EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Musings, observations and the occasional insight from an interesting Week 7 in the NFL, and the renewal of the Cowboys–Giants rivalry at MetLife Stadium...
• Jerry Jones gets it. He knows that Big D doesn’t stand for Dallas or defense at this point in the Cowboys’ slowly-slipping-away season. It’s short for daunting. Or desperation. Because that’s where things stand in Dallas, after the Cowboys dropped their fourth straight game—their longest skid since 2010—losing 27–20 to the Giants amid a hail of second-half turnovers and mistakes.
“The challenge is daunting,” said the Cowboys’ owner after his team dropped into last place in the NFC East at 2–4, winless in the five weeks since starting quarterback Tony Romo went down with a broken left collarbone in a Week 2 win at Philadelphia. “We should and will go back and look at Seattle [the Cowboys’ Week 8 opponent] and we’ll go quarter by quarter. And that’s all that we need to be looking at. We can’t afford to look down the road. We have to get a win.”
That’s easier said than done in Dallas right now. And the Cowboys are more accurately going quarterback by quarterback these days, rather than quarter by quarter. Sunday it was veteran Matt Cassel’s turn to try to fill the void left by Romo, and while he fared well at times, making some plays downfield in the passing game, he also threw three damaging interceptions in the second half. Combine those with the two costly special teams errors Dallas made—a 100-yard kickoff return touchdown by Giants return man Dwayne Harris and a muffed Cole Beasley punt return—and the Cowboys lost another game they urgently needed to win to keep their playoff hopes alive.
The signs of strain and the cumulative effects of weekly defeat are clearly beginning to show in Dallas. Midway through the fourth quarter, just after Harris’s crushing go-ahead return touchdown, TV cameras caught an irate Greg Hardy near the Cowboys sideline, arguing with Dallas backup receiver Devin Street. At some point teammates tried to calm the defensive end down, and then inactive receiver Dez Bryant and Hardy had a heated exchange, with Bryant apparently trying to play team leader and/or peacemaker.
The Cowboys, who went 12–4 and won the NFC East last season, have already matched their 2014 loss total, and somehow managed to lose Sunday despite wracking up more than 38 minutes of possession time and amassing 460 yards of offense, including 233 on the ground. No wonder the team’s breaking point came into view.
Hardy offered a series of no-comments to any and all questions after the game, but Jones waded into the aftermath of the sideline confrontation, in his own inimitable style, when asked if he had any problem with Dez Bryant being in the Cowboys’ special teams huddle.
“None whatsoever,” Jones said. “That’s great. I didn’t see it by the way. But from my perspective I welcome it. Their type of juice, their type of passion—and that’s not a Knute Rockne speech made by their owner—those guys walk the walk and talk the talk. So when they get in there and are giving it back and forth, everybody in there knows it’s real and they’re very much doing that for their own benefit.”
Maybe the Hardy–Bryant spat is much ado about nothing, but the point is things are getting seriously tense in Dallas. The Cowboys thought they’d win at least two of the first four games Romo has missed, and possibly three. Now they’re 0–4 since Sept. 20 and facing home games against Seattle and Philadelphia, plus a road date with Tampa Bay before Romo is eligible to return to the lineup in Week 11 at Miami. Will there be a season left to save by the time the quarterback is back? Or will a 2–7 team be sent staggering into the season’s backstretch at that point?
Jones said he’s not ready to give up on his Romo-less team, but he offered an admission brimming with honesty.
“I know I was more confident that we could reach [our] goals when the season started than I am today,” he said. “We’re not the offensive team and we’re not the overall team [we expected to be]. We don’t have much margin at all. So we can’t make mistakes, with the makeup of our roster right now. We’re making mistakes that are beating us.”
Jones also stood firmly behind Cassel as the team’s starter after his 17 of 27, 227-yard, one-touchdown, three-interception day, showing no inclination to switch back to Brandon Weeden, who started the Cowboys’ first three games without Romo.
“We will go with Cassel, certainly as far as I can see in the foreseeable future,” Jones said. “That’s all I can say. You ask me if I’m confident that Cassel can help us win several of the next ballgames, I don’t know that. But I saw decent things out there today that could have helped us win that ballgame, and then obviously those turnovers are back-breakers.”
• While Dallas has gone 0–4 during Romo’s absence, the Giants have made up some serious ground, winning four out of five in that span. That puts New York in sole possession of first place in the NFC East with Philadelphia losing at Carolina Sunday night and gives New York its first win over the Cowboys since 2012. It also means the Giants are over .500 this late in the season for the first time since 2012, and that’s progress for Tom Coughlin’s inconsistent club.
So the Giants are the best team in a flawed division at the moment, but that’s worth celebrating a little bit, given New York’s 0–2 start. The Giants took care of the football against Dallas, committing no turnovers after a three-turnover loss at Philadelphia on Monday night, and when New York manages that, it’s usually on the winning side of things.
• I’m starting to think Philip Rivers is the modern-day Steve DeBerg: He plays just good enough to get you beat, as Bill Walsh once famously described DeBerg, his former 49ers quarterback. Rivers is a better quarterback than DeBerg ever dreamed of being, but another week of gaudy stats from Rivers did nothing to help the Chargers avoid falling to 2–5 and into a tie with Kansas City for last place in the AFC West.
Rivers threw for 503 yards at Green Bay last week, but San Diego only scored 20 points in defeat. He threw for 336 yards, with two interceptions and three touchdowns (all of those in the fourth quarter) in a 37–29 home loss to Oakland, but the Raiders led 37–6 at the end of three quarters, and that made the fourth quarter the epitome of garbage time.
San Diego’s defense was absolutely dreadful and deserves the bulk of the blame, of course, with Oakland scoring on its first seven drives. But Rivers is amassing a bunch of meaningless statistics this season, and where was the Chargers’ passing game when there was still a shot for San Diego to win on Sunday?
• Break up the Raiders, who are 3–3 and have already matched their win total from last season. I can’t remember the last time Oakland won a game that felt like a blowout. Jack Del Rio’s club so thoroughly dominated the Chargers on the road that it might be a bit awkward if these two ever end up sharing that $1.7 billion proposed stadium they want to build together in Los Angeles.
Oakland quarterback Derek Carr is turning into a star before our eyes, and the resurgent Raiders now occupy sole possession of second place in the AFC West. Carr completed 20 of his opening 25 pass attempts, for 275 yards and three touchdowns, and finished 24 of 31 for 289 yards.
• Smart move by the Patriots, deciding to live and die on Tom Brady’s right arm against the upset-minded Jets. You’re never going to go broke taking that approach. Brady threw a whopping 54 passes in New England’s gritty 30–23 win, compared to just nine running plays, four of which were Brady carries.
I love how tough the Jets played the defending Super Bowl champions, building a 20–16 fourth-quarter lead, but it’s the Patriots’ ability to adapt, adjust and deal with whatever becomes necessary to win that day’s game that sets them apart from any other NFL team. With Dion Lewis out with an abdominal injury and no running game to speak of, Brady kept chucking it and eventually wore down the Jets’ stout defense. The short passing game was in effect New England’s running game. Brady finished 34 of 54 for 355 yards, with two touchdown passes.
The Patriots could have easily lost this game, but Brady willed his team to the win and in the process gave New England a pretty good grasp on the AFC East once again. The Pats are 6–0, with the Jets two games back at 4–2 and Miami improving to 3–3. The Dolphins, of course, are headed to Foxboro for this week’s Thursday night game, and if New England can hold serve once again, Bill Belichick’s team will own a victory over all three of its division rivals before November dawns.
• The Patriots have a ridiculous bevy of statistics other teams just can’t match. Here are three of my favorites that I heard on Sunday, when it looked like New York might get out of Foxboro with a win:
— New England is now 77–0 at home when leading at halftime since December 2000, the first year of the Belichick era.
— The Patriots haven’t lost at home in October since Week 4 of 2005.
— The Patriots have won 28 consecutive games when scoring at least 23 points, going 166–12 in that scenario since the start of Belichick’s tenure.
• You’re welcome, London. What a strange stew that Bills–Jaguars game turned into. What Buffalo and Jacksonville put on at Wembley Stadium wasn’t exactly the clinic the NFL was hoping for. I’m not sure anyone deserved to win, but credit to the Jaguars for being less awful than the Bills, who are rapidly earning their keep as one of the season’s biggest disappointments.
Buffalo allowed a 27-0 Jacksonville run in the second quarter, then mounted a 28-0 rally itself, but still found a way to lose for the third time in four games, on an 84-yard Jaguars scoring march that commenced as soon as the Bills grabbed a fourth-quarter lead. If you like high-scoring games, this one was for you, but the quality of play was pretty shoddy.
The way I see it, Buffalo (3–4) could use Matt Cassel about now, because backup quarterback EJ Manuel was brutal at times in place of the injured Tyrod Taylor. Manuel was a turnover machine against the Jags, throwing a pair of interceptions, and fumbling twice (losing one). Another late-game fumble by Manuel was waved off when it was ruled his forward progress was stopped.
Streaky, weird game all around by the Bills and Jaguars, who scored three combined points in the first quarter, 37 in second quarter, zero in the third quarter and 25 in the fourth quarter. The game featured three defensive touchdowns, two by Jacksonville (2–5) in the second quarter, and a first-quarter series by Buffalo that included the following: Bills tight end Chris Gragg, in shades of Dan Orlovsky, losing track of where he was on the field and trying to catch a pass when he was well out of bounds on the right sideline; a Wildcat snap to LeSean McCoy that hit the in-motion receiver, Robert Woods; and Manuel throwing a third-down pass to Gragg way beyond the back of the end zone.
If the NFL is trying to teach the game to Europe, I’m not sure Sunday’s Bills–Jaguars affair was all that instructive. Unless the topic is how not to play. And remember, the league didn’t subject just two countries to this game between struggling teams; it was a worldwide experience.
• As for the NFL’s maiden voyage on the online-only presentation of the Bills-Jaguars game on Yahoo!, it wasn’t a completely smooth ride, was it? If this is the future, the NFL has to find a website that can definitely provide a clean stream, because the difference between high-def TV that American fans are used to and what Yahoo! provided was considerable. My picture was blurry fairly often, maybe 15–20% of the time, and I had some connectivity issues early on in the game. Reviews were mixed, but most people seemed to be pointing out some pretty significant kinks that need to be worked out.
I’m sure some will grade the first-time effort on a curve, but the NFL is used to getting it almost perfect on the game telecast front, and this one was far from flawless.
• Things could get ugly in Buffalo in the season’s second half. The Bills have sunk to last place in the AFC East and are 2–4 since beating Indianapolis at home in Week 1. And that defense that Rex Ryan loves to brag about is far from in bully mode. Buffalo’s defense played better and produced more last season, before Ryan got to town, so maybe it’s time to take another run at re-hiring the Bills’ 2014 defensive coordinator, Jim Schwartz. He’s still available, Rex.
Ryan said his injury-plagued team is in desperate need of its bye, but the Bills had better enjoy the break. You can’t like the way things are trending in Buffalo, and after the week off, the schedule is about to get very challenging, with three consecutive games against division foes: Red-hot Miami visits in Week 9, then comes a short-week trip to the Jets on Thursday night, and a Monday night game at New England.
• Remind me again why interim head coaching moves never work in the NFL? Don’t try sharing that little chestnut with Dan Campbell and his suddenly dominant Dolphins. Miami is 2–0 since Campbell took over for Joe Philbin, and the Dolphins have morphed into a juggernaut, overwhelming their opponents by a combined score of 82–36.
I know. I know. It was the Titans and Texans that Miami has ambushed, two AFC South clubs that are among the worst in the league. The Dolphins beat visiting Houston 44–26 on Sunday in a game they led 41–0 at the half. But still, does anyone think Miami (3–3) would have recorded these two routs if a change hadn’t been made on the coaching front? Of course not.
Campbell must be wondering what’s so tough about this head coaching stuff. His Dolphins have responded to his energy level and his get-tough tactics and finally look like the team many expected to challenge for the franchise’s first playoff berth since 2008.
• I’m so glad the Texans did HBO’s Hard Knocks this summer, because that’s the only time this pathetic Houston outfit will have the spotlight this season. Thank goodness. As it turns out, the entire Texans team was a no-show in Miami, not just backup quarterback Ryan Mallett when he failed to show in time to make the team’s charter flight from Houston on Saturday.
What happened to that wealth of defensive talent the Texans were supposedly blessed with this season? Dolphins running back Lamar Miller ripped through Houston for 175 yards rushing in the first half alone, and Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill finished 18 of 19 for 282 yards with four touchdown passes. The Dolphins had five touchdowns before the Texans had gained five yards, and Miami posted four offensive touchdowns of at least 50 yards in the first half, the first time any team has pulled that trick since at least 1940, according to STATS.
And keep in mind the Texans earlier this season trailed 42–0 at Atlanta, so Sunday’s defensive meltdown wasn’t even unprecedented in 2015. To top everything off in this disaster of a day, Bill O’Brien’s out-classed club has now lost running back Arian Foster once again, with the oft-injured Foster leaving the field with an Achilles injury.
• As for Mallett, I think his time in Houston is essentially over, pun intended. Because he apparently can’t keep track of time. His reason for being late and missing the team plane was that he got caught in traffic, but that isn’t going to cut it with O’Brien, given that Mallett missed a Texans practice this preseason after he overslept.
Starting quarterback Brian Hoyer has had some decent moments this season for the Texans, but there was no Dolphins lead that could have been big enough to prompt O’Brien to insert Mallett into this blowout. As the quarterback issues continue for the Texans, anybody in Houston wondering why the team turned away from Ryan Fitzpatrick so easily?
• Maybe Washington coach Jay Gruden knew what he was doing, labeling Sunday’s matchup with Tampa Bay a “code-red” game. I’m not sure Tampa Bay can handle the truth, but the Bucs lost 31–30 in a game they once led 24–0 in the first half. Washington had never before in its long franchise history won when trailing by more than 21 points.
What a statement game for Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins, who had thrown four interceptions over the past two weeks, in losses at Atlanta and the Jets. Cousins has been under siege of late in D.C. over his penchant for turnovers, but he was superb against the Bucs when it mattered, completing 21 of 25 passes and three touchdowns in the second half, including the six-yard game-winner to tight end Jordan Reed with 24 seconds remaining.
Cousins may not be the long-term answer in Washington, but give him his due for getting his team to 3–4 and keeping it alive in the muddled NFC East. Cousins took some special pleasure in this comeback, with CSN Mid-Atlantic showing a clip of him red-faced and screaming at media members as he ran by them in the post-game: “You like that? You like that?”
Code red, indeed.
• Tampa Bay was agonizingly close to climbing to the .500 mark for the first time since being 6–6 in December 2012, but the Bucs couldn’t slow down Washington’s offense in the second half or make a play defensively to change the game’s momentum. And that successful Washington onside kick was a dagger as well.
If Tampa Bay is capable of losing a game in which Jameis Winston completes 21 of 29 for 297 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions, Mike Evans catches eight passes for 164 yards and a touchdown, and Doug Martin runs for 136 yards on 19 carries, then I’m not sure what it takes for the Bucs to win.
• Looks like Landry Jones might make for a better reliever than starter in Pittsburgh. But the good news for the Steelers is that No. 1 quarterback Ben Roethlisberger should be back for next week’s AFC North showdown against visiting 6–0 Cincinnati. And even though Pittsburgh (4–3) missed an opportunity to draw a little closer to the Bengals on their bye week with its 23–13 loss in Kansas City, the Steelers’ upcoming three-game homestand—Cincinnati, Oakland and Cleveland—gives them the opportunity to get to 7–3 by the time their Week 11 bye rolls around.
Even better, the Steelers will get Big Ben back just as receiver Martavis Bryant returns to his almost-a-touchdown-per-game form (he had a 19-yard scoring catch against the Chiefs), Antonio Brown is again looking like his old playmaking self (six receptions for 124 yards) and Le’Veon Bell continues to produce (121 yards on 17 carries).
Jones didn’t play well enough to get the Steelers to 3–1 in Roethlisberger’s absence, but he wasn’t awful either, throwing for 209 yards with a touchdown, to go with two interceptions and a lost fumble. Pittsburgh’s loss stings, but it’s nothing that a three-game winning streak can’t cure.
• Gotta love that powerhouse division known as the AFC South. It just gets uglier by the week. The Colts are still in first place at 3–4, even after losing 27–21 at home to New Orleans. Indianapolis is the first team since the merger to hold onto first in its division despite being under .500 seven weeks into the season.
When you throw in that Houston got shellacked in Miami, Tennessee just lost its fifth game in a row to go 0–4 on its month-plus homestand, and Jacksonville tried to choke away a 24-point lead to Buffalo in London, the whole AFC South is a train wreck. Does anyone think a 7–9 division champion is out of the question? Anyone for 6-10?
The Colts rallied against the Saints to make a game of it, but Indy is now 3–0 against its own division and 0–4 against the rest of the league. This is just the third time in the past 15 seasons that the Colts have had a losing mark through seven games, and another trick play bit Chuck Pagano’s team in the butt, with New Orleans faking a field goal and throwing a 25-yard scoring pass from Luke McCown to Benjamin Watson.
And then there’s Andrew Luck, who has now produced 10 turnovers (nine interceptions and one fumble lost) in the five games he has played, losing four of those five starts. Luck’s picks were both horribly timed against the Saints, and he clearly seems to be pressing, going without even a completed pass well into the second quarter on Sunday. He rebounded after halftime, throwing for 254 yards and a pair of touchdowns, but he never dug his team out of the 20–0 hole it was in in the first half.
And things in Indy are probably going to get worse before they get better, with the Colts playing at Carolina and hosting the Broncos in the coming two weeks. Should the downward spiral continue, change could be in the offing for Pagano and/or his coaching staff come Indy’s Week 10 bye.
• The Vikings are starting to win the games they’re supposed to win, and despite an early deficit in Detroit, Minnesota showed it has a lot of ways to beat you offensively this season. Teddy Bridgewater, Adrian Peterson, Stefon Diggs, Kyle Rudolph and others contributed to the win against the Lions, the Vikings’ first at Ford Field since 2012.
Next week, another step up the division ladder awaits: Minnesota plays at Chicago, where it hasn’t won since 2007. If the Vikings win that one, they’re 5–2 and will have fully separated from the lower tier of the division, proving they can take their winning act on the road.
• The Rams’ plan of patience with Todd Gurley is starting to really pay off. The rookie first-round running back didn’t play until Week 3 after last November’s ACL surgery, but the former Georgia Bulldogs star is starting to bulldoze every team in his path. Next up? Somebody warn the 49ers, who visit the Rams’ Edward Jones Dome next Sunday.
Gurley churned for 128 yards and his first two career touchdowns in St. Louis’s 24–6 rout of the visiting Browns, and that makes him the first Rams runner to post three consecutive 100-yard rushing games since Steven Jackson in 2011. Gurley has at least 128 yards in all three of those games, and Adrian Peterson in 2012 was the last runner to do that.
Gurley has run for 433 yards in his past three games, and it looks as if he’s barely scratching the surface. This is what Rams head coach Jeff Fisher envisioned for his rookie, and he was wisely willing to wait for it. Gurley is now the fulcrum of the St. Louis offense, and at 3–3, the Rams are very much alive in the NFC West race, trailing Arizona by one game pending the Ravens–Cardinals game in Glendale Monday night.
• Who I Like Tonight: The Cardinals are too good to play as badly as they did in the second half in Pittsburgh, but returning home to face a Baltimore team that is sinking to new lows every week is just the antidote for what ails Arizona. Carson Palmer should have some gaudy statistics compiled by game’s end, given the state of the Ravens’ shoddy secondary. This might have had Super Bowl preview potential when the schedule was being assembled in April, but the harsh reality of late October is that it’s Monday night blowout material. Arizona 37, Baltimore 23.