Remember how bad Week 9 of the NFL season was? Well, Week 10 made up for it with a truly great slate of action, including a statement game by the Cowboys in Pittsburgh and phenomenal comeback wins by the Chiefs, Broncos and Dolphins. If you love the NFL, this week showed us that the league can be great again. Hopefully it’s just a taste of what’s to come. A lot to get to, but let's start with the best game of the NFL season on a needed, big stage.
Your resident “Wet Blanket of Reason” takes the temperature of the most intriguing storylines out of Week 10 of the 2016 NFL season:
Go crazy, folks:
Steelers-Cowboys might save the NFL from itself: The NFL’s TV ratings have been sagging, but I’m willing to bet the late afternoon Dallas-Pittsburgh matchup will do very well. Two historic franchises. A back-and-forth game with seven lead changes. Great performances by stars or emerging stars in Ben Roethlisberger, Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Antonio Brown and Dez Bryant. Highlight-reel plays by all involved, including a fake clock play by the Steelers. A game-winning run by Elliott. It was just a phenomenal game all around. Throw in that the NFL’s best reality show, the Cowboys, are back in a big way— they're 8–1 and are a legit Super Bowl contender. If this game is what we can expect down the stretch, the NFL will be getting its groove back in short order.
Trouble in Green Bay: A week after the Packers were embarrassed at home by the Colts (the Packers fell behind 31–10), and everyone said the right things (from coach Mike McCarthy’s lack of concern, to QB Aaron Rodgers’s vow to get it right) the team was expected to rectify things against the Titans. On the first play of scrimmage, Titans RB DeMarco Murray ran 75 yards for a touchdown on the way to a 28–7 Titans lead, and ultimately a 47–25 victory in which the Titans ran up 446 yards of total offense.
That’s the type of “response” you get from a team with some real internal issues. The Packers are now 4–5, in third place in the NFC North. They have a minus-11 point differential when just two years ago they finished plus-138 (and plus-45 last season). There will be a lot of pressure now on McCarthy, Rodgers, defensive coordinator Dom Capers and GM Ted Thompson from the outside, probably the most since a 2009 loss dropped the Packers to 4–4 (and 10–14 since Rodgers replaced Brett Favre) with a loss to the winless Buccaneers. Everyone deserves part of the blame, especially Thompson and Capers. Thompson has let the talent level on this team dwindle, probably due to his aversion to middling free agents that could help the depth. Capers has the built-in excuse of injuries, but his squad continues to look lost and I could see McCarthy giving at least some thought to firing Capers and replacing him with either Winston Moss or Darren Perry. But other than that, no big changes will be coming to Green Bay anytime soon. It is going to have to find a way to dig itself out of this with seven games to play.
Heartbreak in the NFC South: If Carolina and New Orleans finish a game behind the Falcons in the NFC South, they’ll look back at Sunday and want to kick themselves as they both blew golden opportunities to tighten the divisional race with the Falcons falling to the Eagles.
The Panthers looked to be back in the NFC playoff picture in a big way as they went up on the Chiefs 17–0 and then led 17–6 with the ball with 10:51 left in the fourth quarter. Then Cam Newton threw a terrible interception while falling away that was returned for a touchdown and, with the score tied at 20 with 20 seconds left, Panthers WR Kelvin Benjamin was stripped by Chiefs CB Marcus Peters at the Carolina 24-yard line, which led to the game-winning field goal. Instead of being 4–5 and one game behind the Falcons in the NFC South, the Panthers fell to 4–6 and are two games back.
The Saints, despite turning the ball over four times, looked on their way to a thrilling 24–23 victory over the Broncos after Brandin Cooks’s ridiculous 32-yard touchdown catch in triple coverage with 1:22 left. All New Orleans needed was the extra point. And then Broncos DB Justin Simmons jumped over the line, blocked the kick and it was returned 84 yards by Will Parks (who may have stepped out of bounds but there were no conclusive replays down the sideline…more on that in a second) for the game-wining two-point conversion.
Who’s holding the bake sale?: Two years ago, the Patriots put forth a proposal to install fixed cameras to all boundary lines so that they could be used with instant replay. It was nixed because the cost was too much for the cash-starved NFL to bear, which led to this famous Bill Belichick quote. “We just spent however many millions of dollars on the replay system. I mean, there are 1,000 cameras in every stadium, so if somebody spills a beer on somebody, we have it on record, right?," he said. "Maybe we could have a bake sale to raise some money for the cameras. We could do a car wash." After the aforementioned fiasco in the Broncos-Saints game, I’ll bring some great brownies. Who else is in?
Broncos defense flexes: Despite not having CB Aqib Talib and DT Derek Wolfe, the Broncos held the No. 2 scoring offense to 23 points, which was just enough for the Broncos offense and special teams to pull off a victory. Safety Darian Stewart was huge with two interceptions, and the defense forced two fourth-quarter fumbles from Saints receiver Michael Thomas.
The Chargers blow a chance to get back into it: San Diego QB Philip Rivers had four interceptions in the fourth quarter, including the game-winning touchdown for Miami when Kiko Alonso returned one 60 yards for a score. That’s all that really needs to be said. It was a terrible showing by Rivers and the Chargers, who had a chance to be in the wild-card race at 5–5 but are instead 4–6.
The Dolphins are doing what they need to do: Give coach Adam Gase and the Dolphins a lot of credit. Since starting 1–4, they’ve won four-straight games after Sunday’s 31–24 victory over the Chargers. Sure, none of the four victories have been particularly impressive considering the Steelers didn’t show up (as they are prone to do) and Ben Roethlisberger got injured, then beat three teams that don’t have a winning record. But they’re victories, and the team has shown some toughness in the last three wins that have come by seven points or less. Probably the biggest plus for the Dolphins is that they’ve found their identity (running team through Jay Ajayi with Ryan Tannehill as a game manager), and the porous secondary has come together enough to make plays. The Dolphins’ schedule is not difficult the rest of the way, especially with the season finale against a Patriots team that should have home field wrapped up by then. Miami is going to be in the middle of the playoff race, and if it keeps improving, it could be trouble in the postseason.
Falcons have too many mistakes: Atlanta’s status as a contender is very much in doubt as it was mistake-prone in their third loss in five games. QB Matt Ryan, who threw late picks in losses to the Seahawks and Chargers, again had a late-game interception. But the whole team had issues, including WR Julio Jones, who had a huge third-down drop, and arguably another, Matt Bryant, who missed an extra point, and rookies Brian Poole and Joshua Perkins, who had huge penalties late. But this game also showed that the Falcons have a long ways to go on defense as the Eagles pushed them around with 208 yards on 38 carries. The offensive line could also only muster 48 yards rushing.
Preston Smith comes through to keep Vikings reeling: Washington OLB Preston Smith emerged last season as a young pass rusher, but as a starter this season he hasn’t come up with many big plays despite playing well. On Sunday he had two sacks and a game-clinching interception in a 26–20 victory over the Vikings. It was Minnesota’s fifth-straight loss.
Slow your roll:
The Bucs are just OK: Yes, Tampa Bay is now tied for second and just one game in the loss column behind the Falcons in the NFC South because it blew out the Bears. But I don’t want to hear anything more about it other than that the Bucs are still in it—they are not a contender for anything. Since beating the Falcons in the opener, Tampa’s three wins have come against the Panthers, 49ers and Bears. Those teams are a combined 6–20.
Rams and Texans might not even be just OK: Los Angeles “beat” the Jets 9–6 in a game that set back football 30 years, and the Texans outlasted the awful Jaguars 24–21. Houston is lucky it’s in the awful AFC South because if it wasn’t, it’d be playing for next season at this point instead of sitting at 6–3. Don’t be fooled by their wins—the Rams and Texans are not good. At all.
A look at the best and worst coaching decisions from Sunday.
• Stop with the two-point conversions: I'm going to limit this section of the column this week to one important point. Everything I hear is that people like the two-point conversions because they’re exciting and you can make them with a high percentage. Stat geeks love them. I hate them, with the six failed conversions between the Steelers and Cowboys as example 1A. You miss them early, and then you’re chasing them all game long. Just kick the stupid extra points until the second half (if not the fourth quarter) please. And Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is the worst offender. You’re not smart for trying them early, even if you make them. You’re just trying hard to show off.
Everybody loves to hate the refs, but let’s take a closer look at how the zebras performed today:
— One news note to start: Remember the play last week where the 49ers intentionally held the Saints receivers with 8 seconds left in the first half so that the Saints couldn’t try for a touchdown from the 17-yard line and had to kick a field goal? The NFL has adjusted. If it happens more than once, the officials have been instructed to call a 15-yard, unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for a “palpably unfair act,” according to a league source and the time would be put back on the clock.
— With the Eagles trailing by two points in the fourth quarter, QB Carson Wentz had a perfect pass to WR Jordan Matthews, but the play was broken up with a blatant head shot by Falcons safety Keanu Neal. But there was no flag. Matthews could barely get off the field. That’s just a terrible non-call. The NFL has to find a better way to adjudicate these vicious head shots that need to be taken out of the game.
— The reason that the Titans-Packers game lasted nearly four hours was because of the way the game was called and handled by referee Jeff Triplette and his crew. Whatever happened to that bench of officials the NFL wanted? If they had one, they should use it now.
Coolest thing I saw
— The Jets only scored one touchdown against the Rams, but it was a memorable one. With QB Bryce Petty as their starter, they ran a bubble screen left to Brandon Marshall, but instead of heading into the end zone from the 4-yard line, he lateraled the ball to Bilal Powell around the left sideline and he scored. Sweetness. The rest of the game? Not so much.
—The 42-yard interception return for a touchdown by Chiefs S Eric Berry that keyed their comeback against the Panthers was just an incredible effort.
—Jameis Winston’s 24-yard backwards zig-zagging scramble into his own end zone, then his throw 47 yards in the air to Mike Evans, who made a leaping catch for a 39-yard gain.
—The only highlight for the Bears in their 36–10 loss to the Bucs was a 50-yard tipped Hail Mary from Jay Cutler to Cam Meredith to end the first half.
The running, one-handed catch by Broncos WR Demaryius Thomas over the middle.
Please Allow Me To Introduce Myself…
A look at a previously unheralded player (or players) who popped this week:
Justin Simmons, S, Broncos: The third-round pick out of Boston College will now be well known by Denver fans after his miraculous leap over the line and blocked extra point resulted in the game-winning points against the Saints. The 6’ 2 ½” Simmons had a vertical jump of 40 inches at the combine, in case you were interested. The win kept Denver one game behind the Chiefs and Raiders in the loss column in the AFC West.
Numbers sometimes lie
3:36: Time of the game between the Titans and the Packers. It actually felt like six hours considering the fourth quarter didn’t start until nearly 4 p.m.
Numbers sometimes don’t lie
149.8: Passer rating for Titans QB Marcus Mariota, who was every bit as sensational as his numbers (19 of 26 for 295 yards and four touchdowns) in the Titans’ roasting of the Packers’ defense.
After the whistle
There have been a lot of questions about where the NFL stands this season. It has had a lot of issues on and off the field, and with attracting eyeballs. All of those questions are valid. But after the Cowboys’ immensely impressive victory on the road against the Steelers for their eighth-straight wins, Dallas and New England seem to be on a collision course for the Super Bowl, and that would be one heck of a matchup for the NFL. It's hard to say enough about the Cowboys, especially rookie QB Dak Prescott, who went toe to toe with a Super Bowl champion in Ben Roethlisberger and emerged as the victor. That’s a huge statement for him and the Cowboys. The Steelers and Seahawks will have some input on the final Super Bowl matchup, but right now it looks like Dallas and New England are playing different and complete games. And that’s the Super Bowl the NFL needs.