DENVER -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight from an eventful Week 11 in the NFL. ...
• Well, I suppose somebody has to win the NFC East. It might as well be the Eagles, who are at least interesting now that Chip Kelly is finally starting to get the hang of this NFL coaching gig. Kelly's first season in the league took a significant step toward turning special on Sunday, with Philadelphia posting its third consecutive victory and first win at Lincoln Financial Field since Sept. 30, 2012 -- a scant 412 days ago.
The Eagles' 24-16 conquest of Washington wasn't as comfortable as it first seemed it would be, when Philadelphia led 24-0 after three quarters, but it all ended well enough, with the Eagles in sole possession of first place in the division at 6-5, and Kelly's team climbing over .500 for the first time since winning at Washington in Week 1. For a club that started the season 1-3, and went two full games without scoring an offensive touchdown in October, what's not to like about the view from the top of the NFC East as Thanksgiving starts to come within view?
After the misery of last year's 4-12 fiasco, it should be all gravy from here on out for Philly fans. Especially after Kelly's team ended the galling 10-game home losing streak. The Eagles are both relevant and fun again, with second-year quarterback Nick Foles now having firmly turned the page on the team's frustrating Michael Vick era. With or without being formally anointed by Kelly, Foles is clearly the future in Philadelphia. He had a third straight superb game, throwing for 298 yards on 17-of-26 passing, rushing for a touchdown and again going without an interception (he hasn't thrown one yet in 2013). Foles' nine rushes for 47 yards and a score even added a Vick-like quality to the Philly attack.
The Eagles offense doesn't play the fast-break style of football that we were bracing for from Kelly all offseason and preseason, but it plays winning football, and in the mediocre NFC East, that passes for domination this season. And maybe the best news is that Philadelphia's new 3-4 defense continues to develop into a dependable entity. Since a 52-20 meltdown in Denver in Week 4, the Eagles haven't surrendered more than 21 points, with only that two-game October offensive slump separating Philly from a potential seven-game winning streak. When the outcome was in doubt late in the fourth quarter against Washington, the Eagles defense held, with cornerback Brandon Boykin intercepting Robert Griffin III in the end zone to put an end to the comeback drama.
Dallas (5-5) was on a bye this week, so the surging Eagles will take a half-game lead in the division as they head into their off week, the first time since their last playoff season of 2010 that they've been over .500 this late in the season. After the break in Week 12, Philadelphia is home for two more games -- against Arizona and Detroit -- before it ends the season by playing at Minnesota, home against Chicago and at Dallas. There are some challenges in that five-game stretch to be sure, but the Eagles are playing more consistently than anyone else in the NFL's worst division and seem to be gaining confidence and momentum every week. Philadelphia is 5-1 on the road this season, and at least got rid of the goose egg in its home record, which now sits at 1-4.
Week 17 in Dallas could be a division championship showdown, as anticipated for some time, but it wouldn't be a total surprise to see the improving Eagles pull away from Dallas, New York and Washington and leave the rest of the NFC East behind in the coming six weeks. Only the Eagles and Giants have managed as much as a three-game winning streak in this division, and Philly looks like it has found its mojo and figured out what it does best at the most opportune time.
It's still early in the grand scheme of things, and there have been blips along the way, but the Chip Kelly era in Philadelphia is off to an entertaining and successful start. And the Eagles suddenly have the inside track to a division title.
• For a minute there, it looked like Griffin and the Redskins were recreating a little of their 2012 magic with that late-game rally at Philadelphia. Two fourth-quarter touchdowns passes from Griffin, with a pair of two-point conversions, put Washington within one score of tying the game and perhaps sparking the kind of miracle comeback that the Redskins were known for during their seven-game season-ending winning streak last year.
But, alas, it was not to be. This is a different year in Washington, and Griffin's ghastly interception to Boykin in the end zone -- thrown off his back foot -- was the kind of deflating moment that has been all too common for the 2013 Redskins. At 3-7, they richly deserve their last-place standing in the NFC East, and can probably start turning their attention to 2014. Washington trails first-place Philadelphia by 2½-games, plus the head-to-head tiebreaker thanks to the Eagles' two-game sweep. There's no wild-card playoff qualifier coming out of the sad-sack East, so it's division title or bust.
• That last-second 23-20 Saints defeat of San Francisco was big for Seattle. The Seahawks beat Minnesota 41-20 and now have all but clinched the NFC West. At 10-1, Seattle leads both the 49ers (6-4) and surprising Arizona Cardinals (6-4) by a comfy 3½ games, and that won't be overcome in the season's final six weeks.
It was a gritty comeback win at home for New Orleans, which got some help via a controversial personal foul call on 49ers linebacker Ahmad Brooks with three minutes remaining. Brooks nailed Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who fumbled, with the ball being recovered by San Francisco. But Brooks was called for hitting Brees high, in the area of the neck, and the Saints kept their drive alive.
The Saints are in great shape to win the NFC South at 8-2, but with two games remaining against Carolina (6-4, entering Monday night's game against New England) in December, New Orleans cannot relax any time soon. The Saints had to sweat this one out, but the victory reinforces their membership in the NFC's elite class.
• But I'm starting to wonder if the 49ers are in that same class. They played well enough to win against the Saints, but that makes two consecutive narrow losses to likely NFC playoff teams, with last week's 10-9 home defeat to the Panthers starting their recent mini-slump.
The game did, however, represent a slight step forward for struggling 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, at least judged by his dismal showing against Carolina. Kaepernick threw for two touchdowns and one interception, but finished with only 127 yards, on 17-of-31 passing. It didn't erase his recent issues and questions about his declining production, but it didn't inflame them any further either.
• Hard to have much faith in the Lions as a Super Bowl contender after watching Detroit disappear in the second half at Pittsburgh. The Lions put together a historic second quarter, outscoring the Steelers 27-6 in those 15 minutes, and still found a way to lose 37-27 to a Pittsburgh team that is going nowhere this season.
Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford threw for 267 yards in the second quarter, and 327 yards in the first half, with two touchdowns. But he was just 3-of-16 in the second half, and the Lions went scoreless in the game's final 30 minutes. Detroit wouldn't have been scoreless in the second half if head coach Jim Schwartz hadn't opted for an ill-advised fake-field goal with a 27-23 lead and 12-plus minutes remaining in the game. Instead of a chip shot for a seven-point lead, the Lions came up empty and watched as the Steelers marched through them to score the game's final 14 points.
The Lions are 6-4 and still lead second-place Chicago (6-4) by virtue of the head-to-head tiebreaker (they swept the Bears this season). But Detroit could have furthered its hold on the division with a win against the Steelers, and its loss gave both the Bears and Packers hope that the NFC North will be a three-team race after all.
• A few more spectacular showings like the one he turned in on Sunday against Detroit, and Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger might just get that big-money contract extension he is reportedly seeking. Roethlisberger was money against the Lions, completing 29-of-45 passes for 367 yards, with four touchdowns and no interceptions.
But about that Pittsburgh running game. It was horrid. The Steelers ran 27 times against the Lions, gaining just 40 yards, good for a 1.5 yard average, and just four first downs via the ground. At one point in the third quarter, Pittsburgh had a 1st-and-goal from inside the 1 and couldn't punch it in for a touchdown. The Steelers had to settle for a 21-yard Shaun Suisham field goal.
The days of the Steelers power running game are long, long, long gone. That's an outdated perception that no longer comes anywhere near fitting the reality.
• Do the Bucs ever run out of quality running backs? With Doug Martin (shoulder) out for the season, and backup Mike James (ankle) also out for the season, the Bucs plugged Bobby Rainey into the lineup and the waiver wire pickup exploded for 163 yards and three touchdowns in Tampa Bay's win over Atlanta.
But here's my biggest question: How did Rainey ever get out of Cleveland? The Browns let go of the 5-foot-8, 212-pound running back/return man earlier this season, because why? Cleveland had such a stacked backfield this year it felt the need to go out and sign the well-worn Willis McGahee after trading Trent Richardson to Indianapolis.
• Not Jets coach Rex Ryan's best work this week. Taking his team on that Saturday night outing to Dave & Buster's in Buffalo wasn't an inspired idea -- especially coming off a bye week, when a little extra preparation time might have come in handy -- and the big Ed Reed signing didn't do much for New York's secondary issues either.
Buffalo dismantled the on-again, off-again Jets 37-14, and the game marked the return of Bad Geno, with Jets rookie quarterback Geno Smith throwing three interceptions and losing a fumble. Smith was so bad (8-of-23 for 103 yards and those four turnovers) that Ryan yanked him in favor of backup Matt Simms in the fourth quarter, which is the NFL equivalent of running up the white flag.
Bills rookie quarterback E.J. Manuel was considerably better, torching New York's tough defense for 245 yards and a pair of long touchdown passes, completing 20-of-28 passes. The Bills are only 4-6, but when Manuel has been healthy this season, Buffalo for the most part has been very tough to beat.
• Delay of game is getting to be quite the penalty for Baltimore. The Ravens had a 10-0 lead at Chicago on Sunday when severe weather in the area of Soldier Field prompted the NFL to suspend the game for almost two hours. When play resumed, the Bears came back, but Baltimore really didn't, losing 23-20 in overtime.
When you factor in the Super Bowl partial blackout, and the pregame lightning delay in the season-opener at Denver, the Ravens are becoming way too familiar with this particular sub-plot twist. It was their third major delay in a span of 11 games, and this time, the long stoppage might have contributed greatly to a killer of a Baltimore loss. The Ravens aren't done in the AFC wild-card chase, but if they don't win next week at home against the Jets, it'll be curtains for the defending Super Bowl champs.
• The Bengals are 7-4, have a healthy lead in the AFC North, and they scored 41 of the game's final 48 points in a 41-20 rout of visiting Cleveland on Sunday. So there's nothing to worry about, right? Well, not exactly. A 31-point team-record second-quarter explosion helped Cincinnati bury the Browns, but the Bengals didn't get the game they hoped for out of quarterback Andy Dalton. Again.
Dalton was very shaky early, drawing boos from the home crowd, and threw a pick-six to Browns cornerback Joe Haden. But down 13-0 to Cleveland, both Dalton and the Bengals persevered. Dalton's day wasn't an artistic success, but he did get the most out of his paltry 93 yards of passing, throwing three touchdowns, two interceptions, with a 62.7 rating to go with his 13 completions in 27 attempts.
It's not hard to see Cincinnati winning the AFC North if Dalton continues to play like this, because its 2½-game lead over the Browns, Ravens and Steelers should hold up. But it is difficult to see the Bengals getting anywhere significant in the AFC playoffs if Dalton's doesn't raise the bar in the season's final five games.
• Has any really good team ever gotten as bad as quickly as the Falcons? From going to the playoffs in four of the past five seasons, with the NFC's No. 1 seed and a 13-3 record last year, to this? Atlanta lost 41-28 at Tampa Bay, and the game really wasn't even as close as it sounds. The Bucs and Falcons are now 2-8 and tied for the bottom rung in the NFC South, but at least Tampa Bay is on a bit of a roll with two consecutive wins. Atlanta has now lost nine of its past 11 regular-season games, dating to last December, and is 3-10 overall, including the playoffs, in its most recent 13 games.
Yes, the Falcons have had a devastating string of injuries this season, but it's becoming obvious that Atlanta has been mailing it in for weeks now. The Bucs kept giving solid efforts, even in the face of their 0-8 start to the season. Not so much in the Falcons' case. They've been outscored in their past four games by a combined score of 135-61.
I totally agree that it's crazy talk to say that either head coach Mike Smith or general manager Thomas Dimitroff should be worried about their jobs, but it still doesn't reflect well on them that this year's club showed absolutely no resilience or character in the face of adversity.
• On the other hand, I think Texans owner Bob McNair is just doubling down on a bad bet if he allows either head coach Gary Kubiak or quarterback Matt Schaub to return to their current positions in 2014. Houston lost its franchise-record eighth straight on Sunday, falling 28-23 at home to Oakland, and there's no way to put the Genie back in the bottle in Texans-land.
This is a team that has gone as far as it's going to go with Kubiak and Schaub. They won two consecutive AFC South titles and picked up a playoff win each season, losing each time in the divisional round. But this year's disaster is indicative that change and a fresh start is needed in Houston. The Texans have too much talent on hand to accept this type of failure and do nothing about it.
• The Giants are playing with house money at this point, and that's what makes them so dangerous. After an 0-6 start to a season, anything you accomplish feels like a bonus. The Giants are now 4-6 after beating visiting Green Bay 27-13, and they own the longest winning streak in the NFC East this season at four games. And if they win next week at home against Dallas (5-5), the Giants will legitimately be back in the division race, trailing bye-taking Philadelphia by just one game with 12 weeks of the regular season in the books.
Who'd a thunk it? New York's resurgence is really all about defense. The Giants have allowed just 47 points in their past four games, and that's what gives them a real shot to beat Dallas, a team they lost 36-31 to in Week 1.
• It's as if Green Bay's season effectively ended when Aaron Rodgers went down with that cracked collarbone almost two weeks ago. It really hasn't, but it must feel that way to the Packers, who have lost three games in a row and can't seem to get the bleeding stopped.
The Lions' loss at Pittsburgh helped Green Bay considerably, but the bottom line is Rodgers can't return soon enough. It still looks like Thanksgiving Day at Detroit is his hoped for return target, but will that be too late?
• The Raiders certainly love them some Houston. Can you blame them? The last time Oakland visited Reliant Stadium, in October 2011, it staged that emotional comeback victory in honor of longtime Raiders owner Al Davis, who had died the day before the game.
And now, they've earned another meaningful victory in Houston, with undrafted rookie quarterback Matt McGloin perhaps interjecting himself into the team's long-term future at the game's most pivotal position. McGloin, starting in place of the injured Terrelle Pryor (knee), earned a game ball with his efficient 18-of-32, 197-yard, three-touchdown production. He's the first undrafted rookie QB to toss three touchdowns since Erik Kramer did it with Detroit in 1987.
At the very least, McGloin's outing has given head coach Dennis Allen a decision to face. Don't assume Pryor will get his job back when healthy. There have been media reports that Oakland's coaching staff really liked McGloin's potential and were eager to see how he handled himself in a game situation.