In Case You Missed It. NFL Week 7 Recap

The Texans put a 30 point beatdown on the AFC’s next best team (record wise), leaving little doubt as to who controls the conference. Despite a win, the Patriots 4th quarter issues continue. RG3 debuts in the NFC East. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

Week One Headlines

Texans roll, prove they are AFC’s best
The most obvious conclusion from Sunday: The Houston Texans are the best team in the AFC, hands down. We’ve known for some time the AFC is a top-heavy conference. From day one the Texans, Patriots, and Ravens looked like elite teams. Not anymore.

In the last two weeks the Patriots have proven their offense isn’t as good as previously thought and the New England defense has been worse than expected. The Ravens lost two key defensive players for the season, struggled to close out the Chiefs and then the Cowboys before getting walloped by the Texans, and Joe Flacco hasn’t played well in nearly a month. The Texans, on the other hand, dominated the Ravens on Sunday and have a two game cushion on the rest of the conference. Sure, the Packers humiliated the Texans a week ago. Find me a team that could have contained Aaron Rodgers last Sunday night and I’ll vote for you on Election Day. Besides, I’m not going to let one bad day diminish the overall dominance of the Texans, especially when the Patriots and Ravens are struggling for wins against mediocre teams on a weekly basis.

The Patriots can’t protect 4th quarter leads. The Ravens are once again offensively challenged and their overrated defense is falling apart. Only the Texans have a balanced team capable of winning in a multitude of ways. Stingy defense? Absolutely. Balanced offense? It’s Houston’s bread and butter. I picked the Texans to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl in September and through seven weeks I feel better about my prediction now than I did a month ago.

Patriots 4th quarter struggles continue
What happened to Tom Brady being Captain Cool? Or Mr. Clutch? Since when does the winniest quarterback of my generation forget how to close games? For the second week in a row, Brady and the Patriots allowed a double digit 4th quarter lead to evaporate into a 4th quarter deficit. Fortunately for the Patriots, Brady rallied to take down the Jets and avoid New England’s second two game losing streak of the season. Regardless, 4th quarter collapses are becoming a real concern for the Patriots, and it’s not just the defense that is disappearing. The vaunted Patriot offense goes AWOL, too.

Check out the Patriots 4th quarter production over the past two weeks AFTER taking a double digit lead… Week 6 vs. Seattle: 2 drives, 2 1st downs, time of possession; 3:28. Week 7 vs. New York: 2 drives, 2 1st downs, a fumbled kickoff return, time of possession; 4:21. Five possessions, four 1st downs, a turnover, and less than 8 minutes of possession out of 30.

Obviously, there’s something fundamentally wrong with the Patriots approach when ahead in the 4th quarter. I blame it on conservative play calling, and I don’t mean running the football. No, the Patriots get conservative in the passing game, opting for the safe three yard dump off instead of challenging the defense down the field. In other words, the Patriots stop doing exactly what got them the lead in the first place. Additionally, the Patriots haven’t been able to run the football in the 4th quarter with much success. And there in lies the problem.

In victories over the Bills and Broncos, the Patriots rushed for 247 and 251 yards, respectively. Against the Seahawks and Jets, the Patriots totaled 87 and 131 rushing yards, respectively. The 2012 Patriots aren’t at their best when Brady is dropping back to pass over and over again. They’re at their best when the offense is being paced and balanced by an effective, punishing ground game. New England has failed to establish that ground game the last two weeks. It’s no coincidence they surrendered 4th quarter leads.

To contend with the Texans, New England must establish its ground game in the first 3 quarters in order to close out victories and preserve leads late in games. The Patriots are fortunate to still be atop the AFC East today.

Game management woes
Either the game is getting more confusing or NFL coaches are simply getting dumber. In-game management is at an all-time low. Timeouts are foolishly cast aside, play calls are made without consideration of down and distance, and worst of all, coaches outthink themselves and thus torture us fans in the process.

A few examples… While trying to mount a 2nd half comeback against the Jaguars, the Raiders managed to exhaust all their 2nd half timeouts before the four minute mark of the 4th quarter. One timeout was used because Carson Palmer forgot the play clock existed. Another was used to organize the defense. (Really? Against the Jaguars, and Chad Henne, no less? Just line up and play. There’s a 2% chance Henne does anything positive.) The final timeout was used to discuss whether or not Oakland would kick a field goal down 7 with less than five minutes to go, or go for it on 4th and 10.

In Cincinnati, Marvin Lewis wasted a precious 2nd half timeout by challenging a play where Mike Wallace was clearly down before losing control of the football. Did I mention the play went for 2 yards?

In Carolina, Ron Rivera opted to go for it on 4th and 1 at his own 40 yard line with 2:11 left in the 4th quarter and two timeouts still in his pocket. Of Dallas’ previous four drives, only one surpassed 17 yards. Clearly, the Carolina defense had a reasonable chance of getting a stop and keeping it a two point game. With the two minute warning and two timeouts, a three and out would have given Cam Newton and the offense the ball back with somewhere around 1:45 left on the clock. Carolina would’ve only needed a field goal to win.

Though time management is mind-boggling at times, it’s the play calling that gives me ulcers. In the previously mentioned 4th and 1 situation, the Panthers obviously chose not to punt. A few weeks ago Carolina faced a similar 4th and 1 in Atlanta. Converting would have given the Panthers a huge win and put them at 2-2. The Panthers punted and lost. This time around, the Panthers went for it… by throwing the football. Carolina has the most physically imposing quarterback in the NFL. His size and power is unmatched. WHY IN THE WORLD ARE YOU THROWING THE FOOTBALL?!?! Tell Cam Newton you want one yard. Just one yard, that’s all you want. 9.7 times out of 10, he’s going to get it for you. Don’t punt. Don’t pass the football. Just give it to Cam. Play calling isn’t this hard. It’s really not.

Robert Griffin III puts the NFC East on notice
As an Eagles fan, I pay close attention whenever new quarterbacks enter the division amid plenty of hype. When Eli Manning entered the NFC East, we mostly laughed at him until he turned into Josey Wales in big games and won two Super Bowl titles. We haven’t stopped laughing at Tony Romo. I was hoping we’d get a few years of struggles from Robert Griffin III before he was a real threat. Apparently, that won’t be the case.

Griffin tormented the Giants defense on Sunday, scoring 10 unanswered 4th quarter points to give the Redskins a 3 point lead late in the quarter. Despite a bad interception and a costly fumble, Griffin never blinked. When he was scrambling for his life on 4th and 10 deep in his own territory with a handful of Giants closing in, Griffin didn’t panic. He didn’t tuck and run. He kept the play alive, found his tight end, and eventually capped the drive with a beautifully thrown touchdown we normally see from the Eli Mannings or Tom Bradys of the NFL, not a rookie.

Griffin also rushed for 89 yards on 9 rushes, completed 20 of 28 passing attempts, earned the respect and adulation of the NFL’s most arrogant and mouthy defense, and put the NFC East on notice. Needless to say, I’m not excited about watching Griffin run circles around the Eagles twice a year for the next decade.

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

1. Giants – It wasn’t a dominant performance. It wasn’t even a good performance. And yet, Eli Manning and the Giants pulled it out. The Giants aren’t listed in this spot because of their performance week in and week out. They’re listed here because, in a big game, there’s no team tougher to beat.
2. Packers – Aaron Rodgers is rolling and he still doesn’t have Greg Jennings. Sunday’s victory in St. Louis gave Green Bay its first win streak of the season. When Rodgers is locked in (54/74, 680 YDs, 9 TDs, 0 TOs last two weeks), the Packers are perhaps the best team in the league.
3. Texans – In the AFC, there’s the Texans and then everyone else. Last Sunday’s rout at the hands of Aaron Rodgers was an aberration.
4. Falcons – What do the Falcons do that would make me believe they’d beat the Packers, Giants, 49ers, or even the Bears in a postseason matchup? I can’t think of one area where Atlanta dominates opponents.
5. 49ers – San Francisco is just holding this spot for the Chicago Bears. The 49er defense is good enough to give San Francisco a chance, but I don’t trust Alex Smith to take advantage.
(Last Week: NYG, GB, HOU, ATL, BAL.)

Hardly Ramen Noodle worthy (NFL’s bottom 5)

28. Raiders – Even in victory the Raiders were unimpressive and sloppy. In fact, Sunday’s win was mostly due to Jacksonville’s injuries, not Oakland’s 2nd half rally. 
Browns – Brandon Weeden is getting comfortable and the Browns continue to be competitive on a weekly basis. Cleveland needed its ground game in Indianapolis and it was nowhere to be found. 
30. Panthers
– “Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” – That’s what Cam Newton’s weekly post-game press conferences sound like. Newton says the same thing every week and still nothing changes. 
Jaguars – Jacksonville missed Blaine Gabbert in the 2nd half in Oakland. That’s a depressing fact. 
32. Chiefs
– There’s no Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III in the 2013 draft class, so Kansas City’s quarterback issues will probably continue for a few more years.
(Last Week: PHI, CAR, CLE, JAC, KC.)

Stock rising (but not in top 5, yet)

Steelers – The Steelers dominated the 2nd half in Cincinnati en route to a critical win over their division rival. Furthermore, Sunday’s win paired with Baltimore’s loss puts Pittsburgh a game behind the Ravens in the loss column.
Colts/Titans – Indianapolis has won two of three. The Titans are riding a two game win streak. In the struggling AFC, both Indy and Tennessee are hanging around with the plethora of Wildcard contenders.
Saints – It still isn’t pretty but the Saints defense is making enough plays to allow Drew Brees an opportunity to win. If Brees has an off day, though, New Orleans is a sitting duck.

Stock falling (but not in bottom 5, yet)

Seahawks – At home, the Seahawks are nearly impossible to beat. On the road, the Seahawks are just another great defense trying to survive a lousy offense.
Chargers – With a 24-0 lead, the Chargers were 30 minutes from entering the bye week in 1st place at 4-2. Instead, San Diego is 3-3, under investigation by the NFL for an illegal sticky substance, and praying 2010 Philip Rivers returns sometime in the near future.
Rams – After two straight losses and the Patriots and 49ers on the horizon, things are going to get worse before they get better for the Rams. Let’s hope the Cardinals rally in Game 7 Monday night to keep the locals distracted for another week.

Things I thought and would’ve said on TV if someone paid me…
  • Trailing by one with 3:39 remaining in the 4th quarter, the Dallas Cowboys faced a 3rd and 9 from the Carolina 15 yard line. The Cowboys ran the football, essentially settling for the field goal. Either Dallas had no fear of Cam Newton driving for the game-winning field goal or they don’t trust Tony Romo. Yeah, you’re right, it was probably both.
  • Vincent Jackson caught a pass from Josh Freeman around the Tampa Bay 45 and had a 15 yard cushion on the closest defender. 55 yards of open field lay between Jackson and an easy touchdown to tie the game. Around the 15 yard line, Jackson ran out of gas and Saints safety Malcom Jenkins tackled Jackson at the 1. Tampa Bay would run four plays at the goal line and ultimately failed to convert the 95 yard pass into points. Instead of a 28-28 game with three minutes left in the 3rd, the Bucs would eventually trail 35-21 as the Saints turned around and marched 95 yards downfield for a touchdown. Jenkins’ play not only swung the game, but it may have saved the Saints season.
  • Aaron Rodgers’ completion percentage from Sunday; 81%. His game-clinching 39 yard touchdown pass to Reggie Cobb was magnificent. I can’t imagine another quarterback making that throw.
  • Two wins in a row for the Titans. Chris Johnson is rolling again. If the Titans remain in the Wildcard hunt when Jake Locker is healthy enough to return, do they replace the steady Matt Hasselbeck?
  • At 5-2, the Vikings are atop the NFC North and 2nd in the NFC. I’m still not convinced they’ll be in the postseason, though. Christian Ponder is experiencing turnover issues (2 interceptions in each of his last three games) and the schedule will soon catch up with the Vikings. I smell a 9-7 or 8-8 finish.
  • Want to play quarterback for the Arizona Cardinals? In their last four outings (1-3 record), the Cardinals offensive line has surrendered 8, 9, 5, and 7 sacks. In their first three games (3-0 record), the Cardinals surrendered 6 sacks… total.
  • In three games this season Cam Newton has had the opportunity to seal a victory or lead his team from behind to score the game-winning touchdown. Against Atlanta, Newton fumbled away a 1st down and Carolina punted instead of going for it on 4th and 1. Down 6 at home to Seattle with 53 seconds left and 69 yards to go, Newton threw an incomplete pass and then fumbled on the 2nd play of the drive. Sunday against Dallas, Newton needed a touchdown to win. He had 53 seconds to go 80 yards. Newton completed one of three passes and took a costly sack. I understand Newton’s frustration with the offensive game plan, but he’s had opportunities to win and he’s come up waayyy short. Newton also was the one who threw the red zone interception in the 1st half. It wasn’t his coaches.
  • Mark Sanchez plays well for stretches and then woefully underthrows wide-open receivers in the end zone. Until Sanchez’s 4th quarter revival, I thought for sure we’d see Tim Tebow next week. Must say, I’m a little bummed.
  • I’m not a big Mike Shanahan guy, but he deserves A TON of credit for Robert Griffin III’s success this season. Most of all, I love how Shanahan uses Griffin on critical 3rd and 4th downs. Instead of calling a traditional passing play on 3rd or 4th and 5, Shanahan allows Griffin to use his athleticism to convert 1st downs by calling some type of option play. If he finds an open receiver, Griffin can throw it. If not, the play is designed to give Griffin running lanes as well. It makes no sense why the Eagles and Panthers don’t use similar play calls with Michael Vick and Cam Newton in the same situations.
  • Carson Palmer plays like he’s a rookie, not a ten year pro. Palmer takes backbreaking sacks, forces bad throws, and manages a game about as well as Andy Reid. The only reason Oakland won on Sunday was because the Jaguars lost Blaine Gabbert for the 2nd half and Maurice Jones-Drew went out in the 2nd quarter. On the Raiders critical 4th and 10 conversion, Palmer lofted a pass that could have easily been knocked down if the defender (Aaron Ross) looked to find the football. He didn’t, a flag was thrown, and the Raiders got the ball at the one.
  • Joe Flacco has been the worst quarterback in the AFC North over the past few weeks. The Ravens defense can’t overcome poor quarterback play anymore.
  • There’s something wrong with Tom Brady. I can’t remember seeing him so skittish. His 4th quarter pass to Rob Gronkowski that should have been picked off was something Michael Vick would throw. Stevan Ridley and the Patriots backfield depth should be that team’s bread and butter in 2012. When the running game is rolling, the Patriots offense is unstoppable.
  • I can’t make up my mind on the Pittsburgh Steelers. Are they good? Are they average? Sunday night’s win was by far the Steelers best outing. Limiting the Bengals offense to less than 200 yards was especially impressive. With the Redskins and Giants on deck, the Steelers can’t afford to take another week off as they did against Tennessee in Week 6.
Things I never thought and would not say this week, even if you paid me…
  • Michael Wilbon was spot on with his 2012 MVP predication. Cam Newton has been unstoppable.
  • Robert Griffin III doesn’t scare me at all. It’ll be a while before he’s an impact player.
  • When the Patriots enter the 4th quarter with a double digit lead, just turn off the TV. Game’s over. No question. Forget about it. Best closers in all of football.
  • Investing tons of money is always the solution to fixing something. Look at the Bills defense as a prime example.
Fantasy Nightmare Football update of the week…
  • Remember Vincent Jackson’s whoopsie daisy I mentioned earlier? Yeah, he’s on my fantasy team. It would’ve been nice to have those six points.

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