Seattle is peaking at the perfect time and looks nothing like the confused and divided club we saw in the season’s first six weeks.
Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we review a Week 13 that was very friendly to the road teams and further tightened the NFL playoff races...
• Well this can’t be the scenario the rest of the NFC was hoping for. It’s December, and the Seahawks are back with a vengeance, as the two-time defending NFC champions start to take this defending stuff very, very seriously.
On a message-sending Sunday in Minnesota, suffice to say everyone got Seattle’s point loud and clear: Seahawks 38, Vikings 7, the kind of late-season display of dominant football that we’re very used to by now from this team.
Yep, it’s happening again. Once 2–4 and reeling from an inability to win on the road or protect a fourth-quarter lead, Seattle is suddenly 7–5 and looking like a dangerous, battle-tested team that nobody in their right mind would want to mess with in January.
At this point, why are we even surprised? It took the Seahawks until the penultimate day of November to finally climb over .500 this season, but Pete Carroll’s team has long known how to take care of business in the final month of the regular season. Sunday’s blowout road win in Minneapolis makes Seattle 13–2 in December since the start of the team’s Russell Wilson era in 2012 and 17–6 since Carroll took the job in 2010.
These guys really do know their way home from here. And it’s got to be a little disheartening to the rest of the conference, which earlier this season thought it saw the end of Seattle’s reign well within sight. As it turns out, reports of the Seahawks’ demise were both premature and greatly exaggerated.
If you think Seattle at 7–5 and coming off its third consecutive win isn’t exactly home free just yet in terms of earning yet another playoff berth, check the Seahawks’ schedule. Their next three weeks go like this: at Baltimore (4-8), home against Cleveland (2–10) and home against St. Louis (4–8).
Those three teams are a combined 10–26, with the Ravens, Browns and Rams all playing as if they’ve packed it in, reduced to starting their second or third quarterbacks of the season. My math says Seattle has a darn good shot at being 10–5 entering Week 17, with perhaps a wild-card spot already locked up. The Seahawks hit the road for the regular-season finale to face the likely NFC West champion Cardinals—the only team to beat Seattle in the past seven weeks—and it’s certainly possible Arizona may not need that game at that point for seeding purposes, perhaps resting a slew of starters as a result.
Going the wild-card route in the postseason is never easy, but Seattle has every reason to still harbor dreams of making that third consecutive Super Bowl trip, a notion that sounded like pure folly in mid-October, when the wheels were coming off the Seahawks’ once-finely-tuned machine and every fourth quarter seemed to end in heartbreak.
Seattle dismantled the previously NFC North-leading Vikings on Sunday, jumping on them 21–0 in the first half and never allowing Minnesota to get anything going offensively (Cordarrelle Patterson scored the Vikings’ lone touchdown on a kickoff return). Minnesota had just 125 yards of offense, with quarterback Teddy Bridgewater being sacked four times and intercepted once and running back Adrian Peterson rendered a non-factor, finishing with just 18 yards rushing on eight carries.
And the best news? Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson has been at the top of his game these past three weeks. Wilson was a superb 21 of 27 for 274 yards and three touchdowns, adding 51 yards rushing and another touchdown with his feet. He has thrown 11 touchdowns without an interception in Seattle’s three-game winning streak, and this offense is now fully his, with veteran running back Marshawn Lynch rehabbing from sports hernia surgery. Seattle scored 39 at home last week against Pittsburgh and 38 against the Vikings, albeit against a defensive lineup that was missing four starters.
This Seattle team is peaking at the perfect time and looks nothing like the confused and divided club we saw in the season’s first six weeks. Wilson has elevated his game, and rookies like running back Thomas Rawls (101 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries), receiver/return man Tyler Lockett (seven catches for 90 yards, with a 47-yard kickoff return) and linebacker Frank Clark (two sacks) have infused this club with some much-needed playmaking and energy.
Seattle looks fully capable of making some noise once again in January, and if the Seahawks capture the NFC’s No. 5 seed as I expect (Minnesota currently holds it at 8–4, but would now lose the tiebreaker with Seattle), their reward will be facing the woeful fourth-seeded NFC East winner on the road in the first round. At the moment, that would mean a game at 5–6 Washington—not the toughest of assignments.
After a season strewn with setbacks and challenges, things are starting to line up nicely for Seattle as the final month begins and another stretch drive to the playoffs unfolds. We’ve seen these Seahawks before, and recent history tells us how this story could end. That reality can’t be well-received by the rest of the NFC.
• Even without all those key injured defensive starters, the Vikings’ effort against Seattle was pathetic. That makes twice in three games that Minnesota has been blown out at home (including Green Bay’s rout in Week 11), and obviously the Vikings don’t appear ready to compete in the NFC’s heavyweight division.
It makes you wonder if anybody really wants to win the NFC North. Their Miracle in Motown on Thursday night aside, the Packers have looked shaky on offense for weeks, losing four of their past six games. Not only have the Vikings not taken advantage of Green Bay’s struggles, but also Minnesota now has established a pattern of playing its worst in its biggest games. That doesn’t bode well for a potential playoff trip.
Being without injured defensive tackle Linval Joseph, safety Anthony Sendejo, safety Harrison Smith and linebacker Anthony Barr for either all or most of the game against Seattle had to rob Minnesota of some significant defensive firepower. But a 31-point loss at home can’t be explained away by those absences alone.
The Vikings are 8–4 but look like they might be staggering toward a 10–6 record and the No. 6 seed in the playoffs. This week’s Thursday night trip to Arizona (10–2) poses another major challenge and yet another opportunity to log the statement victory Minnesota has so far lacked. At some point, you’d like to see quarterback Teddy Bridgewater be able to take the training wheels completely off and drive the Vikings to a win on the strength of his own playmaking. Successful season in Minnesota or not, it hasn’t happened yet.
• Man, that was every bad Giants loss we’ve ever seen rolled into one ugly package. The Giants fell 23–20 to the Jets in overtime, and if you’re scoring at home, that makes six losses by six points or fewer this season, and five games lost when the G-Men were leading inside of two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.
Up 20–10 with fewer than nine minutes remaining, the Giants have to put that game away. Instead, Eli Manning threw a horrible red-zone interception to Rontez Miles inside the Jets’ five-yard line, and then the Giants watched their green-and-white-clad neighbors go field goal, touchdown, field goal on their final three drives of the game, covering 212 yards.
Tom Coughlin constantly preaches to his Giants players about the importance of finishing. It’s his version of Bill Belichick’s “Do your job” mantra. But the reality is the Giants don’t finish and have struggled to put away winnable games for years. And the story never seems to change.
If New York (5–7) doesn’t win the weakest NFC East in history, Coughlin’s long and mostly successful 12-year tenure should be finished. He’s had ample opportunity to get things figured out or fixed since his 2011 club won him a second Super Bowl ring, and he hasn’t been able to get it done. That’s the harsh truth after the Giants’ worst loss of the season.
• We’re all running out of new ways to marvel over Odell Beckham Jr.’s latest one-handed masterpiece. But if I were him, I’d get that right hand of his well-insured. We’re getting spoiled by OBJ. It’s almost like, ho-hum, another one-handed grab. What else can you do? I mean other than taking a slant pass 72 yards to the house, out-running the Jets’ secondary with ease? Oh, and I liked the “running the hurdles” end zone celebration, but should a guy with a history of hamstring issues be running full speed the length of the end zone while pretending to jump hurdles?
• The other half of Sunday’s New York-New York story produced a very impressive comeback win for Todd Bowles’s Jets. At 7–5, the Jets would have a seat at the table if the playoffs opened today. And they might well pull it off, because don’t forget the track record of success by first-year Jets coaches. The past three—Rex Ryan, Eric Mangini and Herm Edwards—all took New York to the postseason in their first years, and the two before that, Al Groh and Bill Parcells, both went 9–7 but missed the playoffs.
He doesn’t have Eli Manning’s salary or résumé, but Jets quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick thoroughly outplayed No. 10. Fitzpatrick was a gaudy 36 of 50 for 390 yards and two touchdowns, and a whopping 20 of those receptions went to Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker, who tormented the Giants’ secondary.
The Jets should win next week at home against Tennessee (3–9), and that’s going to keep them playing very meaningful games down the stretch as they try to snap the franchise’s four-year streak of non-playoff finishes—their longest since 1992–97.
• In light of the Case Keenum situation two weeks ago in Baltimore, I would have bet almost anything that the NFL would be hyper-cautious and remove almost any quarterback from a game for concussion evaluation if he took a blow to his head or hit his head on the ground. But I would have been wrong, since the Ravens’ Matt Schaub did just that Sunday in the loss to Miami, and stayed in the game. Schaub was hit near the sideline and fell backwards, with his head bouncing off the turf. Schaub held his helmet with both hands for a moment, and seemed to yell when his head made contract with the ground. Referee John Parry was right there and helped Schaub up.
Later in that drive, Schaub threw a pick-six to the Dolphins, which of course has been his specialty in recent seasons. According to Pro Football Talk, an NFL spokesman when contacted said the league will look into the Schaub incident per its “normal procedure.”
But the problem is, the normal procedure that is supposed to be in place on the field to help spot potential concussion issues isn’t really working too well.
• I didn’t see any indication that Miami’s offensive issues were fixed by firing offensive coordinator Bill Lazor last Monday. The Dolphins beat visiting Baltimore 15–13 in a lackluster game, scoring just one offensive touchdown, a 38-yard strike from Ryan Tannehill to DeVante Parker.
Tannehill finished a modest 9 of 19 for 86 yards passing, with that one touchdown and no interceptions. Dolphins interim coach Dan Campbell said he wanted to be a much more physical team and have a ground game that could impose its will on opponents. Miami wound up running the ball 26 times for 137 yards, an impressive 5.3 average. But the Dolphins collected just eight first downs in the game, with only three of those coming via the pass.
That’s not going to get it done most weeks. Then again, most weeks you’re not playing a Ravens team quarterbacked by Schaub.
• Rams coach Jeff Fisher told the media he’s run out of answers after his team’s latest egg-laying, a 27–3 home loss to the Cardinals. I think that probably went without saying. The real question is whether Fisher has run out of time, after four entirely mediocre seasons in St. Louis? And if not, why not?
The Rams are in complete free-fall, having lost five in a row after starting the season 4–3. St. Louis has been outscored 58–10 the past two weeks, and now even rookie running back Todd Gurley isn’t much to watch, gaining 41 yards on just nine carries against Arizona. The lowlight for the Rams on Sunday was watching cornerback Janoris Jenkins get absolutely wiped out in the first quarter on a hit by his own teammate, T.J. McDonald.
California, here we come.
• Speaking of relocation to Los Angeles, it’s quite the product the NFL is pushing on the country’s second-largest city. It was another banner day for the Rams, Raiders and Chargers in Week 13, with the three potential transients being beaten by a combined score of 78–26, which dropped their combined record to 12–24. The Raiders are the best of the bunch at 5–7 but haven’t made the playoffs since 2002. The Rams are 4–8 and last played in the postseason in 2004. The Chargers are 3–9 and have a decent history of playoff appearances, their most recent in 2013.
Really, are you sure you want pro football in the worst way, Los Angeles? Because it looks like that’s exactly what you’re getting.
• Staying on the topic of lost causes: Your move, Mike Pettine. It was your call to start Austin Davis over Johnny Manziel at quarterback this week against Cincinnati. How’d that work out for you? The Browns lost 37–3 at home to Cincinnati, and the reality is there’s no one who could succeed in Cleveland at the end of this debacle of a season.
I guess it doesn’t even matter at this point if the Browns ever play Manziel or not. It’s starting over time yet again in Cleveland, and that probably means changes at general manager, head coach and quarterback are again in store.
• So much for the all-important team meeting factor in Atlanta. The Falcons players held a players-only-clear-the-air session last Monday, which prompted Atlanta coach Dan Quinn to exclaim the he was “jacked” to hear it. And yet the Falcons’ swoon continues unabated, with Atlanta falling 23–19 at Tampa Bay on Sunday to make it five consecutive losses and six in seven games.
The Falcons are 6–6 and still in the NFC wild-card chase, but it feels over for Atlanta this season. The Falcons are currently the eighth seed, but the 6–6 Bucs are seventh, and Tampa Bay has swept Atlanta this season. In addition, the No. 5-seeded Vikings beat the Falcons last week in the Georgia Dome, so they too hold any potential tiebreaker over Atlanta.
Atlanta started 5–0 this season and looks on track to be only the seventh team in NFL history to squander that kind of start and not make the playoffs. At this point, Quinn’s Falcons still haven’t won more games than Mike Smith’s final Atlanta club did last season. The Falcons were 6–10 in 2014, but the irony is, they weren’t eliminated from the playoff chase until their Week 17 loss at home to Carolina.
Quinn’s first Falcons club looks like it’ll be out of the playoff hunt long before Week 17.
• Marcus Mariota was always going to cherish his first win at home in the NFL anyway, but his 87-yard rushing touchdown made it spectacularly memorable. It was the third-longest run by a quarterback in league history, and he also found time to throw for three scores in Tennessee’s wildly entertaining 42–39 conquest of Jacksonville.
The present is bleak once again in Nashville, with the Titans sitting 3–9 and in their accustomed last place spot in the AFC South. But Mariota has had a rookie season that has at times been dazzling, and his presence means the future is bright.
And second-year Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles almost stole Mariota’s show, throwing for 322 yards and five touchdowns without a pick. But Tennessee found a way to win at home for the first time since Week 6 of last season, snapping its 11-game home losing streak. With Mariota around, there shouldn’t be any more 11-game home skids.
• Nothing in Week 13—not even the Aaron Rodgers magic act Thursday night in Detroit—was more astounding than the Eagles’ 35–28 win at New England, in a game Philadelphia trailed 14–0 in the second quarter. At that point, the Eagles had been outscored 104–31 in their past two-plus games and looked completely outmatched against the Bucs, Lions and Patriots.
But there are no absolutes in the NFL, which the Eagles vividly reminded us by storming to the game’s next five touchdowns in four different ways: two touchdown passes by quarterback Sam Bradford, a 24-yard return of a blocked punt by Najee Goode, a 99-yard interception return by Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, and an 83-yard Darren Sproles punt return touchdown.
And just like that, an Eagles season that looked to be on life support is very much alive, with Philadelphia sitting 5–7 and just a half-game behind first-place Washington (5–6) in the NFC East. The Eagles will start a three-game homestand next week against Buffalo, with Arizona and Washington following the Bills to Lincoln Financial Field.
Chip Kelly isn’t quite as clueless as he looked on Thanksgiving, is he?
• As for the Patriots, that was only the fifth time Tom Brady has lost consecutive starts in his 16-year career in New England, and the franchise had never dropped two consecutive games in which it had built 14-point leads. That’s a stunner of a statistic.
But the end of the world is not nigh in Foxboro, even if New England just dropped to No. 3 in the AFC playoff seeding race, behind No. 1 Cincinnati and No. 2 Denver. Because the Bengals play at Denver in Week 16, the Patriots can still earn a first-round bye if they win out. With games remaining at Houston next week and at the Jets in Week 16, winning out won’t be a breeze for injury-depleted New England. But Sunday’s upset loss to the Eagles is not necessarily a crippling blow to the Patriots’ dreams of a Super Bowl repeat.
• Earlier in the season, I heard quite a bit of scoffing whenever Cam Newton’s MVP candidacy was mentioned. But how can anyone have any credibility if they don’t have Newton on their short list now? Carolina’s uber-quarterback threw five touchdown passes for the second time in three games, keeping the Panthers undefeated with that wild 41–38 shootout win over the Saints in the Superdome.
It’s as if Newton can do almost anything he wants on the field right now, and his efficiency level is off the charts. He completed 15 consecutive passes at one point on Sunday, a first in his career. Newton has to stop absorbing as much pounding as he took against the Saints, shaking off both a helmet-to-helmet hit and an ankle issue. But his play has been absolutely elite, and I still don’t know how he’s getting it done without any hint of a top-notch wideout to target.
The Panthers won despite making a host of mistakes in a game that turned sloppy at times, the kind of mistakes that could cost Carolina in the playoffs against better competition. But that’s the wonder of Newton’s game in 2015. His excellence has made up for whatever the Panthers have lacked, all season long.
• We all love to obsess about Denver’s quarterback situation, but the Broncos’ 17–3 win at San Diego reminded us that Gary Kubiak’s team will only go as far as its defense takes it this season. Denver played without a bunch of injured defensive starters for all or part of the game against the Chargers, but still managed to limit quarterback Philip Rivers to just 202 yards passing, with four sacks, and a game-breaking pick-six by linebacker Danny Trevathan. Denver also forced four San Diego fumbles, recovering two.
That’s the kind of defense that can make any quarterback look good, and Brock Osweiler did his part in improving to 3–0 as the team’s starter. Osweiler was an efficient 16 of 26 for 166 yards, with a three-yard touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas in the relatively easy win. The Broncos are 10–2 and will be in position to wrap up their fifth straight AFC West title next week at home against Oakland. But then the schedule gets tougher in Weeks 15 and 16, with games at Pittsburgh and home against Cincinnati in a Monday nighter. Those games will likely determine whether the AFC’s home-field advantage is within Denver’s grasp.
• If the Chiefs do go on to make the AFC playoffs as a wild-card entry, they can look back to the fourth quarter in Oakland on Sunday as the likely turning point. Trailing 20–14 and about to see their five-game winning streak snapped and their playoff hopes damaged, the Chiefs intercepted Raiders second-year quarterback Derek Carr three times in the game’s final quarter, converting all three plays into touchdowns in a 34–20 win.
The loss effectively ends the Raiders’ playoff bid (so it’s 13 seasons and counting without any postseason in Oakland) and sets the Chiefs up for potentially winning their final 10 games of the regular season. Kansas City has a six-game winning streak and now ends the season with four games in which it will be favored: home against San Diego, at Baltimore, home against Cleveland and Oakland. No one in that group owns more than five wins, and the toughest out of the bunch is the Raiders, the team Kansas City just beat on the road.
At this point, if the Chiefs don’t earn a wild-card berth, even with their 1–5 start, it would rate as a huge disappointment.
• Who I Like Tonight: Washington’s five consecutive wins at home is the only reliably successful metric either one of these teams have produced this season, so why not trust it? The Cowboys are technically still alive in the NFC East race, it just doesn’t feel that way after all the drama Jerry’s team has been through. Dallas still has both of its games remaining against first-place Washington, so even if the Cowboys can’t win the division, they can have a say in who does. Redskins 20, Cowboys 14.