Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we catch our breath in the wake of a wild Week 5 that started out ugly but wound up producing a host of fantastic finishes and dramatic comebacks.
It’s too soon to know whether this was a season-saver or a result that only temporarily delays the inevitable in New Orleans this year. Time will tell whether Week 5 served as a Band-Aid or a tourniquet for these Saints.
But if there is any comeback magic in store for Sean Payton’s wildly underachieving club in 2014, it began Sunday afternoon in the Superdome, with New Orleans trailing Tampa Bay by 11 points in the second half and staring at the abyss of 1-4 and perhaps a complete disintegration of their once-robust Super Bowl hopes.
The Saints are very much alive after a thrilling 37-31 overtime win, but they’re definitely not well. They won’t win many games when all-world quarterback Drew Brees throws three interceptions, as he did against the Bucs, his first three-pick performance since November 2012. The all-too-pliable New Orleans defense remains mostly a liability, and now the Saints have suffered two major injuries in the span of four days, losing X-factor tight end Jimmy Graham to a shoulder injury on Sunday and high-priced free-agent safety Jairus Byrd to a season-ending knee injury in Thursday’s practice.
Everything has been a surprising struggle for the Saints this year, and the stress that has created was on full display against the plucky Bucs (1-4). Up 13-0 in the second quarter, New Orleans seemed to take its foot off the gas, and by the time the Saints had regained their sense of urgency, Tampa Bay had scored 24 unanswered points and looked poised to top last week’s upset at Pittsburgh with an even more stunning road conquest. For New Orleans, undisputed possession of last place in the NFC South was rapidly coming into view.
If the Saints can’t count on putting away inferior opponents in the Superdome, where they have won 10 in a row and had an overwhelming homefield advantage in the franchise’s nine-year Payton era, there’s little for this team to fall back on. Even Brees started showing the strain of a season slipping away, forcing passes under heavy pressure, including two badly thrown balls that went for interceptions -- the worst being a 33-yard pick-six by Bucs linebacker Danny Lansanah that put Tampa Bay up 24-13 early in the third quarter. After that ghastly mistake, Brees got an earful from his usually supportive head coach, and he richly deserved it.
But Brees also deserves praise for resiliency in steadying his game and his team as the Saints scored the contest’s final 17 points -- and 24 of the last 31 -- to stave off desperation mode in the Big Easy. New Orleans drove 80 yards after winning the overtime coin toss, easing the jangled nerves of its fans when running back Khiry Robinson burst through the Bucs defense for the game-sealing 18-yard touchdown run.
It was a gritty win, but so much more was expected from the talented Saints this season, and it’s still a mystery as to what exactly is missing. One former NFL head coach I know thinks New Orleans has lost sight of the dedication winning demands and gotten too used to big, comfortable margins of victory and gaudy point totals and passing statistics. But by now these Saints have learned they’re not good enough to win easily, and they don’t have the ability to step on an opponent’s throat and put it away when they have the chance.
That flaw nearly cost New Orleans once again against Tampa Bay, as it did earlier this season with blown late leads at Atlanta and Cleveland. But the Saints (2-3) battled like their season was on the line on Sunday, and it showed in the end result. They got a win they had to have, and it keeps them still viable in the division race, just one game behind first-place Carolina (3-2).
Up next for the Saints is a well-timed bye week -- a break that would have seemed almost unbearable at 1-4 -- with a tougher six-game stretch of the schedule about to unfold: at Detroit, vs. Green Bay, at Carolina, vs. San Francisco, vs. Cincinnati, vs. Baltimore. It should afford Graham time to heal and provide the entire organization a chance to hit the reset button. New Orleans still has plenty of work to do to look like the playoff contender we expected, but staying perfect at home was mandatory, and the Saints got that done.
Now we get to see if Sunday’s comeback in the Superdome was the start of an even bigger, longer rally. The Saints’ season was on the brink, but for a week, at least, it took a step in the right direction.
• Given the all-in nature of Buffalo’s 2014 season, illustrated perfectly by Kyle Orton replacing EJ Manuel at starting quarterback, the Bills’ 17-14 comeback victory at Detroit cannot be over-dramatized. Having Manuel, the team’s first-round pick in 2013, take a seat just 14 games into his tenure as a starter was a bold but necessary step by head coach Doug Marrone. The Bills climbed back over .500 at 3-2, stopped a two-game losing streak and earned their second road win of the season.
Orton, of course, was no savior. But no one thought he would be. This game was won in part by Buffalo’s stout defense (tackle Marcell Dareus had a career-high three sacks) and thanks to three horribly missed field-goal attempts by Lions kicker Alex Henery (shank you very much, say the Bills). Fortunately, Buffalo had a kicker capable of getting the job done: Dan Carpenter nailed a monstrous 58-yard game-winning field goal with four seconds left, giving the Bills their only lead of the day and capping a 17-point comeback.
But Orton, despite a first-half pick-six thrown to Lions cornerback Rashean Mathis, was money when the Bills needed him to be, completing a key 20-yard pass to rookie receiver Sammy Watkins that made Carpenter’s long-range attempt possible. It was the eighth overtime or fourth-quarter comeback victory of Orton’s 10-year NFL career, and he finished an impressive 30-of-43 for 308 yards, with one touchdown and one interception.
The Bills defense and running game are good enough to win with this season, especially in the weak AFC East. Buffalo doesn’t require fantastic quarterback play, just solid, efficient passing with an emphasis on taking care of the football. Orton can fit that bill. He already has.
• So this was just another game for new Bills defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, huh? That’s what Schwartz insisted to reporters last week, when asked about making his return to Detroit’s Ford Field, where he spent the last five years as Lions head coach. But what he said this summer wound up being closer to the truth, and that’s why some of his Bills players triumphantly carried Schwartz off the field on their shoulders after Buffalo’s emotional win. You don’t see that one every day in the NFL.
"I remember back in OTAs, somehow he was talking about it in a meeting," Lions linebacker Ty Powell said, according to ESPN.com. "He said, 'When we got to Detroit, and we win, I want to be carried off the field.' I remembered that in the game. So I turned to [linebacker] Randell [Johnson], I said, 'Hey, we’re going to carry him off the field.'"
Schwartz probably could have floated off the field himself. People in the Bills organization told me this summer that Schwartz was going to be coaching with a gigantic chip on his shoulder this season in the wake of his firing by the Lions, after going 29-51 from 2009-13. He wanted this one, and he wanted it badly.
Schwartz’s defense held the Lions to just 13 first downs, and Detroit was 1-of-11 on third downs. Matthew Stafford was missing go-to receiver Calvin Johnson (ankle) for most of the game and threw for just 221 yards with one touchdown and one interception on 18-of-31 passing.
Nice weekend in Detroit, all around. The Lions give one away after leading 14-0, Johnson gets hurt again, and the supposedly potent Tigers go down meekly at the hands of the Orioles in the ALDS. The Bills' victory held extra meaning in Buffalo, as longtime Bills owner Ralph Wilson, who died in March, was a Detroit resident for most of his life.
• Hey, Matt Prater, you’re going to love Detroit at this time of year. But can you get here like, yesterday? The Lions will no doubt dismiss kicker Alex Henery any minute now -- the ex-Eagle missed all three of his attempts in the loss, dropping to just 1-of-5 in his two-game Lions career. Henery was already Detroit’s second kicker after the Lions cut seventh-round pick Nate Freese earlier this season. Prater, released by the Broncos last week while serving the final week of a four-game league suspension, is available and should expect a call from Detroit.
In this era of almost robotic accuracy by NFL kickers, the Lions are now a mind-boggling 1-of-9 on field goals longer than 30 yards this season. Let that one sink in for a while.
• I think Lovie Smith knows what he has to do now. The Bucs couldn’t quite pull off the upset in New Orleans, but how do you sit down Mike Glennon now, even if your previous starting quarterback, Josh McCown, is almost healthy after hurting his thumb early in that disastrous loss at Atlanta in Week 3?
Glennon has to get the possession arrow at this point, and I expect Tampa Bay’s first-year head coach will stay with him. The Bucs had several dropped passes and a whopping 15 penalties for 113 yards against the Saints, but Glennon was still able to throw for 249 yards, with two scores and one interception on 19-of-32 passing. Given how ineffective and turnover-prone McCown was in the first three games of the season, it’s got to be Glennon’s team for now.
• It’s getting more difficult all the time to see the Bears as a legitimate playoff contender in the NFC. There’s talent galore on offense in Chicago, but the Bears are maddening in their ability to play down to the level of their opponent. Chicago was up 21-7 in the second quarter at Carolina but then took most of the rest of the day off, losing 31-24 to a depleted Panthers team.
Carolina’s defense recorded four takeaways against Chicago, with three of those coming in the final six-plus minutes of the game. Jay Cutler had a fourth-quarter interception and a fumble, and the usually reliable Matt Forte even contributed a killer fumble in the fourth quarter (you can blame Sports Illustrated, which did a sizable feature story on him in the magazine’s most recent issue).
Adding salt to the Bears’ wounds, it was ex-Chicago tight end Greg Olsen who caught a pair of touchdown passes, including the game-winner from six yards out. Last week, former Bears general manager Jerry Angelo admitted he shouldn’t have traded Olsen away to Carolina, and Sunday’s outcome immediately drove home the point. Instead of being tied with Green Bay and Detroit for first place in the NFC North at 3-2, the Bears have lost two straight to slip to third place at 2-3.
• I can’t remember ever seeing a more bizarre punt return for a touchdown than the stop-action 79-yarder Philly Brown posted for Carolina. The Panthers' undrafted rookie return man was leveled by Bears special teamer Teddy Williams before being allowed to catch the punt, an obvious penalty.
But when Williams popped right back up to argue his case, he noticed the ball was still loose and live, so he scooped it up and took off running down the left side for the end zone. No whistle meant the Panthers could decline the call and take the points. It was Carolina’s first punt return touchdown in 11 years, since Steve Smith accomplished the feat in 2003.
• At this rate, maybe Johnny Manziel should have stayed in college, given how much he misses the lifestyle. We may not see the Browns’ rookie quarterback take the field much this season anyway. Not with Brian Hoyer making Manziel an afterthought on the strength of heroics like those he turned in Sunday in Nashville.
The Browns’ remarkable 29-28 win over Tennessee featured a 25-point comeback that was the largest in Cleveland franchise history and the largest by any road team in league history. The Browns were down 28-3 in the first half but scored the game’s final 26 points, including 16 in the fourth quarter.
And to think there was supposedly a quarterback competition in Browns training camp and during the preseason. Cleveland won its first road game since Week 3 of last year, and the Browns again showed a flair for the dramatic. Cleveland’s first three games all were decided by final-play field goals, and in its fourth game, the winning points came on Hoyer’s six-yard scoring pass to Travis Benjamin with 1:09 remaining.
Ever since the Browns selected Manziel in the first round, it has been assumed that Hoyer was just a placeholder quarterback, handling the job until Johnny Football was ready -- or forced -- to play. At this point, only an injury would bring about that kind of change.
• Ken Whisenhunt has a Super Bowl appearance on his coaching résumé, but the Titans' new head coach will never get another one if he keeps making decisions like the one he made in the fourth quarter against Cleveland. Up six points and trying to stave off the comeback-minded Browns with 3:09 remaining in the game, Whisenhunt had Tennessee go for it on 4th-and-inches from its own 42. Quarterback Charlie Whitehurst’s sneak was stuffed by Browns defenders Jabaal Sheard and Paul Kruger, and Cleveland took over with significantly improved field position.
I’m sure the statistical models say it was the right call. But that’s when the statistical models know nothing useful about the NFL. The Browns only had one timeout remaining, so pinning them back as deep as possible and making them cobble together a long drive seemed like the smart play. Instead, the Titans handed Cleveland a short field, and the Browns used it to motor five plays for the go-ahead touchdown.
Even if the Titans felt like they had to go for it, I would have chosen a ball-carrier other than Whitehurst, the team’s backup who was only playing after starter Jake Locker left the game in the second quarter with a right thumb injury. Doubling down on the disaster, the Titans challenged the spot on Whitehurst’s carry (if that’s the right word for it), losing one of their two precious timeouts when the spot did not change. That timeout would have been nice to have when Tennessee was trying to move into position for a game-winning field goal after Hoyer’s go-ahead touchdown pass to Benjamin.
The Titans (1-4) had lost their past three games by a whopping average margin of 22, and had given up 26 points to Dallas, 33 to Cincinnati and 41 to Indianapolis last week. And now this: The biggest blown lead by an NFL home team ever.
• I’m beginning to think, were it not for bad luck, Locker would not have any luck at all. Locker started the game on fire and was 8-of-11 for 79 yards passing, with one touchdown through the air and another on the ground before exiting the game. His passer rating was 122.9, and he looked confident and in command when his follow-through sent his right hand into the oncoming helmet of Browns cornerback Buster Skrine with about four minutes left in the first half.
X-rays on Locker were negative, and he’s scheduled to have an MRI on Monday. His injury history is, of course, plentiful, and he’s in the final year of his rookie deal, meaning he’s playing for the rest of his career in 2014. He missed time earlier this year with a wrist injury, and now he’s a question mark once again. It’s not even a case of him getting hurt when he leaves the pocket and takes off running. Both of his injuries this season have occurred in the pocket.
• Note to Titans receiver Kendall Wright: Mimicking Johnny Manziel’s signature “money’’ sign after you make a big play tends to lack impact when Manziel isn’t even playing. Who taunts the backup quarterback?
• An Odell Beckham Jr. sighting, and it was a big one, in the end zone, with the game-winning touchdown reception. Beckham’s 15-yard touchdown catch put an exclamation point on his NFL regular-season debut and helped make up for all those weeks he has been sidelined with hamstring issues, from offseason workouts on.
Beckham’s score with 10:02 to play put the Giants up 24-20 over the visiting Falcons on the way to a 30-20 win. New York trailed 20-10 with about 21 minutes to go in the game. The 2014 first-round pick finished with four catches for 44 yards, and the Giants are suddenly flush with playmakers on offense.
Running back Rashad Jennings left the game with a knee sprain, but rookie fourth-round running back Andre Williams capably picked up the slack in Jennings’ absence. If the Giants can field an attack featuring Jennings, Williams, Victor Cruz, Rueben Randle and Larry Donnell in addition to a revitalized Eli Manning at quarterback, that’s a bevy of weapons. At 3-2, New York is over .500 for the first time since the end of the 2012 season and just a game behind NFC East co-leaders Philadelphia and Dallas (4-1). The Giants make trips to those two division rivals in the next two weeks, giving themselves the perfect chance to gain ground and further enhance their contender status.
• Whisenhunt, of course, had some company on Sunday. Atlanta head coach Mike Smith made his own highly dubious 4th-down call, rolling the dice on 4th-and-1 from his own 29-yard line, despite trailing 27-20 with 4:40 left in the game and still owning three timeouts. Atlanta called a pass play, but Matt Ryan was under heavy pressure and took a nine-yard sack. The Giants accepted the gift and drove for a field goal to reach their ultimate 10-point margin of victory.
Smith can explain the move any way he wishes, but his decision says all you need to really know about his opinion of his less-than-stellar defense. That apparent lack of confidence cost him sooner rather than later in this case.
• Careful, Dallas. You’re about to wreck that whole perfectly .500 thing that you’ve put together over the course of the past 18 years. The Cowboys are 4-1 for the first time since 2008, thanks to a four-game winning streak, and are starting to find ways to win games they used to lose.
Dallas beat visiting Houston 20-17 in overtime on Dan Bailey’s 49-yard field goal, wiping away the pain of losing a 17-7 lead inside of the game’s final 10 minutes. The game featured the play of the day in the NFL, that ridiculous 37-yard leaping reception by Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant, setting up Bailey’s winner in OT.
Unlike in the past, not much is fazing these Cowboys when the game is on the line and a play or two goes against them. They just regroup and do whatever’s necessary to get the game back under control.
The Cowboys know there are still skeptics out there, and maybe there should be. They’ve beaten the Titans, Rams, Saints and Texans, and there are no elite teams in that group. But next week at Seattle shapes up as a statement game for Dallas. Win that one, and the entire NFL world will start paying attention to the turnaround unfolding in Arlington.
• In just five short weeks, the reeling Jets have managed to reach that lowly state where it’s not even feasible to have a decent quarterback controversy brewing because neither guy appears capable of keeping the Titanic afloat.
Geno Smith was pulled at halftime of New York’s 31-0 egg-laying in San Diego, and that was more of a merciful move than a benching. Smith was just 4-of-12 for 27 yards and an interception at that point, having generated just three first downs, 60 yards of offense and no drives that got the Jets past midfield.
But can you really say Michael Vick showed much more, completing 9-of-20 passes for 47 yards? In this case, I get why head coach Rex Ryan named Smith as the starter for next week’s home game against Denver in his postgame comments. You might as well stick with the second-year player, because the jump ball should go to youth in this case. Vick is 3-11 in his past 14 starts in the NFL, and he’s not going to make the Jets a winner this season, no matter what. The dearth of talent on offense assures that.
The reality is bleak for Ryan’s team, no matter how good the defense could possibly be with a competent secondary. The Jets are 1-4 and in a full-blown death spiral, and neither quarterback is going to change that trajectory any time soon.
• The Chargers, by comparison, are on a roll that may not end any time soon. Were it not for a bad fourth quarter at Arizona in Week 1, San Diego would be undefeated and the talk of the NFL so far. As is, the Chargers are 4-1 and figure to be 6-1 when they arrive in Denver on the Thursday night of Week 8 for a potential AFC West first-place showdown.
San Diego plays at Oakland next week in Tony Sparano’s first game as the Raiders' interim head coach and then gets a visit from Kansas City in Week 7. And don’t look now, but the Chargers might even have a running game on which to depend. San Diego ran for 162 yards on 40 carries against the usually stout Jets run defense, with rookie running back Branden Oliver carrying 19 times for 114 yards and a touchdown.
With the Chargers’ passing game looking elite so far this season -- Philip Rivers was 20-of-28 for 288 yards with three touchdowns and one interception against the Jets -- San Diego is suddenly the AFC’s most dangerous team.