Week 9 was a shaky Sunday for football. From Doug Pederson’s decisions sinking the Eagles again, the Steelers looking inept in Big Ben’s return, teams going nowhere with bad QBs, defenders leaving receivers wide open for touchdowns, a Chiefs tight end doing his best OBJ impersonation and a blatant officiating mistake erasing a game-deciding touchdown, the NFL has had better weeks. Here are the lowlights, and some of the highlights.
Your resident “Wet Blanket of Reason” takes the temperature of the most intriguing storylines out of Week 9 of the 2016 NFL season:
Go crazy, folks:
Putting Pederson on the spot: Anyone can look like a genius until opponents get enough game film and things go off schedule. That’s what we have with Eagles coach Doug Pederson, who could do no wrong during Philadelphia’s 3–0 start but has looked anything but a coaching mastermind in the four losses since, including last week in prime-time to the Cowboys and on Sunday on the road against the Giants. All you have to do is look at the Eagles’ 0–4 record in games determined by seven points or less and see that Pederson is more like mentor Andy Reid than Vince Lombardi.
The stat geeks have helped popularize the sentiment that going for it on fourth down is always awesome, but in a real game, sometimes you just need to take the points. The Eagles gave up six points in the second quarter when they turned the ball over on downs at the Giants’ 23- and six-yard lines, both times on awful play calls: a read option by Carson Wentz and a fourth-down run by scatback Darren Sproles. Against Dallas, the Eagles choked away a win late, so at least in this one they merely lost a winnable game. But, man, Pederson has a long way to go as a head coach.
Steelers’ offense is MIA: As Pittsburgh’s offense goes, so goes Pittsburgh. When that unit has come to play in four victories this season, the Steelers have averaged 34 points per game. In their four losses, the Steelers have put up an average of 12 points. Sure, one of those losses featured a full dose of Landry Jones at QB, but what has been the excuse in the other three? I don’t care if Ben Roethlisberger is as rusty as an old metal bucket, like he was in Sunday’s 21–14 loss to the Ravens, there’s no excuse for a unit as talented as Pittsburgh’s to have that many poor performances in the first half of the year. A few here and there over the course of a full season is understandable, but through eight games the “unstoppable” Steelers have been stopped half the time. That’s just not good enough.
Ravens’ defense came to play: Give Baltimore’s defense a lot of credit for the win, which pulled the Ravens into a first-place tie in the AFC North. Holding Le’Veon Bell and the Steelers to just 36 yards rushing is some kind of accomplishment. Also, Antonio Brown didn’t do much of anything until desperation time.
Enough of Fitz and Keenum: Jets quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick threw two interceptions against the Dolphins, including a brutal pick in the red zone off his back foot (yes, again). Case Keenum couldn’t move the Rams down the field until the very end of the game. New York and Los Angeles are out of it. It’s time to see what Bryce Petty and Jared Goff can or can’t do.
Travis Kelce is a selfish showboat: As if you couldn’t tell this from his celebrations and cheesy reality dating show, his ejection against the Jaguars for mocking an official in protest of a no-call shows Travis Kelce doesn’t care about anything but Travis Kelce. He’s like the Odell Beckham Jr. of tight ends. Time to grow up.
NFC North is awful right now: The Vikings can’t do anything right (especially kicker Blair Walsh), the Packers’ offense again looked confused against an awful Colts defense on Sunday, and the Lions keep winning games they shouldn’t. So why not Detroit? I’m not going to offer an argument against that right now. The division is totally up for grabs.
Mariota should be better: For about 95% of a 43–35 loss to the Chargers, Marcus Mariota played well. But the Titans QB gave the Chargers 14 points when a fumble and interception (the second of his two picks) were returned for touchdowns. Ball security is the single biggest factor for a quarterback, and Mariota comes up short often.
Give it up for the Colts: Ladies and gentlemen, in the eighth game of the season, the Indianapolis Colts finally decided to play a complete game [standing ovation]. It took them long enough, but the Colts played well on the offensive and defensive (I know, I’m shocked too) sides of the ball in a 31–26 victory over the Packers at Lambeau Field. Not exactly sure how they did it defensively, but they did. Lets see if Indy can start stacking success after the bye week.
Packers are an enigma: Even though I wasn’t a believer that Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ offense had turned a corner against the Bears and Falcons, I thought they'd stay on a roll with the porous Colts defense coming into Lambeau. Boy, was I wrong about that. Green Bay fell behind 31–10, and the offense again looked clueless for most of the game. It still isn’t talented enough to beat man coverage, even man coverage by the Colts.
Slow your roll:
Dolphins shouldn’t feel proud: Yes, the Dolphins have won three straight games to get to .500 and (kind of, sort of) into the AFC playoff race. And, certainly, the victories over the Steelers and the Bills came in impressive fashion. But while the Dolphins’ 27–23 victory over the Jets counts in the standings, nobody should be jumping to conclusions that they are suddenly a good team. The Dolphins weren’t good on Sunday; the Jets were worse. Just move along.
Chiefs will be a factor: It would be easy to dismiss the Chiefs after a lackluster 19–14 victory over the Jaguars at home (Kansas City didn’t have QB Alex Smith, WR Jeremy Maclin or RB Spencer Ware), but they have won four straight and will be favored in the next two weeks before back-to-back road games at Denver and Atlanta—true measuring stick games.
It was the Browns: Don’t tell me anything about how great the Cowboys were, or how great any of the individual performances were (Dak Prescott’s 21 of 27 day for 247 yards and three touchdowns included), against the Browns. It was the Browns.
About Sunday Night
The Broncos’ stranglehold over the AFC West is over, for now. Basically since the start of the 2012 season, Denver has owned the division as it has come in first place for five-straight seasons (the 8–8 Broncos won it in ’11, too). But after being dominated 30–20 by the Raiders on Sunday night, the Broncos are looking up at both Oakland and Kansas City in the AFC West.
The Raiders did whatever they wanted to the punchless Broncos. Oakland ran for over 200 yards, and Derek Carr completed over 65% of his passes against a Broncos defense that was already weak in the middle of the line and has been battling secondary injuries. The Broncos rushed for 33 yards, and Trevor Siemian completed just 54.5% of his passes.
Who’s the best team in the AFC West? The Chiefs beat the Raiders in their only meeting so far, so let’s call it a tie. But this was a big victory for a young Raiders team at home on a national stage, a sign that they’re not going away. The Broncos are still in it, but they need to regroup before the end of the season with two matchups with the Chiefs, a date with the Patriots and the home rematch with Oakland ahead.
A look at the worst coaching decisions from Sunday:
• There were too many pick out for Eagles coach Doug Pederson, but the worst was running Darren Sproles into the line on fourth-and-short before halftime when Philadelphia had just been stuffed the play before, and three points would have done just fine.
• Didn’t have a huge issue with Giants coach Ben McAdoo trying to win the game with a pass on third-and-four with 1:55 left since the Eagles had more timeout left, but the decision to throw to the middle of the field to a covered tight end wasn’t smart. Go safe outside the tackles.
Everybody loves to hate the refs, but let’s take a closer look at how the zebras performed today:
— Not sure how the NFL didn’t give the Jaguars a touchdown on Chris Ivory’s one-yard run with 8:28 remaining when the TV replay clearly showed the ball in his hand as it broke the goal line. Just another example of the overmanaged NFL product. It kind of would have made a difference in what turned into a 19–14 win by the Chiefs.
— Not a good decision by the officials to rule that Colts receiver T.Y. Hilton went out of bounds with 2:21 left, when the Packers having no timeouts and Indianapolis was trying to melt the clock. Hilton obviously gave himself up in the field of play. Luckily, it didn’t factor into the outcome.
Coolest Thing I Saw
Jets receiver Brandon Marshall, who was caught in an argument with quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick during the second quarter, made a ridiculous one-handed catch on a slant while in full sprint. As if that wasn’t enough, Marshall appeared to say, “Give me the [bleeping] ball,” when he got back to the huddle. Yes and yes.
Vikings tight end Rhett Ellison scoring from one yard out on a jet sweep. No one would expect that from a tight end, so he scored with ease. Very cool play.
Please Allow Me To Introduce Myself…
A look at a previously unheralded player (or players) who popped this week:
Michael Thomas, WR, Saints: The second-round pick has had better games in his rookie season season, such as his 10 catches and 130 yards two weeks ago against Kansas City, but he busted out with two touchdowns against the 49ers, including a circus catch off the back of a defender. (He had three TDs entering Sunday.) Thomas is going to continue to be fun to watch with Drew Brees.
Numbers Sometimes Lie
“Golden Tate, 28-yard pass from Matthew Stafford”: That’s the final play line for the game-winning touchdown against the Vikings in overtime. It should really read “28 yards, awful defense by the Vikings.” Cornerback Xavier Rhodes and safety Harrison Smith had double coverage on Tate, and both missed tackles that would have kept him from scoring (especially Rhodes, who just whiffed). Just a terrible attempt at defense by the Vikings. They deserved to lose just on that play alone.
Numbers sometimes don’t lie
89–69: Penalty yards against and offensive yards for the Steelers through three quarters against the Ravens. Yes, Pittsburgh was that inept.
After the whistle
A week after the NFL seemed to get its groove back with some compelling Week 8 action, it was a long fall back down into the gutter for the league with a completely forgettable Week 9. The play was so uninspired and pathetic that it sure felt like The Day the Music Died for the NFL. Even for a rabid consumer like myself, the play on the field was so gross that I would have turned it off and found some household chores to do if I didn’t have to write this column.
Just start with the number of touchdown passes that went to wide-open receivers. I counted at least six, and only three were given up by the Browns. The Steelers-Ravens game was decided when Ben Roethlisberger, one of the stars of the league, couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a boat after coming back from knee surgery. Also, don’t forget about how the Steelers couldn’t tackle on a Mike Wallace 95-yard touchdown catch-and-run, nor could they protect on a blocked punt returned for a Baltimore touchdown. The terrible Jaguars-Chiefs game (Blake Bortles vs. Nick Foles—catch the fever!) was determined by an officiating controversy where the replay showed a touchdown but officials told us, “There’s nothing to see there.”
The Vikings probably got worse after offensive coordinator Norv Turner quit, allowing the Lions to steal a victory on a play where two of Minnesota’s best defenders couldn’t make an easy tackle. Carson Wentz’s start, the Eagles’ secondary and both head coaches in the Eagles-Giants game probably set football back five years. The Dolphins and Jets kept trying to hand each other the game until the Jets’ ineptness finally won out. The Packers and Aaron Rodgers couldn’t do anything at home against the Colts, who have one of the worst defenses in the league. Zero defense was played in the Saints-49ers track meet. Zero offense was played between the Panthers and Rams, who had their QB booed in the franchise’s fourth home game since returning to Los Angeles. And there were 22 penalties in the must-see matchup between the Titans and Chargers (yawn).
The worst thing about this is we’re now at the midway point of the season. The extended preseason is over. The weather is about to get colder and worse. The state of the NFL is not strong right now, and Sunday may have marked the lowest point in years.