeat coming out of the bye week (a first in coach John Harbaugh's six seasons). But this season, the Ravens haven't been very Raven-like from the very beginning.
Baltimore simply doesn't do much well right now, and has nothing to hang its hat on. Quarterback Joe Flacco (five sacks) struggled against the Browns and doesn't have enough weapons at his disposal, and the once-proud defense just got strafed for three touchdowns by Jason Campbell, who was No. 3 on Cleveland's QB depth chart not long ago.
In Baltimore, it's must-win time next week at home against first-place Cincinnati (6-3), or any hope of repeating in the AFC North is as good as gone.
• If I'm San Diego flying home after that loss in the nation's capital, I'm sick about the mind-boggling play-calling of offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt. The Chargers were probably two feet away from victory late in regulation, but tried just one run and two passes on that game-tying field goal drive, neither of which had much of a chance for success.
The Chargers played for the tie, and wound up getting the loss. Isn't that the way it always seems to go for San Diego?
• Being designated as "just a guy'' (or JAG) in football scout talk has always been known as a putdown of sorts. But maybe it'll morph into more of a compliment after Sunday in Washington, when Chargers defensive end Lawrence Guy sparked a first-half block party. Guy blocked a 25-yard Kai Forbath field-goal attempt on Washington's first drive, then he really helped San Diego's cause, blocking a Griffin pass in the Washington end zone, with the deflected ball bouncing right to Chargers defensive tackle Sean Lissemore for a touchdown to end the Redskins' second possession.
Inspired by Guy, Chargers defensive end Corey Liuget went on his own block rampage, knocking down a pair of Griffin pass attempts in the second quarter, before ending the half by swatting away a 59-yard Forbath field-goal try. And to think San Diego entered Week 9 without a field goal block in 11 years.
• Darrel Young entered Sunday with one career rushing touchdown in his first 52 games for the Redskins. Then he scored three more in the second half and in overtime, the latter coming on his four-yard game-winner. Yeah, I think it's safe to proclaim it Young's career day. Even if he plays until he's 73.
• Have you noticed that since the Carolina Panthers started playing with nothing to lose, they haven't lost? The Panthers have won four in a row and stand 5-3 at midseason, thanks in large part to a great defense and their willingness to take some chances on offense.
The latest gutsy call by Carolina head coach Ron Rivera was a 4th-and-1 play-fake pass to tight end Greg Olsen for a 14-yard touchdown in the second quarter against visiting Atlanta, putting the Panthers up 14-10, a lead they would never relinquish. That made Carolina 5-of-7 on fourth downs this season, as Riverboat Ron continues to gamble in smart situations.
Carolina wasn't perfect in the 34-10 defeat of the Falcons (Cam Newton had two interceptions), but the Panthers have taken five out of six since starting the season 0-2, with Rivera thought to be a goner back in September. The next two games should reveal how legitimate Carolina's playoff hopes are. The Panthers haven't beaten any quality opponents (10-35 combined record), but next week at San Francisco and Week 11 at home against New England present opportunities to change that perception.
• There's nothing wrong with finding a way to win on the road when you don't have your A game, but Kansas City has to be at least concerned about its light-hitting offense and its suddenly missing pass rush.
The 9-0 Chiefs are headed for their bye week, and look like they could use a break after their 23-13 win at Buffalo. Kansas City's offense managed just three Ryan Succop field goals, with Alex Smith completing 19-of-29 passes for a meager 124 yards. His longest connection of the game went for just 20 yards. On defense, Kansas City tops the NFL with 36 sacks, but didn't get to Bills rookie Jeff Tuel once on Sunday, and dropped Cleveland's Jason Campbell just once last week.
Cornerback Sean Smith and linebacker Tamba Hali both scored defensive touchdowns for the Chiefs, allowing them to weather the Bills' upset bid, but that's not a blueprint you can count on come playoff time. Kansas City's offense is going to need to be far more productive than it was Sunday if the Chiefs hope to stay on the field in their upcoming showdowns with the Broncos in Weeks 11 and 13.
• I thought last week's coverage of the Dez Bryant sideline "discussions'' were partially overblown, but he's not making it easy to defend his tendency to over-do it on the "passionate'' front. The Cowboys' gifted receiver drew a costly penalty in the third quarter against Minnesota, getting hit with an unsportsmanlike conduct call after removing his helmet to argue an offensive pass interference flag. That's filed under the heading of two wrongs do not make a right. The penalty took Dallas out of field-goal range, and could have proven critical if the Cowboys weren't able to rally past Minnesota 27-23 in the final minute.
Passionate or not, Bryant's outburst hurt his team, and it's clear his maturity level isn't yet to the point where he can be trusted by the Cowboys in critical situations. Bryant has grown up some in the past three years or so, but not as much as some of us wanted to believe.
• As it turns out, Christian Ponder appears to be the best quarterback on the Vikings roster after all, but I'm not sure it really matters at this point. Minnesota (1-7) is going nowhere but last place in the NFC North this season, with a ticket into the draft's top six or seven next spring.
Ponder threw for 236 yards and one touchdown and ran for a second score in the four-point loss at Dallas, with a respectable 25 completions in 37 attempts, and 82.7 passer rating. He wasn't the reason the Vikings matched their worst start in franchise history, dropping a third game this season on a touchdown that came in the game's final minute.
Interestingly, Josh Freeman was designated the team's No. 3, emergency quarterback on Sunday, even though he had been cleared to play and was free of concussion symptoms. Not sure what that means for his future in Minnesota, but if Ponder is on the move next year, solid performances like this one in Week 9 will assure him there's a job waiting for him somewhere in the league.
• If I'm the Broncos, I'm looking at Jack Del Rio as a no-brainer in terms of an interim head coach to replace John Fox, who is expected to miss several weeks after surgery to replace a heart valve. Del Rio, the team's defensive coordinator, was a Jaguars head coach for parts of nine seasons, from 2003 to '11, and knows the ropes when it comes to the non-coaching part of his responsibilities.
Del Rio has far more experience at heading up an organization and handling the media and peripheral aspects of the position when compared to young offensive coordinator Adam Gase and running backs coach Eric Studesville, who served as the Broncos' interim head coach for four games in 2010, after Josh McDaniels was fired.
• Miami got that win against Cincinnati and stopped its four-game losing streak, but what a mess the rest of the Dolphins' week was, with the Jonathan Martin saga peeling back the curtain on a situation that leaves us grasping for much to compare it to.
Yes, veterans have been making rookies or young players foot the bill for a lot of various expenses throughout league history, but I don't think I've ever heard of anything as obscene as being expected to cough up $15,000 to fund a trip to Las Vegas that you don't even get to take part in.
This might be another one of those NFL traditions that has run its course, at least at that level of excess. It kind of reminds me of the same type of macho practice that playing through concussions long represented. You were expected to do it, because that was the accepted norm in the league, the same way soaking the rookies has long been. But somebody took it way too far, and got caught letting it get to a point where it's almost indefensible.
I'm sure all the facts have yet to come out in this story, which seems a complicated tale with a lot of layers, especially in terms of how it affected Martin. But none of it looks or smells very good at the moment, and Miami's season might hinge on where things go from here.
• I'm sure we all can't wait for Dolphins at Bucs, on Monday Night Football, a week from tomorrow night. Nothing to talk about for ESPN's cast of thousands leading up to that one, eh?
Just the winless, Greg Schiano-led Bucs, against the 4-4, steady-as-she-goes Dolphins. Should be fun.
• Considering they hadn't won in a month of Sundays -- three losses and a bye week since beating the Jets at home in Week 4 -- the Titans were not in position to get picky about how they collected victory No. 4 of the season. But the best news for Tennessee was getting running back Chris Johnson some room to roam. Johnson scampered for 150 yards and his first two rushing touchdowns of the season in the 28-21 win at St. Louis, and you have to figure Tennessee's best hope to make good on an AFC playoff berth is tied closely to the kind of work Johnson can produce in the season's second half.
If Johnson gets hot and the Tennessee running game starts to click, he can carry the second-place Titans, starting with next week's very winnable home game against winless Jacksonville (0-8). If quarterback Jake Locker is forced to bear too much of the offensive burden, Tennessee's task becomes much more difficult.