Jets defense wakes up just in time for playoff race; more Snaps
Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we take in a Week 9 in the NFL that was pretty friendly to road teams, with eight of them -- the Jets, Dolphins, Falcons, 49ers, Bengals, Broncos, Giants, and Packers -- winning ...
• Don't let that unusual all-green color scheme throw you. Sunday afternoon in Buffalo was really the first time all season the Jets were recognizable. The Jets team that dismantled the first-place Bills 27-11 at Ralph Wilson Stadium was the team Rex Ryan thought he had all along: Dominant on defense and ready to play anywhere against anybody at any time.
If this was the measuring stick game it was billed as in the AFC East, the Jets more than measured up, and the Bills fell woefully short. This was easily the most complete game New York has played all season and it signaled that the Jets have their swagger back and are again capable of making a talented and multifaceted offense look frustrated and anemic for four quarters.
This wasn't beating the punchless Jaguars or bumbling Dolphins at home. This was a quality win against a quality opponent, and the Jets executed it on the road, where they had been 0-3 this season. This was a victory that put New York right into the thick of the division race at 5-3, builds on the momentum of its current three-game winning streak and sets up next week's huge homefield showdown with New England for AFC East supremacy.
New York's bravado has made a comeback, and whatever identity crisis the Jets suffered through early this season is over. Suddenly, after watching New York hand the Bills (5-3) their first home loss of the season, and holding Buffalo to 19 points below its season scoring average (30.1 per game), the Jets' ever-present Super Bowl talk sounds at least plausible again. This was the kind of win that can do wonders for a team's sense of self-worth and often leads to even bigger and better things.
New York led only 3-0 at the end of a sloppy, turnover-plagued first half, but pulled away quickly from the Bills in the second half, scoring on four consecutive possessions starting from the mid-third quarter on: field goal, touchdown, touchdown, touchdown. It was the Jets defense of old on display, forcing three Bills turnovers and making a key fourth-down stop of Buffalo running back Fred Jackson early in the fourth quarter. All told, New York held the Bills to just 287 yards of offense, with 12 first downs and a 3 of 11 showing on third downs, becoming the first team to limit Buffalo to fewer than 20 points all season. The Jets had been allowing almost 22 points per game this season, but cut that number in half against the potent Bills.
Buffalo scored its only touchdown in the late garbage-time, and against the Jets, Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick finally looked like the journeyman he had been for most of his NFL career until this season. In the first half, Fitzpatrick, he of the recent big contract extension, was 4 of 12 for 24 yards, with two interceptions (by linebackers Calvin Pace and David Harris), and a microscopic 2.8 passer rating. But great defenses do that to even good quarterbacks. Fitzpatrick will have better days, but New York lowered the boom on him this time.
This beating definitely will be in the minds of the Bills when they travel to the Jets for the rematch in Week 12. That will be Buffalo's third straight road game (at Dallas in Week 10, at Miami in Week 11), and it's now a fair question to wonder if the Bills will still be hanging around in the division race at that point? We know this much: The Jets figure to be. New York has already endured its own three-game road trip this season, losing all three, but those losses now seem a long time ago.
The Jets look like the Jets again. With a dominant defense, an opportunistic, ball-control offense that held the ball for 38 minutes against the Bills, and the confidence necessary to rise to the occasion in a big-stage setting. We know New York can still talk a good game, but the Jets just proved they can play one, too.
• When Rex Ryan this preseason asked for help from other teams in beating New England, I wonder if he had the Giants specifically in mind? He should have, because his fellow New Yorkers just did the Jets a big favor by knocking off the Patriots 24-20 and setting up a 5-3 Jets vs. 5-3 New England first-place AFC East showdown next week at MetLife Stadium.
The Jets lost to the Patriots 30-21 in Foxboro in Week 5, but they'll come into next week's game with momentum on their side, having won three straight. New England has now lost back-to-back games, falling Sunday and last week at Pittsburgh, and the defeat at the hands of the Giants snapped the Patriots' 20-game regular-season home winning streak.
What is it about the Giants that make Bill Belichick and the Patriots appear positively beatable? This one obviously wasn't on the same scale as the Super Bowl upset four seasons ago, but New York just got the best of New England again, and that has to reopen that old wound to some degree.
All I know is the first-place Giants are 6-2 and suddenly look like they've got a little mojo building. Jake Ballard is the new David Tyree, and maybe Eli Manning really is one of the top five elite quarterbacks in this league.
• You want to know how crazy the AFC West has gotten? Wrap your mind around this: The Denver Broncos, Tim Tebow's Broncos, are 3-5 and one game out of first place in the division. Replace him? The guy is 2-1 as a starter and is leading the Broncos back to football relevance.
Well, let's not get ahead of ourselves. But that's what Week 9 wrought in the AFC West, where the top three teams all lost at home. The visiting Broncos upset the Raiders 38-24, while the Chargers lost at home to the Packers and the Chiefs went down in flames at home against the Dolphins.
The Raiders' meltdown is the shocker. This was their second consecutive loss at home since the controversial Carson Palmer trade, and he threw another three picks against the Broncos, giving him six so far in six quarters wearing the silver and black. You can close your eyes and hope you've got the Palmer of 2005 if you're an Oakland fan, but the stats say he's the Palmer of 2010 to this point. How smart do the Bengals look now?
• And so the worst season of Philip Rivers' career continues to spiral downward, as does San Diego's once-promising 2011. And to think not long ago we all congratulated the 4-1 Chargers for avoiding their penchant of starting slow. A lot of good that did. San Diego is 4-4, right back in the soup, and Rivers continues to be one of the biggest mysteries of the year. He threw a career-worst three interceptions in the 45-38 loss to the visiting Packers (two were returned for touchdowns), and now has a league-high 14 on the season. In the past two full seasons, Rivers threw a combined 22 interceptions.
Rivers just doesn't look comfortable, and if he's not right, nothing in San Diego's offense is right. The Chargers now face a short week and a Thursday night game against the 4-4 Raiders. There's only one saving grace for San Diego: As bad as Rivers is playing, Raiders quarterback Palmer has been even worse so far in his fledgling Oakland career.
• Logic and the weight of history tells you Green Bay probably won't go undefeated throughout the regular season. But would it really shock you if the Packers did, given the gap that seems to exist between them and the rest of the league on offense? Green Bay clearly has its issues in the area of pass defense, but the Packers can seemingly outscore anyone at will. If it takes 31 points by the offense to win a shootout in San Diego, then 31 points it shall be.
Aaron Rodgers had another ridiculous day at quarterback for Green Bay, barely throwing more incompletions (five) than he did touchdown passes (four). He was 21 of 26 for 247 yards, with no picks and a 145.8 passer rating that gave him an NFL-record eighth straight game at 110 or higher to start the season. His production has become so typically superb that we're spoiled now and don't even know how to grade him accordingly. The MVP race isn't any race at all, and it's just a matter of whether Rodgers can compete with his own performance level as we enter the season's second half.
• The Saints might have lost shockingly in St. Louis in Week 8, but I didn't think it was time to panic in New Orleans, because Sean Payton has a pretty mature team built at this point. I expected the Saints (6-3) to play well and rebound at home against the Bucs on Sunday, and they did, winning 27-16 in a game that really didn't even feel that close.
You think of New Orleans as a passing team first, but the Saints went out and ran the ball down the Bucs' throats in this one, with 195 yards rushing on 28 carries, a cool 7.0 average. Tampa Bay's defensive front, which is heavily populated with first-round picks, was no match for the Saints offensive line. Four New Orleans rushers had gains of at least 12 yards, with Darren Sproles popping one for 35 yards, Pierre Thomas taking a carry for 33 yards, and even Drew Brees ripping off a 20-yard gain.
With Brees throwing for 258 yards and a pair of scores, the Saints rolled to a 453-yard day on offense, with 24 first downs and just two punts. New Orleans made it clear that last week was an aberration, and now next week's trip to Atlanta (5-3) will be a battle for first place in the NFC South, just as most presumed it would be in the preseason.
• I don't care how he might have been provoked, Bucs running back LeGarrette Blount simply cannot be throwing a punch on the field and hitting anyone in the head -- openhanded or closed fist, not after the incident that ended his collegiate career at Oregon. Blount was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct in the third quarter after he shoved or slapped Saints defensive end Will Smith in the facemask, hurting a Bucs drive and making them eventually settle for a long field goal and a 17-6 deficit.
If Blount ever hopes to get fully past the ugly postgame punching incident that ended his Ducks career, he can't be reinforcing his reputation by losing his composure and throwing a punch every other season.
• I know we turned the clocks back over the weekend, but how far did they go with the way-back machine in Miami? That was a Dolphins offense we haven't seen since what feels like the Marino era or so. Miami kicked butt in Kansas City, earning its first win of the season in convincing style, 31-3 over the shellshocked Chiefs. Not even the Dolphins can blow that kind of lead in the fourth quarter.
Matt Moore became the first Miami QB since Chad Pennington to throw for three touchdowns, and I imagine getting touchdowns out of Reggie Bush, Brandon Marshall and Anthony Fasano (two) in the same game was the way Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano thought things might go on offense this season.
The Dolphins fall behind the winless Colts in the Andrew Luck Sweepstakes, but I'm sure the beleaguered Sparano and his players don't mind one bit. Miami probably should have won each of its past two games, losing fourth-quarter leads at home against Denver and at the Giants. Just imagine how different Sparano's job security might look right now if his team was on a three-game winning streak, with nose-diving Washington headed to Sun Life Stadium next week.
• Can't say it's all that surprising to see the Chiefs come out flat against Miami after their emotional win at home against division rival San Diego on Monday night. The Chiefs were hot, with a four-game winning streak, but their unbeaten October was a bit misleading. Kansas City had beaten the struggling Vikings, the winless Colts and caught the Raiders with no quarterbacking to speak of. As for the overtime win over the Chargers, well, they major in self-destruction.
On the bright side for Chiefs fans, at least head coach Todd Haley gets to shave that scraggly looking beard now that Kansas City's winning streak is over.
• No development in the NFL this season has been more unexpected than the work of the upstart Bengals, who have won five in a row for the first time since 1988. That dates to the Sam Wyche and Boomer Esiason Super Bowl-season era, and that feels like a half-dozen NFL lifetimes ago, at least.
Despite starting a rookie quarterback, Cincinnati is now 4-1 on the road, and in Sunday's 24-17 win at Tennessee, the Bengals rallied from a 10-point halftime deficit behind three more Andy Dalton touchdown passes. Remarkable. Not only is Dalton going to give Cam Newton a race for the Offensive Rookie of the Year honor, but also Cincinnati head coach Marvin Lewis has gone from the hot-seat list to being a strong Coach of the Year candidate.
• Well that was the more explosive offense the Falcons have been looking for this season. All Atlanta had to do was schedule the hopeless Colts and suddenly the Falcons have big plays galore. Atlanta throttled Indianapolis 31-7, getting the first two touchdowns of rookie first-round receiver Julio Jones' NFL career.
Jones made a spectacular diving grab for his first score, from 50 yards out, and then flashed his playmaking speed on an 80-yard touchdown that saw him just run through and away from the Colts defense. At that point, Jones had two receptions for 130 yards, and you just knew it was going to be difficult to keep up a 65.5-yard average catch (he finished with three for 131 yards).
Jones had missed the previous two games with a hamstring pull, and the Falcons had won both, returning to a more conservatively-called offense that was largely based around Michael Turner and the running game. But now Atlanta needs Jones to show up big again next week at home against the first-place Saints, because one of the main reasons the Falcons were willing to give up so much to trade for his rights in last April's draft was their need to match big plays with high-scoring New Orleans.
• I know the impact new head coach Jim Harbaugh has had on Alex Smith and the rest of the 49ers offense is the big story this year in San Francisco, but week by week it becomes apparent that this 49ers defense has a chance to be pretty special.
San Francisco entered Week 9 leading the NFL in scoring defense, with 15.3 points allowed per game. The 49ers improved in that category, limiting the Redskins to fewer than that in a 19-11 win at FedEx Field. San Francisco now is giving up just 14.8 points per game through the season's midway point, and that's a big part of the reason the 49ers are on a six-game winning streak, the franchise's longest since 1997.
The Redskins' injury-riddled offense has almost disappeared in recent weeks, but the 49ers did have something to do with how bad Washington looked on this day. Redskins quarterback John Beck had little to target downfield and settled for throwing all game long in the direction of rookie running back Roy Helu, who finished with a franchise-record 14 catches for 105 yards. Almost half of Beck's 30 completions for 254 yards went to Helu, who was making his first career start.
It's hard to fathom this, but the 49ers could seriously sleepwalk through the entire second half of their schedule and still win the NFC West. San Francisco (7-1) now holds a five-game lead over their closest division opponent and is facing a stretch of playing three of its next four games at home. The 49ers could clinch the West as early as Week 11, which is the weekend before Thanksgiving.
• Every other week or so the Cowboys seem to give their fans just enough hope to keep them alive and interested, and that's the kind of win Dallas posted at home against Seattle. The Cowboys and their ineffective red-zone offense were getting booed in the first half, when three trips inside the Seahawks 3-yard line produced just two field goals and a Dez Bryant fumble at the 1.
But Dallas weathered the heat that came with a 6-6 halftime score, and Tony Romo tossed a pair of much-needed touchdowns to tight end Jason Witten and receiver Laurent Robinson in the second half to give the Cowboys their fourth win in eight tries. It's the third time this season that Dallas has followed a loss up with a win, and the ability to stay out of long losing streaks is an admirable trait to have. But this is also true: Dallas emerges from the Seattle game with plenty of issues intact.
• Whether he's called the starter or not, I think we know by now rookie DeMarco Murray is the Cowboys' best running back. Murray cranked out another big game on Sunday against Seattle, carrying 22 times for 139 yards. That gives him two 100-yard games in the past three weeks, which matches the career total of injured Cowboys starter Felix Jones. Murray looks like the real deal. Jones looks like a speedster who has trouble staying healthy.
• Every week seems to bring a new high water mark in Houston, and the 6-3 Texans are now three games over .500 for the first time in franchise history. Again, this isn't the most thrilling Houston team we've seen, but it's clearly the best. The Texans again dispatched an inferior opponent on Sunday, jumping on the Browns early and then cruising to a 30-12 win.
Once upon a time, if Matt Schaub had thrown for just 119 yards and Andre Johnson didn't play, the Texans were dead in the water. But that was then, and this is now. Houston's passing game wasn't great, but it didn't have to be because its running game was. Arian Foster ran for 124 yards and Ben Tate added 115, with both producing one touchdown. It was the second time in three weeks the Texans have had two 100-yard rushers, and Houston's 263 yards on the ground was a franchise record.
The Browns don't pose much of a challenge for a defense, but Cleveland had just 172 yards, making it three straight games Houston has limited an opponent to under 200. Boring has probably never felt quite so good to Houston head coach Gary Kubiak and his first-place Texans.