Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we recap an entertaining Week 6 in the NFL ...
It has always felt like Week 6 in the NFL is about the time things get real. It's that mid-October checkpoint when teams begin to define themselves one way or another and set themselves on a course for either success or failure.
Sunday had that feel in Washington. And guess what? The team that was the most unlikely division winner from a year ago is at it again. Winners of four in a row after an 0-2 start that featured a pair of home losses, Jay Gruden's resilient club is suddenly back in position to make another run at the NFC East, and it didn't even need a "You like that?" moment of epiphany this time around.
Four in a row tells me this Washington team is mentally tough and going to be around all year in the NFC playoff hunt. Dallas (5-1) won on the road in Green Bay and didn't cooperate with second-place Washington, but at 4-2, D.C.-area fans have every reason to believe in their surging team. Just as they did late last year, when a four-game winning streak to end the regular season clinched that surprising division crown for Washington at 9-7.
"We just never lost sight of things, because we know we're a great team," Washington running back Matt Jones said via the phone, about 30 minutes after he ran for a career-best 135 yards on 16 carries and scored the go-ahead touchdown in his team's 27-20 conquest of the visiting Eagles (3-2) at a frenzied FedEx Field. "We went 0-2, but we just knew we were losing because we were beating ourselves. We knew once we put it all together as a whole, we're going to be a team people are looking at and don't want to play. When we were 0-2, we just started playing together and a lot of chemistry started building."
Here's what else is building: The realization that Washington has a lot of different ways to beat you on offense, with a lot of artillery at its disposal. The Eagles must have thought they caught a break with Washington's leading pass-catcher, tight end Jordan Reed (33 receptions, 316 yards, two touchdowns) missing the game with a concussion. And don't forget the team's first-round pick, receiver Josh Doctson, sat out his fourth straight game with an Achilles issue.
But no matter. Led by Jones, Washington gouged the Eagles for 230 yards on the ground, and four different receivers had multiple catches for at least 50 yards (Pierre Garcon, DeSean Jackson, Jamison Crowder and Vernon Davis), with Crowder and Davis joining Jones in the touchdown-scoring club. Quarterback Kirk Cousins' 18-of-34, 263-yard passing day was far from perfect, but it contributed to a 493-yard, 26-first down offensive showing for Washington, which also didn't surrender a sack.
"We were just motivated and determined," said Jones, who broke a game-icing and career-long 57-yard run on third-and-7 in the final 90 seconds, with Philadelphia out of timeouts. "We knew were going up against one of the top-ranked defenses in the league right now, and we just stepped up to the challenge. We did what we had to do. We finished. It felt good having a big run at the end of the game, because that doesn't always happen like that. All I was thinking was, stay in-bounds and hold on to the ball, and we're going to be sitting great after this play."
Washington -- a winner of eight of its past 10 regular-season games -- is sitting great in part because when the game was on the line against the Eagles, the team didn't flinch. Up 14-0 in the second quarter, Philly stormed back on an 86-yard kickoff return touchdown by Wendell Smallwood -- the first score on a kickoff in the league this season -- and a 64-yard interception return for a touchdown by Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins. Without taking an offensive snap, Philadelphia had tied the game, threatening to waste all of Washington's early work and momentum.
But the response was crucial, as Washington drove 75 yards in 13 plays, eating up all but the final six seconds of the first half, as Jones drove in from the 1 to give his team a 21-14 lead it would never relinquish. In the second half, it was Washington's defense that stole the headlines, limiting the Eagles to their only six offensive points of the day on a pair of Caleb Sturgis fourth-quarter field goals.
"The whole team was saying, 'Just don't blink, we're right in it and doing everything we want to do,' " said Jones, the second-year running back who posted his second 100-yard rushing game in the past three weeks. "And that's what we did; we didn't blink and just put that stretch behind us. We're not worrying about anybody else right now. If we're that team that everybody looks past, that's just what it is. We know what we're going to do as a team, and we're going to keep just minding our business."
Who said nothing works in Washington anymore?
» I'm starting to think the Eagles should have never taken that Week 4 bye (yep, I saw the picture of a deer-hunting Carson Wentz), because over the past two weeks, they haven't really been the same team we saw start the season 3-0 and take the NFL by storm.
Wentz finally looked like a rookie on Sunday, absorbing five sacks and completing just 11 of 22 passes for 179 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions. He was under siege a good bit, with Washington recording 11 quarterback hits and outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan having a field day (two sacks, four hits and two tackles for loss). The absence of suspended right tackle Lane Johnson was glaring at times, with Eagles rookie Halapoulivaati Vaitai getting exposed at right tackle.
The Eagles started sluggishly for the second week in a row, just as they did in a narrow loss at Detroit last week, and Washington rolled up a 285-42 first-half yardage advantage, with Wentz finishing the first half 3 of 8 for 28 yards passing. Of course, those games will happen for every rookie quarterback at some point. The no-show by the Eagles' previously stout defense was the bigger concern. Giving up almost 500 yards of offense is never a winning formula.
And don't look now, but the 3-2 Eagles head home next week to take on the rested Vikings (5-0), the league's last undefeated team, and the club they shipped quarterback Sam Bradford to in that preseason blockbuster trade. After that, a trip to Dallas looms in Week 8. No doubt the euphoria of September has pretty much dissipated in Philly.
Panthers lose after falling in heartbreaker
Defending division winners like Cincinnati (2-4) and Arizona (2-3) have struggled mightily, and so have the 1-4 Jets, who won 10 games last season. But nobody has raced to rock bottom like the reigning NFC champion Panthers, who look lost at 1-5. Carolina dropped a 41-38 thriller to the Saints in the Superdome, despite rallying from a 21-0 second-quarter hole to tie it at 38-38 inside the final three minutes.
The Panthers are 0-3 in the NFC South after losing four in a row, and their Josh Norman-less secondary looks to be in shambles (how's that one working out, Dave Gettleman?). According to ESPN, no team that has started a season at 1-5 or worse after reaching the Super Bowl the year before has even made the playoffs.
» So the Panthers are done, right? Not so fast, as Lee Corso likes to say. The Panthers head into their bye week in Week 7, and maybe that will provide time to regroup. And remember, this is a Panthers team that was 3-8-1 in December 2014 and still won the NFC South that wacky season, so they know how to rally. It's not likely first-place Atlanta will swoon to that degree, but you never know.
Roller coaster never stops in New Orleans
I really don't know how Saints fans endure it every week. Their games are all exhausting and take forever. And even when they win, the roller-coaster ride of emotions they put everyone through is almost numbing. After going up 21-0 at home, of course New Orleans saw Carolina battle all the way back to a 38-38 tie inside of three minutes. The Saints (2-3) lost their first two games this season inside the final minute (Oakland and the Giants) and have now won two in a row that went down to the wire (San Diego and Carolina).
» Rookie kicker Wil Lutz was the final hero, booting a game-winning 52-yard field with with 11 ticks left. But that Drew Brees-Brandin Cooks connection is becoming positively special. Cooks grabbed seven balls for a career-best 173 yards, including that 87-yard sprint in the first quarter. That'll make a nice highlight reel bookend for his 98-yard touchdown catch and run against Oakland in Week 1, the two longest scoring receptions in the NFL so far this season.
Giants end skid, Ravens keep sliding
It wasn't exactly payback for the epic 1958 NFL Championship Game, but the Giants beat visiting Baltimore this time in another close one, and it was a victory that kept the bottom from falling out for New York. If the Giants are to have legitimate playoff hopes this season, this was the kind of game they had to win at home, getting to 3-3 and stopping a three-game slide.
» As for the Ravens, they've now erased the momentum of their 3-0 start with a three-game losing streak. So inserting Marty Mornhinweg at offensive coordinator as a replacement for the fired Marc Trestman didn't work like a magic potion. Still, Baltimore's offense did roll up 391 yards and 22 first downs, so progress was made. Now, about the Ravens' defense holding up its end of the bargain ...
Bills run rampant over Niners
A whopping 45 points for the Bills on Sunday -- I can't remember the last time I typed those words. Buffalo, a winner of four in a row for the first time since 2008, may some day look back on Rex Ryan's Week 3 boast about his team needing to play elite teams in order to rebound from its 0-2 start as if it was Joe Namath's Super Bowl III guarantee.
This is the Bills team Ryan envisioned when he spoke of building a bully shortly after being hired in January 2015. With LeSean McCoy avoiding a serious knee injury and going wild like the Shady of old in Philadelphia, Buffalo ran roughshod over the 49ers' defense to the tune of 312 rushing yards, the franchise's most since 1992. McCoy contributed 140 of those yards, scoring three touchdowns for the first time since a December 2011 game.
» That 49ers' defense is truly abysmal. No quarterback can overcome its deficiencies, although I thought Colin Kaepernick did decently enough in his first action in almost a year: 13 of 29 for 187 yards, with a 53-yard touchdown pass to Torrey Smith that briefly gave San Francisco a second-quarter lead, believe it or not. Kaepernick also was his team's top rusher with 66 yards on 8 carries, shaking off a pretty resounding pre-game booing by the Bills partisans.
Lions not missing Calvin Johnson
Sorry, Calvin Johnson, but the Lions' passing game is clearly better off without you. Offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter was right. Without Megatron, Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford is really spreading the ball around well, like he did superbly in the Lions' 31-28 nail-biter over the visiting Rams. Stafford tossed a season-high four touchdown passes to four different Lions receivers: Marvin Jones, Andre Roberts, Anquan Boldin and Golden Tate. Don't anyone dare let Johnson re-consider his retirement and make a return to Detroit.
» The Rams, meanwhile, have returned to Earth at 3-3, with two consecutive losses. But it's way past time to throw some credit Case Keenum's way, because he's doing his part and more to keep first overall pick Jared Goff nailed to the L.A. bench. The Rams quarterback completed a franchise-record 20 consecutive passes against the Lions -- and the Rams have been around a while -- finishing 27 of 32 for a gaudy 321 yards, with three touchdowns via the air and another on a 1-yard run.
Battle of the unpredictables
Great win by the Dolphins at home, beating the favored Steelers30-15. But where was that execution last week in a 13-point loss to the visiting Titans? It's why you still don't know what you're ever going to get from Miami (2-4). But maybe rookie head coach Adam Gase will be able to fix that maddening inconsistency in time. The Dolphins' running game was certainly in tremendous form, tearing through a Steelers defense that looked to be affected by the heat for 222 yards on the ground, 204 of them in Jay Ajayi's career breakout day.
The Steelers (4-2), my pick to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl, are a little bit streaky themselves these days, having lost their previous road game in a blowout at Philadelphia. Maybe next week's highly anticipated showdown at Heinz Field against New England will tell us once and for all who the Steelers really are.
Dak solidifies place as the man in Big D
No more calls -- we have a winner. I don't care what they say, there's no way the Cowboys are taking rookie quarterback Dak Prescott out of this lineup anytime soon. They'll tell Tony Romo whatever they have to tell him, but eventually, they'll break the news that Romo by now must know is coming. You don't mess with winning in the NFL, and the Cowboys have won five straight after stunning the Packers 30-16 in Lambeau Field.
Prescott had a couple turnovers against the Packers, but big deal. He also threw for three touchdowns and 247 yards and again had an answer for almost everything an opposing defense threw at him. This was supposed to be the big next test for the rookie, and he aced it like he knew the answers beforehand.
On the other sideline, Aaron Rodgers had another off day, and now Packers Nation will be in full-on nuclear meltdown over their team's continued offensive malaise. That Rodgers interception to Cowboys safety Barry Church was about as bad a pick as you'll ever see him throw, but the reality is, I think I've said that more than once in the past calendar year.
Back-and-forth thriller ends on egregious non-call in Seattle
» I thought Dan Quinn's bald head was going to explode, and you can't blame him one bit. That was an egregious, game-deciding non-call in the final minutes of Seattle's back-and-forth 26-24 win over the resurgent Falcons. If that wasn't pass interference by Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman against Julio Jones, there's never been pass interference in the 97-season history of the NFL.
Get ready for a week-long firestorm on the aftermath of that call, which just might help decide things like NFC playoff seeding and home-field advantage, since both Atlanta and Seattle look postseason-worthy.
The loss has to sting, but the Falcons at 4-2 are still in control of the NFC South, 1.5 games better than the Bucs and Saints (both 2-3) and three full games ahead of the reeling Panthers. Atlanta really showed mettle in climbing out of a 17-3 halftime deficit on the road in Seattle, and now the Falcons have already played half of their away schedule, with four of their next six games in the Georgia Dome.
Chiefs notch emphatic AFC West win
The sloppy, wet conditions in Oakland made Sunday's clash between the Raiders and Chiefs feel like an old-school AFC West game. But in the end, Kansas City's thorough 26-10 domination of Oakland served to remind the rest of the league not to sleep on these Chiefs, whose offense finally came alive with 406 total yards.
Kansas City found it had so many weapons against the Raiders' porous defense that even 345-pound nose tackle Dontari Poe got in on the act, scoring on a 1-yard touchdown run on a lateral. (Good hands for a big man, Poe). The Raiders should have seen this coming, because the Chiefs' Andy Reid is now 16-2 after a bye in his NFL coaching career, and you knew that 29-point blowout loss at Pittsburgh two Sunday nights would be a thing of the past come Sunday.
» What a missed opportunity for the Raiders, who need to do some work on reacquiring their home-field edge. Oakland is 1-2 at home and 3-0 on the road, and with a win, the Raiders could have claimed sole possession of first place in the division. Now they're tied with the Broncos, with Kansas City just a half-game behind. Even the 2-4 last-place Chargers are still alive.
Titans' confidence building with recent wins
The Titans just scratched their way to .500 at 3-3, and won back-to-back games for the first time since Weeks 16-17 of 2013. And if that's not enough to impress you, things could get considerably better for Tennessee, which has home games against the Colts and Jaguars on tap in Weeks 7-8. The Titans at 5-3 at midseason? It's not a reach whatsoever.
Tennessee nipped visiting Cleveland 28-26 in a game that didn't feel that close, and means the Titans have already equaled their 2015 win total of three. It's all gravy from here on out in Nashville, and that's a pretty good spot to be in with 10 games remaining on your schedule.
» Marcus Mariota had another nice game.As the second-year Titans quarterback goes, so goes his team. He threw for 284 yards and three touchdowns with one interception, and ran for 64 more, winding up with a 132.6 passer rating. You can see Mariota's confidence building by the week, and this is a Tennessee club that's starting to expect a decent level of success.
Unlike the Browns, of course, who remain the league's lone winless team at 0-6 after yet another close-but-no-cigar defeat. But there have been a few silver linings for Cleveland this season, and one of them is the play of rookie quarterback Cody Kessler. The USC product returned from a chest/rib injury last week against New England to give the Browns a chance against the Titans, throwing for 336 yards with two touchdowns.
Raise your hand if you thought Kessler -- and not Jared Goff -- was going to be the Pac-12 quarterback and draft pick who would have success this season.
Bengals hang with Pats, then get run off the field
Cincinnati started last season 10-2, then went 2-3 the rest of the way, including the playoffs. Throw in this year's 2-4 getaway, and the Bengals have lost seven of the past 11 games they've played, already matching their 2015 regular-season loss total in 2016.
» Maybe this is the beginning of the end of the Bengals' long run of playoff seasons, and, by extension, perhaps the even longer Marvin Lewis coaching era. The Bengals hung with the Patriots for the first half and then some, leading 14-10 well into the third quarter. But then Cincinnati just kind of turned back into the sloppy and self-defeating club it can be at times, losing 35-17. And this season it may not have enough of a margin to overcome that kind of play.
The Bengals get a visit from the Browns next week, then travel to London to take on Washington in Week 8. If they can get to their bye at 4-4, there will still be hope for another playoff appearance. But the Bengals have dropped four out of five since beating the Jets in the opener, and they're not inspiring confidence.
Jaguars get win to remain alive, somewhat relevant
For most of the day, there was no bigger yawner in the NFL than Jacksonville at Chicago, which the hometown Bears led 13-0 into the fourth quarter. But in a win that could really resonate for the Jaguars, they rallied, earning a precious road victory and improving to 2-3. Baby steps are what Jacksonville is taking, but with the win in London over the Colts before the bye, and now this comeback in Chicago, the Jaguars can at least say they're in the thick of the so-so AFC South conversation.
As for the Bears, it seems like ages since anybody was ever intimidated by the thought of playing at Soldier Field. Chicago went 1-7 at home last season and is 1-2 in front of its frustrated fans in 2016. What in the name of Abe Gibron is going on here? Go Cubs.
Osweiler turns it around to beat Colts
If Brock Osweiler becomes anything close to the quarterback the Texans thought they were buying with that ultra-risky, four-year, $72 million contract in free agency this year -- and that's still a very big if -- he might look back on Houston's improbable 26-23 comeback win in overtime at home against the Colts on Sunday night as his personal turning point. The Texans were dreadful on offense for most of the game and trailed 23-9 with about three minutes remaining. It was over -- so much so that Dandy Don would have started singing in another era.
And then, Osweiler, with a difference-making assist from running back Lamar Miller, saved the night, rallying Houston to score the game's final 17 points and secure a hugely important division win. In the tightly packed AFC South, where the division champ has been determined by no more than a two-game margin in five of the past six seasons, a win like Houston's can go a very long way indeed. Instead of seeing a muddled three-way first-place tie between Houston, Indianapolis and Tennessee at 3-3, the Texans are 4-2 and the Colts sink to 2-4. That two-game gap could well be pivotal, at least for an Indy team to which nothing comes easily these days.
And now, Houston heads for Denver and a Monday night matchup against Osweiler's former team in Week 7. At least the Texans' big-money quarterback will enter that big-stage game with the wind at his back and a sense of renewed confidence in his ability to persevere through adversity. Sunday night proved that point.
About Thursday night ...
The sky most assuredly isn't falling in Denver after consecutive losses, and back-to-back home games coming up against Houston (oh, boy -- the Osweiler Bowl) and San Diego could well translate into a nothing-to-worry-about 6-2 record at the midpoint of the season. Still, the blueprint to beat the Broncos has been on display the past two weeks, with the Falcons and Chargers both featuring a balanced offense that doesn't over-emphasize the passing game, thus helping neutralize the Denver pass rush to some degree. Atlanta and San Diego were also creative in how they got their running backs involved on the ground and through the air, often winning the matchup with the Broncos linebackers.
And while we're at it, the Denver running game hasn't been front and center enough of late, totaling less than 100 yards for a fourth consecutive outing (84 yards on 16 rushes against San Diego). The Broncos can't get away with that all season, because it's going to wind up forcing too much of the offensive load on the shoulders of second-year quarterback Trevor Siemian. Denver doesn't want or need Siemian to throw 50 times a game, like he did against the Chargers in the 21-13 Thursday night loss.
» Those cardiac-case Chargers, with a fourth-quarter lead, are absolutely must-see TV. Calamity seems to lurk around every turn whenever San Diego is ahead, but the Bolts did manage to hold on Thursday against the Broncos, finally winning a division game and perhaps saving coach Mike McCoy's job (for now).
Monday night musings ...
» You can flog Ryan Fitzpatrick for all the interceptions, but where has the Jets' vaunted defense been when needed this season? New York features one of the most talented defensive lines in the league, but the only guy playing up to his potential up front so far has been 2015 first-round pick Leonard Williams, who has five sacks in the Jets' five games. Williams looked like a beast in the making in training camp this summer, and he has shown up, big time. The rest of the group? Not so much. The Jets' secondary is going to continue to get torched without more pass rush being generated, and Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer could be in for a big night at home.
» The Cardinals can't mess around and get sloppy against the 1-4 Jets. Arizona has to have this game and get to .500 at 3-3 with the next two weeks looming. Bruce Arians' club is home against Seattle next week, then goes cross-country to Charlotte for a rematch of last season's NFC title game versus Carolina.
» I never got the chance to talk to Dennis Byrd during his relatively brief Jets career, but he was always easy to root for. Byrd, who was killed in a two-car crash in Oklahoma on Saturday, lived a life that inspired so many from the moment he suffered paralysis during a November 1992 Jets game against Kansas City. His death at 50, in such a random fashion, was the saddest development of this football weekend.
Ridiculously Cool Football Card of the Week
Amid all the well-deserved and bountiful acclaim for beloved Dodgers play-by-play man Vin Scully upon his retirement from a remarkable career, my thoughts turned to Pat Summerall, who was probably as close to the NFL's version of Scully as anyone who ever called a football game -- at least in terms of being universally respected and appreciated over his four-decade-plus career in broadcasting, with a style all his own. When you heard Summerall's smooth, cool delivery, you knew it was a big game, and that he'd deliver the call in that minimalist way that always seemed to amplify the drama of the action. Here's Summerall's rookie card, a 1955 Bowman with the long-gone Chicago Cardinals, even though that season was actually his fourth year in the NFL, after being drafted in the fourth round by Detroit in 1952. Summerall was mostly a kicker in his 10-year pro career, but he also played a little defensive end for Chicago in the mid-'50s and even logged three receptions for the Giants late in his career.
In Week 6 of 1955, Summerall and the Cardinals lost 26-20 at home in Comiskey Park to first-place Cleveland, but he managed to kick two field goals (of 20 and 14 yards -- remember that the goal posts were on the goal line back in the day) and two extra points, accounting for eight of Chicago's 20 points. The Cardinals went on to finish a dreary 4-7-1 that season, tied for fourth in the Eastern Conference. The Browns finished an NFL-best 9-2-1 and won the league title that season, drubbing the Los Angeles Rams 38-14 in the NFL championship game.