*Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we officially straddle the midpoint of the 2016 regular season ... *
Pop quiz time as November football arrives and the season starts to get second-half serious:
Who's the most successful club in the NFL in the span of their past 20 games, strictly by wins and losses?
Give up? Make that give it up for the Kansas City Chiefs, who are 17-3 in their past 20 games, far and away the best record in the league in that stretch. Yep, the Chiefs. The most under-the-radar bunch out there these days. Kansas City won again on Sunday, squeaking past Jacksonville 19-14 at Arrowhead in a game that was no thing of beauty, except in the bottom-line sense.
"I knew it was us, and I was going to say that," said Kansas City outside linebacker Dee Ford on the phone, when I hit him with my 20-game trivia question. "But we just want to keep our heads down and keep going. At the end of the day, it's just a record, and it's still early enough in the season for teams with bad records to actually change their predicament. So we can't settle. I know it's a great accomplishment to win 17 out of 20, but at the end of the day it's just numbers."
Ford and his Chiefs know a little bit about changing their predicament, because their blistering 20-game stretch began after starting the 2015 campaign 1-5, winning 10 in a row to end the regular season and one more in the playoffs (the franchise's first postseason win since 1993). And they've kept the mojo going this season, improving to 6-2 with their win over the reeling Jaguars, despite needing backup quarterback Nick Foles to step in for missing starter Alex Smith, who went through the concussion protocol both during and after the Week 8 victory at Indianapolis.
Any time a team can get a win out of its No. 2 quarterback, it's like finding money. Foles did his job, throwing for 187 yards and one touchdown, while taking care of the ball well enough to set up four Cairo Santos field goals. Arrowhead Stadium is again a place no visitor wants to wander into, with the Chiefs earning a 10th consecutive home win, after overcoming a host of missing offensive starters (Jeremy Maclin left early after re-injuring a groin, and Travis Kelce was ejected late after throwing a towel at an official).
"Nick did a phenomenal job,' " said Ford, whose Chiefs had no turnovers for a fourth consecutive game. "He protected the ball, and we were able to make some plays on D. I'm very proud of him, man, to get a win like that. It's hard to win in this league even with your starting quarterback, because everybody's so good."
Kansas City's defense is the strength of this team, and Ford has been as good as anybody on that side of the ball of late when it comes to rushing the passer. He had two more sacks against Jacksonville, giving him three multiple-sack games in his past four, for a total of 7.5 in that span, and nine overall this season (tied for second in the NFL). The third-year outside linebacker from Auburn is starting to be a week in and week out disruptive force.
"That's what we're here to do as a defense," Ford said. "That's what we preach -- let's make those big stops. When the defense isn't on, the offense saves our butts. So we have to make sure we're the backbone of the team and really make big plays."
While everyone was focused on the first-place battle between Denver and Oakland (both of whom entered Sunday at 6-2) at the top of the AFC West, the Chiefs are sitting right there in second place, in great position to keep their long and impressive roll going. The schedule is about to get challenging, with three road games in the next four weeks (Carolina, Denver and Atlanta), plus a short-week Thursday night game against visiting Oakland after that.
But the Chiefs might be the most balanced and consistent team in the league at the moment, and they know who they are and how they have to win games.
"It's a tough schedule, but it's nothing we can't handle if we continue to play like we've been playing," Ford said. "I like our position. But we want to maintain it, because that way we don't need any help from any other team. We can clinch this division just by winning out."
Snickering at that thought? Don't. The Chiefs did it last year, winning 11 in a row when it mattered most. In an NFL devoid of greatness this season, this is a team that has its act together.
» Yes, the Jacksonville running game was finally a factor against K.C., but I didn't see any quick fixes by new Jaguars offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett. At least ones that will dramatically alter the arc of Jacksonville's season and perhaps save the jobs of head coach Gus Bradley and his staff. That appears to be a pipe dream at this point.
The Jaguars ran for a season-best 205 yards on 32 carries (6.4 yards per), with Chris Ivory posting 107 of those for his first triple-digit game in Jacksonville. But Ivory also fumbled once (although I think he might have already broken the plane of the goal line and scored on the play), and four Jaguars turnovers led to 13 Chiefs points and sealed Jacksonville's sixth defeat in eight games.
Quarterback Blake Bortles again struggled, throwing an interception, missing a couple very open receivers and having another two potential picks dropped. His third season continues to be an exercise in regression, and I'm wondering how much longer they'll run him out there if his play continues to eat into his confidence? For Bortles, it might be time to have a seat and work on those faltering mechanics without costing the Jaguars another win or two.
Steelers-Ravens: Lopsided rivalry?
The term "season-saving win" gets thrown around entirely too much by those of us who cover the league for a living, and I've been plenty guilty of it at times. But it was an undeniably apt way to describe Baltimore's bruising 21-14 conquest of the visiting Steelers on Sunday, a win that just left a much better aroma around the Ravens after the stench of their recent four-game losing streak.
With a loss, Baltimore would have been 3-5, trailing the Steelers by two full games and a head-to-head loss at home -- with a five-game losing streak, no less. Teams rarely survive five-game losing streaks and wind up in the playoffs. Instead, with a win, the Ravens are tied with the Steelers for first place in the AFC North at 4-4, but hold the tiebreaker.
Talk about a night-and-day difference, and new life for Baltimore's season.
"You're exactly right, because this was a must-win for us," Ravens safety Eric Weddle told me, moments after Baltimore secured its first win since September 25. "If we're two games behind the Steelers, it's going to be a tough road in the second half of the season. So we played with urgency, we played together and we finished. It was a huge team win that can hopefully spark us in the second half."
What an incredibly impressive showing of defensive might the Ravens exhibited against struggling Pittsburgh. The Steelers had nine three-and-outs, were just 4 for 16 on third downs, rushed for just 36 yards and punted 10 times (with one punt blocked for a touchdown return). Baltimore limited the Steelers to just 277 total yards, most of those in the fourth quarter when the game felt decided. The Ravens suddenly own their rivals, winning a fourth in a row in this blood feud of a series.
"Everything is still right there in our grasp, and our goals are still attainable," Weddle said. "We have to win the division first, and then we move our goals up from there. But right now we're first in our division and that's the only goal that matters. We just have to get these wins and start stacking them."
As lethargic as Baltimore's offense looked for most of the game on Sunday, look out for the Ravens' defense, which got healthy over the bye in Week 8. The Ravens can get to 3-0 in the division by beating the visiting Browns on Thursday night, and then come two more games at M&T Bank Stadium, against Cincinnati (Week 12) and Miami (Week 13). Sunday's win looks like the turning point Baltimore desperately needed.
» As for the Steelers (4-4), losers of three in a row and my AFC Super Bowl pick, they've now been embarrassed on the road this season in losses at Philadelphia, Miami and Baltimore. They were shut out through three quarters against Baltimore, the first time that has happened to Pittsburgh since Week 12 of 2007, facing the Dolphins.
This Steelers' roster is too talent-laden for this offensive slump to continue, but a home game next week against the red-hot Cowboys (7-1) isn't the most promising place for a winning streak to start. Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin needs to figure out how to stop the bleeding, and stop it now. Before the season completely unravels.
Shoot, the Steelers right now can't even execute an onside kick, with Chris Boswell going for the tricky "Rabona"-style kick, but instead topping the ball and sending it about 10 inches rather than the required 10 yards.
"He looked like a moron out there," Weddle said of Boswell's pathetic attempt. "When it didn't go anywhere, I just started laughing. I'm like, Why are they still running after the ball? It's a penalty, guys. The game's over. It was classic. And that kick's going to be infamous."
Lucky No. 7 for Dallas
Remember when there was widespread second-guessing and much gnashing of teeth when the Cowboys deemed to make Ezekiel Elliott the fourth overall pick in this year's draft? Because, well, conventional wisdom in the NFL circa 2016 says you don't take running backs remotely that high. Their careers are too short and the position has been too devalued in such a pass-happy league.
Yep, Elliott has made all that chatter look a little foolish through the first half of his rookie season. He's obviously one of the most explosive weapons in the game, whether he's a rusher or a pass catcher out of the backfield. Elliott gained 92 yards rushing and posted two more touchdowns on the ground in the Cowboys' 35-10 destruction of the Browns in Cleveland, giving him seven on the season. Dallas had just eight rushing touchdowns as a team in 2015.
Elliott, who is the clear-cut Offensive Rookie of the Year so far, is getting better and more comfortable every week in his role as the featured man in Dallas' offense. And the confidence level is sky-high for these Cowboys, who pushed their winning streak to seven games on Sunday, their longest since 2007 -- when Wade Phillips coached a 13-3 club that earned the NFC's top seed but lost in its playoff opener against the Super Bowl-bound Giants.
Time to start worrying about the Vikings?
I know Vikings snake-bit kicker Blair Walsh will take most of the blame, given that he missed an extra point and had a 46-yard field-goal attempt blocked early in the fourth quarter. But c'mon. Minnesota still owned a 16-13 lead with 23 seconds left in regulation and the Lions out of timeouts. How does a defense as good as the Vikings let Detroit drive 35 yards in two plays, setting up Matt Prater's game-tying 58-yard field goal at the gun? (And it would have been good from 65 yards, according to my eyeballs).
» I always feel like I enter the season with absolutely no feel for the Lions, and how good or bad they might be. They're just one of those teams that confounds me as much as they do their mostly long-suffering fans. But we have to start taking Detroit seriously in the NFC North race after their stunner at Minnesota, because at 5-4, with wins in four of their past five games, Jim Caldwell's resilient team deserves at least that much.
Hey, in this year's wide-open and mostly mediocre NFC, why not the Lions? They've beaten Minnesota, Washington and Philadelphia, and each of their five victories have been fourth-quarter or overtime comeback jobs. Matthew Stafford may not deserve to be in the MVP discussion at this point, but you don't want to see him with the ball in his hands and a one-score deficit if you're playing him.
Giants trending up, Eagles down
Don't look now, but the Giants (5-3) have won three in a row and actually beat the Eagles (4-4) at home, something they've struggled mightily to do of late. New York had a pretty big-league offense on display for most of Sunday in its 28-23 win over the visiting Birds, with Eli Manning picking apart Philly's secondary for four touchdown passes, two to the play-making machine, Odell Beckham Jr.
About Thursday night ...
I gave the nod for the NFL's midseason MVP to Oakland's Derek Carr last week, and there's no real remorse in that selection at the moment. But if I had it to do over, I'd be inclined to switch to Matt Ryan after watching the red-hot Atlanta quarterback carve up the Bucs (344 yards, four touchdowns) in the Falcons' 43-28 road win Thursday night. Ryan looks as comfortable in the pocket as I've ever seen him, and he's operating a finely tuned machine in that high-powered Atlanta offense. There are no weak spots in that attack.
The Falcons, 6-3, are in increasingly good shape in the NFC South and could be headed for a 12-win season, with only two or three tough games remaining: home against Kansas City in Week 13; at Carolina in Week 16; and home against New Orleans in Week 17. There's a lot of hay already in the barn for the Falcons, who haven't made the playoffs since 2012.
Fact: Tampa Bay started 3-5 last season, and then went 3-5 in the second half to close at 6-10, still their best record since 2012's 7-9 finish. And with the Bucs' blowout loss at home to Atlanta, they are once again 3-5, looking very much like a 6-10 team, which probably puts them in line for a sixth consecutive last-place showing in the NFC South.
Somewhere Lovie Smith has to be thinking, Remind me why I got fired again? New Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter hasn't made any discernible difference in Tampa Bay's disappointing play, and Jameis Winston's hoped-for big second-year step hasn't materialized in any significant way. Winston's stats largely mirror his rookie-season effort, with his nine picks in eight games this season (giving him 24 in 24 career starts).
The Bucs are on their fourth head coach in the past eight seasons, and so far in the Koetter era, it's same old, same old.
Dolphins prevail in sloppy game over Jets
At 4-4, the Dolphins should be thrilled to be in that morass in the middle of the league, given Miami started 1-4 and looked like it featured one of the worst offenses in the league in doing so. But then that Dolphins' offensive line came together, and came to the fore -- and for the first in I don't know how long, Miami is a pretty physical team that can run it on you even when you load up to stop it.
The Jets had the league's best run defense coming into Sunday, but the Dolphins still dictated the flow of the game thanks to their ground game, with Jay Ajayi (I just realized Jay jay is in both of his names) gaining 111 tough yards and a touchdown on 24 carries. The Dolphins won the possession battle again, put together long scoring drives, and kept their own defense off the field for long stretches. That Miami offensive line is starting to look a little like Dallas Southeast to me, and the Dolphins have themselves a winning formula for a change.
Miami just played four home games in a row and went 3-1, losing only to Tennessee in the first of those. Now comes the California portion of the Dolphins' schedule, with road trips to San Diego and Los Angeles the next two weeks, then a home date with San Francisco. Win all those and Miami will indeed be in a golden state.
Colts pull off shocker at Lambeau
Thank goodness for the diversion of that squirrel putting on a clinic of open-field running at Lambeau on Sunday, because the Packers didn't give their hometown fans much of a product to watch in a dispiriting 31-26 loss to the visiting Colts. First, the Packers' maintenance staff couldn't get the squirrel off the field, then the Packers' defense couldn't get the Colts off the field.
Green Bay's home-field advantage used to be the best in the NFL. But the team has dropped five of their past nine games at home, an almost unfathomable stretch for the Packers. As for the Colts, they're 4-5 as they enter their bye week, and this is a win that changes how we view the rest of their season. Indianapolis still has its three division home games remaining, meaning the Colts should have plenty to say about who goes to the playoffs from the perennially weak AFC South.
Panthers defeat Rams in defensive struggle
Carolina did just enough to eke out a 13-10 win at Los Angeles, but I like what I see building on defense for the Panthers, who kept the Rams scoreless until midway through the fourth quarter. I know, it was the Rams, but you still have to hit your free throws, and getting to 3-5 at least gives the defending NFC champs a modest two-game winning streak to take into its tough test: home against Kansas City.
The Rams (3-5) dropped their fourth in a row, and they pretty much know their way home from here. But how much longer can Jeff Fisher keep No. 1 pick Jared Goff off the field at this rate? This loss was certainly not all Case Keenum's fault, and his receivers offer him little to no help. But as their honeymoon season in L.A. slips away, it's almost as if the Rams are afraid to find out what they really have in the quarterback they gave up a bundle for.
Chargers continue to make a statement
If there was an award for the most improved second-year player in the league, I would give it to Chargers running back Melvin Gordon, who simply dominated the Titans' defense, running for a career-high 196 yards and a go-ahead touchdown on 32 carries (and gaining 65 more on four catches). Gordon is a beast these days, slashing through defenses like we all saw him do in record-setting fashion at the University of Wisconsin.
The Chargers have come back from the dead after starting 1-4, winning three of their past four to get to 4-5 and at least in position to make something of their final two months. San Diego quashed the Titans' dreams of climbing over .500 in November, and it represented a major step back for a Tennessee team that thought it was the one capable of dictating things with its ground game.
Saints pile on points against Niners
By my count, 14 NFL teams (or almost half the league) will exit Week 9 either at .500, or no more than one game over or under it. Of that group, I think I'm most surprised by the Saints, who are now 4-4 and have won four out of five games following an 0-3 start. New Orleans blasted woeful San Francisco 41-23 in Santa Clara, hanging up 31 points in the first half.
New Orleans actually had more runs than passes, and roasted the 49ers on the ground, gaining 248 yards on 42 attempts. Makes sense, since San Francisco has one of the worst run defenses in recent memory, and has given up at least 240 yards rushing for three games in a row, the first team to sink that low since the 1977 Chiefs.
Raiders take over first place in AFC West
This feels strange even as I type it, but perhaps the greatest opponent the Raiders face in the final seven games of the regular season is, gulp, overconfidence? At 7-2, fresh off a 30-20 statement win over the defending Super Bowl champion Broncos Sunday night, Oakland can't afford to get too high on itself. Not with 6-2 Kansas City just a half-game behind the Raiders, and Denver (6-3) now a full game back.
But this was an Oakland team ready for its big-stage close-up against the Broncos, and it has good reason to be feeling even bigger and better things are just ahead. Especially with its bye week now looming, and the schedule about to turn in its favor. Three more "home" games in a row await, albeit one of them in Mexico City against the Texans on the Monday night of Week 11. Then Carolina and Buffalo venture into the resurgent unfriendliness of the Oakland Coliseum, setting up Oakland's final four-week drive to the playoff berth that has eluded it from 2003 on.
This is no fluke. This Raiders team is young, good, and getting better. And it can beat you in several different ways. Against Denver, it was the running game that set the tone, with Oakland gouging a good Broncos defense for 218 yards on the ground, led by Latavius Murray's 114-yard, three-touchdown effort. Get used to it, America. The Raiders are relevant. The Raiders are back. And no matter where they call home, they're going to matter for a while.
» The Broncos have now lost three of their past five games after their 4-0 start, and they're not intimidating anyone at the moment with those gaudy Super Bowl rings and five consecutive AFC West titles. Denver rushed for a paltry 33 yards against the Oakland defense, and quarterback Trevor Siemian isn't good enough to carry this offense all by himself. If not C.J. Anderson, who's on IR with a knee injury, the Broncos need to find someone to share the load with their young passer.
Denver got fairly pushed around by the Raiders, but the Broncos could use a chance to regroup pretty soon. They have a tough trip to New Orleans, where the Saints are playing better, coming in Week 10, then their week off finally arrives. Perhaps with that will come a reset for the champs, and then a renewed focus for a challenging final six games that includes two against Kansas City, and home games against New England and Oakland. For now, Denver is in third place, looking up at both the Raiders and Chiefs.
* Ridiculously Cool Football Card of the Week
I know what you're thinking when you check out this week's card. How did Charlie Krueger ever manage to keep playing defensive tackle in the NFL until he was 63 years old, and how did I miss this mind-boggling story? I'm kidding, of course. Krueger just looked like a senior citizen, but he didn't play like one. In fact, at the time this 1971 Topps was printed, Krueger was a spry 34, still slugging it out in the trenches for the 49ers, the team he played his entire 16-year NFL career with (1958-1973). Before that, Krueger starred at Texas A&M, playing for the legendary Bear Bryant just after the epic "Junction Boys" era.
There were tough guys in the league, and then there was Krueger, who played on the defensive line wearing nothing but a two-bar facemask and a menacing scowl. He was so good over the course of his long career that he made All-Pro in 1960, 1965 and again in 1970, despite later learning he played without any ligaments in one of his knees from the early '60s on. In Week 9 of 1971, the 49ers lost 26-20 at home at Candlestick to the sad-sack Saints, falling to 6-3. (The same two teams met in the Bay Area this week, with the same result.) San Francisco still would go on to win the NFC West that season, the second of its three straight division titles from 1970 to '72. But all three years ended bitterly with a 49ers playoff loss to Dallas -- a score the San Francisco franchise would finally settle in the early '80s thanks to Joe Montana, Dwight Clark and a certain clutch catch.