Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we review a predictably unpredictable Week 10 in the NFL. ...
• As it turns out, Arizona’s Bruce Arians isn’t the only ex-Indianapolis Colts head coach building a strong case in this season’s crowded Coach of the Year race.
How do you like Jim Caldwell now, Detroit? He didn’t earn too many plaudits when he was hired in January, but Caldwell’s lightly regarded Lions are 7-2 and suddenly own the NFC’s second-best record, training only the 8-1 Cardinals, their opponent next week in Glendale, Ariz.
Very stealthily, in that off-the-radar sort of way, these Lions are in the midst of a charmed season in Motown, posting their third consecutive come-from-behind victory in the final two minutes of a game on Sunday, a 20-16 defeat of the previously red-hot Miami Dolphins at Ford Field.
Just as they did in an improbable 24-23 win over the visiting Saints in Week 7, and again in a 22-21 nail-biter against Atlanta in London in Week 8, the Lions against Miami proved they can take a punch, then respond in kind. Detroit squandered an early 10-0 lead that should have been bigger, trailed 16-13 late in the fourth quarter, then saved the day when quarterback Matthew Stafford found reserve running back Theo Riddick in the end zone for the pretty go-ahead 11-yard touchdown pass with just 29 seconds left on the clock.
And just like that, Detroit has started a season 7-2 for the first time since 1993 and the Barry Sanders era, already matched its win total from last year (7-9) and earned a fourth consecutive victory. That is Detroit's longest winning streak since starting the playoff season of 2011 at 5-0. Caldwell, for his part, is now off to the best start by a first-year Lions head coach since Potsy Clark went 8-1 in 1931. Next week’s Lions at Cardinals game is now assured of being a showdown between two of the NFC’s first-place teams, and I’m not sure too many football pundits would have pegged that one for glamor-game status in the preseason.
Having been doomed by a lack of disciplined play at the end of the team’s Jim Schwartz coaching era (2009-13), the Lions in their latest incarnation seem to stay as steady and focused as Caldwell himself, whose range of emotions during a game swing somewhere between other-worldly calm and practically comatose. Detroit is playing as if it believes the game will always, always, always last long enough for a comeback, and with each of the consecutive wins over the Saints, Falcons and Dolphins, the Lions’ belief has grown.
When was the last time we’ve seen Detroit playing such a consistent brand of ball? Especially on defense? The top-ranked Lions defense entered Week 10 giving up a league-low 15.8 points per game, and Miami produced just that (16 points), once you do the rounding. The only Dolphins touchdown was set up by a blocked Matt Prater field goal -- oh, those field goals -- that was returned to the Lions’ 3, and the Miami team that dominated San Diego 37-0 last week was nowhere in sight for much of the afternoon.
Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill was razor sharp against the Chargers, but the Lions defense hounded him on Sunday, sacking him three times, while hitting or harassing him repeatedly. He threw for just 207 yards with one touchdown and one interception, and Miami’s 228 net yards of offense and puny 4.3 yards per passing play was another feather in the cap for the reinvigorated unit led by first-year Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin.
The Lions offense looked far from crisp at times, going 3-of-12 on third downs, but Stafford and Co. are imperturbable. They don’t fluster and they don’t fade, and they wait for the other team to make the key mistake. In other words, they’re the antithesis of so many self-defeating Detroit Lions teams of the past. These Lions are confident in their ability to win the close ones, with their past three victories coming by a combined six points, and just one win this season by more than two touchdowns (35-14 against the Giants in Week 1).
And the best news, the Lions’ most game-changing player -- receiver Calvin Johnson -- returned to the lineup and to form on Sunday, posting seven catches for 113 yards, including an early 49-yard touchdown reception that signaled his injured ankle won’t prevent him from once again dominating. Dolphins cornerback Brent Grimes did yeoman’s work against Megatron, and still he made Miami pay.
The Lions haven’t played their best ball of the season yet and they’re still 7-2 and at least one game ahead of second-place Green Bay (5-3, but home against Chicago on Sunday night) in the NFC North. But just ahead is the toughest stretch of the season, and Detroit will need everything it has to weather it: at Arizona next week, at surging New England (7-2) in Week 12, then a quick four-day turnaround to face division rival Chicago (3-5) at home in the Lions’ traditional Thanksgiving Day affair. Surviving that gauntlet at even 8-4 should set Detroit up nicely to make a final-month playoff push.
The road ahead is difficult, but these Lions keep winning games they would have lost last season, and in many seasons before that. A coaching hire that wasn’t all that well-received has helped remake this Detroit team and the proof is in the results and how they keep coming in the most dramatic fashion. These are not the Lions we’ve come to know and frequently deride. Thanks to Caldwell, Motown has a winner on its hands. And Arians has some stern competition for Coach of the Year.
• The play of the day on defense in the NFL, and maybe the pick of the year, was that diving one-handed interception Miami’s Grimes made in the end zone, while covering Johnson. Grimes is listed at 5-foot-10, while Johnson goes 6-5, and yet Grimes somehow overcame that ridiculous height disadvantage to keep Miami in the game at the time. Detroit led 10-0 at that point and looked poised to make it 17-0 and a potential blowout.
Facing Stafford with his back to Johnson, Grimes skyed for all he was worth in the right front corner of the Detroit end zone, then stuck out his right hand and brought the ball in to his chest as he landed. It was highlight reel material and then some, and helped make up for Grimes getting beat by Johnson on a 49-yard touchdown bomb earlier in the first half.
• If Carson Palmer’s left knee injury is season-ending as multiple reports indicate, it’s difficult to gauge the impact it will have on Arizona’s Super Bowl chances. The blow would be critical, but if there’s a team that has proven the next-man-up mantra isn’t just an NFL cliché this season, it’s the resourceful 8-1 Cardinals.
Drew Stanton started in Weeks 2, 3 and 5 this season and Arizona went 2-1 in those games, losing only at Denver. Stanton proved his worth again Sunday in the Cardinals’ 31-17 conquest of visiting St. Louis, entering the game with Arizona trailing 14-10 in the fourth quarter, and rallying the team to a comeback victory on the strength of a 48-yard touchdown pass to rookie receiver John Brown with 7:40 remaining. Stanton was 3 of 5 for 85 yards and that score in his less-than-a-quarter’s worth of work.
What impossibly bad timing for the veteran Palmer, who missed three games with that dead nerve in his throwing shoulder earlier this season, and just last week signed a three-year, $50 million contract extension. While that gives him salary insurance in light of the injury, this is the best team Palmer has ever quarterbacked, and if he’s gone for the season, it’ll be a devastating turns of events for him.
Whether or not it takes Arizona out of legitimate Super Bowl contention is a question that is more difficult to answer today. The 1990 New York Giants won a Super Bowl ring with Jeff Hostetler subbing for an injured Phil Simms, who went down for the year in December of that season. Hostetler and Stanton are comparable type quarterbacks, and if there’s any team that can keep the train moving this season, no matter what happens or who’s lost, it’s the Cardinals.
• Steelers fans can blame the Curse of Justin Bieber if they want, but I really wouldn’t overreact to Pittsburgh’s stunning 20-13 loss to the Jets at MetLife Stadium. This just kind of confirms who we thought the Steelers were: a good but streaky team that can lose to anyone in the league if they’re not on their game. That Pittsburgh had won three games in a row, all at home, made us all forget it started the year by alternating wins and losses for the first seven weeks of the season.
The law of averages said the Steelers couldn’t keep playing as well as they had been, and the Jets weren’t really as bad as their 1-8 record indicated at the start of Week 10. And it didn’t help that Pittsburgh was missing safety Troy Polamalu and linebacker Ryan Shazier with injuries.
New York came in with just three takeaways all season, but recorded four more against the Steelers, on two Ben Roethlisberger interceptions and two Antonio Brown fumbles/muffs. New York’s horrible pass defense had surrendered a league-worst 24 touchdown passes, but Big Ben, he of the 12 scoring passes in the past two games, could muster only one, and that came in the game’s final minutes.
The reality is this: The Steelers aren’t a juggernaut this season, but no one is in the tightly packed and ridiculously competitive AFC North, the first division in which every team is at least two games above .500 at any point in the season since the 1935 NFL Western Division. All four teams seem to switch places in the standings weekly, with the Browns (the Browns!!!) now leading the division at 6-3, followed by Cincinnati at 5-3-1, and then Pittsburgh and Baltimore at 6-4. I don’t see anything fluky about any of that. These are four teams that are separated by little more than a coin flip.
• I do have some quick thoughts on other Steelers-Jets topics, however. Such as:
-- Wonder if all those Steelers fans who made their way to New Jersey for that dud -- four Pittsburgh turnovers and a missed field goal -- think they spent their travel dollars wisely?
-- The Jets’ Michael Vick is now the first NFL quarterback to rush for 6,000 yards in his career, but I’ll bet he gained at least that many running sideways over the years.
-- And while we’re at it, how exactly was that not a second-quarter Vick fumble, when he was hit near the sideline and dropped the ball, with it staying in-bounds while he slid out-of-bounds and lost his helmet? I could see calling a penalty on Vick getting hit with an elbow to the head, but no call was made.
-- So much for the Roethlisberger MVP chatter. He was 30 of 43 for 343 yards, but it really wasn’t that pretty. His two interceptions and one touchdown didn’t seem very MVP-like.
-- I’m sure the victory felt good for the embattled Jets (2-8) after eight consecutive defeats, but at what price? Was it worth the potential loss of draft order status in a draft that might help deliver a long-term, legitimate answer at quarterback next spring? I don’t think so, and Oakland (0-9), Jacksonville (1-9) and Tampa Bay (1-8) keep right on losing.
-- It was a low-impact game for Steelers running back LeGarrette Blount: five carries, for zero yards, with a long gain of four yards. That won’t help his fantasy stock.
-- But what a beast rookie Martavis Bryant appears to be. He had four catches for 143 yards against the Jets, including an 80-yard late-game touchdown pass. Bryant has played only the past four games this season, but he has already caught six touchdowns passes, on just 14 receptions. With 310 yards receiving, his average catch is a nifty 22.1.
• Sorry, but same old Bills is the only phrase that fits after Buffalo gave one away at home to Kansas City in that battle of AFC wild-card contenders. The Bills were up 13-3 entering the fourth quarter of a springboard-type game that could have made them 6-3, and instead they folded in the final 15 minutes, losing 17-13 to the resurgent Chiefs.
Buffalo lost because its four red zone visits yielded just six points on a pair of field goals. A Bryce Brown fumble inside the 10-yard line was a killer -- and nice oven mitts on the recovery attempt, Scott Chandler -- and coming up empty on a late 4th-and-10 from the 15 sealed the deal for the Bills. Buffalo wasted a ton of good defense, with it sacking Alex Smith six times (three by defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, who now has a career-best 10) and holding the Chiefs to just 17 points and 278 yards of offense.
And punt returner Leodis McKelvin produced another of his catastrophic turnovers, dropping the ball with Buffalo up three points in the fourth quarter. Kansas City scored on an eight-yard Smith run two plays later, capping the Chiefs comeback.
“S--- happens,’’ McKelvin said after the game.
Yes it does. Usually to Buffalo. In a big-game setting. It felt like the Bills’ most meaningful home game in quite some time, and the crowd at Ralph Wilson Stadium was really into it for much of the day, like a gameday in the early ‘90s. And Buffalo let all of that good mojo slip away in a hail of mistakes and mediocrity.
• Here’s one of Sunday’s unsung losers: The NFL Network. With the Bills and Dolphins losing big games in Week 10, the Thursday night pairing this week of Buffalo at Miami (both 5-4) just lost a little luster. The Bills and Dolphins were the AFC’s No. 7 and No. 8 seeds before Sunday’s play.
On the other hand, the Browns and Patriots had good luck on Sunday and neither played. Cleveland moved into sole possession of first place in the AFC North at 6-3, and New England (7-2) saw its two closest AFC East competitors slip a little further back when the Bills and Dolphins lost.
• Credit the Chiefs, however, for going into Buffalo and finding a way to get it done, rallying to win for the first time in the Andy Reid era after trailing in a game by double-digits. Kansas City is 6-3, having won six of seven games after that dismal 0-2 start. That 6-1 mark ties the Chiefs with the Colts and Patriots for the best record in the AFC from the start of Week 3 on.
With wins against San Diego and Miami as well as the Bills, Kansas City is suddenly looking like it will be in great position to secure one of the AFC’s two wild-card berths for the second year in a row. But Kansas City’s work is far from done, and the next four weeks on the schedule bring home games against Seattle and Denver, with a challenging Week 14 trip to Arizona to boot.
• Not to overdo it on the “saved their season’’ storyline, but the 49ers probably saved their season with that death-defying comeback at the Superdome, where visitors go to commiserate, not celebrate. The 49ers with a loss would have been under .500 (4-5) for the first time this late in the season in the four-year Jim Harbaugh coaching era. But they didn’t lose, beating the Saints 27-24 in overtime, thanks to another display of resilience when faced with the brink of disaster.
San Francisco still hasn’t lost three games in row since Harbaugh arrived in 2011, and this one was absolutely vital if the 49ers have any hopes of making the playoffs for a fourth consecutive year. New Orleans could have used this victory, but San Francisco had to win, especially with Arizona (8-1) and Seattle (6-3), the teams ahead of it in the NFC West, winning at home.
49ers linebacker Ahmad Brooks got a very sweet form of revenge with his strip-sack of Drew Brees in overtime, setting up Phil Dawson’s game-winning field goal from 35 yards out. Brooks was penalized on a game-changing unnecessary roughness call against Brees in a 23-20 loss to the Saints last season at the Superdome in mid-November. San Francisco responded to that game by winning its next eight, a streak that wasn’t snapped until the 49ers fell at Seattle in the NFC title game.
The Frank Gore-led running game (81 yards rushing, but 57 in the first half as San Francisco built a lead) and timely defense were huge cogs in the 49ers’ win, so maybe they’re getting back to their familiar identity in the nick of time. The 49ers had no rushing touchdowns in their past five games, then recorded two in the first quarter against the Saints, with Gore and Carlos Hyde doing the honors.
• It almost seems like the Saints at some point must have held a team meeting in the preseason and decided that nothing was going to come easily this year. Because it hasn’t, and the latest example was the comeback victory that got away on Sunday against San Francisco.
The Saints never led until less than two minutes remained in regulation, but even that 4-yard Jimmy Graham touchdown catch didn’t get the job done. That’s because 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick somehow found a way to complete a bomb of 51 yards to a wide-open Michael Crabtree on 4th-and-10 from the Saints’ 22 with 1:05 left, setting up Dawson’s game-tying 45-yard field goal and producing overtime.
New Orleans at 4-5 can’t be happy, especially since that road win at Carolina in Week 9 looked like it represented a corner turned. But it’s back to work for Sean Payton and his team, which hadn’t lost a home game with him on the sideline since Week 17 of 2010. If the Panthers (3-5-1) rise up and win at Philadelphia on Monday night, which isn’t likely, Carolina will be back in first place, ahead of the Saints. Otherwise, New Orleans is still on top in the sad-sack NFC South, so there’s that much of a sliver lining to cling to.
But this season has to be getting old in the Big Easy. The Saints have now lost four games this year in which they were leading in the final two minutes of regulation.
• Memo to Saints all-world tight end Jimmy Graham: Of course that was offensive pass interference on the Hail Mary attempt at the end of regulation. Did 49ers defensive back Perrish Cox help sell the call with a theatrical flourish? Absolutely. But he didn’t take a dive. You pushed him. Every bit as much as Ravens receiver Steve Smith pushed that Bengals’ safety at the end of the game in Week 8. And you didn’t see Smith acting as if he hadn’t.
• The win by Dallas in London was so critical, I’d let the Cowboys miss curfew for the upcoming bye weekend if I were Jerry Jones. Come to think of it, I’d actually keep an extra eye on the Cowboys players who don’t seem to be able to handle all that freedom.
But in reality, Dallas wasn’t going to the playoffs if it didn’t find a way to beat Jacksonville in Wembley Stadium. Of that I’m convinced. Mission accomplished on that front, partly because of how great Dez Bryant played in the second quarter, and partly because of how bad the Jaguars are at tackling opponents.
Plenty of credit to Tony Romo, too. Playing with two transverse process fractures in his back, he threw for 246 yards on 20-of-27 passing, with three touchdowns and a season-best 138.8 passer rating. He wasn’t too nimble, and it was obvious that some of his passes lacked their usual zip, but Romo worked the underneath portions of the field well, and got a tremendous outing from Bryant.
Bryant caught six passes for 158 yards and two long touchdowns of 35 and 68 yards, and both were great individual efforts on his part. All six of Bryant’s catches came in the second quarter, and I guess that helps explain why Jacksonville started the day with a plus-1 point differential in the first quarter this season, but a ghastly minus-111 points in the second quarter. The Jaguars are the worst tackling team in the league, and Bryant took full advantage on Sunday, abusing the Jacksonville defenders in open space. And I wouldn’t try single coverage against Bryant in the future either if I were the Jaguars. That plan didn’t work out so well.
Score it America’s Team 1, Britain’s potential team (the Jaguars) 0.
If only Dallas could play on the road every week, where the Cowboys are the only undefeated team in the league this season at 4-0. The Cowboys at home are a mere 3-3, losing their most recent two games at Jerry World.
• Uh, oh. John Harbaugh has the temper his family name is known for, but he has every right to be ticked off at CBS for Sunday’s blunder. The Ravens’ head coach mentioned archrival Pittsburgh in a less than flattering light in his postgame locker room comments, and CBS allowed those comments to later air after specifically agreeing not to.
In celebrating Baltimore’s yawner of a 21-7 win over visiting Tennessee, Harbaugh was shown speaking to his team: “That team beat us last week [the Steelers] and then went out and got their a-- kicked this week [at the Jets]."
That’s standard fare for an NFL head coach, but no way, no how does any coach want those comments made public, even if Baltimore and Pittsburgh have played twice already this season and can’t meet unless it’s in the playoffs. What Harbaugh said was factual, but it was for motivational purposes. For his own team, not the Steelers.
CBS later apologized to the Ravens and pulled the video, but something tells me that too-little-too-late move probably didn’t satisfy Harbaugh or put the issue to rest. And here’s a guess that Harbaugh won’t be thrilled to see CBS cameras in his locker room the next time, or real accommodating to them going forward. His memory will be long in this case.
• The Seattle running game certainly had a nice season on Sunday: a franchise-record 350 yards on the ground, with Marshawn Lynch posting a career-high four touchdowns to go with his 140 yards rushing.
You could win a Super Bowl or two with that kind of offensive blueprint. Which might be the idea for a Seattle team that seems to be trying to get back to its 2013 identity. Even quarterback Russell Wilson got in on the act on the ground in the 38-17 win over the visiting Giants, rushing for 107 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries, to become just the second Super Bowl-era passer to record three 100-yard rushing games in a season (joining Atlanta’s Michael Vick in 2004 and ‘06).
The Seahawks still face an ultra-challenging schedule in the coming six weeks, but at 6-3, they’ve won three in a row and are starting to move past the midseason tumult brought on by the Percy Harvin trade and the numerous reports about their divided locker room. And that makes the defending champs a very dangerous team in the NFC, because you can see them starting to get things together. The offensive line just played its best game of the season, and the secondary made strides on Sunday as well, with safety Earl Thomas logging his first interception of the season.
Beware the Seahawks. They may have weathered the storm and are reacquiring some of their Super Bow swagger.
• I’m not sure what the Broncos put in their Gatorade on the sideline after falling behind Oakland 10-6 in the second quarter, but perhaps they should keep drinking it the rest of the season. Denver went from dreary to dominating in a flash, outscoring the winless Raiders 35-7 the rest of the way. The Broncos woke up with plenty of time, spanking Oakland 41-17 in what amounted to only a mild scare for the AFC West’s first-place team.
Peyton Manning didn’t start off looking like an MVP candidate, with two first-half interceptions, an intentional grounding penalty and several passes batted away at the line of scrimmage. But the Broncos are so potent and can score so quickly that Manning still wound up with the ninth five-touchdown pass game of his career and 340 yards passing. And he didn’t even play in the fourth quarter, taking a seat after Denver exploded for 38 points in a 16-minute-plus span of the second and third quarters.
In other words, even after last weekend in Foxboro, the Broncos are still the Broncos. And the Raiders are still the Raiders, despite giving their tortured fans some brief hope at the beginning of Sunday’s game. Oakland is 0-9, has lost 15 in a row, and will go a complete calendar year without a win if it loses next Sunday at San Diego.
• I don’t know if a 3-6 team has ever been in better position to make the playoffs than Atlanta is in this year’s sorry NFC South, but the facts are the facts: The Falcons on Sunday won for the first time since Week 3, and are only a game behind first-place New Orleans (4-5) in the division, with the added benefit of having beaten the Saints head-to-head in Week 1.
The Falcons-Saints rematch comes Week 16 in New Orleans, and as crazy as it sounds, Atlanta might still be hanging around at that point. That’s what beating the Bucs 27-17 in Tampa did for Mike Smith’s club. A five-game losing streak will doom most seasons, but not in this case. It probably feels strange for Atlanta to think about, given the disaster it has endured this year, but the Falcons’ playoff hopes are more alive than some teams with winning records after 10 weeks of the regular season.
Only in the NFC South.
• I’m not really sure how Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton ever puts the genie completely back into the bottle after that historically awful night against the visiting Browns on Thursday. Dalton is a confident guy and he has shown some resilience before in bouncing back after bad outings, but I have to admit I thought of Matt Schaub’s confidence-crushing pick-six parade of early 2013 while I was watching Dalton crumble before our very eyes against Cleveland.
When you add in that it unfolded in prime time, along with Dalton’s history of big-stage meltdowns, the Bengals have to be very concerned about their franchise quarterback. You have to almost try to be that bad: 10 of 33 for 86 yards, with no touchdowns, three interceptions and a passer rating of 2.0. I’m burning that game tape.