Sunday, November 29, 2015

Week 12 NFL notes

It was Brett Favre Day at Lambeau Field this past Thursday, his jersey number being retired. I have said that I have been a Favre supporter since 1992, when after a stumbling and bumbling performance against the Bengals, he put it together late and led the Packers to a wild final seconds finish with a perfect pass to Kitrick Taylor for a 24-23 victory. One could see that there was something special about Favre by his almost childlike glee settling down to a wow-can-you-believe-I-did-this meditation on the field. Favre’s greatness should never be undersold; the Packers were a franchise that was in the doldrums for most of 25 years, a team few thought would ever come back to relive the glory days of Lombardi era. But Ron Wolf believed that this was possible, and he believed in Favre—even if Mike Holmgren was initially skeptical. Favre put the team back on the national map with his infectious personality, his toughness, and for the fact that for better (mostly) or for worse he represented what the game of football was meant to be. He might not have been the greatest quarterback of all-time, but he certainly was one of its greatest players of the game

Another week of frustration for me, as many of the results I hoped for didn’t come to pass. In week 12, the “good” results:

Cardinals 19 49ers 13. I like the Cardinals because I don’t like the Seahawks, and every Cardinal win means the more likely the Seahawks will not win the division and be forced to play all of their potential playoff games on the road, away from their annoying (to me) fans. This game was actually tied at 13 late in the game, but despite having a pedestrian performance, Carson Palmer actually won it with his feet, after a 8-yard scamper into the end zone with a little over 2 minutes to play. Blaine Gabbert had another “shockingly” good performance, and on the 49ers’ final drive to win the game (after the Cardinals’ kicker missed the PAT), they were saved by a fumble that went out of bounds to extend the game. But on a fourth-and-20 (following a ten-yard sack) at the 40-yard line, Anquan Boldin caught a Gabbert pass at the Cardinals 22 and went no further, short of the first down and saving the win for the Cardinals, who remain 3 games ahead in the NFC West.

Colts 25 Buccaneers 12. The Colts actually trailed in this game at halftime 12-6. The Buccaneers had the ball for only three possessions in the first half, but they were long drives that consumed yardage if not adding up to a lot of points. In the second half, the veteran Matt Hasselbeck played like one, while his counterpart played like the rookie he is. Hasselbeck is now 4-0 this season as a starter—and still modestly understates his contribution to saving the Colts’ season.

Redskins 20 Giants 14. I only cared about the result of this game if it meant that the Eagles and Cowboys would still be “mathematically” in the hunt of the NFC Least’s division title with the Giants now dropping to below .500 at 5-6. It seems that technically the Redskins are unbelievably in first place, also with a 5-6 record—and who would have believed that was possible just a few weeks ago? 

Bengals 31 Rams 7. The Rams are not challenging the Seahawks now, so I don’t care about them anymore. Nick Foles was just horrible again, making game manager Andy Dalton look a Hall of Famer with just average numbers. 

Chargers 31 Jaguars 25. I would have liked this result a lot more if former Wisconsin Badger Melvin Gordon, who rushed for more than 2,500 yards last year and was a Heisman finalist, had put up the kind of numbers expected of him (in this game, 60 yards on 14 carries). But he has yet to have a 100-yard game this season, and he appears to be yet another Badger running back who was gangbusters in college behind a great offensive line, but washed out in the NFL.

Jets 38 Dolphins 20. Ryan Fitzpatrick and Brandon Marshall finally “clicked” in this game, with Marshall catching nine passes for 131 yards and two of Fitzpatrick’s four TD passes. With the Jets improving to 6-5, at least talk of a return of Geno Smith has been muted. Meanwhile, the Dolphins have lost four of five; after scoring 82 points in the first two post-Philbin games, they have now scored just 67 points in the past five.

And now for the bad results of the week:

Bears 17 Packers 13. At first I would say the Packers had no business losing this game, but Jay Cutler at least put together a good game regardless of the wind and rain (19-31 200 yards, 1 TD), while Aaron Rodgers continued his descent into what is easily the worst season of his career (22-43, 202 yards, 1 TD, 1 Int).  Rodgers’ interception late in the fourth quarter seemed to seal the deal for the Bears, but they were unable to run out the clock and gave Rodgers one more chance to redeem himself after failing to lead the Packers to a score the entire second half. But that final drive that at one point was a first-and-goal at the 8-yard line was an illusion. Rodgers completed just 5 of 12 passes, including misfiring on all four of his passes from that point (two admittedly off the hands of the intended targets).  Rodgers lost feelings in his hand after a third quarter hit, but he didn’t play any worse than before. It is claimed that the Packers offense isn’t in “sync”; that is true, but the question is to what extent is that Rodgers?

Panthers 33 Cowboys 14. In hindsight , Tony Romo was not ready to play, especially in a short week playing on Thanksgiving.  And it wasn’t even worth it, since Romo was knocked out for the season after throwing three interceptions—two of them returned for touchdowns. Cam Newton wasn’t that great, and he didn’t need to be in this game, with the defense contributing to a league-leading +16 turnover differential and scoring points. With the Panthers 11-0, can it be actually possible we could see an unbeaten team entering the playoffs from each conference? 

Lions 45 Eagles 14. For the second straight week the Eagles gave up 45 points, and there was no way Mark Sanchez was going do enough to erase the expected result—even when he threw no interceptions in this game, compared to four in last week’s blowout. I have to confess all now: I was wrong about Matt Flynn, who turned out to have a weak throwing shoulder prone to frequent injury, and Sanchez is just not the kind of quarterback who can function well in adversity. 

Texans 24 Saints 6. I want the Colts to win their division again, and they won’t if the Texans keep up this surprising winning way. That’s all.

Vikings 20 Falcons 10. The Vikings are back in sole possession of first place in the NFC North over the Packers, and the Falcons keep sinking. Teddy Bridgewater keeps playing like a placeholder, but that’s all he needs to do if Adrian Petersen keeps running for 158 yards. If he keeps this up, Petersen should be in the running for the NFC MVP award. 

Chiefs 30 Bills 22. I’m not a fan of either of these teams, but I like to see Tyrod Taylor play well, because this is a guy who did nothing in four years as Joe Flacco’s back-up, and no one even knew who he was before this season. He is what I expected Matt Flynn to be after four years backing-up Aaron Rodgers. Taylor was red-hot in the first quarter, throwing for over 150 yards, but he couldn’t keep up the pace, as the plodding Alex Smith plodded along in the right direction, passing him by to lead the Chiefs to the win.

Raiders 24 Titans 21. Derek Carr outplayed Marcus Mariota in every way in this game, yet it was only a defensive penalty on fourth down that allowed the Raiders to come back and score the winning touchdown. In the final minute Mariota threw a 30-yard pass to midfield in an attempt to at least set-up a tying field goal, but his next pass went straight into the rookie Twilight Zone, or a starring role in Dumb and Dumber.

Seahawks 39 Steelers 30. This was supposed to be a “losable” game for the Seahawks. Ben Roethlisberger threw for 456 yards before being knocked out of the game late, but three interceptions that led to short field touchdowns for the Seahawks nullified his shredding of the Seahawk secondary. The fact that Russell Wilson’s last four passes went for 139 yards and two touchdowns only underscores the fact that the Seahawks should have been blown out of their own stadium if the Steelers had just avoid making the really bad play.

Broncos 30 Patriots 24. Well, I only say this is "bad" because there will now be no chance for a "historic" meeting between two undefeated teams in the Super Bowl after all. The Peyton Manningless Broncos scored 17 unanswered point to overcome a 21-7 fourth quarter deficit to briefly take the lead before Tom Brady and company managed a last gasp drive to tie the game and send it into overtime, but the Broncos top-rated defense stuffed the Patriots on their first possession, and C.J. Anderson ran 48 yards for the game-ending touchdown. There were those who said that the Broncos had to start Manning this game over Brock Osweiler if they had any prayer to win, but the Broncos won as they had before—with defense and a running attack that made-up for the deficiencies in the passing game.

Ravens 33 Browns 27. Matt Schaub, the one-time “franchise” quarterback of the Houston Texans, came back from the dead like Matt Hasselbeck and did just enough good (two TD passes) to help the Joe Flacco-less Ravens to a bizarre victory. Schaub also threw two interceptions, one returned for a touchdown and the other seemingly giving the Browns the opportunity for the winning field goal on the final play. But Travis Coon’s attempt was blocked and improbably returned for the winning score by Will Hill.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Week 11 NFL notes

Another dull week in the NFL, unless of course you are a hard-pressed Cowboys’ fan. To wit:

Jaguars 19 Titans 13. A match-up between two teams looking for better tidings in the future, the only difference in being that the rookie quarterback was unable to pull the trigger for a comeback last play win over a quarterback who is “improving” after a few hapless seasons. Maybe Marcus Mariota is just better enough that he will be where Blake Bortles is today next season.

Buccaneers 45 Eagles 17. Sorry, I’m not going to put all of the blame for this lopsided loss on Mark Sanchez. Sure, he threw three interceptions, but that was after he started well, throwing two touchdowns by the second quarter. But it was only to tie the game against a Buccaneers team that would have been off the radar screen if it didn’t have a Heisman Trophy quarterback at the helm. The Eagle defense allowed Jameis Winston (246 yards passing) and running back Doug Martin (235 yards rushing) to run all over the yard without their leashes, as the Buccaneers piled up 521 yards of total offense. I don’t care who the Eagles’ quarterback is; this is a team designed to take the lead early and somehow keep it before the other team catches up. Within minutes of the Eagles tying the game, the Buccaneers were up 28-14, and it was all over. I might as well admit it—Sanchez has a “tendency” to make bad decisions when he feels he is forced to “make plays” (especially in front of the home crowd), and he did in this game to make the game even more lopsided that it needed to be.

Texans 24 Jets 17. Neither Ryan Fitzpatrick, nor T.J. Yates, completed 50 percent of their passes (19-39 and 16-34 respectively), but throwing two touchdown passes as opposed to two interceptions just might make a little bit of a difference.

Colts 24 Falcons 21. Former Seahawk Matt Hasselbeck appears to be one of those “ageless” wonders; subbing for the injured Andrew Luck, he is somehow 3-0 as a starter this season. He did have some help, of course; the Falcons actually led this game 21-7, but three late turnovers—including an interception returned for a touchdown—undid the Falcons. 

Chiefs 33 Chargers 3. Alex Smith proved in this game that it is possible to have a 100 passer rating (108.8) with at least 25 passes attempted while not throwing for a single touchdown; completing 80 percent of your passes for 10 yards per pass attempt accomplishes that. The normally “high-powered” Chargers’ offense managed a measly 201 yards before the home crowd in another embarrassing loss.

Ravens 16 Rams 13. If you are going to replace your quarterback at mid-season who at least got you to four wins in nine games, you’d better hope his replacement is “better.” It might have appeared that way as the Rams took a 13-3 lead into the fourth quarter, but then again, it was only 13 points. But as Case Keenum and company fumbled and bumbled their way to the finish line, Joe Flacco found some rhythm and passed the Ravens beyond the line just barely sneaking by the Rams for first place.

Lions 18 Raiders 13. Matthew Stafford has to have one of the lowest TD pass-per-attempt percentages among modern day quarterbacks, and this game didn’t help, as he threw no TD passes after 282 yards on 35 passes; in 2012 he had a mere 20 TD passes off an NFL record 727 pass attempts. But outgaining your opponent 375 to 214 and committing no turnovers generally leads to victory no matter how inefficiently the team plays.

Broncos 17 Bears 15. Subbing for the injured Peyton Manning, Brock Osweiler did just enough to overcome Jay Cutler’s turnovers, including a late fumble in Broncos’ territory. Cutler did come right back to lead the Bears to the potential game-tying touchdown before failing on a two-point conversion. But while the Bears are out of the playoff picture for good, the question for the Broncos is if Manning will be “healthy” enough to play against his principle nemesis, Tom Brady and the Patriots; for that rare time, this would be one instance where I hope Manning does win.

Panthers 44 Redskins 16. The Cam Newton bandwagon is full horsepower ahead, but it seems to me that the Panthers’ defense has been getting the short end of the stick. A defense that allows just 184 net yards and forces 5 turnovers obviously makes it easier for someone like Newton to strut his stuff ridiculously. 

Cowboys 24 Dolphins 14. The Cowboys are certainly a different team with Tony Romo back at the helm. If the Cowboys had won just two of their seven games without Romo, they would be in first place right now in the NFC Least, having already beaten the 5-5 Giants. Not that the Cowboys are completely out of it; in fact, if they win out they could conceivably win the division outright, as bad as it is. But as good as Romo is, he can’t accomplish miracles, can he?

Seahawks 29 49ers 13. Blaine Gabbert didn’t embarrass himself against the Seahawks, in fact managed a 98.2 passer rating and leading the 49ers to 10 more points against the Seahawks on the road than they did with Colin Kaepernick at home. But Russell Wilson had a good time of it, because back-up running back Thomas Rawls rushed for 209 yards, and that always helps him to avoid bad decisions when the opposing defense is forced to consider stopping other pressing issues besides him.

Packers 30 Vikings 13. Don’t let the score fool you; Aaron Rodgers had another bad game, and clearly is trying to avoid the effort at passing the ball whenever possible. Completing less than 50 percent of his passes and having a passer rating 14 points below Teddy Bridgewater’s, something clearly ails Rodgers, and I doubt it is his relationship with his intimate partner; more likely it is a “hangover” from what ailed him at the end of last season. Adrian Peterson was a non-factor in this game, and as one suspects, Bridgewater can put-up what appears to be respectable numbers; but when you get sacked six times for 48 yards in losses, it generally means some of those yards are either “lost” or not sufficiently recovered, even though they “add-up” on the stat sheet. In any case, the Packers have recovered first place in the NFC North.

Cardinals 34 Bengals 31. You can't keep a good man down. and despite throwing two interceptions, as like last week against the Seahawks Carson Palmer recovered like a knocked down boxer and got off the mat to deliver the decisive blow, this time throwing four touchdown passes and leading his team downfield for the winning field goal as the Cardinals moved closer to securing the NFC West by maintaining a three-game edge over the Seahawks. The Bengals, meanwhile, have lost two straight after winning eight in a row--with the Steelers suddenly breathing down their necks.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Week 10 NFL notes

The “good” news for Peyton Manning in the Broncos’ 29-13 loss to the Chiefs is that he broke (just barely) Brett Favre’s career passing yards record.  Unfortunately, it took him almost three quarters to throw for literally a couple of yards to do so. Manning’s 5 of 20, 35 yards, no TDs, 4 interceptions and a 0.0 passer rating was not only the worst performance of his career, but probably the worst of any quarterback this season. Manning now has 17 interceptions in nine games, with just nine touchdown passes. Perhaps not surprisingly, Manning hasn’t played this poorly since his rookie season, given that he is near the end. The speculation is that Manning is suffering from numerous ills and should sit for a few weeks, but frankly he started the season with uncharacteristically un-Manning like inefficiency, and has gone from poor to bad to worse as the season has gone on, and finally the team is beginning to suffer from it. 
In games this weekend:

Bills 22 Jets 17. Rex Ryan waxed nostalgic after the game, imagining that his former team was pining for him back. That is unlikely, but in games like this where it was more the bad play of one team than the good play of another team that was the deciding factor, we’ll forgive Rex for wishful thinking. But to be frank, Rex’s Bills seem little different than Rex’s Jets, meaning they are just treading water. 

Patriots 27 Giants 26. The Giants had plenty of opportunities to put this game away and end the Patriots unbeaten streak in the fourth quarter, but allowing a 76-yard scoring pass, failing to convert a fumble at the Patriots’ 31-yard line into points, failing to punch-in on first-and-goal at the five with under 2 minutes to play, and then the defense allowing a fourth-and-ten conversion on the drive that eventually led to the winning field goal—you don’t do against this Patriots team and expect to win. 

Lions 18 Packers 16. In a game where there was a combined 92 yards rushing on 44 carries, barely two yards a rush, you would expect the better quarterback to prevail—especially a supposedly good Packer team at home against a Lions team that has trouble winning games this season. But as I’ve noted before, Aaron Rodgers has frequently had inexplicably poor games against the Lions, and this was another one. A personal “best” 61 pass attempts were only good for 333 yards only counted on the stat sheet. Sure, the Packers did “rally” late, even recovering an onside kick after a poor two-point conversion pass by Rodgers failed to tie the game, but the usually reliable Mason Crosby missed a 52-yard field goal attempt. After  a 6-0 start, the Packers have not just lost three straight, but

Vikings 30 Raiders 14. The Vikings are now incomprehensibly in sole possession of first place in the NFC North,  continuing to ride the back of Adrian Peterson, who has clearly regained his position as the most dynamic running back in the NFL, gaining 203 yards rushing in this game on just 26 carries. It is remarkable how this seemingly nondescript team has reached the heights it has, but that is only so because Peterson is still persona non grata in the media. No one is allowed to say anything “good” about him, such is the current politics.

Bears 37 Rams 13.Talk about two teams tough to figure out. The Rams beat the Seahawks and the Cardinals and get crushed at home by the Bears, who were crushed by those teams. But it all works out, because both are now 4-6, with one not looking so bad now with a healthy quarterback (Jay Cutler) and the other with a healthy but not so good quarterback (Nick Foles).
Panthers 27 Titans 10. Cam Newton was just “efficient” enough to beat a team with a rookie quarterback that is now 0-5 at home. “Hall of Fame” hyperbole or not, Newton often at least looks like a man among boys.

Steelers 30 Browns 9. At least on the stat sheet, Johnny Manziel demonstrated a capacity to complete a lot of passes for a lot of yards (33-45, 372 yards), but he was no match for Ben Roethlisberger, injured foot or not. The Browns just can’t get their wheels out of the rut they have been in ever since their return to Cleveland.

Jaguars 22 Ravens 20. Another tough game to explain. Blake Bortles threw for just 188 yards on 45 pass attempts, while Joe Flacco threw for 316.  I think that the old fable of the hare and the tortoise applies here. Bortles and company just plodded along, crossing the finish line just ahead of a once good team that has grown lazy. Sure, the game officials should be fired for blowing a call before the final play that would have ended the game in a Ravens' win, but a 15-yard face mask penalty that put the Jaguars in game-winning field goal range with no time remaining? Not that this is unknown--Geno Smith was granted a bogus personal foul penalty with no time remaining against the Buccaneers a few years ago--but that was stupid and lazy.

Dolphins 20 Eagles 19. Mark Sanchez got his shot after Sam Bradford left the game after an injury, made some athletic plays that Bradford can’t do, and ruins it all by throwing an interception in the end zone on second-and-goal from the Dolphins’ eight, down by a point. The problem here is that every mistake that Sanchez makes is magnified to the maximum degree, as if he is an idiot. No other quarterback in this league is subject to so much derogation. I know the real reason why, and it has nothing to do with football, really.

Buccaneers 10 Cowboys 6. The Cowboys just can’t catch a break. Offensively they were awful, but the Buccs were worse than awful. With the score 6-3 late in the fourth quarter, Jameis Winston manages to advance the ball to the four yard line, rushes to the one and fumbles, recovered by the Cowboys for a touchback to seemingly end the game, but the officials get involved and call a holding penalty on the Cowboys that had no impact whatever on the play, and the Winston scores on the next play for the winning touchdown. 

Redskins 47 Saints 14. The other Ryan brother has been on the hot seat for his handling of the Saint’s defense, but the lopsided score of this game seems to demonstrate that the problems with this team are more systemic; the Redskins don’t have that good of a defense, either.

Cardinals 39 Seahawks 32. The Seahawks defense giveth, and sometimes taketh away. Carson Palmer was at times both unstoppable and helpless in this game, but more often the former. Palmer threw an early interception in the end zone, and later fumbled the ball twice leading to quick touchdowns for the Seahawks. Those mistakes masked what was actually a dominant victory, as Palmer seemed to be able to expose the Seahawk secondary repeatedly downfield. Russell Wilson at times made plays with his feet, but people shouldn’t be fooled. Take away three pass completions for 103 yards, he had only 137 yards passing on 29 attempts, which explains why the Seahawks can’t keep or maintain momentum, even when it seemingly is on their side. More often, it is the defense’s opportunistic plays that causes the momentum shifts, not the offense’s play.

Texans 10 Bengals 6. The Bengals' unbeaten streak ends at home against the Texans? Both team had nearly identical sub-average offensive performances, and Brian Hoyer was having an even worse game than Andy Dalton, until T.J. Yates entered and played badly, save for one drive that ended in the game's only touchdown early in the fourth quarter. The Bengals still had four more possessions to win the game, but on the last one with less than a minute to play, A.J. Green fumbled away what would have been a spectacular fourth down conversion in the red zone.