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Week 6 Snap Judgments: Broncos' unbeaten record is in spite of Manning

The Broncos just keep winning, but for once, Peyton Manning has very little to do with it, and his struggles are likely to only get worse as the season progresses. 

Musings, observations and the occasional insight from a Week 6 in the NFL that got better and better as it unfolded.....

• It’s time to ask the once-unthinkable question in Denver: Are the Broncos winning in spite of Peyton Manning? Did No. 18 manage to keep both teams in the game on Sunday in Cleveland? The Broncos somehow stayed undefeated and improved to 6-0, beating the snake-bit Browns 26-23 in overtime, but there’s some pretty ugly offense being played in Denver these days.

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Manning threw three more interceptions in Week 6, and while he did have some nice work on the Broncos’ game-winning field goal drive in overtime (4 of 4 for 39 yards), he has become a liability that defensively-led Denver has to overcome. Manning now has tossed an NFL-high 10 interceptions this season, in six games and 237 pass attempts, the same number of picks he threw in all of 2013, his spectacular Super Bowl season with the Broncos when he finished with 55 touchdown passes and nearly 5,500 yards in putting the ball up a whopping 659 times that year.

Manning was intercepted three times by Browns linebackers, underscoring his underneath passing approach this season. Karlos Dansby got him twice, including a 35-yard pick-6 that boosted the Browns into a 20-6 lead midway through the fourth quarter. Then, early in overtime, little-used Cleveland linebacker Barkevious Mingo made what should have been the play of the game, intercepting Manning on a horribly thrown short lob and returning it to the Denver 39. The bungling Browns went backwards on their drive and Manning survived to throw again, but the game could have easily been over at that point, and Manning would have had to own the Denver loss.

•​ Complete coverage of Week 6 of the NFL season 

Manning, 39, has to be a little embarrassed by his limitations at this point, and when Denver’s offense finally posted a touchdown on Sunday— a 75-yard Manning-to-Emmanuel Sanders hook-up that was about two-thirds Sanders’s yards after catch—it marked the first time in a league-worst 27 consecutive drives that the Broncos offense had found the end zone.

Manning hasn’t thrown 10 interceptions in his first six games of a season since his rookie year, in 1998. And his three pick-sixes are the most he’s had in any season since 2010.

If Manning had a different last name and track record, his output of seven touchdowns against 10 interceptions this season would get him potentially benched by some NFL coaches. He’s on pace for a career-low 19 touchdown passes this season, and 28 interceptions, which would match his career high, set in that rookie season. And his 26-of-48, 290-yard, one-touchdown, three-pick performance (with a 55.3 passer rating) against Cleveland sends him staggering into Denver’s Week 7 bye.

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With November and colder weather looming, is it reasonable to think a week’s worth of rest is going to significantly alter the arc of his season? Manning’s recent history in cold weather isn’t too pretty—or his long-term history in it, for that matter—and a night game at home in Week 8 against Green Bay could be very challenging in terms of the conditions, as could home games against New England (Week 12, a Sunday night), Cincinnati (Week 16) and San Diego (Week 17). Road trips to Chicago (Week 11) and Pittsburgh (Week 15) pose the potential for more tough weather.

The longer Manning’s struggles last this season, the more our eyes tell us the truth. This isn’t remotely the Manning we’ve seen for most of the past three years in Denver. That’s why it would be wise for Denver head coach Gary Kubiak to get creative and find some live-game snaps for Broncos backup quarterback Brock Osweiler. Nobody’s presuming that Manning is vulnerable to being replaced in the starting lineup, but Osweiler getting some playing time would at least better prepare the Broncos for the second half of their schedule, should Manning’s declining play become even more obvious, or health issues arise as the wear and tear of the season mounts.

Though the Broncos’ superb defense and a 6-0 mark disguises plenty, this much is plain: Things could easily get worse for Manning as this season unfolds and the weather accentuates the challenges his passing arm now faces. Denver has gotten it done so far despite his limitations, but for Manning, the final 10 games of the regular season could include a series of new lows.

• The most baffling call of the day had to be the decision by Browns head coach Mike Pettine to go for two points after Dansby’s 35-yard interception return put Cleveland up 20-16 with 8:07 remaining in the game. I suppose he wanted to build a six-point lead and make any potential Denver point-after try that much more pressure-packed, but I’m just guessing here.

Josh McCown did not connect on his two-point pass attempt to Travis Benjamin, and what ended up happening with the Browns up only four points was this: Denver took a 23-20 lead on Sanders’s 75-yard touchdown with 7:53 left, but then Cleveland kicked a game-tying field goal to make it 23-23 with 1:30 remaining in regulation. That extra point that Pettine disdained could have been the difference in a 24-23 Browns win.

• Yes, the Browns lost a game they should have put away, but don’t blame Gary “Big-play” Barnidge. Cleveland’s eighth-year weapon of a tight end caught two more scoring passes in the overtime loss to Denver, and that makes him the first Cleveland tight end since Ozzie Newsome in 1981 to catch a touchdown in four consecutive games.

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Barnidge used his hands on Sunday, rather than his legs and feet, to secure his scoring grabs, but whatever it takes. His three catches for 39 yards included touchdowns of 11 and 14 yards, and he now has 27 receptions for 413 yards, with five touchdowns, keeping him among the league leaders for tight ends. 

•  It’s a pretty damning indictment on ex-Dolphins coaches Joe Philbin and Kevin Coyle and how their former players felt about them that Miami went to Nashville and dismantled the Titans 38-10 in the first game worked by interim head coach Dan Campbell. The Dolphins played with enthusiasm and aggression for Campbell, sacking Titans rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota five times, after registering a total of just one sack in their first four games of the season.

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The 38 points were the most in franchise history in support of a coach making his debut, and it was evident from the opening snap that Campbell has made in-roads in pushing the right buttons so far with his underachieving roster. Miami rushed for a season-best 180 yards, led by Lamar Miller’s 113-yard, one-touchdown game, and the Dolphins defense also got a 30-yard interception return touchdown from Reshad Jones.

Miami defensive end Cameron Wake’s game was revitalized under Campbell, and his four sacks in the first half tied for the most by anyone in the first half of a game since 1991. It all made for a very good start for Campbell and the Dolphins (2-3), but inconsistency has been the norm in Miami for so long, so let’s see who shows up next week when the 2-4 Texans visit. 

• The Steelers are no doubt thrilled that they came back to win at home against Arizona, but it’s obvious they should have been playing third-year reserve quarterback Landry Jones in Ben Roethlisberger’s injury absence, not the almost-finished Michael Vick.

Jones was a revelation for the Steelers, leading five second-half scoring drives in the 25-13 win over the Cardinals, after Vick left the game with what the team announced as a hamstring issue. No matter if Roethlisberger is healthy and ready to play next week at Kansas City, Vick’s time in the lineup should come to an end. He is a one-dimensional player these days, and can only help an offense with his running ability.

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Vick left the game just 3 of 8 for 6 yards of passing, and that was dwarfed by Jones's 8 of 12, 168-yard, two-touchdown game, which included hitting Martavis Bryant on the game-sealing 88-yard touchdown pass with 1:58 remaining. Vick’s days as an NFL starting option look definitively over.

• I don’t really know what to make of the talented but puzzling Cardinals through six weeks, because for the second time in three games Arizona let a victory slip away, just as it did at home against St. Louis in Week 4. Where’s the killer instinct in Bruce Arians’s club? The Cardinals out-gained Pittsburgh 279-59 in the first half, but somehow led only 10-3, getting outscored 22-3 in the second half.

The Cardinals again couldn’t stop the running game, surrendering 142 yards on the ground in the second half, and Carson Palmer had a mediocre game, throwing a pair of interceptions that proved costly.

• So glad the NFL’s tortured definition of a catch includes the necessary act of keeping possession of the ball all the way to the ground—until it doesn’t. All the Golden Tate touchdown catch replay ruling did on Sunday in Detroit was further complicate an impossibly complicated rule. Because it was ruled that Tate wasn't going to the ground, Tate had instead “become a runner” while he had the ball, and therefore he didn’t need to maintain possession all the way to the ground.

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Whatever. As long as most of the people watching don’t know how to identify a catch or non-catch, that’s the continuing problem the NFL has created. Until the rule is changed to provide consistency, simplicity and logic, the league will run the risk of a weekly controversy surrounding one of the most common acts in football.

• Another week, another impressive, all-around performance by the undefeated Bengals, who cruised past Buffalo 34-21 on the road amid snow flurries at Ralph Wilson Stadium. I thought this could be a trap game for Cincinnati, coming off last week’s big home win in overtime against Seattle, and with a division showdown at Pittsburgh looming in Week 8, after the Bengals’ bye. But Cincinnati blew open the game by scoring 17 points on its first three drives of the second half, and it’s getting tougher to find any challenge Marvin Lewis’s club can’t handle.

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But that's where Week 8’s road game against the Steelers will come in handy as a litmus test. The Bengals lost twice to Pittsburgh by double digits in the last four weeks of the 2014 season, and those defeats cost them the AFC North title. The Steelers are 4-2 and face a winnable game at Kansas City (1-5) next week. If Cincinnati can get out of the Steel City with a win and the first 7-0 start in franchise history, the expectation level for this Bengals 2015 season will rise exponentially.

• They won and climbed back over .500 at 3-2, but it still doesn’t bode well for the Vikings that they struggled so mightily to put away the punchless one-win Chiefs at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. The Chiefs looked dreadful on offense in the first half and played without injured running back Jamaal Charles, as well as No. 1 receiver Jeremy Maclin, who left the game to be checked for a concussion.

Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater took a step back in throwing a bad interception in the end zone, and later was picked off by rookie Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters, who already has three swipes on the season. Running back Adrian Peterson barely showed up on the stat sheet as well, gaining a paltry 60 yards on 26 carries. The bright spot was rookie receiver Stefon Diggs, whose seven-catch, 129-yard showing accounted for more than half of Bridgewater’s 249 passing yards.

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The Chiefs scored 10 points in the fourth quarter to make a game of it, but their offense is in disarray and has gotten progressively worse as the season has unfolded. As for the Vikings, they now hit the road for two games in the division, at Detroit and Chicago. A mere 16 points isn’t likely to win either one of those games, even if the Lions and Bears own only a combined three wins.

• It’s a very positive sign of the Jets’ rapidly developing maturity that they stepped on Washington’s throat in the second half and gave the visitors no hope of pulling off the upset at MetLife Stadium. New York committed three turnovers in the first half of its 34-20 defeat of Jay Gruden’s team, but didn’t let any of those mistakes linger, putting the game away with a 17-0 third-quarter explosion.

The optimist in me sees the 4-1 Jets off to their best start since 2010 and thinks they’re ready to give New England a serious challenge next week in Foxboro, where first place in the AFC East will be on the line. But the realist in me pulls back a bit, saying let’s see how the Jets cope with the defending Super Bowl champions before we start figuring out their playoff chances.

There’s a lot to like about New York right now, with quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and running back Chris Ivory playing at a very high level, and the stout Jets defense looking even stronger and deeper with Sheldon Richardson back in uniform.

But next week is the real test. New York this season has beaten the perennial also-ran Browns, the Colts with Andrew Luck struggling, the Dolphins when the team had essentially quit on coach Joe Philbin, and a Washington team beset with injuries. The Patriots will offer none of those issues to boost New York’s upset hopes.

• Time to send apologies and kudos in the direction of the Carolina Panthers and stop pointing out that their schedule had plenty to do with their presence in the ranks of the unbeaten. Ron Rivera’s 5-0 team just went into Seattle and got a W, and even though the 2-4 Seahawks appear to be having a down year, that’s still one of the more impressive feats in the NFL.

The Panthers’ dramatic 27-23 victory reverses the outcome of last January’s NFC Divisional round game between these two rivals, and that is still the only game Carolina has lost since December 2014 dawned (10-1 in that span). Quarterback Cam Newton came up clutch in beating Seattle for the first time in his career, with a dagger of a 26-yard touchdown pass to his favorite target, tight end Greg Olsen, with 32 seconds left to play.

The first-place Panthers now face a challenging three-game homestand against Philadelphia, Indianapolis and Green Bay, but after winning in Seattle, no home game could possibly look quite as daunting. Let’s stop wondering if the Panthers are for real. They are for now. And that’s all we can go on in the NFL.

• This season is getting almost ridiculously repetitive in Seattle. The two-time defending NFC champions have now blown fourth-quarter leads in all four of their losses, and the meltdown at home Sunday might be the defeat that sends the Seahawks spinning out of control. How many more team meetings can Pete Carroll call to talk about the importance of finishing? How many blows to the psyche of a team still dealing with the specter of the Super Bowl loss can Seattle endure?

The Seahawks did some very, very un-Seahawks-like things to lose this game, their fourth defeat against just two wins. They gave up back-to-back 80-yard touchdown drives in the fourth quarter, and four overall in the game. They went scoreless on four of their last five possessions, punting three times. And they watched helplessly as Cam Newton shredded their supposedly elite secondary to the tune of 162 yards in the fourth quarter alone.

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Let’s not kid ourselves. Seattle scares no one at this point. The Seahawks invincibility factor vanished in the dying moments of the Super Bowl, and opponents are sensing that if they hang around long enough with Seattle, Carroll’s club will give up the lead. This one can’t be blamed on a tough road environment. This one came at home, where the Seahawks hadn’t lost since Week 5 of 2014.

This one represents the crushing failure that Seattle can’t explain away.

• Colin Kaepernick is back. But the Ravens are long gone. Those are the quick takeaways from San Francisco’s 25-20 home win over Baltimore, in that rematch of a Super Bowl pairing that already feels decades ago.

Kaepernick suddenly looks like his game has been revitalized the past two weeks, and his 16 of 27, 340-yard, two-touchdown performance included a 76-yard scoring pass to former Raven Torrey Smith and a 51-yard fourth-quarter pass to former Raven Anquan Boldin. San Francisco would have much rather won the Super Bowl against Baltimore three seasons ago, but you take revenge wherever you can.

At 1-5, the Ravens won’t be playing big meaningful games in the AFC North in the final six weeks of the season, and that’s a first in the eight-year John Harbaugh coaching era. San Francisco’s plight isn’t much better at 2-4, but at least the 49ers' passing game has come back to life in mid-October.

• Year in and year out, nobody in the NFL teases like the San Diego Chargers. The Bolts made a thrilling game of it at Lambeau Field, but in the end, getting a career-best 503-yard passing day out of Philip Rivers wasn’t enough to beat the still undefeated Packers. Think about that for a moment. Rivers completed 43 of 65 passes against the Packers, and San Diego still wasn’t able to top 20 points on the scoreboard, losing 27-20 in a game that saw Green Bay rookie cornerback Damarious Randall knock away the potential game-tying pass at the goal line.

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At 2-4, trailing first-place Denver by four games, the Chargers aren’t catching the Broncos. But all six of San Diego’s division games remain, starting next week at home against Oakland, so the goal now is to fight its way back into the wild-card conversation.

• If nothing else, Houston’s 31-20 win at Jacksonville should settle the Texans’ chronically unsettled quarterback situation once and for all. Brian Hoyer, the guy who Houston head coach Bill O’Brien knows he should have stuck with longer, has seized control of the job he lost after a shaky Week 1 showing.

I’m sure Ryan Mallett’s recent sideline pouting didn’t help his cause, but this is a job Hoyer clearly deserves on performance, and let’s hope O’Brien doesn’t forget how well Hoyer is capable of playing in his offense. Hoyer was 24 of 36 with three touchdowns, no interceptions and 293 yards against the Jaguars, and he was efficient all game long.

That is more than you can say about Jacksonville’s 2014 first-round pick Blake Bortles. The Jaguars quarterback tossed three interceptions to go with his 331 yards and three touchdowns, and you’ve got to start wondering if the big mistakes will ever be eliminated from his game?

• Who I like tonight: The Eagles haven’t won consecutive games since late November of last season, but if they have any hope of being a factor in the NFC East race, they can’t afford to start 0–3 in the division, with a loss to each of their three division rivals. The Giants are playing well and starting to look like the team to beat in the East, and Eli Manning has been near the top of his game during this three-game winning streak. That probably makes Giants fans a bit nervous, because New York has been very inconsistent the past three seasons, and the only thing that can be counted on from Tom Coughlin’s club is that an upswing will be followed by a downturn. Based on their productive second half against the Saints (with their admittedly horrible defense), the Eagles should be able to muster just enough offense to fight their way back to .500 and a share of first place. Eagles 24, Giants 20.