INDIANAPOLIS — Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we wrap up a whirlwind Week 9 that was incredibly productive for the home teams around the league—road teams were 3–9 in the weekend’s first 12 games—including a potential season-saving victory by the Colts over Peyton Manning and his previously undefeated Broncos at Lucas Oil Stadium...
• The collective message coming out of the Indianapolis locker room in the wake of the Colts’ 27–24 defeat of favored Denver was loud and clear: Don’t bury us yet. We’ve been down, but we’re not out. At midseason, only half of this story has been told.
“You could say reports of the Colts’ death have been greatly exaggerated,” said Indianapolis tight end Coby Fleener, flashing a little Mark Twain. “But in reality, the pressure was all coming from within our own building.”
Whatever their motivation was, something finally clicked for these Colts. With their season approaching freefall, they caught themselves, finally winning a game outside the woeful AFC South and finally giving everyone in the organization a chance to feel good about themselves.
“We’re not a suck team,” said Colts running back Frank Gore, who ran 28 times for 83 yards and caught a pass for 19 yards. “We just can’t beat ourselves. It was a big win. A big win. Against a tough team. There was all the B.S. about we can’t do this, we can’t do that. We’re not physical. But today we’re still a top team in the NFL. I’m not surprised. As long as we don’t beat ourselves, I feel like we’ve got a great shot.”
Several players cited the promotion last week of new offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinksi, who replaced the popular Pep Hamilton and installed a simplified, streamlined game plan for the unbeaten Broncos. The Colts raced to a 17–0 lead against Denver, had to hold on tight when it was 17–17 entering the fourth quarter, and then used an eight-yard Ahmad Bradshaw touchdown reception and a 55–yard Adam Vinatieri field goal to pull out the win and move back into sole possession of first place in the division at 4–5 entering their Week 10 bye.
“We all needed a win right now,” said Indy quarterback Andrew Luck, who turned in a solid 21 of 36, 252-yard passing performance, with two touchdowns and most importantly no interceptions. “No one feels sorry for you in this league. It was almost like a one-game playoff in a sense. We managed to win, which is great.
“I thought the guys did a great job of blocking out the B.S. and the distractions and focusing on football and practicing. As a player, I commend the coaches on this staff for keeping it together and giving us a plan, making it as seamless as possible for the players. What a great team-building victory for this team.”
The Colts finally looked like the team that has been to the playoffs in each of the past three seasons, rolling up 27 first downs and 365 yards on offense and converting 60% of their third downs (12 of 20). Behind early, the Broncos ran the ball just 14 times for a paltry 35 yards (2.5 average), and Indianapolis forced Manning into a pair of interceptions. For a change, it was Denver that self-destructed down the stretch, with a mixture of penalties, missed opportunities and a turnover.
And the key might have been that the game plan finally felt comfortable, too, the Colts said.
“As you can imagine, it’s a little bit of a scramble when you lose your offense coordinator, so kudos to the offensive coaches who picked up the slack and really did the best to make sure we had a solid game plan,” Fleener said. “Obviously coach Chudzinski did an outstanding job. He did a good amount of simplification with a single sheet of paper; it was ‘These are the plays we’ll likely run.’ Part of that is because you’ve got just one week to prepare, and part of it is the idea that when you know what you’re doing, you can do it fast and do your best.”
Not that any of it was easy, no matter how comfortable it looked. Hamilton’s firing was a shock to the Colts’ locker room, and it didn’t fade overnight. But the win helped close that chapter.
“Just as a team, we really needed this one,” Colts receiver Griff Whalen said. “It was tough, to be honest. I know Pep so well and I’ve known him for so long, so that kind of hurt and it was tough. But we have a bunch of professionals here who know how to focus on what we need to, so once those whistles blow, we’re all locked in on what we need to be focused on. I don’t know what it was, I just think we had a good sense of urgency the whole time.”
The sense of urgency could not have been higher in Indianapolis. With a three-game Colts losing streak entering Sunday, the season was on the brink, and everyone understood what was at stake. But the Colts came through. For now, at least, the worst-case scenario has been avoided.
• Hate to be so obvious, but Denver cornerback Aqib Talib looked and acted like a big stooge when he came unglued and poked Colts tight end Dwayne Allen in the eye late in the game, essentially costing the Broncos any chance to mount a comeback from Indy’s three-point lead. Talib picked up one of the most ridiculous unsportsmanlike conduct penalties in years and years when he ran over and gouged at Allen’s eyes, moments after Allen and Broncos linebacker Von Miller had exchanged post-play shoves on a second-and-nine play at the Denver 15 with 2:35 remaining.
The Colts got a new set of downs at the Broncos’ six-yard line and from there were able to successfully run out the clock and keep the ball out of Peyton Manning’s hands. Goodbye to any shot at a perfect season in Denver, and goodbye to Manning’s chance to get the ball back and pick up the three yards passing that he needed to break Brett Favre’s NFL career passing yardage record of 71,838.
But Talib can probably say hello to either a fine or a league suspension in response to his dim-witted and dangerous fit of pique.
“Did we do some not very smart things at the end of the game to get the ball back?” Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak said, of Talib. “I agree with that. ... Obviously he’s got to keep his composure out there at the end of the game. When the game gets chippy and both sides are talking, you have to handle your business. I've got to make sure that when he is out there, he's got to handle his business.”
Thanks to Talib, the Broncos’ business was mostly about losing Sunday evening.
• I’m not sure their recent pattern of building a huge lead at home and then having to hang on for dear life in the fourth quarter is sustainable long-term, but you have to credit the unsinkable Panthers (8–0) for doing whatever it takes to stay perfect this season. The Panthers the last four weeks have won at Seattle with a fourth-quarter comeback, handled a pair of prime-time night games at home against Philadelphia and Indianapolis, and on Sunday they survived for a 37–29 win against a Packers team that trailed by 23 points in the fourth quarter and seemed to be coming apart at the seams.
Carolina now has a pretty clear path to the NFC’s top seed, holding at least a two-game lead over the rest of the conference, with the head-to-head tiebreaker against the Packers in its pocket. And the second half of the Panthers’ schedule features just three games against teams that currently have a winning record: a pair of meetings with Atlanta (6–3) in Weeks 14 and 16, and a Week 15 trip to the Giants (5–4).
Who’s going to stop them from looking down at the rest of the NFC playoff field come January? And against the Packers, the Panthers’ lightly-regarded deep game was even more explosive than we’ve seen it all season. Cam Newton completed 15 of 30 passes for 297 yards—a gaudy 19.8 yards per completion—and had big strikes of 59 yards to Jerricho Cotchery, 52 yards to Devin Funchess and 39 yards to Corey Brown for a touchdown that made it 27–7 at the half. Newton threw for three touchdowns, ran for another and kept himself squarely in the MVP discussion at midseason.
• Mike McCarthy’s Packers aren’t used to this. They’re still 6–2 after the loss at Carolina, but it’s a worrisome 6–2. Green Bay has back-to-back losses in games started by Aaron Rodgers for the first time since Week 6 of 2010, and the Packers trailed by 20 points at halftime against the Panthers, their largest deficit at the break in 25 games. Granted, they just played a pair of undefeated teams on the road in Denver and Charlotte, so there’s that.
The Green Bay defense is frustrated and dealing with injuries in the secondary, but it’s getting abused at near historic levels. The Packers gave up “only” 427 yards to Carolina, but after surrendering 1,048 yards the past two games, that’s still 1,475 yards allowed over three games, nearly 500 per game.
And here’s a big part of the problem on offense, besides the absence of injured No. 1 receiver Jordy Nelson: The Packers can’t protect Rodgers, who took five sacks and was under steady pressure throughout the game. That makes it four games in a row that No. 12 has been under siege. Rodgers threw for 376 yards and four touchdowns against Carolina, but even he looks mortal when the pass rush is unrelenting.
The Packers have dropped into a tie with the Vikings (6–2) in the NFC North, but they have usually been able to stop the bleeding and avoid long losing streaks as well as any team outside of New England. Green Bay’s next four games are all in the division it has dominated for so long, and that streak starts next week with a home game against the hapless Lions (1–7). Then the Packers play at Minnesota, home against Chicago, and at Detroit on Thanksgiving. Green Bay may well steady itself over the course of the next month, but there’s plenty of work to be done before then.
• Playing the role of Dan Campbell—jump-starting interim head coach—this week is Mike Mularkey, the newly elevated boss in Tennessee. The Titans responded wonderfully to Mularkey’s presence against the Saints, knocking off the previously red-hot Saints 34–28 in overtime. The Saints had won three in a row, and three consecutive home games before Tennessee pulled the stunner, winning for the first time since Week 1 at Tampa Bay.
The Titans had to climb out of an early 14–3 hole to beat New Orleans, but the key was protecting rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota, who has taken a beating this season. Playing for the first time in three games, Mariota was fabulous, completing 28 of 39 passes for 371 yards and four touchdowns, without an interception or a sack.
Just as Campbell made Miami more physical and competitive after taking over for the fired Joe Philbin, Mularkey did the same for the team he inherited from the dismissed Ken Whisenhunt. The Titans played with much more passion and energy against the Saints and were even flagged for roughing Drew Brees three times. The feistiness seemed to spark something, because the Titans’ offense was finally able to pull its share of the weight and not have to ask too much of the defense.
Don’t laugh, but at 2–6 in the pathetic AFC South, Tennessee has plenty to play for in the second half of the season. Who knows how many wins it might take to claim the NFL’s worst division?
• On the other side of things in the Superdome, that was a crushing loss for the Saints’ playoff hopes. New Orleans had finally scratched its way to a 4–4 record and started looking like itself on offense and at home, and then came Sunday. With six teams in the NFC already owning more than the Saints’ four wins, and three more having the chance to at least end Week 9 with four, that’s a lot of ground New Orleans will have to make up to get into the Super Bowl tournament.
The Saints have now lost at home this season to both Mariota and Tampa Bay’s Jameis Winston, the rookie quarterbacks and top two picks in this year’s draft. You knew when you saw Saints defensive backs Jarius Byrd and Keenan Lewis fighting each other for an interception that wound up being a 58-yard touchdown pass to Titans tight end Delanie Walker that it wasn’t going to be New Orleans’s day.
And another brick in the wall that is the defensive disaster the Saints have been for most of this season? Cornerback Brandon Browner, the most penalized player in the NFL this season with 16 accepted penalties, is a walking, talking yellow flag. His idea of coverage these days is to mug an opposing receiver and hope the officials were all looking the other way.
• Speaking of Miami’s Campbell, his star has faded considerably and swiftly on the strength of the Dolphins’ two recent blowout road losses in the division. Miami fell 33–17 at Buffalo on Sunday, 10 days after getting dismantled 36–7 in Foxboro on Thursday Night Football.
This off-season, Miami (3–5) ramped up to finally close the gap on the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots, but the reality is the Dolphins are not even yet capable of competing with the Bills or the Jets in the AFC East. Miami is now 0–4 in the division, getting outscored by Buffalo 73–31 in two games this season and being on the wrong end of a 137–52 margin overall against the AFC East.
Not being able to beat the Patriots, Jets or Bills is pretty much what got Philbin canned after a month this season. And now it’s proving just as difficult for Campbell, whose chances to earn the fulltime gig in Miami just took another major hit.
• Maybe Sammy Watkins should lobby for the ball more often, because feeding him early and often certainly worked like a charm in the Bills’ rout of visiting Miami. Watkins, who three weeks ago complained that Buffalo was making him look bad because it wasn’t using him enough, had a career-best game against the Dolphins, catching eight passes for 168 yards and a game-clinching 44-yard touchdown bomb in the third quarter.
Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor made Watkins his go-to target—to the extreme. Taylor only attempted 12 passes but completed 11 of them for 181 yards. All but three of those catches and 13 of those yards belonged to Watkins. Players get vilified at times for asking for the ball through the media, but in this case, Watkins’s instincts weren’t wrong.
• A few less-than-snap judgments regarding Friday’s release of the graphic photos taken in the aftermath of Greg Hardy’s 2014 domestic violence charges:
We’ve all had a chance by now to judge Hardy’s words and actions and come to a conclusion about who he is and what he’s about. I view him as a clueless, self-absorbed individual with a serious deficiency of character, and a guy who has no idea how weak his act is. But it’s Cowboys owner Jerry Jones who is really at his transparent worst here, because he knows what he has in Hardy the person, and he doesn’t care because of Hardy the player. News flash: This isn’t about the beauty of extending second chances in life, it’s about sacks. Plain and simple.
Stars and scrubs have been treated differently forever, and they always will be. Disgusting as it is to many, Jones has a right to employ Hardy, because the legal system is done with him. And nothing about this situation will change until the court of public opinion—and financial pressure—comes to bear on Jones and his team. Until Hardy is persona non grata in Dallas due to both his past violent acts and his controversial present, he’ll have a football home with the Cowboys. At least until his play no longer allows for him to be covered for by those calling the shots in Dallas. If we don’t like that reality, Jones should be the one who pays a price of some sort for that decision.
It’s obvious but still a sad commentary on the NFL: Ray Rice has been deemed untouchable by the league largely because his talent level was judged to be not worth the trouble, even though a second chance was largely deserved. Hardy, by comparison, has been embraced and continues to be employed, all because he still has game. Even though it’s difficult to recall anyone who seems more undeserving of that opportunity.
• And one more thing: NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith certainly hasn’t bathed himself in glory in this case, letting the players union stand on Hardy’s side in the appeal process, all in an attempt to reward the player and get him back on the field and earning money as quickly as possible. How are you feeling about that call, De, after the release of those sickening photos?
Every once in a while, sending a powerful message about what is wrong and what won’t be condoned is part of Smith’s job description and responsibility as well. Not just making sure the defense of a player’s rights is the end all, be all. Defending the indefensible is what the union chose to do in this case, and I can’t help but think how many players in his own union would have stood up and applauded had Smith made a stand and refused to appeal the NFL’s 10-game suspension.
• Antonio Brown had a nice season Sunday in the Steelers’ thrill-a-minute 38–35 win over visiting Oakland. But if Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is out for long with his most recent injury, a reported mid-foot sprain, there may not be much of a season left for the Steelers.
Brown’s monstrous 17-catch, 284-yard receiving game was astounding. It represented the most catches in a game for any player since the 1970 merger, and his 284 yards were the most in any game since Calvin Johnson posted a 329-yard game in October 2013. Both totals set Steelers records, and Brown had 306 yards of offense, including 22 yards of rushing.
But will the Steelers (5–4) be able to survive a second Roethlisberger absence this season and still make the playoffs? I’m dubious. They went 2–2 when he was out with an MCL sprain earlier this year, never topping 24 points in any of those games. Unless Brown can play quarterback too, the Steelers might be finished without both Big Ben and running back Le’Veon Bell in the lineup.
• I can’t blame Vikings coach Mike Zimmer for the post-game salvos he fired the Rams’ way. St. Louis cornerback Lamarcus Joyner clearly didn’t need to throw an elbow into the head of Minnesota quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who was sliding and giving himself up at the end of a scramble. Joyner was flagged on the play, but the Vikings lost much, much more, with Bridgewater briefly knocked out and leaving the game to be checked for a concussion. Zimmer called the hit “a cheap shot’ and said defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’s players are known for that sort of play.
Minnesota wound up getting the win in overtime, 21–18, earning a victory over the Rams that may wind up being important in the NFC wild-card race. But we’ll have to see if Bridgewater returns to the lineup in time for the Vikings’ game at Oakland next week to know how costly Joyner’s hit might wind up being. It’s hard to imagine the Vikings making a run to the playoffs with backup quarterback Shaun Hill required to play for multiple weeks.
• Good for Blaine Gabbert. He’s been something of a punchline in the NFL for quite a few seasons now, but I’ll bet the Falcons aren’t laughing today. The 49ers quarterback got his first start midway through his second season in San Francisco, and he made the most of it, leading his club to a 17–16 win over the suddenly faltering Falcons.
Gabbert was solid enough that there are sure to be questions of whether 49ers rookie coach Jim Tomsula should have gone to him sooner, benching Colin Kaepernick long before Week 9. Gabbert finished 15 of 25 for 185 yards and two touchdowns, both to tight end Garrett Celek, who replaced the traded Vernon Davis. So both of San Francisco’s moves paid instant dividends this week, and there’s no reason to think Gabbert shouldn’t be under center again when San Francisco visits Seattle in two weeks after a bye.
• That 5–0 start in Atlanta already seems long ago, and the Falcons are playing themselves into fraud status. Losses to the struggling Saints, Bucs and 49ers in the past four weeks have dropped the Falcons to 6–3, and they look in desperate need of the bye they’re in line for this week.
It’s not complicated to see what’s not happening for Atlanta. The Falcons’ pass rush has evaporated—Gabbert was never sacked—and their vaunted running game wasn’t in evidence against San Francisco. Devonta Freeman was no factor on the ground on Sunday, gaining just 12 yards on 12 carries, despite producing 67 yards and a touchdown as a receiving option.
Did the Falcons fool us with all those early-season wins against the mediocre NFC East, or are they just a team in a slump, learning to deal with the first wave of adversity they’ve faced in Dan Quinn’s young coaching tenure?
• There was no way anyone had a definitive notion of what to expect from Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul on Sunday against Tampa Bay, but New York has to be thrilled with what it got from him in a 32–18 road conquest of the Bucs. Playing in his first game since his tragic fireworks accident damaged his hand, Pierre-Paul was on the field for 76% of New York’s defensive snaps (47) and didn’t look out of place at all. He recorded two tackles despite wearing a thick padded mitt on his hand, and his conditioning seemed superb.
Anything the Giants can get out of JPP between now and the rest of the season is probably gravy, but given the sorry state of New York’s pass rush this season, any improvement could be significant. At 5–4, with a challenging visit from the Patriots on tap in Week 10, the Giants remain the only NFC East team that currently looks capable of getting anywhere once the playoffs arrive.
• Who I Like Tonight: The Monday night finale for Week 9 isn’t going to set any viewership records. The Chargers and Bears are a combined 4–11 and are going nowhere in the playoff race. What’s that you say? San Diego has the NFL’s top-rated offense when measured by yards? Big deal. The Chargers also have a knack for doing whatever it takes to lose. The Bears at least have over-achieved by some standards this season, playing most teams tougher than many expected. San Diego, however, will limp into its Week 10 bye riding the momentum of its third win. If not, perhaps the Chargers should consider leaving for Los Angeles a couple months early. Chargers 31, Bears 23.