DENVER — Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we desperately try to keep track of all that 5–6 or 6–5 mediocrity out there, while awaiting Sunday night’s intriguing and inaugural Brady versus Brock matchup in the wintry conditions at Sports Authority Field...
• Behold the NFC East. Otherwise known as a mess of the NFL’s making. Three months of the league’s 2015 regular season is in the books, and does any division typify the underwhelming product we’ve seen from the NFL this year more so than the bedraggled NFC East, a division that now doubles as the theatre of the absurd?
Ladies and gentlemen, your first-place Washington Snyders. They’re under .500 at 5–6, haven’t won two in a row or a road game all season, and have been outscored 267–241 in their 11 games. But hey, get your playoff tickets while they last. FedEx Field is going to be nuts.
No surprise that we’re here. Of course we’re here. You could see this sort of train wreck coming all along. This is what Washington’s 20–14 home-field victory over the hopelessly inconsistent Giants on a chilly Sunday in Landover, Md., has wrought: another five weeks of watching the four NFC East teams bungle their way through games, with one lucky and lovable loser eventually rewarded with a division title, the NFC’s No. 4 seed, and a home game in the first round of January’s playoffs.
Which brings us to our annual discussion of one of my major pet peeves with the NFL: the league’s laughably misguided playoff seeding format, which rewards division titles above all else, competency included. The NFL continues to believe that it’s a good thing if clubs like Washington make the playoffs and host a home game at 7–9 or 8–8, while a wild-card qualifier hits the road with a better record. True, in this year’s NFC, finding teams with quality records isn’t easy. Only six teams boast winning records through 12 weeks, but the disaster that the NFC East has been this season looks almost certain to re-ignite this debate. At the moment, 5–6 Washington would get a visit from No. 5 seed Green Bay (7–4), even if logic would seem to be stood on its head by that pairing.
And remember, the last three examples of this form of NFL inequality have all made very good use of their gift seeding, with the 2010 Seahawks (7–9), 2011 Broncos (8–8) and 2014 Panthers (7-8-1) all winning their first-round home games against teams with considerably better records.
Washington’s “success” equates to being the best of the worst in the league’s most unwatchable division. Congratulations. But as this weekend showed us in vivid fashion, the NFC East hardly deserves center stage this year. The Eagles (4–7) went to Detroit and got embarrassed 45–14 by the previously 3–7 Lions on Thanksgiving, dropping their third in a row. The Cowboys (3–8) stayed home for the holiday, but were blown out 33–14 by the undefeated Panthers, losing for the eighth time in nine games.
And then on Sunday, the Giants (5–6) for more than three quarters played as if they didn’t know their bye week had ended, punting seven times and committing three turnovers on their first 10 possessions of the game. New York rallied with a pair of late touchdowns, but Washington held on and is now the unlikely favorite in a division that was once the league’s gold standard. The NFC East still sets the pace of sorts, but in the opposite direction. And every week this season has seemingly brought a new bottoming out.
How ridiculous is the East? The Eagles, who have almost flown a white flag in giving up 90 points in their past two games, are just a game behind Washington and New York. The Cowboys’ lost season keeps reaching new depths, with quarterback Tony Romo gone for good with another injury to his left clavicle, but you can’t sink so low as to not be in the NFC East race. Dallas is a mere two games behind with five games left to play.
Do you believe in miracles? I mean, even if a mercy killing would be more compassionate?
The reality is somebody has to win the exercise in futility that is the NFC East, and I guess it might as well be Washington, the team that has bubble-wrapped its former franchise quarterback all season long and gone with Kirk Cousins, who now seems like the guy in line for a contract extension. This preseason, Jay Gruden’s team was the only one in the division not given a chance to rule this motley group, so naturally it will probably prevail. It has been that kind of year in the NFC East, a division that has become symbolic of the unimpressive football we’ve seen so far in 2015.
• Credit the Cardinals for finding a way to get their ninth win despite a pretty stout defensive showing by the 49ers, but the real takeaway from this game is the realization that San Francisco should have been starting Blaine Gabbert at quarterback a lot sooner than it actually did.
Tyrann Mathieu was right. Gabbert gave Arizona’s defense a lot more trouble in the Cardinals’ 19–13 victory in Santa Clara than Colin Kaepernick did in a 47–7 loss in Glendale in Week 3. Gabbert was a crisp 25 of 36 for 318 yards, with one touchdown and one interception against Arizona. Had the 49ers started him four weeks or so earlier, they’d probably be in the mild, mild NFC wild-card race as December arrives.
• Well that was different, watching the Seahawks win an absolute shootout even though Seattle’s proud defense was riddled by Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The Seahawks asked Russell Wilson to win the game, and he was more than up to the task, throwing for a career-best five touchdowns on his 27th birthday. Seattle’s 39–30 win over the Steelers was a back-and-forth thriller, and reportedly the first game Wilson had ever won when the Seahawks’ opponent scored 25 points or more.
Maybe that’s the way it’s going to have to be down the season’s backstretch for this edition of Pete Carroll’s club: Wilson and the offense pulling the heaviest weight, even with running back Marshawn Lynch out of the lineup and tight end Jimmy Graham lost for the season with a ruptured patella tendon against Pittsburgh. In home wins over the 49ers and Steelers the past two weeks, Wilson has been on fire, with 41 of 55 passing, for 466 yards, eight touchdowns and nary a pick.
Seattle’s defense may not like the new winning formula, but what choice does it have? Roethlisberger had his way with the Seahawks’ pass defense, throwing for 456 yards on 36 of 55 passing, with a touchdown and two interceptions. If Seattle can out-gun opponents, that may be the path it has to take to a fourth consecutive playoff trip. Next week’s road trip to Minnesota is a vital game in the NFC wild-card chase, but Seattle (6–5) may be in the process of creating a new identity for itself out of sheer necessity.
• Memo to Rams coach Jeff Fisher: Who really cares whether it’s effort or execution that is lacking with your reeling team? The bottom line is St. Louis stinks yet again. And that’s all on Fisher.
The Rams were blown out 31–7 at Cincinnati, dropping their fourth straight game after that hopeful 4–3 start to the season. The team that beat the Seahawks and Cardinals earlier this season is nowhere to be found. Afterward, Fisher bristled at questions about his team’s effort, saying: “Anyone implies that it’s an effort issue, they can kiss my ass. There’s no effort problems on this team. That’s what happens when teams lose four in a row is people say it’s effort. ... It’s execution. It’s 70% offense and 30% defense.”
Fisher’s point may be technically correct, but it isn’t an argument winner. The Rams are 4–7, and they weren’t even competitive against the Bengals, with Nick Foles rejoining the lineup and throwing three more interceptions. St. Louis is now 24-34-1 under Fisher, who was hired in 2012, and his record has slipped a bit each year since his team went 7-8-1 that first season. Effort or execution, Fisher hasn’t made the difference in St. Louis and doesn’t deserve the job security he seemingly has stockpiled.
• It had the feel of one of those “It figures” weeks in the NFL, and nowhere were the missed opportunities any more glaring than in Jacksonville and Tampa Bay. The Jaguars and Bucs haven’t made the playoffs since 2007, and both were starting to look like contenders after recent two-game winning streaks. But then Jacksonville (4–7) lost 31–25 at home to the woeful Chargers, and Tampa Bay (5-6) returned to earth with a 25–12 road loss at Indianapolis.
The Bucs had a 12–6 lead at halftime and then went scoreless in the second half. The Jaguars led 6–0 and 9–7 in the first half but kept settling for field goals instead of scoring touchdowns in the red zone. In summary, neither young team looked ready to win the kind of game that could have been a springboard for the rest of their season and made December very interesting for a change.
• What a remarkable run Matt Hasselbeck is on when we least expected it. He’s 4–0 as a Colts starter in place of the injured Andrew Luck this season, and that matches his age, which also happens to be the big 4-0, as in 40. In a related development, Indy at 6–5 is back over .500 for the first time since being 3–2.
Hasselbeck was a sharp 26 of 42 for 315 yards, with two touchdowns and no interceptions. And the more action he sees this season, the better he looks. He’s playing like it’s 2005 again, when he quarterbacked Seattle to the Super Bowl. Astoundingly, the Colts have been a markedly better team this season when Luck has been sidelined and Hasselbeck has been forced to play.
Brett Favre, Warren Moon and Hasselbeck are the only quarterbacks to win at least three games in a row at 40 or older, and who knows where this story is headed from here? Indy can take its time and make sure Luck’s lacerated kidney is fully healed before he returns to the field, because Hasselbeck has this thing under control. More so than anyone in their wildest dreams could have anticipated, Hasselbeck included.
• The Vikings gutted out another low-scoring win in Atlanta, and that’s a great sign, because that’s who they are this season. Minnesota (8–3) beat the Falcons 20–10, with Adrian Peterson rushing 29 times for 158 tough yards, and now Mike Zimmer’s club is right back in charge in the NFC North, a game ahead of the puzzling Packers (7–4).
What a difference a week makes in the Vikings’ outlook, after their 30–13 meltdown at home against Green Bay last week seemingly deflated the team’s fan base. Minnesota has already bested its 2014 win total of seven games, and Sunday’s game plan signaled that whenever the Vikings need to return to their identity this season, they’re going to feed Peterson the ball all game long.
Oh, and I love those purple pants that the Vikings rocked on Sunday in the Georgia Dome. I think those made all the difference.
• As for the Falcons, where’s bottom? From 5–0 to 6–5 has the feel of free-fall. Atlanta has lost its past three home games and now embarks on a three-game road trip to Tampa Bay, Carolina and Jacksonville. The Bucs already beat Atlanta in the Georgia Dome this season, the Panthers are 11–0 and look unstoppable, and you have to wonder how much the Falcons' game at Jacksonville will even matter if they’re 6–7 at that point.
There was an agonizing play in the Falcons’ loss that could serve to sum up Atlanta’s past seven weeks or so when rookie running back Tevin Coleman was chased down in the open field by linebacker Anthony Barr, who proceeded to strip Coleman of the ball. The Falcons were way out ahead in the race for a playoff berth at one point this season, but have lost their grip in disastrous fashion.
• No team showed me more mettle in Week 12 than the Chiefs, who trailed 10–0 and 16–7 at home to the Bills, in the rain at Arrowhead Stadium, but still managed to get their act together and post a crucial 30–22 win that gives Kansas City a leg up over Buffalo in the AFC wild-card race.
The 17 unanswered points the Chiefs scored in this game were their most important of the season. Kansas City lost its most dominant player, linebacker Justin Houston, with a first-half knee injury. But it didn’t wilt or go into its shell offensively. The Chiefs went deep more than they have all season, and receiver Jeremy Maclin responded to the challenge, catching nine passes for 160 yards and a touchdown, many of those receptions against promising Bills rookie cornerback Ronald Darby.
At 6–5, with five wins in a row, the Chiefs will sneak up on no one from this point on. But then again, that may not matter, since Kansas City’s final five opponents all currently have losing records, with the 5–6 Raiders being the best of the bunch.
• A few leftover thoughts about that less-than-scintillating three-game football feast on Thanksgiving Day....
— Raise your hand if you had Green Bay in the past three weeks losing at home to the Lions and Bears but winning at Minnesota? Suddenly nothing makes sense as we have known it for years now in the NFC North.
Believe it or not, the Lions are the hottest team in the division, and the Bears aren’t far behind on the momentum meter. After becoming a national running joke on Thanksgiving, with 11 holiday home losses in the 12 years from 2001 to 2012, Detroit has blown out the Packers, Bears and Eagles the past three Turkey Days. Lions coach Jim Caldwell has gone from being asked about his job security to being asked about making a belated run at a playoff berth in the span of about 15 minutes.
And Michigan families everywhere are considering Jim Bob among the potential names for their next male child.
— How strange has the season been in the NFC North? The Packers started 6–0 but are now 7–4 and grasping for answers. The Lions were 1–7, basically cleaned house, and have since gone 3–0. The Bears were 0–3 and looked out-classed in September, but have won five of eight since and lost by three points to Detroit in overtime, by three points to Minnesota and by two points to Denver. Chicago is about 10 points away from being 8–3 with eight wins in a row.
And consider this: If the Lions prevail at home against the reeling Packers on Thursday night, Detroit—remarkably enough—would be just two games behind Green Bay with four weeks remaining and would own the head-to-head tiebreaker by virtue of sweeping the season series against the Cheeseheads for the first time since 1991. What in the name of Wayne Fontes is going on here?
— Remember when conventional wisdom held that it really didn’t matter who played quarterback in Chip Kelly’s offense in Philadelphia, because it was such a QB-friendly system that anyone could roll up big passing numbers? Yeah, 2013 and the first three months of the 2014 season were fun.
Now any quarterback who has had anything to do with Kelly’s Eagles seems devalued by the experience. Nick Foles was benched a couple weeks ago in St. Louis. Michael Vick languishes on the sideline in Pittsburgh. Mark Sanchez again looks like a turnover-machine who can’t win games. Matt Barkley is still just a No. 3 quarterback, albeit in Arizona now. And Sam Bradford is back to being both inconsistent and injury-riddled, the same fate he suffered for five years in St. Louis.
Thus, some updated conventional wisdom: It really doesn’t matter who plays quarterback in Kelly’s offense, it’s basically a career-killer. A year ago this weekend, Philly stood 9–3, was fresh off a blowout win at Dallas on Thanksgiving and seemed to be one of the teams to watch in the playoffs. But the Eagles went 1–3 down the stretch, missed the postseason altogether and are just 5–10 overall (you could almost call them a dime-store team) in their past 15 games. And at this point it’s entirely reasonable to question whether Kelly will stick it out for a fourth season in the NFL, or whether Eagles owner Jeff Lurie even wants him back.
— Here’s the worst news for the rest of the NFC: Carolina doesn’t just win these days, the Panthers roll their opponents. Carolina’s first eight victories this season were by an average margin of 7.9 points, or a one-score game. But in the Panthers’ past three victories, they’ve prevailed by 17, 28 and 19 points, or 21.3 points per game. With that Carolina defense, a three-touchdown margin feels about as secure as a 10-touchdown cushion.
— So much for the delusion that Dallas would pick up all the pieces and put Humpty Dumpty back together again once Tony Romo returned to the lineup. I never thought it was likely to begin with, but Romo’s pick-fest and subsequent season-ending re-injury against the Panthers quickly put the lie to that scenario. With or without Romo, the Cowboys were a flawed team this season. Then again, they were trying to win a deeply flawed NFC East, so maybe that’s where all those false hopes originated.
Job one for Jerry Jones’s club next season? Trying to generate something of a homefield advantage, which the Cowboys really haven’t had since they left Texas Stadium and moved into Jerry World in 2009. Dallas’s woes at home have reached the critical stage. They’ve lost five in a row at home this season (1–5 there overall), eight out of 10, and 11 out of 16 since December 2013. The Cowboys used to love the edge they owned at home on Thanksgiving Day, but not anymore. Dallas is just 3–4 at AT&T Stadium on Thanksgiving, with three losses in the past four seasons.
• I’m not sure many expected the Saints to win in Houston on Sunday, but I’m pretty certain everyone liked their chances of scoring a touchdown. New Orleans’s offense has been the bright spot this season, while its historically bad defense has drawn most of the criticism.
But against a Texans defense that is suddenly playing up to its talent-laden reputation, the Saints were dominated in a 24–6 loss, going without a touchdown for the first time in 156 games—the second-longest such streak in NFL history. Drew Brees saw his 45-game streak of throwing at least one touchdown pass end as well. New Orleans totaled just 268 yards of offense, and it never felt as if the Saints were in the game.
Houston has won four in a row and five of six to scratch its way to 6–5, remaining tied with Indianapolis for the lead in the AFC South. And say what you will about the league’s second-weakest division, at least it features two winning teams at this point. That’s two more than the NFC East.
The Texans have two challenging games just ahead: at Buffalo in Week 13 and home against New England in Week 14. But if they can hang in there for another couple weeks, the division title might be on the line and there for the taking at Indianapolis in Week 15. Even on the road, I’ll take the Texans’ defense to stifle the Colts about now.
• I’m giving Jacksonville quarterback Blake Bortles the “Dan Orlovsky Field Awareness” award this week, for being a good two yards past the line of scrimmage (which was the Chargers 7) when he fired a touchdown pass to receiver Allen Robinson in the second quarter of the Jaguars’ home loss to San Diego. The play was flagged and called back.
And then—and I am not making this up—Bortles did the same thing in the third quarter from roughly the same spot on the field. Again, a touchdown pass, this time to Julius Thomas, was negated. Talk about NFL records that will never be broken.
• Who I Like Tonight: Joe Flacco has been so good for so long in Baltimore that we almost forget what a train wreck the Ravens used to be at quarterback. Where are you now, Kyle Boller? Tony Banks? Chris Redman? Elvis Grbac? The nation will be treated to the return of Matt Schaub Monday night in Cleveland, and now we don’t even have Johnny Manziel in the Browns’ lineup to keep things interesting. Tune in to see if the Browns can earn their third win, or the Ravens their fourth. That’s the most compelling storyline we can muster up. Browns 17, Ravens 13.