Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we take a quick glance at a busy Week 12 in the NFL ...
• We’ve seen it coming for a while now, but now that it’s almost here, it’s all setting up almost perfectly: New England Patriots at Green Bay Packers, a potential Super Bowl preview at Lambeau Field, and on Thanksgiving weekend no less. Did you know that Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers have never faced off as starters before? Talk about your football feasts.
Week 12 isn’t even fully in the books, and already there’s anticipation building for the collision of the two hottest teams in the game. New England, with seven wins in a row and a 9-2 record, runs head first into Green Bay, which has won seven of its past eight and improved to 8-3 on Sunday.
With the Cardinals' 19-3 loss at Seattle after a second consecutive underwhelming offensive performance with substitute starting quarterback Drew Stanton, the Packers have pulled ahead of the pack as the NFC's primary Super Bowl contender. In the AFC, the powerful Patriots have been leading the way for a few weeks now, having handled a string of elite opponents. First Cincinnati (7-3-1), then Denver (8-3), and last week Indianapolis (7-4), meaning they’ve beaten every other AFC first-place team. On Sunday another division leader fell, and once again it wasn’t even close: Patriots 34, Lions 9.
The Patriots love the NFC North. New England has now won 14 consecutive games against NFC North teams, the league’s longest current streak by one team against any division. The Patriots have beaten Minnesota, Chicago and Detroit by a combined score of 115-39, but the game everybody really wants is still to come. The Super Bowl preview label can be tossed around way too liberally, but this one doesn’t feel overdone. On the final day of November, we might just get a taste of what awaits on the first day of February, in Glendale, Ariz.
Green Bay did its part to get to next week’s glamor matchup, outlasting the pesky Vikings 24-21 at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis on Sunday. And it’s not like I need to remind Packers fans to relax or anything, but there’s no need to worry just because Green Bay beat the Vikings by only three points. The score might have been closer than anticipated, but just because the Packers didn’t blow out their division rival doesn’t mean there wasn’t at least one huge positive to take from the game.
For Green Bay, seeing second-year running back Eddie Lacy and the ground game get the job done could be an incredibly valuable development for the rest of the season and the playoff run to come. If Lacy continues to be the threat he was against Minnesota, Green Bay’s high-octane offense just got that much more dangerous and versatile.
Though he was reportedly ill throughout the game, Lacy gouged the Vikings for 125 yards on 25 carries, for a nice, even 5.0-yard average. His day featured only one burst as long as 16 yards, but he consistently moved the chains, which is one reason the Packers rode him to victory in the first game all season in which he totaled more than 17 attempts. Lacy had a one-yard first-quarter touchdown run and a vital 10-yard scoring reception in the fourth quarter, and he helped put the game away with two crucial first downs in the closing minutes.
We know the Rodgers-led passing game is going to be there most weeks, but if Green Bay can count on its Lacy-led ground game as it did against the Vikings, the Packers will be incredibly tough to beat in January. Lacy is a closer, and it’s getting to the time of year when you need one of those to protect a narrow, late lead. Come to think of it, New England knows that. The Pats just picked veteran running back LeGarrette Blount off the street last week after Pittsburgh booted him to the curb, and look at how quickly that move paid off: Blount scored twice against the Lions, churning out 78 tough yards on 12 carries.
That's two more boxes the Packers and Patriots can check off as they both eye each other and the looming postseason challenges to come. Both teams still have plenty of work to do in these coming five weeks, but you can see where this might be headed. So far, through the first three months of this 2014 NFL season, New England and Green Bay look to be in a league of their own.
• The Browns and quarterback Brian Hoyer were absolutely lousy in the red zone all day against Atlanta, with field goals and interceptions being the rule and not the exception for Cleveland. But strangely enough, I think it says a lot about how far Mike Pettine’s team has come this year that the Browns can still win a road game when they play that badly.
When has Cleveland ever had enough poise and maturity to overcome all that went wrong on Sunday and still find a way to get the job done? The correct answer is never. That’s why the Browns’ 26-24 last-second win -- on Billy Cundiff’s 37-yard field goal at the gun -- is definitely a case of the glass being half-full today. Cleveland gutted out an ugly win, and didn’t let a string of mistakes keep it from beating an inferior Falcons club.
So after Cleveland’s disappointing home loss to Houston last week, the Browns’ rollercoaster ride of a season is back on the climb. At 7-4, Pettine has his team squarely in the AFC North and AFC wild-card race, and it is now guaranteed to be the most meaningful December in Cleveland since 2007.
As for Hoyer, his three-interception, no-touchdown showing was prompting some on Twitter and elsewhere to start calling for Johnny Manziel to play as the fourth quarter unfolded. Then Hoyer calmly and cooly completed four consecutive passes on the Browns’ game-winning drive, quieting all that noise. Without a doubt, Hoyer’s 23-of-40 passing for 322 yards and all those picks did not represent his best work of the season, but he came through when the victory was still there for the taking, and that’s the mark of a pretty good quarterback.
• Welcome back, Josh Gordon. "Unleashed" was indeed what you were against Atlanta. Despite missing the first 10 games of the season, Gordon was in midseason form against the Falcons, catching a team-high eight passes for 120 yards. Hoyer made some mistakes in trying to force the ball to Cleveland’s No. 1 receiver, and Gordon didn’t help his quarterback out with his lack of effort on Desmond Trufant's fourth-quarter interception in the end zone. But what a weapon the Browns just added to their lineup in late-November. Nothing like having fresh legs at the start of the stretch run.
Oh, and it didn’t look like the Browns missed Ben Tate too much. The rookie tandem of Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West combined to rush for 150 yards and two touchdowns on 26 attempts. That will work. As for Tate, he didn’t touch the ball despite being active for the Vikings in their 24-21 loss to visiting Green Bay.
• The one really bad piece of news for Cleveland was the loss of safety Tashaun Gipson, the third-year free safety who suffered a right knee injury when he collided with cornerback Joe Haden early in the fourth quarter. Gipson has had a breakthrough 2014 season and leads the NFL with six interceptions. He’s scheduled for an MRI on Monday, and if he’s seriously hurt, it would represent a major blow for the young Browns. Veteran Jim Leonhard is no stiff as a replacement, but Gipson was constantly around the ball this season and made impact plays.
• Both Pettine and Atlanta head coach Mike Smith were positively brutal in the clock management department. The Falcons inexplicably called a timeout with 55 seconds to go, which left Cleveland with 44 seconds to mount a game-winning drive after Matt Bryant connected from 53 yards out to give the Falcons a 24-23 lead. And Pettine left himself open for second-guessing by calling his final timeout with 16 seconds remaining and the Browns still needing a little more real estate to make it a high-percentage field goal try for Cundiff.
• The Falcons’ mini-winning streak is over after two games, but at 4-7, of course they’re not out of the race for the NFC South title. It’s simply impossible to lose enough for that. Even if the Saints win at home against Baltimore on Monday night and take over first place at 5-6, the Falcons still have that Week 16 trip to New Orleans. Having already beaten the Saints in Week 1, Atlanta just needs to stay within one game of New Orleans to keep its division title hopes alive.
• I think we know now that Detroit at 7-2 was clearly overachieving. The Lions have showed us very little the past two weeks, at least on offense. Detroit managed just two field goals in the 14-6 loss at Arizona and added three more in an 34-9 egg-laying at Gillette Stadium.
Even against two of the best teams in the league, going two weeks without a touchdown makes it hard to take Detroit seriously as playoff contender. The Lions (7-4) may still get to the postseason, but they won’t go far with receiver Golden Tate the only consistent threat. Matthew Stafford completed a ghastly 18-of-46 passes against the Patriots for 264 yards, with one interception.
That top-ranked Lions defense didn’t look postseason-worthy either, getting shredded by New England for 29 first downs and 439 yards of offense. Detroit gave up 24 points to the Patriots in the first half. Only one team all season had scored that many in an entire game against the Lions: Carolina in a Week 2 Panthers win.
• How beyond weird and awkward it must have been this weekend for Bills defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz to find himself back working at Allen Park in suburban Detroit at the team complex he called home for the five years he spent as Lions' head coach. With the snow-bound Bills dispatched to Detroit on Friday to prepare for Monday night’s relocated game against the Jets at Ford Field, Schwartz must have felt like he was in the Twilight Zone. One of the unintended consequences of Buffalo being displaced is Schwartz being out of place.
After letting a couple of his Bills defenders carry him off the field in triumph on their shoulders -- per his offseason wishes -- following Buffalo’s 17-14 upset of the Lions in Detroit in Week 5, Schwartz never dreamed he’d have to return to Motown this year. Maybe his players are carrying him to the team bus every day after practice. The Lions fans in attendance Monday night may not care much about who wins between Buffalo and the Jets, but they might be there just to make sure Schwartz hears a three-hour earful from them.
• The story of this year’s AFC North just keeps getting better all the time. If the Ravens win at New Orleans on Monday night -- and hey, what visiting team doesn’t win in the Superdome of late? -- the standings in the AFC North will be as follows:
Cincinnati -- 7-3-1
Pittsburgh -- 7-4
Cleveland -- 7-4
Baltimore -- 7-4
After 12 weeks and 11 games, the entire division will be separated by the one half-game that the Bengals’ hold-your-nose tie against Carolina afforded them (told you it would come in handy, Cincinnati), and all four teams will be at least three games over .500. I can’t imagine there has ever been a tighter division race this far into an NFL season. Or a more entertaining one.
• Maybe the Bengals just need to play in the Gulf Coast region more often. Two weeks ago, the sky was falling in Cincinnati after Marvin Lewis’ team looked so dismal in that Thursday night home loss to the Browns. But it’s amazing how trips to New Orleans and Houston have changed the outlook.
The Bengals never trailed in their 22-13 win over the Texans on Sunday, and Cincinnati’s stars played like stars. Quarterback Andy Dalton was an efficient 24-of-35 for 233 yards, one touchdown and one interception (a pick-six by Texans cornerback Johnathan Joseph), and receiver A.J. Green had a monster game with a career-high 12 catches for 121 yards. For Dalton, it was a good showing and a big win in his home state of Texas.
But even better, Green is back in a big way. He had six receptions for 127 yards and a touchdown in the win over the Saints last week, and he dominated against Houston, making a host of contested third-down catches to help the Bengals roll up over 39 minutes of possession. If Cincinnati has that Green for the rest of the year, the Bengals should be able to avoid more nights like the one they endured against Cleveland in Week 10.
One troubling development was the triceps injury suffered by Bengals offensive tackle Andre Smith. If he’s lost for the season, that hurts a Cincinnati ground game that had begun to really roll behind rookie Jeremy Hill and veteran Giovani Bernard. Former Packers draft pick Marshall Newhouse did, however, replace the injured Smith and fare well against Texans' all-world pass rusher J.J. Watt.
• Looks like it’s time to tap the brakes on the idea of Ryan Mallett being the answer in Houston. His second start came nowhere close to living up to his winning performance last week at Cleveland. Mallett missed badly on a bunch of balls against the Bengals and finished just 21-of-45 for 189 yards with an interception. Houston didn’t score an offensive touchdown against Cincinnati, settling for just two Randy Bullock field goals.
Mallett’s accuracy issues were glaring, and the arm that looked strong and true last week against the Browns was much more scattershot this time around. That could be due to a postgame report that Mallett played the entire game with a pectoral injury that could sideline him for multiple games. Mallett consistently either gave his receivers little chance to make the catch or threw nowhere near them.
Now two games behind the first-place Colts at 5-6, the Texans are not completely out of it yet with games against the Titans at home and at Jacksonville in the next two weeks. But on the quarterback front, Houston, you still have a problem.
• The Eagles (8-3) at least tamped down the panic surrounding Mark Sanchez with a 43-24 pasting of visiting Tennessee. But it does seem Philly is going to have to live with a pair of Sanchez interceptions most weeks. He has thrown two picks in three of four games since he came on in relief of the injured Nick Foles. Sanchez has seven touchdown passes and six interceptions this season, and that ratio has to improve if the Eagles hope to make a deep run in the playoffs.
Sanchez has topped 300 yards passing in three straight games, tying an Eagles team record. He was 30-of-43 for 307 yards against Tennessee, with one touchdown and the two interceptions.
LeSean McCoy had to deal with all those questions last week about whether he was the same guy he was in 2013, but the Eagles' top running back certainly looked familiar against the Titans, ripping off a 130-yard rushing day on 21 carries. That’s a very good sign for an Eagles offense that is built around the idea of McCoy softening up a defense to open up the Philadelphia passing game.
• Now the Eagles’ real season begins. The next three games will tell the story of their 2014: at Dallas on Thanksgiving, home against Seattle in Week 14 and home against the Cowboys in Week 15. If Philly can win two of those, a trip to the playoffs will be all but assured. Three wins, of course, and the Eagles should be NFC East champs with a shot at a first-round bye.
Keep in mind how important it will be for Chip Kelly’s team to prove it can punch in the NFC’s heavyweight division. The Eagles have beaten only one team that had a winning record when they played them this season, and that was in Week 6 against the then 3-2 Giants. Their Week 2 win at Indianapolis was impressive, but the Colts were 0-1 at that point. Road losses at San Francisco, Arizona and Green Bay were the other biggest measuring stick games for Philadelphia.
• I don’t know if there is any hardware for the special teams coach of the year, but if so, Eagles coordinator Dave Fipp gets it. What Philadelphia has done on special teams this year is astounding.
The latest highlight was Josh Huff’s 107-yard kick return touchdown to start the game against Tennessee. The Eagles have a whopping 10 return touchdowns this season, and six of them are on special teams: two kickoff returns, two punt returns and two blocked punt returns to go with a pair of interception returns and two fumble recoveries.
And that’s in just 11 games. According to Elias Sports Bureau, the only other team to manage that since the merger was the 1976 Denver Broncos. Wow.
• I know they’re not winning with him, but rookie quarterback Zach Mettenberger is starting to look like he could be the guy in Tennessee. He’s got some moxie to him, and there are times when he plays every bit like a franchise quarterback -- albeit one on a pretty bad team.
Mettenberger’s Titans were down 17-0 in the first quarter at Philly, but he hung tough and helped put 17 points on the scoreboard in the second quarter to make a game of it for a while. He was 20-of-39 for 345 yards, with two touchdowns and an interception, and I like the way he hangs in the pocket and never looks rattled. Mettenberger spread the ball around well, finding seven Titans' receivers (even, inadvertently, center Brian Schwenke on one deflected pass).
At 2-9, the Titans should be in position to draft a quarterback next spring if they so choose, but I’d give Mettenberger every opportunity to prove he’s the future if I were Tennessee head coach Ken Whisenhunt. It has been a long time since the Titans had a starting quarterback who had some staying power. Jake Locker, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Matt Hasselbeck, Vince Young and Kerry Collins all had their turns, but you have to go back to the Steve McNair era to find the last time the team had any long-term stability.
• The Colts could have had a miserable Sunday afternoon at home against the one-win Jaguars, given their five sacks allowed and six fumbles (three lost). But it turned out to be a pretty good memory for Indy, with receiver T.Y. Hilton playing the starring role in Indy’s 23-3 defeat of Jacksonville.
Hilton got only three hours or so of sleep after his wife, Shantrell, went into labor and gave birth to the couple’s third child, a daughter named Eugenia, who arrived at 7:30 a.m. Hilton stayed at the hospital with his wife and baby girl until about 75 minutes before kickoff, then wound up catching four passes for 122 yards, including a 73-yard scoring bomb. Hilton made sure he gave us the video clip of the day, too, rocking and cradling the touchdown ball in his arms as if he were holding a baby.
With his big day, Hilton also cleared a statistical milestone, going over 1,000 yards receiving on the season: 63 catches for 1,083 yards, with four touchdowns and a gaudy 17.2-yard average. The Colts (7-4) have won seven of nine, losing only at Pittsburgh and home to New England in that span.
• Tell me again why it took so long for Josh Cribbs to get another job in the NFL? The ex-Browns receiver/return man was spectacular in his Indy debut against the Jaguars. He went 46 yards on the opening kickoff and later appeared to have an 82-yard punt return for a touchdown. The score was wiped out by a penalty on the play, but Cribbs was instant offense, finishing with 64 yards on two kickoff returns and 48 yards on five punt returns.
• Well, break up the Bears, who have won two in a row and scratched their way back to solid mediocrity at 5-6. Chicago was down 10-0 against the visiting Bucs, then scored the game’s next 21 points in a 21-13 conquest of Tampa Bay. It was an ugly affair for the most part, but at least Chicago’s embattled defense rose to the occasion. Mel Tucker’s defensive unit sacked Bucs quarterback Josh McCown five times and produced four takeaways.
It was a performance that current Tampa Bay head coach Lovie Smith probably could appreciate, given that his Bears defenses were perennially among the most opportunistic units in the league. But Smith and McCown, both ex-Bears, came out on the losing end of this Chicago reunion.
• Did you catch that extensive interview Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch did after the Seahawks' win over Arizona? The one he hopes keeps him from losing another $50,000 to $100,000 in fines to the league for his refusal to speak with the media? It consisted of mostly one-word answers, whether they fit the question or not, and many times that one word was "Yeah."
You know what I’d say if the NFL asked me if it should come down on Lynch even harder, given that he’s just wasting time and having fun yanking everyone’s chain?
• "Just win, baby" is an Oakland mantra, and the saying carried an almost mocking tone until Thursday night, when the Raiders did just that for the first time this year. But as it turns out, another California team needed to win any way possible on Sunday, and San Diego got it done, squeaking past the visiting Rams 27-24 thanks to a game-saving interception. Make that a season-saving interception, such was the importance of Marcus Gilchrist's pick of Shaun Hill at the goal line with just under a minute left to play.
The Chargers are 7-4, just a game behind first-place Denver in the AFC West and in the thick of the wild-card hunt with contenders like Kansas City, Cleveland and Pittsburgh. But I still don’t like San Diego’s playoff chances because of what is still to come, a brutal five-game stretch to close out the regular season: at Baltimore, New England, Denver, at San Francisco, at Kansas City. All five teams have winning records, and if the Chargers don’t beat them head-to-head, the Ravens and Chiefs may be the teams that knock San Diego out of the AFC wild-card field.
• Hard to see the 49ers winning many more this year with the same offensive effort they put forth against Washington in a 17-13 victory. The San Francisco running game was almost non-existent, and that’s too big a part of its offensive identity for the 49ers to live without.
San Francisco finished with just 66 yards on the ground on 29 carries, averaging a paltry 2.3 yards per attempt. Frank Gore had 36 yards on 13 rushes, while Carlos Hyde gained 16 yards on seven attempts. And remember when quarterback Colin Kaepernick was a threat with his legs? Not so much on Sunday. He ran nine times for just 14 yards against an injury-depleted Washington defense.
Hyde was able to produce the game-winning four-yard touchdown run in the final minutes, but he also lost a fumble earlier in the game, as did Gore. The 49ers have won three in a row and stand 7-4 as they prepare to play host to the Seahawks on Thanksgiving night in what shapes up as potential elimination game in the NFC wild-card battle. But San Francisco’s ground game needs to step up against the Seahawks, or there won’t be much to celebrate on Thursday at Levi’s Stadium.