Musings, observations and the occasional insight in an eventful Week 15 in the NFL ...
• Yes, it was just one game. But that was one absolute debacle of a game Johnny Manziel turned in as a first-time NFL starting quarterback on Sunday in Cleveland. The Browns' rookie wasn’t just rusty -- he was overmatched and overwhelmed. And some of his harshest critics will now make the case that his dreadful showing in a 30-0 loss to the Bengals proves the former Heisman winner was severely overdrafted as well.
I don’t know who comes out of this game looking better: former Browns starter Brian Hoyer by comparison, or ESPN analyst Merril Hoge for being the most outspoken of Manziel’s doubters. By any objective assessment, Manziel gave his non-believers plenty of ammo, with several of the fears NFL scouts had about him put vividly on display.
Manziel was frequently late and high on his throws, finishing 10-of-18 for just 80 yards, with two interceptions and a dismal 27.3 passer rating. Even on some of his completions he made his receivers work too hard to make the catch or failed to deliver the ball so that they were in position to make yards after the catch. Cleveland barely broke 100 yards on offense in the game, needing a nine-yard completion on its final play to total 107.
Manziel was a non-factor in the running game, with NFL defenders looking fast enough and athletic enough to negate the advantage his legs gave him at the college level. He was repeatedly harried and hurried, and took off to run much quicker than he should have on some plays, prematurely giving up on the pass that was called. His playground improvisational style on this day made him appear a boy among men, and the Bengals' defenders delighted in sacking him three times and holding him to just 13 yards rushing on five carries, with a long gain of 10.
At times, Manziel simply did not pass the eyeball test as an NFL quarterback. He was out there just chucking the ball around, and his ill-fated floater of an interception to Bengals cornerback Adam Jones in the end zone broke about every quarterbacking rule there is, the kind of throw you’d expect to see from someone playing a pick-up game in the backyard. His body language wasn’t great either, and a shot of him laughing along with Hoyer on the sideline late in the blowout probably won’t help tamp down the issues some have with his maturity level.
"He didn’t play well," Browns head coach Mike Pettine said, stating the obvious. "He looked like a rookie, played like a rookie. ... He made some obvious mistakes that typically a veteran quarterback won’t make."
One game does not a career make, and Manziel is only 22, making him the youngest starting quarterback in Browns history. But he certainly didn’t provide the spark that Cleveland was after in benching the struggling Hoyer, and his performance was so dreadful and devoid of highlights that it effectively obscured how badly the rest of the Browns played. Cleveland came out flat and got flattened by a team it had its way with just five weeks ago at Paul Brown Stadium. It was the Bengals’ first road shutout since December 2008, and the Browns’ first blanking since a November 2009 loss to Baltimore.
At least Pettine didn’t do something foolish like pull Manziel at halftime or announce in the postgame that he’s going back to Hoyer next week at Carolina. The Browns (7-7) are realistically out of the AFC playoff race at this point, so there’s no reason not to play the rookie. He needs the work, the experience and the practice reps that come with the starting job.
Manziel wears No. 2, and his jersey is a hot commodity in Cleveland, but he had better rebound rather quickly from Sunday’s horrific outing, or his stint as the Browns’ present and future No. 1 quarterback might be painfully brief.
• You know who else had a great day in Cleveland? Bengals rookie running back Jeremy Hill, who walked the walk after talking the talk in the aftermath of the teams' first meeting of the year. After the Browns hammered the Bengals 24-3 on the road in Week 10's Thursday night game, Hill dissed Cleveland, saying he still didn’t consider the Browns to be that good. All of it had the sound of a sore loser whining about an outcome he did nothing to change.
Hill gashed the Browns repeatedly in the rematch, churning for 148 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries, with both of his touchdowns and more than 100 yards rushing in the first half. Cincinnati ran for 244 yards overall, with a great deal of that success coming right down the throat of the Cleveland defense.
About the only setback Hill had all day was when he attempted a leap into the Dawg Pound stands -- in the direction of a couple of jersey-clad Bengals fans -- following his 16-yard second-quarter touchdown run. A Browns fan wearing a Joe Haden jersey intercepted Hill mid-leap and pushed him back downward, blocking entry to the first row. It was really the only defense Cleveland fans saw all day.
• When Aaron Rodgers' perfectly-placed bomb slipped through receiver Jordy Nelson’s hands in the fourth quarter in Buffalo on Sunday, Green Bay also may have lost its grip on its best shot to earn the NFC’s No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. And we know what Lambeau Field means to the Packers. Green Bay is 7-0 at home this season and just 3-4 on the road after a 21-13 loss to a Bills team that was superb defensively.
The Packers had a ghastly seven drops on Sunday, leading to a career-high 25 incompletions for Rodgers, who was uncharacteristically ragged even with his receivers failing him so often. Rodgers was just 17-of-42 (40 percent) for 185 yards, his first career game with two interceptions and no touchdown passes. Rodgers didn’t lose his standing as the MVP favorite, but I’d say the gap between him and New England’s Tom Brady (and perhaps Houston’s J.J. Watt, for some) just took a hit.
As did the Packers’ chances to ensure the NFC playoffs go through Green Bay. The Packers (10-4) now trail Arizona (11-3) by a game in the NFC standings, and both Seattle and Detroit also leapfrogged Green Bay later on Sunday with wins over San Francisco and Minnesota, respectively. The Seahawks and Lions have beaten Green Bay this season and currently hold the tiebreaker over the Packers, but the Lions still have to go to Lambeau in Week 17.
• Buffalo's upset win gives the Bills a pulse in the AFC wild-card race at 8-6, but it also assured them of their first non-losing season in the decade since they went 9-7 and just missed the playoffs in 2004. The Bills probably still need to get to 10 wins to have a good shot at ending the franchise’s 14-year postseason drought, with road games against Oakland and New England remaining. But it at least looks possible after Buffalo shut down the previously red-hot Packers, who had won an NFL-best five in a row coming into Week 15.
What a defense Buffalo fields these days, and you have to think Jim Schwartz’s career rehabilitation effort is going pretty well so far, with the first-year Bills' defensive coordinator and former Lions' head coach leading a unit that is elite in almost every way. Buffalo held Rodgers to a career-worst 34.4 passer rating and an average of just 4.4 yards per attempt. Safety Bacarri Rambo, the former Washington sixth-round selection signed in November, picked off Rodgers twice in the second half, as the Bills’ airtight pass defense continues to excel. Last week it held Peyton Manning to just a 56.9 passer rating in a 24-17 loss in Denver.
Buffalo’s offense was mediocre at best -- four Dan Carpenter field goals -- but the Bills won with defense and special teams. Marcus Thigpen had a 75-yard punt return touchdown, and defensive end Mario Williams produced a game-clinching safety with 1:51 left, when he knocked the ball out of Rodgers’ right hand for a fumble in the end zone the Packers could not advance.
Come what may the next two weeks, I don’t see how new Bills owner Terry Pegula can do anything but retain head coach Doug Marrone, whose team has taken a step forward in his second season on the job. After going 6-10 in 2013, Buffalo is playing its most meaningful December football in 10 years.
• Death, taxes and the Patriots winning the AFC East. That’s really about all you can count on these days, although when the sky was falling in New England in early October, with the Patriots at 2-2 and coming off a humbling loss at Kansas City in Week 4, many wouldn’t have predicted a cruise to the franchise's sixth consecutive division title and 11th in 12 years.
But here we are, and with the Patriots at 11-3 with games left at the Jets and home against the Bills, anything shy of the AFC’s No. 1 seed and home-field advantage would feel like a disappointment.
Rob Gronkowski was great in the second half of New England’s 41-13 crushing of the visiting Dolphins, with his three catches for 96 yards and a touchdown all coming in the game’s final two quarters. That performance made him the first Patriots' tight end to ever post two 1,000-yard receiving seasons.
What stands out about this New England team is the way the defense can take over games. The Patriots produced four sacks of Ryan Tannehill, picked him off twice and forced a pair of Miami fumbles. The Dolphins trailed 14-13 at the break, then got nothing in the second half, with the Patriots limiting Miami to just 3-of-16 (18 percent) on third downs. And don’t forget about the special teams contribution of Jamie Collins and Kyle Arrington. Collins blocked a Caleb Sturgis field goal attempt in the first quarter, and Arrington picked it up and returned it 62 yards for the game’s first score.
Is there any part of New England’s game that isn't working well?
• I think this is my favorite statistic of the 2014 season, and it perfectly sums up the ridiculousness of this year’s NFC South race: Ladies and gentlemen, your first-place Carolina Panthers (5-8-1). They won their first two games of the season. They’ve won their most recent two games. And in between they went 1-8-1 over a span of 11 weeks and still couldn’t play themselves out of contention.
If the Saints (5-8) should happen to lose at Chicago on Monday night, the Panthers will have a half-game lead in the division and the inside track on becoming the most remarkable playoff team in NFL history.
Carolina hung on to beat the Buccaneers 19-17 on Sunday, and backup quarterback Derek Anderson (25-of-40 for 277 yards, one touchdown, no turnovers) was solid in victory, just as he was when he subbed for injured starter Cam Newton in Week 1 in Tampa Bay. If Anderson could play against the Bucs (2-12) every week, he’d be a first ballot Hall of Famer.
• The Colts took care of business against the Texans at home, like they always do. But a 17-10 win over a Houston team missing both receiver Andre Johnson (concussion) and starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (who broke his left leg in the second quarter and is lost for the season) doesn’t elevate Indianapolis into the elite class occupied by New England and Denver in the AFC. The Colts are good but still not great, and I can’t help but wonder if being in the soft AFC South is harmful to them in some way. They’re 10-4 and just won the division for a second year in a row, but with half of those victories coming within the division, it’s hard to accurately gauge if Indy has a legitimate shot to win more than one game in the playoffs.
The win made the Colts 13-0 at home against the Texans, and it was their 12th straight win in the division. But the division features no star quarterbacks except Indy’s Andrew Luck, and that’s not the best way to get ready for the likes of Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco in January.
• Tom Savage didn’t lead the Texans to a surprising upset win at Indianapolis, but the rookie Houston quarterback did fare better than the more celebrated member of the 2014 quarterback draft class who saw his most extensive playing time of the season in Week 15.
Savage, the fourth-round pick out of Pitt, was 10-of-19 for 127 yards, with one interception and no touchdowns, one sack, a fumble lost and a 51.9 passer rating.
Manziel, the first-round pick out of Texas A&M, was 10-of-18 for 80 yards, with no touchdowns, two interceptions, three sacks and a 27.3 passer rating.
The Texans lost by seven points on the road. The Browns lost by 30 points at home.
• Washington lost again to clinch its sixth last-place finish in the past seven seasons, but the silver lining was the play of Robert Griffin III, who relieved injured starter Colt McCoy in the first quarter and actually flashed some playmaking skills for the first time in a long time.
Now what must Washington be thinking in regards to Griffin, who was the best part of the offense in a 24-13 loss at the Giants? Griffin played with energy and enthusiasm, he made plays with both his arm and his legs, and he moved better than he has at any point since late 2012, pre-knee injuries. Griffin looked like he was having fun again, and his 18-of-27 day for 236 yards passing, a touchdown and five rushes for 46 yards was a hopeful sign for a team that played better than the final score indicated.
Griffin should have been given credit for an eight-yard touchdown run just before halftime, but a nonsensical replay reversal cost him the touchdown when it was ruled he lost possession of the ball in mid-air as he was diving for the pylon and didn’t regain it until he hit the ground out of bounds. (Why is it that referee Jeff Triplette is always involved when stuff looks patently wrong?) The touchdown was wiped out, but not the impression of a healthy Griffin bursting around the right end and making a beeline for the goal line.
No matter what the status of McCoy’s neck injury is this week, Washington has to give Griffin the benefit of the doubt now and start him in the final two games of the season, at home against Philadelphia and Dallas. If you’re going to make a decision on Griffin’s future with the franchise this offseason, you might as well use every possible chance to see him play. Maybe Sunday’s uptick was no mirage, but instead Griffin's first step back in his return to form.
• Speaking of dubious calls, you already can’t hit quarterbacks in the head and neck area, and you can’t go low around the knees, either. Now, apparently the breastbone is off limits, too. That’s where Steelers linebacker Jason Worilds pulverized Atlanta’s Matt Ryan, drawing a crucial flag for roughing the passer from referee Clete Blakeman.
What a joke of a call, if that’s truly the way the NFL wants its rules interpreted. Worilds did not make contact with Ryan in the head or the neck. His helmet hit the top of Ryan’s chest, dead center. If you can’t hit a quarterback there, you really can’t hit a quarterback at all. Either sacks are off limits completely or you allow a defender some leeway to make a clean, hard hit on a quarterback’s body. Far too often these days, if it’s a violent collision, the flag comes out in reaction to how hard the hit looked, instead of where it was delivered.
• The Steelers gave up a 17-yard touchdown pass from Ryan to Devin Hester shortly after the bad call on Worilds, but they did recover and go on to win 27-20 at Atlanta, continuing an unpredictable season in Pittsburgh.
The Steelers cleared a significant hurdle with their ninth win of the season, meaning there won’t be another maddening 8-8 finish, which would have been the franchise's third in a row. Pittsburgh lost at home to half of the teams in the awful NFC South (Tampa Bay and New Orleans) but won on the road against the other two (Carolina and Atlanta). And with home games to end the season against Kansas City and Cincinnati, the Steelers are somehow in position to claim the AFC North if they win out to finish 11-5. That would earn them at least the No. 4 seed in the playoffs, depending on how the No. 3 seed Colts (10-4) fare in the season’s final two weeks.
• You think rookie Odell Beckham Jr. has quickly turned into Eli Manning’s favorite receiver this season? Victor Cruz was lost for the year with a knee injury in Week 6, but he’ll have a hard time getting Manning’s first look next season after what Beckham has done.
In the Giants’ 11-point win over visiting Washington, Beckham caught 12 passes for 143 yards and all three of New York’s touchdowns. The other seven Giants pass-catchers combined for 11 receptions, 107 yards and no touchdowns. Beckham is the first rookie in league history to post at least 90 yards receiving in seven consecutive games.
• So much for the claim that Tim Masthay has the best job in the NFL as the Packers’ seldom-used punter. The fifth-year veteran punted six times in Green Bay’s frustrating loss at Buffalo, for a net average of just 30.3 yards. Masthay entered the day with just 38 punts in the Packers’ first 13 games, and he had punted just once each in three of the past four Green Bay games, for a total of seven punts in that four-game span.
He must have been exhausted on the flight home.
• It has to be pretty disconcerting to every other NFC playoff contender to realize Seattle’s formula of defense and running game is dangerously close to its 2013 vintage, after the Seahawks showed every sign of falling prey to the dreaded Super Bowl hangover syndrome for a few weeks this season.
Seattle polished off visiting San Francisco 17-7 on Sunday, as the Seahawks defense held its opponent to just one score for the third time in four games. And were it not for a fumble by punter Jon Ryan last week at Philadelphia, the Eagles would probably have been held to just one score as well in the Seahawks’ 24-14 win. That’s 27 points allowed in the past four games for Seattle, an average of less than a touchdown and an extra point per game (6.75).
The Seahawks made life miserable again for 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, sacking him six times and registering another five tackles for loss. San Francisco simply has no answers for Seattle at this point in their heated rivalry.
On the ground, Seattle ran for 152 yards on 32 carries (4.8), with Marshawn Lynch finishing with 91 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries after a big second-half showing. The Seahawks are averaging 179 rushing yards per game since trading Percy Harvin to the Jets in mid-October, a move that signaled they were going back to the formula that won them a ring last season.
And now we get next week’s Seattle-Arizona showdown, which will decide not only the NFC West champion but likely the top seed in the NFC as well. If the Seahawks win and sweep the Cardinals, they’ll only have to beat the Rams at home in Week 17 to finish with the No. 1 spot and cap a remarkable 9-1 run to close out the regular season.
• It has been a while since we’ve seen San Francisco play meaningless games, and it has never happened in Jim Harbaugh's four-year coaching era -- until next week, that is. But with the 49ers (7-7) eliminated from playoff contention, there are a lot of firsts to get used to in San Francisco.
After three consecutive NFC title game appearances, the 49ers won’t be in the playoffs for the first time since 2010. Until Sunday’s loss in Seattle, Harbaugh had never presided over three straight losses in San Francisco, but twin defeats to the Seahawks sandwiched around that stunning loss at Oakland last week ended that streak.
It’s so clearly over in San Francisco for Harbaugh and a team that just missed in its attempt to return the 49ers to their previous standard of Super Bowl glory. But it was still a highly successful tenure that lacked only a ring.
• Peyton Manning's place on the injury list could be a little disconcerting in Denver this week, but the Broncos keep winning by riding running back C.J. Anderson, as they did Sunday in San Diego, wrapping up another AFC West title by beating the fading Chargers 22-10. Manning left the game late in the first half with a thigh injury he apparently suffered while blocking (blocking?) for Anderson, and he was also weakened by flu-like symptoms.
Anderson has been a god-send for the Broncos, and he was that again on Sunday, gaining 89 tough yards on a whopping 29 carries. He averaged less than three yards per carry, but his workload helped Denver control the pace of the game, and lightened the load of what the Broncos needed from Manning, who went 14-of-20 for 233 yards and a touchdown.
Denver (11-3) has a tough Monday night game coming up at Cincinnati (9-4-1) next week, and you can expect to see another healthy dose of Anderson against a Bengals team that can be run against.
• You have to like Detroit’s chances of making the NFC playoffs, sitting at 10-4 and in first place in the NFC North at the moment thanks to the head-to-head tiebreaker with Green Bay. But it’s hard to imagine the Lions having any real success in January if they can’t start consistently generating more offense. The defense came to the rescue again in a 16-14 win over Minnesota at Ford Field, but Matthew Stafford and the offense took a step back, with just 233 yards of offense, including 153 in the passing game.
No matter how stout Detroit’s defense has been, the Lions won’t get past the likes of Green Bay, Philadelphia or Seattle in the playoffs if the passing game isn’t more explosive.