Musings, observations and the occasional insight from a down-to-the-wire Week 5 in the NFL ...
• Maybe this is the way it had to happen for Andy Dalton and the Bengals. A breakthrough, but only after one last lack of faith displayed, and one last dose of criticism leveled. As everyone knows by now, Dalton and the Bengals don’t win their glamour games. When the lights are the brightest, they wilt. When the stakes are the biggest, they come up small.
The whole narrative of underachievement that has surrounded this quarterback and this team for so long was heard again on Sunday afternoon, all within the course of a single game that absolutely ran the gamut from dejection to validation in the course of three-plus hours at Paul Brown Stadium. For most of the day, the doubts seemed richly deserved, and the fault-finding seemed to fit.
But in the end, it was all proven wrong. Dalton and the Bengals delivered this time, and instead it was Cincinnati’s past demons that came up empty. As statement games go, it was loud and clear: These are not the same old maddening Bengals. And Dalton, lo and behold, is suddenly a quarterback who can be counted on in crunch time. That much was apparent in the aftermath of Cincinnati’s thrilling 27–24 comeback victory over the visiting Seahawks in overtime, a game in which the Bengals trailed by 17 points entering the fourth quarter.
There are no playoff games played in Week 5, of course. But this was the kind of confidence-building victory that may wind up helping the Bengals avoid the dreaded wild-card round once they get to the playoffs, where they have dropped four consecutive first-round postseason games in the Dalton era. And this was the kind of game that could steel them come January, perhaps marking the beginning of the end of the Bengals’ can’t-win-the-big-one reputation.
This time, it was the two-time defending NFC champion Seahawks who failed in the clutch, blowing that big fourth-quarter lead, the largest margin they’ve kicked away in any game since 2004. Cincinnati had only trailed for a combined 1:58 over the course of its first four wins, but Dalton and the Bengals never flinched when Seattle scored 24 unanswered points, responding with their own 20–0 run to end the game, capped by kicker Mike Nugent calmly banking the game-winning 42-yard field goal off the left upright with 3:42 remaining in overtime. The win tied for Cincinnati’s second-biggest comeback ever.
The Bengals are 5–0 for the first time since 1988—the franchise’s most recent Super Bowl season—and are the first AFC North team since the league was realigned in 2002 to win its first five games of the year. Cincinnati still has the NFL’s longest active playoff victory drought to contend with (a streak that began in 1991), but Dalton and these Bengals are changing perceptions by the week.
It’s only early October, and no one really knows if Dalton is “New Andy” or just an improving and maturing quarterback in his fifth NFL season. But his 30 of 44, 331-yard passing day, with two touchdowns to tight end Tyler Eifert and another five-yard rushing score, was exactly what the Bengals needed from him on Sunday against Seattle. Dalton’s play made the difference between victory and defeat, and his team stayed on track and in control of both the AFC North and their Super Bowl dreams.
That’s enough to discover about Dalton for now. Time will tell where the 2015 season is heading in Cincinnati, but the undefeated Bengals on Sunday took another step toward proving that their past may not necessarily be prologue.
• I imagine Pete Carroll realizes nothing is going to come easily in Seattle this season. His Super Bowl-bound Seahawks lost three regular-season games in 2013 and four in 2014, but they’re already 2–3 and now have to stomach the fact that the team’s vaunted defense surrendered 20 points to Cincinnati from the start of the fourth quarter on. That after Seattle’s defense had limited the Bears and Lions to just one field goal combined the past two weeks, a run coinciding with the return of holdout safety Kam Chancellor.
If this team loses some of its defensive swagger, look out. There are enough issues to worry about on offense, like whether quarterback Russell Wilson is going to survive all the running he’s doing, how to get tight end Jimmy Graham (three catches for 30 yards) fully integrated into the offense, and why Seattle disappeared on Sunday down the stretch, punting on its final six possessions in regulation and overtime.
Closing out games has been difficult for Seattle two weeks in a row now, given that Detroit was perhaps just a blown call by an official away from winning on Monday night. That’s not the type of defense we’ve come to expect from the Seahawks, or the type that inspires confidence in the franchise making a third straight trip to the Super Bowl.
On a positive note in Seattle, though his performance was wasted in defeat, rookie running back Thomas Rawls was a revelation in place of the injured Marshawn Lynch (hamstring). Rawls ran like a younger version of Beast Mode, piling up 163 yards on 23 carries, with a scintillating 69-yard touchdown run. He finished with the second-most rushing yards in history by a Seattle rookie and the most for any Seahawks rusher since Shaun Alexander rolled to 201 yards against Green Bay in 2006.
I get the feeling we probably met Lynch’s eventual replacement today.
• Where’s bottom in Baltimore? The Ravens are 1–4 and keep finding new and inventive ways to lose. They’re 0–2 in a stadium they once held a powerful homefield advantage in, have lost three times when blowing a fourth-quarter lead this season, and the defense the franchise once hung its hat on was abused for 457 passing yards by Cleveland’s Josh McCown—the most for which any Browns quarterback has ever thrown.
I know the Ravens miss Terrell Suggs, and fellow linebacker Elvis Dumervil left Sunday’s 33–30 overtime loss to visiting Cleveland with a groin injury, but the Browns amassed 505 yards against Baltimore and won a game they trailed 21–9 in the second half. The Browns’ comeback included touchdown drives of 75, 79 and 80 yards down the stretch.
I didn’t pick Baltimore as my AFC Super Bowl team, but I thought about it, and plenty of others went with the Ravens, who are looking up at everyone else in the AFC North and currently saddled with the first 1–4 record in franchise history. Baltimore travels to San Francisco next week, so get ready for plenty of stories about how far and how fast those two clubs have fallen since meeting in the Super Bowl three seasons ago.
• Kudos to the Browns for hanging tough to knock off a Ravens team that has tormented them over the years. Baltimore was 13–1 against Cleveland with John Harbaugh as coach before Week 5, and the Browns hadn’t won in Baltimore since 2007, the final season of Brian Billick’s tenure. The Browns had dropped five consecutive road games and were 1–9 in their past 10 games overall since starting 2014 at 7–4.
Cleveland’s schedule is brutal and wins will be in short supply this season, but the Browns should enjoy this one for as long as possible. And I’d have to think this performance validates coach Mike Pettine’s decision to stick with the veteran McCown over Johnny Manziel at quarterback. I’m not sure Gary Barnidge should ever be called a blocking tight end after Sunday, because McCown made him look like Tony Gonzalez against the Ravens, connecting with him eight times for 139 yards.
• If the Falcons are going to be able to win games even when Julio Jones looks mortal, Matt Ryan produces three turnovers and kicker Matt Bryant misses a pair of field goals, then the rest of the NFC might be in real trouble this season. Atlanta was very sloppy at home against Washington and still managed an ugly 25–19 win in overtime against Jay Gruden’s more-competitive-than-expected team.
Ugly wins like the Falcons had are actually one of the best indicators that a big season is on the way for Atlanta, which improved to 5–0 for only the second time in franchise history and the first since 2012. The Falcons were due a letdown after their hot start, and they had it, but it still didn’t cost them a loss. They found a way to hang around in the game until something went right, and they never let Washington completely seize control.
Dan Quinn’s club won this one in a different fashion, and that should help somewhere down the road when Atlanta is struggling in a game. Not that I think it’s too likely to happen the next three weeks, in which the Falcons travel to New Orleans for Week 6’s Thursday night game, then follow that with a trip to Tennessee and a home game against the Buccaneers. One more win and Atlanta will have tied its entire 2014 victory total of six.
• I feel roughly the same way about Buffalo’s unsightly 14–13 win at Tennessee, a game the Titans dominated in the first half but had just a 3–0 lead to show for it. The Bills’ offense played without the injured Sammy Watkins, LeSean McCoy and Karlos Williams, and totaled only 209 yards of offense, but as we’re finding out, Rex Ryan’s team always has a chance as long as it has Tyrod Taylor.
Buffalo’s new starting quarterback showed me something, being able to shake off that horrible first half and still have the moxie and maturity to win the game. Taylor was just 5 of 11 for 36 yards passing in the first half, and the Bills never snapped the ball in Titans territory, punting on all five of their possessions.
But when it mattered in the second half, Taylor led two 80-yard scoring drives and contributed 77 yards of rushing on those marches, including a 22-yard touchdown that got the Bills on the scoreboard. If you’re scoring at home, Buffalo has now gone win, loss, win, loss, win this season, and that’s a recipe for 8–8 and most likely out of the playoffs once again. The inconsistent Bills can’t afford to lean on Taylor this much, and next week’s challenge is an elite one: a visit by 5–0 Cincinnati to Ralph Wilson Stadium.
It’ll take the Bills’ best effort to win that game. On Sunday in Nashville, Buffalo got away with a victory despite playing something considerably less than that.
• Just imagine what the Eagles’ offense might be capable of if Sam Bradford can avoid the two first-half interceptions he threw in the Saints’ end zone. Philadelphia scored 29 points in the second half and wound up with 519 yards of offense and 34 first downs in a 39–17 blowout of New Orleans, but I’m not ready to declare that happy days are here again for Chip Kelly’s uneven team.
New Orleans’s outmatched defense can make anyone look pretty good. Let’s see if the Eagles can reassert themselves in the NFC East race with a win at home against the first-place Giants next Monday night. Win that and Philadelphia will have dug itself out of its early season hole to a large degree.
• Break up the Bears, winners of two in a row. And you can pretty much bury the disappointing Chiefs, who lost 18–17 at home to Chicago, allowing the Bears to score a pair of touchdowns in the final 3:05, after being up 17–3 in the fourth quarter.
So much for whatever edge Arrowhead Stadium used to provide Kansas City, because that seems gone. The Chiefs are 0–2 at home this season and still have yet to recover from blowing a very late fourth-quarter lead to Denver in Week 2. Chicago entered Sunday with five consecutive road losses and was playing without injured receivers Alshon Jeffrey and Eddie Royal. No matter, Bears quarterback Jay Cutler still got the job done, throwing for 252 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Andy Reid just can’t seem to beat a John Fox-coached team. Not when Fox was in Carolina (think 2003 NFC title game), or when Fox was in Denver (think the last two years of AFC West races), or even with Fox in Chicago this year.
And with running back Jamaal Charles going down with what is believed to be a season-ending ACL injury, Kansas City’s season feels all but over already.
• Get ready for a Rams offense that features only direct snaps to rookie running back Todd Gurley. Nothing else. That approach probably would have worked better than what the Rams tried in Green Bay on Sunday, when quarterback Nick Foles threw a career-worst four interceptions, including two in the fourth quarter inside the Packers 10. Foles was a putrid 11 of 30 for 141 yards, with one touchdown in Green Bay’s 24–10 win.
Leave it to the Rams. They force Aaron Rodgers into three turnovers—which is about two months’ worth for him—pick him off at Lambeau Field (twice!) for the first time since December 2012 and still find a way to lose by two touchdowns.
If you thought Jeff Fisher’s offense was going to be run-heavy before, Foles’s showing combined with Gurley’s 159 yards on 30 carries should all but dictate the play-calling going forward.
• No one ever really knows what the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year means by definition, because it could be a comeback from injury or a comeback from ineffectiveness or a comeback from retirement/obscurity. But my vote this year might go to Packers receiver James Jones, because I’ve never seen a player perform better after coming back to his former team.
Jones scored another touchdown Sunday, his fifth of the season, in Green Bay’s win over St. Louis. It came on a 65-yard reception, and he now has 19 catches for 394 yards this season, with a 20.7-yard per-catch average and those five scores.
Where would the Jordy Nelson-less Packers be without Mr. Jones?
• The NFL’s ridiculous catch rule reared its nonsensical head again on Sunday. Atlanta running back Devonta Freeman had his late-game touchdown taken off the board when it was ruled he did not complete the process of the catch in losing control of the ball as he was landing. Keep in mind, Freeman was well over the goal line when the ball started coming loose, and that’s the most confounding part of the NFL’s catch rule.
If Freeman had been a rusher and extended the ball over the goal line on that play, it would have been a touchdown. Same with Matt Ryan on a quarterback sneak. But because Freeman was a pass catcher, breaking the plane wasn’t good enough. He had to land on the ground and maintain control all the way through that act.
Can anybody logically explain to me why those two plays should be ruled so dramatically differently? The NFL can’t, and it knows it. And don’t bother asking Dez Bryant or Tyler Eifert either.
• Welcome back to fantasy football relevance, Doug Martin. The Bucs’ fourth-year running back ran for three touchdowns and 123 yards and tacked on 35 receiving yards in Tampa Bay’s 38–31 shootout win over visiting Jacksonville.
If Martin can show up like that this season, it’s going to take a good share of the offensive burden off Jameis Winston’s shoulders. Sounds like a good idea to me, because Winston was an efficient 13 of 19 for 209 yards and a touchdown (to Martin) in the Bucs’ second win of the season.
As for the Jaguars, they have proven they can get close to victory fairly often, but they can’t seal the deal. Second-year Jacksonville quarterback Blake Bortles threw for four touchdowns and 303 yards, but if that’s not going to be enough, it’s hard to see who the Jaguars can beat.
Gus Bradley’s third season as Jacksonville’s head coach is going a lot like his first two. And that’s not good news. Thus far this year, Bradley has to be thinking, Thank goodness for Joe Philbin, because the Jaguars’ Week 2 home win over Miami is all they have to show for their work to date.
• Well, of course the Lions aren’t benching Matthew Stafford for good. Like they’re going to run Dan Orlovsky out there on a weekly basis? But just because Stafford has job security doesn’t mean things aren’t a full-scale disaster in Detroit this season. The Lions lost 42–17 at home to the Cardinals, leaving them as still the NFL’s only winless team and in position to earn the No. 1 draft pick next April.
The Lions lost only five games in the 2014 regular season, but they’ve already matched that total, and I don’t see an 11-game winning streak coming. Head coach Jim Caldwell, I predict, will eventually take over the play-calling duties from offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, whose work has not been inspiring this season.
• Big bounce-back performance by Arizona, which was upset at home by the Rams last week. The most surprising facet of the Cardinals’ high-powered offense this season is how good Chris Johnson has been, after being signed off the street in August. Plenty of us thought Johnson was done after his so-so showing with the Jets last year, but maybe that said more about New York than it did Johnson.
Through five games, Johnson has 405 yards on 79 carries, with a 5.1 yard average rush and three touchdowns. He has had at least 72 yards in each of his past four games and has topped 100 twice. All of last season in New York, Johnson had only one game in which he exceeded 70 yards.
• I’ll grant you that Dallas got a bigger first-week contribution from defensive end Greg Hardy and linebacker Rolando McClain than I anticipated, with both of the previously suspended starters making their presence felt in the Cowboys’ lineup. Hardy had two sacks of Tom Brady, forced a fumble and made five tackles, while McClain chipped in with a sack and eight tackles.
Not that it really mattered. Dallas still lost 30–6 to the defending champions, and that means that life after Tony Romo is definitely not going as planned. Cowboys backup-turned-starting-quarterback Brandon Weeden is 0–3 since Romo went down in Week 2, and Dallas generated only two field goals and 264 yards of offense. I’d say there’s a very good chance that when the Cowboys come off their Week 6 bye and play at the Giants in Week 7, veteran Matt Cassel will be in the lineup.
At 2–3, the Cowboys can legitimately tell themselves they’re in the thick of the NFC East race. But another loss, especially to the Giants, and the season is starting to slip away at that point, well before Romo is scheduled to return from his eight-week hiatus.
• Cute story, Charles Woodson picking off Peyton Manning twice, after waiting 18 years to do that even once. But the 1997 Heisman winner’s feat would have meant a heck of a lot more if his Raiders would have beaten first-place Denver, the team that the 1997 Heisman runner-up quarterbacks. Alas, Oakland lost 16–10.
Denver’s defense deserves plenty of credit for the second game the Broncos have won this season without the benefit of an offensive touchdown. But Oakland really missed a great opportunity to stamp itself as a playoff contender the past two weeks and has yet to show it has truly turned a corner under new coach Jack Del Rio.
The normally reliable Sebastian Janikowski missed a 40-yard field-goal attempt and had another attempt blocked, and the Oakland running game was almost nonexistent, with just 65 yards on 25 attempts. Denver’s defense accounted for 10 points off of turnovers, and the Raiders allowed quarterback Derek Carr to be sacked four times, including a strip sack that resulted in a Broncos field goal.
Oakland has played almost well enough to be 4–1, but that’s not the reality. When you hold a Manning-led offense out of the end zone and still lose, it’s a sign of a young team that still doesn’t know how to win.
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