First Down/Fourth Down: Cardinals in contention, props for Gus Bradley and more
There has been ample attention paid to just about all the upstart teams this NFL season: the Jets, Detroit, Carolina, Philadelphia, even Cleveland.
Bruce Arians' Arizona Cardinals have slipped under the radar. Perhaps no longer. With a 27-24 win over Houston on Sunday, the Cardinals improved to 5-4, matching their win total from the 2012 season. And with a game at Jacksonville upcoming, it's possible Arians will carry his team up and over the mark by next Sunday.
The Cardinals currently sit seventh in the NFC standings, just one game back of Carolina and San Francisco for a wild-card spot. They close the year with a home game against the 49ers -- something to remember, in case Arizona can keep on its current path.
A lot of the credit for Arizona's rise lies with the defense, which got after Houston QB Case Keenum on Sunday. That defense actually opened the scoring, with Matt Shaughnessy scooping up a fumble and scoring. The offense also pulled its weight: Rashard Mendenhall and Andre Ellington combined for 124 total yards, and Carson Palmer fired two TD passes, including a gem to Andre Roberts late.
Palmer's inconsistencies plus issues along the offensive line may leave the Cardinals a year or two away from true contention. But they are no longer an afterthought in the competitive NFC.
More of the highs and lows from Week 10 ...
• First Down: Gus Bradley.
Bradley and his Jaguars have been the subject of much ridicule this NFL season, so a little credit where it's due. After losing their first eight games by an average of 22.2 points, the Jaguars came out of their bye to hand Tennessee a crucial setback in the AFC playoff race.
Afterward, Jacksonville owner Shad Khan presented the game ball to Bradley in a victorious locker room. "It's party time, OK? It's party time!" Khan declared. "Here's to Gus, your first victory [of] many as a head coach."
Bradley then returned the thanks -- and the game ball -- to Khan for "believing in us and letting us do it the way we wanted to do it." And then, perhaps fittingly, Bradley announced everyone in the entire locker room would receive an honorary game ball for the win. Perhaps it's a little much, but Bradley earned the right to let loose after a dismal first half.
• Fourth Down: Jake Locker (and the Titans' chances).
The other sideline at LP Field Sunday ... not quite as jovial. With the Colts laying an egg against St. Louis, Tennessee had a shot to pull within one game in the AFC South -- with Indianapolis set to visit in Week 11. Instead, the Titans lost QB Jake Locker to a potentially season-ending injury and never could recover from a 20-7 deficit against the Jaguars.
Jacksonville's last win prior to Sunday? Also against the Titans, in Week 12 last season. This defeat could prove far more costly for the Titans, as it left Tennessee two back in the division and a game behind a wild-card spot.
• First Down: Carolina's front seven.
Is Luke Kuechly the Defensive Player of the Year? He is building a case, and the Carolina defense has thrived right along with him. Sunday, the Panthers turned 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick into a confused mess en route to an impressive, defense-dominated 10-9 victory.
Kaepernick finished with just 91 yards passing, his lowest total since taking over as a starter last season. Carolina sacked him six times (with six different players getting into the action) and more or less took away anything the 49ers wanted to do offensively. That's five straight games now -- all wins -- that the Panthers have allowed 15 points or fewer to the opposition, a streak that has this team looking postseason-worthy.
• Fourth Down: Marvin Lewis' OT decision.
A 50-yard field goal try may have been pushing Mike Nugent's range in chilly conditions, and a make would not have won Sunday's game for the Bengals anyway. In hindsight, a long Nugent attempt would have been preferable to what Cincinnati head coach Marvin Lewis opted for on an overtime 4th-and-2 from Baltimore's 33. Rather than let Nugent take a crack and rather than punt to pin Baltimore in deep, Lewis left his offense on the field. The result of the ensuing play: An 11-yard loss on a pass to rookie Gio Bernard, who tried to reverse field to pick up a first down.
Baltimore, then needing just a field goal of its own to win, took over at its 44-yard line, picked up a pair of first downs and booted the game-winning kick.
• First Down: Mark Ingram.
The normally jovial Saints fans booed Ingram in the first quarter Sunday night, after he dropped a pass from Drew Brees. The underachieving former first-round pick redeemed himself in emphatic fashion later on, rushing for 145 yards and a touchdown in a 49-17 shellacking of the Cowboys. That effort marked the first time in Ingram's three-year NFL career that he had reached 100 yards on the ground.
• Fourth Down: Indianapolis' and San Francisco's offensive lines.
Already hit on the 49ers' shoddy blocking effort earlier -- the line had no answers for Carolina's aggressive, pursuing group of D-linemen and linebackers. But the Colts were not much better up front in an embarrassing 38-8 home loss to St. Louis. Andrew Luck was sacked three times and Indianapolis rushed for just 18 yards (blame some of that, of course, on chronically disappointing back Trent Richardson).
It's not all on Richardson, though. The Colts managed to gain 18 total yards on the ground, with 17 coming on four Andrew Luck scrambles. Richardson, Stanley Havili, Dan Herron and Donald Brown combined to carry the rock eight times for two yards. (Matt Hasselbeck had one rush for minus-1 yard in relief of Luck.) The Rams controlled the line all afternoon, and the scoreboard reflected that.
• First Down: Tavon Austin.
Another redemption song. Austin did not put St. Louis' fans through nearly as long of a wait as Ingram did, but Sunday's game surely was a sight for sore eyes anyway. Mired in a six-game scoring drought, all Austin did was deliver one of the best all-around performances of the NFL season: 314 total yards and three touchdowns on just eight touches, highlighted by a 98-yard punt return for a TD.
• Fourth Down: The Falcons and Texans.
The Texans, quite simply, are toast. Their 27-24 loss in Arizona on Sunday was their seventh consecutive defeat since a 2-0 start, a catastrophic collapse for a team expected to be in Super Bowl contention.
And yet, at least Houston battled down to the final gun. Hard to say the same for the NFC's most disappointing team, Atlanta, which has a matching 2-7 record following a 33-10 loss to Seattle. Granted, it came against arguably the league's best team, but the Falcons turned in a milquetoast effort befitting a squad that's thrown in the towel.
• First Down: Next week's prime-time games.
Three ballgames, and three intriguing matchups.
Even though the Colts and Titans wound up on the naughty list here, their Thursday nighter in Tennessee could go a long way toward deciding the AFC South. A Titans victory would pull them within one of the lead, and these two teams have a rematch set for Week 13 in Indianapolis.
The Sunday and Monday nighters, meanwhile, could be as good as it gets. First up is the long-awaited showdown between the 9-0 Chiefs and 8-1 Broncos, in Denver. A victory by the Chiefs would put a perfect season fully on the table and give them complete control over the AFC West.
The week then concludes with the AFC East-leading Patriots visiting the resurgent Panthers. This appeared to be something of a commonplace matchup when the season schedule was released, but now it's a thrilling cross-conference showdown. (And possibly a Super Bowl preview?)
• Fourth Down: AFC running backs.
Four AFC teams were off in Week 10. So what happened to everyone else on the ground? The top seven rushers for this week's action came out of the NFC; the leading yardage-getter for the AFC was Oakland's Rashad Jennings, with a mere 88.
No other AFC back even hit the 70-yard mark -- Denver's Knowshon Moreno had 65 (plus 49 receiving), San Diego's Ryan Mathews finished with 59 and Cincinnati's Gio Bernard topped out at 58.
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