Sunday, September 28, 2014

Week 4 NFL Notes

Bad-good-bad-good. That has been the story of Green Bay Packers’ season so far in a nutshell. In Week Three’s inept offensive performance against Detroit, I noted that when many commentators were asked to place the teams in NFC North, most put it the Bears-Lions-Packers, in that order. Unfortunately for those who believed that the Bears replaced the Packers as the “class” of the division—since Detroit was still considered too “unpredictable”—on the road against the Chicago was just the cure the struggling Packers needed for their woes—at least their offensive ones.  In Week Four’s contest, neither team displayed any semblance of defensive competency in the first half, trading long drives that ended with the Packers leading 21-17 at halftime.

In the second half, the Bears continued to grind-up the Packers defense, especially on the ground, gaining 235 yards rushing all told. Fortunately for the Packers, the Bears were undone by costly mistakes—including two Jay Cutler interceptions—and failed to score a single point after the half; the Packers scored 17 additional points on short fields to win in deceptive “blowout” fashion, 38-17. Despite a more “characteristic” Aaron Rodgers’ performance, a closer examination of the means to victory still leaves some doubt in the mind. The Packers defense was still shredded for nearly 500 yards and 33 first downs—and just as worrying is the fact that Packers still have been unable to establish a running game, with Eddie Lacy gaining but 48 yards on 17 carries—only 2.8 yards per attempt.

Nevertheless, if neither the Packers nor the Bears could be said to have quieted doubters in this game, what of the current division leader, the Detroit Lions? On paper, the Lions and the New York Jets led their respective conferences in fewest yards allowed on defense, but the Jets once more demonstrated for the third week in a row against teams from the “down” NFC North that this mattered little when you have a quarterback who has a habit of giving away short yardage to the other team. And unlike Rodgers last week, Matthew Stafford was able to take advantage of a questionable Jets’ secondary even with an ailing Calvin Johnson barely making an appearance. The Lions could afford to keep Johnson sidelined (he was only targeted twice), because Golden Tate proved with the Lions as he did with Seattle Seahawks last season that he was an adequate No. 1 receiver if called upon.

On the other hand, Geno Smith for the third straight game was ineffectual for long stretches of when he wasn’t serving the ball over to the other team on a silver platter. Once Jets fans were convinced that Smith was the “answer” merely because he looked the part of the “athletic” quarterback, and his name wasn’t Mark Sanchez; now in another home loss, the evidence before their eyes now dissuades the impulse to find blame elsewhere, and the chants for Michael Vick have become more pronounced. Coach Rex Ryan probably wishes to go the “backup” plan option sooner rather than later (despite the façade he is obliged to maintain), but ultimately the decision to bench Smith will come after those who are really making the decisions start feeling the wrath of fans upon themselves.

The question then is if the Lions are “for real.” This may be their season if the Packers and Bears continue to play a Jekyll and Hyde act, and the Lions have certainly played more “consistently” this season; on the other hand, we have seen this from the Lions before, with those late season swoons. But wait—wasn’t that the Vikings who lit-up the scoreboard against the Atlanta Falcons with their latest new quarterback? Tied for “second” in the division? Talk about confusing.

Elsewhere, last Thursday, Kirk Cousins breathed new life into Robert Griffin III diehards by throwing four interceptions in a very embarrassing loss to the New York Giants at home; perhaps he was trying to drive the final nail into the coffin of RGIII partisans—only he left his brain in the locker room and did some major damage to his cause.

Meanwhile, the San Francisco 49ers somehow managed to escape with a victory in yet another example of how Colin Kaepernick and company cannot tolerate good fortune. Despite completely dominating the Philadelphia Eagles in every offensive category, the Eagles didn’t lose the lead in the game until the fourth quarter despite not scoring a single point on offense. 49er blunders on special teams and a Kaepernick interception returned for a touchdown gave the Eagles a 21-10 lead which was only very gradually allowed to melt away. But even down 26-21, with the Eagles having been stifled for 130 yards of total offense, they manage to somehow put together a 90 yard drive to the one-yard line late in the game, yet were undone by Nick Foles resuming his inferior play of the prior minutes of the game. Yet the Eagles still had a chance just 20 seconds later, but then the officials got involved, calling two inopportune penalties and setting up a fourth-and-24 which naturally led to a game-ending interception, saving the 49ers from another humiliating defeat not cushioned by even the bizarre nature of it.

Last week after the Denver Broncos lost to the Seattle Seahawks in a game that Seahawks almost gave away due to offensive ineptitude in the fourth quarter, the Broncos’ Chris Harris–who intercepted a Russell Wilson pass that led to an easy Broncos’ score—proclaimed afterward that he didn’t “understand” why anyone could possibly believe that Andrew Luck was a “better” quarterback than Wilson. Now, if the Indianapolis Colts had a defense (and noisy home crowd) like the Seahawks, he might be singing a different tune. After two tough losses that could have had different results had the ball bounced the other way, Luck has gotten into a groove that actually does make him appear to be the “natural” successor of his predecessor in Indianapolis that people thought he would be.

After a productive game against the admittedly “Luckless” Tennessee Titans, Luck is now after just four games 115 of 167 passing for 1305 yards and 13 TDs. Indianapolis currently leads the NFL in points scored (136) and average points per game (34). Luck’s production is 50 percent higher than Wilson’s, and he has shown that he is much more capable than Wilson of moving the ball through the air. Nevertheless, as they “say,” teams that can rush the ball and play great defense can overcome just adequate quarterback play, and it is Wilson’s good fortune to be on a team where this axiom has prevailed.

In regard to the “luckless” Titans, quarterback Jake Locker did not play due to a sprained wrist. Since being a surprisingly high draft pick in 2011, there have been plenty of doubters about his capacity to be an NFL quarterback; he certainly wasn’t the top tier college quarterback that many expected him to be. It was that people saw in his “athleticism” the “potential.” Locker was the projected starting quarterback for the Titans since day one, but he has been “out” for half of all the team’s games due to injury. He has had shoulder “issues,” he has had hip “issues” followed by knee “issues. Then he had foot “issues,” and now it is wrist “issues.” Practically every part of his body has had “issues.” The surprising thing is that the Titans still don’t have “issues” about the ability of Locker to stay upright long enough to play something like a full season. It seems more and more doubtful all the time, and other than one or two good games, one wonders when the team is going to get around to asking the question “what’s the point?”

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