EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we absorb Week 10 in the NFL and another thrilling chapter in the far-too-infrequent Patriots-Giants rivalry at MetLife Stadium...
• If there is another perfect season in the offing for New England, eight years after the Patriots steamrolled to that 16-0 mark in 2007, it will be this less-than-perfect win that will be remembered as the one that made it all possible.
Pushed to the limit by the New York Giants — their proven nemesis — the Patriots responded Sunday evening in dramatic fashion, beating back New York’s upset intentions 27-26, on the strength of Stephen Gostkowski’s 54-yard field goal with just one second left.
This time, the Giants couldn’t quite finish the deal, as they had the past three times they played New England, most famously in the Super Bowls of early 2008 and 2012. But they are the first team this season to throw a legitimate scare into the Beasts of the East, and what it took to stand up to the Giants’ challenge might well wind up benefiting the Patriots in the long run. It was a scintillating game from start to finish, and both teams strengthened their big-game reputations.
Playing with their injury-plagued offensive line reshuffled once again, without leading receiver Julian Edelman thanks to a first-half foot injury (and the reports are now that his foot is broken and he will have surgery on Monday), and trailing late in the game on the road, New England motored 44 yards on 12 plays on its most crucial drive of the year, setting up Gostkowski’s pressurized game-winner. It wasn’t artistic by any means, but it was effective, and New England survived to see its way to 9-0, steeling itself for the tests still to come.
“We played 60 minutes and got that W, and what an unbelievable win it was,” said Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, whose 76-yard touchdown bomb from Tom Brady had given New England a 24-23 lead with 11:33 left in the game. “That win definitely built some character. Being down, being up, and being down with two minutes left. It showed some resilience. [Edelman] goes out, but the offense went out there and didn’t give up.”
New England definitely had some good fortune on its side, never more so than when Giants rookie safety Landon Collins dropped an easy interception on the first play of the Patriots winning drive, which started at their 20 with 1:47 remaining. Collins jumped for the ball when he didn’t need to, and wound up losing the ball and injuring himself upon impact with the ground. Three plays later, Brady found Danny Amendola for a game-sustaining 12-yard pass on 4th-and-10 from the 20.
“We fought until the end,” Brady said. “That’s a tough team. It always comes down to the end with them. We talked about it before the game, that we just need to play hard for 60 minutes and it took every last second. I’m proud of our team and the way we fought, but we can do some things better than we did today; I certainly can. I’m glad we’re 9-0.”
Brady wasn’t being modest. He was far from flawless against the Giants, who again disrupted his game with a steady pass rush, especially in the second half. Brady threw a ghastly interception near the Giants' goal line earlier in the fourth quarter, with New York cornerback Trumaine McBride jumping a pass intended for Brandon LaFell. McBride returned it to the Giants' 3, and Eli Manning proceeded to march his team on a 15-play, 86-yard scoring drive that ended on Josh Brown’s go-ahead 29-yard field goal with 1:47 remaining.
But then the Patriots made New York pay for some dubious clock management — again Giants? — that left a little too much time on the clock for comfort.
“[Brady said] ‘Let’s just go, we gotta go, we gotta do what we gotta do,” Gronkowski said of the Patriots’ final drive. “This is all or nothing on this drive.’ You’ve got to have confidence on drives like that. You’ve got to be locked in and focused, and believe we can get the job done.”
This one was far from perfect, but the Patriots got the job done when it mattered most, with Bill Belichick’s team gutting out its win of the year so far. If another perfect season does materialize in Foxboro, it’ll be this instant-classic that we’ll all remember as the one that sent New England on its way.
• It’s too early to know how this game will affect or impact the Giants’ season, and clearly New York missed an opportunity to open up some room in the standings between itself and its closest two division opponents. But I don’t see any reason this near-miss can’t serve roughly the same purpose for these Giants as that famous three-point Week 17 loss to New England did for the eventual 2007 Super Bowl champion Giants.
New York found out on Sunday it can hold its own with the best team in the NFL, and there is value in that discovery. While the Giants' troubling pattern of letting fourth-quarter leads get away continued—they’ve lost four such games this year—New York had some positives on which to dwell. For one, the pass rush returned against Brady. The Giants entered the game with a league-low nine sacks in nine games, but dropped No. 12 three times, and harassed him consistently in the second half.
At 5-5, New York heads into its Week 11 bye. The Giants have a half-game lead in the NFC East over Philadelphia and Washington (both 4-5), but if those two teams win next week, New York will return to the field in Week 12 at Washington staring at a three-way tie for the division lead. The season will still be very much a jump ball at that point, and depending on what happens going forward, perhaps the close call against the Patriots will wind up either haunting or helping the Giants as they try to return to the playoffs for the first time in four years.
• This is really all new ground for us with Peyton Manning. Seeing him pulled from a game in which he looked totally overmatched just hasn’t been something we’ve experienced. And who knows what new lows might be looming in the near future for him, with Manning nursing foot and rib cage injuries that could linger now that he has played with them and perhaps aggravated them further. Manning’s former Colts head coach Tony Dungy said on NBC Sunday night that he would keep Manning on the bench next week at Chicago and start Denver backup Brock Osweiler.
This much is clear: Just as in Green Bay, the once-unbeaten Broncos are suddenly a team in turmoil, with serious questions that make you wonder about their postseason viability. Manning wasn’t just bad, he was brutal, completing just 5 of 20 passes for 35 yards, four interceptions and a 0.0 passer rating in Kansas City’s 29-13 win at Denver.
Broncos coach Gary Kubiak is going to earn his money this week. The Broncos have to make a tough call on Manning going forward, and they can’t afford to let him back on the field if he’s anywhere close to as bad a shape as he was Sunday.
• Never thought I’d say this about a win at Oakland, but the Vikings’ 30-14 road dismantling of the Raiders was their most impressive victory of the season. Can this be the same Minnesota team that visited the San Francisco bay area once before this season, getting humiliated 20-3 in Week 1 at the 49ers? These Vikings (7-2) have come a long way since that mistake-filled night, and now they will head into next week’s homefield showdown with struggling Green Bay in possession of a one-game division lead, and a ton of momentum.
I saw the Vikings as an NFC wild-card team this season, but there’s more potential there than just making the playoffs. They are starting to look like they could win the NFC North and do some serious damage once they reach January. The Vikings are 4-0 at home this season, and after an 0-2 start on the road, where they have been overmatched in recent years, they have now won three in a row.
• It’s almost impossible to take the Packers seriously as a Super Bowl contender in the wake of their 18-16 home-field loss to Detroit, as stunning a regular-season result as we’ve seen in many years. The Lions, of course, hadn’t won in Wisconsin since 1991, the year before Bill Clinton was elected president for the first time, and this hardly seemed like the Detroit team that was primed to end that streak, given its 1-7 record entering Sunday.
Losing at Denver and at Carolina was cause for concern in Green Bay. But losing at home to the cellar-dwelling Lions is almost unimaginable. And you can ignore that the Packers nearly came back to beat Detroit, because even if Mason Crosby had converted that potential game-winning 52-yard field goal try in the final seconds, it wouldn’t have meant all was again well in Titletown.
The Packers offense is a mess, and it may be time for head coach Mike McCarthy to take back the play-calling duties he handed off to offensive coordinator Tom Clements this off-season. Who knows if that’s the fix Green Bay needs, but the Packers need to try something, because what they’re doing is simply not working.
The biggest mystery is the funk that quarterback Aaron Rodgers has fallen into. Rodgers always seemed immune to slumps, but at this point he is totally out of rhythm, looking frustrated, hurried and harried, as if he doesn’t trust his offensive line, and he is even having difficulty setting his feet on many of his passes.
Green Bay made that late comeback bid against the Lions, but most of the damage came when the Packers were in hurry-up mode. For about the opening 54 minutes of the game, Detroit’s 26th-ranked defense was dominating Green Bay’s offense, with the Packers scoring just three points and suffering damaging drops by receivers Randall Cobb and James Jones.
A minute or so ago, Green Bay was 6-0 and was seen as the elite team in the NFC. Now the Packers are in disarray, and headed to Minnesota for an NFC North showdown that could serve to put them in a deep hole in the division if they lose.
• Maybe the Lions should have tried putting Martha Ford in charge a long time ago. Detroit’s 90-year-old owner got some early unexpected results with the Lions’ win at Green Bay, coming off the team’s bye week and the dismissal of general manager Martin Mayhew and team president Tom Lewand. Ford promised the team’s fans that the Lions would get it right, and on this day at least, Detroit delivered.
The win doesn’t change the big picture in Motown, and a major organizational makeover is likely on the way this off-season with the hiring of a new GM and team president, with perhaps a coaching change as well. But the Lions were at least one of the biggest success stories of Week 10, and that’s a start of sorts in Detroit.
• Elvis Dumervil, meet Dwayne Rudd. Dumervil’s facemask penalty on Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles was the worst game-deciding defensive lapse I can recall since Rudd, the Browns over-exuberant linebacker, took his helmet off prematurely against the Chiefs in 2002, handing Cleveland a gut-wrenching loss.
But that’s how this lost season has gone from the very start in Baltimore. Whatever can go wrong, does go wrong. The Ravens had the Jaguars beat 20–19, and time had already expired on Jacksonville. But then Dumervil got way too much of Bortles’ facemask, and the resulting penalty gave the Jaguars 15 yards and an untimed play—which they used to have Jason Myers boom home the game-winning 53-yard field goal, dropping the Ravens to 2-7.
Unfathomably, Baltimore has lost home games to Cleveland and Jacksonville, two of the AFC’s long-time stragglers, in the same season. The Ravens’ three home losses are the most of the eight-year John Harbaugh coaching era, and they’ve already surpassed last season’s total of six defeats. And did we mention the Jaguars entered Week 10 with a league-worst 13 consecutive road losses, a streak that began in 2013? Any faint hopes of a second-half rally and potential push for the playoffs in Baltimore just evaporated in cruel fashion.
• Remarkably, the Jaguars pulled out the game against the Ravens and now have legitimate playoff hopes themselves. Such is the state of things in the dreadful AFC South, but at 3-6, Jacksonville trails first-place Indianapolis (4-5) by just one game, and the Jaguars can put even more pressure on the Colts if they can win at home against 2-7 Tennessee on Thursday night.
The Jaguars hadn’t won a road game since Dec. 1, 2013, at Cleveland, and the win finally gets head coach Gus Bradley to double digits in victories with the team. He’s 10-31, with seven games remaining to make his best case for why progress has been made in his two-plus seasons.
The Jaguars do have reasons for optimism as we head down the season’s backstretch, perhaps none more promising than receiver Allen Hurns, who continues to deliver each and every week. Hurns was questionable Sunday with thigh and foot injuries, but he wound up making five catches for 62 yards and a touchdown, giving him a scoring reception in seven consecutive games—the longest active streak in the NFL since 2012.
Jaguars’ playoff fever. Catch it.
• Dallas has officially entered the nothing-left-to-lose stage of its season. And as it turns out, the only winner in the debacle that has unfolded during the Cowboys’ seven-game, season-killing losing streak is Tony Romo, because during his next contract negotiation, all he has to do is throw the tape from 2015 on the table and walk away. That’s how much his value has sky-rocketed in Dallas.
It doesn’t get much worse than Sunday’s 10-6 loss at Tampa Bay for the dysfunctional Cowboys, who had another Greg Hardy sideline display of leadership to overcome against the Bucs. Dallas went without an offensive touchdown for the third time this season, a feat it hadn’t endured since 2001. Dallas has been trying to hang on without the injured Romo at quarterback for two months now, and hasn’t had even a sniff of success. At 2-7, Dallas is technically still alive in the NFC East race, trailing the first-place Giants (5-5) by three games with seven left to play.
But even the mediocrity of the NFC East can’t save these Cowboys, whose season effectively ended when Romo broke his left collarbone in the third quarter of a Week 2 win at Philadelphia. Dallas gets Romo back for next week’s trip to Miami (4-5), and then has a very quick turnaround to play still-undefeated Carolina at home on Thanksgiving. And just like that, 2-7 could be 2-9. The Cowboys were in all but one game that Romo missed, either leading or being tied in the fourth quarter, but found a way to lose every one of them. And now that Romo is finally set to return, there’s not much of a season left to save.
• Bucs rookie quarterback Jameis Winston has played far better than he did against Dallas on Sunday, and he can’t be too happy with how sloppy and unsightly the Bucs' offense was for most of the game. But Winston found a way to get his team a late, comeback win and that’s enough to put a smiley face on what was a very ugly affair.
Winston threw a red-zone pick in the fourth quarter, had another interception on a poorly executed pass, and got bailed out when his disastrous goal-line fumble on the game-winning drive was negated by a Cowboys penalty on safety Jeff Heath. But the Bucs knew there were going to be ups and downs with Winston this season, and the bottom line is Tampa Bay is a decent 4-5 and has won three of its past five games. After last season’s 2-14 train wreck, that clearly passes for progress.
Winston at least displayed the resilience to keep plugging away against the Cowboys, finishing 22 of 39 for 264 yards, with the game-winning boot-leg touchdown on the ground. He threw for more than 200 of his yards in the second half.
• Really Greg Hardy? There was a mid-game sideline incident where you and teammate Demarcus Lawrence had to be separated? Is there anyone in the Dallas organization you won’t mix it up with? I’m sure Jason Garrett will get the desired results from having another talk with Hardy, telling him that he once again picked the wrong time and place to express his feelings. Because that has worked so flawlessly as a Cowboys stratagem this season.
• The Eagles' 20-19 loss at home to Miami was just a microcosm of their maddeningly inconsistent season. Nine games into Chip Kelly’s third year in Philadelphia, who really knows what he has with this team? The Eagles still seem to keep both teams in most every game they play. Up 16-3 and seemingly cruising to an easy win over a self-destructing Dolphins team, Philadelphia all but sleep-walked through the rest of the game, at least on offense.
And now quarterback Sam Bradford is hurt again, after just starting to show signs that he was finally growing comfortable in Kelly’s offense. Enter Mark Sanchez, and that’s always a wild and entertaining rollercoaster ride. Sanchez took over for Bradford, who has both a concussion and an injured left shoulder, late in the third quarter and produced his trademark helpings of the good, the bad and the ugly. Ultimately Sanchez’s interception by Reshad Jones in the end zone proved to be the play from which Philadelphia couldn’t recover.
Sanchez is probably a decent bet to play at least the next two games for the Eagles, who are home against Tampa Bay next week, and then travel to Detroit for a game four days later, on Thanksgiving. Even though the race is still tightly bunched in the NFC East, those are two games the Eagles have to win if they’re going to make a playoff push, and they now may have to entrust them to Sanchez.
• Gritty win for the Dolphins, a team you don’t think of as gritty too often. The best news for Miami was the superb game turned in by Ndamukong Suh, the big-money free-agent defensive tackle who was active up front all day long. Suh helped spark the Dolphins’ rally from a 13-point first-quarter deficit with his disruptive play, making seven tackles and a sack, and stressing the Eagles offensive line into several penalties.
Suh has been coming on strong since Dan Campbell took over as Miami’s interim head coach in Week 5, and has logged a sack in three of his past four games. The Dolphins defense stiffened against the Eagles after the first quarter, forcing a series of Philadelphia punts, and Suh was giving Miami its money’s worth from that point on.
• Got to give the Dolphins offense credit for this much: They’re bringing the safety back to the fore in the NFL. Miami has surrendered a safety in three consecutive games, and no team has done that since Seattle in 1980. The past two weeks, it has been a faulty shot-gun formation snap that cost the Dolphins two points. But this time Eagles cornerback Walter Thurmond blitzed Tannehill from the blindside and sacked him in the end zone, with the ball flying out of the back of the end zone. Tannehill can’t be taking a deep drop on that play, behind the Dolphins shaky offensive line.
• So much for the notion the Rams have one of the NFL’s best defenses. The visiting Bears embarrassed St. Louis 37-13, with Chicago’s big-play offense repeatedly exposing the Rams. Two thoughts on the Bears’ suddenly potent offense:
Chicago offensive coordinator Adam Gase is putting together one heck of a resume builder with the Bears this season. He has seemingly fixed quarterback Jay Cutler’s game and added great balance to Chicago’s attack. Bears fans best get used to the fact that Gase probably won’t be back in 2016, because he’ll be a head coach somewhere in the league.
And secondly, the Bears have to be thinking Jeremy Langford will be a pretty good replacement for running back Matt Forte, if Forte leaves via free agency next spring. Langford had one of the highlights of the day in the Chicago win, taking a short pass 83 yards for a touchdown, simply running away from the Rams defenders in the process. The rookie also added a six-yard scoring run in the rout, totaling 109 yards on seven catches, with 73 yards rushing on 20 attempts.
The Bears and Rams are both 4-5 through 10 weeks of the regular season, but suddenly Chicago feels like the only team among them that has any legitimate NFC wild-card hopes.
• Who I Like Tonight: The Bengals are well aware that current Texans QB Brian Hoyer led the Browns to a convincing primetime win in Paul Brown Stadium last November. So Cincinnati can’t take 3–5 Houston lightly, or Andy Dalton and Marvin Lewis will start to once again hear about how the Bengals tend to get quaky in big-stage night games. But even with the Texans having 15 days to prepare for this trip to Cincinnati, I expect the Bengals to make good use of their own 10-day break between games, and dispatch the upset-minded Houstonians with relative ease. And the magic carpet ride rolls on in the Queen City. Bengals 27, Texans 17.