Sunday, December 28, 2014

Week 17 NFL notes

The Seattle Seahawks, as expected, defeated St. Louis to win the top seed in the NFC playoffs. Also, as the local commentators breathlessly tell us, there is nothing to “worry about” when the offense goes in hibernation mode for long stretches of the game, because it always seems to rev-up its engines in the fourth quarter and find a way to win going away. That was certainly the case today, as the Rams took advantage of mediocre play by the overrated Russell Wilson to take a 6-0 first half lead. The score was still 6-6 entering the fourth quarter, and as “predicted” Seattle scored two touchdowns to win in apparent “convincing” fashion, 20-6. 

But that was a mirage. With the Rams driving deep inside Seattle territory early in the fourth quarter, a Sean Hill pass was intercepted and led to a Seattle touchdown to make it 13-6. The Rams should have mustered a field goal and taken a 9-6 lead. Seattle’s last score was on an interception return for a touchdown that accounted for the final score. Then a fumble at the Seattle one-yard line aborted another Rams score; thus this game could easily have been a 16-6 Rams victory. But that is just how the ball bounces in the NFL; undeserving teams sometimes win (just look at the Jets and the Lions). Once more, Wilson put up something more than mediocre numbers, but when it comes right down to it, the team wins in spite of him, not because of him.

Meanwhile Packers locked up the second-seed after surviving a “scare”—Aaron Rodgers being carted off the field with a calf injury late in the second half—but he came back to lead Green Bay over the Detroit 30-20. Fortunately for the Packers, San Francisco and the New York Giants are not on the playoff menu this season.

Elsewhere, the Indianapolis Colts finished 11-5 for the third consecutive year. In just his third season, Andrew Luck threw for 4,761 yards and a league-leading 40 touchdown passes. But there is one nagging concern: When is Luck—like Andy Dalton—going to take the “next step”? Like Dalton, Luck has shown that for every magical performance, such as in the 28-point comeback against Kansas City in the playoffs last season, he is quite capable of a stinker of a performance, and he had several of those in the last month or two. 

In other places, Chip Kelly decided not to succumb to Mark Sanchez’s largely unfair critics and did not start Matt Barkley in his place—because, he said, he wanted to “win the game” against the New York Giants, which the Eagles did, 34-26. Sanchez had statistically the best season of his career, and it can be argued that he is better than the quarterback he replaced. Sanchez completed 198 of 309 passes for 2418 yards and 14 touchdowns in nine games. His pass completion percentage of 64.1 was certainly a shock to his many critics, as was his 7.83 yards-per-pass average. Sanchez’s passer rating of 88.4 was 10 points higher than his previous “best.” This compares to Nick Foles, who completed 59.8 percent of his passes for a 6.96 YPP average, and had a passer rating of 81.4. If Sanchez had played this well for the Jets there would be no question that he should be a starting quarterback in this league, but his “reputation” will precede him wherever he goes.

The quarterback who replaced him in New York, Geno Smith, had the best game of his career today, thanks to Miami falling on its face just like they did last season, when they blew the last two games of the season to whiff on a playoff spot. Geno actually had a “perfect” rating of 158.3, completing 20 of 25 for 358 yards, 3 touchdowns and no interceptions, and his passer rating ballooned from 70.9 to 77.5. I can imagine Jets fans saying to themselves that this is the “real” Geno, if only we could dump Rex. Really? I get the feeling that he just had one of those freak days. The truth of the matter is that last season was a “fluke,” and this season’s 4-12 is what we should have expected all along. Geno’s 3-10 record as a starter this season was no “fluke” either, and we should not forget that he also had a late season “blossoming” that served as a freak-out hallucinogen for fans and some commentators (like ESPN’s Rich Cimini) last season that “translated” into nine consecutive losses as a starter this season. 

What else. New England sat Tom Brady in the second half against Buffalo, who won the game. No one should take away anything from this loss, since the Patriots had already clinched home field advantage due to owning the tie-breaker with Denver. The only notable note to make from this game was that it meant that no team would win more than 12 games this season.

Tony Romo and the Dallas Cowboys, meanwhile, embarrassed the skeptics by going 4-0 in December, after blowing out Washington 44-17. The Cowboys finished 8-0 on road, only 4-4 at home. Romo finished the season with a 113.2 passer rating to lead the NFL. Dallas will play Detroit next week “at home”—obviously no particular advantage for them. The loss for the Redskins leaves Robert Griffin III with a 5-15 record as a starter the past two seasons. Although he completed nearly 69 percent of his passes this season, he threw for only four touchdowns in 214 pass attempts. 

The New Orleans Saints, in first place in the NFC South two weeks ago, won a meaningless game against Tampa Bay, 23-20. Drew Brees ended the season with 4,952 yards passing, just missing four consecutive seasons with 5,000+ yards. The Buccaneers do, however, win the Marcus Mariota Derby. Carolina won the South by blowing out Atlanta on the road, 34-3. This game said far more about the Falcons than the Panthers, however. A late first half interception return for a touchdown followed by a fumble inside the Atlanta five yard line, and then another interception returned for a score turned what should have been a competitive game into wipe-out.  Cam Newton was barely even required to show up, throwing for only 114 yards and rushing for 51. 

The Vikings beat the hapless Bears, who were supposed to be an offensive juggernaut after the firing of Lovie Smith two seasons ago (maybe not such a bad thing, given Tampa Bay’s 2-14 record under Smith’s direction). Have the Vikings found their “franchise” quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater? Umm—maybe. Bridgewater only threw 14 touchdowns on 402 pass attempts, and one had the impression that the Vikings’ wins were more because of how their opponents played than how the Vikings did. We should remember that just a few short years ago  Christian Ponder led the team to a 10-6 record with similar numbers, and where is he at now?

What is wrong with Peyton Manning? In the last five games he is just 94 of 155 passing for 1169 yards, 5 touchdowns and 6 interceptions for a passer rating of only 78.7. The Broncos scored 47 points against the Raiders today, and yet Manning did not throw for a single touchdown pass in 37 pass attempts. No one admits to anything in this mystery. Maybe Manning is just trying to fool everyone, so that he will prove all the doubters wrong that he is just a regular season stud, and the “real” Manning will emerge this time on the playoff stage. 

Finally, despite the fact that Ryan Lindley was starting for Arizona again, the Cardinals whiffed on an excellent chance to defeat San Francisco. Lindley actually threw for a career best 316 yards, and his 70 passer rating was 50 percent higher than his career average—helping to stake the Cardinals to a surprising 17-13 halftime lead. But “success” apparently went to his head, as Lindley squandered an opportunity to be “somebody” by throwing three interceptions and allowing the 49ers to escape with a 20-17 win in Jim Harbaugh’s final game as coach of the team.

Of course, there are those commentators who are already saying that San Francisco is a prime spot for a coach because it has a bright young quarterback; the problem is that the apparent success of this bright young quarterback was largely the making of his coach and a plethora of talent around him. The team’s mediocrity this season was largely on Colin Kaepernick—not the coach. I suspect that like RGIII, Kaepernick will be an albatross around his next coach’s neck.

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