NFL Week 5 Blanket: Believe in the Falcons, because they're legitimate NFC contenders
- It's time to stop questioning the Falcons, they're the real deal. Meanwhile, the Bills are alive again, and though Dak Prescott continues to be solid, the Cowboys are still Tony Romo's team.
You could have called Week 5 “Show Me Sunday” because we learned a lot. We saw that Tom Brady and the Patriots can pick up where they left off, that the Falcons and Vikings are legit NFC contenders, and that the Redskins, Lions, Colts, Titans and Bills aren’t dead yet. The Eagles and Broncos aren’t perfect and have issues that can be exploited, the Texans, Ravens and Bengals are foundering and need to right the ship quickly, and it’s time to start planning for 2017 for the Chargers, Jets, Dolphins and Bears. How quickly things can come into focus in the NFL. Now, a look back at the action:
Your resident “Wet Blanket of Reason” takes the temperature of the most intriguing storylines out of Week 5 of the 2016 NFL season:
Go crazy, folks:
Falcons are officially for real: It was one thing for Atlanta to start 3–1, even with an impressive victory against the Panthers. After all, this was a Falcons team that started 5–0 last season and finished 8–8. But for Atlanta to go on the road, into one of the toughest places to play in the NFL and emerge with a dominating 23–16 victory that wasn’t nearly that close? Oh, the Falcons are very much for real and have to be viewed as one of the NFC favorites, along with the Vikings (5–0) and Seahawks (3–1). It was somewhat impressive for the Falcons’ defense to shut down the Broncos, although it was somewhat expected with rookie QB Paxton Lynch making his first start for Denver. But the most impressive aspect was Atlanta’s offense against that defense in that setting. The Falcons only had two of their first nine possessions go three-and-out and put together drives of 75, 54, 75, 52 and 68 yards to build a 23–6 lead midway through the fourth quarter. Have to show respect to the Falcons’ previously maligned offensive line, which has become a strength this season (two sacks allowed on Sunday). And with running backs Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman combining for 167 yards receiving, the Falcons have become very difficult to defend with Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu on the outside.
Dolphins are a sieve: According to overthecap.com, the Dolphins’ defensive line accounts for $38.6 million of the team’s salary cap, which is the second-highest figure in the league (Jaguars, $40.3 million). The line accounts for over half the defense’s total cap, and is nearly double the next-highest positional group on the team (offensive line, $23.9 million). Among the shrewd moves by executive vice president of football operations Mike Tannenbaum has been giving a $114 million contract to Ndamukong Suh and signing Mario Williams instead of retaining Olivier Vernon, who landed with the Giants. In Sunday’s 30–17 home loss to the Titans, which dropped Miami to 1–4, Tennessee rushed for 235 yards, 13 first downs and held the ball for 36:44. The Dolphins are 28th in total yards allowed and 29th in rushing yards per attempt. What, exactly are they paying for?
Bengals are struggling: With the 24–18 loss to the Cowboys, Cincinnati has dropped to 2–3, its worst start since 2010 when a 2–3 start gave way to a 4–12 season. Help is not on the way, as next week the Bengals have to travel to New England to face Tom Brady in his first home game since his suspension. The most disappointing part of the Bengals? Their offensive line, which allowed four sacks and another five quarterback hits against the pass rush-challenged Cowboys. The Bengals’ line has too much experience and talent. They need to be much better.
Bills are dealing: Rex isn’t dead yet, not after three-straight wins by a combined score of 79–37 over the Cardinals, Patriots and Rams for the first three-game winning streak by the Bills since 2011. The Cardinals were struggling when they came to Buffalo, the Patriots started Jacoby Brissett and the Rams always need to be closer to .500, but with the 49ers and Dolphins on deck, the Fighting Rexes could be 5–2 soon. After that, they’ll enter their proving ground with a home rematch against the Patriots (this time with Tom Brady), and back-to-back road games at Seattle and Cincinnati. But that’s for later. Right now the Bills are playing exactly how they’d draw it up: Tyrod Taylor is taking care of the ball and making plays, LeSean McCoy is in a groove, and the defense is finally playing RexBall. Look past the Bills at your own risk.
Coates makes Steelers even more dangerous: He’s had some issues consistently catching the ball, but Sammie Coates looks like he’s finally ready to emerge as a viable complement to Antonio Brown after roasting the Jets with six receptions for 139 yards and two touchdowns, including a 72-yard score. Ben Roethlisberger believes in Coates, and that’s a very good thing for Pittsburgh.
Jim Caldwell feels emotion! Whether his team is playing good, bad or ugly, Lions coach Jim Caldwell usually just blinks on the sideline. But with his team at 1–3 and his future in doubt, Caldwell pulled his best Rex Ryan imitation when he jumped up and pointed in Detroit’s direction after Darius Slay punched the ball out of the hands of Eagles RB Ryan Mathews with 2:34 remaining. The turnover set up the Lions’ game-winning field goal in their 24–23 victory. Go on with your bad self, Jim.
Gronk is back: Yeah, that Tom Brady guy returned from suspension and looked pretty good (406 yards, three touchdowns) and tight end Martellus Bennett caught all three touchdown passes. But the best news for the Patriots’ prospects is that Rob Gronkowski looked like his old self, catching five passes for 109 yards, including a 37-yarder where he broke several tackles, and his block keyed LeGarrette Blount’s touchdown in the Patriots’ 33–13 victory over the winless Browns. Up until Sunday, Gronkowski was still recovering from a hamstring injury and looked like a shell of himself. After Sunday, future Patriots opponents should again be very worried.
Slow your roll:
Still Romo’s team: Rookie Dak Prescott continued to be impressive (18 of 24 for 227 yards, one touchdown throwing and rushing) subbing for injured starter Tony Romo as the Cowboys ran their record to 4–1 heading into a showdown with the Packers at Lambeau Field with a 28–14 victory over the Bengals. Prescott, along with rookie RB Ezekiel Elliott (15 rushes for 134 yards and two touchdowns) continued to have the Cowboys thriving, even without WR Dez Bryant, and that will lead to a lot of calls for Prescott to remain the starter once Romo returns, perhaps this week (the smart move would be to bring Romo back after the Week 7 bye). Prescott has been a great story and may indeed be the Cowboys’ starter at some point this season, but Romo at least deserves a chance at his job. It’s clear that Prescott’s knowledge of the system is limited, and big passing plays are lacking. The Cowboys should see if their offense can return to full capability under Romo. If not, Prescott is at the ready.
Don’t kill Brock ... yet: After posting a 56.1 rating in Sunday’s 31–13 loss at the Vikings, Texans QB Brock Osweiler has a 70.5 rating for the season, which is 29th and ahead of only Blaine Gabbert and Ryan Fitzpatrick. Osweiler hasn’t been good to this point and he looks so confused on third downs that he’d probably take 15 timeouts if they were available, but the expectations are a little out of control. With nine of 11 new starters on offense in a complex scheme, the Texans’ offense was bound to come out of the gates slowly, so Osweiler’s struggles aren’t a big surprise. Plus, his three worst performances have come against the fifth (Vikings), seventh (Chiefs) and 15th-best defenses for passer rating, so it’s not like he has stunk against the dregs of the league. And for everyone including his contract in the discussions, his $18 million average per year ranks 17th in the league. Osweiler needs to be average, and he hasn’t been yet. But the Texans are 3–2 and leading the AFC South. If Osweiler doesn’t play better coming out of the Week 9 bye, then you can go crazy. Until then, chill.
Redskins aren’t there yet: Washington has won three straight after an 0–2 start to get back into the mix in the NFC East, but nobody should go crazy about them yet. The three wins have come against the Giants (who are kind of a mess right now), Browns (the league’s only winless team) and Ravens (who are an unimpressive 3–2). Redskins have the Eagles (twice), Bengals, Vikings, Packers, Cowboys, Cardinals and Panthers coming up in their next nine games. The proving ground starts now.
Hurry back, Trevor: The way the Broncos were going, it seemed like it didn’t matter who played quarterback (Peyton Manning, Brock Osweiler, Trevor Siemian), the rest of the team was good enough to get the job done. That luck ran out with Paxton Lynch, was ended up with decent stats (23 of 35 and 81.0 passer rating) but was 3 of 8 for 45 yards (56.8) in the first half, and not much better in the third quarter when the Broncos still had a chance. Lynch ended up being sacked six times as the Falcons were able to create enough confusion to make Lynch hold the ball.
About Sunday Night
Despite coming off a bye week, the Packers were once again sluggish and needed to hold off the Giants 23–16 in a game Green Bay should have won going away, since its line dominated up front and the defense held the Giants to 2.9 yards per rush and harassed Eli Manning all evening. The Packers improved to 3–1 heading into next week’s showdown with the Cowboys. The Giants lost their third straight game.
Probably the biggest loser in the game was the current state of the Mike McCarthy offense (also used by Giants coach Ben McAdoo, McCarthy’s former QB coach). Despite both offenses being directed by Super Bowl-winning QBs and having a wealth of offensive weapons, both units were largely mediocre, with 4.1 yards per play for the Giants and 5.3 for the Packers. An offensive system that was once the envy of the league with its use of personnel packages and motion has fallen on hard times into a staid system where matchups matter more than scheme. As a result, Aaron Rodgers and Manning combined to complete 51.2% of their passes for 5.7 yards per attempt, three touchdowns and two interceptions and a passer rating of 70.7. An offensive clinic in Green Bay it was not. Both teams have a long ways to go.
A look at the best and worst coaching decisions from Sunday.
• The Falcons went for it on fourth-and-goal from the Denver one-yard line at the end of their first possession. Atlanta scored but even if it didn’t, the decision by coach Dan Quinn set the tone that the Falcons weren’t going to play afraid on the road.
• BlackJack Del Rio made it happen again. Trailing San Diego 24–19 with 1:15 left in the third quarter and facing fourth-and-3 at the San Diego 21-yard line, not only did the Raiders go for it, but they threw it deep and it resulted in a touchdown from Derek Carr to Michael Crabtree. Bold, bold decision.
• Leading the Redskins 10–6 with 4:35 left before halftime, Ravens coach John Harbaugh elected to have right-footed kicker Justin Tucker line up from the left side and fake a field goal. Washington wasn’t fooled and the Ravens ended up losing 16–10. Those three points could have been handy.
Harbaugh wasn’t done yet. With one second remaining in the first half and the ball at their own 46-yard line, the Ravens decided to try a Hail Mary and almost got QB Joe Flacco, who is a year removed from ACL surgery, killed as he was quickly sacked by Ryan Kerrigan.
• Trailing 24–13 with 7:36 to play and facing a fourth-and-2 at their own 46-yard line, Jets coach Todd Bowles elected to kick the ball back to the Steelers. Pittsburgh then went on a 12-play, 79-yard drive that ended with a touchdown to make it 31–13.
• Trailing 23–21 with 2:40 left against the Lions and facing third-and-2, the Eagles elected to run a crack toss to RB Ryan Mathews instead of letting QB Carson Wentz roll out with a run/pass option. The Lions easily swarmed the play and Mathews fumbled. The RB’s turnover can’t be excused, but that was a tough call to execute.
• Chargers second overall pick Joey Bosa made his debut against the Raiders and had two sacks and another tackle for a loss. His impact showed just how dumb the Chargers were in not bending on their contract demands and getting Bosa into training camp on time.
Trailing the Raiders 34-31 with 3:05 left and facing third-and-2 from the Oakland 19-yard line, coach Mike McCoy decided to run Melvin Gordon for one yard and then kick the field goal, which wasn’t converted because the snap was mishandled. First of all, McCoy should have let Philip Rivers throw on third down, and then he should have went for it on fourth down. What do you have to lose at 1–3? Even if the Chargers made the field goal, it’s not like the Chargers had stopped the Raiders in the second half, in which five of Oakland’s six drives resulted in points. When you’re as snakebit as the Chargers, you need to try to make your own luck.
Everybody loves to hate the refs, but let’s take a closer look at how the zebras performed today:
• You could pick out multiple calls from Pete Morelli’s crew in the Lions-Eagles game (the holding call against the Eagles in the fourth quarter, for starters) and your anger would be justified. Morelli’s crew has been terrible in every game this season, especially this week and last week (Buffalo at New England). His crew just looks old, slow and out of it. This is after the NFL gave him an entirely new crew for this season after multiple mistakes last season. Enough is enough.
Please allow me to introduce myself…
A look at a previously unheralded player (or players) who popped this week:
Cameron Meredith, WR, Bears: In an ironic twist, the local boy signed as an undrafted free agent after a tryout in 2015 replaced Kevin White, the No. 7 pick in that draft, and caught nine passes for 130 yards and a touchdown.
Numbers sometimes lie
13th: The ranking of Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski in the NFL, with 34 points. That may still be in the top half of kickers, but let’s be honest: he hasn’t been good of late, and that has to be of some concern to New England. In the AFC Championship Game last year, Gostkowski missed an extra point against the Broncos that arguably ended up costing the Pats the game (they instead had to try a two-point conversion, which they failed at). Since then, he missed a 39-yard field goal that would have put the Dolphins away in Week 2 and a 48-yarder that would have gotten the Patriots on the board against the Bills. Oh yeah, and then he missed a 50-yarder on Sunday against the Browns.
Numbers sometimes don’t lie
38: Consecutive field goals made by 43-year-old Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri after he made five (54, 53, 26, 41, 46 yards) to save the Colts in their 26–23 victory over the Bears. It’s the third-longest streak in league history behind Mike Vanderjagt (42) and Gary Anderson (40). Vinatieri has made 72 of 75 attempts (96%) since the start of the 2014 season. He shouldn’t be this good at his age.
After the whistle
The Vikings head into their bye week as the league’s lone undefeated team at 5–0 and it’s difficult not to be hugely impressed with the job coach Mike Zimmer has done in Minnesota. There’s no fluke in the Vikings’ record. Despite losing Teddy Bridgewater and Adrian Peterson, the Vikings have comfortably won every game thanks to an efficient offense, and a dominating defense. With the offense turnover-free to this point, there’s bound to be a correction at some point – no team can sustain that pace. But the way that QB Sam Bradford has worked in concert with offensive coordinator Norv Turner (22 of 30 for 271 yards, two touchdowns vs. a stingy Texans defense), you almost think it’s possible to continue. The most impressive aspect of the Vikings is the winning culture that Zimmer has obviously fostered. They are an extremely disciplined and physical team, and those two in combination are tough to beat. Take a bow Zimmer and the Vikings, you’ve earned this bye week.