*Musings, observations and the occasional insight as a road-win heavy Week 5 unfolds in the NFL (home teams are just 7-6 going into Monday night's Bucs-Panthers matchup) ... *
So much for the heady offseason notion that Houston was primed and ready to step up in weight class this season and start punching with the heavyweights of the NFL. If ever first place in your division felt like a distinct disappointment, meet the 2016 Texans, who are 3-2 and proving themselves eminently capable of finishing a mediocre 9-7 for the third consecutive year.
Overmatched is the only word that really fit Houston's 31-13 loss at Minnesota on Sunday, as the 5-0 Vikings toyed with Bill O'Brien's club, rolling up a 24-6 halftime lead before seeming to lose interest in the final 30 minutes. If this was a measuring stick game for the Texans, you guessed it, they didn't remotely begin to measure up.
Considering Houston's uninspiring showing in the Twin Cities on Sunday, and its 27-0 egg-laying in Week 3 on that Thursday night in New England, the Texans look nowhere near legit Super Bowl contention. Houston lost those games against two of the best teams in the league by a combined score of 58-13, and has now been outscored on the season 82-104, making it the only first-place team to feature a negative point differential.
And yes, the dismal offensive start the Texans are off to starts with Houston's new passer, Brock Osweiler, and reflects very poorly on those who decided to hand him that whopping $72 million free-agent contract this spring. Osweiler is making no one in Houston forget Brian Hoyer -- and that's not a good thing -- and does not appear to be the answer to the franchise's perennial quarterback issues.
In short, Houston has a very familiar problem. Osweiler looks tentative and continues to force some passes, and his 19 of 42, 184-yard day included his seventh interception of the season, to go along with his sixth touchdown pass. His passer rating was an embarrassing 56.1, and the Texans started 0 of 11 on first downs, not converting one until midway through the second quarter, and then via penalty rather than performance.
At home, the Texans have beaten Chicago, Kansas City and Tennessee -- three teams that are all .500 or worse -- who have a combined record of 5-9 after Sunday. But those aren't the kind of signature wins that are going to propel Houston on to bigger and better things, and finding out just how far O'Brien's team is away from truly competing with the likes of New England and Minnesota has been a sobering experience in the early going of 2016. This is the coach's third season in Houston, and the pieces were supposed to be in place for a deep playoff run, rather than just squeaking by in the NFL's weakest division.
But until further notice, these Texans look like impostors, not Super Bowl material. With Osweiler making Denver look smart for its financial discipline, and Houston mega-star J.J. Watt out for the season with a back issue, the Texans are stuck in a limbo that leaves everyone dissatisfied. Sunday was an opportunity to flip that script, but Houston never even looked like it was on the same page against Minnesota.
And don't forget, another statement game is just ahead for the teasing Texans: Week 7 at the Broncos on "Monday Night Football," when Osweiler will try to stare down his past in Denver and give Houston some reason for hope in the future. So far, the Texans haven't been ready for their close-up, in primetime or otherwise.
Vikings sailing into bye week
The undefeated Vikings (5-0) just keep rolling along, and probably don't even want to take their bye next weekend. Would you want to stop playing if you're Sam Bradford, who has been waiting for this kind of run his entire seven-year NFL career? The ex-Ram, ex-Eagle has been almost perfect in Minnesota, and still hasn't thrown an interception for his new team, with another sterling day against Houston (22 of 30 for 271 yards, two touchdowns).
The third time is rapidly proving the charm for Bradford's NFL resume.
Eagles clipped in Motor City in disappointing affair
What a missed opportunity for the Eagles in Detroit. Philadelphia was sleep-walking in the first quarter, but overcame it and seemed poised to put away its fourth victory without a defeat in the Carson Wentz era. Then the Eagles (3-1) let the game slip away, with running back Ryan Mathews coughing up a critical fumble with less than three minutes left.
Instead of a great example of learning how to win on the road when you don't have your A game, the Eagles found a way to lose late, with Mathews' fumble being followed up by Wentz's first interception after 134 pass attempts as a pro. It wasn't a crushing loss, but Philly could have used it with Dallas playing so well and Washington having strung together three wins in a row in the suddenly powerful NFC East.
Baltimore fumbles away win on rule that needs changing
We saw a hugely important and vivid instance of the league's worst, most nonsensical rule come into play in the Washington-Baltimore Battle of the Beltway game. Ravens linebacker C.J. Mosley made a tremendously athletic interception deep in Washington territory in the Ravens' 16-10 loss, then unwisely tried to stretch the ball over the goal line as he neared it, fumbling the ball through the end zone.
You know what that means. Washington gets the ball at its own 20 on a touchback, somehow gaining yardage in the process of throwing an interception. In my view, that's way too much of a penalty for the team that created the turnover and made the positive play to begin with, and rewards the club that committed the turnover in an out-of-proportion manner.
Give the ball to Baltimore in this case at the spot of the fumble, because nobody on Washington recovered it and deserves possession of the ball. At the least, the Ravens should retain the ball, as if it rolled out of bounds on the sideline. While Mosley should have known better than to try and reach the ball out across the plane in that situation, it still seems unduly harsh to cost Baltimore the ball. Adding injury to insult, Mosley was injured on the play, pulling a hamstring.
Are the Ravens frauds?
Baltimore dropping two home games in a row is a rarity, and it makes you wonder if that 3-0 start was a bit of a mirage against lesser competition. But consecutive close losses to Oakland and Washington by the Ravens have the Steelers back in first place by themselves at 4-1 in the AFC North. It was only the third time in the John Harbaugh era that Baltimore has lost consecutive games at home, but it happened as well last December.
Credit to Washington though, which has dug out of its 0-2 start and now is back in the thick of things in the NFC East at 3-2. Jay Gruden's team won with stifling defense and special teams impact (an 85-yard Jamison Crowder punt return touchdown), and for once the game didn't come down to Kirk Cousins' right arm.
Washington could have wilted at 0-2, having lost back-to-back home games to start the season. But it has shown some mettle in winning on the road at the Giants and at Baltimore, sandwiched around a defeat of visiting Cleveland. But now comes a big test that could really boost Washington's chances in the division race: Week 6's home game against Philadelphia (3-1).
Brady looks like Brady, downplays performance in return
So that's "plenty of rust," Tom Brady? OK, whatever you say. I didn't see the Patriots' post game, but did No. 12 deliver that line with a straight face? Of course he did. Brady threw for 406 yards (just like Ted Williams' famed 1941 batting average) and three touchdowns in the 33-13 blowout of the reeling Browns, and he could at least have the decency to admit he was on top of his game after his four-week league suspension.
Brady was machine-like in Cleveland, and the scariest news for the rest of the league was the two-headed monster at tight end -- Martellus Bennett and Rob Gronkowski -- that tormented the Browns secondary with a combined 11 receptions for 176 yards and three scores (all by Bennett). Who in the AFC can match up with that tandem, and still cover the Patriots' smurf-like receivers?
The Browns lost another quarterback when rookie Cody Kessler hurt his ribs and shoulder in the first quarter, and amazingly they're now down to Charlie Whitehurst, who might be their fourth different starting passer in six games next week at Tennessee. How is that even possible? For Cleveland, which is 0-5, and 3-23 over the past 26 games, the misery index has never been higher.
Dolphins nearing the doldrums
Speaking of futility, where's bottom in Miami if these Dolphins are capable of getting manhandled at home by Tennessee, one of the lower tier teams in the NFL for a while now? Who are the Dolphins ever certain of beating after Sunday's 30-17 loss to the Titans? And I mean no disrespect to a Tennessee club that has made obvious progress this season.
But as dreadful as Miami's loss was at Cincinnati last week, this was way worse, coming at home against an AFC bottom-feeder. And good for Ryan Tannehill that Dolphins rookie head coach Adam Gase is bound and determined to stick with him through all these rough times, but Gase might come to regret saying: "He's not coming out. ... He's gonna be in there the whole season." Quarterbacks who play as poorly as Tannehill has, for as long as he has, eventually deserve to get benched. And Gase knows that day may be fast approaching.
Titans churn up plenty of turf in Miami
The Titans' "exotic smashmouth" offense has a chance to be pretty formidable if it can reproduce Sunday's production a few more times this season. Too bad the Titans can't play Miami every week. Tennessee gouged the Dolphins' defense for 235 yards on the ground -- the third time this season Miami has allowed at least 160 rushing yards -- and running backs DeMarco Murray (121 yards on 27 runs) and Derrick Henry (54 yards) were both weapons.
As was second-year quarterback Marcus Mariota, who threw for three touchdowns and ran for another, gaining 60 yards on the ground overall. Mariota, the Hawaii native, must like Florida. He hung up four touchdown passes in his best game last season, a Week 1 blowout win in Tampa.
Coates helps Steelers down tailspin-entering Jets
Between his scoring grabs and his drops, Steelers receiver Sammie Coates seems to keep both teams in the game at all times, but he's becoming must-see TV when he's on the field. I thought Coates was headed for a breakthrough season after talking to him in training camp, and his career-best six-catch, 139-yard, two-touchdown performance was the highlight of the Steelers' tougher-than-it-sounds 31-13 putdown of the visiting Jets. And remember, the Jets actually led at one point in this game, pushing Pittsburgh until going quiet in the second half.
The Jets at 1-4 are on the brink of complete irrelevancy in the AFC playoff hunt, not that I'm surprised by that development. New York snuck up on some opponents last season en route to its 10-6 finish, and also face a tougher schedule this year. With a trip to Arizona coming up next Monday night in Week 6, I'd be stunned if the Jets got within a sniff of .500 the rest of the season.
Bad News Chargers?
Have to believe the gig is almost up for coach Mike McCoy in San Diego. The Chargers came close to pulling the upset at Oakland, falling 34-31, but darned if they don't find the most imaginative ways to lose almost each and every week. This time a botched Drew Kaser hold on a late, potential game-tying field goal did the trick, sending San Diego to 1-4 and potentially making it last stand time for McCoy when Denver visits the Chargers this coming Thursday night.
McCoy's club has dropped its past 10 games in the AFC West, and is headed for a third consecutive non-playoff finish. The only thing a Chargers fan can celebrate is that there was a Joey Bosa sighting in Oakland, and the rookie first-round pick produced, with a couple of sacks, two quarterback pressures and three tackles for loss on about 20 snaps. That's more like it.
Raiders rolling to legitimacy
The Raiders are for real, baby, and they won again Sunday, the day after the fifth anniversary of the death of legendary team owner Al Davis. Oakland even finally remembered that Amari Cooper was an eligible receiver against the Chargers, with him pulling down six catches for 138 yards, including a critical 64-yard touchdown grab in the third quarter.
Oakland had to have this one, because it would have dropped to 0-2 at home with the loss, thereby offsetting the franchise's first 3-0 road start since 2000. Another big step for the resurgent Raiders awaits next week, a home date against Kansas City. The Chiefs swept Oakland last year and have won five out of six in the series. Before the Raiders think about felling the division giant that is Denver, they have to show they can hold their own against K.C.
Falcons continue to fly high on offense
Kyle Shanahan has to be my front-runner for Offensive Coordinator of the Year. Last week his game plan against Carolina featured 300 yards worth of Julio Jones play-making, and this week he changed it up and let Atlanta's under-appreciated running backs lead the way to an upset 23-16 victory in Denver.
The Falcons started last season 5-0 and faded badly to 8-8. But this feels different this year. Atlanta can beat you a lot of different ways, and even with Broncos rookie Paxton Lynch getting the start at quarterback for the injured Trevor Siemian, a road win at Denver is about as impressive as it gets these days in the NFL.
Dak creating a big decision in Big D
Jerry Jones can claim nothing has changed all he wants. But that's not the reality of the situation in Dallas. The Cowboys are rapidly becoming Dak Prescott's team, if they haven't already, and you don't have to be a savant to see where this is headed for oft-injured veteran Tony Romo. You can definitely lose your job to injury in the NFL -- it happens all the time. It's certainly defensible in this instance.
The Cowboys' karma is exquisite this season, and you can't mess with the kind of success Dallas is having with Prescott, their fourth-round pick. The energy the 4-1 Cowboys are playing with is infectious, and Prescott and rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott were again front and center in a 28-14 defeat of visiting Cincinnati.
You can't bench Prescott in Dallas this season, not the way he's currently playing. No way, no how.
Bills circle wagons, notch third-straight victory
All hail the Bills, who are on a three-game winning streak for the first time since 2011, after that 30-19 conquest of the Rams at the Los Angeles Coliseum. And don't look now, but with games against 1-4 stragglers San Francisco (home) and Miami (away) coming up, Buffalo (3-2) could be on the verge of even bigger and better things.
Fairly or not, it must be said that the Bills have started forming an offensive identity since coach Rex Ryan fired his offensive coordinator, Greg Roman, in the wake of the team's sluggish 0-2 start. Buffalo's Tyrod Taylor-led passing game is still sub-standard by NFL norms, but LeSean McCoy is back to being a true home run threat on the ground (150 yards on 18 carries against the Rams) and Taylor chipped in with two rushing touchdowns. That's pretty close to who these Bills wanted to be, especially after leading the league in rushing last season.
With that outlaw name of his, Steelers tight end Jesse James was born to play in those prison-stripe throwback togs Pittsburgh was wearing Sunday. The Steelers say they're retiring those hideous things after this season, but I'll kind of miss them, in a train wreck sort of way. ... Maybe some day Adam Vinatieri will miss another field goal. But we're all growing old waiting for it to happen. He's at 38 in a row made, the longest streak of his legendary career. He hit five more in the Colts' win over the Bears, and needs just four more in a row to match his age (42). Vinatieri hasn't missed a field goal in more than a year. ... Speaking of kickers, Connor Barth isn't really working out as the less expensive alternative to Robbie Gould in Chicago. Barth missed another field goal try on Sunday, and is now just 5 of 8 for the Bears. Get on the phone, Chicago, swallow your pride, and drop a dime on Gould. ... I guess Titans special teams coach Bobby April wasn't the whole problem in Tennessee. Titans head coach Mike Mularkey fired April early last week, and on Sunday his club gave up a 74-yard punt return touchdown to Miami's Jakeem Grant.
Hoyer gives Bears offense big boost in loss
Did the Colts and Bears really meet in a Super Bowl a little less than 10 years ago? Because that seemed like ancient history when the two regional rivals got together in the One Win Bowl on Sunday. The Colts scraped together a 29-23 victory to improve to 2-3, but they shouldn't start printing playoff tickets just yet in Circle City.
Indianapolis still can't protect quarterback Andrew Luck, who was sacked five more times to run his season total to 20. And the Colts still can't play much defense, with Brian Hoyer and the Bears rolling up a mind-boggling 522 yards against them. The Bears lost, but I can't imagine Hoyer is going anywhere, even if Jay Cutler is healthy again next week. Chicago at least has looked like an NFL offense with Hoyer under center.
Cards snap skid, Chip's struggles continue
Arizona might well have saved its season with that eye sore of a win Thursday night in Santa Clara, but the lifeless 49ers look to be in a death spiral, dropping their fourth in a row after that deceiving 28-0 domination of the Rams in Week 1. My how Chip Kelly's fortunes have changed dramatically in a relatively short span of time.
On the morning after Thanksgiving 2014, Kelly woke up as the coach of a 9-3 first-place Philadelphia Eagles team, fresh off a 33-10 pasting of the 8-4 Cowboys in Arlington. Kelly, whose regular-season NFL record stood at 19-9 (.679) that day, even had Mark Sanchez playing winning ball, and all looked primed for a second straight playoff trip in Philly.
But those Eagles slumped to a 1-3 finish and no playoff berth, then went 6-9 last year before Kelly was canned. Throw in this year's 1-4 record by the 49ers, and Kelly is 8-16 in his past 24 games, a dismal .333 winning percentage. That's a mind-boggling turn of events for the once celebrated former Oregon coach, and if the current trend continues, how long until he's back coaching in the college ranks?
Rodgers just so-so on Sunday night
It's probably better this way, Green Bay. The Packers have had seasons when they started the year with all systems go, and looked like a finely tuned machine in September and October. And where did it get them? Those fast starts didn't always end so well (see 15-1, 2011). So being a solid 3-1, without having exhibited any of that "wow" factor on offense, is perhaps the smarter approach. Lull people a bit, then surprise them by getting stronger as the season builds to a crescendo.
The Packers haven't really clicked yet, outside of that 31-point first half at home against Detroit, but there's still plenty of time to hone their craft and run down the undefeated Vikings in the NFC North, whom they trail by 1 1/2 games five weeks into the season. Green Bay's 23-16 win over the visiting Giants came on a night in which Aaron Rodgers was just so-so, completing 23 of 45 passes for 259 yards, with two touchdowns and two interceptions. But any game in which the Packers win despite two ARod picks is a success story, and Green Bay should focus on that positive in anticipation of its big showdown with the 4-1 Cowboys next Sunday.
Wow, that was a quick descent for the Giants. A minute ago they were 2-0 and atop the NFC East. Now they're in last place in the division at 2-3, working on a three-game losing streak. New York has to be happy to be done with its upper Midwest portion of its road schedule, having lost 24-10 at Minnesota on Monday night, and by seven points on Sunday night at Lambeau Field.
New York still isn't getting the pass rush it paid for this spring with its big defensive free-agency spending spree, but I always thought it was going to take time for the Giants to build some chemistry on that side of the ball this season, given how many changes were made. The next two weeks for New York could either get its season back on track, or bury Ben McAdoo's club. Next week the Ravens visit MetLife, and then New York crosses the pond to play the Rams in London.
If New York is to be taken seriously as a playoff contender this season, they need to win both of those games and enter their bye week at 4-3. At a combined 12 wins this season, the four NFC East teams lead the league in that department and don't look like the pushovers they have been in recent years. The season isn't lost in New York, but it's time to step it up, G-Men.
Monday night musings ...
Tampa Bay has to be thinking, "Oh, no. Anybody but Derek Anderson!" The Bucs and Panthers are both 1-3 and basically playing desperation football Monday night in Charlotte. But at least Carolina is going to use its secret weapon, with Anderson expected to start at quarterback in place of the concussed Cam Newton.
Anderson has Tampa Bay's number, having beaten them twice in starts with the Panthers, both coming in 2014, when Newton was battling injuries. Carolina came back to win the NFC South at an unsightly 7-8-1 that season, and couldn't have pulled that off without Anderson's stellar relief work.
Forgive the Bucs if they're rooting for Newton to recover and make the start. They've seen quite enough of Anderson's underrated game. Could the guy they call D.A. wind up coming to the rescue in Carolina once again?
My quirky premise of the week
The NFL the past eight seasons (2008-2015) has featured eight different Super Bowl champions, the longest such stretch by three years in terms of such Lombardi Trophy diversity in the Super Bowl era. If you can conceive that streak continuing to a ninth season, that takes the Steelers, Saints, Packers, Giants, Ravens, Seahawks, Patriots and Broncos out of Super Bowl-winning contention, since they all have earned rings from 2008 on.
Who's left as your probable champs for 2016? Well, all eight of those previous champs started their seasons with winning records through five weeks, at 3-2 or better, so let's focus only on clubs with at least three wins through Week 5. Fitting the premise: Oakland, Houston (not happening) and Buffalo (ditto) in the AFC; and Minnesota, Atlanta, Dallas, Philadelphia, Washington and the long-shot Rams in the NFC.
There you have it. The nine teams still alive in the quest to win this season's Super Bowl. You're welcome.
Ridiculously Cool Football Card of the Week
For reasons I'm still not completely sure of, the 1969 Los Angeles Rams were my first favorite NFL team, even though I grew up in St. Petersburg, Florida. By 1970 and the arrival of Don Shula in Miami, I morphed into a Dolphins fan and later pledged my allegiance to the expansion Bucs starting in 1976. But the first team I fell for was those Rams, and when my oldest brother, Doug, and I would throw the football around in the backyard, I was always Jack Snow and he was always Roman Gabriel. My brother even bought me a white football helmet and painted navy Rams horns on it, and I wore it almost everywhere but to bed.
Jack Snow is quite possibly the coolest football name ever, and his 1971 Topps is the card I always think of when I think of him. For years I've wondered how many tries it took him to strike that wonderfully retro receiver pose, in those classic blue and white Rams uniforms (love the white shoes!). In Week 5 of 1971, Los Angeles went on the road to defeat the Falcons 24-16, with Snow catching two passes from Gabriel for a team-high 74 yards. The Rams improved to 3-1-1 (close to the same record as this year's club) with the win, but wound up narrowly missing the playoffs that season at 8-5-1, just a half-game behind the first-place 49ers (9-5) in the NFC West, who they had swept.