The thrill (or agony, as the case may be) of an NFL season is that you never quite know when you're witnessing the defining moment of a team's season until after the fact. That turning point can take multiple forms: an injury, a surprise performance, a curious coaching decision, an unexpected development that comes out of the front office. Here are eight teams who, for better or worse, have already experienced the moments that sealed the direction of their 2014 season.
Of course, the turning points for the league's best teams come with more presence as the season goes along, which is why those decisive moments for teams on the wrong end of the curve can be so definitive. And there are times when teams find their way early on, and ride that momentum all the way.
Yes, Tom Brady has played out of his mind since the last time the Patriots lost -- to the Chiefs in Week 4. He has thrown 18 touchdown passes and just one interception over the last five games, making him the main reason why the Patriots are back in the swing of things in the AFC. But we'll submit that the first win in this five-game winning streak -- a 43-17 thrashing of the Bengals in Week 5 -- was the most important. It was the most important because Brady and his offense needed to get back on track after Kansas City's defense limited Brady to just 14 of 23 completions for 159 yards, one touchdown and two picks.
And get back on track, the Patriots did. Cincinnati's highly-ranked defense had no answers for New England's offense on Oct. 5, and in the game where he broke through the 50,000-passing yard barrier, Brady took down a more recent and important barrier, throwing for 292 yards after failing to hit 250 yards in any of the team's first four contests. In this game, Brady proved reports of his demise were premature (and, quite frankly, silly), and it was Marvin Lewis' defense that suffered instead.
It was a truly and totally balanced performance, as well -- Stevan Ridley added 113 rushing yards, and New England's defense picked up three fumble recoveries. Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton managed to avoid any interception on this day, but he didn't do much else -- he finished his day with just 204 passing yards.
It's hard to argue against the fact that Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians is probably going to win the NFL's Coach of the Year award this season. His 17-7 mark with Arizona is the best record for any head coach through his first 24 games with a team (H/T to Fox Sports Radio's Mike Jurecki for that factoid), and he was perhaps never better as a head coach than he was with a very young Cardinals team in Week 2 when his squad traveled cross-country to face the Giants without quarterback Carson Palmer, who had a nerve issue in his throwing shoulder. This game is where Arians' "Quarterback Whisperer" reputation grew serious legs.
Backup QB Drew Stanton -- who hadn't started an NFL game since 2010 -- performed with impressive efficiency in his stead. Stanton completed 14 of 29 passes for 167 yards and no touchdowns, but the key was, he didn't turn the ball over, and he led the team on scoring drives of 80 and 74 yards. Defense and special teams kicked in, and a reeling Giants team that was still trying to find its offensive identity with new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo could find no way to win. Not with four total turnovers, and a special teams unit that allowed Ted Ginn's 71-yard punt return in the fourth quarter. New York led 14-10 at the end of the third quarter, but that return -- and three field goals from rookie kicker Chandler Catanzaro -- ended that little threat.
Palmer is back and healthy now, and the Cardinals have the NFL's best record at 7-1, but it was how Arians' team performed when it could (and perhaps should) have fallen apart that set the pace for everything else. Arizona was 2-1 in Stanton's three starts; the only loss came to Denver in Week 4. Perhaps there will be a rematch of that game in the Super Bowl -- at Arians' home stadium? Only a fool would bet against him.
After three straight 8-8 seasons and a great deal of warranted skepticism regarding the football acumen of head coach Jason Garrett and owner/general manager/El Jefe Jerry Jones, it was tough for people to get excited about the Cowboys' 4-1 start. But Jones' changes were starting to bear fruit, and the promotion of Rod Marinelli from defensive line coach to defensive coordinator turned out to be one of the genius moves of the 2014 season. An offensive line that featured three first-round picks was performing as such, and running back DeMarco Murray was pounding the rock at an historic pace. This allowed Tony Romo to play with freedom, but not freneticism -- a fine line that has bedeviled Romo in years past.
For those who were reluctant to buy in, Dallas' Oct. 12 trip to Seattle's CenturyLink Field was a turning point for this team. The Cowboys traveled to Seattle -- where the Seahawks play football better than anyone -- and stole that identity from the defending Super Bowl champions. Murray ran 29 times for 115 yards, while Romo completed 21 of 32 passes for 250 yards, two touchdowns and no picks. Marinelli's defense limited Russell Wilson to 14 completions in 28 attempts, 126 yards and no touchdowns -- The fact that Marinelli did this (and continues to do it, for the most part) with several injuries on that side of the ball confirms that this guy knows how to coach.
"He's been able to keep everybody accountable for each other," free safety Barry Church said about Marinelli after the game. "He's not going to let one guy slide. It's what he always preaches, that he brings it to a man's attention. Once everybody's accountable for one another, you feel that you don't want to be the guy who messes up. We all play for each other, and it's a great defensive team. It's not just one individual out there, making tremendous plays. It's the whole team, making sure they do their jobs."
Similarly to the Cowboys, the Lions started the 2014 season looking to establish a new defensive identity with a new man in charge. Former Baltimore Ravens secondary coach Teryl Austin replaced venerated and well-loved defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham in January, and Austin immediately set to work insuring that a Lions defense that has been stacked with talent for eons would now play with the discipline that would send it to greater heights. The team started out 1-1 in head coach Jim Caldwell's first season, and the Week 3 win over the Packers really set the tone. Yes, Aaron Rodgers et. al had been struggling through the first part of the season, but nobody expected a beatdown like this from a Detroit defense that had allowed some of Rodgers' most impressive performances over time.
With a secondary limited by injuries, the Lions limited Rodgers to 16 completions in 27 attempts for 162 yards and one touchdown, and Green Bay's running game could amass just 76 yards on 22 attempts. Perhaps most impressive was Detroit's ability to get pressure with just four pass rushers, a trend that has continued through the season -- according to ESPN Stats & Info, the Lions sent four defenders after Rodgers on 25 of Rodgers' 29 total dropbacks (two sacks), and Rodgers completed 58.3 percent of those passes and averaged 5.8 yards per attempt.
Even when linebacker Stephen Tulloch blew out his left ACL in an embarrassing fashion -- on a celebration after sacking Rodgers -- the Lions' defense didn't slow down. Austin plugged third-year man Tahir Whitehead in, who has performed estimably. Atypically, while Detroit's offense learns to hit a next level with new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi and Calvin Johnson tries to find 100 percent health, it's the defense that has taken the Lions to their current 6-2 mark.
It's not that anyone expected the Raiders to go to the playoffs or anything -- they haven't won a game since Nov. 17, 2013 -- but with a solid 2014 draft led by general manager Reggie McKenzie, many hoped that the deconstruction act McKenzie performed after Al Davis' passing would pay some dividends. Early in the 2014 season, those dividends came in the form of close losses to the Jets and Patriots, and in traveling to London to face the Dolphins on Sept. 28, the Raiders seemed to believe that a reversal of fortune might come across the pond.
That reversal of fortune did happen, but not in the way anyone wanted. Miami destroyed the Raiders in every form and fashion in a blowout loss that led to the firing of head coach Dennis Allen and the realization that McKenzie hadn't done nearly enough in his three seasons at the helm. This Miami team was coming off the 2013 bullying scandal -- not to mention the quarterback, Ryan Tannehill, couldn't get head coach Joe Philbin's endorsement, and was protected by an offensive line featuring five new starters.
None of it mattered. Tannehill completed 23 of 31 passes for 278 yards, two touchdowns and one pick. The Miami rushing attack combined to amass 157 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. And Raiders rookie quarterback Derek Carr was hurt in the third quarter -- neither he nor Matt McGloin could get anything going against Miami's defense.
Allen was canned soon after the Raiders returned to their home country, replaced by offensive line coach Tony Sparano on an interim basis. Carr has impressed in spaces, and a high percentage of McKenzie's draft class -- linebacker Khalil Mack, left guard Gabe Jackson, defensive tackle Justin Ellis -- have impressed in spots. But the loss to Miami revealed the truth -- when you're re-building a franchise from the ground up, it can take a long, long time.
New York Jets -- 31-24 loss to the Packers in Week 2
Leave it to the Jets -- when they lose, they manage to do so in some particularly agonizing ways, and their loss to the Green Bay Packers on Sept. 14 was right up that alley. After beating the Raiders in Week 1, the Jets were positioned for a 2-0 start. They had a 21-3 lead on Green Bay early in the second quarter after Geno Smith and Chris Ivory ran for touchdowns, and Eric Decker caught a 29-yard touchdown from Smith. But as the game went on, a secondary that had been decimated by injuries and general manager John Idzik's refusal to pull the trigger on talented free agents began to show its weaknesses.
Aaron Rodgers hit Randall Cobb for two touchdowns as things progressed, and went ahead on an 80-yard score from Rodgers to Jordy Nelson with 2:08 left in the third quarter. The Packers' 18-point comeback wasn't the worst part -- the phantom timeout that prevented the Jets from tying the game was. With five minutes left in the game, Smith hit Jeremy Kerley for a touchdown... but it didn't count because someone on the Jets' sideline called a timeout before the snap. That drive ended with three straight incompletions from Smith, and the Packers were able to sit on the ball to seal the game in a scoreless fourth quarter.
Rex Ryan didn't know who called that phantom timeout -- he speculated that Smith or offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg had done so. Defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson later speculated that he had done the deed. No matter -- the Jets threw away a perfectly good road win against a potentially superior opponent, and they haven't won a single game since that opener against Oakland.
With Lovie Smith replacing Greg Schiano at the help combined with an estimable haul in free agency and the draft, Tampa Bay looked poised to potentially make a playoff push in 2014. Smith's team opened the season with close losses to the Panthers and Rams, but people still held out hope until the Bucs headed to the Georgia Dome on Sept. 18.
The Tampa Bay defense that was supposed to be the team's strength under Smith was exposed as a paper tiger in a schematic sense. Smith's Cover-2 and Tampa-2 concepts, apparently so elevated that defenders need a full season to learn them, sure didn't seem too complicated to Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, who riddled the Bucs for three touchdowns, throwing just three incompletions along the way. Tampa Bay's secondary was frequently out of place in humiliating fashion -- it was so bad that Atlanta had a 56-0 lead as the fourth quarter started. If Atlanta head coach Mike Smith had a little more Steve Spurrier in him, it could have been one of the all-time NFL blowouts. Lovie Smith was missing several defensive starters, but not enough for a debacle of this scale. This loss was about a defense that was amazing on paper, but hapless on the field.
To top it off, veteran QB Josh McCown left the game with a thumb injury after completing five of 12 passes for 58 yards and an interception. Backup Mike Glennon was a little better against a Falcons defense that really wasn't scaring anyone, completing 17 of 24 for 121 yards and a touchdown in garbage time.
Even more distressingly, this loss was not an abomination. Three weeks later, the Bucs were stripped apart by the Baltimore Ravens in a 48-17 loss -- a game in which Joe Flacco threw five touchdown passes in the first 17 minutes. It was then that the currently 1-7 Bucs understood what has been proven over and over through time -- teams built on paper can burn out pretty quickly without an optimal blend of talent and scheme.
San Francisco 49ers -- 13-10 loss to the Rams in Week 9
Since he became the 49ers' head coach before the 2011 season, Jim Harbaugh has been among the most successful in his position in the NFL -- a 40-15-1 regular-season record, three straight appearances in NFC Championship games and a Super Bowl shot at the end of the 2012 season? That's nothing to sneeze at. But there have been those who wonder what might happen when the team isn't as successful, for whatever reason, and Harbaugh's coaching style (which is intense at best, no matter how successful) might start to grind the gears of those around him. Halfway through the 2014 season, the 49ers are 4-4, they're facing several injury and off-field issues, and their loss last Sunday to the Rams seemed to typify a team that, while talented, is coming apart a bit at the seams.
An offensive line that was the NFL's best in 2012 allowed eight sacks from St. Louis' tremendous defensive line, and this was one game after allowing six quarterback takedowns against the Denver Broncos' redefined defensive front. With pressure all around him, Colin Kaepernick was prone to rush his reads, scramble when it might be better to stay in the pocket, and make errant throws when easier concepts were available. He ended the Rams game with 22 completions in 33 attempts for 237 yards and one touchdown, adding 14 yards on the ground. Not horrible numbers, until you subtract the 54 negative yards brought about by those sacks, and things get a little tougher.
Things got especially tough when the 49ers were at the St. Louis one-yard line with nine seconds left in the game, and with all those offensive line issues -- and a rookie center in Marcus Martin starting his first NFL game -- Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman called a Kaepernick quarterback sneak. The snap from Martin to Kaepernick was bobbled, the Rams recovered, and the 49ers dropped to .500 this late in the season for the first time in the Harbaugh era. Harbaugh didn't say much after the game, but he did say that his team "didn’t have enough good football to win the game. Now, we got to suck it up. That’s a tough loss.”
And that's a common theme among those teams whose turning points have taken them away from success far too soon.