Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we wrap up an eventful and exciting Week 7 in the NFL, which featured five games decided by two points or fewer. ...
• The defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks have more problems than Friday’s shocking Percy Harvin trade alone can fix. That much we know in light of their drama-filled Sunday afternoon in St. Louis.
The Seahawks never lost consecutive games last season and didn’t suffer their third defeat until Week 16 at home to Arizona. In losing 28-26 to the pesky Rams in the Edward Jones Dome, Seattle dropped its second straight and is now 3-3, facing a .500 record for the first time this late in the season since it stood 4-4 at the midpoint of 2012.
The Seahawks rode the roller coaster against the Rams, and that is rapidly becoming the story of their season. Defending a Super Bowl title is never easy, and Seattle is learning just how difficult it is to be the hunted every week in the NFL. Last Sunday it was the Dallas Cowboys who summoned the motivation and emotion needed to win in Seattle, and this week it was the previously 1-4 Rams who made the champs look beatable.
Down 21-6 in the first half and looking as if they were left shell-shocked by the deal that gave away Harvin -- ostensibly their top receiving threat -- to the Jets, the Seahawks found some of their missing mojo and stormed back into the game, outscoring St. Louis 20-7 in the second half.
But that one play they needed to turn the outcome to their advantage never came, and in the end, it was the go-for-broke Rams who made the moment theirs, essentially sealing the contest with an unbelievably gutsy fake punt from their own 18-yard line with under three minutes to go in the game.
That’s the kind of daring play Seattle used to specialize in: the back-breaker. But this year the script is different for the Seahawks, and it’s the opponents who have often seized the motivational edge that comes from playing against the league’s best team.
At 3-3, Seattle is not in desperation mode, but the Seahawks’ flaws are showing. The Rams abused them on special teams on Sunday, getting a 90-yard punt return touchdown from Stedman Bailey off a trick play and a 75-yard Benny Cunningham kickoff return that set up another touchdown. Throw in punter Johnny Hekker’s risky but perfectly executed 18-yard fourth-down pass to Cunningham on the Rams’ final possession, and St. Louis special teams coach John Fassel crafted the most masterful gameplan of the NFL season. That Seattle went for a two-point conversion too early and failed in the fourth quarter -- trailing 21-19 with 9:44 to go -- only added to the drubbing on special teams.
The Seahawks' offensive line is again becoming a problem, just as it was at times last season. The Rams entered the game with just one sack all season but totaled three in the first half alone and consistently pressured quarterback Russell Wilson. A false start and three holding calls rounded out the disaster, and even the Seattle running game produced just 65 yards on 22 attempts once Russell’s 106 yards on scrambles are taken out.
On defense, Seattle’s supposed strength, the Seahawks continue to look less than dominating. The pass rush generated nary a sack against a questionable Rams offensive line, and without that pressure up front, one-time fourth-string St. Louis quarterback Austin Davis was able to drive his team to its lone second-half touchdown and a 28-19 lead with fewer than six minutes left, picking the Seahawks apart with 18-of-21 passing on the day.
Seattle’s aura of invincibility has been well punctured at this point, and opponents sense that the champs have weaknesses to exploit just like any other team. The Seahawks won plenty of close games last season, but they’re not making the game-turning plays as reliably this time around, and they have their first two-game losing streak since Weeks 7-8 of 2012 to prove it.
Harvin is gone, and opinions might differ on the pros and cons behind that move. But after Sunday’s events in St. Louis, everybody in Seattle can now agree on this: Last season and its Super Bowl-winning dominance is gone as well, and it’s up to the Seahawks to reinvent themselves and find out where their unpredictable 2014 season will lead.
• If NFL VP of officiating Dean Blandino ruled there was no need to stop the game to review the late-game Tre Mason fumble based on the video evidence of the play, then he was watching a different play than the one I saw. On the replays I viewed, Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman logically had to be credited with a recovery of the loose ball, since he was on top of it, with the ball secured beneath his stomach and between his knees.
"Because there was no evidence of a clear recovery by either St. Louis or Seattle, the call on the field of a St. Louis recovery would stand," NFL spokesman Michael Signora told the website Pro Football Talk, via email.
Huh? Evidence of a clear recovery is apparently in the eye of the beholder, and in this case, the only beholder who mattered was Blandino. But I’m really not sure why the NFL’s competition committee passed the so-called NaVarro Bowman rule this past offseason if Mason’s potentially game-changing fumble didn’t merit a review.
• It almost goes without saying that the Rams had little to lose in playing such a wide-open, roll-the-dice style. St. Louis entered 1-4 and in last place in the talented NFC West and had just lost Monday night at home against San Francisco after seeing a 14-0 first-quarter lead turn into a 31-17 defeat. So why not throw caution out the window against the Seahawks?
That said, the Rams’ fake punt call was possibly the bravest decision I can remember seeing in the NFL. If Hekker doesn’t make a good pass or Cunningham doesn’t catch the ball and get the first down, it’s a play that will almost guarantee a St. Louis loss and all kinds of heat on the head of Rams coach Jeff Fisher. But it worked to perfection.
And maybe we shouldn’t have been that surprised. In the most eye-opening statistic I saw all day, Fisher, according to Fox, has called a fake punt 27 times in his long NFL coaching career and picked up an impressive 13 first downs from those calls -- almost a 50 percent success rate. But has there ever been a ballsier one than Sunday’s?
• It was another stellar day of football in the NFC South, the laughingstock of NFL divisions. Atlanta, Carolina and New Orleans were all on the road against quality 4-2 opponents, and all of them underwhelmed once again. The Falcons were completely overmatched by Baltimore, 29-7, the Panthers didn’t bother to show up against Green Bay, 38-17, and the Saints somehow found a way to blow a 13-point fourth-quarter lead, losing 24-23 to the Lions.
Tampa Bay was on its bye, but the 0-3 day made it four times in seven weeks that the NFC South has either been blanked or managed just one victory. And to think the NFC South sent two teams to the playoffs last season (Panthers and Saints), with multiple postseason qualifiers in four of the past six years.
• The Falcons (2-5) aren’t even competitive anymore. Atlanta has lost five of six since beating the Saints in overtime in Week 1, and each of those defeats came by double-digits. The only thing that interrupted that embarrassing streak was that fool's-gold 56-14 blowout of the bumbling Bucs in Week 3.
And you can’t just point the finger at Atlanta’s porous defense. The Falcons offense was nothing more than a rumor against the Ravens, rolling up 61 total yards in the first half and starting the game 0-of-7 on third down. Baltimore led 17-0 at the half and 20-0 in the third quarter before losing interest. The Falcons' beleaguered offensive line lost center Peter Konz with a left knee injury in the first half, and quarterback Matt Ryan absorbed five sacks, making Atlanta's 2014 look more and more like 2013 all the time.
Ever-patient Falcons owner Arthur Blank may soon find his instincts to be supportive of the current coaching staff desert him. Atlanta’s Week 8 trip to London and date with first-place Detroit should be fun. Seems like a good idea to leave the country for a while.
• What a perfect time for the red-hot Ravens to be heading to Cincinnati and Pittsburgh in the coming two weeks. Baltimore, beaten at home by the Bengals in Week 1, has sole possession of the AFC North for the first time all season thanks to its rout of Atlanta. The Ravens are 5-2 and have won five out of six, barely breaking a sweat the past two weeks against a couple of NFC South punching bags in the Buccaneers and the Falcons. Throw in the Week 4 blowout of visiting Carolina, and Baltimore probably wishes it drew the NFC South every year, outscoring those three teams 115-34 this season.
The Bengals, 0-2-1 in their past three games after an 3-0 start, will be up against a team that has figured out its offensive blueprint and is playing with supreme confidence -- possibly even over-confidence, given the Ravens’ recent level of competition.
• That was quite the opportunity missed by New Orleans, which could have been 3-3 and in a virtual first-place tie with Carolina (3-3-1) if it had been able to protect a 13-point lead with fewer than four minutes to play in Detroit.
I’m sensing a theme to the Saints’ losses this season, and it goes deeper than the home-road splits. New Orleans simply can’t get it done often enough in tight, down-to-the-wire settings, losing late in excruciatingly close games at Atlanta, Cleveland and Detroit.
Maybe the Saints got too used to winning comfortably with those gaudy statistics and point totals in recent years with Drew Brees at the helm of the offense, or maybe they’ve gotten a bit soft after holding the first half of training camp this summer at a cushy West Virginia resort called The Greenbrier. Perhaps there was some benefit to be had from sweating through camp in the muggy heat down south, at least in gut-check time, during the fourth quarter of games. Something’s not working for my pick to win it all this season. The Saints can’t seem to close the deal.
After showing promising signs all day against the Calvin Johnson-less Lions, the Saints defense let Detroit receiver Golden Tate break free for a 73-yard catch-and-run touchdown with 3:56 remaining, and then Brees threw a killer interception to cornerback Glover Quin in his own territory to set up the Lions’ winning points.
Because they’re in the NFC South, the Saints aren’t dead in the playoff chase at 2-4. But still, calling them a contender sounds laughable given their repeated lapses.
• Ugly wins count the same as pretty ones in the NFL, and the Lions (5-2) have no apologizing to do on that front after pulling a rabbit out of their hat against the Saints. Detroit clearly misses the injured Calvin Johnson in the passing game and for about 56 minutes on Sunday, it looked like Jim Caldwell’s team would not be able to compensate for his absence and threaten a shaky New Orleans defense.
Then everything changed, and Tate’s big play served to wake up the slumbering Lions. Tate’s 73-yard touchdown catch was the centerpiece of his 154-yard day, the third time in four weeks he has cleared the 100-yard receiving plateau.
Don’t look now, but Detroit stayed in a tie for first place in the NFC North with the rolling Packers (5-2), and the Lions have already beaten Green Bay head-to-head this season, at home in Week 3. With their London game against the swooning Falcons set for next week, the Lions have a great shot to be 6-2 at midseason as they enter their Week 9 bye. There’s still a long way to go, but Detroit at Green Bay in Week 17 at Lambeau Field could be a post-Christmas showdown for the division title.
• Well, that ought to slow down work on the Brian Hoyer statue in Cleveland. The Browns (3-3) and their feel-good story of a quarterback simply aren’t good enough to throw their orange helmets on the field and beat anyone -- even the heretofore winless Jacksonville Jaguars. In one of those games that you could see coming from a mile away -- but didn’t -- the Browns looked like a team that started to feel a little too good about itself, losing in resounding fashion at Jacksonville, 24-6.
Another one of those showings out of Hoyer and you’ll be hearing the “Where’s Johnny?’’ questions in the postgame, Mike Pettine. Hoyer was just 16-of-41 for 215 yards with an interception and a fumble lost against the Jaguars, and looked out of rhythm with his passing all game long. The Browns' rookie head coach was almost as shaky, passing up a probable 9-0 lead late in the second quarter in order to go for it on 4th-and-1 at the Jacksonville 24. The pass play the Browns ran failed, and three snaps later, the Jaguars took the lead for good on a 31-yard touchdown pass from Blake Bortles to Allen Robinson with 36 seconds to go before the half. With the Browns trailing 10-6 early in the fourth quarter, another fourth-down gamble from the Jaguars' 43 had even less of a chance to succeed.
This just in: The Browns will not be 6-2 at midseason, as was widely presumed just last week after they knocked off Pittsburgh ahead of games against lowly Jacksonville, Oakland and Tampa Bay. This is where we all nod and tell ourselves that we’re never falling for that trap again.
• Pressure win by the Jaguars, though. With another loss, they would have become the first team since the woeful 1993-94 Bengals to start consecutive seasons 0-7 or worse. Jacksonville started 0-8 last year and entered Sunday having lost nine in a row dating to Week 14 in 2013, a home win over Houston.
The story of Jacksonville’s upset was the breakthrough showing of running back Denard Robinson, the former Michigan quarterback who got the start with Toby Gerhart still injured. Robinson entered the day with 160 yards rushing in his two-year NFL career, having not cracked the 100-yard barrier in either season. But by the end of Sunday's win, Robinson had run for 127 yards and his first career touchdown on 22 carries for 5.8 yards per rush. And as a bonus, the ex-Wolverine helped beat a team from the hated state of Ohio.
With the Jaguars on the board in the win column, only Oakland (0-6) remains a threat to the 2008 Lions' fabled 0-16 season. Get the flat champagne ready, Detroit, just in case.
• If anybody in Washington gets excited and starts going on about Colt McCoy being the answer at quarterback, even when Robert Griffin III is healthy again, force them to rewatch Kirk Cousins' sterling relief appearance after Griffin went down in the Redskins' win over Jacksonville in Week 2.
I think you get my point. Cousins, like McCoy, threw a touchdown on his first pass of Week 2, but we know how the rest of the story turned out. The longer he played, the worse Cousins looked, leading to his benching at halftime Sunday against Tennessee in favor of McCoy. Cousins committed two more turnovers in the first half, and his confidence looked almost gone by the time the trigger was pulled.
McCoy acquitted himself quite well, completing 11-of-12 passes for 128 yards with one touchdown and directing the 76-yard drive for the game-winning field goal in the final three-plus minutes of Washington’s 19-17 defeat of the Titans.
But it was the Titans. That’s pivotal to the narrative. Beating them at home, just like the then-winless Jaguars, is no great accomplishment. Especially when it’s a skin-of-your-teeth kind of win and career backup Charlie Whitehurst is the opposing quarterback. Washington (2-5) hasn’t won since Week 2 and is still firmly entrenched in last place in the NFC East. As for the on-the-mend Griffin, the Redskins have already learned once this season that they can not easily replace him.
• At this rate, the Titans (2-5) might as well just play for draft position. They’re not finding out anything about 2011 first-round pick Jake Locker with him nursing a thumb injury on the sideline, and while Whitehurst (17-of-26 for 160 yards, two touchdowns and one interception against Washington) has been decent in his three starts, he’s not anyone’s idea of the future in Nashville.
All that’s left is to find out whether rookie Zach Mettenberger can become a star on the rise. The second half of the season is just a game away in Tennessee, and Mettenberger should be front and center for most of November and December.
• That’s what it was supposed to look like in Miami this season, with the Dolphins taking games by the throat and not letting go. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill was superb, completing 18 of his first 19 passes in Miami's 27-14 win at Chicago with two touchdowns and a big 30-yard scramble at a big moment in the game.
Tannehill didn’t throw an incompletion until less than a minute remained in the first half, and his 25-of-32 passing and 123.6 rating helped offset the four sacks he took in the first half. The normally slow-starting Dolphins built a 14-0 halftime lead and never gave the Bears any reason to believe they could duplicate the fourth-quarter comeback that Green Bay executed against Miami last week.
Getting to 2-1 on the road this season is a solid accomplishment for the 3-3 Dolphins, but here’s the next goal: winning two games in a row. Miami stays in-state with a trip to Jacksonville next week with a chance to climb over .500 for the first time since beating the Patriots in Week 1.
• The Bears reportedly had a very loud and angry losing locker room. If only they put that much fight and energy into actually winning one of their home games. Chicago is a maddening 0-3 at home and 3-1 on the road. This latest Soldier Field defeat only re-enforces my opinion that these Bears are built to disappoint their fans. They tease, but they rarely please when it matters most.
Jay Cutler, the team’s highly-paid quarterback, is the face of the underachievement in Chicago. The Bears defense has the kind of issues that Buddy Ryan and Dick Butkus would have never put up with, but it’s the Cutler-led offense that generates most of the frustration. Cutler had an interception and lost two fumbles against the Dolphins, turnovers which led directly to 10 points for Miami.
I haven’t checked yet, but it feels as if I’ve picked the outcome of Chicago’s game incorrectly every week, tabbing the Bears to win the games they lose and lose the games they win. Here’s one more call I’m willing to make: A fourth consecutive non-playoff season is on the way in Chicago.
• Speaking of teams that have come up small of late, the Bengals are shrinking before our eyes. Cincinnati went to Indianapolis on Sunday and the 27-0 final score was incredibly the most positive of the many negative statistics the Bengals put up in a losing effort.
The Bengals punted 11 times, tying a team record, and all of those came before five minutes remained in the third quarter. At one point, Cincinnati had run 38 plays and gained a total of 47 yards (do the math on that average). The Bengals were 1-of-14 on third and fourth downs and didn’t generate a first down until the final minute of the first half -- and that was on a penalty when Colts linebacker Erik Walden was ejected for coming in contact with a game official.
Andy Dalton was brutal in the first half, completing just 6-of-15 passes for 12 yards. Cincinnati wound up with eight first downs and 135 yards of offense but still couldn’t avoid its first shutout since Week 17 of 2009.
And this was the team we all thought looked Super Bowl-ready about a month ago when the Bengals were 3-0 entering their Week 4 bye? Injuries have played a role in Cincy’s slump, but the 3-2-1 Bengals haven’t looked the same since they kicked off that Monday night in Foxboro.
• It’s hard to remember now, but the Colts at 0-2 had everyone telling them that teams that lose their first two games stand about a 12 percent chance of making the playoffs. Quick question: What’s the stat for 5-2 teams making the postseason?
That’s where Indy stands after routing the reeling Bengals, and if favored Pittsburgh beats the Texans at home on Monday night, the Colts will have a two-game lead over their closest competitor in the weak AFC South. Not bad given Indy trailed the 2-0 Texans by two games entering Week 3.
Andrew Luck and a quality defense in Indianapolis? That’s almost not fair.
• If you’re one of those who believe the NFL has "ruined football" by legislating all the big hits out of the game, watch the crushing -- and perfectly legal -- hits Colts cornerback Vontae Davis laid on Bengals second-year running back Giovani Bernard on Sunday. On the same drive, no less.
They were both textbook in terms of Davis leading with the shoulder, not the head, and they were both violent collisions. Bernard, to his credit, got up both times and came back for more.
• I wouldn’t go printing playoff tickets just yet if I worked in Buffalo’s front office. The Bills scratched their way to 4-3 in this make-or-break season, but losing both Fred Jackson (groin) and C.J. Spiller (a likely season-ending broken collarbone) took a lot of the excitement out of the dramatic 17-16 defeat of visiting Minnesota.
In addition, the Bills turned the ball over four times, and a usually stout Buffalo run defense was dented for 158 yards by the Vikings, including a 103-yard game from Jerick McKinnon. After giving up 2.8 yards per rush in their first six games, the Bills were gouged for 5.4 yards per carry by Minnesota.
As for quarterback Kyle Orton, he may get the ball out quicker and command the huddle better than EJ Manuel, but he darn near found a way to lose at home to a 2-4 Vikings team starting a rookie quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater. Orton lost a fumble, threw an interception and was sacked six times, but his two-yard game-winning touchdown pass to rookie receiver Sammy Watkins with 1 second remaining put some nice lipstick on Buffalo’s pig of a win.
• The Vikings’ last-second loss could not have helped Mike Zimmer’s painful case of kidney stones. Minnesota’s first-year coach underwent a minor procedure related to the stones on Friday and reportedly told Fox he’ll need another one on Tuesday.
Ouch. A victory wouldn’t have made everything better, but letting the Bills drive the field in the game’s final three minutes and convert on both 4th-and-20 and 3rd-and-12 had to add to Zimmer’s misery. Especially since Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater had rallied from two rookie-ish first-half interceptions to help Minnesota build a late six-point lead.
• Has any quality defense fallen farther faster than the Panthers? Every time I looked up at the Carolina-Green Bay game on Sunday, another Packer was running free and clear in the secondary. It was 38-3 in the third quarter of this one when FOX switched away to the Seattle-St. Louis game, sparing me from being further subjected to Carolina’s defensive shortcomings.
I know Greg Hardy was the Panthers’ best pass rusher, but his absence alone cannot explain the train wreck that Carolina has become on defense. The Panthers have surrendered 37 or more points in four of their last five games, are averaging 27.9 points allowed this season, compared to 15.1 last year. In seven games, Carolina has allowed just 46 points fewer than it did all of last season.
Green Bay led 21-0 in the first quarter, and Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was 15-of-17 for 194 yards and two touchdown passes in the first half. He finished with a 154.5 passer rating, the second highest of his career.
• I didn’t have to see Luke Kuechly’s ejection from the Panthers-Packers game live to know it was a total travesty. The Carolina linebacker and defending NFL Defensive Player of the Year winner was thrown out for making contact with a game official, even though it was the official who tried to wrap up Keuchly from behind and get him and a Packers lineman to disengage.
Kuechly didn’t know it was a zebra on his back and half shrugged, half swung his elbow in an attempt to get free. And that earned him an early shower? Given the nature of the blowout, maybe he was the lucky one, but the call was still ridiculous.
• It’s getting almost boring in Dallas. DeMarco Murray runs for 100-plus yards, Dez Bryant makes a bunch of key plays, Tony Romo takes good care of the football and the Dallas defense holds up far better than anyone ever dreamed.
After the Cowboys’ 31-21 conquest of the visiting Giants (3-4), the NFC East might already legitimately be down to a two-team race: Dallas sits at 6-1 and Philadelphia at 5-1, with the Eagles on their bye in Week 7.
That sets us up nicely for November and December, when the Eagles travel to Dallas on Thanksgiving Day in Week 13, and the rematch unfolds 17 days later in Philadelphia in Week 15. But what will it be like to not have a winner-take-all Week 17 NFC East championship game for the first time in years?
• Even when the Cardinals were winning back-to-back NFC West titles in 2008 and '09 under head coach Ken Whisenhunt and with Kurt Warner at quarterback, I never really thought of Arizona as one of the elite teams in the league. And that was with Arizona coming a Santonio Holmes toe tap away from winning the Super Bowl against the Steelers.
But I do now. Arizona went on the road to handle the slightly-improved Raiders 24-13 on Sunday, and Bruce Arians’ team has become one of the surer bets in the league this season. The Cardinals have also strengthened their grip on first place in the rugged NFC West, improving to 5-1, ahead of San Francisco, Seattle and St. Louis.
Dating to last year’s season-ending 7-2 run, Arizona has won 12 of its past 15 games, almost an entire regular season worth of top-notch success. Next week a statement-game NFC showdown looms, as the Eagles (5-1) travel to Glendale to test themselves against the surging Cardinals.
• Sunday’s late-afternoon results, however, slightly scramble the meaning of a Week 8 showdown in the AFC: San Diego at Denver on Thursday night. The Chargers were upset 23-20 at home against the Chiefs and saw their five-game winning streak snapped. It was the first win in San Diego for Kansas City since 2007, and it keeps the Chiefs viable in the AFC West at 3-3.
The Broncos beat the visiting 49ers on Sunday night, putting them in first place in the division at 5-1, one half-game ahead of the 5-2 Chargers. San Diego was a half-game in the lead entering Sunday’s play and could have furthered its advantage by beating the Chiefs and then winning at Denver.
Either way, Philip Rivers finally had a good-but-not-great game this season, throwing a late interception that ended the Chargers’ comeback hopes. Kansas City has suddenly won three of its past four, losing only at San Francisco in Week 5 after starting the season a disappointing 0-2. Andy Reid improved his career record after a bye week to 14-2, and that .875 winning percentage is the best in league history.
Maybe some of that Royals magic is starting to rub off on these Chiefs, the baseball team’s next-door neighbors at Arrowhead.