The Steelers reminded the Bengals who still rules the AFC North, the Texans keep on winning, and Tim Tebow and the Broncos do it again, only this time, through the air.
Week Two Headlines
Broncos and Tim Tebow rally again
A lot has been made about the Denver Broncos recent string of success. Many credit Willis McGahee and the defense for Denver’s resurgence while noting Tim Tebow’s shortcomings in the passing game. Sunday’s victory in Minnesota should change that perception. This time around it was Tebow’s arm, not his legs, that led the Broncos to their sixth win in seven games.
Against rookie Christian Ponder and the 2-9 Minnesota Vikings, the Bronco defense was again expected to keep the Broncos close and give Tebow an opportunity to pull off a another victory. 489 yards and 32 points later, it was the Bronco defense that needed Tebow to bail them out. And bail them out he did, completing six of his nine second half attempts for 173 yards and two touchdowns. Of those six completions, four went for over 20 yards, including three of 40 yards or more. So much for Tebow’s inability to get the ball downfield.
Of course, Tebow wasn’t alone in the offensive explosion. McGahee surpassed 100 yards again and the defense scored a touchdown and forced two turnovers, including the interception that gave Tebow the football in field goal position to close out the win. Credit Tebow. Credit the running game. Credit the defense for making plays when it had to. Credit whomever you want. It really doesn’t matter. The Broncos are winning because the entire roster is invested. It’s a united front. When things go wrong, they don’t point blame, they rally. When the offense struggles, the defense keeps them close and gives them a chance. When the defense finally struggled, it was Tebow and the offense that went to the air to keep pace in the second half.
And as for Tebow, people can point to his weaknesses all they please, but even they can’t ignore that, when given an opportunity to win a game, he has come through Every. Single. Time. What’s more, he’s improving while winning. When we say he can’t do something, he does it. Maybe the Broncos have their franchise quarterback after all.
Bears hurting badly
A promising season is quickly falling apart for the Chicago Bears. At 7-3, the Bears looked like a lock for the NFC Wildcard. Then, shortly after beating the Chargers two weeks ago, Chicago learned Jay Cutler would miss the remainder of the regular season. Backup quarterback Caleb Hanie has thrown six interceptions in the two games since Cutler’s injury. In those two games, the Bears defense has surrendered only two touchdowns and six field goals. And still, the Bears failed to win. Chicago’s remaining schedule once appeared relatively easy, but without Cutler and now Matt Forte, it’s a gauntlet of very losable games. The Bears only saving grace is their defense. However, to overcome the offense’s ineptitude and Hanie’s costly turnovers, the Bears will need their defense to force more turnovers and put the offense in position to score. Or, better yet, score themselves.
Sunday’s loss also raises questions about whether the Bears should bring in a veteran quarterback like Donovan McNabb. Even in a new offense with a new team, McNabb couldn’t be worse than Hanie. At the very least, McNabb wouldn’t turn the ball over multiple times a game. McNabb’s value has taken a dramatic hit across the league. Going unclaimed after his release from Minnesota was another humbling blow to McNabb’s legacy. Right now, though, the Bears need McNabb as much, and maybe more than he needs them.
Texans keep winning
While the Bears struggled with Caleb Hanie under center, the Texans beat a legitimate playoff contender with their third string rookie quarterback. He may not be Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees, but T.J. Yates played well enough yesterday in his NFL debut to get the win. He made big throws when needed, managed the offense, and most importantly, protected the football after an early fumble. Notice a trend?
Good teams can still win without their starting quarterback. As important as quarterbacks are to a team’s success in today’s NFL, defenses, special teams, and a sound running game can still pick up the slack if a quarterback goes down. What can’t be overcome are excessive turnovers. While the Texans quarterback lost the ball once, the Texan defense was able to force two turnovers of its own. No harm no foul. The Bears, on the other hand, forced only one turnover while committing three. The most obvious difference between the Bears and Texans is not on defense or special teams, but the running game.
The Texans boast the NFL’s 3rd best rushing attack, and that includes the first quarter of the season without a fully healthy Arian Foster. On Sunday, against the NFL’s 2nd ranked run defense, the Texans struggled to move the football on the ground early. Instead of abandoning the run, they used it to create opportunities downfield in the passing attack. Not abandoning the run also kept Yates in comfortable situations, never asking him to do too much. Eventually, as the game wore on and Atlanta’s defense tired, the Texan running game opened up, pacing the offense on a 19 play, 10 minute and 41 second drive that led to the game winning score. On that drive, Houston ran the football 13 times, not including two scrambles by Yates.
However, despite Yates’ best effort and the physical ground game, the Texans owe Sunday’s victory to their defense. Houston held on two critical 4th downs, intercepted Matt Ryan twice, and didn’t put Yates in a situation where he’d be forced to win the game through the air. In years past, Houston would go winless without Matt Schaub. This year, it’s the defense that is winning games. The unit is the league’s 3rd best defense and most importantly, 2nd in points against, allowing less than 16 points a game. It’s the defense that will lead the Texans into the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, and it’s the defense that will give the Texans their best shot at advancing. Credit Wade Philips for smoothly transforming the defense into a 3-4, bringing in prized cornerback Jonathan Joseph to lock down opposing receivers, and overcoming injuries to key players like Mario Williams.
NFC East still up for grabs
Traditionally regarded as one of the NFL’s premiere divisions, the NFC East is underachieving on a whole new level. We could even have a 9-7 division winner before this thing is settled. In fact, had the Redskins and Eagles won this past week, all four teams would still be in contention for the division. But I digress.
With four weeks left, it’s a two team race. The Cowbows and Giants go toe-to-toe twice over that span with the first meeting next Sunday night. The Cowboys also travel to Tampa Bay and host Philadelphia while the Giants face the Redskins and Jets. Dallas’ schedule gives them a slight edge. Needless to say, I can’t wait for Sunday night. And yes, I’m well aware that the 2011 Eagles season has left with me no other joy but to root against the Cowboys.
NFC wildcard race is for losers, literally
On Sunday, all five of the teams in contention for Wildcard berths in the NFC lost. That’s right, the Bears, Lions, Cowboys, Falcons, Giants all lost. Only the outside-looking-in Seahawks and Cardinals were victorious. Why do I bring this up? Because had the Eagles shown any gusto over the past month, they’d be 5-7 if not 6-6 and right in the thick of the playoff race. Instead, they’re at home, finally coming to the realization that “the world is laughing at them.” (Or, in my case, crying and cursing at them.)
Someone take them to Chick-fil-A (NFL’s top 5)
1. Packers – As I mentioned last week, Sunday’s back-and-forth shootout win over the Giants was the game the Packers were supposed to lose. They didn’t. Now, it’s likely they finish 16-0 unless they call off the dogs down the stretch. Even on an off day, Aaron Rodgers is amazing.
2. Patriots – The Pats scored 28 points over a 20 minute stretch in the 2nd and 3rd quarters. That was enough to blow out the winless Colts before allowing Indianapolis three charity touchdowns in the 4th quarter.
3. Ravens – I don’t like the Ravens this high. It’s hard to imagine them advancing deep into the playoffs with that erratic offense. On the other hand, they’ve beaten the two teams below them convincingly and they continue to rack up wins even if they rarely look good doing it.
4. 49ers – A shutout over the Rams clinched the NFC West for Jim Harbaugh’s squad. Next task: Hold off Drew Brees and the Saints for the 2nd seed in the NFC.
5. Steelers – Pittsburgh put away the Bengals with a 28 point 2nd quarter. After struggling immensely against the Chiefs, Sunday’s effort was reassuring, to say the least. Now, the Steelers finish up with three of their last four against the lowly Cleveland Browns and the awful St. Louis Rams.
(Last Week: GB, NE, BAL, SF, PITT)
Hardly Ramen Noodle worthy (NFL’s bottom 5)
28. Eagles – I dropped the Eagles into the bottom five earlier this season as a joke. Sadly, it’s for real this time. Find me a team in the NFL that plays with less heart than the Eagles. If you ignore the Rams, you can’t.
29. Browns – Colt McCoy should enjoy these last few weeks as a starting quarterback in the NFL. He’s on borrowed time. I was never for firing Eric Mangini after last season, and after 12 games, you couldn’t convince me Cleveland is better off. The Browns are worse than they were at any time throughout Mangini’s tenure.
30. Jaguars – The post-Jack Del Rip era begins Monday night. I’m sure the half-empty stadium and ESPN’s Monday Night Football are all thrilled to be a part of such a momentous evening.
31. Rams – Steve Spagnuolo is definitely getting fired. Andy Reid is definitely hiring Steve Spagnuolo as his defensive coordinator in 2012… or so this Eagle fan hopes.
32. Colts – Dan Orlovsky didn’t run out of the end zone for a safety or forget where he left his helmet this time around. Instead, he completed 30 of 37 pass attempts for over 350 yards and led the Colts to three 4th quarter touchdowns. Who cares if the game was already decided.
(Last Week: KC, MINN, JAC, STL, IND)
Stock rising (but not in top 5, yet)
Dolphins – Miami’s 0-7 start made headlines. They’re 4-1 record since has gone mostly ignored. Believe this; the Dolphins are one of the top 15 teams in football right now, and maybe even in the top 11 or 12. The question is; have they done enough to save Tony Sparano’s job?
Saints – I’ll admit, I’ve been a little unfair to the Saints. While I’ve praised the offense, I’ve discredited the team as a true contender because of the defense all while declaring the Packers (who also have a sluggish defense) NFC champions. As they’ve proven in recent weeks, the New Orleans defense does enough to win and that’s all that counts.
Giants – Did they win on Sunday? Nope. Are they riding a four game losing streak? Yup. So why are they here? Well, because they went toe-to-toe with the defending champs and nearly won, the Cowboys fell back toward them, and the rest of the NFC Wildcard contenders did as well. Things are looking up for the Giants.
Stock falling (but not in bottom 5, yet)
Bears – Falling might be too kind. I would use “plummeting.” First, Jay Cutler went down to injury. On Sunday, Matt Forte injured his knee and should miss a few weeks to a month. To add insult to injury, they lost to Tyler Palko in front of their home fans.
Buccaneers – The Buccaneers were supposed to compete for the NFC South title and at the very least, an NFC Wildcard berth. Instead, Tampa Bay has dropped from 4-2 to 4-8 and raised questions about the team’s future. Is Josh Freeman an NFL quarterback? Will Raheem Morris be back as head coach? Should the creamiscle jerseys return to full-time status?
Bills – I could put a handful of different teams here, but let’s stick with the B’s for now. After a 5-2 start, Buffalo has lost their last five. Until Fred Jackson went down two weeks ago, there were no significant injuries to blame. The Bills need direction. It feels like they’ve been walking in circles for the past decade.
Things I thought and would’ve said on TV if someone paid me…
- Chris Johnson has paced the Tennessee Titan offense with over 125 yards in three of the last four games. The only poor performance came against Atlanta, the 2nd best run defense in the NFL. Coincidentally, the Titans are 3-1 in their last four, winning all three when Johnson surpassed 125 rushing yards. I think it’s safe to say Johnson and the Titan offense have finally found their running groove.
- Funniest Sunday outcome (or saddest depending on your allegiance): The Chicago Bears losing at home to the, “We haven’t scored an offensive touchdown in 10 quarters,” Kansas City Chiefs by a score of 10-3. The difference in the game; a Hail Mary pass… at the end of the 2nd quarter. Next time, Brian Urlacher, don’t knock it down. Just catch it.
- Not sure what happened to Tampa Bay on Sunday, but the Buccaneers failed to break 3.0 yards per carry on 27 rushing attempts against one of the NFL’s five worst run defenses. And don’t blame the loss on Josh Johnson. He played just as well, if not better than Josh Freeman has played all year.
- Let’s be honest, after we all realized the Eagles weren’t competing this year, it’s been a little fun to watch them suffer so much with all the egos on that team. On the other hand, I genuinely felt bad for Vince Young on Thursday after the decisive 4th quarter interception. He’s played poorly in his three starts, but at least he cares. You can’t say the same for most of the roster (cough, DeSean Jackson, Nnamdi Asomugha).
- Not that they care anymore because his 2010 struggles led the franchise to Cam Newton, but Matt Moore has Panther fans wondering where his recent play was last year. Over the Dolphins last five, Moore has completed 64% of his passes for 1,063 yards and thrown 8 touchdowns to only 1 interception. (Let’s just pretend he didn’t throw 4 interceptions to 1 touchdown in his first four games.)
- At some point, you’d think defenses would start double or even triple teaming Rob Gronkowski, especially in the red zone. I guess eight touchdowns in five games aren’t enough to catch the attention of opposing defenses. Ok, ok, maybe Gronkowski (and Tom Brady) is just that good.
- Kudos to the Minnesota Vikings for finally figuring out that Percy Harvin needs more touches and bigger kudos for actually making sure he gets those touches. Harvin isn’t a typical receiver, but once he gets the ball in his hands, he’s every bit as electric as DeSean Jackson. Plus, Harvin isn’t a pansy. He’ll take hits to make plays and even deliver a few blows of his own along the way.
- Say what you will about Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu being the greatest safeties of all time. I won’t argue. But you’re crazy if you think either of them would be as effective in their 16th season as Brian Dawkins is with the Denver Broncos. As Dawkins used to say in Philadelphia, “that dog still hunts.”
- Even in defeat, A.J. Green was impressive. Bengal fans must be excited about the Andy Dalton to Green combination for the next decade (or until a contract dispute forces one player to leave town, whichever comes first.)
- Pittsburgh’s blowout of the Bengals didn’t start until the 2nd quarter. However, Cincinnati’s momentum was lost well before the Steelers began piling on points. The Bengals drove all the way to the Pittsburgh four and scored a touchdown on their first drive. Unfortunately, a false start negated the score, and after failing to convert a second time, the Bengals kicked a field goal. Three points instead of seven. Or so we thought. The kick was negated due to a delay of game. On the second attempt, Pittsburgh blocked the kick. Seven points gone. Three points history. Momentum lost.
- I was wrong. I didn’t think the Jets had it in them. That was a nice win in D.C. However, with the Steelers/Ravens already owning one of the AFC Wildcard berths, the Jets have an uphill climb to claim that second and final playoff spot. Right now, New York is tied with Cincinnati, Tennessee, and Oakland/Denver at 7-5. The Jets lose head-to-head tiebreakers if they finish tied with either Oakland or Denver. Currently, they have the worst conference record of Cincinnati and Tennessee as well. Like I said, an uphill climb.
- Falcons wide receiver, Julio Jones continues to disappoint. On Atlanta’s final, potential game-tying drive, Jones lazily ran back to the line of scrimmage in the hurry up offense and then dropped the game tying touchdown three plays later. Rookie receivers rarely live up to potential in their first season, but with all his physical gifts, I’m sure the Falcons expected a little more from Jones. He’s not alone, though. Roddy White has had a down year as well, and Falcon receivers dropped plenty of passes in a tough loss to Houston.
- What are the Ravens without Ray Rice? A 9-7 team, maybe even 8-8? Perhaps Baltimore should give Rice a chance to supplant Joe Flacco at quarterback. Find me an AFC team that wouldn’t love to host Flacco in the Divisional Round of the playoffs?
- I enjoyed watching the Lions completely self-combust on Sunday night. If you wonder why the Lions continually get called for mindless penalties of the 15 yard variety, look no further than their coach, Jim Schwartz. After each unnecessary roughness or personal foul call, Schwartz would walk over to the offending player, tap him on the helmet, say something along the lines of, “you’re better than that,” and then move on. Schwartz is an enabler. He’s to blame for Detroit’s 11 penalties in Sunday night’s loss to New Orleans.
- The 49ers are really, really good. Their division is really, really bad. Their Monday night showdown with the Steelers may not mean too much in the standings, but I think it’s a huge game for the 49ers to prepare themselves for the postseason, especially because it’s the only winning team they play over the season’s final five weeks.
- The DeMarco Murray bandwagon has emptied quite a bit over the past three weeks. 198 yards at just over 3.3 yards per carry won’t cut it. Neither will icing your own kicker. Sure, Dan Bailey should have made the last kick, but Jason Garrett is to blame for losing that game, and he’ll certainly be to blame if Dallas finds itself a game out come season’s end.
- The Green Bay/New York showdown was one of the most entertaining games of the year. Big defensive plays, lots of scoring, and superb quarterback play. I loved seeing Charles Woodson give Hakeem Nicks credit for an astounding touchdown reception. And I thoroughly enjoyed Eli Manning smiling and shaking his head while telling Aaron Rodgers he was incredible when they met for a postgame handshake. It’s fun to see other players as impressed and appreciative of great plays/players as we are.
Things I never thought and would not say this week, even if you paid me…
- You can’t win with Tim Tebow as your starting quarterback. You just can’t.
- Andy Reid has made some poor personnel choices throughout his tenure as Eagles head coach, but letting Brian Dawkins leave was not one of them. Dawkins is clearly washed up.
- The Bears decision to pass on Donovan McNabb and stick with Caleb Hanie was justified on Sunday. Hanie did all he could to win that game for Chicago.
- The Panthers must be kicking themselves for taking Cam Newton with the top pick in the 2011 draft over Nick Fairley. Newton’s been invisible this season.
- Anytime you have Rex Grossman throw the football 46 times, you’ve got to love your chances of winning.
- Whenever I watch the Giants, I’m reminded how glad I am the Eagles took Brandon Graham over Jason Pierre-Paul. Whew. Dodged a bullet on that one.
Fantasy Nightmare Football update of the week…
- I started Steven Jackson over Shonn Greene. (Totally indefensible.) Green had a slightly better day;
Jackson: 19 rushing yards, 11 receiving yards, 0 TD.
Green: 88 rushing yards, 26 receiving yards, 3 TD.
Cam Newton has been invisible. Every time you look up, he’s already in the end-zone (zing!).
And yes I understand the Panthers are still 4-8. But 6 wins is looking like a real possibility, which is like the Superbowl after last year’s 2 “barely achieved” victories.