Every week, teams take to the field operating under the premise that on any given Sunday anything is possible, but the growing parity in the NFL is making the mantra a reality.
Just take a look at the scores, and it is apparent that the margin between the haves and have-nots is narrowing.
In looking at the Browns' surprising win over the Saints, the statistics would show that Cleveland had no business being in a game where they were outgained by a 394-210 margin, only mustered 12 first downs and passed for fewer than 100 yards (Colt McCoy completed 9 of 16 for 74 yards). Yet, there they were in the fourth quarter of a laugher that sent shockwaves across the league.
Sparked by a barrage of turnovers from Drew Brees, including two interceptions returned for scores by David Bowens, and a pair of special teams plays that caught the Saints off guard, the Browns seemingly had the game under control from the start. Their defense did a good job of frustrating Brees by varying coverage and pressure packages. Cleveland's ability to come up with critical stops at key moments prevented New Orleans from getting back into the game.
In Buffalo's narrow loss, the Bills rolled up 506 yards of total offense against a defense that entered the game ranked as one of the league's stingiest in yards allowed. Ryan Fitzpatrick recorded a 300-yard day while tossing four touchdowns. Buffalo also had a pair of 100-yard receivers in Lee Evans (six receptions for 105 yards with three scores) and Steve Johnson (eight receptions for 158 yards and a touchdown).
Turnovers, penalties and poor execution continue to determine the outcome of games, and the growing parity between teams only brings those critical factors to the forefront. With a fresh batch of upsets to illustrate those points, you can rest assured that coaches will spend the majority of week making sure their players hear the message.
Here are some other observations from the eyes of a former scout:
The Browns demonstrated that the easiest way to orchestrate a huge upset is to steal points in the kicking game. Mangini gave the green light on a couple of special teams gadget plays that directly led to six points for the Browns.
The punt return throwback to Eric Wright in the first quarter netted 62 yards, and helped the Browns grab an early lead that was critical to their confidence. In executing the play, the Browns exploited the Saints' overaggressive pursuit of Josh Cribbs to set up the backside lateral. Wright allowed the gunner to have a free release on the inside and played possum while hanging out to the left with a convoy of blockers slowly working to his side. Cribbs fielded the punt, took a few steps to his right and wheeled around to toss a 40-yard lateral. With blockers ahead, Wright easily navigated down the field before finally being corralled at the New Orleans' 19-yard line.
Cleveland's second special teams gamble took advantage of New Orleans' desire to set up its punt return. On film, the Browns must have picked up a clue that the Saints don't heavily pressure the punter on most returns and were susceptible to a fake up the middle. With the punt team instructed to kick out all rushers, Hodges ran through a huge seam down the middle of the field. After putting a nifty move on Lance Moore, Hodges sped past the rest of the Saints' return team on the way to a 68-yard scamper that set up another field goal.
Chiefs' line leading the way
If you're looking for a reason behind the Kansas City Chiefs' surprising ascension to the top of the AFC West, then focus on the exceptional play of the team's rebuilt offensive line. Branden Albert, Brian Waters, Casey Wiegmann, Ryan Lilja and Barry Richardson have been outstanding. They have routinely dominated the opposition at the line of scrimmage, and their ability to blow defenders off the ball has been the catalyst to the team fielding the league's top rushing attack.
In watching the unit against the Jaguars, the push created at the point of attack allowed Thomas Jones and Jamaal Charles to run wild between the tackles. The Chiefs rushed for over 200 yards for the third time this season (236 yards on 42 attempts), and Jones topped the century mark for the second straight week. More importantly, the team averaged 5.6 yards per carry, which allowed them to wear down the Jaguars in the fourth quarter.
Though Jones and Charles have clearly been the biggest beneficiaries of the solid offensive line play, the recent improvement of Matt Cassel has been a result of getting good protection. The Chiefs only allowed one sack against the Jaguars, and have surrendered just three in the past four games. Consequently, Cassel has tossed eight touchdowns with only one interception during that span, while posting a passer rating over 100 in three of those four contests.
With an offense that is starting to find rhythm behind a vastly improved offensive line, the Chiefs are poised to be legitimate players in the AFC this season.
Broncos aerial attack grounded
After watching Kyle Orton and the Broncos struggle moving the ball the past two weeks, it is apparent that the secret is out on how to stop Josh McDaniels' spread offense. The Raiders and the Jets both employed press coverage against the Broncos' receivers. The physical play completely disrupted the timing and effectiveness of Denver's passing game. Brandon Lloyd, Jabar Gaffney and Eddie Royal were neutralized for the second straight week, and their inability to get separation from the Raiders' cornerbacks forced Orton to try to squeeze the ball into tight windows. In addition, the use of press coverage prevented the Broncos from utilizing their wide receiver screens, which gets Orton into a rhythm while also serving as the team's quasi-running game.
In speaking with a Jets coach following their matchup with the Broncos, he talked about the importance of eliminating free access (defenders playing off coverage and allowing receivers to get into their routes without disruption) for Denver's receivers, and how you must get Orton out of his normal rhythm by sending at least five rushers to force the ball to come out quickly. Given the Broncos' recent struggles with press coverage and blitz tactics, McDaniels can expect more teams to follow suit.
McFadden carrying the load
Darren McFadden's big game against the Broncos has thrust the former first-round pick back into the spotlight after being viewed as a major disappointment during his first two seasons with the Raiders. He was expected to add a big-play dimension to the offense as the fourth overall pick in the 2008 draft, but surpassed the 100-yard rushing mark just one time in his first 25 games and had just five touchdowns during that span.
However, McFadden has finally found his groove as a runner, and his recent explosion can be attributed to his improved patience. McFadden, like most runners with outstanding speed and quickness, would often take the handoff at top speed and run into his lead blockers at the point of attack before he could burst through the designated hole. Now, he is letting the play fully develop before committing to making a cut, and the strategy is paying off. By slowing down a little bit at the outset of the run, McFadden is able to find the open creases on the backside and gash opposing defenses when their linebackers overpursue the ball.
With three 100-yard games in only five appearances this season, it appears that McFadden is finally ready to be the explosive option that the Raiders have coveted for years.
Hall to remember
DeAngelo Hall might not be one of the league's premier shutdown corners, but it's hard to find a corner with better playmaking skills. His four-interception effort against Jay Cutler was one of the more remarkable performances in league history. It showcased his exceptional instincts and awareness.
Though he lacks the focus or discipline to stick with elite receivers on an every down basis in tight man-to-man coverage, his ball-hawking skills are ideally suited for a defense that brings tremendous pressure off the edge. Hall is one of the league's best at reading three-step drops and jumping the quick routes. His aggressiveness results in game-changing plays when pressure forces the quarterback to throw under duress.
Haynesworth takes step forward
It's only a matter of time before Albert Haynesworth reclaims his starting spot. He has started to flash his dominant ways again, and the Redskins' defense is dramatically improved when he is on the field. Against the Bears, Haynesworth recorded two tackles, a sack, forced several hurried throws and stopped Jay Cutler on a quarterback sneak that changed the complexion of the game. On that pivotal play, he anticipated the snap count and jumped over the line of scrimmage to stop Cutler in his tracks. Haynesworth has spent most of the season in the doghouse, but expect him to be a key contributor as the Redskins make a playoff push down the stretch.
Harvin provides versatility
The Vikings are doing their best to maximize Percy Harvin's talents, and their latest venture comes straight from a college playbook. In breaking down the film against Green Bay, Minnesota increasingly used Harvin as a runner out of its spread formations. Though the Vikings vary his initial alignment in their "empty" package, he is routinely motioned into the backfield to take handoffs on "Jet-sweeps" (receiver or running back comes quickly across the formation to take the handoff from the quarterback on the run) or zone counters. Both plays tap into Harvin's extensive experience as a running back at Florida and allow the Vikings to get the ball to one of their top playmakers in space. With the team still struggling with the free-agent loss of Chester Taylor during the offseason, Harvin could see more of his touches come from the backfield on an assortment of staple plays from the spread offense.
Steve Spagnuolo might rue his decision to send an all-out blitz on Bucs' go-ahead score, but it was simply a case of a player being caught out of position that led to Cadillac Williams' 1-yard touchdown grab. The Rams tried to apply pressure against the Bucs' spread formation, which left peel responsibilities to DE Chris Long. He was assigned to Williams if the back released to his side because all of the linebackers were shooting the gaps on the rush. While Long initially grabbed Williams as he released from the backfield, Josh Freeman's decision to flee the pocket prompted the defender to release his man to pursue the quarterback. With Williams following conventional scramble rules -- receivers are taught to roll to the direction of the quarterback to get in his line of sight -- he worked to get open in the corner of the end zone. Given Long's inexperience in coverage, his instincts to get after the passer ultimately led to the winning score.