Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we review what unfolded in the NFL's Week 8 ...
It was just a first step. But when your season is on the precipice, a step in the right direction can make all the difference. The Carolina Panthers proved that on Sunday, pulling themselves back from the brink with a steadying 30-20 conquest of the visiting Cardinals, snapping a four-game losing streak in the process.
A record of 2-5 might not sound like much for the defending NFC champions. But it's a world better than being 1-6 and seeing a season virtually come to an end even before Halloween arrives. That's what was at stake on Sunday in Bank of America Stadium.
"Absolutely, today was a big first step," said Panthers All-Pro outside linebacker Thomas Davis by phone, moments after the bleeding finally stopped in Charlotte. "We hadn't won a game since we played San Fran in Week 2, so we understood how important this one was, to get a win. Today was definitely a step in the right direction for us as a football team. For us, it's just about trying to get back, first to .500, and then continuing to grow from there. We feel like we have everything we need in our locker room, but it's important for us to show that every Sunday, or it doesn't even matter."
In racing to a 24-0 lead over the team they pummeled 49-15 in last year's NFC title game on this same field, the Panthers finally looked like their 2015 selves for the first time this season. Last season, the superb Carolina defense set the tone during the Panthers' magical 15-1 run, and that dominance finally resurfaced against Arizona, with a season-best eight sacks and an early, difference-making 46-yard fumble returned for a touchdown by Davis after a Star Lotulelei strip-sack.
The Panthers had posted just 12 sacks in the season's first six games, and they'd been repeatedly burned by breakdowns in the secondary. Not this week. This time, they blitzed Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer early and often, giving the Panthers the hungry and aggressive mentality that they exhibited so frequently a year ago. Coming off a bye week in which Carolina head coach Ron Rivera instructed his players to get away from football, the Panthers looked refreshed, renewed and ready to see if they can still make something of 2016.
"It was very important for us to come out and start fast, and just try to get back to what we do as a football team," Davis said. "It felt like the [break from football] absolutely worked. It was good for us to get away, and for us to get something healthy bodies back (injured cornerbacks Robert McClain and Leonard Johnson returned). Both were important, and it really showed today."
If the Panthers' once-dominant defensive line can return to 2015 form, Carolina's route to a season turnaround isn't impossible. The Panthers should be favored in their next three games -- at Los Angeles, Kansas City and New Orleans -- and at 5-5, in the weak NFC South, a fourth straight division title is not out of the question. The Panthers' model should be last year's Chiefs, who started 1-5 and then won 10 in a row, plus a playoff game at Houston.
"I can't speak enough about how good our defensive line was all game," Davis said. "That touchdown I scored was only made possible because of the pressure they got on Carson. I was just Johnny on the Spot. The ball bounced right up in my hands and I took it to the end zone."
It's midseason, but still early enough that if things keep bouncing Carolina's way, it would be foolhardy to count the NFC champs out. That first step the Panthers just took toward a return to relevancy was potentially a big one.
» With problems in almost every direction, the 3-4-1 Cardinals look lost right now, and as they enter their bye week, let's see if they can execute something of the reset that Carolina just managed. Arizona's health is starting to break down. Sunday saw valuable defensive back Tyrann Mathieu sidelined with a shoulder injury, left tackle Jared Veldheer suffer an arm injury that took him out of the game and receiver Larry Fitzgerald leave and then re-enter with some undisclosed injury.
The Cardinals are beat-up and beaten down, having gone 2-3-1 in the past six weeks, and Bruce Arians hasn't had the answers this season that he always seemed to find in his first three years on the job in the desert. Arizona couldn't protect Palmer against Carolina, the Cardinals couldn't run the ball, and that's a combination that will make any team look bad. Between last January's NFC title game and Sunday, Arizona has taken a combined 79-35 pounding in Charlotte, meaning it's time to get home and regroup.
» Cam Newton's fiery postgame complaints about not feeling "safe" on the football field are sure to prompt plenty of discussion this week. I think his comments have some validity in terms of the non-calls or illegal hits he has absorbed this year, but it's not as if this is going to be an easily fixable problem.
Making game officials more aware of where he thinks the lines are being crossed is certainly his right, but it's not as if NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell can just decree that the refs need to take better care of the league's reigning MVP, or call everything tighter when it comes to hits on one of the players who is undeniably a marquee attraction in the NFL. It can't just be issued like a point of emphasis from the Competition Committee.
Newton is frustrated, but that frustration might not have been best expressed by him if he's hopeful of seeing real change to how the referees officiate plays involving him. Better to have seen Panthers head coach Ron Rivera launch into the case that his quarterback, while sizable and a frequent runner, is getting the short end of the stick in terms of player safety protections.
Prescott makes case to end Romo debate
Lucky for us, that won't be the last thriller we see Dak Prescott and Carson Wentz wage in the NFC East wars. But give it up for the Dallas rookie, who fought through his shakiest performance since Week 1 and still found a way to lead the game-winning touchdown drive in overtime. No more Tony Romo debate, OK? This is Dak's team going forward, and Sunday's clutch late-game showing only made the inevitable decision in Dallas all the more obvious.
When the Cowboys needed him in crunch time, Prescott answered the bell, shaking off his early game struggles. And smart of him to find (a wide-open) Jason Witten in the end zone on the game's final play, because as Romo himself will tell you, the veteran tight end will make any quarterback look good. Dallas (6-1) knows six-game winning streaks don't grow on trees in this league, and the Cowboys would be the No. 1 seed in the NFC if the playoffs opened today. You ride that Prescott train as far as it will take you, Jerry Jones. You've always been smart enough to see around the corner and into the future, so don't go wobbly on us now.
As for the Eagles (4-3), this was one they let get away, and they might end up ruing their lack of killer instinct. Three straight road losses have tempered the enthusiasm that Philly generated with its 3-0 start, and next week's trip to the Giants is suddenly a big game for the Eagles if they want to stay in the thick of the NFC playoff chase. Philadelphia's rookie head coach, Doug Pederson, has reached the first pressure point of his debut season.
Raiders keep winning in any and all ways possible
That "Just win, baby" mantra that Al Davis long favored has never fit a Raiders team better than it does this year's club. Oakland is winning, but sometimes you don't know how it's happening. Like on the road against Tampa Bay in Week 8, when the Raiders committed a mind-blowing 23 penalties for 200 yards -- the first an NFL record, and the second a franchise high -- but still managed to win 30-24 in overtime.
Despite all those flags, some big drops and a bevy of missed opportunities, Oakland got the job done from a bottom-line standpoint and is sitting a pretty 6-2 at midseason. The Raiders won both ends of their Florida doubleheader, staying in the state after beating the host Jaguars last week, and they're now 5-0 on the road for the first time since 1977, the year after the franchise's first Super Bowl championship.
"Twenty-three flags and we win? Stuff like that doesn't happen, man," said Raiders left tackle Donald Penn, the former longtime Buc who scored Oakland's first touchdown on a 1-yard reception in the third quarter, on a tackle-eligible play. "We've got a little luck on our side this year, I guess. But we've got to find a way to play better and not make things so close. We made that game harder than it was.
"The great thing is, on the sideline, nobody got worried at all. We were like, 'Hey, let's keep going, let's keep playing.' We knew if we kept fighting, we would find a way to win. It shows our maturity, and that we're getting better and learning how to finish things out. We don't let stuff get to us anymore."
» Penn said a week on the road together in Florida helped the Raiders bond as a young, ascendant team, but now they return home next week, where they are just 1-2 this season, for a huge first-place showdown next Sunday night against Denver.
"Being in Florida, it was kind of like a vacation," Penn said. "We were by the water and we had a good time. But we knew what our goal was, to come out of here with two road wins, and that's what we did. Now it's a very big game for us against Denver. It's big for us to establish ourselves in the AFC West and it's even bigger for us to establish ourselves as a real powerhouse team in the NFL."
As for Penn's touchdown grab, on which he lingered in the end zone to drive home the point to his former fans in Tampa Bay, it only underlines how much these Raiders are starting to enjoy the last laugh after being the butt of jokes for so long.
"I'm not going to lie, I really enjoyed it," Penn said on the phone. "I was glad I was able to get it done back here where it all started. I had to let them know I was back and I should have never left."
Same old Bills in loss to dominant Patriots
They now call the Bills' stadium New Era Field, but if we're being honest, this doesn't look like a new era in Buffalo. It looks like the same old Bills, a team that couldn't beat the Tom Brady-led Patriots if you spotted them a double-digit lead. The trend of Buffalo coming up small in its biggest AFC East games continued again Sunday, with Brady and the Pats routing the banged-up hometown team 41-25 in a game that never really felt that close.
The Bills are now 4-4 overall, but just 1-3 in the division, with back-to-back losses at Miami and home to New England in the past two weeks. The hope of that 4-2 start and four-game winning streak in Buffalo is a fading memory. Instead, the Bills trail the Patriots by three full games in the division, and it'll take perhaps a 6-2 second half to end that agonizing 16-year steak of playoff-less seasons.
For Brady, who owns an NFL record-tying 26 career wins against Buffalo, it always looks almost too easy against the Bills. No. 12 threw touchdown passes to four different Patriots and helped navigate New England to a 31-10 lead early in the third quarter. While New England was its usual efficient self, the Bills self-destructed with sloppy tackling and a pair of 12-men-on-the-field penalties; they finished with 12 flags for 84 yards. Of course, a lack of discipline is by now a staple of a Rex Ryan-coached team.
"We made too many mistakes, mistakes we made all season," Ryan said in his postgame media session. "The better team won today. The Patriots deserved it."
A familiar refrain. So much so that it makes one wonder if the story will ever change in Buffalo.
» The Patriots never truly get the credit they deserve because they win with such mind-numbing consistency. But it's almost unfathomable to think they have not been swept by a division foe since 2000, when both the Jets and Dolphins turned that trick. At 7-1, New England is well on its way to its eighth straight AFC East title, and Brady has thrown 12 touchdowns and no interceptions in his first four starts of the season, tying for the fastest such start by a quarterback in league history, according to ESPN.
The Patriots now have their bye in Week 9, and then face just two more games against teams that currently have a winning record, those coming in Week 10 at home against Seattle and at Denver in Week 15. So far in 2016, it's as if there's New England, and then the rest of the league resides at some lower stratosphere.
Browns struggle to get it right on field, in stands
For a while there, it looked like the Browns got caught up in the championship fever that's gripping the city of Cleveland, with Hue Jackson's team building a 20-7 halftime lead against the visiting Jets. But then the Browns remembered they're the winless Browns, and not the Indians or Cavaliers, and quickly returned to Earth, blowing that 13-point lead and losing to New York 31-28.
Cleveland gave up 24 unanswered points before scoring a meaningless late touchdown to make it look more respectable. The Jets were reportedly 0-69 in franchise history when trailing by at least 13 points on the road at halftime, but you can make that 1-69 now.
The Browns clearly need to petition the NFL to shorten their games, because they never last with the lead, no matter how well they start. Cleveland even made Ryan Fitzpatrick look excellent in the second half, after he started the game 3 of 14 for 30 yards, and one concussion protocol test that he passed. The Jets had three touchdown marches of at least 78 yards on their opening three possessions of the third quarter, seizing control of a game New York (3-5) couldn't afford to lose.
Saints showing fight in physical win over Seahawks
That makes its two weeks in a row that I've liked what I saw out of the beleaguered Saints defense, which gave up only 13 points to visiting Seattle in New Orleans' gritty 25-20 win over the Seahawks. Sure, they got some help from Russell Wilson on his fourth-down potential game-winning touchdown pass attempt to Jermaine Kearse, when Wilson inexplicably threw the ball beyond the back end-zone boundary. (What was that, No. 3?)
But New Orleans played some nice complementary football on Sunday, with the offense winning the time of possession battle with 36-plus minutes, and the defense rising up to limit the damage at key moments of the game. That will work. And don't look now, but at 3-4, with a date at struggling San Francisco next week, the Saints' shot of getting back to .500 after a dismal 0-3 start is entirely realistic.
Seattle in the Superdome looked like a slightly road-weary team that played five long quarters last Sunday night at Arizona, but at 4-2-1, the Seahawks didn't suffer a truly damaging loss. Seattle needs some rest and a chance to get Wilson's legs healthier, because when he can't run, their offense looks limited and opposing defenses don't respect the Seahawks' deep passing threat. Seattle doesn't play again until next Monday night at home against Buffalo, and maybe the extra bit of time will help toward that goal.
Texans remain afloat in win over Lions
The Texans (5-3) are still a team that looks ready to make the playoffs but not make much noise once they get there, but hey, they're 5-0 at home in the Brock Osweiler era. Houston's 20-13 win over the visiting Lions was solid, but the Texans continue to settle for too many field goals rather than flashing some killer instinct and putting teams away.
Osweiler threw for 186 yards with a touchdown, one interception and three sacks on 20 of 29 passing, so that, for the time being, should tamp down concerns that he has lost his confidence and tends to climb into his own head when trouble surfaces. The Texans are on their bye week in Week 9, and then four of their next five games are on the road. If Houston is ever going to break out of its road miseries (0-3), Week 10 at Jacksonville might provide the perfect opportunity.
Detroit's three-game winning streak ended, and Matthew Stafford's MVP candidacy took something of a hit as well. Stafford couldn't pull off another late comeback this time, and he led just one touchdown drive against the Texans in the seven-point loss. At 4-4, the Lions are as middle-of-the-road as the NFL gets these days, with 183 points scored and 190 allowed.
Chiefs keep rolling, even without their starting QB
The Chiefs keep building some positive buzz for themselves, winning their third straight since enduring that Sunday Night Football beatdown at Pittsburgh in Week 4. Kansas City lost starting quarterback Alex Smith to a pair of concussion scares on Sunday in a 30-14 win at Indianapolis, but the Chiefs never missed a beat, with backup Nick Foles -- welcome back to NFL relevancy, you former Ram -- throwing for 223 yards with a pair of touchdowns and no interceptions.
Smith was knocked from the game the second time with a diagnosed concussion, so Foles might be the guy in K.C. for the foreseeable future. He looks like he still has a comfort zone in the Andy Reid offense he learned in Philadelphia as a 2012 rookie, and the Chiefs have enough defense and a running game around Foles to keep him from having to do too much.
Mastermind gone, but Broncos' defense still masterful
Credit the Broncos' resourceful and resilient defense for Denver's 27-19 win over San Diego, which avenged a loss to the Chargers in San Diego just two-plus weeks ago. The Broncos even lost their defensive coordinator, Wade Phillips, who was the victim of a hard sideline collision with San Diego running back Melvin Gordon on Sunday. No matter. Denver kept the pressure on Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers and came away with four sacks and three interceptions, including cornerback Bradley Roby's 51-yard return of a pick for a touchdown.
And now we get to see who really rules the AFC West when Denver travels to Oakland next Sunday night for a first-place battle of 6-2 teams. That Denver defense pitted against a Raiders passing game that saw Derek Carr throw for a franchise-record 513 yards against Tampa Bay should make for the season's preeminent must-see TV this year.
Birds backing it up in Atlanta
Dan Quinn promised us this was a different Falcons team than the one that swooned after starting 5-0 last season, and his guys backed up his bravado on Sunday with an impressive 33-32 comeback win over a Green Bay team that looked like the offensive-led Packers of old. The Falcons showed me something in snapping their two-game losing streak and hanging blow-for-blow with Green Bay in a game that featured four Aaron Rodgers touchdown passes.
The Falcons (5-3) opened up a little breathing room for themselves in the NFC South, just four days before they take to the road to face Tampa Bay (3-4) on Thursday night. Matt Ryan's 11-yard touchdown pass to Mohamed Sanu with 11 seconds remaining helped wipe out the sense of panic that was starting to set in for Falcons fans after Atlanta was upset at home last week by San Diego.
Kicking woes in London lead to another tie
The good news for the Cincinnati Bengals in that 27-27 tie against Washington in London? They avoided picking up their fifth loss of the season, which would have represented more defeats than they had all of last year (12-4), and tied their loss total in both 2014 (10-5-1) and 2013 (11-5). So there's that. And with Pittsburgh sitting atop the AFC North at just 4-3, the Bengals (3-4-1) stay very much alive in the division race at midseason.
Remember, that tie Cincinnati had against Carolina in 2014 wound up providing the margin of their cushion over third-place Baltimore in the division, 10-5-1 to 10-6 for the Ravens, although both teams made the playoffs. Then again, the Bengals finished one-half game behind first-place Pittsburgh (11-5) that season, so the tie cut both ways. This time, at least at the moment, the tie feels more like a win in Cincinnati.
» My theory is the Washington-Cincinnati game went so long in London that it was technically a "Sunday Night Football" game over there, thus Washington kicker Dustin Hopkins felt compelled to badly shank that 34-yard field-goal attempt late in overtime. (Echoes of last Sunday night's Seattle-Arizona overtime kicking meltdowns.)
Washington elected to kick on third down, believing it was already close enough, but I didn't like that decision even before Hopkins missed. Bengals kicker Mike Nugent had already missed an extra point and a field-goal try, and Hopkins himself was short on a 55-yard try earlier in the game, so nothing felt like a gimme in Wembley Stadium on Sunday. I would have run one more play and tried to get the kick into true chip-shot range.
» As ties go, give me a 27-27 back-and-forth contest like Sunday's over the 6-6 mess the Seahawks and Cardinals played last week. But what a long wasted trip for Washington, which rolled up 546 yards of offense on Cincinnati and got a career-high 458 yards from quarterback Kirk Cousins. Washington was undone by a whopping 15 penalties for 106 yards, the last of which was a very dubious offensive pass interference call against receiver Pierre Garcon with less than one minute remaining in overtime, moving Jay Gruden's team back out of field-goal range.
It was an entertaining game at least for the London fans, who know a little bit about ties, given the British obsession with soccer. Better than a nil-nil draw, right, folks?
» Given all the tie talk in the NFL these past two weeks, I still think the most astounding statistic in league history is the 1971-73 St. Louis Cardinals going 4-9-1 three years in a row! What are the odds of that quirky record turning up three consecutive times for the same team? Remarkable. Imagine the week-to-week pressure they felt when they knew they had to go out and get their one tie accomplished to keep the streak alive.
But those pre-overtime Cardinals were kind of the kings of the tie. St. Louis had one tie a year for eight consecutive seasons, from 1966 to 1973, a feat matched only by the 1923-30 Chicago Bears. The Bears and Cardinals franchises, who used to share the Chicago market, lead everyone in all-time ties, with 42 and 38, respectively. That's a ton of non-resolution.
About Thursday night ...
Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be offensive coordinators in the AFC. Jacksonville fired Greg Olson on Saturday after that ugly road loss at Tennessee on Thursday night, making it three AFC OCs to get the boot in the season's first half, with Olson joining Buffalo's Greg Roman and Baltimore's Marc Trestman. But I'm not optimistic that the move will pay dividends for a 2-5 Jaguars team that looks to be going through the motions already and whose next eight opponents all currently are .500 or better.
Olson is a good coach, and it's hard to see him as anything but the scapegoat for a team that has underachieved roster-wide. The new offensive coordinator is former quarterbacks coach Nathaniel Hackett, and given that quarterback Blake Bortles' regression has been a big part of the problem in Jacksonville, a promotion hardly seemed to be in order. It was a change for the sake of change, most likely. And it'll take a miracle of sorts to avoid another change at the end of the season, when head coach Gus Bradley's disappointing four-year run probably comes to a close.
» As for the Titans, at 4-4 they have as much right as anyone to dream of the playoffs in the weak AFC South. Tennessee has already topped last season's win total (three) in just eight games and has started to create an identity for itself with that two-headed running game that features DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry.
Matchups at San Diego and home against Green Bay in the coming two weeks will provide stiff tests for Tennessee, which has just three home games remaining in the second half. But with the Texans still looking shaky in the hands of Brock Osweiler at quarterback, and the Colts and Jaguars inspiring little or no confidence, the Titans don't sound silly when they ask "Why not us?"
Ridiculously Cool Football Card of the Week
For a guy nicknamed "Bambi," Lance Alworth was plenty tough enough to survive and prosper while rocking an old-school, single-bar facemask. And that was in the era when a defender could still put his hands -- and whatever else -- on a receiver without drawing a bevy of flags. Long before Odell Beckham Jr. wowed us with his one-of-a-kind speed, grace, athleticism and leaping ability, Alworth was showing off that same blend of gifts and skills on behalf of both the Chargers (1962-1970) and Cowboys (1971-72). In the six-season span of 1963-68, all in the 14-game-schedule era, Alworth scored 72 touchdowns in the 79 games he played, for an impressive average of 12 per year.
Here is Alworth's 1968 Topps card, in which he is wearing simply the best uniform in football history, those powder-blue home jerseys that the Chargers rocked back in the day. (Think those numbers are big enough?) Those have to make a full-time return some day in San Diego, and while we're at it, let's bring back the practice of calling wide receivers "flankers," another sweet retro touch. In Week 8 of 1968, the Chargers lost 27-20 at Kansas City to fall to 5-2. But Alworth, the future Hall of Famer, wasn't to blame for the defeat. He caught a game-best six passes for 169 yards, which represented well more than half of quarterback John Hadl's 297 passing yards.