Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we review a madcap, turnover-strewn Week 7 in the NFL ...
We're not even yet at the midway point of the proceedings, but as of Sunday, it's official: We don't know anything for certain in this 2016 NFL regular season. Just the way we like it.
We got to this point of unpredictability because the Eagles proved capable of counting on their resurgent defense against a Vikings team that hadn't shown so much as a wart all season. Philadelphia (4-2) got a bit embarrassed last week at Washington, giving up almost 500 yards of offense, including 230 on the ground. But against Minnesota (5-1) and their former teammate Sam Bradford, the Eagles were back with a vengeance on defense, forcing four Vikings turnovers and limiting them to 282 yards and one too-little-too-late touchdown to make the final score sound closer than it really was.
Forget about the Bradford versus Carson Wentz trade-inspired quarterback drama, because the Bradford Bowl really wasn't the headline story of the day, no matter the pregame billing. The Eagles defense was the real star of the show -- and what zany plot-twists this one gave us, with the teams combining for five turnovers and just two first downs in the first nine-plus minutes of the game. It was like a greased-pig contest for a while there at Lincoln Financial Field, and neither team looked prepared to execute offensively.
The Eagles persevered through the early sloppiness and wound up earning a win they absolutely had to have, ending a two-game losing streak in the process and improving to 4-2 in the tightly bunched NFC East, just a game behind first-place Dallas (5-1) -- the team they happen to play next week in Arlington.
"But our mindset was, 'Hey, man, we need this win. It's a great team coming in and what better stage to go out and get our respect back against a team that's undefeated and has been playing so well.' We wanted to get that taste out of [our] mouth and end that two-game losing streak."
Philadelphia has proven a tough read thus far. It opened the season with a pair of wins against NFL lightweights Cleveland and Chicago, but now also owns impressive home wins against Super Bowl contenders like Pittsburgh and Minnesota. In between those, however, were road losses to middle-of-the-road teams Detroit and Washington, with a late lead squandered against the Lions and that demoralizing 7-point defeat to their division rivals in D.C. last week.
All week, perpetually amped Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz stressed aggressiveness to his unit, making sure to preach fundamentals and wrap-up tackling. That kind of effort hadn't been there against Washington, and Schwartz wanted to get back to the basics that had helped his defense become one of the surprises of the young season in the opening three weeks. Another sack-less day like the Eagles had against Washington would not do against Bradford, who entered play without a turnover this season and the NFL's best completion percentage at 70.4.
The result? Philadelphia's defense turned blitz-happy, sacking Bradford six times, hitting him on 11 occasions, and generally making No. 8 look like the old Bradford rather than the version that had played almost flawlessly in going 4-0 for Minnesota. He was just 24 of 41 for 224 yards, but more importantly lost two fumbles and threw that red-zone interception. No statement sequence was bigger than the stand the Eagles defense made early in the fourth quarter, turning the Vikings away twice from the Philly 6 on third-and-1 and fourth-and-1, preserving an 18-3 lead.
"It was a huge point of emphasis this week, to stay aggressive," McLeod said. "Obviously last week was very uncharacteristic of us, with the lack of discipline and missing tackles. We didn't feel like it was them as much as it was us, and not doing what we've been coached to do. We wanted to get back to basics, and it showed today. The pass rush got after it and they were just relentless all day."
The Eagles stopped the bleeding, as you absolutely have to do in this league, and now their showdown with Dallas looms. Playing the best has seemed to bring the best out of them this season, and that's good news when you consider that at the start of Week 7, the remainder of their schedule had a higher winning percentage (41-22, .651) than that of any other team in the NFL. The difference between facing the rest of that stretch at 4-2 rather than 3-3 is huge.
"Any given Sunday, right?" McLeod said, with a laugh. "It feels great to get this one. With us, when you just think we're down, we come back and start fast and we fight. We get back up and start throwing punches. We got locked back in today."
» The Vikings assuredly didn't look crisp coming off their bye week, but most of the problems against the Eagles stemmed from their ongoing offensive-line issues, and any quarterback can look as shaky as Bradford did when he's getting constantly pummeled. Or, as Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer put it in his postgame media session with his usual blunt style: "It's tough to evaluate (Bradford's) performance when you look like a sieve. They didn't block anybody. We were soft, got overpowered. It was a little bit of man-on-man, and we got whipped."
The Vikings' loss means they're coming back to the Pack a bit in the NFC North -- Green Bay (4-2) now only trails first-place Minnesota by a game. But having the Bears (1-6) next up on the schedule is a relief for the Vikings, who travel to Chicago next Monday night. That should be a game that lets Zimmer's club rebuild some of the confidence it just lost.
Marcus Peters builds on DPOY candidacy in Chiefs win
Another week, another takeaway by Chiefs ballhawk Marcus Peters. This time it was a Mark Ingram fumble recovery when the visiting Saints were driving for a vital score that would have cut the Kansas City lead to one score with 8:26 left. Instead, the Chiefs turned New Orleans away inside their own 10 and went on to seal the game for a 27-21 win.
I know Green Bay's Charles Woodson (2009) is the only cornerback to have won the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year honor in the past 21 seasons, but Peters would get my vote this year so far, with his league-leading five interceptions and Sunday's big play. He's got that valuable knack for always being around the football, usually at the key moments of the game.
» The Saints had their two-game winning streak snapped by Kansas City, and the shame of it all was that New Orleans' sieve-like defense actually played well enough to win, limiting the Chiefs' offense to just 20 points and 326 yards. But at 2-4, New Orleans has now lost 23 of its past 40 games, dating to the start of the 2013 playoffs, when the Saints were last anything but 7-9 material. I know Sean Payton's job is safe, and he'll probably coach for as long as he wants to in New Orleans. But in a results-driven league like the NFL, should that really be the case anymore?
Ajayi's monster game propels Fins over Bills
I'll admit that I can't even say his last name quite yet, but I'm pretty sure I'll learn how pretty quickly if Miami running back Jay Ajayi keeps producing like this. The Dolphins' offense has found itself a horse to ride, with Ajayi ripping off runs for 418 yards on 54 carries the past two weeks, making him just the fourth Super Bowl-era back to hit the two-century club in consecutive weeks (joining Ricky Williams, Earl Campbell and O.J. Simpson, according to NFL Media research).
The heck with trying to build an offense around Ryan Tannehill's maddening game. Give it to J.A. is what I say. Miami has won two in a row with the ball in his belly, and now, after a bye this week, the Dolphins have a shot to scratch their way to 4-4 in Week 9 against the New York Jets, wrapping up a four-game homestand. Not too shabby, considering Miami started a sluggish 1-4. Ajayi had 214 yards on 28 rushes in the Dolphins' 28-25 upset of the visiting Bills after last week's out-of-nowhere 204-yard effort in a win over Pittsburgh. And a star has been born in South Florida.
» That loss was so Buffalo, wasn't it? Up 17-6 late in the third quarter and staring at the chance for real prosperity at 5-2, with a home game against New England awaiting next week, it all went south for a Bills team (4-3) that still hasn't learned how to handle success.
And worse, safety Aaron Williams was taken away in an ambulance with a head and neck injury that brings to mind his neck problem from last season; running back LeSean McCoy left the game in the third quarter after re-aggravating the hamstring issue he battled last week (why was he playing on Sunday?); and receiver Marquise Goodwin was, at one point, being evaluated for a concussion after his 67-yard scoring bomb gave Buffalo an 11-point lead in the third quarter.
If McCoy isn't healthy for the coming two games, showdowns against the Patriots and Seahawks (the latter coming in Seattle, on "Monday Night Football"), trying to get him on the field for this Dolphins game might loom large. This is not a Buffalo team that looks too comfortable playing from behind, with its run-first mentality. It needs a lead to protect, and that might be considerably tougher to build without the real (healthy) McCoy.
Jets' QB carousel keeps spinning
Well, of course Geno Smith got hurt and Ryan Fitzpatrick wound up back under center for New York on Sunday. This being the Jets' quarterback situation we're talking about, the twists and turns have to be almost comic in their arrival. Benched in favor of Smith early last week after tallying 11 interceptions in six games, there was Fitzpatrick, playing once again as the Jets rallied to beat visiting Baltimore 24-16, ending New York's four-game losing streak.
You really can't make this stuff up, and there's no need to even try.
Matt Forte (100 yards rushing, two total touchdowns) and a Jets defense that prompted three Ravens turnovers provided the backbone of the win, but what now for New York if Smith's second-quarter knee injury is a long-term issue? Back to Fitzy the Jets would go, we presume, especially given that a winnable game at Cleveland is on tap in Week 8. Maybe it was just never meant to be for Geno in green and white. (UPDATE: NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported Monday that the team believes Smith has a torn ACL.)
» Last season was misery in Baltimore at 5-11, but the Ravens at least never lost four in a row like they've just done in 2016. That's actually the low-water mark in the nine-season John Harbaugh era in terms of losing streaks, and it feels like every game ends the same way for Baltimore these days. The offense has the ball in the final minutes of the game with a chance to win or at least tie and force overtime, then fails to get it done. It happened again that way against the Jets, with the Ravens playing with an injury-depleted lineup and quarterback Joe Flacco nursing a sore throwing shoulder.
Baltimore (3-4) desperately needs this week's bye to figure some things out offensively. And the Ravens need to reverse their two-year streak of lousy health, and do it soon. At the moment, their three-game winning streak to start the season -- not their current four-game slide -- is looking like the aberration.
Lions win yet another nail-biter
Speaking of teams that can't break out of patterns ... Your 2016 Detroit Lions, ladies and gentlemen. Those comeback Lions did it again, rallying past visiting Washington 20-17 on the strength of Matthew Stafford's 18-yard touchdown pass to Anquan Boldin with just 16 seconds remaining. All four of Detroit's wins have been comebacks this season, and all seven of the Lions games have been decided by seven points or less. You never, ever turn the Lions game off early.
» Stafford has never played better than he is this season. He has 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions in Detroit's four wins, and he spread the ball around again against Washington, completing 18 of 29 passes to six different receivers for 266 yards and that game-winning touchdown. The Lions have won three in a row, and at 4-3, they are now very much in the NFC North race.
» For Washington, which saw its four-game winning streak snapped, it should have been a day to celebrate Kirk Cousins' play. His 19-yard go-ahead touchdown run with 1:05 left was an exquisite piece of deception, and he finished a gaudy 30 of 39 for 301 yards and one touchdown. But Washington's defense let him down on the Lions' final drive, and a sixth straight road win went by the boards for Jay Gruden's team.
Raiders' road-warrior ways continue
Now if the Raiders can just manage to win a few home games, my prediction of their return to the playoffs for the first time since 2002 will be all but in the bag. Oakland improved to 4-0 on the road with a 33-16 win at Jacksonville, and it only served to make the Raiders' 1-2 record at home all the more puzzling. Sure, Oakland has lost to good teams, in Atlanta and Kansas City, at home, but its 5-2 record is somewhat marred by the lack of success in its own backyard.
Praise be, the Raiders are finally good enough that they're capable of winning games in somewhat methodical, boring fashion. That's different. Oakland was in control of the Jaguars all day, and coach Jack Del Rio's return to his former stomping grounds of Jacksonville was a happy, comfortable visit. The Raiders get to stay in Florida all week (in Bradenton) in preparation for next week's game at Tampa Bay. Win that one to get to 6-2 at the season's midpoint, and it will be difficult for Oakland to miss the playoffs.
» It's time to be concerned, very concerned, about Blake Bortles in Jacksonville. The third-year Jaguars quarterback has regressed after his statistically impressive 2015 season, and everyone seems to be grasping for the reasons behind his struggles. He's simply not as accurate this season, and his 11 turnovers against nine touchdown passes in six games won't cut it, either.
Bortles wasn't facing the 1976 Steelers defense on Sunday in taking on Oakland. But his 23-of-43, 246-yard, one-touchdown, two-pick showing was pretty much his typical performance thus far this season. He's been bad in the red zone, his mechanics look in need of a tune-up and he has missed a bevy of open receivers. If he's still the future in Jacksonville, the present had best not be the new normal.
Giants go across the pond to steady their ship
The New York Giants probably love this whole let's-hop-over-to-London move by now, especially in light of last week's disturbing Josh Brown saga. Almost nine years to the day from when they beat Miami 13-10 in 2007 to start the league's annual London experiment, New York made it 2-0 on the old continent with that 17-10 putdown of the mistake-prone Rams. Those were four of the easiest interceptions the Giants will ever make -- two tip-drill catches by safety Landon Collins and two easy grabs in the end zone -- but New York more than doubled its season total of takeaways to seven with that pick-fest.
The Giants at 4-3 are in fairly decent shape, with only one division loss and now a bye heading into what could be a season-defining three-game homestand (Philadelphia, Cincinnati and Chicago) that will take them all the way past Thanksgiving before they hit the road again. They're still too streaky, having won two, lost three and now won two again, but at least they're back on the upswing. One caveat: New York was 4-3 through seven games last year, too, then dropped seven of its last nine to finish in third place in the NFC East at 6-10. So beware, lovers of Big Blue.
» Have to wonder if the long road the Rams have traveled this year is starting to wear down them down. Including the last half of the preseason, Jeff Fisher's club has played in Los Angeles exactly twice in the past nine weeks, beating Seattle in Week 2 and losing to Buffalo in Week 5.
But this could just be the case of a mediocre team playing mediocre ball after a surprising 3-1 start. The Rams have dropped three in a row to slide to 3-4, and their offense just doesn't scare anyone. Quarterback Case Keenum bears some responsibility for those four interceptions against the Giants, but not all of it, by any means. His receivers don't help him out in the least, and even when they've fed Tavon Austin the ball, as they did Sunday (11 touches), it produced a mere 67 total yards and L.A.'s only touchdown. That was not the Greatest Show on Natural Turf the British fans were treated to, but by now, they're used to pretty bad football being imported.
» There was one bit of history made in London: Fisher now has 160 career losses as a head coach, something only he, Tom Landry (162) and Dan Reeves (165) have "accomplished." For comparison's sake, Fisher (172-160-1) has lost more games in his 21 NFL seasons than Don Shula (328-156-6) did in his 33 years on the sideline.
Falcons blow big lead at home
Back to the drawing board for Atlanta's work-in-progress defense. Up 27-10 at home in the second quarter, the Falconsfound a way to lose to a suddenly dangerous Chargers team that never stops playing hard. The Falcons let San Diego roll up 426 yards of offense, and they've now given up at least 26 points in all but one of their seven games this season.
Atlanta (4-3) is now a measly 1-2 at home in their dome, and San Diego's 33-30 overtime win marked the fourth time the Falcons have surrendered at least 30 points this season. As far as that fourth-and-1 call in overtime, Atlanta coach Dan Quinn is going to get crucified for going for it, and rightly so. You play a field-position game in that situation and punt the ball. It says something about Quinn's potential lack of faith in his porous defense that he chose to go for it, and got burned.
» The Chargers are certainly getting their money's worth from 2015 first-round running back Melvin Gordon this season. Gordon embarrassingly didn't reach the end zone even once last season, but in 2016, he already has a league-high 10 touchdowns, with three more on Sunday against the Falcons, to go with his 121 yards from scrimmage.
San Diego got another boost from this year's first-round pick, Joey Bosa. The rookie defensive end took a while to find his way onto the field due to his contract and hamstring issues, but he's showing up now. With two sacks against the Falcons, he tied Melvin Ingram for the team lead with four. Bosa is becoming a player opposing offenses have to account for.
Patriots pound the Steelers
I'm trying to think of anything that surprised me about New England's workmanlike 27-16 conquest of the Ben Roethlisberger-less Steelers in Heinz Field, but it all went pretty much as expected. LeGarrette Blount ran roughshod over his former team to the tune of 127 yards and two touchdowns, Rob Gronkowski (four catches for 93 yards and a touchdown) and Tom Brady did their usual thing, and the Patriots' defense never really looked to be in jeopardy with Landry Jones at quarterback for the Steelers. Pittsburgh had to settle for field goals against the Patriots, and that won't cut it.
I had New England losing at Pittsburgh this season in the AFC Championship Game, but I can't really see that outcome unfolding quite so clearly as of late October. It's still the Patriots' world, and the rest of the AFC just lives in it. As Pittsburgh goes on its much-needed bye week, it's time to get Big Ben healthy, and to get that run defense shored up considerably.
Bucs embarrass the 49ers
There's bad run defense, then there's whatever it is San Francisco is playing these days. The 49ers have been gouged for 562 yards rushing in the past two weeks, in losses at Buffalo and home against Tampa Bay. The Bucs hung up 249 rushing yards despite falling behind by two touchdowns early. San Francisco is on pace to give up more yards than any team since the 1981 Patriots, and there are no answers on the horizon for a 49ers team that has dropped six in a row after somehow beating the Rams 28-0 in the opener. To steal from Michael Ray Richardson, the ship be sinking in San Francisco.
Tampa Bay got 154 of its rushing yards from Jacquizz Rodgers, who has been a godsend for the Bucs' offense in place of the injured Doug Martin. Rodgers ripped off his second straight 100-yard game against the Swiss cheese 49ers defense, and he helped Tampa Bay score 27 unanswered points in its 34-17 win.
I still don't know if the Bucs are truly better this season than last year's 6-10 club, but at 3-3, with two wins in a row, they are suddenly on Atlanta's heels in the NFC South.
Seahawks "win" in tie game against Cardinals
Sunday night's 6-6 Seattle-Arizona tie was epic, in a mesmerizing train wreck sort of way. But make no mistake, the Seahawks "won" this sister-kissing. For starters, being 4-1-1 and in first place in the NFC West is better than being 3-3-1 and in second place, and that's one obvious edge for Seattle. Secondly, this was the Cardinals' home game against their division rival, with the rematch coming at CenturyLink Field on Christmas Eve. Advantage Seattle, if it can hold serve.
Sorry, but this game wasn't a display of great defense, like some may assume. This was a dose of some truly bad offensive football, especially with regard to the Seahawks' pass protection. But the reaction shots from both the Arizona and Seattle sidelines when their kickers missed those chip-shot field goals in overtime were utterly priceless, and almost made it worth watching the whole debacle. Almost.
Nice 34-26 road rally by Indianapolis, but I'm going to find it hard to really take the Titans seriously as a turnaround team until they're good enough to handle a reeling two-win Colts team at home. Tennessee ended up giving up two touchdowns in an eight-second span after the two-minute warning, dropping a game that could have pushed it to 4-3, with 2-4 Jacksonville headed to town for a Thursday night visit. The Colts positively own the Titans, having beaten them 10 times in a row, and 15 out of 16 ... A touchdown pass to Tennessee offensive tackle Taylor Lewan? So that's what Mike Mularkey meant by "exotic smashmouth" offense ... A.J. Green executed one of the most ridiculous Hail Mary catches ever, the catch of the year so far in the NFL this season. (Wait a minute. Was it even Green's best catch of the day?) He tipped it to himself as he was falling backwards, while the Browns swarmed him. Degree of difficulty was infinity ... Can the Browns make it through a single game without losing their starting quarterback? Seriously, this has become epic. Cody Kessler was playing well, too, but then he was forced out with a concussion, giving rookie Kevin Hogan his ride on the Cleveland QB carousel. Hogan's 28-yard touchdown run was pretty sick, and he finished as the Browns' rushing leader with 104 yards on seven attempts in Cincinnati's 31-17 win. At least Cleveland has some impressive multi-purpose athletes in Terrelle Pryor and Hogan.
Broncos prepare to run into their ex, repeatedly
My call for Monday night's big Brock is Back Bowl in Denver: The Broncos' defense will shake off two so-so performances and get back to storming a path to the passer, with a rush that will drop Brock Osweiler at least four or five times. As for the former Denver quarterback who makes his celebrated return to the Mile High City, I think he'll look much more like the guy who struggled for three-plus quarters at home against the Colts last week than the hero who got it done late in regulation and overtime.
And don't forget, Gary Kubiak is back, as well. That should help Denver. The ex-Texans head coach turned Broncos boss missed his team's Week 6 Thursday night loss at San Diego with migraine issues. Of all the ties that connect the Texans and Broncos, his return might wind up being one of the key factors in this revenge-tinged showdown.
About Thursday night ...
Remember when Matt Barkley was talked about as the potential first overall pick in the draft, a certain first-rounder, throughout his junior season of 2011 at USC? That must seem like a lifetime ago for Barkley, who suffered a throwing-shoulder injury late in his senior season and then wound up lasting until the first pick of the fourth round in 2012, when Philadelphia took him 98th overall.
Barkley, now with the Bears, was forced into the lineup Thursday night in Green Bay when Brian Hoyer broke his left arm in Chicago's 26-10 loss. And it wasn't pretty. Barkley was 6 of 15 passing for 81 yards, with two interceptions and a paltry 18.3 passer rating. In his four-year, three-team NFL career, Barkley has six interceptions, no touchdowns and just 381 yards in five games. If he has to lead Chicago's offense for any length of time while Hoyer is out and Jay Cutler's thumb issue lingers, the Bears have absolutely no shot to win.
And just a reminder of how much guesswork is the NFL draft, especially at quarterback: Cowboys rookie sensation Dak Prescott lasted until the 135th overall pick before Dallas spent a fourth-round selection on him. Nobody knows anything for certain in the draft, and Barkley and Prescott prove that point once again.
» The Packers just completed their four-game, five-week homestand going 3-1 in that span, but I have a hunch it didn't feel that successful for anyone in Green Bay. The offensive issues have been well-chronicled, if not well-understood, and now the hope is the mini-bye week can return some semblance of health to the running back depth chart. Otherwise, the Packers might have to keep chucking it 56 times a game, like Aaron Rodgers did in the 16-point win over the Bears.
I loved how creatively the Packers used Ty Montgomery as a receiver-running back (19 touches, 126 yards), but such trickeration cannot pass for a long-term game plan. Next week at Atlanta should tell us where the Packers stack up in the NFC contenders class, and Green Bay is going to have to get this thing figured out on the road, with four of its next five away from Lambeau. Bury the sputtering Pack at your own risk.
Ridiculously Cool Football Card of the Week
Hard to believe, but it's been 45 years next month since the movie "Brian's Song" first aired on ABC television, reducing most of us to a small puddle of tears in front of the set. For guys of my generation, that scene in which a halting Billy Dee Williams (as Gale Sayers) struggles to get through his "I love Brian Piccolo" soliloquy at the awards banquet is darn near iconic. Piccolo, of course, was the Chicago Bears running back and cancer victim who died young, at age 26, in June 1970, and his tragic tale was told in the movie through the friendship he formed with Sayers, the future Hall of Fame rusher. James Caan was corny but memorable as the wise-cracking Piccolo, and I still can't see him in any movie without thinking of him as No. 41 for the Bears.
This is Piccolo's 1969 Topps, which doubles as both his rookie card and his only card. (And yes, they bizarrely misspelled his first name as "Bryon".) In Week 7 of that dreadful season in Chicago -- the Bears went 1-13 under head coach Jim Dooley--- Piccolo and his teammates lost 31-14 to the Vikings at old Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, falling to 0-7. Piccolo scored Chicago's first touchdown on a 7-yard run in the second quarter, and Sayers scored its second, on a 24-yard jaunt in the fourth quarter. It was one of only two rushing touchdowns Piccolo scored that season, and one of just five scores he totaled in his four-season, 51-game NFL career. Forty-five years later, and Piccolo's story is still a touchstone of sorts.