Musings, observations and the occasional insight from a Week 8 that morphed from dreary to ridiculous over the course of about an hour late Sunday afternoon.....
• Among the myriad thoughts that flooded to mind in the moments after I watched that avalanche of points and yards and wildly entertaining offensive football Sunday afternoon in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome:
— Holy smoke, the Saints are alive. Very much alive. Left for dead after their dismal and inexplicable 0–3 start, the Saints have won four of five and three in a row to claw their way to .500 for the first time this season, at 4–4. What a turning point New Orleans’s improbable 52–49 win over the visiting Giants might provide in this roller-coaster 2015 season.
And don’t look now, but the Saints’ schedule is about to take a turn for the manageable, with a visit from 1–6 Tennessee just ahead, followed by a trip to Washington (3–4), a bye week and a game at Houston (3–5). Take care of business in those, and New Orleans could be 7–4 and on a six-game winning streak as it heads into its Week 13 home dome showdown with NFC South-leading Carolina (currently 6–0). If the Falcons keep faltering, and they’ve lost two of three after a 5–0 start, the Saints might run them down in another few weeks. All told, New Orleans has just two games remaining against teams that currently have winning records: The home game against the Panthers and a Week 17 trip to Atlanta.
— Now that’s the way to tie a big-time NFL passing record, Drew Brees, throwing for a whopping seven touchdowns in a single game when your team needed every last one of them to win the best shootout we’ve seen in years and years. This wasn’t Peyton Manning’s seven-TD showing in Denver’s 49–27 season-opening blowout of visiting Baltimore in 2013. Instead, this was vintage Brees, with a career-best 511 yards passing and just one deflected interception, with the Giants and Saints combining for 101 points, tying for the third most in an NFL game. Brees now owns a slice of a record that has real meaning given the context in which it was achieved.
— Wow. Imagine being Eli Manning and throwing a career-high six touchdowns with 350 yards passing, and losing. No two quarterbacks have ever combined for 13 touchdown passes in a single game, and Manning has to swallow that his contribution to that record still wasn’t enough to get the win. Manning went 30 of 41 through the air with no picks, but Brees was better at 40 of 50 and his seven scores. For both offenses, it felt as if it was a game of flag football on a Saturday morning at the park.
— Welcome to New Orleans, Kai Forbath. The Saints’ newly-signed kicker may never have to buy another beer in the Big Easy after booting that clutch 50-yard field goal as time expired, delivering a game for the ages before the raucous Superdome faithful. After several swings and misses on the kicking front of late, maybe the Saints have finally found their guy. Thirteen touchdowns and no field goals were scored in the game until the final play, when Forbath did his thing.
— The Giants’ Odell Beckham Jr. and Manning were both enjoying a spectacular homecoming to New Orleans, where they grew up and starred in high school, and then it all ended so badly. Beckham caught half of Manning’s six touchdowns and was in rare end-zone celebration form after each one of them. He finished with eight grabs for 130 yards, with touchdowns of two, one and 50 yards.
— I’m guessing Steve Spagnuolo wouldn’t care if he ever sees the inside of the Superdome again. Spagnuolo is on his second tour of duty as the Giants’ defensive coordinator, but between those stints, he served one miserable season in the same role for the Saints. That season, 2012, New Orleans gave up an NFL-record 7,042 yards, earning him a pink slip. The Saints on Sunday churned out a mind-boggling 614 yards of net offense.
— It’s always a late-game punt return that really hurts, isn’t it, Tom Coughlin? At least you didn’t kick it to DeSean Jackson this time.
— Who said the Saints can’t win at home any more? After enduring a puzzling six-game home losing streak in the house it once routinely dominated in, Sean Payton’s club is back to its winning ways under the big top. The conquest of the Giants was New Orleans’s third victory in a row at home, and in reality, the season-turning moment might have come at home in Week 6 on a Thursday night. That's when Saints reserve linebacker Michael Mauti blocked a Falcons punt and recovered it for a touchdown, keying the win over Atlanta and waking up the echoes of Steve Gleason’s blocked punt against the Falcons on that memorable Monday night the Saints returned to the Superdome in September 2006. The Thursday night win started the three-game roll New Orleans is now on.
Games like Saints–Giants on Sunday are why we watch the NFL every week: to see something we’ve never seen before. To see three-hour-plus melodramas unfold. To watch a team rewrite the script of its season, pushing the boundaries of what seems possible or plausible all the while.
• Not sure how I missed Colin Kaepernick getting traded to Kansas City, but that couldn’t have been Alex Smith running wild against the disaster known as the Detroit defense in London. Smith, loosed into the Lions secondary, set a couple career highs in the Chiefs' 45–10 blowout win, and both came on the ground: A 49-yard second-quarter scramble was his longest run ever, and his 78 rushing yards were the most he has had in a game. He topped off his big day using his feet with a 12-yard touchdown scamper, to go with the two touchdowns he threw.
At 3–5 headed into their Week 9 bye, the Chiefs can tell themselves with a straight face that they’re still in the AFC playoff hunt. But maybe not for long. Kansas City plays on the road in the division three times in its coming four games, and that span starts with a Week 10 trip to Denver, an opponent that has beaten the Chiefs seven times in a row, including that memorable comeback the Broncos staged at Arrowhead Stadium on Thursday night in Week 2. I’m going to have to see Kansas City win at Denver to buy the Chiefs as contenders.
• Let the record show, Jim Bob Cooter did not equal instant impact. The Lions’ newly-elevated offensive coordinator presided over that debacle at Wembley Stadium, watching Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford throw two more interceptions (he has a league-leading 11) and take another six sacks, four of which came in the first half.
Stafford’s a mess right about now, and teams are blitzing him into oblivion, knowing that he’ll make a mistake of some sort when he feels the pass pressure. Not that Detroit’s sieve-like offensive line isn’t a big part of the problem, but Stafford is hesitant with his decision-making and seemingly fixated on the pass rush. With the Lions 1–7 and reduced to playing out the string, I’m so glad the NFL saw fit to schedule Detroit another three times for national telecast in the season’s second half: on Thanksgiving against the visiting Eagles, at home on Thursday night in Week 13 against the Packers and at New Orleans on Monday night in Week 15.
I wonder if Lions coach Jim Caldwell and general manager Martin Mayhew will be around and in attendance at all of them.
• That was a Bengals victory that was so ugly it was beautiful. They’re not all going to be masterpieces over the course of a long NFL season, but I think I’m more impressed with Cincinnati’s grittiness on Sunday in Pittsburgh than I was even with their huge fourth-quarter comeback win at home against Seattle in Week 5. Because this was the game that should set up the rest of the Bengals’ season, giving them a great shot to cruise to the division title and earn a first-round bye, thus avoiding the dreaded wild-card round that has tripped them up four years in a row.
The Bengals gutted out 10 fourth-quarter points in their 16–10 victory over the Steelers, and the way they won this close, tightly contested game should pay dividends for Cincinnati down the stretch and in the playoffs. The Bengals are being tested this season, and they’re responding. And if you need proof of that, consider their 3.5-game lead in the AFC North. The Bengals are 7–0 for the first time in franchise history, and the 4–4 Steelers fell even further behind Cincinnati in Ben Roethlisberger’s return from a knee injury that cost him four games.
• Speaking of resilience, the Bucs deserve some credit for not letting last week’s late-game fold at Washington turn into another horror story on Halloween weekend in Atlanta. Tampa Bay blew a 24-point lead to lose last week (cue Kirk Cousins’s Howard Dean-like scream) and came dangerously close to losing to the Falcons on Sunday in the Georgia Dome, letting a 17-point cushion disappear before winning 23–20 in overtime on Connor Barth’s 31-yard field goal.
People have rightfully asked if the Bucs are showing any improvement under Lovie Smith, but the second-year Tampa Bay head coach now has the following answers:
— Losing 56–14 at Atlanta last season in Week 3, then coming back to that same building this season to win by three points.
— Forcing four Atlanta turnovers without committing any themselves is an obvious improvement for a Bucs team that has been mistake-prone at times this season.
— And seeing rookie quarterback Jameis Winston log a third consecutive game without an interception is reason for optimism in Tampa Bay. Winston was an efficient 16 of 29 for 177 yards with a running score and a touchdown pass against the Falcons, and his growth and maturity at the position have steadily been on the upswing in the past few weeks.
Smith asked his team’s fan base not to lose faith after the crushing loss at Washington, and then his young team went to Atlanta and backed him up. That tells me Smith hasn’t remotely lost this club, and he’s still the right man for the building job in Tampa Bay.
• The Vikings don’t have to worry about style points either. Minnesota got the job done in crunch time in Chicago, and that’s absolutely all that matters for Mike Zimmer’s ascending team. Trailing inside of two minutes, the Vikings’ sensational rookie receiver Stefon Diggs came to the rescue again, taking a short Teddy Bridgewater pass and scooting 40 yards for the game-tying touchdown, before Blair Walsh secured the 23–20 Minnesota win with a 36-yard field goal at the gun.
Minnesota keeps climbing the ladder of playoff contention every week. The Vikings have won three in a row, something they hadn’t done since December 2012. The Vikings got their first win in Chicago since 2007 and are now 3–0 in the NFC North, halfway to the 10-win season that should produce a playoff berth.
And it’s another positive that the Vikings can find a way to win even when Bridgewater isn’t his sharpest, or when running back Adrian Peterson doesn’t have to do it all. The Vikings got the big play out of Diggs, as part of his six-catch, 95-yard showing, as well as 65-yard punt return touchdown by Marcus Sherels. Sherels’s touchdown might have been the easiest punt return score I’ve seen in quite some time, as he was never even close to being touched as he burst down the right sideline with a convoy to the end zone. The Bears played coverage on that return like Sherels was contagious.
• The NFL and injuries have been synonymous for decades and decades, but why is it that some Sundays make the game seem more brutal and damaging than ever? What a litany of carnage from Week 8 there was, starting with Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake blowing out his Achilles tendon in Miami’s loss at New England on Thursday night.
Just hitting the biggest of names from Sunday, we saw maybe the last play ever in the long and distinguished career of Ravens receiver Steve Smith, who tore his Achilles in a Ravens win over San Diego and is done for the year. Maybe Smith will follow through on his retirement plans, and maybe he’ll opt to not go out on an injury and return in 2016. But either way, it’s a cruel blow for a veteran who has been so productive, reliable and resourceful over the years.
Pittsburgh sounds hopeful that all-world running back Le’Veon Bell has just an MCL injury, but his right leg injury looked gruesome, with both of his legs somehow bent awkwardly underneath him on a tackle by Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict. If the Steelers don’t have Bell’s services anymore this season, it’d be hard to view them as a legit Super Bowl contender in the AFC.
Then there was 49ers running back Reggie Bush (possibly a torn ACL), Chargers receiver Keenan Allen (shoulder), Jets quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (left hand, ligament injury), Bears running back Matt Forte (knee), Seahawks receiver Ricardo Lockette (concussion), Chargers defensive tackle Corey Liuget (ankle), Browns defensive backs Joe Haden and Donte Whitner (both concussions), and Bucs defensive end Jacquies Smith (ankle).
Some weeks the gladiator aspect of football is disgusting and beyond defending, no matter how much money the players make or how informed they may or may not be in regards to the physical risks incurred.
• I’m starting to get the picture for at least one of the reasons the Rams are desperate to leave the Edward Jones Dome. How is it possible that a section of the stadium floor near the stands is left uncovered, waiting for a player like Bush to come sailing out of bounds and hit the slippery bare concrete with his spikes, effectively rendering him on ice?
If Bush blew out his knee because the stadium leaves that part of the floor uncovered, I’ll bet he won’t be too broken up about the Rams leaving for Los Angeles in the near future.
• When I visited Rams training camp this summer, I lost track of how many times I was told the team's coaching staff and front office thought they had the NFL’s next Adrian Peterson on the roster in rookie running back Todd Gurley. You hear a lot of hype and hot air in the course of a summer camp tour, but I got the sense there was no hyperbole this time, and so far, who would disagree?
Gurley has been a game-changer in St. Louis. In the Rams’ 27–6 home win over a 49ers team that used to be relevant in the league, the rookie gashed San Francisco for 133 yards on 20 carries, including a 71-yard scoring gallop that effectively settled the outcome. He’s now the NFL’s most productive runner since the 1970 merger over the course of his first four career starts, with 566 yards rushing in that span. Gurley has a gain of at least 45 yards in each of his four starts and has topped 100 yards in each of them. Tell me again how running backs are interchangeable in this league? Not all of them.
The Rams have won two in a row and three of four, and are breathing rarified air by the relative standards of this long-downtrodden franchise. At 4–3, St. Louis is north of .500 in November for the first time since 2006, and next week’s trip to Minnesota (5–2) offers a legitimate measuring-stick game against one of the Rams’ fellow NFC wild-card contenders. Here’s a game-planning hint, Vikings: Get ready for plenty of Gurley.
• The Ravens had only two home games in the first two months of the regular season, and that’s one route to earning your first victory before the home crowd on Nov. 1, about seven weeks or so later than Baltimore usually does. But even a 26–23 comeback win over visiting San Diego cast a bit of a pall, given the likely season-ending injury to Steve Smith.
Even with the Ravens having their bye in Week 9 and then five of their next seven games at home, you can’t consider Baltimore (2–6) a barely breathing contender for the AFC North crown. But you can imagine them still competing for second place in the division, because they’re just two games behind the second-place Steelers (4–4) and have beaten Pittsburgh head-to-head already this season.
As for the Chargers, who have lost four in a row and own sole possession of last place in the AFC West, defensive coordinator John Pagano would seem every bit as much in danger of losing his job as his brother Chuck is in Indianapolis. San Diego’s defense has endured a host of injuries, but they don’t give you extra wiggle room for that in the NFL.
• What a mosh pit the AFC is through eight weeks. Ten of the conference’s 16 teams feature losing records, and Pittsburgh is at the break-even mark at 4–4. That means there are only five clubs with winning records, and I’ll bet after you ripped off New England, Cincinnati and Denver (all unbeaten), you’d struggle to come up with the final two. Give up?
The Raiders and the Jets are both 4–3, but Oakland is really the only winner worth writing about in this case, because Jack Del Rio’s club just whipped visiting New York 34–-20 in a game that puts Oakland above .500 in November for the first time in four years.
The Raiders have come a long way quickly and now enter games with the expectation of victory. Imagine that. The Raiders cruised to a 21–3 lead over the Jets and never looked back, with quarterback Derek Carr throwing four touchdown passes and running back Latavius Murray rushing for 113 yards.
The stakes will start to get higher for the Raiders now that they’re in contention. They play at Pittsburgh (4–4) next week, and that game could be important in the long run for wild-card tiebreakers. Once upon a time, Oakland never won in the Eastern time zone, but the Raiders are already 1–0 on the road in the AFC North this year, having won at Cleveland in Week 3.
The Jets, meanwhile, aren’t trending in the right direction, having lost two road games in a row and with quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick facing a left thumb injury that opened the team’s latest chapter in the Geno Smith saga. That’s not the book New York wants to be reading from the rest of the season.
• The best thing veteran head coach Bruce Arians has imbued in his 6–2 first-place Cardinals? They don’t panic. They don’t overreact. Even when they’re behind and looking shaky, they keep playing their game, and usually the tide turns their way. It certainly did Sunday in Cleveland, when the Browns led 20–7 late in the first half, before Arizona ripped off 27 unanswered points to win going away, 34–20.
Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer personifies the approach Arians has instilled in his team. Palmer may start a game poorly, or lose it momentarily in the middle of his work day. But he keeps right on slinging it, believing that he’s a throw or two away from changing the day’s narrative. That was the case in Cleveland, when he went to halftime with 181 yards and a touchdown but still managed to finish with 374 yards, four touchdowns and a 23 of 38 passing performance.
The Cardinals aren’t going away. And even when they struggle, they don’t struggle for long. And now one of the best games on this year’s NFL schedule is ahead in two weeks, after Arizona takes a Week 9 bye: Cardinals at Seahawks on Sunday Night Football in Week 10. Both teams are off next week, and inching closer to the top of the NFC West will be Seattle’s singular goal.
• I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Nothing is going to come easily for the Seahawks this season, and their gritty 13–12 win at Dallas on Sunday is just another example of how tough the sledding has been and will be. But in the big picture, getting to 4–4 at midseason, with a bye week now on tap, must feel satisfying for Seattle. After all, the Seahawks’ season could have gone off the rails quite a few times this year.
Like when the two-time defending NFC champions opened the season with back-to-back road losses at St. Louis and Green Bay. Or when Seattle blew that 17-point lead at Cincinnati in Week 5. Or when Carolina came into CenturyLink Field in Week 6 and made the Seahawks deal with another fourth-quarter meltdown.
Seattle’s defense did its part against the offensively feeble Cowboys, limiting them to four field goals and no touchdowns, with 220 yards of total offense. But the Seahawks’ offense is still mostly a rumor, something it will have to address in the next two weeks if Seattle hopes to beat first-place Arizona at home in Week 10.
It hasn’t been a joy ride, but don’t bury Pete Carroll’s guys just yet. They’re at .500 and now have three consecutive home games, against the Cardinals, 49ers and Steelers. If there’s some noise to be made in Seattle in the season’s second half, it starts now.
• What an absurd season it has been in Houston, but here’s something even crazier: If the Colts lose at Carolina on Monday night as expected, the 3–5 Texans will be tied with Indianapolis for first place in the AFC South as the season’s halfway point arrives. The Texans beat visiting Tennessee 20–6 on Sunday, and once we checked with the league, we confirmed it counts every bit as much as any other team’s win in Week 8.
All kidding aside, the AFC South looks like a joke this season, but we only have to remember the NFC South last year to realize a lot can change in a hurry. The Panthers were 3-8-1 as the season’s final month dawned, yet wound up winning the division at 7-8-1, posting a playoff victory and giving Seattle a decent game in the divisional round.
So go ahead and dream, Houston. Even at 3–5. You never know what can happen in the NFL. Even if we like to convince ourselves otherwise.
• Who I Like Tonight: The Calamity Colts head to Charlotte for a game that for the first time pits the quarterbacks who went first overall in the draft in 2011 (Cam Newton) and '12 (Andrew Luck). But while everything the Panthers have touched of late has turned into victory, Indy is in full-blown implosion mode, and getting used to the stench of defeat and dysfunction. And don’t look now, Colts, but Denver pays a visit next week, and then after a Week 10 bye, a challenging trip to Atlanta looms. Some, especially those in the New England region, would say Indy's struggles are karma for the Colts expending so much energy on all that ball deflation silliness in January. Panthers 27, Colts 17.