FOXBORO, Mass. -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we absorb Week 9 in the NFL from a blustery Gillette Stadium, where the Broncos and Patriots renewed their quarterback-driven annual rivalry ...
• So much for the formula. In the season’s first seven weeks, when all was right with the world in Dallas, the Cowboys won six consecutive games and raced into first place thanks to a dominant running game led by DeMarco Murray, a much-better-than-expected defense and a healthy dose of an efficient and productive Tony Romo. But on Sunday at home against the surging Arizona Cardinals, in a game that could set the tone for the Cowboys’ second half, Dallas had none of those at its disposal.
The result? A predictable 28-17 loss, in a game that really didn’t even seem that close. Adversity has finally hit Arlington, with the Cowboys dropping a pair of home games in the span of six days to fall to 6-3 and second place in the NFC East, a half-game behind Philadelphia (6-2). And with Romo missing the game due to the back injury he suffered in the second half of Monday night’s loss to Washington, an air of uncertainty now hangs over this once-hopeful season in Dallas.
Who are these Cowboys, and what can they accomplish, if they’re no longer capable of following the blueprint they committed their 2014 season to? This Romo-less game against the Cardinals was supposed to show everyone just how valuable Murray was, how the defense could help carry this team, and how backup quarterback Brandon Weeden was ready to keep the chains moving and the wins coming.
Any way you score it, Dallas went 0-for-3 on that front. With 2013 Cowboys backup Kyle Orton winning games in Buffalo these days, Weeden, the former Browns starter, looked overmatched against Arizona’s defense. When the game was still a game, Weeden was mostly dreadful, completing 11-of-23 passes for 103 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions. He padded his stats with a garbage-time touchdown drive to make it an 11-point final margin, but Weeden’s performance did nothing but remind us that Romo is the Cowboys’ most irreplaceable cog, no matter how great Murray has been this season.
Dallas lead receiver Dez Bryant was largely invisible with Weeden at quarterback, held without a catch until less than two minutes remained and the Cowboys trailed by 18 points. The two never hooked up for a completion during their time together at Oklahoma State, and it appears Weeden and Bryant need a little more work before another kind of Cowboy connection can materialize.
As for Murray, his 79 yards on 19 carries were solid, but without Romo the Cowboys needed spectacular, and that was not to be. His record-breaking eight-game streak of 100-yard efforts to open the season is over, and his paltry two yards gained in the fourth quarter proved he’s a close-out weapon to be used with a lead, not a difference-making factor when Dallas needs to play catch-up.
The Cowboys' over-achieving defense is suddenly looking so-so at best. It started well enough on Sunday, helping Dallas build a 10-0 first-quarter lead largely on the strength of a 58-yard interception return for a touchdown by reserve defensive back Tyler Patmon. But the Cardinals scored the game’s next 28 points, effectively settling the outcome. Dallas let Arizona drive for touchdowns on long possessions that lasted 80, 63 and 65 yards, and consistently failed to win on third down. The Cardinals were 9-of-15 on third downs (60 percent) and finished with 339 yards of offense and 22 first downs.
These Cowboys aren’t constructed to play from behind, and they have to control the clock with the running game in order to have a shot to win. And with linebacker Rolando McClain and defensive lineman Tyrone Crawford both suffering knee injuries late against the Cardinals, the Dallas defense might continue trending in the wrong direction.
It’s too early to panic in Dallas, but the Cowboys need Romo to heal up and return, starting with this week’s trip to London, where they'll face the 1-8 Jacksonville Jaguars. Romo said after the game on Sunday he’ll travel to London and expects to play next week, and it’s not a moment too soon. Dallas takes its bye in Week 11, then faces a challenging schedule over the final six weeks of the season, including three division road games, plus their only two remaining home games against a pair of first-place teams in Philadelphia and Indianapolis. Throw in a Week 14 road game at Chicago, and the Cowboys’ last two months of the season could be drastically different than their first two.
The formula worked perfectly this year in Dallas for a while. The Cowboys won with a running game, defense and Romo. But the degree of difficulty just increased exponentially without the quarterback who makes that offense go and ranks first in importance. It’s too late to reinvent themselves, so the Cowboys need to return to what was working before. Otherwise, this presumed turnaround season just took a very troubling turn.
• I didn’t start the season believing the Arizona Cardinals could follow up on their 10-win campaign in 2013 with a trip to the playoffs this time around. But who could doubt Bruce Arians’ team now? The 7-1 Cardinals are the team to beat in the NFC at midseason, and with Denver's loss at New England, they stand alone as the only one-loss team in the NFL.
I’m essentially repeating myself from two recent pieces I did on Arizona and its first-half success, but everything the Cardinals are accomplishing starts with the confidence Arians instills in his players. They play like they’re not afraid to make mistakes because that’s how he coaches. And that makes for players who want to run through a brick wall for the guy.
"The first thing he does is he builds trust with you," Cardinals defensive end Calais Campbell told me last week. "Everybody trusts him because he’s honest and straightforward, and you can appreciate that in a coach. Most guys who have been in this league long enough know that’s rare. He’s very blunt, but in a way you respect. He’ll call you out if you’re not doing well and put you up in front of the whole team, and when you’re doing well, he also calls you out and puts you in front of the whole team. And that makes you want to do well for him."
The Cardinals probably wish they were still in the NFC East, as they were from 1970-2001, because they just improved to 4-0 and swept their series against that division with their defeat of the Cowboys. Arizona is 5-0 overall in the NFC, 4-0 at home this season, and Carson Palmer is the league’s only undefeated starting quarterback, 5-0 as a starter this season.
Lastly, the Cardinals' run defense is the real strength of the team, having gone 18 straight games without allowing a 100-yard rusher, a streak that saw an exclamation point applied Sunday when the Cowboys’ DeMarco Murray was held to less than triple digits for the first time this season.
• Robert Griffin III had his moments in returning to the field for the first time in seven weeks, but Washington missed a huge opportunity in its 29-26 loss at Minnesota. With back-to-back road wins in the span of less than a week, Jay Gruden’s team could have scratched its way back to 4-5 and semi-relevance in the NFC East race, especially with its bye and a home game against one-win Tampa Bay just ahead.
But now, at 3-6, with two six-win teams in the division in Philadelphia and Dallas, Washington’s playoff hopes are faint. True, Washington stood 3-6 in 2012 before it went on that season-ending seven-game winning streak and won the NFC East. But you can’t usually capture that kind of lightning in a bottle twice in three years.
Griffin looked rusty at times, and his worm-killing pass into the ground on Washington’s final desperate fourth-down snap was beyond puzzling. But he showed some nice touch on deep balls to receiver DeSean Jackson, and running back Alfred Morris is clearly better off when Griffin and his threat to run is in the lineup. Griffin’s presence opens up holes for Morris that Colt McCoy and Kirk Cousins cannot replicate.
• The outlook is a little brighter for the Vikings, who enter their Week 10 bye at 4-5, with a little momentum from the first winning streak (two games) of the Mike Zimmer coaching era. Rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater put together another fourth-quarter comeback with a sharp 12-play, 73-yard touchdown drive, and he finished an encouraging 26-of-42 for 268 yards and a touchdown in the win over Washington.
If nothing else, the Vikings victory lifted them into third place in the NFC North and dropped the underachieving and idle Bears into last place at 3-5. Minnesota’s next game, conveniently enough, is at Chicago in Week 11.
• Matt Asiata is a fantasy football owner’s dream come true. The Vikings' running back had his second three-touchdown game of the season -- the league’s only running back to manage that this year -- and he doesn’t waste a lot of effort in finding the end zone. He gained just 26 yards on 10 carries against Washington but had two one-yard scoring runs, a seven-yard touchdown burst and a two-point conversion carry.
Very economical, Mr. Asiata.
• The Browns and Bengals both won at home on Sunday against one-win teams from Florida (the Bucs and Jaguars, respectively) and if it’s possible, the AFC North just got tighter. Ahead of Sunday night’s Ravens-Steelers game, the division’s standings read thusly:
From top to bottom in the AFC North, the four teams were separated by a mere half game -- for a few hours, at least. Even after Sunday night’s game, it’ll be an extraordinary logjam for this late in the season.
• A former Texas A&M star scored a pair of touchdowns in Cleveland, but if you took Johnny Manziel in that pool, you lost. It was rookie receiver Mike Evans, Manziel’s favorite target with the Aggies, who beat Johnny Football to the honor of scoring on Browns turf in the regular season.
Evans even gave Manziel’s "money sign" to the Cleveland bench after both of his 24-yard touchdown catches in Tampa Bay’s 22-17 loss. I’m sure it was somewhat in tribute to his former teammate, because the two remain good friends. But that still had to sting a bit, don’t you think?
• That Mark Sanchez for Michael Vick trade that wasn’t really a trade paid off handsomely for the Eagles Sunday in Houston. Vick, the ex-Eagle, started for the woeful Jets and lost in Kansas City, while the ex-Jet Sanchez helped save the day for Philadelphia, which took over first place in the NFC East with a 31-21 defeat of the Texans.
Sanchez threw a couple of interceptions along the way, but he got the job done for the Eagles after starting quarterback Nick Foles went down with a left clavicle injury on the final play of the first quarter, on a sack by Houston linebacker Whitney Mercilus. Sanchez hadn’t played in the regular season since December 2012, after sitting out all of last year with a shoulder injury. But he was a respectable 15-of-22 for 202 yards, with two touchdown passes and two picks.
If Foles’ clavicle is broken, and he was in a sling Sunday night, the Eagles figure to be Sanchez’s team for the next month or so at least. And if he plays well and the Eagles keep winning, who knows? With Foles’ uneven performance this season, Sanchez could wind up keeping the job long-term if he maximizes his opportunity.
The greater concern in Philadelphia is probably the status of inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans. He left the game on a cart in the fourth quarter with an ankle injury, and at least one postgame report termed it an Achilles injury. If Ryans is lost for the season, he’ll be tougher to replace than Foles. Reserve linebacker Casey Matthews would probably slide into Ryans’ spot.
• The Chargers-Dolphins game was like two ships passing each other in opposite directions. San Diego (5-4) has lost three in a row and is sinking fast. Miami (5-3) has won three in a row and is starting to look like a legitimate AFC playoff contender. The Dolphins dominated the Chargers in every way in a 37-0 blowout, registering the franchise’s first shutout since December 2006. San Diego hadn’t been blanked since Halloween 1999, a span of 241 games, according to ESPN.
The Dolphins scored on their first four possessions and led 20-0 before the Chargers knew what hit them. Miami hadn’t won at home since Week 1 against New England, and this was the kind of win that should set up the Dolphins’ second half for meaningful games until the very end.
But what to make of San Diego at this point? So much for all that Philip Rivers MVP chatter. Rivers was horrible, throwing three interceptions, losing a fumble and getting outplayed so badly by Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill that the Chargers removed him from the rout with two minutes left in the third quarter.
It’s almost hard to remember how San Diego won five in a row from Weeks 2-6. Rivers has six turnovers in his past two games, and the Chargers have been outscored 95-41 over the past three weeks in losses to Kansas City, Denver and the Dolphins. Looks like if the Broncos have any real competition for their fourth consecutive AFC West title this season, it’ll come from the resurgent Chiefs, not the reeling Chargers. Kansas City beat the visiting Jets handily and is now 5-3, having won five of six after its 0-2 start.
• I know Bengals rookie running back Jeremy Hill turned in a monster 154-yard, two-touchdown game in Cincinnati’s 33-23 conquest of visiting Jacksonville, but every time I saw something from that game, Bengals third-year receiver Mohamed Sanu was making another outstanding play to help Cincinnati out of a tight spot.
The league doesn’t have a breakthrough player of the year award, but if it did, my vote would go to Sanu, who has significantly stepped up his game this season, especially when star receiver A.J. Green was sidelined recently with his lingering toe issue.
Against the Jaguars, Sanu had four catches for 95 yards, including the Bengals’ first touchdown on a 19-yard reception. He made a key recovery of a Green fumble and even rushed once for nine yards. And we already know the former high school quarterback can throw the ball -- he has two career touchdown passes, including one earlier this season.
• It’s difficult, if not impossible, to see the 49ers getting where they want to go this year -- Super Bowl or bust, remember? -- after finding themselves a mediocre 4-4 at midseason. That’s how damaging Sunday’s 13-10 upset home loss to St. Louis could be in the grand scheme of things. San Francisco is three games behind first-place Arizona (7-1) in the NFC West, a game behind Seattle (5-3) and just a game ahead of the Rams (3-5). After going to the NFC Championship Game in the first three seasons of the Jim Harbaugh era, missing the playoffs entirely suddenly looks very plausible.
The 49ers travel to New Orleans and the always-tough Superdome next week, and San Francisco still has both of its games remaining with Seattle, in addition to a matchup with the red-hot Cardinals.
The 49ers have proven to be more than resilient since Harbaugh arrived in 2011, but quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s fumble at the goal line with two seconds remaining could be the mistake that can’t really be overcome.