PHILADELPHIA -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight in a road-team-friendly Week 14 in the NFL, which was capped by Seattle’s impressive disposal of the previously high-flying Eagles at Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field ...
• First the Cardinals, then the 49ers, and now, the Eagles. Three weeks and three statement wins for the defending champions. And you know what that means. All that might stand between the suddenly dominant Seattle Seahawks and a return trip to the Super Bowl as the NFC champion is a January trip to Lambeau Field and a playoff date against the formidable Green Bay Packers.
Is it too soon to talk about a dream rematch of the Seahawks-Packers, who met in the NFL’s season-opener back in early September? Not really. The rest of the NFC just threw their best at the defending champion in the past three weeks, and got nowhere, with Seattle’s 24-14 manhandling of Philadelphia representing the latest reminder that a repeat of last year’s march to playoff glory could be in store.
Don’t let the 10-point final margin fool you. This was a thorough butt-kicking by the loud and proud visitors, and I can’t help but think that it will be of some benefit to the Seahawks should they meet up with the Packers next month, for that will be another road game against an NFC Super Bowl contender with an up-tempo offense and a hostile home-field advantage. Like the Packers can still boast in Week 14, the Eagles entered Sunday with a 6-0 home record and a track record of scoring points in bunches.
But that’s over for Philadelphia. The Eagles (9-4) got exposed by Seattle, which limited them to a paltry 139 yards of offense, the fewest in the two-year Chip Kelly coaching era, and took all the mystery out of an attack that never remotely found its rhythm or big-play ability. Philadelphia produced just nine first downs, was 2-of-11 on third downs (18 percent) and held the ball for only 18:04. Seattle shut down almost everything the Eagles tried to do offensively, and by the second half the frustration was starting to show, with Philadelphia complaining about non-calls against the Seattle secondary in pass coverage.
“People early in the week kind of brushed me off when I said they’ve got to deal with us just like we got to deal with them,” Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman said. “That’s what happened today. You can hurry up all you want, but if you can’t get yards, you can’t complete passes, then it’s just quick three-and-outs. And that’s what we were able to do.”
Like no team has previously been able to manage, Seattle was ready for the lightning-quick pace at which the Eagles like to play. The Seahawks made quick work of those three-and-outs, and used them to limit the chances Philadelphia had to inflict damage. The Seahawks forced two Eagles turnovers as well, but Philadelphia's offense was done in by a defense that matched up supremely well against it, and mirrored its every move.
“You saw it,” Sherman said. “If you can be ready when they’re ready and understand their play concepts and read the indicator quick enough, you can get them off the field. I don’t know what their third-down numbers were, but this was one of our better games.
“It comes down to matchups at the end of the day, and if your players are sound, and they play disciplined and they play smart. Everybody was prepared, from our first man to our nickel subs. They knew what the looks were, they knew what to look for, and they were prepared. That’s coaching.”
Obviously, Eagles quarterback Mark Sanchez can't compare to the challenge that Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers might pose in the playoffs. But this is a Seattle team that is getting its killer instinct back on defense, and dealing with the Eagles’ pace was a pretty good practice session for the tempo the Packers like to feature.
Asked what he saw of Sanchez, who finished just 10-of-20 for 96 yards passing, with two touchdowns and one interception, Seattle defensive end Michael Bennett minced no words.
“Same thing everybody else saw, not much,” Bennett said. “But I don’t really care for that guy. He played decent, and [LeSean] McCoy, we stopped him pretty good and that was pretty much the game. Mark Sanchez is, he’s perpetrating as a good quarterback. So it’s hard to play with Mark Sanchez in there. They don’t have the same offense as with Nick Foles [in there], so it’s a lot easier to scheme for them that way.”
Seattle (9-4) plays at Arizona (10-3) in two weeks in Glendale, and another road win could vault it into first place in the NFC West, allowing the Seahawks to climb into one of the conference’s top two seeds. If they somehow manage to overtake the No. 1 seed, that highly anticipated rematch against Green Bay (9-3) could even take place in CenturyLink Field, where the Seahawks routed the Packers 36-16 in Week 1.
“We’ve already got all the experience that every other team wants,” Bennett said. “We’ve been to the Super Bowl, and we’ve played against some of the best teams on the road. So it really doesn’t matter who we play. We definitely know our season’s in our hands. And that’s the way we’ve got to play. We’ve got to go out there and play like we’ve got our hair on fire. It’s one of those things where we’re hitting our stride, we’ve got out [injured] guys back, and now we’re playing really special.’’
You don’t have to convince the Eagles. After Sunday, they know where Seattle still resides in the NFC pecking order. And even more apparent to everyone is where the defending champions might be headed from here.
• They’re likely still going to beat visiting Dallas next Sunday night and win the NFC East, but the Eagles really don’t belong in the conversation when it comes to the NFL’s elite teams. They have shown they’re not yet in that top tier. They’ve lost most of the games they’ve played against quality opponents this season, falling on the road at San Francisco, Arizona and Green Bay, and now losing at home to the surging Seahawks.
Road wins at Indianapolis and Dallas were very solid bullet points on the Eagles’ 2014 résumé, but Philadelphia has largely taken care of business against the middleweights and lightweights of the league, beating Jacksonville, Washington, St. Louis, the Giants, Houston, Carolina and Tennessee. The Seattle game represented a chance for the Eagles to prove they can elevate their game, but it was an opportunity for which they weren’t remotely ready.
Mark Sanchez has had some quality outings for Philadelphia in relief of the injured Nick Foles, but he’s not good enough to carry this team deep into the playoffs. The Eagles, to a large degree, are limited by their quarterback, rather than led by him.
• We’ve never seen a Jim Harbaugh-coached 49ers team with little or nothing to play for, but that’s the reality of the next three weeks for San Francisco, in the wake of its stunning 24-13 upset loss at Oakland. And it could really get ugly. Especially if Harbaugh himself mentally checks out as his four-year tenure winds down to the conclusion that so many have seen coming for so long, producing his departure from San Francisco after the season.
All year it has looked like the Super Bowl-or-bust approach would likely blow up in San Francisco at some point, but few could have dreamed the breaking point would be reached in a pathetic 11-point loss to the cross-bay-rival Raiders, who, coming into this game, sat at 1-11 and were fresh off a 52-0 loss at St. Louis. The wheels seem to be coming off for 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, and even though Harbaugh has staunchly defended him, he’ll face another new round of criticism after stinking up the joint against Oakland. Kaepernick was just 18-of-33 for 174 yards, with five sacks, an interception, three delay of game penalties and an unfortunate push of a cameraman in the tunnel at halftime.
And don’t look now, but Kaepernick and the 49ers have to head next to Seattle, to play their arch-rivals for the second time in three games. The Seahawks defense owns Kaepernick, and will no doubt take great delight in trying to eliminate San Francisco from the playoff chase, and drop it to .500 in the process.
• That was a gritty 17-14 win by the Cardinals at home against Kansas City, snapping a two-game losing streak, but there’s no time to celebrate because onrushing Seattle remains right on Arizona’s tail. And the Cardinals can’t be looking forward to a short week and a road game at St. Louis on Thursday night. The last-place Rams are playing with great confidence in every facet of the game, and just logged their second straight shutout win on Sunday, 24-0 at Washington.
Arizona quarterback Drew Stanton helped stop the Cardinals’ bleeding and made enough plays to bring them back from a 14-6 halftime deficit, but it still feels like Bruce Arians’ team is in hold-on mode, and that’s never where you want to be in December. The Cardinals also continue to be prone to crucial injuries, losing running back Andre Ellington to the IR list with a season-ending hernia issue. There’s only so much next-man-upping any team can do, and Arizona is in danger of losing the war of attrition.
• Well, that figures. The AFC North standings have been ridiculously tight all season long, and the events of Week 14 mean there’s still no breathing room to be had. The Bengals’ 41-21 loss at home to Pittsburgh, combined with Baltimore’s upset of the Dolphins in South Florida keeps the division’s big three clumped together, separated by only a half game with three weeks remaining. Cincinnati sits at 8-4-1, with the Steelers and Ravens at 8-5. The Browns’ last-minute loss at home to the Colts knocks Mike Pettine’s young team into undisputed possession of last place at 7-6.
The Bengals haven’t really done anything easily this season, and Sunday just continued that trend. After going 13-0-1 at home in a streak that spanned from late 2012 until earlier this season, Cincinnati has now lost two consecutive games at Paul Brown Stadium, both in the division and both by three touchdowns. The Browns beat them 24-3 in Week 10, and now the Steelers have laid a 20-point beating on them. And don’t forget, in between those two games, the Bengals won three road games in three consecutive weeks for the first time in franchise history.
The pressure now builds exponentially in the Queen City, because the Bengals play at Cleveland next week, return home to face Denver, then close out the regular season at Pittsburgh. The Browns and Steelers have already beaten them at home, and Denver is one of the AFC’s elite teams again this season. Suffice to say that Sunday assured there will be no breezing into the playoffs in Cincinnati -- if there are any playoffs at all.
• But elsewhere in the division, the Steelers’ rollercoaster ride of a season is back on the ascent with that monster win at Cincinnati. A week after getting dominated at home by the Saints, Pittsburgh has again showed both its unpredictability and resiliency. And the best news for the Steelers is that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger shook off a slow start and three straight so-so showings to look like himself again. Roethlisberger was a cool 25-of-39 for 350 yards, picking the Bengals apart for three touchdowns, including a 94-yard scoring bomb to rookie Martavis Bryant in the fourth quarter.
Pittsburgh has established that it will play up or down to the level of its opponent and that’s why Steelers fans can’t go counting any playoff chickens just yet. Next week a trip to Atlanta awaits, and the Falcons are 5-7 heading into Monday night’s road game at Green Bay (9-3). Drawing Atlanta on a short week should favor Mike Tomlin’s club. And with home games against Kansas City and Cincinnati to come in Weeks 16-17, the Steelers at least have a decent path to 10 wins and their first playoff berth since 2011.
• I’m starting to think Roethlisberger might be right. The Steelers might run Le’Veon Bell into the ground this season. But can you blame them? Where would Pittsburgh be without him? Bell churned out another 185 yards on the ground against the Bengals, posting three touchdowns and another 50 yards receiving. His 235 yards rushing-receiving made him just the second player -- joining Chicago legend Walter Payton -- to have 200-plus yards from scrimmage in three straight games. That’s pretty good company for the second-year Steelers' running back. It took Payton until his third season (1977) to accomplish the feat.
• Week 14 was a pretty good week to be on the road. In the weekend’s first 10 games, not counting the late-day games and the Sunday and Monday night games, the road teams went a sizzling 8-2. And usually the away team won in convincing fashion, starting with the Cowboys’ 13-point victory in Chicago on Thursday night.
The Steelers cruised by 21 points at Cincinnati, the Panthers romped the Saints by 31 at New Orleans, the Rams blew out host Washington by 24, the Giants won by 29 in Tennessee, Baltimore earned a 15-point win at Miami and Houston recorded a comfortable 14-point win at Jacksonville. Only the Vikings, (barely), and Lions protected their home turf, and only the Colts won narrowly on the road, beating the Browns 25-24.
• I won’t even attempt to explain the Saints’ latest meltdown, losing by 31 points at home to a Carolina team that had tasted victory exactly once since Oct. 5. Let this factual nugget sink in for a while: The Panthers (4-8-1), despite winning once in a span of two months, are just a half-game behind New Orleans (5-8) in the race to the top of the cellar that is the NFC South. And the Falcons (5-7) will probably join the Saints with an eighth loss shortly, as they face the red-hot Packers Monday night at Lambeau Field, where Green Bay is 6-0 this season.
Proving that Sean Payton’s club is fully down the rabbit hole, New Orleans now has won two in a row on the road and dropped four straight at home -- the franchise’s longest losing streak in the Superdome since 1999, the end of the team’s dismal Mike Ditka-coaching era (or error). And the Panthers didn’t just beat the Saints, they beat them up and humbled them in a season that has been filled with humiliation in New Orleans.
If this isn’t rock bottom for the Saints, I can’t imagine the depths that await. Check that, New Orleans plays at Chicago next week, and a loss to the beleaguered and Brandon Marshall-less Bears could be worse. All in all, I’m starting to think I got my preseason Super Bowl pick wrong when I rode with the Saints.
• I don’t know how Washington’s Jay Gruden saw it, but I certainly didn’t see a franchise quarterback in Colt McCoy on Sunday against St. Louis. I saw yet another debacle unfolding at the game’s most crucial position for Gruden’s team, which looks as if it has packed it in for the year. The Rams' 24-0 shutout of Washington removed any vestige of hope or confidence that may have been placed in McCoy.
• Yes, it was the hapless Raiders and Redskins that the Rams just blanked in consecutive weeks, but don’t sell the St. Louis defense short because of that. The Rams allowed Peyton Manning’s Broncos a measly seven points in their Week 11 upset win over Denver, so they’re not partial to beating up on bad teams exclusively.
I’ve been writing Snap Judgments for about 10 years or so, and I don’t think I’ve ever had a Cleveland Rams reference to drop into my column. But I do today. Because the last Rams team to record consecutive shutouts were those 1945 Cleveland Rams, before the moves to Los Angeles and St. Louis (and maybe back to L.A.) were even imagined. The Rams had back-to-back shutouts of the Chicago Cardinals and Chicago Bears that season, so clearly we’re taking a trip in the way-back machine with this feat.
No NFL team anywhere has had twin shutouts since 2009, when Dallas blanked Washington (of course) and Philadelphia in Weeks 16-17. And there was nothing fluky about this Rams-Redskins game, given that Washington never even drove inside the St. Louis 20-yard line. St. Louis sacked McCoy and Griffin a combined seven times and picked off McCoy twice.
With St. Louis playing as well as it is right now, it’s a shame these Rams (6-7) are going to run out of time this season and possibly again finish in last place in the rugged NFC West. Just imagine what they might have done with quarterback Sam Bradford healthy all season and that defense doing most of the heavy lifting?
• If the Ravens make the playoffs and go on to make some noise in January, they might look back on their drive in Miami just before halftime on Sunday as the turning point of the season. Baltimore’s 28-13 comeback victory over the Dolphins seemed to hinge on the 12-play, 97-yard, 3:06 march that ended with a 1-yard Joe Flacco-to-Steve Smith touchdown pass just seconds before the half, cutting Miami’s lead to 10-7.
The Ravens flipped the game’s momentum with that drive, outscoring the Dolphins 21-3 after that, and giving themselves a heck of a good shot to return to the postseason after a year’s absence. It certainly seemed like Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh knew his team’s season had reached a crossroads, because he boldly went for it on 4th-and-1 from his own 34-yard line in the third quarter, with Flacco sneaking for the necessary yardage on the possession that eventually produced the go-ahead points.
Baltimore’s two losses to the Bengals might still cost it a shot to win the AFC North, but a wild-card berth should be within reach. The Ravens have a home game next week against the Jaguars, who are winless on the road this season, and then finish at Houston and home against the Browns. If Baltimore can somehow find enough healthy bodies to field a secondary -- cornerbacks Danny Gorrer (knee) and Anthony Levine (concussion) were both hurt against Miami -- the Ravens might be dangerous in the playoffs.
• As for the Dolphins, just as they did late last season, they came up small again at home in their biggest game of the season, and this loss is likely to cost them any shot of ending their six-year postseason drought. Up 10-0 over Baltimore in the first half, with the Ravens not even recording a first down in the game’s opening 17 minutes, Miami showed no killer instinct and let the visitors take control of the game and quiet a crowd that was ready to celebrate a crucial victory.
At 7-6, the Dolphins are still alive in the AFC wild-card race, but just barely. With a trip to New England looming next week, Miami could drop to .500 and basically be eliminated by this time next week.
The Dolphins definitely made improvements this season and head coach Joe Philbin probably deserves to return to try again to get that elusive playoff berth in 2015. But Miami hasn’t been able to get over the hump this year despite being 5-3 at midseason, and another near-miss isn’t going to satisfy Dolphins fans, who have grown accustomed to too-little, too-late.
• Brian Hoyer isn’t doing Mike Pettine or himself any favors, throwing another two interceptions and enduring a sloppy day in Cleveland’s one-point home loss to the visiting Colts. A victory, however ugly, could have put a Band-Aid on the whole quarterback issue for the Browns, but now the Hoyer or Johnny Manziel question is more timely than ever. With the Browns on life support in terms of their playoff chances, I could see Cleveland’s rookie head coach turning to his rookie quarterback next week at home against the first-place Bengals, hoping for some kind of late-season magic out of Manziel. And given Cleveland’s desperation, it might be time for such a move.
The Browns defense deserved way better on Sunday. They forced four Indianapolis turnovers (the Colts have themselves a bit of a fumbling problem) and scored a pair of touchdowns, and it still wasn’t enough to get the best of Andrew Luck, who was a middling 9-of-22 in the first half. And when it mattered most, Luck drove the Colts down the field and into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown, finding his go-to guy, receiver T.Y. Hilton, from one-yard out with 32 seconds remaining.
The bottom line in Cleveland is this: These Browns have again found a way to disappoint their loyal and patient fans, and it’s win-or-else next week against the Bengals, a team they’ve already beaten on the road this season. Either Hoyer will get one last chance to lead this team to its first non-losing season in six years, or Manziel’s time has finally come.
• Colts veteran receiver Reggie Wayne dropped three passes against the Browns, so maybe some of those who have been claiming he’s lost some game have a legitimate point. Wayne finished with just one catch for five yards against Cleveland, breaking his 82-game streak of having at least three catches. He has no one to blame but himself for that, given how his hands deserted him repeatedly on Sunday.
Wayne, 36, recently called reports that he was slipping “toilet material," but his game against the Browns only weakened his case. The star again for Indy was Hilton, who is head-and-shoulders the Colts’ best playmaking threat at receiver. Hilton finished with a season-best 10 catches for 150 yards and two touchdowns. He had nine of those receptions, 141 of the yards and both touchdowns in the second half, and he’s headed for the Pro Bowl with 78 grabs for 1,295 yards and seven touchdowns this season.
• Well now, we see you, Houston. Look at where the Texans are, above .500 in December, and at least still in position to make the first-place Colts sweat a little bit when they meet in Indianapolis next week. I know the Texans have never won in Indy and probably won’t again next Sunday. But given Houston was 2-14 last year and hasn’t had the best of quarterback situations this season, being 7-6 and at least in the hunt in the season’s final month is a heck of a nice first step for Texans rookie head coach Bill O’Brien.
Houston won at Jacksonville 27-13, and that’s no small feat for the Texans, who went 0-2 against the Jaguars last season, no doubt helping get head coach Gary Kubiak fired. The Jaguars won only four games last season, and half of them were against Houston.
Even if the Texans do lose next week, clinching the AFC South title for the Colts once again, Houston still has the J.J. Watt MVP Watch to occupy its final two weeks of the season. Watt tied a career-high with another three sacks against the Jaguars, and now has a whopping 14.5 on the season. He also victimized the Jaguars with four tackles for loss, five quarterback hits and a batted pass.
My MVP vote would still go to Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers, but Watt helping the Texans to a winning record only buttresses his case.
• I still don’t know how good Detroit really is -- and if it is capable of making a deep playoff run -- but the Lions are 9-4 and you can’t sneeze at any winning record in Motown. They just don’t come around too often. This will be only Detroit’s third winning season of the new century, and the first since Jim Schwartz led the team to the playoffs at 10-6 in 2011.
There was some early undisciplined play from Detroit in its 34-17 win over visiting Tampa Bay, but the Lions steadied themselves and made quick work of the 2-11 Bucs, just the way they should have. Beating bad teams that you should beat hasn’t always been Detroit’s strong suit, but the Lions of 2014 are a more mature group, and so far they’ve won the games they should have won this season. Knocking off the Bears and Bucs these past two games has put Detroit back on the path to the playoffs. With Minnesota coming to Ford Field next week, and then a trip to Chicago, the Lions have a chance to be 11-4 and rolling heading into Green Bay in Week 17.