We had a little bit of a Showdown Sunday as two of the better teams in each conference (Vikings-Eagles in NFC, Steelers-Patriots in the AFC) faced off. Considering the result of each game and the circumstances (injury woes for the Vikings and Steelers), I’m not sure we have much glaring clarity about where any of the teams will wind up. But we definitely saw some notable things elsewhere around the league, like the Chiefs revving up, Jay Ajayi joining select company, the Falcons and Bills melting down as they looked to take the next step, a lot of bad coaching decisions (evergreen comment), some ridiculous individual plays, and a flying young Jets receiver. Let’s get on with the show...
Your resident “Wet Blanket of Reason” takes the temperature of the most intriguing storylines out of Week 7 of the 2016 NFL season:
Go crazy, folks:
Defense is the key to Eagles' success: The whole Carson Wentz storyline was cute for a while but what Philadelphia’s two-game losing streak and then 21–10 victory over the previously unbeaten Vikings tells us is that it’s all about Jim Schwartz’s defense in Philly. While Wentz was busy turning the ball over three times to keep Minnesota in it, the Eagles were absolutely relentless in their punishment of QB Sam Bradford (six sacks, 11 quaterback hits). The Vikings didn’t stand much of a chance.
The Chiefs could go on another run: After a dominating performance against the Saints that saw QB Alex Smith throw deep more often (gasp!), Kansas City has won two straight and have the Colts, Jaguars, Panthers and Buccaneers up next before two brutal road games at Denver and Atlanta. The Chiefs won 10 straight to finish last season, could they do it again?
Jay Ajayi is for real: One week after rushing for 204 yards against the Steelers, Dolphins RB Jay Ajayi rushed for 214 yards in Miami’s 28–25 victory over the Bills. Ajayi became just the fourth running back in the Super Bowl era to post back-to-back 200-yard games. I love watching Ajayi because he runs extremely hard and never gives up on a play. It’s ironic that he has relegated Arian Foster to the bench because Ajayi actually reminds me of Foster: he came out of nowhere and is a hard-running zone-scheme runner who has a great ability to make one cut and go with acceleration. I do think Ajayi runs with better pad level than Foster and is built more thickly, so perhaps he can avoid the injury problems that derailed Foster’s career.
Buffalo’s Lorenzo Alexander is also for real: People might scoff that Bills OLB Lorenzo Alexander leads the NFL with eight sacks considering he’s an accidental starter due to injuries, but they shouldn’t. Alexander is a player. He is absolutely relentless and that goes for special teams as well, which is where he might do his best work of all. Alexander had a sack, a tackle for a loss and a quarterback hit against Miami.
Vikings are struggling on the offensive line: Minnesota got by for a while without their starting OTs Matt Kalil and Andre Smith (both on injured reserve) but teams are starting to pinpoint the Vikings’ big weakness. The three-tackle rotation of T.J. Clemmings, Jake Long and Jeremiah Sirles was abysmal against the hard-charging Eagles. The Vikings’ best hope is that Long knocks off the rust that has accumulated after not playing for the better part of two seasons.
The Jaguars are terrible: This should be the lowlight on the 2016 Jaguars already lacking highlight film: Trailing 26–16 with 3:42 left on 4th and 24, the Raiders’ punter Marquette King fielded a low snap and then ran around the Jaguars for 27 yards and a first down.
Slow your roll:
Whither the Falcons?: So far this season we’ve seen Atlanta knock off the Raiders, Panthers, and Broncos on the road, and nearly pull off an upset at Seattle. But the Falcons have also lost at home to the Buccaneers, and on Sunday they held a 17-point lead over San Diego in the 2nd quarter and proceeded to be outscored 23–3 by the Chargers to finish out the game, losing 33–30 at home. The Falcons are better than last season’s 8–8 team and they’ll be in the thick of it until the end, but are they merely pretenders? It’s easy to say that good teams don’t lose at home to a team like the Chargers, and the way in which they lost was brutal. But I still think the Falcons are a legitimate contender. Maybe they were just a little hungover from tough road trips to Denver and Seattle the past two weeks. And I see incremental improvement in that defense, despite the result against San Diego. Their next five games are vs. Packers, at Bucs, at Eagles, vs. Cardinals and vs. Chiefs. We’ll know for sure what their true identity is after that stretch.
Stafford isn’t an MVP candidate: Maybe people must be bored and want to find new storylines, because I can’t figure out why I’m hearing talk about Matthew Stafford being an MVP candidate considering his 4–3 Lions are barely in the playoff race. Has Stafford been great to this point? Sure. He has a 105.7 rating and 15 touchdowns against four INTs. He’s a big reason why the Lions are 4–3 and he led them on a tremendous game-winning drive on Sunday against Washington. But the Lions are still third in their division and have yet to win a game against an NFC North opponent. Can we hold off on the MVP talk until the Lions actually win a divisional game?
Fisher going to Fisher: Not sure why anyone is surprised that Rams coach Jeff Fisher announced after the game that he’s sticking with Case Keenum despite the fact that the QB threw four interceptions and was a huge reason why Los Angeles blew a 10–0 lead in its 17–10 loss to the Giants, in another dreadful London game. You have to think about it in the context of Fisher’s brain. While everyone else thinks the Rams’ season is over so they might as well play Jared Goff, Fisher sees his team at 3–4 and right in the thick of things, despite playing in the tough NFC where 8–8 will not make the playoffs. So Keenum gets to stay because he actually can say the playcalls.
A look at the worst coaching decisions from Sunday.
• With 9:05 remaining and trailing the Patriots 27–16, the Steelers had a 4th-and-3 at the New England 36-yard line and Mike Tomlin elected to kick a 54-yard field goal with a kicker that had already missed what would've been a career-long 51-yarder earlier in the game. The kick predictably wasn’t close—it sailed wide right.
I wrote this week about the lack of a good coaching in the NFL being one of the biggest problems with the current level of play, and almost immediately I got comments about how good Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was, and how he's on his way to the Hall of Fame. Sunday should help disprove that viewpoint. In addition to the field goal decision, he went and challenged what was a blatant catch by Patriot TE Rob Gronkowski in the second quarter and cost his team a valuable timeout. This is where we are in today’s game.
• Rex Ryan elected to start LeSean McCoy, despite the fact that the running back had been battling a balky hamstring all week. McCoy, who didn’t have his usual burst, had eight carries for 11 yards before exiting from the game with—you guessed it—a hamstring injury. McCoy may have aggravated the injury further, and by playing against the Dolphins, he is now at risk to miss Buffalo’s big game against the Patriots next week. This was not a smart decision.
• Another one for Rex Ryan and the Bills. Clinging to a 17–14 lead with 9:20 left in the fourth quarter, Buffalo elected to go Wildcat and RB Mike Gillislee was tackled for a 10-yard loss, setting the stage for a punt that set up Miami’s game-winning score. I don’t mind the Wildcat, but not in that situation. No way.
• I realize that the Falcons didn’t stop the Chargers down the stretch, but there’s no way Dan Quinn should have elected to go for it on 4th-and-1 from his own 45 on the first possession of overtime after getting stopped on 3rd-and-1. You have to have some faith in your defense. The Falcons didn’t get it, and the Chargers needed one play (an 11-yard pass from Philip Rivers) to get into field goal range and clinch the win.
About Sunday Night
It wasn’t perfect, especially the manner in which it ended, but if you love hard-fought actual football instead of catches, big plays and fantasy points, then you saw a lot to like in the slugfest that ended in fitting fashion: a 6–6 tie between the Cardinals and Seahawks. In the end, Arizona likely walks away thinking it missed a big opportunity at a victory because it dominated time of possession, squandered more scoring opportunities and missed a chip-shot field goal to win it in overtime. It ended with Seattle missing a chip shot of its own.
For much of the game, it was an all-out war just to get a first down as neither defense would allow an extra yard to be gained. On every play there were hard hits, and every pass was contested with pressure on the quarterback and tight coverage. That being said, sometime in the fourth quarter, this game became more about Arizona not shooting itself in the foot (blocked field goal, blocked punt, missed game-winning field goal in overtime) or Seattle’s offensive line actually blocking someone without holding, than about great defense.
Still, it was great theater (for some people) by two very good teams that know each other well.
Everybody loves to hate the refs, but let’s take a closer look at how the zebras performed today:
— If the NFL had any stones (it doesn’t) and actually believed in all of its player-safety nonsense (it doesn’t), it would suspend Dolphins receiver Jarvis Landry for his beyond dirty hit against Bills safety Aaron Williams (he was penalized but the NFL should go further). Yes, Williams should have been more alert on the crack-back block (lack of instincts is a problem for Williams), but the fact that Landry launched himself into the head/neck area of Williams is exactly the type of hit that has no business in today’s NFL. But it’s not going to change until the NFL sets an example and actually sticks to it.
— The officials missed a blatant offensive pass interference call against Miami TE MarQueis Gray for a pick play on a 21-yard pass to Jarvis Landry. Instead of it being 2nd-and-17, there was no flag and Miami scored five plays later, the first of what would be three 2nd half touchdowns in its comeback win against the Bills.
— Patriots CB Logan Ryan should have been flagged for pass interference late in the first half against the Steelers when he held the left arm of WR Cobi Hamilton.
Coolest thing I saw
When I watched Kevin Hogan at Stanford, I thought he was just a stationary quarterback who was perfect for David Shaw’s pro-style scheme. Evidently Hogan missed his calling in not going to Oregon, because after he came into the game for the Browns (after yet another one of their quarterbacks went down), Hogan was crazy legs, running for 107 yards on seven carries in Cleveland’s 31–17 loss to the Bengals. He showed speed and moves in the open field on his 28-yard touchdown run:
— A.J. Green tipping a Hail Mary to himself for a touchdown before halftime against the Browns.
— The 44-yard interception return for a touchdown by Giants safety Landon Collins. He simply would not be denied on the zig-zagging, tackle-breaking return.
— The 15-yard catch by Lions receiver Golden Tate on a ball that bounced off the head of Washington CB Bashaud Breeland.
The 10-yard touchdown catch by Titans LT Taylor Lewan. We need to find a way to encourage more big boy touchdowns, because those are always good fun.
Please Allow Me To Introduce Myself…
A look at a previously unheralded player (or players) who popped this week:
Quincy Enunwa, WR, Jets: He’s had more catches in every other game, but he finally lands in this coveted column spot because the third-year player’s speed was so impressive on his 69-yard touchdown catch-and-run against the Ravens. A sixth-round pick in 2014, Enunwa basically redshirted as a rookie before seeing spot play last year. At 6’ 2” and 225 pounds, he’s proved to be a tough matchup because he’s stronger than a receiver and faster than a tight end.
Peyton Barber, RB, Bucs: The undrafted free agent had 84 yards on 12 carries, including a game-clinching 44-yard touchdown in a 34–17 win over the lowly 49ers.
Numbers sometimes lie
28–25: The final score between the Dolphins and the Bills. Even with a late score and the Bills holding a 10-point in the fourth quarter, Miami largely dominated play thanks to their offensive and defensive lines (offense: 6.2 yards per rush, Ryan Tannehill hit four times; defense: 3.0 per rush, four sacks and eight total hits). If the Dolphins did a better job in the red zone and didn’t have a busted coverage on a 67-yard touchdown pass, they would have dominated for the second week in a row.
Numbers sometimes don’t lie
54.0: That is the rating for Ravens QB Joe Flacco. In a continuation of his late-game struggles that have spanned the previous two seasons, Ravens QB Joe Flacco had the ball in his hands with a chance to win the game for the fourth-straight week. The Ravens lost for the fourth-straight time, 24–16 to the hapless Jets. Flacco threw two interceptions in the second half.
After the whistle
In many ways, the Patriots had their way against the Steelers in a 26–17 victory, and you could say that the race for the No. 1 seed in the AFC looks to be pretty much over before November. But it wasn't quite that clearcut. I'm not sure what New England’s victory actually tells us should these two teams meet again. Despite being relatively close to full health, the Patriots couldn’t put away a Steelers team that didn’t have QB Ben Roethlisberger, RB DeAngelo Williams or DE Cam Heyward, while LB Ryan Shazier and WR Antonio Brown were going in and out of the lineup with injuries. I'm not saying the Steelers are primed to pull off an upset in the playoffs because gameplans will be adjusted on both sides, you still have the coaching mismatch that is Bill Belichick vs. Mike Tomlin, and the Patriots will likely have the benefit of playing at home, but I don’t know if Patriots fans left Sunday feeling that they will easily roll to a Super Bowl appearance.