GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we digest a backup-QB heavy Week 11 in the NFL, while keeping an eye on the Bengals–Cardinals Sunday night showdown at University of Phoenix Stadium ...
• I don’t care what it takes to keep Peyton Manning on the bench for another week—elephant sedative dart, shot via bamboo pole?—but the Broncos have to ride with Brock Osweiler until further notice. Case closed. And yes, that means sitting Manning at home next Sunday night against the still-unbeaten Patriots, even it deprives the NFL of its annual Brady–Manning-palooza. And I don’t think there will even be much debate within the Denver organization about the decision.
Osweiler, making his first NFL career start on his 25th birthday, wasn’t a revelation in the Broncos’ 17–15 win at Chicago. This wasn’t Tom Brady being unveiled to render Drew Bledsoe irrelevant in New England, circa 2001. But Osweiler was plenty good enough to keep the starting job, throwing for 250 yards on 20 of 27 passing, with two touchdowns and no interceptions. Why would you bench a quarterback with those statistics to play a 39-year-old who has thrown 17 interceptions in nine games this season? Especially one with declining arm strength and virtually no mobility?
Who do you think the Patriots would rather game plan for and face at this point: A quarterback they’ve never played against or the turnover-prone Manning, who can’t challenge a defense outside of the hashes much anymore? This is not the week to let Peyton talk his way back into the lineup, no matter how good he may say he’s feeling.
Playing in cold, windy conditions in Chicago, Osweiler took five sacks, but he looked very comfortable running coach Gary Kubiak’s offense, and Ronnie Hillman’s 102 yards rushing on 21 carries was a much-needed complement to Osweiler’s passing performance. About the only real negative I saw from Denver’s 6'8" starter in Soldier Field was that he got one of his big clod-hopper feet in front of Hillman on fouth-and-one from inside the Bears’ five-yard line, tripping the back and costing Denver a likely touchdown in the second half.
Seriously, this is a ridiculously easy call. Except for the task of navigating Manning’s ego. Remember, he’s dealing with multiple health issues at the moment (ribs, foot, and possibly some wounded pride), and one week off is definitely not going to address everything that ails him. I’m not saying Manning will never play again in Denver, because I don’t think anybody can see that far into the future in this rather delicate situation. But if they do want Manning to be in the best possible health to increase his chances of playing well in the playoffs, they can’t play him until he’s ready beyond a shadow of a doubt. And we’re nowhere near that point already.
Manning has not earned the benefit of the doubt this season. So for now, Denver has a new Brock star. And the Broncos absolutely have to keep him on stage until he plays his way off it.
• The Bears could have really had something going for themselves in the NFC wild-card race had they been able to knock off a Denver team that was extremely vulnerable on Sunday. Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler had been enjoying a renaissance of late, but the Bears left too many points on the field this time, with Cutler throwing an interception and losing a fumble, and settled again and again for Robbie Gould field goal attempts.
Chicago (4–6) was playing without three of its best play-making weapons in receivers Alshon Jeffery (groin/shoulder) and Eddie Royal (knee), as well as running back Matt Forte (knee), and that has to be taken into consideration. But that was a game the Bears could have and should have won, and at 5–5 they would have matched their 2014 win total after just 10 games, despite this season’s 0–3 start.
• The Packers reminded us of a time-tested truism in the NFL on Sunday: Champions usually don’t go down without a fight. And when they’re backed into a corner, they know how to respond. Everything seemed stacked against Green Bay coming into its NFC North showdown at Minnesota, and the pressure was all on the Packers, who have dominated the division in recent years.
So naturally Green Bay won easily, 30–13, to restore order to the universe in Titletown. The Vikings may still be the ascending team in this division, but they weren’t ready to compete with the Packers (7–3) when the stakes were raised. The teams will meet again in Week 17 at Lambeau Field, but Minnesota (7–3) isn’t likely to ever have a better chance to assume command in the NFC North than it had on Sunday at TCF Bank Stadium.
Green Bay won because some key elements to its game finally reappeared. The Packers’ pass rush totaled six sacks. The old Eddie Lacy made a comeback, gaining 100 yards on 22 carries, his first triple-digit effort of the season. And receiver James Jones played like the James Jones of September and early October, catching six passes for 109 yards and a superb touchdown grab.
As for the Vikings, I still see them making the playoffs for the first time in three years, but this was their chance to set themselves up for more than just a wild-card berth, and they didn’t look remotely up to the challenge. Minnesota has become the Cincinnati of the NFC, a team that isn’t known for playing its best when the lights are the brightest. The Vikings at 7–3 are not a disappointment, but Sunday represented a huge opportunity missed.
• The Chiefs continued their midseason resurgence, winning a fourth straight game and barely breaking a sweat in the process of reaching 5–5. Beating San Diego hardly registers as an accomplishment these days, but Kansas City’s 33–3 beatdown of the hapless Chargers served its purpose, getting the Chiefs back to .500 for the first time since they were 1–1 after a Week 2 loss to Denver.
And now the real fun should start, because Kansas City will likely be favored in all six of its remaining games, four of which are at home: Buffalo, at Oakland, San Diego, at Baltimore, Cleveland and Oakland. The Chargers, Ravens and Browns look like teams playing out the string, and the Raiders are reeling, with three losses in a row. Kansas City’s wild-card hopes look stronger than ever.
• After years of trying to identify him, it at last looks like the Seahawks have Marshawn Lynch’s eventual replacement on the roster in undrafted rookie running back Thomas Rawls. With Lynch out of the lineup and missing a third game this season, this time due to a lingering abdominal injury, Rawls gave Seattle quite the glimpse of the future, running 30 times for 209 yards in the Seahawks’ 29–13 win over visiting San Francisco. Rawls also chipped in with 46 yards on three receptions and totaled four gains of at least 20 yards, and now there’s no rush to get Lynch back in the lineup. Lynch will reportedly see a specialist in Philadelphia on Monday regarding his abdominal injury.
Score another one for the science of the NFL draft. Rawls wasn’t deemed to have enough potential to warrant even a seventh-round pick by any of the league’s 32 teams, and now he may be the horse Seattle rides to a playoff berth.
• When Jameis Winston and the Buccaneers looked dreadful in their opener, a 28-point loss at home to the Titans, it looked like it could be a very long season for the No. 1 pick in the draft. But flash ahead 10 weeks, and Tampa Bay just laid a 28-point whipping on the embarrassed Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field, with Winston playing like an absolute stud: a rookie-record-tying five touchdown passes to five different receivers, with 246 yards passing and a 131.6 passer rating in the 45–17 win.
The Bucs have come a long way offensively this season, and suddenly they’re capable of rolling up a gaudy 531-yard day, highlighted by Winston’s feats and a 235-yard rushing performance by resurgent running back Doug Martin. Tampa Bay squeaked past the Cowboys 10–6 last week at home but then drilled the Eagles, winning consecutive games for the first time since Weeks 10–12 in 2013, to end the longest such drought in the NFL.
Who’s going to look forward to facing these Bucs, who are 5–5 and suddenly just a game behind second-place Atlanta (6–4) in the NFC South, in the season’s backstretch? They look dangerous, and the only winning opponents they face in the season’s final six games are the slumping Falcons at home in Week 13 and the Panthers at Carolina in Week 17—when the Panthers might have little to play for (providing they’re not still undefeated, of course).
After that gut-wrenching 31–30 loss at Washington in Week 7, when they blew a 24–0 lead to Kirk “You like that?!!” Cousins, the Bucs have been a very tough out. Tampa Bay coach Lovie Smith told the team’s fans not to give up on his young club at that point, and he has proven prescient, with the Bucs going 3–1 since then. Winston has indeed been a quick study, and the mistakes he made earlier in the season are not being repeated. From Week 1 to Week 11, no one in the NFL has shown more improvement than the first player selected in this year’s draft.
• If Chip Kelly didn’t know before, he knows now. This NFL coaching gig isn’t going to be a magic-carpet ride after all. Kelly lost six games in his first season in Philadelphia, and six more in his second. It’s Year Three, and Kelly has already logged his annual six losses, with six weeks still to play in 2015. Ouch.
The Eagles were dismantled defensively by Tampa Bay in Sunday’s 45–17 loss—the worst defeat of Kelly’s 43-game tenure—and that makes it consecutive home losses the past two weeks to the warm-weather Dolphins and Bucs, a pair of clubs that haven’t made the playoffs since 2008 and 2007, respectively, and are a combined 9–11 this season. After that hope-inducing 37–31 overtime win at Dallas in Week 9 to finally get Philadelphia to .500, the Eagles have again swooned and now appear to be playoff-contending impostors.
Philadelphia fans eventually are going to look back on Kelly’s first two 10–6 seasons in town as the good old days. The Bucs, meanwhile, haven’t looked this good on the road since they stormed into Veterans Stadium and ruined the Eagles’ final game in that building in the 2002 season’s NFC Championship Game. What a bitter memory brought back by Sunday’s rout.
• So much for the “Mark Sanchez could win this job” chatter. The Eagles’ backup didn’t do anything to make the injured Sam Bradford fear for his immediate job security, throwing three interceptions against the Bucs, including a late-game pick-six to Tampa Bay linebacker Lavonte David. Sanchez has always been too careless with the ball, and this time he didn’t even tease Eagles fans with a strong start to his starting stint, the way he did in going 4–4 as the team’s No. 1 quarterback last year in place of the injured Nick Foles.
Sanchez will no doubt start again for Philly, which has a short-week road game at Detroit on Thanksgiving. But unless he lights up the suddenly feisty Lions, Sanchez will probably head back to the bench once Bradford’s concussion and shoulder issues are resolved.
• Pretty sure the Falcons and Jets won’t be voting in favor of the 17- or 18-game season any time soon. In fact, if it were possible, Atlanta and New York would opt to shorten the 2015 schedule, because both clubs are gasping and wheezing at the 10-game mark after very strong starts.
Remember the time when Atlanta was 5–0 and the Jets stood 4–1, with rookie head coaches Dan Quinn and Todd Bowles being lauded far and wide for immediately turning around the fortunes of those two floundering franchises? It was called October.
Since their high-water marks, the Falcons and Jets are a combined 2–8, with Atlanta having lost four out of five to slip to 6–4 and New York losing four out of five to fall back to .500 at 5–5. Both teams appear to be intent on playing their way out of wild-card contention and are furiously backpedaling.
The Falcons are the biggest disappointment, because they have a franchise quarterback in Matt Ryan. Atlanta twice had a 14-point lead at home over the struggling Colts on Sunday but still found a way to lose 24–21, with Ryan throwing three picks to go with his three touchdown passes. Ryan’s worst blunder was his horrible game-tying, six-yard pick-six to Colts linebacker D’Qwell Jackson with just more than 10 minutes remaining. Jackson apparently made himself invisible to Ryan on the play, because the ninth-year veteran threw it right to him.
The Jets have their own quarterbacking Ryan problems. Ryan Fitzpatrick’s magic is starting to wear off. The Jets went on the road to Houston and lost 24–17, even though the Texans were starting their third quarterback of the season in T.J. Yates.
Fitzpatrick is losing steam the more he plays this season. He just lost consecutive games to two of the teams he used to play for, helping to explain somewhat why he’s no longer employed by the Bills or Texans.
• The Colts might want to consider pulling a trick out of Denver’s bag and not letting Andrew Luck back on the field, even when his lacerated kidney has healed. I mean, Indy is 3–0 when 40-year-old Matt Hasselbeck starts, and why mess with that kind of success?
Hasselbeck was far from perfect in the road win in the Georgia Dome, throwing his first two interceptions of the season. But he came through with a 23 of 32 passing day, for 213 yards and two touchdowns to go with his two picks. And when the Colts caught Atlanta at 21–21, Hasselbeck led a nine-play, 56-yard drive to set up Adam Vinatieri’s 43-yard game winning field with 57 seconds remaining.
Vinatieri, 42, and Hasselbeck, 40, are combining to keep the Colts in a very old and familiar position: first place. At 5–5, Indy is tied with Houston but holds the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Texans thanks to its Week 5 win in Houston.
• From the I’m-due-back-on-planet-earth-now files, Washington defensive end Jason Hatcher spouted off about the officials calling penalties on his team in a 44–16 loss at Carolina. It’s not rare for a player to take exception with the referee’s calls, of course, but it is kind of quirky for him to blame it on what Hatcher blamed it on: blowback against Washington’s controversial team nickname on the part of the officials.
“I’m not saying this out of character to get fined, but it is what it is,” Hatcher said to the Washington Post. “I don’t know if it’s about the name or what, but at the same time, we play football too. We work our butt off too. Don’t single us out. At the end of the day, it’s the name. Don’t worry about the name—[we're] players and we work our butt off too. I’m just frustrated with it. We shouldn’t have to be punished for that. It’s been every game, calls after calls that should’ve been made in our favor, but it goes to them. It’s just not right.”
Here’s something else that’s just not right: Hatcher’s mind-bogglingly asinine assertion. Games, especially games decided by a margin of 28 points, aren’t being influenced by officials who want to make a statement about Washington’s nickname. Simply not happening. And to think otherwise is to create your own alternate reality.
• Enough positive chatter about the Raiders, who have really started to crater. Until further notice, even with all that youth and potential, they’re still the Raiders. Oakland lost 18–13 at Detroit on Sunday, dropping its third in a row to fall to 4–6. If Jack Del Rio’s club can’t handle beating the Lions on the road, we’re not prepared to take them seriously as a wild-card contender in the AFC.
Losing at Pittsburgh and at home against the improved Vikings is one thing, but the Raiders letting a 13–9 fourth-quarter lead get away from them in Detroit is cause for real concern. This is a team that doesn’t know how to finish yet, with the Lions outscoring Oakland 9–0 in the final 15 minutes. The Raiders (4–6) have been outscored 66–17 in their past five fourth quarters, and in a related development, second-year quarterback Derek Carr continues to struggle mightily in the red zone, which is another manifestation of not finishing.
At 4–3, Oakland looked ready to assert itself in the season’s second half. Instead, it has dropped off the map. And who knows when the bleeding will stop? At this point, a 4–12 collapse is still a possibility for the Raiders.
• Thoughts on the Return of Romo: Dallas looked so much better on offense with Tony Romo under center in a 24–14 win at Miami, but then, how could the Cowboys not improve after the largely ineffective seven-game stint of Brandon Weeden and Matt Cassel? Romo could have thrown exclusively with his left arm—he was 1 of 1 in that department against the Dolphins—and Dallas would have still taken a step forward.
But I’m still not convinced the win against the Dolphins will mean anything in the long run for these Cowboys (3–7), other than that they won’t go 2–14. Dallas plays at home Thursday against Carolina, the best team in the NFC. Then there’s a tough trip to Washington (where Jay Gruden’s team is 4–1 in front of the home crowd this season) on the Monday night of Week 13, followed by a road game in Green Bay, where Dallas’s season came to such a disheartening end in last January’s playoffs. That looks like 4–9 at best to me, and even in this year’s mild, mild NFC East, that won’t get you anywhere.
Lastly, so glad to hear Jerry Jones had a long talk with Greg Hardy about his defensive end’s routinely offensive behavior. One question: What took so long? Wonder if the Cowboys owner is familiar with the phrase “shutting the barn door after the horse is gone”.
• It’s getting harder all the time to see Ryan Tannehill as the Dolphins’ franchise quarterback of the future. When has Tannehill ever really elevated his play and kept it there for any length of time? He’s not bad, but he’s rarely if ever great. Tannehill threw an awful pick-six to Dallas linebacker Rolando McClain in Miami’s 10–point home loss to the Cowboys, who entered the weekend with an NFL-worst seven-game losing streak.
He’s not a difference-making quarterback, he’s a place-holder quarterback. He threw for 188 yards with two scores and an interception against Dallas, but he left a lot of plays on the field, and Miami’s offense was a miserable 1 of 10 on third downs. Not that won-loss records for quarterbacks tell us the whole story—far from it—but Tannehill is now a very mediocre 27–31 in his first 58 starts in Miami, and the 4–6 Dolphins appear headed for their fourth straight non-winning season with him under center.
• Dance away, Cam Newton. Life is one big party when you’re 10–0. And get this: Carolina may not do the unthinkable and rip off a perfect regular season, but the Panthers have already accomplished something close to perfection in their past 16 games, including the playoffs. Since starting last December with a 3-8-1 record, the Panthers are 15–1, winning 14 straight regular-season games and going 1–1 in the playoffs.
Raise your hand if you saw that coming. And the Panthers have even avenged that lone loss, winning this season in Seattle, where their season died in the NFC divisional round.
Every week seems to bring a new high for Carolina and Newton. In their 44–17 win over visiting Washington, the Panthers continued their transformation into an offensive juggernaut, with Newton throwing a career-best five touchdown passes in the first 31-plus minutes of the game. He had never even tossed four touchdowns in a game before, but Newton managed that many in the first half. Newton’s scoring passes went to five receivers, and Carolina’s 31 points in the first half were a team record.
Party on, Panthers. Party on.
• Sadly, the Ravens’ lost 2015 season will bleed over into 2016, and perhaps dramatically impact next year in Baltimore. That’s the distinct possibility with quarterback Joe Flacco being lost for the year with both ACL and MCL tears in his left knee, suffered late in the Ravens’ 16–13 home win against St. Louis.
Flacco has yet to miss a game after being drafted in 2008’s first round, making 122 straight starts, the fifth-longest streak in league history. But now he’ll miss the final six games this season, and could face a difficult and tight timetable to be ready for the start of next year.
Will the last offensive starter in Baltimore to head for the IR list please hit the lights on the way out? Flacco will join receiver Steve Smith, tight end Dennis Pitta, receiver Breshad Perriman, center Jeremy Zuttah and running back Justin Forsett as recent IR designees. Forsett broke his arm in the first quarter against the Rams and also will be lost for the season.
What a long, strange and depressing season it has been in Baltimore. And with Ravens backup quarterback Matt Schaub now forced into the lineup, at least three years past his last successful stint as a starter, there’s no end to the misery in sight.
• Um, now what, Rams? You wanted to see Case Keenum at quarterback and he was positively Nick Foles-eque in Baltimore: 12 of 26 for a paltry 136 yards, with one touchdown and one fumble lost. The Rams had four turnovers (all fumbles) and just 213 yards of offense, failing to take advantage of 10 Baltimore penalties. At one point in the first half, Keenum was 3 of 12 for 31 yards passing.
The quarterback dilemma never ends in St. Louis. Only the names change. And another Rams season swirls down the tubes. St. Louis is 4–6, has dropped three in a row and faces a daunting trip to Cincinnati next week. The Rams know their way home to six or seven wins from here.
• Who I Like Tonight: I don’t always get Rex Ryan’s thinking, but I have to admit him conceding the AFC East to New England doesn’t break any unwritten rules in my book. Ryan on Thursday: “Right now we are second in the division. ... Does that give us an opportunity to win the division? No. They are going to win the division. I don’t see them losing four games. I hope I am wrong but I don’t see it happening.” He’s not wrong, and he’s not wrong to say it, even if no other coach in the NFL would have expressed those thoughts. The Bills are only in the AFC wild-card race, and that’s reality. And come late Monday night or early Tuesday morning, it’ll be even more apparent than it is now. Patriots 31, Bills 22.