NFL Quick-Hits: 10 Observations from Week 4
1. Newton isn’t a closer, but thankfully for the Falcons Ryan is.
Following his dreadful performance last Thursday against the Giants, Cam Newton bounced back nicely against the Falcons on Sunday while throwing for 215 yards, rushing for 86 yards, and reaching the end zone three times (twice through the air and once rushing). But for all of his heroics, Newton remains a quarterback unable to close out games. Faced with a crucial third-and-one with less than two minutes remaining in the contest, Newton had picked up a first down on a designed run, but he fumbled the ball while pin-balling off bodies. Had he squeezed the ball tightly, the Panthers could have run out the clock and earned a huge road victory against an undefeated division rival. Instead, the ball bounced backwards and while one of his teammates jumped on it, the Falcons still had life. Then, despite gashing Atlanta for nearly 200 yards on the ground, coach Ron Rivera decided that his team couldn’t pick up one more yard to put the game away. He punted on fourth-and-1 and despite pinning the Falcons on their own 1-yard line, defensive back Haruki Nakamura inexplicably allowed a 59-yard pass completion to Roddy White, which put the Falcons in range of a game-winning field goal. The rest was history, as Matt Ryan, a true closer, marched Atlanta down to the Carolina 22-yard-line to set up Matt Bryant’s game-winning 40-yard field goal. The outcome was yet another reminder of the one thing that Newton has still yet to learn: How to finish. Like so many times before, Ryan was handed an opportunity to put his team on his shoulders and win the game, which he did. Granted, a lot of luck was involved and Newton had plenty of help giving that game away. But at the end of the day, one quarterback closed and the other didn’t.
2. The Patriots remain the team to beat the AFC East.
Heading into Week 4, people wanted to believe the Patriots’ reign of terror in the AFC East was over. They bought into the notion that the Bills were ready to unseat New England, which had lost in Buffalo last year and was coming off back-to-back losses the past two weeks. But despite the offseason additions of Mario Williams (who has been a ghost since signing that huge deal back in March), Stephon Gilmore and Mark Anderson, Buffalo’s defense remains a major work in progress. The Bills thought they had fixed their issues on that side of the ball and yet, their defensive line applied very little pressure to Tom Brady and allowed 247 yards rushing. The Patriots reminded us that they can still turn it on when they need to, as 45 of their 52 points came in the second half. Where as Ryan Fitzpatrick continues to struggle with the deep ball and throwing outside the numbers, Brady used his legs to buy himself more time and even rushed for a score in the third quarter. Stevan Ridley added 106 yards on the ground but was overshadowed by undrafted free agent Brandon Bolden, who seemingly came out of nowhere to rush for 137 yards on 16 carries. Despite Buffalo being at full strength with C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson (both were active despite being questionable throughout the week), the Patriots sent a message that they’re still one of the most dangerous teams in the AFC when they’re firing on all cylinders.
3. The Saints played their best game of the season…and still lost.
There were plenty of moments in Green Bay on Sunday where you were reminded of the Saints of the last couple of years, at least offensively. Drew Brees completed 35-of-54 passes for 446 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions, while Marques Colston emerged from his slumber to catch nine passes for 153 yards and one score. This is still a team that will scare opponents week in and week out, although it’s telling that this was New Orleans’ best game of the season and it still walked away with a 28-27 loss. The defense created little to no pressure on Aaron Rodgers, who wasn’t sacked after being dropped eight times by Seattle just six days prior. The Saints also don’t have a running game and clearly miss Carl Nicks. (The offensive line hasn’t been the same without him.) It’ll also be interesting to see if the Saints can remained focused throughout the year. It’s still relatively early but no team shakes off a 0-4 start. Keep in mind that the players on this roster aren’t used to losing and most are holdovers from the Super Bowl squad. This is a team that has fought for division titles and Super Bowl berths the past few seasons. How will they respond when faced with immense adversity?
4. Let’s give credit where credit is due: Kolb has lifted his play.
The Dolphins sacked Kevin Kolb eight times on Sunday, held the Cardinals to just 28 yards rushing, forced two turnovers and built leads of 13-0 and 21-14 before Arizona finally came back and won 24-21 in overtime. Kolb completed 29-of-48 passes for 324 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions. It wasn’t a brilliant performance but few are when we speak of Kolb. The key is that he raised the level of his play, which is something he has failed to do on a consistent basis over the past two years. Too many times we’ve seen Kolb take jab after jab while cashing out long before the fight is over. This time, he hung in there and made one of the best throws of his career while finding Andre Roberts on a perfect sideline pass on a 4th-and-10 with less than a minute in regulation. Had his pass fell to the ground, we wouldn’t have been surprised. ‘It’s Kevin Kolb,’ we would have said while shrugging. But let’s give credit where credit is due: Kolb was a huge factory in Sunday’s victory. And if Ray Horton’s defense continues to play as well as it has, maybe a confident Kolb will allow the Cardinals to stay in the mix all season.
5. Less is more when it comes to Vick.
Michael Vick didn’t put on a passing clinic on Sunday night against the Giants. He didn’t have a series of highlight runs and he didn’t leap head first into the end zone while trying to score. He also didn’t turn the ball over and the Eagles picked up a huge 19-17 victory against a division rival. Vick is a better quarterback when he plays within himself, understands his limitations, and doesn’t try to win the game on his own. He didn’t routinely force throws into coverage or wildly run around when the pocket broke down. He simply took what the defense gave him and led his team on four second-half scoring drives despite only mustering seven points in the first half. Vick has a lot of schoolyard to his game and that shouldn’t change. But if the Eagles’ talented roster is ever going to reach its full potential, he has to understand that his reckless play is hurting his team, himself, and his coach. Hopefully last night was a step in the right direction for the veteran quarterback.
6. Opponents have figured out the Lions, who refuse to adjust under Schwartz.
Jim Schwartz deserved the contract extension he received before the season. But his inability to make adjustments throughout the week and on game days has to be maddening for Detroit fans. Last season the Lions played to their strength, which was their passing game. Opponents knew what was coming and they still couldn’t slow down Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson. But this year teams are playing two safeties deep in order to keep Detroit’s vertical game in check, and the Lions have refused to adjust. Stafford threw for over 300 yards in Sunday’s loss against Minnesota, but he leads an offense that continues to be out of sync. It’s not Stafford’s fault that Johnson had a touchdown knocked out of his hands on one play and Brandon Pettigrew dropped a pass in the end zone the next, but for whatever reason Detroit’s offense has been disjointed all season. They also can’t run the football and the defense is still plagued by the same issues it had last year because GM Martin Mayhew didn’t have the cap space in order to fix the team’s problems. Furthermore, the Lions remain one of the most undisciplined teams in football and clearly there hasn’t been an emphasis on special teams during the week because this is now back-to-back weeks that Detroit has given up two touchdowns on kickoffs and punts. The defense actually played well on Sunday but their performance was overshadowed by the fact that the special teams units were once again atrocious. If Schwartz doesn’t start making wholesale changes then the Lions could be back to square one very soon here.
7. The Jets’ problems have grown.
It used to be that the Jets could mask Mark Sanchez’s issues with Rex Ryan’s defense and a strong running game. But they lost the ability to run the ball last year and now thanks to the season-ending injury to Darrelle Revis, this is a team ready to unravel. Sanchez doesn’t look like he’s learned anything in four years. He’s generated just one touchdown in his last 34 possessions and has completed a dreadful 43.6 percent of his passes the past three weeks. While Ryan gave him a vote of confidence following Sunday’s 34-0 loss to the 49ers, it won’t be long before Tim Tebow is inserted as the starter. Tebow, of course, isn’t a better option under center. But he at least has shown the ability to make things happen and he’s a stronger leader than the unconfident Sanchez. This isn’t a playoff caliber team without Revis, and if the Jets finally come to terms with the fact that Sanchez isn’t the answer, then Tebow needs to play. But either way, Ryan and the Jets have issues they can no longer mask.
8. The Fisher hire has already paid off for St. Louis.
Because they played in two Super Bowls within the last 15 years, people seem to forget how bad the Rams have been over the last decade. This is a team that hasn’t had a winning record since 2003 and hasn’t gone to the playoffs since qualifying for the 2004 postseason with an 8-8 record. But the hiring of Jeff Fisher has brought stability to a franchise that has yearned for that very thing the past 10 years. Despite having the youngest roster in the NFL, a polarizing figure at quarterback, one of the worst offensive lines in the league and an ineffective Steven Jackson, the Rams are 2-2. They’re playing meaningful football again in the fourth quarter and arguably should have beaten the Lions in Week 1. Make no mistake: Fisher is putting his print on this team, which is no longer just the “Same old Rams.” They also have a true weapon in rookie kicker Greg Zuerlein, who converted on attempts of 58, 48, 60, and 24 yards out in Sunday’s 19-13 win over the Seahawks. Just wait until Fisher and GM Les Snead start filling the roster with talent. The Rams are going to be a competitor very soon.
9. Peyton Manning and the Broncos: The ultimate wild card.
The Raiders’ pass coverage isn’t very good. Safety Tyvon Branch is a solid player but Michael Huff continues to be inconsistent and the rest of Oakland’s secondary hasn’t made anyone forget about Nnamdi Asomuagha. That said, it was nice to see some vintage Peyton Manning on Sunday. He torched the Raiders for 338 yards and three touchdowns while misfiring on just eight of his 38 pass attempts. Granted, he was aided by a running game that produced 165 yards and he rarely challenged downfield. His receivers did a nice job racking up yards after the catch too, but as a football fan it was nice to see Manning be effective. Denver remains a true mystery. Thanks to their defense and rushing attack, the Broncos will continue to battle the Chargers for first place in the AFC West. But Manning is the wild card. If he can do what he did on Sunday and in Week 1 versus the Steelers, the Broncos are a threat in the AFC. But we’ve seen the past two weeks how Manning can derail things as well. It’s going to be an interesting ride all season.
10. The rest of the Redskins deserved one made field goal.
There’s little doubt that an 0-for-4 day would have cost kicker Billy Cundiff his job. Thankfully he didn’t send himself on an extended vacation by converting a 41-yard field goal to give the Redskins a 24-22 win over the Bucs on Sunday.. On a day when Cam Newton couldn’t hold onto the ball on a crucial third-and-one in Atlanta, Robert Griffin III was 4-for-5 for 46 yards and added a 15-yard scramble on Washington’s final drive. He moved his team into field goal range and had Cundiff missed wide right, it wouldn’t have been RGIII’s fault that the Skins lost. But he and his teammates deserved that win. Alfred Morris deserved that win. Despite being beaten by Josh Freeman on a couple of nice second-half throws, Washington’s defense deserved that win. Cundiff saved his job for the moment, but more importantly he allowed his teammates to celebrate something that was deservedly theirs.
Posted in: NFL
Tags: Aaron Rodgers, Alfred Morris, Arizona Cardinals, Atlanta Falcons, Billy Cundiff, Brandon Bolden, Buffalo Bills, C.J. Spiller, Calvin Johnson, Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers, Denver Broncos, Detroit Lions, Drew Brees, Fred Jackson, Green Bay Packers, Jeff Fisher, Jim Schwartz, Kevin Kolb, Mario Williams, Mark Sanchez, Matt Ryan, Matthew Stafford, New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints, Peyton Manning, Philadelphia Eagles, Rex Ryan, Robert Griffin III, Roddy White, Ryan Fitzpatrick, St. Louis Rams, Stevan Ridley, Tim Tebow, Tom Brady
Reactions from NFL Championship Sunday: Giants, Patriots set up Super Bowl rematch
For the second time in four years the New York Giants and New England Patriots will meet in the Super Bowl after the two teams won their respective conferences on Sunday. Here are some quick-hit reactions from both games.
Patriots 23, Ravens 20
– I feel for Billy Cundiff, I really do. He’s a professional kicker and professional kickers need to make 32-yard field goals when the snap and hold are perfect. It doesn’t matter what the stakes were or the fact that the Ravens blew opportunities during the game that could have saved him the horror of costing his team a chance to play in the Super Bowl. He’s a kicker and he should have made the kick, period. That said, he’s also a human being and there’s nothing anyone could say to make him feel worse than he already does. It sucks for him and it sucks for his teammates, who killed themselves for 18 weeks just to see their Super Bowl hopes dashed in a blink of an eye. Eighteen weeks have hard work flushed away on one bad kick…
– …of course, had Lee Evans bothered to hang onto the ball two plays before, Cundiff would have been spared all of this misery. Cundiff will absorb most of the fans’ barbs this week but the fact of the matter is that his kick would have only tied the game. Evans had a chance to potentially win the game for the Ravens had he hung onto a beautifully thrown pass by Joe Flacco on a second-and-1 from the New England 14. The damn thing was in his hands as he was about to stick his second foot into the ground and he had it knocked away by safety Sterling Moore. If Evans hangs onto the ball we’re talking about a Ravens-Giants rematch instead of Patriots-Giants II.
– Some Baltimore fans are complaining that John Harbaugh and Cam Cameron mismanaged the time when the Ravens drove the ball down to the New England 14-yard-line with less than two minutes remaining in the game. I get that. The Ravens had a second-and-1 from the 14, and a third-and-one from the 14. They could have handed the ball to Rice on either down and have him pick up the first, which would have given the Ravens a fresh set downs with two timeouts remaining. But just last week Cameron watched as Rice was stuffed at the goal line versus Houston so maybe he didn’t want to re-live the moment by playing into New England’s hands. The Patriots’ front seven did a great job bottling up Rice all day so ask yourself this: Was it the play calls or the execution that was the problem? Again, if Evans hangs onto the ball on second down then the Ravens are probably heading to Indianapolis. We fans are great at second guessing coordinators but in this case, Cameron gave his team a chance to win and the players just failed to execute.
– The numbers don’t paint a very pretty picture for the New England defense this season but the fact remains that Bill Belichick’s D is playing its best football over the past few weeks. Vince Wilfork was a freaking beast today and allowed Rice very little running room, while the rest of his front seven ‘mates also played extremely well. The secondary still has leaks but this isn’t the same defense that struggled so mightily earlier in the season.
– Have the Patriots ever won an AFC championship game when Tom Brady didn’t play well? If they have, I certainly don’t remember when. While everyone was questioning Flacco’s confidence heading into today, it was Brady who was the lackluster quarterback. Following Brandon Spike’s interception of Flacco mid-way through the fourth quarter, Brady gave the Ravens new life on the very next play by throwing into triple-coverage and getting picked off himself. Granted, the two interceptions he threw were both incredible plays but Baltimore defenders but Brady was off the entire game. In some respects, I don’t even know how the Patriots won. They’re heading back to the Super Bowl so that’s all that matters in the end, but this was not a very compelling performance by New England. That said, even though the Ravens continue to be a thorn in Brady’s side, his fourth-down touchdown leap proved to be the game-winning score for the Pats. And that was one hell of a gusty leap.
– Apparently Rob Gronkowski left Gillette Stadium in a walking boot, although he says his left ankle is “fine.” Good thing the media now has two weeks to talk about his injury every hour like they did with Pittsburgh offensive lineman Maurkice Pouncey leading up to last year’s Super Bowl. Because that wasn’t nauseating or anything.
Giants 20, 49ers 17
– Kyle Williams wasn’t even supposed to be returning punts for the 49ers: that job belonged to Ted Ginn Jr., but he was inactive today with a knee injury. So it’s only fitting that Williams muffed two punts that indirectly propelled the Giants to their second Super Bowl appearance in four years. Just like Billy Cundiff, I feel for Williams. It’s not like the kid woke up this morning and said, “Yeah, this is a good day to cost my team an opportunity to play in the Super Bowl.” It was just a really bad day for the former Arizona State product. Granted, the conditions weren’t ideal for any ball carrier but Williams shouldn’t have been close to the bouncing ball that hit his knee and his fumble that set up Lawrence Tynes’ game-winning field goal was caused in part because he was carrying the ball away from his body. Making matters worse, he didn’t record a single catch so it might be a long offseason for Williams, who nearly lost a fumble on a poor pitch earlier in the game, too.
– Just like Cundiff, Williams will draw most of the ire from fans and the media this week. But the blame cannot be laid at his feet alone. Did Williams put the Niners in bad position with his two muffed punts? No question. His turnovers led to 10 New York points, which proved to be the difference in the game. You can’t ignore that. But let me throw out some numbers: 1-of-13. That was San Francisco’s third-down efficiency today. They converted one third down on 13 attempts, which is absolutely horrendous. Here are some more numbers: 12-of-26. Alex Smith completed just 12 passes and only three of which came on the 49ers’ final two drives when they had an opportunity to win the game. Williams cost his team dearly but rarely does a football game come down to one or two plays.
– There were many factors that played into the outcome of this game but to me, the play of the quarterbacks was the difference. Alex Smith made two great throws to Vernon Davis that resulted in 14 points, but he was at the root of San Francisco’s ineptitude on offense. He often looked for the rush instead of anticipating it, his pocket presence was non-existent on some drives, and he often held onto the ball too long. When the 49ers had an opportunity at the end of the fourth quarter to put a drive together and potentially win the game with a field goal, Smith threw three straight incomplete passes and only 14 seconds came off the clock. He looked like a quarterback who couldn’t wait to get off the field on the 49ers’ lone possession in overtime, too. Take away Davis’ 112 receiving yards and the Niners did nothing on the outsides today. Don’t get me wrong, without Alex Smith’s play in the fourth quarter lat week, the 49ers aren’t playing in the NFC title game. But it’ll be interesting to see if San Francisco wants to invest making him their franchise quarterback when he still has a lot of the same issues that have haunted him throughout his career.
– On the flip side, Eli Manning got his ass handed to him repeatedly by a very good San Francisco defense and he continued to make plays to give his team a chance to win in the end. This Giants team was severely banged up at the beginning of the year and everyone essentially wrote them off when they lost to the Redskins in Week 1. And when they lost to the Redskins again late in the season, nobody expected the G-Men to even make the playoffs. But just like Eli did today in ‘Frisco, the Giants just kept hanging in there and now they’re heading back to the Super Bowl. Were the Giants a work of art offensively today? No, but let’s give San Francisco’s defense their due. They weren’t going to allow Manning to come in and do whatever he wanted on their home turf, and they certainly didn’t. At the end of the game Eli looked like someone who had been run over by a sewage truck. Justin Smith used his body as a rag doll on several occasions and yet there was Manning, peeling himself off the turf play after play. Criticize this guy all you want for not having Tom Brady’s bravado or his brother’s passing records but don’t say he’s not a winner. Manning proved to a national audience today what he’s proven to Giants fans all year: That without him, the G-Men don’t even win nine games this season, nevertheless have a chance to win their second Super Bowl in four years.
– Victor Cruz caught 10 passes for 142 yards today, all of which came in the first half. That is not a misprint.
– Considering the Giants have beaten the Patriots the last two times these two teams have met, I would love to see the media have some balls and talk about whether or not New England can beat New York, instead of the other way around. The Patriots are already listed as 3.5-point favorites and you know the media is just chomping at the bit to talk about Brady and Belichick. But seriously, let’s see if the national media has any marbles and spends the next two weeks discussing whether or not the Pats can get the best of the Giants.
Posted in: NFL
Tags: 2012 Super Bowl, AFC Championship Game, Alex Smith, Baltimore Ravens, Billy Cundiff, Billy Cundiff missed field goal, Eli Manning, Hakeem Nicks, Joe Flacco, Kyle Williams, Lee Evans, Lee Evans drop, New England Patriots, New York Giants, San Francisco 49ers, Tom Brady, Vernon Davis, victor cruz, Vince Wilfork
Hard to fault John Harbaugh for deciding against field goal vs. Steelers
Monday morning quarterbacks will bemoan John Harbaugh’s decision not to kick a potential game-tying field goal with less than a minute to play Sunday night in Baltimore. But given the situation, it’s hard to argue with his rationale.
With less than a minute remaining in the game, the Ravens trailed the Steelers 13-10 and faced a fourth-and-2 from the Pittsburgh 31-yard line. Instead of attempting a 48-yard field goal, Harbaugh decided to go for it in order to give Billy Cundiff an easier attempt.
But the decision backfired as Joe Flacco short-armed a pass to Ed Dickson along the sidelines and the Ravens were forced to turn the ball over on downs. Flacco had Dickson open, but he threw the ball off his back foot and didn’t get enough on the pass, which fell at the tight end’s feet.
Following the game, this is what Harbaugh had to say about the decision:
“It was just a tough wind up there,” Harbaugh said. “It was really outside of our range, as we designated going in. We felt like we had a better chance to get the first down.”
Fourth-and-2 is a very manageable down-and-distance, so it’s hard to blame Harbaugh for deciding to go for it. In that instance, he felt as though converting the fourth down was a higher percentage play than Cundiff making a 48-yard field goal with swirling winds. And had Flacco not Chuck Knoblauch’d the throw, Harbaugh would have been right.
The real crime for the Ravens came on a second-and-5 from their own 38-yard line when they were up 10-6 with roughly three minutes remaining in the game. On that play, Flacco either didn’t see or didn’t adjust the play to account for a blitzing Troy Polamalu, who stripped the Baltimore quarterback to help set up the Steelers’ go-ahead touchdown a few plays later.
Some will argue that the Ravens shouldn’t have been throwing in that situation, but there’s nothing wrong with staying/being aggressive late in the game. But Flacco has to make an adjustment at the line so that Polamalu doesn’t get a free release. He came in unblocked and the outcome was disastrous for the Ravens, who missed a golden opportunity to sweep the Steelers and take sole possession in the AFC North.
Colts edge Ravens to remain undefeated
The Indianapolis Colts have been flirting with defeat for the past two weeks, but they beat the Baltimore Ravens 17-15 to earn a hard fought victory on Sunday. The win allows them to stay undefeated on the season.
The keys to this game were turnovers and inefficiency in the red zone. Indianapolis turned the ball over three times to help keep this contest close throughout and Baltimore couldn’t convert in the red zone and had to settle for five Billy Cundiff field goals.
The turning point came when Joe Flacco threw a crucial interception deep in Indianapolis territory with just three minutes remaining. If nothing else, the Ravens would have came away with a field goal on that drive to give them an 18-17 lead. Granted, Manning would have had the opportunity to lead the Colts to victory even if the Ravens did convert on that drive, but at least Baltimore’s defense would have had the chance to come up with a hold.
Now the Ravens will probably have to run the table or win at least five of their final six games to make the playoffs. They play the Steelers next week and a loss would almost knock them out of postseason contention.
Photo from fOTOGLIF