Week 9 had no shortage of big-time storylines. Let’s examine each of them, from Big Ben’s second straight six-spot, to the Patriots’ punishment of Peyton, to the Cards’ continued dominance in the NFC
Here it is, after 1 a.m. Monday on the East Coast, and I can’t quite decide how to write the column this week. What’s the lead story of Week 9? Feels like there are six or seven of them.
Let me talk my way through them, and maybe by thinking out loud and writing things down, I can figure this darn thing out.
Roethlisberger is a runaway train. No quarterback has ever had back-to-back six-touchdown games until last night, when Ben Roethlisberger followed his six versus Indianapolis last week with six against the hated Ravens. “Ben’s having the time of his life playing football right now," said one of Roethlisberger's best friends, longtime agent Ryan Tollner. It shows. Having more weapons than just Antonio Brown is the big key for Roethlisberger.
New England looks like the best team in football five weeks after Brady was finished and Belichick was stupid. Patriots 43, Broncos 21. Bill Belichick is so far inside Peyton Manning’s head that he’s built a condo in there. Gronk is back, and if he stays upright, there’s no reason why the Patriots can’t win that elusive fourth Big One. And the supporting cast, the one that wasn’t good enough a month ago, continues to add significant pieces for pennies on the dollar.
Miami is relevant, and good. One year ago today, the Miami Herald had this on its website: “BREAKING: Miami Dolphins suspend Richie Incognito for ‘conduct detrimental to the team.’ ” Now the Dolphins are a bunch of shiny, happy people, winners of four out of five, crushers of San Diego 37-0 on Sunday—a Win One For the Philber kind of game. The 93-year-old father of coach Joe Philbin died in Massachusetts on Friday night, and Philbin missed two days of prep work for the Chargers to be with his dad. “This one’s for you, Coach!" linebackers coach Mark Duffner yelled after owner Stephen Ross gave an emotional Philbin the game ball in the locker room.
Arizona will never lose again. The Cards have beaten the six-win Eagles and six-win Cowboys back to back. Last week it was a third-round rookie, receiver John Brown, who made the big play to beat Philly. This week: A bunch of defensive no-names held Dallas running back DeMarco Murray under 100 yards for the first time all season, and the Cards scored four touchdowns in a row in The House That Jerry Built. Cards 28, Dallas 17, and it wasn’t that close.
“I was stunned … that they didn’t use Frank Gore." Gut Punch Loss of the Day: San Francisco can’t get the ball into the end zone for the win on three tries from inside the two-yard line in the final minutes, and Colin Kaepernick fumbles on a quarterback sneak on the third play. Rams middle linebacker James Laurinaitis recovers. St. Louis 13, San Francisco 10. Laurinaitis said he was “stunned" that Gore, the Niners’ power-running back, never got a touch in the final minute. “He’s one of the best backs in football at falling forward," Laurinaitis told me from California. The Niners (4-4), three games and a lost tiebreaker behind Arizona in the NFC West this morning, now realistically have to play for an NFC Wild Card.
The Sanchize delivers. In his first game action for the Eagles, Mark Sanchez took over for injured Nick Foles (shoulder/collarbone), played the final three quarters at Houston, led Philly to 24 points, and piloted a 31-21 win that left the Eagles alone atop the NFC East at 6-2. So there is life after the Buttfumble, after the melodrama that followed every step with the New York Jets. “I’m in the place that fits my personality so well," Sanchez said from Houston afterward. “The team has the right culture for me." A winning one.
There they are, the stories of the day. And maybe one more: Is this finally the year, the first year ever, that a home team hosts the Super Bowl? Bruce Arians has told his Cardinals, “Don’t let anyone dress in your lockers." Translation: We’re hosting the Super Bowl. Let’s actually play in it too. The 7-1 Cardinals still have two games left with Seattle, and one at San Francisco, and they host Detroit and Kansas City; it will be very difficult to hold on to home-field. But through eight games, the Cardinals have risen to every challenge. They’re not lucky. They’re really good.
How fascinating would it be if New England’s next (and for Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, last?) shot at a Super Bowl came in a matchup against the Cardinals? First time back in Glendale since the Tyree Velcro catch ruined the Patriots’ 19-0 dream. Arians versus Belichick; Kangol versus hoody. Todd Bowles taking a shot at stopping Tom Brady. (Lately, no one can.) Eight weeks to go to jockey for position, but if the season ended today the road to the Super Bowl would go through Foxboro and Glendale.
I’ve made my call: I’ll tell the stories in the order I’ve listed them, and keep you Philly fans waiting one more night. Barring a stunner today or tonight (Colts-Giants at the Meadowlands), I’ll write about Sanchez atop my Tuesday column (and Greg Bedard will have an Eagles piece on The MMQB later this morning). On with the show for Week 9...
* * *
When scouting and coaching mesh well, the Steelers offense is the result.
Remember when the Steelers were a meat-and-potatoes team? Franco and Bettis won the Super Bowls here. They were born to run. So are we seeing a sea-change now, with Ben Roethlisberger out-Peytoning Peyton? Roethlisberger’s last two games have produced the greatest quarterback stat line ever seen for a two-game stretch:
You mean you actually can play the position of quarterback better than Roethlisberger has for the past eight quarters? The max passer rating is 158.3. Roethlisberger left 12 points out there on the field? Not from what I’ve seen.
There are three points to be made here. One: After a couple of really patchwork seasons for the offensive line in front of him, Roethlisberger likes the nucleus of the line—all are between 24 and 28, and thus should form a solid wall for the near term—and the five starters are playing well. Yes, there was the hiccup Sunday night against Baltimore, surrendering sacks on three straight snaps. That’s it, though, for defenses getting home. During his remarkable two-game run, Roethlisberger has been sacked those three times and that’s it. All five are Steeler-developed players: Left tackle Kelvin Beachum a 2012 seventh-rounder, left guard Ramon Foster an undrafted college free-agent in 2009, center Maurkice Pouncey a first-rounder in 2010, right guard David DeCastro a first-rounder in 2012, and right tackle Marcus Gilbert a second-rounder in 2011. Watch Roethlisberger celebrate after scoring—he does it much more with his line than with his receivers; he genuinely likes them as people and thinks it’s a good long-term solution for his protection.
Two: Look at the value GM Kevin Colbert has found at the receiver position. Four of the six touchdowns Sunday came from wideouts—Martavis Bryant (two) and Markus Wheaton and Antonio Brown (one each). Bryant has played three NFL games now and scored five touchdowns. I mention value because:
- Brown was the 195th pick in the 2010 draft, the 22nd wide receiver picked—behind Dezmon Briscoe. He leads the NFL in receiving through eight games, with 71 catches for 996 yards, and has a league-high five 100-yard receiving games.
- Wheaton was the 79th pick in the 2013 draft, the 10th wide receiver chosen—behind Marquise Goodwin. Wheaton is still finding his way, with 31 catches for 395 yards.
- Bryant, the 118th pick in 2014, was the 19th wide receiver picked—behind Shaq Evans. At 6-4, he could have a role like Plaxico Burress once had for Roethlisberger, the receiver to go get jump balls. And as I said, 10 catches and five touchdowns so far.
Roethlisberger also has a couple of veteran catchers, Lance Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey, who rotate in. But Brown, Wheaton and Bryant are 26, 23 and 22, respectively, and could be a dangerous threesome for the rest of the 32-year-old Roethlisberger’s days. “Could” being the operative word, because it’s so early for Wheaton and Bryant. But signs are promising. Coach Mike Tomlin recently put out a call for one of the young receivers to step up to take the pressure off Brown, and this is what Wheaton and Bryant combined have done in the past two games: 15 catches, 245 yards, six touchdowns.
Three: Roethlisberger seems to have put his wild days behind him. He’s married with two children now. “Life has more meaning for him now," Tollner said. “He has a different motivation than just football. He’s happy to be married and to be a dad. You go over to his house and it’s filled with baby toys and a real family focus. I think that helps him in football."
Sure looks like it. It’d be one thing if the Steelers were playing lousy defensive teams. But the Colts last week were coming off a shutout of Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh put up 51 points. The Ravens had football’s second-best red-zone defense entering Sunday night’s game, and the Steelers put up 43. Pittsburgh is going to be a nightmare out down the stretch.
Speaking of smart teams…
The Patriots wrote the book on the way to make a team a continuum in today’s football, and the contributions of three complementary players in the 43-21 win over Denver Sunday are proof.
Now, Akeem Ayers, Jonathan Casillas and Tim Wright were not major players in this defining win for New England. If you took them off the field Sunday in Foxboro, New England still would have beaten Denver handily, I’m sure. But those three contributed bit parts, and this is the way Bill Belichick builds a team. The active roster, one through 53, has players whose roles will rise and fall through the course of the season.
Wright wasn’t targeted by Tom Brady as his No. 2 tight end and played only 12 snaps on offense and five more on special teams. Casillas arrived at 8 a.m. Wednesday after New England acquired him from Tampa Bay at Tuesday’s trade deadline; he played one defensive snap but was a mainstay on special teams, playing 22 snaps and leading all players with three special-teams tackles of Andre Caldwell on kickoff returns. Ayers, in his second game after coming from Tennessee in a trade, actually made a big play in the game, the only sack of Peyton Manning. It came on a fourth-and-6 the second quarter with New England up 20-7, and the Patriots took advantage of the Ayers stop to add one more touchdown and take a commending 27-7 halftime lead.
To get these players, New England made three trades. Logan Mankins was sent to Tampa in August for Wright and a 2015 fourth-round pick. New England sent its sixth-round pick to Tennessee for Ayers plus Tennessee’s seventh. New England sent its fifth-round pick to Tampa Bay for Casillas and Tampa’s sixth.
If the season ended today, Tampa would hold the fourth pick in the draft, Tennessee fifth and New England 31st. Obviously, those will change, but for the sake of this discussion, assume that’s where each will choose, and assume the overall picks I will use in this example correspond with the overall picks from 2014 draft, which include compensatory picks.
So what New England gave was this: Mankins, pick 171 and pick 207.
What New England gets: A No. 2 tight end (Wright), a starting-caliber linebacker in Ayers, and a backup linebacker/special-teamer in Casillas, and picks 104, 180 and 220.
Again: This has only a little to do with a 22-point victory over Denver. And Belichick could find some other way to fill his roster with complementary football players. But I would argue that the Patriots traded a guard who was in decline and likely has one to three years left, and acquired a starting linebacker, an important tight end because of their heavy tight-end usage normally, a contributor on special teams and a high fourth-round pick next year … and swapped spots twice late on day three. It’s just a smart way to build a deep team.
* * *
Joe Philbin’s stunningly good day.
The Miami coach has been through the wringer. A year ago he was worrying more about the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin affair, which nearly swept him out of his job, than about football. He wasn’t off to such a hot start this year either, with Aaron Rodgers’ last-minute fake-spike pass setting up the touchdown that dropped Miami to 2-3 in Week 6. Then, last week, Philbin got the call from the family home in Longmeadow, Mass., that his 93-year-old father was seriously ill; if he wanted to see him, now was the time. He flew home Thursday, had a conversation with his dad, then was by his side when his father died at home on Friday.
“My parents came from an unselfish generation, and the most important thing to them was to raise myself and five children,” Philbin said Sunday. “So it was important to see him for the final time and to say goodbye.”
There is no good transition to football from that. But Philbin told his players Saturday night that a great team could never be built around one person. When he was away for two days, it couldn’t be recess time, and it wasn’t. That’s one of the reasons he was so emotional after Sunday’s shocking 37-0 rout of the Chargers. “We have so many good people in this organization and on this team,’’ he said, “and they all showed up today.”
Since the Green Bay nightmare, Miami has beaten Chicago by 13, Jacksonville by 14 and now San Diego by 37. Ryan Tannehill, the former Texas A&M wide receiver, led them again. He has completed 69 percent of his passes during the three-game streak, with only one interception, and he’s been a threat to run too. In the last four games, he’s run for a symmetrically silly 49, 48, 48 and 47 yards. “Today he ran four times for 47 yards, and I can tell you, those were some backbreaking yards,’’ said Philbin. “The other team thinks they’ve got you stopped, and you take off and get a first down. He gives us a threat that’s hard to defend.”
We’ll find out how legit Miami is over the next three weeks. The Dolphins are at Detroit Sunday, home to Buffalo, then at Denver. If they come out of that 2-1, they’ll be serious Wild Card contenders.
* * *
Michael Bidwill, the president of the Cardinals, had two very big decisions to make when changing his general manager (from Rod Graves) and coach (Ken Whisenhunt) in January 2013. On Jan. 9, Bidwill hired Steve Keim as GM, a man who’s served a 17-year apprenticeship in the organization in personnel. And on Jan. 17, Bidwill and Keim hired Bruce Arians as coach.
Pretty good calls. Arians would win a coach of the year vote this morning. Keim would be in the running in executive of the year balloting. On Sunday in Texas their work was on display. Keim thinks his most important acquisition since taking over was quarterback Carson Palmer; he came from Oakland for a seventh-round pick. Palmer threw three touchdown passes in the 28-17 win over Dallas. In 2012, Keim shook up the draft by gambling on troubled safety Tyrann Mathieu; he had his first interception of the season to stop a Cowboys drive. Keim has also had to repopulate a defense beset by suspension and injury and free-agent losses, and he’s done it largely by shopping at WalMart. As for Arians, he has instituted a deep-threat attitude on an offense with depth; on Sunday, the only TD catch for a wideout was by the fifth man in the rotation, Jaron Brown.
“We’ve been fortunate,’’ said Bidwill on Sunday night. “Bruce and Steve are sort of the same kind of guy. They’re football guys. I like the fact they never panic. They’re confident in their ability to get the job done even if they have adversity.”
The 49ers had no business losing that game.
There have been agonizing losses in the NFL this year, as always. Miami losing on the last play to Green Bay in Week 6 after the fake spike. Atlanta blowing the 21-point second-half lead and losing to Detroit in London. And then there’s the Niners on Sunday. They had the ball, first-and-goal at the Rams two-yard line, with 42 seconds and one timeout left. San Francisco trailed 13-10. The Niners had three shots for the win, and a chip-shot field goal to force overtime if they couldn’t punch it in. Or four shots, if Jim Harbaugh was feeling lucky.
First down: Short pass to the right to Michael Crabtree, close to the goal line. Marked down at the one.
Second down: Play-action rollout to the right. Colin Kaepernick, pressured by James Laurinaitis, threw it away.
Third down: Heavy formation. Kaepernick under center. He took the snap, fumbled it in his hands, grabbed for it and started moving forward. Fullback Bruce Miller bear-hugged him and pushed the quarterback forward. But the replays showed Kaepernick, in mid-scrum, losing the handle totally and the ball falling to the turf, just over the goal line.
“I was shocked to see it there, of course,’’ said Laurinaitis. “The whole play was surprising. The play before, they go play-action and don’t give it to Gore. Then on the last play, they don’t give to Gore either. But I could sense when they got on the ball they were probably going to sneak it. You could just tell in their mannerisms, their body language, the formation. I figured if Kaepernick is going to sneak, he’d just put the ball over the line, like Tom Brady or Drew Brees. But I think what happened is he never really had good possession of it. He didn’t catch it clean from the center. So he just barreled forward.
“As soon as I saw the ball on the ground, I just grabbed and tried to spin around right away to show the umpire. Like, ‘Ball’s loose! I got it! I got it! Our ball! Our ball!’ They looked at me and ruled it was our ball, which obviously was the right call. That ball was on the ground.’’
On replay, it was impossible to tell when Kaepernick last had any sort of possession. But once it was ruled a fumble on the field, it was impossible to overturn because there were no views of the play that showed Kaepernick with possession past the plane of the goal line. And that muffed snap is the kind of painful play that could come back to haunt a team that now will have almost zero margin for error if it wants to be playing in January.
One final point about the Rams here: They had eight sacks after having but five in the first seven games. The breakout came in part because of changeups that defensive coordinator Gregg Williams threw at San Francisco. “We spied them,” said Laurinaitis, “and we had a couple of sacks from blitzes. We blitzed from the left a lot [opposite Robert Quinn’s side]. And we won the one-on-one matchups a lot. There’s no magic potion sometimes—you just have to win the battle with the guys across from you.”
* * *
New ideas at The MMQB
New idea 1: We’re going to try a new column for the rest of this season at TheMMQB.com, but we need your input for it to be successful. Having an argument with a buddy, or some loser on Twitter? Let Greg Bedard, our resident Wet Blanket of Reason (a well-earned title, trust us, from his Boston Globe days) be the objective tiebreaker in “Settle This.” What we’re looking for are current arguments, not all-time discussions, to broker. Who has been better in 2014, Aqib Talib or Darrelle Revis? Want to know why one player is playing over another on your favorite team? Why did they call that play on third-and-four? Who was to blame for that busted coverage that cost you the game? Those are types of questions we want. If Greg can’t figure it, he’ll ask someone in the know who can. Send your dilemmas/puzzlers/arguments-that-need-to-be-solved to email@example.com, with “Settle This” atop your query.
New idea 2: We at The MMQB love Thanksgiving football. In particular, we love high school football on Thanksgiving. And we want to publicize the best Thanksgiving Day high school games in the country. So I want you to nominate a great Thanksgiving Day football rivalry that you know of. Then, in a mini-essay of 200 words, tell me what makes it great. Send along a photo or two if you can. And during Thanksgiving Week, we’ll run the best mini-essays on the games that you love. Rules: Games must be played on Thanksgiving. They must be current rivalries; in other words, they must be played this year. If we use your essay, you’ll win an MMQB T-shirt. (Hey, it’s the only prize I have. Sorry.) Make this a great contest. Let’s have games represented from sea to shining sea. Alaska! What do you have for us? Hawaii? Bring it! Send you nominations to firstname.lastname@example.org.
New idea 3: We will pick one Thanksgiving Day game to cover. And we’ll write it up big for the day after the game. Now that’s going to be fun.
* * *
This has zero to do with football, but it’s compelling.
Eight days ago, one of the most promising young players in baseball, 22-year-old St. Louis outfielder Oscar Taveras, died along with his girlfriend in the Dominican Republic in a single-vehicle car accident with Taveras at the wheel. Exactly two weeks before he died, Taveras hit a home run in the National League Championship Series to help St. Louis tie the series at one game apiece. After the game, Taveras’ gleaming smile shone all the way to the Dominican, to the little town that had never produced a big-league ballplayer before him. And then Taveras was gone, a shocking story of an athlete dead way too soon.
Taveras died on a rain-slickened road around sundown on Oct. 26. On Tuesday, Oct. 28, the family had his wake, funeral and burial in the Dominican town of Sosua. Derrick Goold, the 39-year-old Cardinals beat man for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and Chris Lee, a photographer for the Post-Dispatch, landed in the Dominican Republic on Tuesday at 1:15 p.m. Dominican time. (For the purposes of this story, I will use Dominican time throughout—which is Eastern Time.) Goold and Lee rented a car and arrived in Sosua shortly before 2 in the afternoon.
Goold: “I’d known him since he was a teen. I saw him play a lot. An affable young man, trying to figure out and understand the expectations, huge as they were, and mesh that with the maturing he was doing under a microscope. He was benched for a while for not running out a ground ball. But he was very likeable—the grin, the enthusiasm, the abundance of eagerness to show off his swing. He loved to hit. His home run in the National League Championship Series, in the only game they won, was a huge thing for him, and for his town in the Dominican. He floated around the bases, got to home plate, pointed toward the sky. That photo was on his coffin. That photo was a couple different places during the procession. His father told us how much the home run meant to the people in a town in the Dominican with so much passion for baseball."
When Goold and Lee got to Sosua, Lee followed the procession with the casket, and all the people following it. Goold went to interview Taveras’ good friend, Cardinals pitcher Carlos Martinez, at a restaurant. Then Goold drove the rental car to the funeral service and parked on a side road, where he was told the car would be watched for safety. “It got chaotic quickly," Goold said. “Roads couldn’t handle the mass of people. There was a flood of mourners, so anguished." And when Goold and Lee got back to the car after the funeral, they found it had been broken into. “Everything that we didn’t have on us—my backpack, carry-on luggage, equipment, our computers, an iPad, clothes, and a lens, and all of Chris’ technology to send the photos back to the paper—gone," Goold said. “Within minutes, there was media there filming what was going on. We were there to cover a story. I was astonished that people there cared about it. Things get stolen. It’s things. It’s items. We’ll replace things. You cannot replace the things we were there to cover."
The chief of police came to investigate. Taveras’s agent and attorney helped. Carlos Martinez brought a friend with the Dominican police to help. Goold and Lee went to the police station to file a report, all the while thinking, How are we going to get our work back to St. Louis?
Goold: “We walked out of the police station a little after 7, Dominican time. Our deadline was 11 p.m., Dominican time. And I had two stories to write. That began a trail of finding a place to work, and equipment to use. We went to an internet café, but they didn’t have what would help us. Then we went to the art gallery in town, and the man unlocked it for us, but there was no place there to transmit photos. But that local artist invited us to his home. He had Photoshop on his computer, and it would work. So he set up two computers at the kitchen table for us. What a nice man—his 9-year-old son was having his birthday party at the house, and we displaced the party. They moved outside. I could not apologize enough for that, but they we so nice. We started working there. They brought us birthday cake and water. I had to transcribe my interviews from the day. The interview with Carlos Martinez was very emotional. We are reporters—we should be at arm’s length. But I’m human too. I knew Oscar. It was tough."
All the while, deadlines loomed. Goold had a story to write for the front page of the paper, and another for the front page of the sports section. “The clock was ticking, and the expectations were high, and the responsibility was huge," Goold said. “I don’t take for granted how important baseball is to the city I live in, and you want to do right by his family, his teammates, his friends, his community, in telling the story. We saw how much heartache and anguish there was."
Goold filed his main story from the artist’s kitchen, 1,138 words, at 9:47 p.m. Eastern Time. Then he got to work on the emotional Carlos Martinez story for the front of the sports section. He filed that one, 980 words, at 11:04 p.m. Eastern. (Four minutes late. Slacker!) To recap: Goold and Lee arrived in a foreign land at 1:15, and in less than 10 hours, found their way to a wake and then a procession and then a funeral and then a burial, did interviews along the way, had all their stuff stolen, spent an hour in the police station, had to find a way to transmit their work, did so, and Goold wrote 2,100 cogent, detail-packed words, and Lee packed the paper the next day with a slew of you-are-there photos. “I don’t think you could ever capture every detail of the day," Goold said, “but I am proud of the work we did for the paper. And I will never forget the people there. They were wonderful to us. They were hurting, but their compassion, their energy, their help, really helped us do our work."
Incredible day’s work, if you ask me.
“It’s the job," Goold said.
The Fine Fifteen
1. New England (7-2). Five weeks. Five wins, by 26, 15, 2, 28 and finally 22 against the team we all thought was the best in football until Sunday. That’s how New England climbed to the top.
2. Arizona (7-1). Fantastic orchestration on both sides of the ball, with defensive coordinator Todd Bowles dialing up an iron curtain to hold DeMarco Murray under 100 yards for the first time all season, and coach Bruce Arians calling the shots on 21 unanswered points for the offense.
3. Denver (6-2). Time to start worrying about two players: rookie kicker Brandon McManus and veteran wideout Wes Welker. McManus, who doinked a 41-yard field-goal try off the right upright, has now missed three of nine. Not time to fire him yet, but time for John Elway to get the names on his kicker short list ready for tryouts with one more shaky performance by McManus. Welker dropped a gimme throw from Peyton Manning in the third quarter that bounced into the hands of Brandon Browner for a gimme interception, and hurt his back absorbing a hit on the play; a second later the Patriots scored and the game was over.
4. Philadelphia (6-2). Jeremy Maclin (six catches, 158 yards, two touchdowns) has done a great job of making a city forget about DeSean Jackson. Maclin is on pace for a 1,580-yard season.
5. Green Bay (5-3). Really liked this piece for The MMQB by A.J. Hawk, on what a player does in his bye week. I share it for two reasons: (1) The Packers just finished their bye week Sunday; (2) Hawk and his wife named their two children Hendrix (a boy) and Lennon (a girl) after Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon. I would imagine the presets in Hawk’s vehicle go heavy on classic rock.
6. Indianapolis (5-3). America, get to know T.Y. Hilton. What Harrison and Wayne were to Peyton Manning, Hilton will be to Andrew Luck.
7. Kansas City (5-3). Stealth Chiefs. They’re 5-1 in the past six games, by a margin of 14 points per game, and Justin Houston is on pace to break the all time single-season sack record.
8. Miami (5-3). We knew they could play competitive defensively. But who knew they could average 30.6 a game—which the Dolphins have done over the past five weeks?
9. Detroit (6-2). Bye came at a good time. Reggie Bush and Calvin Johnson ought to be healthy for the final eight games, beginning Sunday with the Dolphins at Ford Field.
10. Pittsburgh (6-3). In the past 14 days, the Steelers have awakened on offense in a way only the Patriots can understand. Three games, 41.3 points per game, three wins.
11. Seattle (5-3). You should know by now that nothing in 2014 will be easy for Seattle. Nothing. Not even finishing off the 0-8 Raiders at home, with a Seabass onside kick almost lost in the last two minutes.
12. Cincinnati (5-2-1). Don’t really know what to think of the Bengals. You?
13. Dallas (6-3). Why are the Cowboys below Seattle now? Because this isn’t the same Dallas team (no Tony Romo right now, too many defensive injuries) that beat Seattle three weeks ago.
14. Baltimore (5-4). The Ravens might be out of the playoff hunt before their secondary gets healthy enough to be a force.
T-15. Buffalo (5-3). Underrated game of the week next weekend: Chiefs at Bills. You ready for that pass rush, Bills Mafia?
T-15. New Orleans (4-4). Three-game homestand starts Sunday, with nary a gimme in the group: San Francisco, Cincinnati, Baltimore.
The Award Section
Offensive Player of the Week
Julian Edelman, wide receiver/punt-returner, New England. In a four-minute span during the second quarter, Edelman broke up Brady-Manning XVI with two huge plays. His diving catch of a howitzer throw from Tom Brady resulted in a five-yard touchdown to give New England a 13-7 lead. After Denver stalled on its next series, Edelman fielded a punt at his 16 and sprinted and weaved 84 yards for a touchdown, his franchise-record fourth TD return of a punt. Isn’t it always this way? Two mega-stars meet, and game-changing moments come from the seventh-round option quarterback from Kent State who changed positions in the NFL. Nine catches for 89 yards on the day.
Defensive Players of the Week
James Harrison, linebacker, Pittsburgh. Harrison was a huge factor in the Sunday night game, beating left tackle Eugene Monroe for a first-quarter sack, and then in the second quarter bearing down on Joe Flacco and rushing the Ravens QB into a costly interception; the Steelers scored a touchdown moments later. Harrison added a second sack, making him only the second player 36 years of age or older to have back-to-back multi-sack games. (He had two in Week 8.) Mike Tomlin talked Harrison out of retirement in Week 4, and you can be sure Tomlin is happy he could be so persuasive. On Sunday night Harrison was the most significant Steeler on defense in a chippy game with his old friends on the Ravens. "I'm old and slow now," Harrison told Michele Tafoya on the field after the game. "I've got God doing most of the work." Whatever works.
Reshad Jones, safety, Miami. In the stunning 37-0 shutout of the once-good Chargers, Jones wrecked the first and third San Diego series of the day to set the stage for the rout. On the first series, the Chargers chose to go for it on fourth-and-1 at the Miami 22; Jones swooped in to stop Branden Oliver for a loss of one. On the third series, he picked off Philip Rivers. The Dolphins followed the first stop with a touchdown drive, and followed the pick with a field-goal drive. "The fourth-and-1 stop was big," said coach Joe Philbin. “I think we kind of grabbed the momentum, maybe, and as you know, at times we’ve not been able to sustain that momentum throughout the entire game, but this was obviously a game where we were able to do that."
Special Teams Player of the Week
Jason Witten, tight end, Dallas. On the last play of the first half of Arizona-Dallas, the Cards blocked a field goal, and speedy Patrick Peterson picked up the loose ball and sprinted for the end zone. Running from across the field to cut down the angle was Witten, who, in case you don’t actually watch football, is not as fast as Peterson. But he found a way to tackle Peterson as the clock showed :00. Witten’s stop was tough not just because of Peterson’s speed, but also because of Peterson’s elusiveness. Without the tackle, Arizona would have taken a 21-10 lead into halftime. As it was, Arizona led 14-10—and Dallas got the kick to start the second half.
Coach of the Week
Mike Waufle, defensive line coach, St. Louis. Rams sacks in the first seven games: five. Rams sacks Sunday: eight. Sacks by the defensive line Sunday: six, plus one team sack. Waufle and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams shifted some of the pressure away from Robert Quinn on the right side and got great penetration from Aaron Donald—who is getting Sapp-like disruption in the middle of the line—and end Williams Hayes. Waufle, 60, is a coaching lifer who kept telling his line the sacks would come—just keep rushing hard. On Sunday the advice paid off in a great rush day and a 13-10 win.
Goats of the Week
Colin Kaepernick, quarterback, San Francisco. You cannot fumble the game-deciding quarterback sneak. You simply cannot.
Brandon Weeden, quarterback, Dallas. His numbers in the 28-17 loss to Arizona were not necessarily goat-worthy (18 of 33, 183 yards, one TD, two picks), but you never had the feeling watching the game that Dallas had a prayer. Weeden could never get anything going, and from the looks of his chemistry with his receivers—or lack thereof—he doesn’t seem to be held in the highest regard by the men he’s throwing to.
Quotes of the Week
"I don't usually stink. I stunk today."
—Peyton Manning, after Denver's 43-21 loss to New England in Foxboro.
—Dallas wide receiver Dez Bryant, on the sidelines of the Cowboys’ loss Sunday, to quarterback Brandon Weeden.
"Anybody who reports that’s an amateur. It’s totally false … That’s some small-time reporter reporting fiction."
—Jay Gruden, the Washington head coach, on the pre-game report by Britt McHenry of ESPN that quarterback Robert Griffin III has “alienated himself" from some players on the team.
Gruden also said: “We are in D.C., and it is Robert Griffin, and they're always going to try to tear him down and tear us down for whatever reason."
That was a bad loss, and a very bad day, for Washington.
"Attitude and a cocktail."
—Arizona coach Bruce Arians, on the two most important ingredients for people who would want to go out as Bruce Arians for Halloween.
Arians said he was surprised Arizonans dressed as Bruce Arians for Halloween.
“There's not just one thing that stands out. I think his approach to everything: I think he's exactly what you want in a professional in terms of the hours that he puts in here, how important the game is to him, how much he studies just the game of football, how he trains when he's in the weight room, what he's like on the practice field. I think there's a consistency to him that I think separates kind of the great ones from everybody: It’s that he's the same person every single day here. He's always a calming influence, he doesn't lose his mind on game day, but there's a calm intensity about him in everything he does. I think we try to get our younger guys to understand that if you want to know what a football player looks like, watch DeMeco and how he handles himself, not only on the field, not only in the training sessions, but 24 hours a day.”
—Eagles coach Chip Kelly, on linebacker DeMeco Ryans.
"Communications. Is that a surprise?"
—San Francisco’s oft-answer-challenged coach, Jim Harbaugh, on what his college major was at Michigan.
"Warning: You will learn more about whales than you have ever wished to know."
—Bruce Springsteen, who just finished the book Moby-Dick, in an interview with the Sunday book section of the New York Times.
"BRA-dy’s BETT-er! BRA-dy’s BETT-er!"
—The crowd at Gillette Stadium in the fourth quarter, as Tom Brady ran his record against Peyton Manning to 11-5 in their career rivalry with a 43-21 victory over Manning’s Broncos.
Stat of the Week
There should be a Manning-Brady Bowl XVII, assuming that Tom Brady and Peyton Manning play in 2015 (a pretty good assumption) and assuming that New England and Denver finish first in the AFC East and West this season (also a pretty good assumption).
The 2015 meeting would be the first regular-season match between Brady and Manning since 2009 to be held at Peyton’s place. Manning has been at Brady in 2010, 2012, 2013 and 2014. (The AFC title game, pitting Manning against Brady last January, was in Denver.)
And that’s not all: If the Patriots and Broncos finish in like places in the standings in 2015 and 2016, New England will be at Denver in 2016 and 2017 too.
Contrast the frequency of Manning versus Brady to the times John Elway and Dan Marino met in the 16 seasons they had in common as NFL quarterbacks. This is due to the fact that the NFL didn’t have the scheduling formula a generation ago that it has now.
|Matchup||Starting Seasons Shared||Regular-season games||Playoff games||Total games|
*It is 12 because I don’t include 2008, when Brady was out with a knee injury, and 2011, which Manning missed after neck surgery.
One of the schedule-makers, NFL director of broadcast planning Mike North, explained how the schedule changed in 2002, when the league went to eight four-team divisions. “Part of the impetus for change," said North, “was seeing things like the Elway-Marino gap. In those years, the schedule was based more on where you finished in the standings the year before. You could have as many as eight or nine games [that were] based on where you finished. Now it’s two. Starting in 2002, we instituted a schedule that had you play every team in the other conference twice in eight years—once at home, once on the road. And every six years, you’re guaranteed to play at least twice against the other teams in your conference out of division—once at home, once on the road. This way, you’ll never have this Elway-Marino thing, where great players don’t play each other enough.”
In a three-year stretch, said North, the home-away cycle often will look skewed. “But if you look at New England and Denver, for instance, over a six-year period, it will even out," he said.
The way the system works: If Brady and Manning are in the same conference but different divisions (as has been the case since 2002), they are ensured to play each other annually—as long as their teams finish in the same place in the standings each year.
The league didn’t revolutionize the schedule business just for the sake of big quarterback matchups. Some of the scheduling quirks were just absurd. Tampa Bay and Buffalo met seven times in the quarter-century between 1976 and 2000—with all seven coming in Tampa. The classic Giants-Bears rivalry was played one time in New Jersey between 1977 and 2001.
One other note: 2015 would seem to be NBC’s year to get Brady-Manning XVII, assuming it’s played. The league, since 2009, has alternated their meetings between NBC’s Sunday night package (2009, 2011 and 2013) and CBS’ Sunday afternoon package (2010, 2012, 2014). NBC flexed out of the game in 2011 because Manning was injured and didn’t play that season.
Factoids of the Week That May Interest Only Me
If Nick Foles has a broken collarbone and cannot play against Carolina on Sunday, that will end his consecutive start streak at 17. For the sake of this exercise, let’s assume that’s true. The starting streaks of current NFC East quarterbacks:
|Eli Manning||New York||158|
|Robert Griffin III||Washington||1|
(Thanks to my buddy Elliott Kalb at NBC Sports for being the brains behind this note.)
Rex Ryan fell under .500 as a head coach Sunday (47-48) for the first time since Week 12 of 2009, his rookie season with the Jets.
Don’t Buy That Penthouse On Lakeshore Drive Joe Dept.:
Joe Maddon is the Cubs’ 53rd manager in the last 102 years.
I believe the Cubs’ manager in 1879, however, may have had the best name in managing history: Silver Flint.
Mr. Starwood Preferred Travel Note of the Week
No travel note per se today, but an invitation: Come and see me today at 1:30 p.m. if you're in the Philadelphia area. I'll be speaking at the Temple University Sports Journalism Summit in the Howard Gittis Student Center South on campus. Looking forward to seeing lots of aspiring journalists.
Tweets of the Week
All the #Cardinals do is win
— John Middlekauff (@JohnMiddlekauff) November 2, 2014
This is the scene of the largest ever physical gathering against the Wash. NFL team. #ChangetheMascot #changethename pic.twitter.com/fgArwXzQ69
— Mike Wise (@MikeWiseguy) November 2, 2014
There were 9 rookie receivers w/ at least 75 receiving yards last week, most in single week in NFL history. All drafted in 1st 118 picks.
— Gil Brandt (@Gil_Brandt) October 29, 2014
Saints decline to send player to set after TNF win. Saints fans troll on Twitter that we are biased against them. #TraditionUnlikeAnyOther
— Rich Eisen (@richeisen) October 31, 2014
Roethlisberger has 12 TD passes in his last 2 games. The Jets have 12 TD passes in their last 15 games.
— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) November 3, 2014
Ten Things I Think I Think
1. I think this is what I liked about Week 9:
a. Vikings power-back Matt Asiata, who’s a Bettis-like goal-line sniffer when he gets close to scoring.
b. Austin Davis continues to show he belongs, and not just as roster filler. As does Kenny Britt, who caught a second-quarter touchdown from Davis against the Niners.
c. Rob Ninkovich is one underrated pass-rusher, and he added a bonus Sunday: a pick of Peyton Manning.
d. The Seahawks wearing an “MP” decal on the back of every helmet Sunday—and the staff all wearing “MP” lapel pins—in support of Marysville-Pilchuck High, paying tribute to the school where three students were gunned down in the cafeteria by a freshman who then killed himself.
e. Mark Ingram, workhorse back. Thirty carries, 100 yards, two touchdowns in the 28-10 win over Carolina. Where has this Mark Ingram been?
f. That’s the Junior Galette (two sacks versus Carolina) Rob Ryan’s been waiting to see.
g. Gerald McCoy, steamrolling Cleveland center Nick McDonald on the way to a sack of Brian Hoyer.
h. Arian Foster picking holes so instinctively.
i. DeSean Jackson catching the deep ball so fluidly.
j. Charles Clay’s emergence in Miami. Ryan Tannehill relies on him, and Clay rarely disappoints.
k. Perfect touch by Teddy Bridgewater on a touchdown throw.
l. Ref John Parry upholding the crucial first-down call on the Chris Polk run late in Philadelphia-Houston.
m. And side judge Joe Larrew with the right call on the very close Jeremy Maclin touchdown catch a moment later.
n. Larry Fitzgerald with the onside-kick catch. The man is versatile.
o. Travis Kelce, who turns in difference-making plays every week for Kansas City.
p. Great stat from Jim Nantz on CBS after Tom Brady’s third-quarter interception: It was New England’s first turnover in the last 54 offensive series.
q. Oakland’s effort.
r. The beautiful deep ball that Joe Flacco throws. Another touchdown bomb Sunday night, to Torrey Smith.
s. Rookie linebacker Chris Borland of the Niners, in a losing effort: 18 tackles.
2. I think this is what I didn’t like about Week 9:
a. Terrible fourth-down throw by Robert Griffin III, aiming a ball that he threw at Pierre Garçon’s feet to seal a 29-26 loss to Minnesota.
b. Terrible non-safety call by the Jerome Boger crew in the Niners game, just before the half, when Tavon Austin clearly was trying to bring the ball out of the end zone on a missed field goal, and he was tackled two yards deep, and the officials gave him progress just beyond the goal line. Fiction.
c. The Jacksonville punt team.
d. Cam Newton, 10 of 28. Yikes.
e. San Diego back Donald Brown’s drop of a first-down conversion pass at Miami.
f. Jets karma. Within minutes in separate first halves, Kansas City tight end Anthony Fasano, lying on the ground at the goal line, had a Jet-deflected Alex Smith pass drop in his grasp. He rolled over the goal line for the flukiest touchdown of the season … and then Mark Sanchez coming off the bench to quarterback the Eagles to a win at Houston. Eight losses in a row now for the hapless ones.
g. Five drops for Arizona receivers in the first 35 minutes.
h. The John Idzik press conference. A 19-minute monologue that could have been 19 seconds.
i. Blake Bortles makes too many dumb throws. He’s full of potential, obviously, but he’s got to think about the dangerous throws he makes.
j. Cannot believe Colin Kaepernick fumbled the quarterback sneak. That’s the difference between being in the pennant race in the West and being out of it.
3. I think it’s not time to get Derek Anderson warmed up in the bullpen or anything, but is anyone in Carolina alarmed that Cam Newton has completed 48 percent of his throws in the last three weeks? Until now, Newton hasn’t had a three-game stretch in his 3.5-year career in which he’s been a sub-50-percent passer.
4. I think this is the one observation we’ll all be making later this week, after everyone who was present for the June 16 Ray Rice discipline hearing in Roger Goodell’s office is interviewed by the appeals officer in the case: Why on God’s green earth aren’t disciplinary hearings taped—or at least why isn’t a stenographer present to take precise transcripts?
5. I think, as I said last week, that Rice is going to get his suspension lifted. And he should, because he essentially was tried twice for the same domestic-abuse offense. Former U.S. District Judge Barbara Jones will hear testimony from the nine people who were present in the room for the hearing, including commissioner Roger Goodell, Ray Rice and victim Janay Rice, and their attorney, Heather McPhee. And there is sure to be a difference of opinion about what exactly was said on June 16. So what exactly will be accomplished, other than a whole bunch of accusations exchanged about who is lying.
6. I think we can pretty safely say this morning that the Philip Rivers for MVP campaign has gone pffffffffft. It’s over.
7. I think every football fan in the Pacific Northwest must have had precisely the same feeling midway through the first half Sunday afternoon: Thank God the Oakland Raiders exist.
8. I think this comes from the “That’s So Belichick" category, from a press conference with the New England media last week:
Question: “You’ve prepared to face a Peyton Manning offense more than 20 times in your coaching career. Is there one common thread that stands out to you over the years about how those preparations and then the game have unfolded?"
Belichick: “I guess Manning."
9. I think Tony Romo plays in London against the Jaguars on Sunday, and if he doesn’t—either because he aggravates his back or it tightens up on the nine-hour flight to London—I think the Jags win the game.
10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:
a. Recover well, Bob Neumeier. Neumy’s one of the class guys—and fun guys—I’ve met in sports media. The NBC horse-racing analyst and longtime Boston sportscaster had a stroke last week. You’ve got scores of friends wishing you well, Bob.
b. Eulogy of the Week, from Quinn Bradlee, son of Washington Post legend Ben Bradlee, at his funeral on Wednesday: “My father was the strongest man I ever met. The last day he was able to speak he could barely keep his eyes open. Later that day he was lying on his left side on the bed and I climbed in and laid down behind him. He lifted his head just barely and looked over his shoulder and said, ‘I have a good feeling about you. I love you.’ Those where his last words he said to me. Losing him has been hard. But it has already made me stronger. It is as if something inside me clicked. I used to be someone others might need to take care of, but now I feel ready to take care of others. My mom is no weakling as you know, but I will take care of her. He does not need to say anything. I can’t see him anymore. I can’t hear him. But I get the message: ‘Hey, buddy, it’s your turn. Get it right, kid.'"
c. That is a powerful message.
d. RIP Thomas Menino, five-term mayor of Boston. No one loved his city more.
e. Stats I love about Menino: The Boston Globe polled Bostonians late in his term and asked if they approved of the job Menino was doing; 74 percent said yes. Seventy-four percent approval! Who gets that? Big Papi wouldn’t get 74 percent approval in Boston! And how about this, also from late in his tenure: Some 65 percent of Boston residents said they had personally met the mayor. That’s not some little hamlet. That’s a big-league city.
f. He, did, however, lead America in malaprops. He said “Varitek" kicked an “ionic” field goal—the one Adam Vinatieri made in the snow in the playoff win over the Raiders. And he said in 2012 during a Patriots playoff run: “I mean Brady has those wide receivers out there, the uh, you know Grabowski, Hernandez, uh, Wes Weckler, I mean he has them all." I think that just made people love him more.
g. Re: the World Series: No, I have not seen a pitching performance like Madison Bumgarner’s, particularly the five shutout innings on two days rest. Never in his professional career had Bumgarner pitched on two days rest.
h. You know what really stood out to me in Game 7? Bottom of the fifth, Royals down 3-2, tying run on second base, Bumgarner on the mound, left-handed hitter Nori Aoki up. Aoki poked a line drive down the left-field line. At the crack of the bat, I said, “Tie game.” But Juan Perez, the San Francisco left fielder, wasn’t playing where any left fielder would be playing a left-handed hitter normally. He was positioned as though a strict pull right-handed hitter was at the plate. Perez was right there. Whoever is doing the Giants’ advanced metrics on fielders’ positioning should get a raise. That was incredible.
i. Bumgarner: 36 career World Series innings, one earned run, 0.25 career ERA.
j. No way, absolutely none, that third-base coach Mike Jirschele should have green-lighted Alex Gordon to try to score the tying run while the Giants’ outfielders booted the ball around with two out in the ninth of Game 7. There’s a 10 percent chance, I guess, that Brandon Crawford would have thrown the relay wildly to Buster Posey and Gordon would have been safe. But if the throw is anywhere near the plate, Gordon’s out by 20 feet and Jirschele is ridiculed for one of the worst decisions in World Series history. He’d never have lived it down, having the tying run thrown out at home by a mile. If you want to say you had no faith in Salvador Perez driving in the run and thus you’d take that 10 percent chance, well, I guess that’s understandable. But I’d take my chances with even a marginal hitter up against a great pitcher rather than hoping a very good fielding shortstop will throw the ball into the screen behind home plate.
k. When the Chevrolet post-game thing was happening with that Chris Farley executive, the first thing I thought was: Saturday Night Live is going to have a field day with this. “Technology and stuff” might be the best line of the World Series.
l. I love that Chevrolet Mo’ne Davis commercial about girls playing sports. And what a sweet swing she has.
m. Column of the week, from Michael Powell of the New York Times, about Madison Bumgarner’s dad.
n. I love the part about the whole area being full of Bumgarners.
o. World Series Game 7 rating in New York on Wednesday night: 14.
p. Brooklyn Nets season-opener rating in New York on Wednesday night: 0.45.
q. Nets fever! Catch it!
r. Coffeenerdness: Starbucks is about to offer home delivery? Bedard’s right: I will never leave my apartment again.
s. Beernerdness: The Troegs “Master of Pumpkin” is one of the most interesting pumpkin beers I’ve encountered. The spices are rampant, as is the sweetness, and the pumpkin flavor is just shy of overwhelming. For my money, it is the third-most interesting pumpkin beer I have had, behind Southern Tier Pumking (my favorite, by a mile) and Saranac Pumpkin Ale. It’s interesting how much time and energy and cost is put into pumpkin beers these days. Don’t get me wrong; I’m glad about it. I just can’t try them all and stay functioning.
t. Two words for Maryland’s captains refusing to shake the outstretched hands of Penn State players before their Big Ten game Saturday: bush league. (And I don’t care about the pre-game squabbling that preceded it.)
u. Shameless Back-pat of the Week: Something I never thought I’d write is that, on a treadmill Saturday, I ran four miles in 32:10. That’s not something I could have done as an Enfield (Conn.) High School soccer co-captain in 1974.
v. I was proud of that until Caroline Wozniacki, who had never made more than a 13-mile run in her life, ran the 26.2-mile New York City Marathon in 3 hours and 26 minutes, That’s a 7:53-minute-per-mile pace. That, Caroline Wozniacki, is just awesome.
w. New Zealand All-Blacks 74, USA 6. So that’s what dominance on all levels looks like. What a gifted bunch of athletes the All-Blacks are. On Thursday we’ll have a really interesting piece by Michael McKnight, who sat down last week in Chicago with All Blacks star Keven Mealamu and New Zealand-born Bears defensive lineman Stephen Paea, to talk about the similarities and differences between rugby and football, and what the two sports can learn from one another.
x. Hard to figure out why college football teams don’t devote more time and more effort in recruiting prospects to kick field goals. Kicking in college football is amateur-hour run amok.
y. That was one heartbreaking—but correct—call on the goal line in Auburn-Ole Miss, taking the winning touchdown off the board and giving the ball back to Auburn inside of two minutes to play. Not much at stake, really—just a possible a national championship bid for the Rebels.
Who I Like Tonight
Colts 30, Giants 20. Two valuable pieces return to the lineup for Indianapolis: cornerback Vontae Davis—one of the best cover men in the first half of the NFL season—and wideout Reggie Wayne. Now, Wayne missed last week’s loss at Pittsburgh with a sprained elbow, and considering he missed but one start in the decade between 2003 and 2012, that had to be one heck of a sprained elbow. On Saturday, after practicing fully for the second straight day, Wayne was pronounced ready to go for the game against the Giants, and that means the Giants won’t be able to concentrate so thoroughly on stopping emerging star T.Y. Hilton. “I told you at the beginning of the year," said Wayne, “that I’m like an old school car. You can’t leave me in the garage all day. I might not start on you. If I’m going to play, if I’m going out there, I’m expecting to play. If I’m going to be limited, I might as well continue to get treatment. But I feel good. I had a couple days of practice where I felt pretty good, caught the ball pretty well." The interesting thing about Wayne, who turns 36 in two weeks and who I’m told plans to play another year at least, is how close he is to old teammate Marvin Harrison in all statistics except touchdown catches. And he could end up eclipsing Harrison in receptions, yards and yards per catch. How the two longtime mates stand entering tonight’s game:
|Receiver||Starts||Catches||Rec. yards||Yards per Catch||TD receptions|
If Wayne stays healthy the rest of the way this year, and then plays eight games or so in 2015, there’s little doubt he’ll pass Harrison. Which sets up an interesting debate for Canton.
The Adieu Haiku
Way back in the day,
the Pats were dead and buried.
Five long weeks ago.