*Musings, observations and the occasional insight as a tight, taut, one-score kind of Sunday unfolded in Week 10 of the NFL season ... *
The burden of being the defending Super Bowl champion is never a light one, because the challenges come at a Lombardi Trophy winner from all directions. The schedule gets tougher, with so much prime-time football to be played, while the expectation level is sky high both inwardly and outwardly, and every opponent wants to make you another notch on their belts. Heavy lies the crown, and all that stuff. It's always tough to perform your best when there's nowhere to go but down.
But the Denver Broncos haven't flinched from their assigned lot in life this season, and in Sunday's gritty and dramatic 25-23 win at New Orleans, they proved that they just might be up to the task of taking another run through the NFL championship gauntlet. Ten games is a pretty good checkpoint for any defending champ, and these Broncos are doing fine for themselves on that front, sitting 7-3 and in the thick of the AFC's Super Bowl discussion as they enter their bye week.
To get there, they had to win in one of the wildest ways imaginable, with rookie safety Will Parksreturning a blocked point-after attempt 84 yards for a two-point game-winning defensive conversion with 1:22 remaining in the Superdome. It was the first time an NFL game was ever decided that way since the league changed its rules to allow for scores of that type in 2015, and it undoubtedly helps build the Broncos' belief that 2016 could still be their year after all.
"I'm a big fan of that new rule," said Denver receiver Demaryius Thomas on the phone, minutes after the Broncos rebounded from last week's discouraging Sunday night loss at Oakland, snapping a two-game road losing streak. "Before this even happened, before we won like that, [I thought] the defense should be rewarded if they block the kick and have a chance to run it back. Because it's not easy to do.
"I never saw it in the NFL (there have been three such scores so far in 2015-16), but last year, my college (Georgia Tech) did it against Florida and won the game. So to see us make us make it happen ... Coach (Gary Kubiak) said we're going to have to play big on all plays, and I think we did enough to do that. Coming up with that big block at the end, to finish the game, was the reason we won the game."
Fellow Broncos rookie safety Justin Simmons hurdled the center of the Saints line to swat away the potential go-ahead conversion attempt, then Parks scooped up the ball and was off to the races, enduring a replay challenge to see if he might have stepped out of bounds on the left sideline. But the call stood, and so did the two points, and that remarkable swing of emotion could wind up representing the play of the year in Denver this season. One minute, the Broncos were staring at 6-4, with four losses in the past six games, and the next, they were 7-3, trailing first-place Kansas City and Oakland (both 7-2) by a mere half-game in the NFL's best and deepest division.
That improbable turn of events at the end helped erase the flaws the Broncos exhibited on Sunday. Denver squandered a 10-0 first-half lead, surrendering 17 unanswered points, and new starting quarterback Trevor Siemian tossed two interceptions and absorbed a ton of punishment in being sacked six times and hit several more. But that stout Broncos secondary also did its part to help Denver's cause in this pivotal game, with safety Darian Stewart intercepting Drew Brees twice and recovering one of New Orleans' two fumbles. Even without cornerback Aqib Talib and defensive lineman Derek Wolfe, the Broncos defense again rose to the challenge, as it has for most of this high-profile season.
"I feel like we've been getting the best out of every [opponent], being the champions from last year," said Thomas, who had a game-high eight catches for 87 yards, including the game-tying, would-not-be-denied 2-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter. "It was a big relief, because we've been in situations where we're in close games and we haven't been able to finish. Getting this one out of the way, that was big, going into our bye week and trying to get some guys back healthy."
With division losses at San Diego and Oakland, the Broncos have no margin of error once they get back to work in Week 12. That six-game stretch will include both division games against Kansas City, a rematch with the Raiders in Denver, and a much-anticipated Week 15 visit from New England, last season's AFC title game opponent. But the path to another long playoff run looks eminently more plausible in the aftermath of this win by the resourceful Broncos.
"It sets us up good right now," Thomas said. "It's good to be 7-3, going 10 weeks strong without no bye, no break, having these Monday night and Thursday night games. It says a lot about our team. We've still got work to do, but we're going to come back stronger and better because we've got to treat each game like the playoffs. Basically we've got to take it a game at a time and treat it like a playoff game, because our division is real strong."
That it is. But the Broncos are still the champs until further notice, and they just proved they belong near the top of whatever category you want to define them by.
» The Saints were so close to climbing over .500 (for the first time since 2013) and seeing themselves as legitimate playoff contenders in the NFC. But the drama has definitely returned to the extra point in the NFL the past two years, and that cruel reality is why New Orleans is 4-5 today and back in less-than-advantageous position.
And here's the real killer about giving up two points on a blocked one-point conversion try in crunch time: You have to turn right around and kick off to the team that just took the lead at 25-23 with 1:22 left, forcing New Orleans into an on-side attempt that was not successful. It was ballgame at that point. What a stunner, when seconds before, you were lining up for what was assumed to be the go-ahead PAT.
The Saints franchise just turned 50 two weeks back, but the aging process has been accelerated for the team's fans this season, with all these crushing defeats. It was the fourth time this year New Orleans lost when the game came down to one possession. So it's back to the drawing board for Sean Payton's entertaining but exasperating team.
Can Panthers recover from crushing loss?
Speaking of gut-punch losses, in Charlotte, that was the kind of game a team doesn't recover from very often. The Panthers were in total control of Kansas City for most of the day, and then everything evaporated in the blink of an eye, with the Chiefs rallying for 17 unanswered points in the fourth quarter en route to a 20-17 road win.
The game turned on a horrible heave-it-up-and-hope-it-helps pass thrown into double coverage by Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, which was picked off and returned 42 yards for a touchdown by Chiefs safety Eric Berry, his one-time high school rival. Newton looked like a raw rookie making a decision that poor with the game securely in hand, and I'm not sure the defending NFC champs are going to be able to shake this one off.
Earlier in the game, it looked like the dab was back, Cam was having fun again, and Carolina was going to return to relevancy with three consecutive wins. So much for that. At 3-6, with a challenging schedule still ahead in the final seven weeks of the season, the Panthers look likely to become the first defending NFC champions to miss the playoffs since the 2012 New York Giants.
» Kansas City (7-2) won its fifth in a row, and this one was a straight-up heist. The Chiefs' offense was very sluggish for most of the game and had to make do with four Cairo Santos field goals, with Berry scoring the team's only touchdown of the game on defense. According to ESPN, it was the second time this season that Kansas City won a game despite trailing by 14 points in the final quarter, something the other 31 teams in the league have yet to accomplish even once.
Remember when conventional wisdom said Alex Smith and Co. were pretty good if they could get a lead, but don't ask them to play from behind and execute a game-winning rally? That's so dated. With this scrappy Chiefs defense making whatever play is needed at the moment -- like Marcus Peters swiping the ball out of Kelvin Benjamin's hands to set up the game-winning Santos field goal -- K.C. has flashed comeback potential this season.
What a riveting AFC West race we're being treated to this season, with Kansas City and Oakland tied atop the division at 7-2, and Denver just a half-game back at 7-3. Winning this division is going to really mean something this year. And the beat goes on for the resilient Chiefs, who are a gaudy 18-3 since starting last season 1-5.
Washington quietly mounting playoff run
Well, have yourself a day, Preston Smith. Washington's linebacker was a beast in his team's 26-20 home win against Minnesota, picking up two sacks and an interception and flying to the ball when the game was on the line. With that name, it sounds as if Smith should own the team rather than play for it (the franchise was owned by George Preston Marshall for decades). But he took over that game, and because he did, Washington improved to 5-3-1 and won a big head-to-head potential tiebreaker against a fellow NFC playoff contender.
Very quietly, after its disappointing 0-2 start to the season, Washington is 5-1-1 in its past seven games. This season, Jay Gruden's club isn't even waiting until we all mentally eliminate them before mounting a playoff bid.
» Just wondering, but does anybody want to win the NFC North? We see you, Detroit. You can put your hand down now. The Lions were the only team in the division to enjoy Week 10, largely because while they were off on their bye, the other three clubs all lost on the road, putting Detroit into the NFC North lead at 5-4. Minnesota has the same record but lost at home last week to the Lions, giving Detroit the edge for now.
What a mirage the Vikings look like now, with their stellar 5-0 start dissolving into a month-long meltdown. Injuries are, of course, part of the story -- Minnesota lost another offensive lineman on Sunday when tackle Jake Longsuffered a serious Achilles injury -- but not all of it. I thought the Vikings' defense had a chance to be elite this year, but it's entirely average at the moment. Where did the pass rush we saw in September and early October go? Apparently, that Week 6 bye really did a number on Mike Zimmer's guys.
Falcons fail to separate in NFC South
The Eagles played great complementary football on Sunday at home against first-place Atlanta, with a ball-control, run-first offense that perfectly suited the efforts by Philadelphia's defense to give Atlanta's top-ranked offense as few possessions as possible. The end result was a tough 24-15 Eagles win that stopped the bleeding in Philly and tamped down the Falcons' hopes of running away with things in the NFC South.
Atlanta came in averaging 33.9 points per game but managed less than half of that total, getting manhandled a bit at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. The best news is that the Falcons (6-4) didn't lose any ground in the division to New Orleans or Carolina, who both lost at home. But the Falcons had a chance to go into their bye week on a high and win their fifth road game of the season, their most since 2012. Instead they fell more than a bit flat.
Philadelphia, meanwhile, has to feel great about learning to win at home again. The Eagles are 4-0 at The Linc under rookie head coach Doug Pederson after failing to post a winning home record in five of the past six seasons. This is still a team that looks a year away from true playoff contention, but Philly is once again a tough place to visit.
Packers in desperation mode; Titans scoring at record pace
You can clearly see the need for change on the horizon in Green Bay. This season hit rock bottom (the Packers hope) in a 47-25 loss at Tennessee on Sunday, in a game the Titans once led 35-10 in the second quarter. The Packers (4-5) have no answers on defense, and it's hard to see how defensive coordinator Dom Capers survives in his job much longer if the performance doesn't improve markedly next week at Washington, or the following week in Philadelphia.
Mike McCarthy is one of the most successful and proven head coaches in this league and has been for many years. But it looks like his shelf life in Green Bay has been reached in season No. 11. This is a team that still talks a good game during the week, but it can't produce one on game days, no matter how much motivational fodder is utilized. Weak division or not, with three losses in a row, Green Bay has reached the desperation stage of its season.
» Titans fans have endured entire months where their favorite team didn't score as many as 47 points.So that had to be an embarrassment of riches in many respects. But plenty of points is a trend that's becoming somewhat commonplace in Tennessee, because the Titans have reached the 35-point level in their past three games, a franchise first.
They've averaged almost 34 points in their past six games, and the Tennessee triplets were at it again on Sunday against Green Bay, with quarterback Marcus Mariota (four touchdown passes), running back DeMarco Murray (123 yards rushing, with a 75-yard touchdown run and a touchdown pass) and tight end Delanie Walker (nine catches for 124 yards and a touchdown) comprising their roles as the most potent combination in the AFC South.
At 5-5, the Titans have every reason to believe they can scratch their way into the playoffs. This is an ascending team that is starting to believe it belongs. I don't care what they call the offensive formula in Tennessee, exotic smashmouth or otherwise. Something's working like it hasn't worked in a long time in Nashville.
Rams lowering bar for Goff, while Jets flounder
I finally figured out what Jeff Fisher is doing at quarterback in Los Angeles. The Rams' tough-minded coach keeps playing Case Keenum in order to the lower the bar of expectations for whenever rookie Jared Goff finally does take the field. It's genius, really. But it's also excruciating to watch, even when the Rams eke out a win like they did against the Jets, 9-6, at MetLife Stadium.
It's an old joke, but if the Los Angeles area wanted the NFL back in the worst way after 21 years, who knew that's exactly what they would get? It was the second game this season in which the Rams didn't score a touchdown and still won. At least that L.A. defense is something to build around for the relocated Rams.
I never expected the Jets to follow up on their surprise 10-win season of a year ago with another success story. The schedule got tougher, and there would be no sneaking up on anyone in 2016. But I didn't expect the bottom to fall out, either. New York is toast this season at 3-7 and it might as well keep playing second-year quarterback Bryce Petty for the foreseeable future, if only for educational purposes.
Petty led a crisp, 99-yard touchdown drive early on for the Jets, but the longer he played against the Rams, the worse he looked, with New York punting on eight of 11 possessions. His 19-of-32, 163-yard showing wasn't awful. But it was hardly difference making in this lost Jets season. After the bye week, the Jets entertain the first-place Patriots in Week 12. That won't be pretty, but the right call is to keep running Petty out there.
Cowboys keep winning, no matter the place or opponent
Good to know Tony Romo is now willing to play Dak Prescott's backup in Dallas. Acceptance of reality is always a crucial step in returning to full health. But what other choice did the Cowboys veteran quarterback really have? He can't demand a trade in mid-November, past the trade deadline, and holding his breath and stamping his feet until he's restored to the No. 1 spot really isn't effective or becoming.
Dallas is the story of the year in the NFL, and what Prescott and rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott have done in nine games has changed the narrative that surrounds the Cowboys. Once they were known as a team that would torture its fans with agonizing losses at the worst possible time, in mind-boggling fashion. Now? They just find a way to win win no matter the circumstance, no matter how sizable the stage. Lambeau Field. Heinz Field. What's the big deal?
Pittsburgh seemingly delivered the dagger to Dallas with Ben Roethlisberger's fake-spike touchdown pass to Antonio Brown with 42 seconds remaining, putting the Steelers up 30-29. But Prescott never panics, and back came the Cowboys, with their twin rookie stars again saving the day. No problem. The Cowboys won 35-30, improving to 8-1, in what may have been the game of the year.
The rest of the league's TV ratings may be down this season, but you can't look away this year when Dallas is on offense.
About Thursday night ...
Put me down for the Browns not being able to pull this winless thing off. Going 0-16 in this year's morass of mediocrity is tougher than you think. Cleveland actually might be one of the best worst teams the league has seen in a while, because the Browns have been, for the most part, fairly competitive this season, losing five of their 10 games by 11 points or less. That's not horrible. And it's a credit to new head coach Hue Jackson that his club has continued to play hard despite the glaring goose egg in the win column.
Who will they beat, you ask? I don't know, specifically. But someone. Maybe even two opponents. Home against the Giants in two weeks, perhaps. At Buffalo in Week 15, or home against the Chargers in Week 16 aren't out of the question. But the Browns, who lost at Baltimore 28-7 Thursday night, aren't quite dreadful enough, or special enough, to join the 2008 Lions and 1976 Bucs in infamy. I just don't see it.
» The Ravens, who endured a four-game losing streak from Weeks 4 through 7, have to be the most unexpected first-place team in the AFC, and the best news is that bruising Baltimore defense is again the backbone of this club. But about that offense. The Ravens' attack still doesn't look to have much rhythm or consistency, and the switch to Marty Mornhinweg at offensive coordinator in early October hasn't been the spark that Baltimore (5-4) hoped for.
Joe Flacco hasn't ever looked as comfortable as he did in Gary Kubiak's offense in 2014, and it's fair to wonder if all the change at OC over the years in Baltimore has impacted him and kept him from fully developing into the quarterback he could have been had he played in the same system year in and year out. The Ravens should feel fortunate to be playing meaningful games down the stretch, but with road games remaining at Dallas, New England, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, Baltimore still looks set to finish 8-8. At best.
So if the Dolphins can beat you with not only their running game, but also a well-timed breakout showing from quarterback Ryan Tannehill, then Adam Gase really has changed the dynamic in his rookie campaign as Miami's head coach. I can't remember seeing the Dolphins get the job done on the road of late better than they did in their 31-24 win at San Diego. Tannehill was there when his team needed him against the talented Chargers, throwing for 240 yards and a pair of touchdowns, and taking care of the football. I think Miami (5-4) could be favored in at least four or five of its remaining seven games, and a wild-card playoff berth is starting to look within reach to me... Just when you think he's playing some of the best ball of his career, Philip Rivers has one of those head-scratching four-interception, three-touchdown games that kills his team's chances. And the arrow points back down in San Diego... Arizona kept its playoff hopes alive, scraping out a 23-20 win at home against the 49ers. But having to struggle to beat San Francisco, which came into Week 10 at 1-7 with a seven-game losing streak, should do nothing to boost the Cardinals' confidence level. This was an ugly win by a team still grasping for its mojo as mid-November arrives... I saw real progress in Colin Kaepernick's performance against Arizona. He had some of his playmaking ability on display again, with 210 yards passing and a touchdown, plus 55 yards rushing and a fourth-quarter game-tying 4-yard run. The 49ers are going to draft a quarterback, that's pretty obvious. But Kaepernick is playing for his future on some team's depth chart in 2017... The Jay Cutler-coaster headed back down with a doozy of a plunge after that strong showing two Monday nights ago in Chicago. Three early turnovers were all you needed to see to know Cutler will not be steadying the ship in the second half of the season for the Bears... I wonder who Lovie Smith was rooting for in the Bucs' 36-10 demolition of visiting Chicago? Tie game, anyone?... If you didn't see Jameis Winston's ridiculously epic 39-yard bomb to Mike Evans on the Bucs' highlight reel, find it. Winston's scramble, all the way back into his own end zone, would have done Fran Tarkenton proud... The Texans are who they thought they were. Good, reliable defense, even without J.J. Watt, but not enough offense. Three games over .500 is nothing to sneeze at, but even at 6-3, Houston would be the longest of Super Bowl long shots out of the AFC if the playoffs started today. The Texans' first road win of the season, a 24-21 conquest of Jacksonville, isn't going to move the needle much on their behalf... Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles is a complete mess and needs to sit and watch for a while. But that won't happen, because Gus Bradley ostensibly is still fighting to keep his job in Jacksonville. Bortles tossed another pick-six against Houston, and now has an NFL-high nine of those in his two-plus seasons leading the Jags. He's my easy pick for Most Disappointing Offensive Player of the Year.
Ridiculously Cool Football Card of the Week
The state of the Jets' quarterbacking was again in the news this week with second-year passer Bryce Petty getting his first career start against visiting Los Angeles, and that always reminds us that New York has been seeking its next star-power Super Bowl-winning passer since Joe Namath left the scene. (And no, we're not counting Brett Favre's 2008 drive-by appearance.) From Richard Todd in the mid-'70s on, it has been the proverbial 40 years wandering in the desert, looking for the promised land at the game's most pivotal position. And the search continues.
Here is Namath's 1969 Topps, when he was at the peak of his prime and popularity, and basically owned New York, having led the '68 Jets to that improbable upset over Baltimore in Super Bowl III. I love the creamsicle background that Topps went with here, and the fact that Namath sports a small Band-Aid beside his left eye (that same Band-Aid made an appearance on both his 1968 and 1970 cards, back in the day when Topps used a variation of the same photo repeatedly to save on costs).
In Week 10 of 1969, the defending champion Jets entered 7-2, but were upset at home to Kansas City 34-18 at Shea Stadium, their first home defeat of the season. It portended how the season would end for New York in the final season of the AFL, because the Jets lost again at home to Kansas City in the division playoffs, 13-6, with the Chiefs going on win Super Bowl IV in another upset for the underdog league. Broadway Joe put in a pretty typical Namath game in Week 10 against K.C., completing 24 of 40 passes for 327 yards, with two touchdowns and three interceptions.