Eagles Take Flight. NFL Week 8 Recap

A blowout in Philadelphia has the Eagles thinking playoffs again. Across the state, the Steelers finally made a statement. In other news, parity is alive and well, Tim Tebow is not, and Cam Newton needs a hug.

Week Two Headlines

Eagles reaching potential?
All the pieces, for one night at least, finally fell into place. Michael Vick had time to find receivers, LeSean McCoy was leaving Cowboy defenders flat-footed when he wasn’t dashing through truck-sized holes, and most importantly, the revamped defense put a strangle hold on one of the NFL’s best offenses. It took eight long, frustrating weeks to get here, but the Eagles finally proved why they were the talk of the league entering the 2011 season.

I know, I know; it’s only one game. And you’re right. It’s just one win. But, considering this is a team still learning to play together and still adjusting to significant changes on the offensive line and an entirely new defensive scheme, Sunday night showed promise. It felt like more than just a win. For the second consecutive game, the Eagles controlled their opponent, and thus, the game, from start to finish. They exerted their will both offensively and defensively. Mistakes were almost entirely eliminated and the opportunities missed a few weeks earlier were converted.

The Eagles began Sunday in last place in the NFC East and before midnight, they found themselves in second. They still have plenty of work to do before they’re completely back in the Wildcard race, so yes; Sunday’s win was nothing more than one win. However, the way the Eagles won said more about where they’re headed than where they’ve been. And you can be sure the rest of the NFC is less than excited about Philadelphia’s recent progress.

The AFC is wide open
What’s always been nice about the AFC over the past decade is the simplicity it offered. We could always count on the Patriots, Colts, and Steelers to be title contenders with the Chargers and maybe Ravens (depending on the year) not far behind. Not this year. As usual, the Patriots and Steelers are in the mix, but they’re just two teams in a jumbled mess of good-but-not-great AFC contenders.

As of right now, you could argue the Steelers, Patriots, Ravens, and Texans are frontrunners, with the Jets, Bills, Chargers, Bengals, and depending on their quarterback situation, the Raiders, lurking in the shadows. However, if the Steelers faced off against the Bills tomorrow, could you confidently pick the Steelers to win? Or, if Tom Brady went into Cincinnati, could you guarantee a New England victory? In years past, we knew the elite teams. We knew they would beat the bad teams and handle the good ones. Those lines are now blurred more than we’re accustomed to. Is everyone in the AFC good? Is everyone average? Or, after eight weeks, is everyone still trying to figure themselves out?

A month ago, the Ravens, Chargers, and Patriots looked like locks for the conference’s top three seeds. After the last two weeks, it would not shock me if Baltimore and San Diego missed out on the playoffs entirely. And after seeing the Patriot offense struggle in their two most recent outings, an AFC East title doesn’t look so certain. For the first time in a long time, the AFC is a wide open race from top to bottom.

Tim Tebow struggles
It was almost expected. After erasing a dismal performance with a dazzling five minute explosion against Miami a week earlier, Tim Tebow struggled for a full 60 minutes against the Detroit Lions on Sunday. He was flustered by Detroit’s relentless pass rush, getting sacked seven times and hit countless others. He surrendered two defensive touchdowns, one on a fumble, the other a 100 yard interception return. As hard as he tried, Tebow just couldn’t help the Broncos. In fact, he hurt them more than he helped on Sunday. Tebow didn’t look confident, probably because he never got comfortable inside the pocket. After an eight play scoring drive on the game’s first possession, Tebow failed to lead the offense on a drive of more than five plays until late in the 3rd quarter.

In fairness to Tebow, though, it wasn’t entirely his fault. The Denver coaching staff didn’t help him… at all. Instead of working Tebow into the game with short, quick passes, the Broncos continually called plays requiring deep touch passes and/or precision, neither of which play to Tebow’s strengths. Obviously, Tebow will never be a prototypical quarterback like Drew Brees, but he can play the position under the right circumstances. Asking him to make throws like Brees or Peyton Manning is not ideal. Tebow played poorly. There’s no ignoring that. But a little common sense from the Denver coaching staff could have prevented an embarrassing blowout.

Rams show life, finally
From the “too little, too late” department, the St. Louis Rams finally played well. Perhaps inspired by the presence of the 2011 World Series champion Cardinals, or aware they’re now the only sports team in town, the Rams stepped up in a big way on Sunday.

The game started slow with both teams struggling. It looked like a typical hangover slow start for the Saints after last Sunday’s big blowout. At some point, I think we all expected New Orleans to wake up and win convincingly. Instead, it was the Rams who broke out of their season long slump, scoring touchdowns on three consecutive possessions after only scoring three touchdowns on their previous 39 possessions. And just like that, St. Louis was up 24-0 and completely dominating the Saints.

Steven Jackson ran through, over, and around the New Orleans defense while A.J. Feeley once again proved himself as one of the NFL’s most reliable backups. Feeley protected the ball, managed the offense, and made plays when called upon. The offense was about Jackson, though. Finally healthy, Jackson turned back the clock to 2006 and bullied his way to 159 yards and two touchdowns at 6+ yards per carry. New Orleans was defenseless against Jackson’s bruising downhill assault.

Defensively, the Rams pressured and battered Drew Brees, sacking him six times and swallowing up the New Orleans offense until the game was well in hand. After three games without a sack, Chris Long was a man possessed, registering three sacks and countless pressures. The Saints had no answer for him, or for the surprisingly feisty Rams. As their schedule finally takes a turn for the better, expect to see more of the Rams we saw today as they aim to end the season with a winning record in the second half. As they proved Sunday, they certainly have the potential.

Someone take them to Chick-fil-A (NFL’s top 5)

1. Packers – With the Patriots disappointing loss on Sunday, the Packers sit alone in the NFL’s VIP room. They’re the only truly elite team at this point in the season.
2. Steelers – The score in Sunday’s victory wasn’t indicative of Pittsburgh’s manhandling of the New England Patriots. I think the Steelers have officially arrived.
3. 49ers – I still can’t believe I’m listing the 49ers 3rd here, but they’ve proven themselves by beating the tough teams on their schedule and the not-so-good teams as well, which we’ve learned isn’t so easy.
4. Patriots – It was an ugly loss in Pittsburgh, but I’m not ready to overreact to one loss. However, it’s beginning to seem like Tom Brady is missing that big play receiver. Terrell Owens, anyone?
5. Lions – I can’t remember which FOX announcer was calling Detroit’s game on Sunday, but he said it best; “As Matthew Stafford goes, so go the Detroit Lions.” Stafford was locked in Sunday. The Lions looked unstoppable.
(Last Week: GB, NE, BAL, NO, SF/DAL)

Hardly Ramen Noodle worthy (NFL’s bottom 5)

28. Jaguars – For the second week in a row, Blaine Gabbert failed to break the 100 yard plateau. If Gabbert wants to keep Andrew Luck out of Jacksonville, he better pick it up. He may have a new coach to help him along after the bye.
Broncos – I’m not exonerating Tim Tebow by any means, but can we at least begin talking about how bad John Fox has been over the past three years? Why the Broncos hired him remains a mystery to me. Fox sets offenses back decades.
30. Cardinals
– If it weren’t for late game collapses, the Cardinals would have defeated the Redskins, Giants, and Ravens, and would be sitting at a respectable 4-3. Instead, the Cardinals can’t close and are a dismal 1-6.
Dolphins – The Dolphins are running out of new ways to lose. It’s time a new coach is brought in for fresh ideas.
32. Colts
– There’s chatter that Peyton Manning will never play again. If it’s true, the Colts are doing all the right things to address the organization’s future. And by doing all the right things, I mean doing nothing at all.
(Last Week: JAC, AZ, IND, STL, MIA)

Stock rising (but not in top 5, yet)

Bengals – They’re not Superbowl contenders, but thanks to a stout defense and a talented rookie quarterback-receiver combo, the Bengals are a legitimate Wildcard team. On the other hand, Cincinnati’s schedule picks up significantly, so that playoff berth won’t come easily.
Texans – I like the Texans. With Andre Johnson coming back soon, the offense will only get better. Plus, Arian Foster finally looks healthy. But that’s not why I like the Texans. I’m a believer because, for the first time in years, Houston has a defense that doesn’t require the offense to score 30 points. The Texans D is ranked in the top six in rush, pass and points against.
Eagles – Tony Dungy said it best on the NBC postgame show. The Eagles are built to beat the Green Bay Packers. Obviously, that doesn’t mean they will, but if anyone in the NFC has a chance, it’s the Eagles. (They just have to make the playoffs first.)

Stock falling (but not in bottom 5, yet)

Saints – It’s beginning to make sense why New Orleans isn’t in a rush to commit long term, big money to Drew Brees. He’s been on the one week great, one week not-so-great roller coaster since the Saints’ Superbowl run in 2009. And, as usual, New Orleans can’t stop anyone. Well, except the Colts.
Redskins – I really thought John Beck was a star. This is truly shocking. Poor Mike Shanahan. So unlucky.
Ravens – Yes, they won on Sunday, but right now, the Ravens look like the 3rd best team in the AFC North.

Things I thought and would’ve said on TV if someone paid me…
  • During the Colts-Titans telecast on Sunday, CBS shared that Chris Johnson was told by Steven Jackson (who held out in the past) that it would take 5-6 weeks for him to adjust to game speed. Well, it’s been eight weeks and Chris Johnson still looks slow.
  • My brother scolded me for being cranky while the Eagles were crushing the Cowboys, but that backwards pass debacle was inexcusable. Vick clearly threw the football FOUR YARDS FORWARD and yet the officials still ruled it a backwards pass. If the NFL doesn’t start fining officials for truly awful calls, the league should at least require officials to offer an apology when announcing the reversal of a blown call. (Just kidding. Kind of.)
  • Speaking of the Eagles game, how about a round of applause for Rob Ryan’s defense… woo-hoo! Ryan’s trash talking resume speaks for itself. Week 4: After he declared Dallas’ receivers better than Calvin Johnson, Johnson went off for 8 receptions, 96 yards, and two back-breaking touchdowns. Week 8: After again referencing the “All Hype Team,” Ryan’s defense surrendered over 300 yards in the first half and finished the night allowing 34 points and 495 yards. Silence is golden, Rob. Golden.
  • After watching the Seattle Seahawks fall apart in the 4th quarter against Cincinnati, I think it’s safe to say the 49ers will represent the NFC West in the playoffs.
  • Speaking of the 49ers, they win the same way week after week. Solid defense, punishing running game, and an effective, yet controlled passing attack. Most importantly, the 49ers create turnovers while not committing many of their own. They’re 2nd in the NFL in turnover differential. Do the simple things well, and you’ll win more than you lose.
  • The New England defense is taking a lot of heat for Sunday’s loss, but let’s not excuse the offense. Tom Brady needs some help. Wes Welker is a fantastic player, but he won’t stretch a defense (unless it’s Miami’s defense). Without a commitment to the running game on Sunday, Brady was left shorthanded.
  • Not sure what Denver’s defensive game plan was, but it failed, miserably. Detroit’s passing game racked up big play after big play. Contain the Lions’ arieal attack, and you have a shot at winning. Don’t, and you’re done for.
  • Buffalo still isn’t going away. I think it’s time I accept the Bills as a threat to win the AFC East and keep either the Jets or Patriots out of the playoffs. Fred Jackson is one of the NFL’s best (and most underappreciated) talents.
  • The Rams should just stick to those old blue and yellow uniforms. Reminds me of the Kurt Warner “Greatest show on turf” Rams. Plus, they’re more intimidating and that yellow is so much cooler.
  • Maybe it’s coincidence, but after Matt Barkley essentially went toe-to-toe with Andrew Luck on Saturday night, almost all the “Suck for Luck” contestants had impressive outings on Sunday. The Dolphins and Cardinals were in line for victories until second half collapses, the Rams won, and the Jaguars hung around as long as possible in Houston. Only the Colts stayed the course.
  • Why don’t the Ravens feature Anquan Boldin more? Maybe it was because he was facing his old team, but he looked unstoppable Sunday. I suppose the answer is Joe Flacco, but Boldin is good enough to make even Flacco look good.
  • As an Eagles fan, I don’t like how well Eli Manning is playing. He’s been better than Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, Tony Romo, Michael Vick, and anyone else in the league not named Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady. Maybe Eli was right when he declared himself on the same level as Brady and Peyton Manning in the offseason.
  • While Eli has been great, I still don’t believe the Giants are all that good. The secondary is average and without a consistent running game, Eli’s weapons aren’t good enough to beat the NFL’s better defenses.
  • Has anyone introduced the Carolina coaching staff to the Panthers’ running backs yet? Cam Newton is great and all, but even Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers use their running backs from time to time.
  • Really, Olindo Mare? Really? You can’t hit a 31 yard field goal in ideal conditions?
  • Staying with Carolina, how about Cam Newton’s post game press conference? Despite his best all-around performance of the season, Newton looked dejected, as if he threw multiple picks and played poorly. Here’s what he said;
    “Whoever thinks…this game came down to the last possession is a fool. …It was a collective loss; offensively, defensively, and special teams. Some come through in the clutch, some don’t. Some execute, some don’t. You look at our record, it says a lot.”
    Some have argued Newton was singling out his kicker at the end, but if you watched the entire press conference, it was clear Newton was referring to himself and the team. Essentially saying, we play well enough to win, but we don’t close. I can’t remember another rookie quarterback with such an acute awareness of his leadership role. Newton sees the big picture. Gaudy stats and stellar performances don’t mean a thing. Winning is all that matters.
Things I never thought and would not say this week, even if you paid me…
  • I’d take Michael Vick over Tom Brady. (Oh, what’s that you say? Ed Rendell actually said this? And this man was a mayor and governor. Very sad.)
  • Cowboys receiver, Dez Bryant, is a mild mannered soul. He’s all about the team.
  • It’s really not Mike Shanahan’s fault the Redskins stink. He couldn’t have known Rex Grossman and John Beck would play this poorly.
  • The World Series is boring.
  • Tim Tebow looks like a franchise quarterback. He’s virtually unstoppable.
  • Reggie Wayne is having more fun this season than ever before.
Fantasy Nightmare Football update of the week…
  • No nightmares this week. With Aaron Rodgers on a bye, I expected the worst. After a friend picked up Ryan Fitzpatrick simply to spite me, I was forced to start Matt Hasselbeck. Thankfully, big days from Steve Smith, Steven Jackson, and Buffalo’s defense gave me an unexpected win. Sometimes fantasy football is enjoyable. Sometimes.

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