Tag Archives: Arizona Cardinals

Packers Host Vikings For NFC North Title

Well that was less than enjoyable. The Green Bay Packers went in to a road game with the Arizona Cardinals last week with many questions as far as some fans were concerned. Unfortunately for those fans, their questions were resoundingly answered. Having emerged from their desert voyage thoroughly embarrassed in week 16, a home game with the Minnesota Vikings now looms with the NFC North Division on the line.

What’s that? You slept through last week’s Packer game against the Cardinals and have been so busy that you’re just now getting a chance to tune in and see what’s on tap this week for the Pack? In that case, let’s get you up to date:

  • The Packers are 10-5
  • They play the Vikings this week at Lambeau Field in the regular season finale
  • On the line in this game is the NFC North Division title and a first round playoff game at home
  • The loser is in the playoffs still, and heading to Washington to face the Redskins for the first round game

I know, not so bad right?

The Arizona game can be looked at in no other way than a “burn the tape” type of game for any Packers fans that wish to maintain their fleeting grip on sanity. The Packers have many flaws for a team in the position they now find themselves in. On offense, from top to bottom, nothing has gone smoothly all year for a unit that was expected to carry the team as they have in the past. There has been no consistency in the run game. The wide receivers have struggled to get open all season, lacking the ability to gain separation downfield, and dropping far too many balls when Rodgers finds ways to get it to them.

Injuries among the offensive line have caused communication breakdowns in the run game as well as in pass protection. Rumblings of Aaron Rodgers and Mike McCarthy not seeing eye to eye have not yet been silenced. Opposing defenses have figured out the formula to slowing the Packer offense down and Mike McCarthy and his offensive staff and personnel have not yet been able to come up with the answers to solve the complicated riddle that is this season.

I’m done asking questions. I’ve gotten my answers. The fate of this season is not yet sealed, however, expectations can now be properly set. This is a Packer team that should contend for the division, go to the playoffs, and lose in one of the first 2 playoff rounds.

Essentially, they’re right where they should be from their performance this season. No more thoughts of a first round bye. Arizona proved they’d earned that. No more expecting to compete against the Broncos, Panthers and Cardinals. This year’s Green Bay Packers aren’t on that level. They are not a team that should be talked about in the top echelon of the National Football League. So, is it over?

No! Of course not!

The Packers have the players to get it done. They have the coaches to get it done. Their defense can continue keeping them in games. The offense could figure it out at any point now. I’m no longer hoping for it or expecting it. A guy can only take so much pain. I’m just saying it could happen. This week 17 matchup with Minnesota is the last chance to put some great momentum and confidence together heading into the playoffs. It’s a great chance to turn the page. Minnesota has played well this season and serves as a nice challenge for the Packers. It’s apropos that this game is for the division.

I won’t breakdown the game and look at any matchups. Adrian Peterson is pretty good. The Packers will have to contain him. Blah, blah, blah. I can’t “burn the tape” on this season and throw out everything before this and now pretend to look at this game and prognosticate about what can/will/should/could/might happen…maybe. Throw the records out. Flip the page. Burn the tape. This is the type of game where none of that matters. The Packers earlier win against the Vikings this season doesn’t matter. How the Vikings and Packers have played this year up to this point doesn’t matter. Any players that are out or injuries, excuses, etc. don’t matter. The opinions of fans and media don’t matter. The flaws and questions and answers and unanswered questions don’t matter. The Packers and Vikings play today in a one game season for the division.

Find a way to win. It doesn’t have to be pretty. The 2010-11 Green Bay Packers are not walking through that door. But the final chapters of the 2015-16 Green Bay Packers season have not yet been written. Green Bay still has a chance to make a run in the playoffs and write their own story. The chance to come back after an embarrassing loss and play for the division title in front of their home fans is now the challenge that sits before them. I’m excited to see how they respond. I won’t be hoping for anything. I’ll just be watching, without expectations. Let’s see what they’ve got

Bar is Raised for Packers This Week in Arizona

Having beaten the Detroit Lions, Dallas Cowboys and Oakland Raiders in the last 3 weeks, the Green Bay Packers will have their hands full this week in the desert against the 12-2 Arizona Cardinals.

Detroit was a game they should have won, and needed the Rodgers to Rodgers hail mary to get it done. Dallas was a must win game without Romo, and Green Bay exploded in the run game to put them away in the 2nd half. Last week they went on the road and held a feisty Raiders team to 20 points, and though the offense only produced 2 touchdowns, it was enough to get the win and go to 10-4 with 2 games remaining. They’ve done what they were supposed to do, and for that Packer fans are grateful. Now the bar gets raised.

Heading into what could be the toughest game of the year so far on the road against a very well balanced Arizona Cardinals team in the 2nd of back to back west coast road trips, just enough may not be enough to get the job done. This pivotal week 16 test somewhat conveniently serves as a way to settle the debate within Packer Nation as to what this team is capable of this year. Listening to sports radio the last month or so you’d think the Packers were the most flawed 10-4 team in the history of the NFL.

I understand most of it. Expectations are high for this season, and deservedly so. Aaron Rodgers will only be in the prime of his career for so long. Mike McCarthy and this organization have said they want to be judged on championships. When fans assess this Packer team against that expectation, they don’t see a team that has displayed the ability to make a run through the playoffs and into the Super Bowl. They see a team that is finding ways to win games against teams they should beat, but who has struggled on offense against good defenses, and has not played their best football this year. Inexplicable losses to the Lions and Bears have the Packers 2 games behind Arizona for the 2nd seed and first round bye. Winning those games would have the Pack tied up with Arizona at 12-2, with this week’s game determining the 2nd seed in the NFC. Instead Green Bay will have to win this game, and next week vs. Minnesota 1If Minnesota wins this week that game will also be for the division, as well as having Arizona lose next week against Seattle. Possible sure, but this sure could be easier if Green Bay wouldn’t have made it so much harder on themselves.

We are good at the quarterbacking.
We are good at the quarterbacking.

The Oakland game last week serves as a microcosm of the Packer season thus far. The defense played great, keeping them in the game against a good offense, even scoring on a pick 6 by Damarious Randall. The offense didn’t do anything spectacular and sputtered out at points, but was able to maintain some drives and put up 2 touchdowns and 3 field goals. Just enough. With only a 4 point lead in the 3rd quarter, the pack went on a 19 play, 92 yard, 8 minute drive that only ended in a field goal. They moved the ball well, converted 3 third downs, maintaining possession and momentum in a drive that effectively helped to seal the game away. But once again they weren’t putting this game away earlier, and they weren’t getting in the end zone. They were doing just enough.

 

Unfortunately just doing enough does not win championships. It can beat Detroit, Dallas and Oakland. It can’t beat Denver or Carolina. Sometimes doing just enough, or not quite, even loses to the Lions and Bears. The Packers have not passed their most difficult tests this year, and this week 16 tilt against Arizona stands as a point of reckoning for the somewhat split fan base. If Green Bay plays their best football, they’ll have a chance against Arizona, and that’s all that we can ask for. Being able to play with the best teams in the league is what we rightfully expect, to be able to compete for championships. But just enough won’t be enough in the desert this week. Just enough will get them beat by 3 scores and embarrassed if Arizona is on their game.

Arizona’s offense is lead by quarterback Carson Palmer, coming into this game with a beat up finger that shouldn’t keep him from playing to his potential. He threw a couple touchdowns after injuring it last week. The Cards put up a league leading 422 yards of offense per game. The vaunted passing attack has weapons out wide in Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and John Brown, possibly the best trio of wideouts in the league this year. The Cardinals also boast a potent rushing attack with David Johnson having filled in for the injured Chris Johnson and Andre Ellington. David Johnson has torn up defenses the last 3 weeks and offers a stiff challenge for the Green Bay defense. I’ve been very impressed with the Packer defense this year, and it has been the most consistent and unheralded unit of the team, keeping the Packers in games and giving them a chance to win. I don’t believe they’ve faced a better offense this year, so Dom Capers will need to have his defense ready to play their best game yet.

Green Bay’s offense will attempt to regain past form and display some consistency this week against a good defense in Arizona. Though the Honeybadger Tyrann Mathieu is out for this game, Patrick Peterson, Deone Bucannon and Dwight Freeney lead a physical and stout defense for Arizona. Mike McCarthy will try to keep the play calling balanced with the run and pass, and getting Lacy and James Starks involved early will be key to keeping the Cardinal pass rush at bay. With Mathieu out some passing lanes may be more open. Outside of Peterson the other defensive backs for Arizona show some weaknesses. Getting in a rhythm through strategic use of the hurry up offense to take advantage of personnel matchups throughout the game will be key.

Despite how much faith Packers fans have been able to put in the defense, with the Arizona offense as potent as it has shown this year, the Green Bay offense will have to put up points to keep Green Bay in this game. Controlling the time of possession to keep Palmer and his weapons off the field, and finishing those drives with touchdowns, will be needed to win in the desert. I believe they’ll be able to do that in spurts, but this Arizona team will be too tough of an opponent to take down on the road if the defense can’t force Arizona into uncommon mistakes. Arizona takes this one 31-27 in a game where the Packers play well, but not well enough to take out a very good team on the road in their 2nd west coast trip in as many weeks.

We're nobody's flawed 10-4 team.
We’re nobody’s flawed 10-4 team.

Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers don’t have time for the media’s or fan’s negative questioning. They’ve gotten to 10 wins for the 7th straight year. I don’t know if I buy that, but if that is their way of having an edge and creating an atmosphere akin to the “We’re nobody’s underdog.” run in 2010, that’s fine with me. Certainly they know of the issues the fans have been worried about all year.

They’ve already over-promised, and us fans wouldn’t have it any other way. Let’s hope Green Bay over-delivers on expectations this week. They’ll have to if they want to make it a game and prove they belong at the top of the NFC, competing for the Lombardi Trophy. You can be sure it will take more than just enough.

 

References
1 If Minnesota wins this week that game will also be for the division

Packers Heating Up December

Now that is what a December Packer victory in Lambeau Field should feel like. The only thing missing was cold weather, and I don’t pretend to miss that much at all. At a critical time of the season with many goals hanging in the balance and fan confidence wavering, the Green Bay Packers thoroughly dispatched the Dallas Cowboys 28-7 last Sunday to pull ahead by 1 game for the Central Division lead, after Arizona had beaten Minnesota 23-20 to kickoff week 14 of the NFL season in a good game a few days earlier.

Yes, the Packers were supposed to win this game. but not many fans were letting themselves feel too confident since nothing else has come easy this year. Now sitting at 9-4 and a step closer to a division title, home playoff game and maybe even a first round bye, Packers fans can now breathe a sigh of relief for, well, a few days at least. It didn’t look as if it would be so easy through the first half and even into the 3rd quarter. I did find myself getting a bit nervous they hadn’t pulled away yet, anxiously dreading a big momentum changing play by Jerry’s ‘boys to make me all the more uneasy, but it never came. Green Bay pulled away from and beat an inferior team. They did what they were supposed to do, and it was quite the welcome feeling. Better luck next time Jerry.

On the offensive side of the ball, much of the talk was about Mike McCarthy’s decision to take back play calling. He had kept it a secret all week in an attempt to make sure Dallas couldn’t use the information to prepare better. I think a little bit much is being made of this. It’s not like McCarthy has had nothing to do with the offense up until now. He heard every play former play caller Tom Clements was sending in through his headset, and you’d have to imagine he had veto rights on anything he felt wasn’t a good call. That being said, play calling in the NFL can be somewhat of an art, and coach McCarthy has been considered one of the best in the game. Having him back calling the plays and getting in a rhythm for the playoffs is only a good thing. I only question the original decision to give up those duties in the first place. Something could also be said for how often it seemed the Packers offense was getting to the line earlier with more time for Aaron Rodgers to digest the defensive alignment and audible if necessary. He seemed to change the plays less at the line this game, possibly an effect of better calls being made in the first place.

After reading my column last week (presumably) and finding himself extra motivated, Eddie Lacy ran as hard as I’ve seen him run all season. He was a man possessed, running through attempted tackles and grinding Cowboy defenders into paste on his path to his best game of the year with season highs in carries (24) and yards (124). He and James Starks (11 carries for 71 yards) put the game away with over 100 yards rushing and 2 scores combined in the 4th quarter. For the whole game, including 27 yards of Rodgers scrambles, the Packers rushed for 230 yards, the most they have had in a game in 11 years. As Packers guard Josh Sitton alluded to, when they are running the ball like that, the entire offense feeds off of it, and it can grind down a defense through the course of a game. Running the ball successfully on early downs also helped them to convert 7 of 14 3rd down opportunities, extending drives and keeping a good but tiring Dallas defense on the field. The game ball definitely goes to the Packer run game and all involved, from Lacy and Starks to McCarthy’s play calling and the blocking from the offensive line and receivers.

The fact I’m into the third paragraph talking about offense and I’ve yet to complain about the struggling passing game serves to underscore the dominance they displayed on the ground. The passing game was not as big of a focus in this game, and was a bit underwhelming as a result. Aaron Rodgers completed 22 of 35 attempts for 218 yards and 2 scores, which was more than enough with the defense and running game dominating. Most importantly Rodgers protected the ball, as we’ve all come to expect, and McCarthy made a concerted effort to get an underutilized weapon in Randall Cobb more involved. Cobb was used more extensively out of the backfield and even lined up on the outside from his typical slot designation a few times. With 11 total touches for 90 yards, he threatened the formidable Cowboy defense in diverse ways, proving his worth in a game where he was involved as much as any this season.

It may be the somewhat overlooked defense that deserves the most praise. Granted, the Cowboys are missing some key weapons and haven’t been stellar on offense without Romo this year, but the Green Bay defense held them to 7 points on only 270 yards of offense, going 1 for 11 on 3rd downs and 0 for 2 on 4th down attempts. The Cowboys did not have a drive longer than 6 plays the entire game.

The Pack did give up some long runs to McFadden, 2 of which came on Dallas’ only touchdown drive of 80 yards that kept the ‘boys within reach in the 3rd Quarter. Besides that it was a stellar performance. Dez Bryant was essentially shut out, catching one pass for 9 yards. Sam Shields had a pick intended for Dez in the end zone and essentially eliminated him from the Cowboys game plan before leaving with a concussion in the 2nd quarter. Impressive rookie Damarious Randall took over without missing a beat and kept the clamps on Bryant for the rest of the game. While much attention has been focused on the previous offensive woes, the Green Bay defense has quietly surged as of late, now all the way up to 6th in the league in points allowed.

If you have a passing game struggling some with various deployments of 1-high safety blitz packages, having a dominant and improving run game and defense is certainly a good way to make it through that stretch. Next up this week are the Oakland Raiders (6-7), 3rd place in the AFC West. They are a better team than Dallas, and this one will be on the west coast. New coach Jack Del Rio has them playing a physical and aggressive brand of football with a very solid offense and somewhat underrated but streaky defense. I’m excited to see how the Packers respond with the bar being raised this week prior to yet another level the following week at Arizona.

Latavius Murray is a talented running back but for whatever reason the Oakland ground game has struggled the last 5 weeks, with Murray averaging under 50 yards per game and less than 3 yards per carry in that span. Derek Carr is a rapidly ascending 2nd year signal caller for the Raiders. Equipped with a very quick release and excellent arm strength, he also has the speed to occasionally beat you with his legs. He compares in many ways to a young Aaron Rodgers as far as general skill sets, especially with that quick release. At Carr’s disposal are 2 very good weapons on the outside in veteran Michael Crabtree and rookie Amari Cooper. Crabtree is a savvy and sure-handed wideout who has rejuvenated his career after a couple subpar seasons. Cooper has a lot of speed and is extremely polished for a rookie. He is on pace to be the first 1,000 yard receiver since Randy Moss for the Raiders and he has 6 of the longest 12 receptions for his team this year.

The solid and improving Packers defense will have it’s hands full in what I believe will be a stiff test. Even more the case now that word has come down that defensive back Sam Shields will not play, causing the packers young secondary to be tested on the road this week. Any help they can get from the front 7 pressuring Carr to make decisions faster than he wants to will be a huge help. Carr has shown less of an ability to deal with pressure up the middle, so look for the Packer defense to run some stunts to get rushers in his face quickly.

On defense Oakland deploys both 3-4 and 4-3 Under concepts in an aggressive scheme that makes big plays but can also give some big plays up. Strong side linebacker Khalil Mack is a terror. He leads the league in sacks (14) and has an excellent balance of power, speed and discipline. 5 (!) of those sacks were in an upset of Oakland’s divisional leading foe Denver last week. He will definitely be a focus of Green Bay’s protection schemes. Defensive end Mario Edwards is having a great rookie season. He sometimes moves inside on passing downs, and can cause some havoc rushing the passer from there. The secondary seems to be a weak spot being held together by all-time great and future potential first ballot Hall of Famer Charles Woodson.

Packers fans won’t need much of an introduction in this case, as Woodson spent the best and most productive 7 years of his long career in Green Bay. Let go by Green Bay with plenty more left in the tank, there’s no doubt the competitive veteran will have a little extra motivation when playing his old team this week. He as much as said so in interviews. I would expect nothing less in this case. Though he may go into the Hall of Fame as a Packer one day, right now he has business to take care of. Currently dealing with a shoulder injury, I still expect Woodson to be looking to make some big plays in this one. He has 5 interceptions this year so far, the most he’s had since donning green and gold. and he will be looking to get one off Aaron Rodgers in this one.

The Green Bay offense will have it’s opportunities to make some big plays this week, and it will come down to them taking advantage of those when they present themselves. I expect them to commit some extra resources to protecting Aaron Rodgers from the Oakland pass rush when they attempt to move it through the air. The best way to soften up a pass rush is with a powerful running game and cleverly designed and carefully called screen package. With the run game coming on strong and McCarthy’s advanced screen game I expect Green Bay to be able to move the ball on Oakland’s defense. Making sure they finish scoring drives with touchdowns instead of field goals will be key along with taking care of the ball and making sure Oakland’s pass rush doesn’t force Rodgers into making any uncharacteristic mistakes that Woodson and his teammates will be waiting to capitalize on.

This test on the road is a big one for the Pack. If they take care of business as they should, it will setup a great matchup in Arizona next week. Root for the Eagles to take down the Cardinals in Philly on Sunday. If Arizona loses 2 of the last 3 and the Packers win out, they can steal the elusive first round bye out from underneath the Cardinals. If the Packers don’t dispose of the Raiders this Sunday afternoon though, it won’t matter. Though the Pack is one game up for the division with the tiebreaker on Minnesota, just in case, you can also root for the Bears to beat the Vikings in Minnesota this weekend. I enjoy it when they play each other as it almost guarantees one of them will lose. I’d be fine with a tie as well.

Packer tackles Bryan Bulaga and David Bakhtiari have the biggest matchup of the day on the offensive side in keeping Mack, Edwards and the rest of the Raiders pass rush in check. They’ll certainly have help from tight ends and running backs in protection. On defense the secondary will have to slow down Oakland’s talented receivers and get pressure on Carr. I’d bet Woodson gets one pick off Rodgers in this one, but I think the Packers go out west and continue to heat up in December, beating a good and underrated Oakland team in their house 28-23.

Sometimes in sports it’s difficult to just do what you’re supposed to do and beat the teams you should beat. Green Bay began showing some real positive signs in last week’s win over Dallas. Continuing that momentum with a win in Oakland and setting up a monumental NFC showdown with Arizona is all this Packer fan could hope to get for Christmas. Hopefully all my fellow cheeseheads are on Santa’s nice list this year.

Browns Vs Cardinals: Wilford Brimley Predictions

By Stephen Thomas (@15Stephen15)
Comedian, Browns Fan And Halloween Hottie

 
As far as I know, there is no known cure for Browns-idas. It’s a sad affliction, one which is passed down from generation to generation, not by DNA but by Fathers uttering those horrifically cruel and borderline abusive words: “Son, we’re Browns fans.” After becoming an adult … well … after getting older, I find myself often wishing my Dad had simply been an alcoholic and passed those traits on to my brother and I. After all, there’s therapy and counseling and other ways to recover from that. Being a Browns fan, on the other hand, has never even received any Government funding to do a study, research a cure, or even buy the next round. (Thanks, Obamacare!) There are some that say a Super Bowl victory would cure this malady, but this is strictly theoretical and many in the mainstream medical field laugh at it and poo-poo it, and then laugh again because they’re big important doctors who just used the phrase “poo-poo.” (By the way, we’re currently filming a commercial seeking donations to start a research team. I hired Wilford Brimley as the spokesman, simply because I wanted to hear him pronounce it “Browns-eetus.”)

Why am I writing all of this instead of going over the Rams game from last week? Well, let me answer that question with another one: what is there to say about the Rams game that we haven’t already all said a hundred times this season? The defense looked good for long stretches, then broke down and gave up critical plays at critical times. The offense moved the ball reasonably well, but broke down and made critical mistakes at critical times. (With the exception of the horrendous holding call on Joe Thomas that wiped out a 38 yard catch by Rabbit, there was no arguing any of them, either.) It’s the same team, with the same problems we’ve known about since training camp. Remove the turnovers and big plays from the equation, and it’s a lot closer game that they might have won. Oh, and remove talent and dedication from the equation, I’m a lot better golfer who might be on the PGA Tour being stalked by sexy young groupies.

There were a few positives that came back to Cleveland from the Soon To Be Uninhabited By An NFL Team Dome last week. Robert Turbin looks like he could be a solid addition to the backfield. Armonty Bryant continues to improve his play, and could be exciting next season once he’s a full year removed from his knee injury and rehab. As far as we know, neither Johnny Manziel or Josh Gordon were arrested during the game. See? Some positives! Outside of those items though, there’s really not a lot we need to discuss, unless you guys have a home remedy for Browns-idas that involves bacon,  distilled cough syrup and medicine men with bones in their nose dancing around a raging fire. (If you do, send it. That sounds cool.)

So let’s look ahead to Sunday against Arizona.

-Robert Turbin will break two runs of over 15 yards, on his way to a day of roughly 75 yards on the ground and one touchdown. I say this partly because I believe it, and party because Turbin has biceps so large he could probably reach through the internet and dislocate my shoulder if I said anything bad about him. I’m terrible frightened of his biceps. I’m not even a little bit kidding.

-Travis Benjamin will have a touchdown catch of over 60 yards against Honey Badger. Not because Badger is bad, but because he’s so aggressive that if he overplays by one step, Rabbit will be gone.

-I will be in Galveston, Texas on Sunday for the game. The last time I was there on a Browns game day, I bought a box of Frankenberry cereal on a whim, and Colt McCoy led the Browns to a 34-14 domination of the Patriots. Therefore, even though I can no longer eat Frankeberry due to a food allergy, I will be searching for a box to purchase all morning. (Hey, if the World Series can use the crazy 1986 Mets “won/lost by this many runs in each game” analogy, I can use my freaking Frankenberry analogy. Shut up.)

-Armonty Bryant will have a sack and cause a fumble. Carson Palmer is an absolute statue in the pocket, which will allow the Browns to actually grab a couple of sacks.

-Watching the run defense will continue to be more frustrating than being behind an old guy at a buffet line. (Dude, what the HELL are you staring at? It’s CHICKEN! Get some or don’t! If you get some and don’t like it, don’t eat it! Just GRAB AND MOVE, GRAB AND MOVE, GRAB AND MOVE!!!!) Sorry … OK, I’m back now. I was a little off kilter emotionally there, but you get my point – watching the run defense makes you just as irritable, doesn’t it?

-There will be a rumor about an impending trade involving a high profile Browns player. By halftime, BrownsTwitter will be feasting on itself with insanity utensils, debating the prospect of how many #1 picks the team is going to receive versus how stupid anyone who disagrees with their opinion is and whether or not they should burn that person at the stake. As Nutty Nutty Bang Bang as this rumor will be, it won’t approach the insanity I read on ESPN.com last week about the Browns trading Joe Thomas for Jason Pierre Paul and a 5th round pick. Even the worst Twitter caricature of Ray Farmer isn’t that stupid. I hope.

-Diabeetus. You’ve been saying it the entire time you’ve been reading this column, haven’t you? It’s been stuck in your head ever since I said it, hasn’t it? It’ll be stuck in there the rest of the day, won’t it? Ha ha on you. (Diabeetus)

-Gipson will have an INT in his return. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Gip is the one – ONE – impact playmaker they have on their team, a guy who consistently flips the field, and if they continue to screw around with his contract, I’ll … I’ll … well, I’ll probably rant pointlessly about it on Twitter and then continue to watch the games, hold season tickets and buy merchandise anyway, but I WON’T LIKE IT! NO SIR, I WON’T LIKE IT ONE BIT! (That’ll teach ‘em in Berea, won’t it? I WIN! I WIN!)

-Barkevious Mingo will make a huge play at some point in the Red Zone. I was ready to write this guy off earlier in the year, but he’s starting to make just enough plays that I’m hedging a bit. I’m not saying he was worth the #6 pick, I’m simply saying maybe the light is starting to go on for the guy.

-I completely understand why Josh McCown continues to start, he’s the glue holding this team together thus far. That being said, I stand by my opinion of the past few weeks: it’s time for Johnny to hit the field. This season is over, folks. If JFF gets no significant playing time this season, the offseason will be 100% spent amidst the raging debate of whether the Browns should draft another QB or spend another year seeing what Johnny is. (Personally, I think they’re taking another QB regardless, and I’m still a Goff man.) If they lose this week and fall to 2-6, the chorus of folks agreeing with me will grow.

-Someone will write a comment or send me an email or tweet @ me about the Johnny prediction I just made. That message will include more seething hatred, misspelled ethnic slurs and references to having sexual relations with my mother than you’d think could be crammed into 140 characters. I’m not sure with which part they’ll disagree, and it doesn’t matter. Simple rule: Make a statement about Manziel – ANY statement – and someone will threaten your life.

-The Cardinals will have 34 rushes for 58 yards. They will then have another 6 rushes for 137 yards. Lesson: Stopping 8 out of 10 running plays isn’t good enough in the NFL. Have to bring it on every down, every game. If you don’t, the other guy will. 8 out of 10 plays equals “competing.” 10 out of 10 plays equals “winning.” Which do you want?

-Josh McCown will throw three INT’s. Only one will be his fault.

-Travis Coons will hit four FG’s.

-If anyone offers me food in the style of “Tex-Mex,” I will stab them in the throat and shoot them fifteen times. Fusion food makes me irrationally angry. (Also it’s Texas, so the shooting part is totally legal)

-As is their custom, the Browns will keep this excruciatingly close until the late stages, not allowing any fans to leave our TV’s until the bitter, debilitating and completely predictable end.

Browns lose 27-26.

Diabeetus.

#GoBrowns

Excruciating Losses Continue To Haunt The Browns

One thing about the Cleveland Browns – since they’ve returned in 1999, they’ve found more inventive and heart-breaking ways to lose games than any other NFL team.

 Josh Lambo #2 of the San Diego Chargers celebrates with his teammates after hitting the game winning field goal.(Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
Josh Lambo #2 of the San Diego Chargers celebrates with his teammates after hitting the game winning field goal.(Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

Last Sunday’s last-second 30-27 loss by the Browns to the San Diego Chargers was the latest in a long line of “Only In Cleveland” improbable losses.

After the Browns tied the game with 2:09 remaining on a Josh McCown touchdown pass to Gary Barnidge and subsequent two-point conversion pass from McCown to Taylor Gabriel, the Chargers – missing three starting offensive linemen and with just two healthy wide receivers – drove down to the Browns 21 in eight plays, going 57 yards. Rookie kicker Josh Lambo lined up for a game-winning 39-yard field goal attempt with two seconds left and kicked it wide right. However, the Browns’ Tramon Williams jumped offside, giving Lambo and the Chargers one last chance five yards closer.

This time, and with no time on the clock, Lambo delivered from 34 yards out, giving San Diego an improbable win that dropped the Browns to 1-3.

Andrew Clayman from the site Waiting For Next Year compiled a list of all 41 instances in which the Browns had defeat snatched from the jaws of victory in the final minute since the franchise returned in 1999. Whatever you do, avoid being around sharp objects or listening to songs from The Cure while reading this article (http://www.waitingfornextyear.com/2015/09/heres-every-last-minute-browns-loss-since-1999) because chances are good you may feel suicidal when you are done.

What I’ve decided to do is take that list of 41 and whittle it down to the 10 most memorable (or most heartbreaking) of those last-second losses. The more unique the circumstance, the better chance it got on the list. I did not include the Browns’ 36-33 loss in the 2002 playoffs to the Pittsburgh Steelers because I wanted to limit it to regular season games (and, also, because that game is still a sore subject).

Because it’s so new, I did not include Sunday’s loss in this list. Instead, and because I feel like torturing myself and you, I found 10 others. Enjoy.

10. Dec. 2, 2007: Cardinals 27, Browns 21 – Nowadays, there is no such thing as a force out – defenders can shove a receiver out of bounds on a catch and, as long as his feet don’t touch inbounds, it’s considered an incomplete pass. But back in 2007, defenders weren’t allowed to do this maneuver. This came into question on the last play of this late-season game in Glendale. Derek Anderson, who threw for 304 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions, took over at his own 18 with 1:48 remaining and began to put together a nice drive. The Browns drove to the Arizona 37 with 22 seconds left, but Anderson threw three straight incomplete passes. On fourth-and-10 with six seconds left, Anderson found tight end Kellen Winslow in the left corner of the end zone, but Winslow was shoved out of bounds before he could get his feet in. The play was not overturned by a replay review, and, in a season in which the Browns just missed the playoffs despite a 10-6 record, this loss loomed large.

9. Nov. 14, 2010: Jets 26, Browns 20 (OT) – The Browns were surging under rookie quarterback Colt McCoy after he engineered two shocking upsets over the New Orleans Saints and New England Patriots. Playing with confidence in a charged up stadium that booed the returning Braylon Edwards every time a pass was thrown his way, the Browns forced overtime when McCoy found Mohamed Massaquoi for a 3-yard touchdown with 44 seconds remaining. In overtime, a Chansi Stuckey fumble at the Jets 30 after a long completion prevented the Browns from attempting a potential game-winning field goal. And, an interception by rookie Joe Haden at the 3 with 1:35 left appeared to seal a tie game. But, in typical Browns fashion, they wound up punting the ball back to the Jets, who took over at their own 37 with no timeouts and 24 seconds left. On the first play, Sanchez found Ohio State product Santonio Holmes, who broke an Eric Wright tackle and ran into the end zone for a walkoff touchdown. The Browns wound up going 5-11 and Mangini was fired.

8. Sept. 23, 2007: Raiders 26, Browns 24 – Another narrow loss in the 2007 season that loomed large because the Browns came up an eyelash short of a playoff berth. The Raiders, quarterbacked by Josh McCown – yes, THAT Josh McCown – jumped out to a 16-0 first half lead before Anderson and the Browns came battling back. A 21-yard touchdown pass to Braylon Edwards in the third quarter gave the Browns a 17-16 lead, and a 1-yard sneak from Anderson with 3:33 left cut the deficit to 26-24. Getting the ball back at their own 9 with no timeouts and 1:04 left, Anderson drove the Browns into field goal range on a 13-yard completion to Joe Jurevicius with 3 seconds left. As Phil Dawson kicked a 40-yard game-winning field goal, rookie head coach Lane Kiffin called timeout just before the ball was snapped. Having to re-do it, Dawson’s second attempt was blocked by Oakland’s Tommy Kelly.

7. Sept. 29, 2002: Steelers 16, Browns 13 (OT) – The Browns went 0-3 against the Steelers in this playoff season, with all three losses coming by three points apiece. Other than the playoff defeat, this one was probably the most bizarre. At Heinz Field, Tommy Maddux relieved an ineffective Kordell Stewart in the fourth quarter and found Plaxico Burress for a game-tying 10-yard touchdown pass with 2:05 remaining to send the game into overtime. After Andra Davis intercepted Maddux on the first play of overtime at the Steelers 34, Dawson missed a game-winning 45-yard field goal. Given new life, Maddux and the Steelers drove inside the Browns’ 10-yard line. Pittsburgh elected to try to kick a game-winning 24-yard field goal on second down – remember that, folks. However, Todd Peterson’s kick was blocked by Alvin McKinley. Peterson recovered the kick, and his fumble was pounced on by Steelers lineman John Fiala. Because the kick did not cross the line of scrimmage, and because the kick didn’t occur on fourth down, the Steelers got another chance. This time, Peterson kicked a 31-yard field goal to give the bad guys the win.

Quarterback Tim Couch #2 of the Cleveland Browns passes against the Cincinnati Bengals at Cleveland Browns Stadium on October 10, 1999. (Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images
Quarterback Tim Couch #2 of the Cleveland Browns passes against the Cincinnati Bengals at Cleveland Browns Stadium on October 10, 1999. (Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

6. Oct. 10, 1999: Bengals 18, Browns 17 – In the 1999 NFL Draft, the two quarterbacks the Browns were torn over for the first pick were Tim Couch out of Kentucky and Akili Smith out of Oregon. Both QBs were photographed together wearing Browns jerseys with John “Big Dawg” Thompson for the cover of Sports Illustrated. Couch wound up being the pick and Smith wound up being taken third-overall by the rival Cincinnati Bengals. Both quarterbacks didn’t amount to much in the NFL, but Smith’s career was more miserable than Couch’s. However, for one afternoon at Cleveland Browns Stadium, Smith showed up Couch and the Browns’ braintrust who passed on him. On a day when rookie kicker Dawson scored the first – and only – rushing touchdown of his career, and the first rushing touchdown of the season for the Browns, the young hosts clung to a 17-12 lead late in the game. Smith took over at his own 20 with two timeouts and 2:04 remaining and drove his team down to the Browns’ 2 thanks to a 9-yard pass to Darnay Scott on fourth down and a pass interference penalty on Corey Fuller at the 2. On third down and with nine seconds on the clock, Smith found Carl Pickens on a fade route to rob the expansion Browns of their first win of the season. Smith only finished with five TD passes in his career and only won three games in four years, adding insult in injury.

5. Dec. 8, 2013: Patriots 27, Browns 26 – The Browns really had no business being in this game. But, thanks to receiver Josh Gordon’s 151 receiving yards and quarterback Jason Campbell – who wasn’t cleared to start until two days prior to kickoff – and his 391 passing yards and 3 touchdowns, Cleveland led throughout and took a 26-14 lead with 2:39 left on a four-yard pass from Campbell to tight end Jordan Cameron. At that point, the Patriots’ win probability was 0.1 percent. But that doesn’t factor in the team they were playing. Tom Brady threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to Julian Edelman with 1:01 remaining to cut the deficit to 26-21. An unnecessary roughness penalty on Jordan Poyer on the touchdown allowed the Patriots to kickoff 15 yards closer than normal. Then, Fozzy Whitaker fumbled the ensuing onside kick, which was recovered by kicker Stephen Gostkowski at the Cleveland 30. A pass interference penalty on rookie Leon McFadden in the end zone put the ball on the 1, where Brady found Danny Amendola for what turned out to be the improbable game-winning touchdown with 31 seconds remaining. Amazingly, the Browns had a chance to win on the last play of the game. But Billy Cundiff’s 58-yard field goal fell just short.

4. Nov. 4, 2001: Bears 27, Browns 21 (OT) – After winning just five games in the two previous years, the Browns were 4-2 under first-year coach Butch Davis heading into this showdown at Soldier Field. And, a 25-yard fumble recovery by former No. 1 overall pick Courtney Brown just 55 seconds into the game gave the Browns an early 7-0 lead. A 55-yard touchdown pass from Couch to Kevin Johnson late in the third quarter gave the Browns a 21-7 lead, and, with less than a minute remaining, that lead appeared to be safe. But that’s when things got really weird. Bears quarterback Shane Matthews, the regular backup, found Marty Booker on a 9-yard touchdown pass with 28 seconds left to cut the deficit to 21-14. Then, Chicago recovered an onside kick at the Browns 47. After two short completions, Matthews flung a Hail Mary pass that was tipped in the air and caught in the back of the end zone by running back James Allen for a stunning 34-yard touchdown with no time remaining. Then, before anyone realized what was truly happening, the game was over. After the Browns stopped the Bears in overtime, a Couch pass on their third offensive play was batted at the line of scrimmage and intercepted by safety Mike Brown, who returned the gift 23 yards for a game-winning touchdown.

3.  Nov. 22, 2009: Lions 38, Browns 37 – Former first-round pick Brady Quinn had, by far, his best game as a pro on this afternoon at Ford Field, throwing for 304 yards with four touchdowns. It was a shootout with rookie top-overall pick Matthew Stafford, who wound up throwing for 422 yards and five touchdowns. The Browns blew a 24-3 first-quarter lead, but a two-yard touchdown pass to backup tight end Michael Gaines – and a two-point conversion from Jamal Lewis – gave Cleveland a 37-31 lead with five minutes remaining. A Brodney Pool interception in the end zone with 3:40 remaining appeared to be enough to get the Browns just their second win of the season, and, when Detroit got the ball back, it had to drive 88 yards in 1:46 without any timeouts. With eight seconds left and the ball on the Cleveland 32, Stafford threw a Hail Mary into the end zone that was picked off by Pool with no time on the clock. However, officials flagged Hank Poteat for pass interference – officials rarely flag defenders for interference on a jump ball, but they did on this day. Because coach Eric Mangini called a timeout, Stafford – who separated his shoulder on the throw – was able to reenter the game and find Brandon Pettigrew for the game-winning touchdown. Typical Browns.

2. Sept. 8, 2002: Chiefs 40, Browns 39 – Browns backup quarterback Kelly Holcomb, starting for an injured Couch, burst on the scene with a 329-yard, three-touchdown performance in the season opener. Holcomb completed 27-of-39 passes in his first start as a Brown, and the Browns threw four touchdown passes in the game (one from receiver Kevin Johnson). A 41-yard field goal from Dawson with 29 seconds remaining appeared to give the Browns a wild 39-37 win. However, as Trent Green tried to throw a Hail Mary pass with no time remaining, linebacker Dwayne Rudd got to him and appeared to sack him. Green was able to pitch the ball to lineman John Tait just before he went down, but that didn’t stop Rudd from running to midfield and flinging his helmet off in celebration. In the meantime, the 320-pound Tait was rumbling down the sideline, and the officials flagged Rudd for unsportsmanlike conduct for removing his helmet on the field of play. That gave the Chiefs one last play with no time remaining, and veteran Morten Andersen made a 30-yard field goal to give the visitors an improbable win. Rudd will always be remembered in Cleveland for this boneheaded maneuver.

1. Dec. 16, 2001: Jaguars 15, Browns 10 – This game will forever be known simply as “Bottlegate.”

Bottles and debris litter the field at Cleveland Browns Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio, as frustrated Brown fans defy a referee call during the Cleveland Browns-Jacksonville Jaguars NFL game 16 December, 2001. (Photo credit DAVID MAXWELL/AFP/Getty Images)
Bottles and debris litter the field at Cleveland Browns Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio, as frustrated Brown fans defy a referee call during the Cleveland Browns-Jacksonville Jaguars NFL game 16 December, 2001. (Photo credit DAVID MAXWELL/AFP/Getty Images)

Trailing by five with under a minute to go, Couch drove the Browns deep into Jacksonville territory. Believe it not, the 6-6 Browns still had a chance to make the playoffs, but needed a win. On fourth-and-2 from the Jacksonville 10, Couch connected with Quincy Morgan for three yards and a first down. After Couch spiked the ball to stop the clock on first down, referee Terry McAuley decided to have another look at the Morgan catch – which is forbidden by NFL rules. When McAuley decided to reverse the catch, giving Jacksonville possession with no timeouts remaining, confused and angry Browns fans decided to let the refs know they weren’t happy by throwing whatever they had available onto the playing field. That was mostly hundreds of plastic beer bottles that were, at the time, served at the games. McAuley further broke more NFL rules by deciding to call the game with 48 seconds remaining, but was forced to return to the field, along with both teams, to run two more plays 30 minutes after the game was initially called. The riot from fans makes this one more memorable, but overshadows the fact that McAuley and his officials broke an NFL rule. The Browns wound up finishing 7-9. It’s still the only time that play has been reviewed after another play had already been run.

As you can see, the Browns found 10 very inventive ways to lose a game in this list. It’s not uncommon for a franchise to fall victim to one of these types of losses. Maybe two or three. But 10? And when you realize this is only the tip of the 41 last-second loss iceberg, it only gets more nauseating. I don’t know what forces are at work when it comes to the Cleveland Browns, but I think they’ve made their point by now, don’t you?

Until next time, remember that Cleveland Rocks!

Down By Contact #2: The Fun and Games

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The late week edition of Down By Contact will focus on the fans, and how they can be interactive with the action on Sunday, Monday, and even Thursday. Some people like to do it all, office pools, friendly wagering with friends, betting games against the spread, and of course, the ever-popular game of Fantasy Football.

This week, Jeff Rich welcomes Mike Burgermeister and Tarik Adam, the facilitator and top player in the Cheddar Bay Reality Football Competition, respectively, in the first segment. They preview the prime time and other marquee matchups in the National Football League, and even weigh in on the classic Army-Navy game in the college ranks on Saturday. Then, we shift gears from reality to fantasy, where More Than a Fan guru Alex Squires gives our host a remedial lesson on Fantasy Football, and gives some tips on who to start/who to sit in Week 15.

The Players
Jeff Rich (Host) – @byJeffRich

Mike Burgermeister – @603_brown
Tarik Adam – @ClevTA
Alex Squires – @ASquiresFF

11-on-11: TJ Ward Puts Dolphins on Ice as Broncos Bounce Back At Home

Ten years ago, Terrell Ray Ward had finally overcome his high school’s depth issues, but suffered a knee injury his senior season at the acclaimed De La Salle High School in Northern California. These days, we know him as TJ Ward, the Pro-Bowler, an integral part of the Denver Bronocos success, and the days of walking on at Mike Belotti’s Oregon program are long forgotten. On Sunday evening in Denver, he called off the Dolphins bid for the upset, despite a valiant effort on Miami’s part, with a late interception of Ryan Tannehill.

We’re going to change the format around here a little bit. Instead of being touch and go on just about every game played between Thursday and Sunday night, our focus will be on a single game each week, but I’ll drop a little bit of insight on what I see out of the corner of my eyes throughout the league. This week, we’re in The Rockies with the #1 crew from CBS and 76,987 paying customers for the Dolphins 39-36 road defeat.

Who is TJ Ward, and What Does He Do?

To be as good as the Denver Broncos have been, there has to be a little more to your defense than luck and reliance on the offense to do the lion’s share of the work. There’s a good feeling you have to have with Jack Del Rio running your defense, provided he’s not also your head coach. They have Terrance Knighton up front to disrupt the run game, which is a Miami strength, and pass-rushing options even after Von Miller, which is frustrating to third-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill. The secondary isn’t all the way just yet, but they’re coming along pretty well after signing TJ Ward away from the Browns last off-season.

Ward is accustomed to having talent around him, and while Denver might not have a headliner like Joe Haden to join him in the seconary, but you couldn’t ask for more from Chris Harris Jr. and Bradley Roby in his rookie season at the corner positon. Having watched Ward closely in Cleveland, you knew that he could keep his head on a swivel, find his target, and let it rip. Unfortunately, “letting it rip” the way Ward did early in his career drew penalties and fines, but over the last two seasons he’s channeled it in a good way.

He’s reacting better and identifying run/pass in the pre-snap moments better, which makes him a good run-stopper without getting beat over the top. He has two interceptions this season, and Sunday’s canceled the threat of Miami snatching victory from the grips of a 32-28 deficit with three and a half minutes to play. It was a first down play, and Tannehill had enough clock that there was no critical sense of urgency, meaning Miami still had options on the ground, but tried to go to Jarvis Landry on back-to-back plays and he tried to force it. Harris Jr had him covered well enough to force a deflection into No Man’s Land, where TJ Ward was serving as governor on Sunday afternoon.

Ward has transitioned from head-hunter to ball-hawk, which doesn’t mean he’s at all hesitant to make the pads audibly crack. In 2013, he got his first pick-six, and he nearly got touchdown #2 of his 5-year career in this one. Ward cut it all the way back across the field, after swiping the ball at the Miami 45, and he got as far as the 8 before being shoved out of bounds. To give Peyton Manning and that offense a 1st and Goal at the 8 is basically a guaranteed touchdown, two plays later Manning and Wes Welker obliged with a short touchdown pass. In four plays, Denver went from trailing by three to nursing a two-possession lead, thanks in large part to their newly acquired safety Ward.

Watch at NFL.com

Ward Giveth, Ward Almost Taketh Away

So, you just got a key takeaway, one that allegedly put this game on ice for your team. Whether victory seems inevitable or not, you have to play all sixty minutes. We understand that these pass defenders are playing with the deck stacked against them. The play that draws a pass interference is almost as much of a necessary evil as actual completed passes in this day and age, but you still never want to hear your name called.

In Miami’s last-ditch effort to get two scores inside of the two-minute warning, they went for two to close the margin to three points, and Ward gave them two cracks at it. It’s probably important to mention that 35 of the 84 yards Miami went on their final offensive possession were courtesy of unnecessary roughness and pass interference calls on Malik Jackson and Omar Bolden, but it was yielding a second attempt at the conversion try that made the nightmare of a collapse slightly more realistic. Ward laid Landry out for one of those “the official can’t find his flag quick enough to throw it violently” flags, giving the Dolphins an easier chance to extend the game if they were fortunate enough to snag the onside kick.

Kickers Are Weird

Look, I’m of the mindset that if you have 53 players on your active roster, they all better damn well be football players. Kickers are very important to this game and are, perhaps, a little under-appreciated in the grand scheme. That said, I don’t think it’s unfair to suggest that they’re a bit off. However, sometimes the bizarre things they do are worth noting, so let’s make sure the onside kick attempt from Miami’s Caleb Sturgis was notable.

The concept is simple, but the execution is difficult when it comes to onside kicks. Boot a ground-ball ten yards or draw the hands of a player on the receiving team player to make contact with it before the threshold, and hope one of your 11 guys ends up with possession of the ball. There is only so much trickeration you can attempt, especially now that the no-fun police say you can’t really overload one side of the tee or another with too many players. Sturgis put his right foot behind his right leg as he approached the ball, as if to kick it left, but the misdirection fooled no one and Denver running back CJ Anderson recovered it with ease.

CJ Anderson Is Short for Cortrelle Javon Anderson

With his performance today, CJ Anderson has done just enough to make me interested enough to view his Wikipedia page, only to be disappointed when I saw how desolate his bio was when I got there.

He made up to 7 people miss on his 51-yard catch and run in Oakland two weeks ago for his first career touchdown, but was more than just a highlight against the Dolphins, without Montee Ball or Ronnie Hillman available. He combined with Jawan Thompson for 200 yards on 32 carries, but it was the second-year player from Cal that put the offense on his back and showed some brilliance in the game’s final minute.

He’d already run for 151 yards and found paydirt once, the initial go-ahead score, on 26 carries, but he got cerebral with his final touch of the game. It was also his longest run, going for 26 yard before he gave himself up in the interest of getting the clock to 0. Anderson had the first down his team needed to close the playbook and run the only play diagrammed for victory formation, Peyton Manning drops to a knee. It was a nice follow-up to recovering the onside kick, not sure how often you’ll see that from your featured running back, and put a bow around the gift of a day he gave his offense.

No Julius, No Problem

Sudden-superstar tight end Julius Thomas was a scratch for today’s game with a bad ankle, which is a shame. He’s hauled in 12 touchdowns in ten games this season, and the Broncos were 7-0 when Manning targeted him at least 5 times in a game. In the games against Seattle, New England, and St. Louis, he looked for the small forward-turned-tight end four times or less, and Denver won less than one of those games. Today, he’d have some familiarity in Jacob Tamme and the seldom-used Virgil Green to supplement Thomas’s out of this world production in the offense.

As it went, he threw in Tamme’s direction twice. One didn’t count, but it would have been a touchdown if not for a penalty on Demayrius Thomas. The other was for a loss; that’s what we see on the stat sheet and it tell us the tight ends didn’t factor into the outcome of this one. Coincidentally, it was Demaryius Thomas who got the six after negating Tamme’s glory. To let my praise of Anderson carry over into another blurb, he had a huge 21-yard pick-up on 4th and 2 to set up this touchdown, which got the Broncos as close as 28-25 early in the fourth quarter.

Burse-Snatching

This 39-36 game only feature four punts, and three of them came off the foot of Brandon Fields of the Dolphins. On the receiving end of those punts was Isaiah Burse, who combined for 12 yards on those 3 returns, so we’re probably going to say something bad about the Broncos punt returner here. Well, he fumbled, with his team already down in the second half. Damien Williams stripped him of the football and John Denney landed on the football. Three plays later, Tannehill and Landry hooked up for six. They scored after a reprieve from the officials on what appeared to be a Von Miller interception to bail Burse out of trouble, but Ward was called for holding and Miami was able to convert the second chance into an 11-point lead.

Another special teams gaffe worth mentioning is the missed Brandon McManus attempt from 33 yards away that infuriated Manny Ramirez on the Broncos sideline. It came 13 plays after the Broncos received the second half with a drive that stalled at the Dolphins’ 15, when Jelani Jenkins sacked Manning on 3rd and 1. In addition to the sack, the second-year man from Florida led all Dolphin defenders with 9 solo tackles.

Harmless Fumbling

As devastating as Ward’s late interception was, some serious self-destruction on the visitors’ part ended up not hurting Miami at all. On a 10 play, 5 minute drive in the second quarter, Brandon Gibson and Rishard Matthews combined for three fumbles. Gibson actually dropped both out of bounds on short receptions, but Matthews put the ball on the turf in play right before the 2-minute warning, but Lamar Miller recovered the ball 3 yards further down the field at the Broncos’ 10. Tannehill hooked up with Mike Wallace on the next play to put Miami up 21-10.

Setting the Tone Early

There’s a serious difference between being on pace to do something and carrying out that pace. Based on the first half numbers, it would shock someone that didn’t watch the second halff, that Miami didn’t have 100-yard receiver or runner on the day. In fact, after a fast start, the Broncos figured Lamar Miller out. He finished the day with 59 yards on 12 carries after getting about 50 in the first half alone. Obviously the 21-10 2nd quarter lead didn’t translate to a big win for the Fins over the AFC’s best team, or at least the one with the best record. The Dolphins took the Opening Kickoff and used the running game and short passes to draw first blood and take the crowd out of the game. Again, there’s a difference between setting the tone and actually riding that them out. Daniel Thomas ran the ball well when he touched it, it’s a wonder Joe Philbin didn’t go to him more.

Possession is Nine Tenths

The Broncos score quickly in the present tense, so you shouldn’t let that time of possession number tell you anything, but the Broncos held the ball for about 35 minutes, giving them about a ten minute edge in time their defense got to rest. Today was the first time Manning took on the Dolphins as a Bronco, but he saw them plenty as an Indianapolis Colt, and you might surprised to hear he’s just 6-7 against them in his career. With the Colts, he was just 2-7 in his career before they moved out of their division to the newly-formed NFC South in 2003. The last time he saw them, on a Monday night in 2009, he had less than 15 minutes of game clock time to work with a hot night in Miami, but still left with 27-23 victory there.  He now has four straight wins against the mammals from South Beach.

Monday Is For Degenerates

This week, our degenerate gamblers are blessed with not just one, but two games to recover from taking the Cardinals and the points in Seattle or whatever wage-losing wager didn’t work out for them. We’ll start with the standard product, which features the Ravens traveling to Bayou Country to take on the Saints. Caesars says the Saints are giving three and setting the point mark at 50. Now, the Ravens are a sub-par team on the road and they’re even worse against the spread this season, but I just can’t see the Ravens losing this game straight up. I am taking the Ravens and I think it’s enough of a shootout to think 51 is likely. Even in a vacuum, I think I’d be excited to see how this AFC North is going to play out. Who is going to be the next to lose and when?

Our bonus game is in Detroit, which doesn’t mean anything to Buffalo who is displaced from their natural home game, since they aren’t very good in Buffalo anyways. The bonus is they’re playing the Jets on a fast track. Buffalo is decent away from their home digs, maybe more business-like and the Jets don’t really pose any type of a threat. They cover 2 and a half, but this game doesn’t really sell itself as a game that’s going to feature more than 42. Enjoy it in select markets and on Sunday Ticket, while the rest of us suffer through Flacco versus Brees in that monopolized national space.

Random Thoughts Around the League and Elsewhere

Oakland won the other night. For shame, Kansas City, for shame.

A time might come where we have to discuss things like the clock management debacle between Mike Pettine and Mike Smith in Atlanta on Sunday. Pettine chose to take the Browns timeouts into the half with him, and attempted the same impossible field goal twice, even after Smith gave him a reprieve, where it was revealed Cundiff doesn’t have that distance on a shank nullified by a Falcons timeout. The Falcons had no business beating the Browns or even winning that game, but no excuse for not running the clock all the way down and letting Matt Bryant win the game with less than 44 seconds left.

Josh Huff started the Eagles scoring against Tennessee in the highest scoring game of the week with a 107-yard return on the opening kickoff. It might start to feel unfair of Chip Kelly can get the type of athletes he had at Oregon, such as Huff, to join him in Philadelphia.

Every time I looked at the Jaguars-Colts game, I had the broadcast showing me a former Cleveland Brown. One minute, D’Qwell Jackson is making a play, and my eyes could have been fooling me, but I saw both Trent Richardson and Joshua Cribbs cross the goal line with the football in their hands. It didn’t look like the Colts absolutely controlled the game with their division rivals, which makes you glad that game control is a factor that matters in the NFL.

Lovie Smith returned to Soldier Field as the head coach of a pretty lousy Tampa Bay team. His team looked inspired out of the gate, while the Bears looked the same unenthusiastic, flat team in the beginning. The only thing that would have been better than a Smith victory there would have been if he signed Brian Urlacher to a 1-game deal for this game, so his last appearance at Soldier Field would have been in that nasty Bucs uni. Too cruel or too soon? Bears spoil Lovie’s homecoming in this one, 21-13.

I think and I’ve thought a lot of things about the Arizona Cardinals this season, but the main thing is that I’m believing they could be the first to play on their home field in the Super Bowl and I think they can win that game. You know what I didn’t think they would do? I didn’t think they’d play a desperate Seattle team in the House of SeaChicken and come away with a victory. They’re a match-up problem for the Cardinals, which is really unfortunate for a team that needs to count on their ability to pull a rabbit out of their hat from time to time. The magic just isn’t there, not without Larry Fitzgerald in the mix. Maybe they’ll find that in their rematch with the defending champs in Glendale, but it will take more than luck if the offense is as stagnant as it was on Sunday.

Eli Manning to Odell Beckham Jr. for six points. Let’s not get caught up on making this the best thing we’ve ever seen. It was amazing. If you didn’t see the play, go find it. It just seemed to defy some basic principles of physics.

Let’s not forget the Giants lost, and the Cowboys continue to win. Tony Romo might be fun to poke fun at, but he’s leaving less room for criticism. If he and DeMarco Murray stay healthy, Dallas is one of those teams that might spoil the prospect of a home game for a certain team in the desert.

Lastly, on a personal note, Thanksgiving is coming up on Thursday and I want to say I’m thankful for everyone I have in my life. I often underestimate how blessed I am to have all that I have and love in this life. Stay healthy and safe, however you spend the upcoming week.

11-on-11: Near-Perfect NFL Quarterback Play

In the era of shovel passes, bubble screens, and dink & dunk, it seems as though completion percentage should be an afterthought. So many quarterbacks start their days so perfect, or near-perfection anyway. It’s really no wonder that “video game numbers” have become the standard.

This is what you get from the out-of-town overlay, just statistics, no story. Sure, you’ll see Andy Dalton and Alex Smith missed on just one or two pass attempts early en route to victory, but make sure you don’t read too much into Austin Davis’s 5-of-7 start against the Chiefs.

These amazing performances don’t seem to dazzle these days, even on paper. Ben Roethlisberger threw just nine passes that didn’t land in the hands of a bumble-bee-outfitted receiver on Sunday. Considering the fact he threw six touchdown passes and accrued over 500 yards in the process, you wonder how high the bar will be set in the next couple of years. Andrew Luck threw for 400 yards for the Steelers opponent, in what we’ll likely consider a forgettable performance.

Is any of it even real any more?

Game I Anticipated Most

When you get a non-traditional power like the Arizona Cardinals in a marquee game this late in the season, it sometimes seems forced. That’s not the case with these Cardinals. They really look like they belong. They’re built with a certain edge to them on defense and hold their own when they have the ball. Injuries matter, but Bruce Arians has shown an ability to adapt and overcome. Take all of their positives, tack a bad afternoon in Denver on there, and that’s how Arizona was 5-1 entering play on Sunday.

The Eagle bring Chip Kelly’s fast-paced Saturday style to the Sunday game. Their offense moves fast and they run a lot of plays. A threat to score every time they have the ball, it’s all about possessions for them. Defense isn’t the first thing you think of with this team, nor should it be. The architecture of Bill Davis’s defensive unit is to stop teams built like the Eagles, a built that is consistent with the new direction of the league. Strong secondary play has netted them a shut out against the Giants. A trip to San Francisco last month netted them their only loss.

So much has been made about Larry Fitzgerald's best days being behind him.  It didn't show in Arizona's 24-20 win over the Eagles.
So much has been made about Larry Fitzgerald’s best days being behind him. It didn’t show in Arizona’s 24-20 win over the Eagles.

The Cardinals out-lasted their brotherly loving opponents by stepping up with the big play. Antonio Cromartie picked off Nick Foles twice at the most inopportune moments for the Eagles. On the ground, Andre Ellington did just enough to set up the big play for Carson Palmer and his receiving corps. His two touchdowns passes each went for 75 yards or better. If Larry Fitzgerald is getting long in the tooth, it didn’t show on his classic Fitz 80-yard catch-and-run to put the Cardinals up 14-7 to break a halftime tie.

After the Eagles added a field goal to take 20-17 lead just inside the two-minute warning, the hero of training camp John Brown ran under a ball that I can only assume was thrown as far as Carson Palmer can throw the pigskin. When it came down in the arms of the rookie from Pittsburg State, it only took a few strides for him to reach the endzone for the game-winning touchdown. Of his 4 scoring catches this season, 3 have been of the game-winning variety. Cardinals win 24-20.

Thursday Is My Garbage Day

You notice you don’t hear too much griping about player safety and the road team being at such a disadvantage in the Thursdy Night tilts, now that a couple of them have been competitive. My trash still gets picked up on Thursday though, so this section will keep its name. Not many teams have belonged on the same field as Peyton Manning’s Broncos this season, but the Chargers promised to be a worthy adversary.

The X-Factor here was our defending champion Sea Chickens. They went into San Diego in Week 2, and left with a 30-21 defeat at the hands of the very legitimate Chargers. The Broncos, on the other hand, have lost just twice in the 2014 calendar year. A week after taking that loss, Seattle hosted Denver in a game much closer than the laughable Super Bowl we all witnessed in February, but still a 26-20 loss for Denver.

Emmanuel Sanders game has helped Denver fans cope with the loss of Eric Decker

On the strength of three Emmanuel Sanders touchdown receptions, the Broncos won 35-21, but the Chargers didn’t play an awful game. They just ran into a buzzsaw in Peyton Manning, who had the convenience of playing at home. Even in a 21-point hole at various points in the game, you never counted out San Diego. The unstoppable passing game that Manning leads sets up the running game.

Forget that Knowshon Moreno is gone and that Montee Ball was not available, the Chargers weren’t honest to the run. Ronnie Hillman gashed them for over 5 yards per carry and Juwan Thompson had two short scoring runs to take the wind out of San Diego’s sails to move to 6-1 on the season.

House of Sea Chicken-East

Speaking of the champs, we generally tend to think their strength resides in their stadium. Opposing fans call it the belly of the beast, but the NFL makes the Sea Chickens play half their games away from Phone Company Field. In Week 8, they may have been lucky to pull one out in Charlotte, but isn’t that always the case when they visit the Panthers?

On Sunday, they treaded water in an early candidate for the week’s Actual Worst Game, but Russell Wilson led his team on a 10-play 80 -yard drive to score the first touchdown of the game with 53 seconds left. The Panthers counted on their kicker Graham Gano for all of their points, outscoring the visitors 9-6, until Wilson hit Luke Willson for the game-winner in the game’s final minute.

Wilson to Willson for the win away from home for the Sea Chickens

For the third time in three years, Seattle won ugly at Carolina. When Steven Hauschka added the extra point after Willson’s touchdown, it was the first one-pointer the Sea Chickens scored in Charlotte since he nailed the conversion after Golden Tate’s third quarter score in 2012. They won that one 16-12 at Bank of America Stadium, edged them 12-7 in 2014, and added the 4-point win on Sunday. If they play in 2015, that one will be played in the Pacific Northwest.

AFC North Pride

While the broadcast maps suggests most of you did get Pittsburgh’s rout of the Colts in your local market, many were denied the second edition of Ravens-Bengals in favor of that field goal fest in Charlotte. You were probably spared the Raiders and Browns if you weren’t local to either of the teams, unless you sought that game out.

The AFC North has been strong this season. Part of it is the Browns somewhat pulling their weight, but the schedule is a big aid as well. The division games all promise to be scrappy affairs for Baltimore, Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh, but they’ve all been afforded the luxury of games against all of the teams in the league’s two worst divsions.

Every team in the NFC South has a losing record, while Indianapolis is the only team in the AFC South with a winning record. Having one-win teams like Jacksonville and Tampa Bay pulling up the rear doesn’t help either. On the flip-side, every team in the AFC North currently sports a winning record.

Does Cincinnati have Baltimore’s number? In Week 1, they dominated most of the way, let the Ravens back in the game, and then won it in the end. It was the same story on Sunday in Cincinnati, only a little more scary. It appeared that Baltimore had done it again with an improbable 80-yard game-winning touchdown to Steve Smith Sr., but it was more improbable that the play was executed within the boundaries of the rules. The play was called back and Cincinnati hung on.

Win or not, that's some ugly-ass garb.
Win or not, that’s some ugly-ass garb.

In Pittsburgh, the Steelers reminded us that we simply cannot write them off. On a positive note for Ben and company, it’s more than just playing pitch & catch with Antonio Brown. Brown got his, but Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton are emerging as targets for Roethlisberger, as is Le’Veon Bell out of the backfield. For a team written off by their own fans, the Steelers are right in the thick of things at 4-3.

Wembley Wake-Up

Under no circumstances would I go out of my way to watch the 2014 Lions and Falcons play. Wait, what? Alright NFL, if you’re going to put a game on at 6:30 AM in the west, I’ll wake up for it. The game appeared to be all Atlanta, but still somehow came down to a last-second field goal attempt. This is part of why the AFC South is awful.

Me, I’m no fan of shenanigans when a field goal that will determine the game is imminent. I pay homage to Mike Shannahan for his strategy of calling a timeout a split-second before the ball is snapped, forcing a kicker to try the boot a second time. I call it “Shannahanigans”, but it wasn’t that type of nonsense for the Lions in the early hours of Sunday morning.

Detroit got two tries and needed the second one for their 22-21 comeback win over the Falcons in London. It appeared as though the Falcons would hang on when Matt Prater’s kick sailed wide right from 43, but the Lions were actually rewarded a reprieve by their own penalty. Since delay-of-game is a pre-snap penalty, Atlanta was left with no choice but to hope Prater would miss again from 48. He didn’t.

This lends itself to an argument against the whole idea of the aforementioned shenanigans. Many coaches have gone on record to say they don’t like the strategy. Why give the kicker a practice kick? Doesn’t the first kick just give the kicker a better feel for the task at hand? Sure, we’ve seen kickers whiff on the one that counts, but it seems fate is a better strategy then playing God in this situation. If the rules can’t prevent it, maybe common sense will.

Home Sweet Dome

It’s not just playing inside, Bill Simmons. Losses in Atlanta, Dallas, and Detroit should paint that picture as clearly as the Saints’ 3-0 record in the Superdome. Even a team as hot as the Packers are no match for what New Orleans can do in front of their home crowd.

Drew Brees is special and his performance in Sunday Night’s 44-23 win was no exception, but how about a nod for his supporting cast? Mark Ingram put up a very Trent Richarson-esque 16 yards on 10 carries in the Saints loss to Detroit last week, and his 83 rushing yards against Cleveland stood as his season-best before Sunday. The former Heisman winner ran the ball 24 times for 172 yards, ate up clock, and kept Aaron Rodgers on the sideline long enough to tilt the needle towards the home team on time of possession.

Who’s Whack for Dak

It’s not likely that anyone is going to unseat Marcus Mariota for the meaningless title of consensus #1 in the mocks, but we’re going to change it up each week here. Prescott still has Mississippi State undefeated and ranked #1 in the polls, and he will likely help an NFL team, even if not taken with the top overall selection.

Can he and will he play on Sundays?  Right now, Dak Prescott owns the Saturday game.
Can he and will he play on Sundays? Right now, Dak Prescott owns the Saturday game.

At this point, given their failure to achieve victory, the Raiders are in the driver’s seat to pick at the top. I don’t believe they’re poorly coached by Tony Sparano or poorly quarterbacked by rookie Derek Carr. At this point, they just lack talent in so many areas. They need to uncluster decades of bad football work by Al Davis and rebuild this team.

Actual Worst Game

Hard to go in any direction other than Oakland-Cleveland here. It was an ugly game all around that the Browns made more aesthetically pleasing on the scoreboard with a pair of 4th quarter touchdowns, but this was basically a field goal struggle for three quarters. Nobody wants to pay to see Janikowski v. Cundiff.

The same could be said for the Hauscka v. Gano game in Carolina, but struggling to find the endzone against Seattle is a different animal than what took place in Cleveland.

Dirty Laundry Award

Usually, this honor is bestowed on a team, but Walt Anderson’s crew really earned it this week, with Philadelphia and Arizona each being penalized more than any team in the league on Sunday. 11 flags on the Eagles awarded the Cardinals 103 penalty yards. Arizona gave their visitors 95 yards on 10 infractions.

For the Degenerates

The Cowboys look like world-beaters. The Redskins look inept in every phase of the game, but everyone is focused on the quarterback position. With Colt McCoy starting for Washington, it’s no wonder they’re a 9 and a half point dog on the road. Ordinarily, I might suggest throwing out everything you know and anticipating a close game. Not tonight.

coltmccoy

Don’t expect the visiting team to do much in the way of scoring points, but anticipate them turning the ball over. This is what McCoy does. Even if the Cowboys are firing on all cylinders, total points should stay under 50. There is an added element for Browns fans here with Tony Romo’s understudy being Brandon Weeden. If I were to predict a battle of Cleveland cast-offs here, I’d take the Redskins and the points, and also bet the farm on the under.

Random, Perhaps Unimportant

Peyton Manning wasn’t all smiles after Denver’s big division win over San Diego. He took exception to the actions of his scoreboard operator, who apparently amped up the crowd at the wrong moment(s). The expectation of the home crowd when Manning is on the field is complete and utter silence. He voiced his frustration through the media, which some people didn’t care to hear. I’m left to wonder if he’s tried to quietly voice this internally previously and became the grease-seeking squeaky wheel after it continued.

Nice one-armed grab and run by Theo Riddick in the final minute of Detroit’s win over Atlanta in London. He corralled the overthrown ball from Matt Stafford with his extended left arm and hustled to the Falcons 41, just outside of field goal range.

Sammy Watkins made the most of his three catches (for 157 yards) in Buffalo’s 43-23 win over the Jets on Sunday, but 84 yards is a long way to run to be denied a touchdown. Finish the play, and then you can celebrate.

On the flip-side of the near-perfect quarterback efficiency we’ve seen early in games so far, Geno Smith more than deserved to be benched with a line that read 2-for-8 with 5 yards passing. Good luck, Michael Vick.

These Jack-in-the-Box commercials don’t even pretend to market their product to the non-stoner.

I’m a little inspired by Denard Robinson’s first 11 carries for 90 yards against the Dolphins. I’m back to earth about his final 7 carries for 18 yards in the Jaguars 27-13 loss.

Ninkovich’s scoop and score was the Patriots third touchdown in 57 seconds, part of a 31 point 3rd quarter in Foxboro.
We can stop talking about how much better the Bears are away from Soldier Field, where they own an 0-3 home record. They stuck on the road Sunday, losing 51-23 to New England.

The Patriots scored three times in 57 seconds in the second quarter of their blowout win over the Bears. With a 17-7 lead, Tom Brady hooked up with Rob Gronkowski from two yards out, just inside the two-minute warning. Jay Cutler and the Bears offense killed just 41 seconds on a three-and-out, before Julian Edelman’s punt return put the Patriots back in businss at the Chicago 9. Brady got his fourth touchdown pass on the next play from scrimmage, and New England scored again on the Bears’ next offenseive play when Ray Ninkovich did the scoop and score on a Cutler fumble.

Rest in peace, Martha Miles and Oscar Taveras. The mother of LSU head coach Les Miles passed away on Friday. On Saturday night, an emotional Miles led his team past #3 Ole Miss at home. Taveras, a 22 year-old prospect in the St. Louis Cardinals organization, and his girlfriend were killed in a car accident in the Dominican Republic this weekend. Taveras never had much more than a cup of coffee at the big league level, but had a bright future with the club. So young, so tragic.

Next week’s slate includes Cardinals at Cowboys, Broncos at Patriots, and Ravens at Steelers. Until we get there, enjoy the week ahead.

11-on-11: A Royal NFL Reboot

Don’t let my excitement over what’s happening in baseball be interpreted as a slight on the NFL or my obligation to follow it. However, it’s the Royals run for a ring, their first expedition of the sort in 29 years, that has me feeling nostalgic. That autumn of 1985 brings back so many memories, seeing George Brett lead his club to a 1-0 victory at Cleveland Stadium in the first game I remember I attending, watching a baseball game from too late the night before on our brand new VCR, and of course the Royals beating the St. Louis baseball Cardinals in seven games, thanks in large part to Bret Saberhagen.

The Royals may have gotten a nudge from the umpires, but in 1985, they were the Champions of the World. They try to do it again in 2014, hosting National League Champ San Francisco in the World Series, which begins Tuesday.

Though baseball may have been at the forefront in the beginning, seasons passed, and with it, a new passion was born. It was that year, the first of Bernie Kosar’s career, that the Cleveland Browns became a part of my life. Something those young people with memories that begin with Tim Couch and the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad rebooted Browns have a hard time understanding is how spoiled I was with the Browns once upon a time. Sure, their mere 8-8 record gave them a weak AFC Central Division and they were handed a devastating first-round playoff exit, but it was only the beginning.

There would be AFC Championships and the requisite heartbreak that came with each of them, but there would also be a developing interest in the National Football League on the whole. We had the Bears incredible regular season that featured William “The Refrigerator” Perry, a playoff run that the Super Fans could have accurately predicted, and a Super Bowl that somehow didn’t feature Walter Payton, but we did witness a quarterback removed from the game for his own safety, like in terms of life and death for Tony Eason. The Patriots won three road games to earn the privilege of being beaten by the Bears like crippled salmon, something that no team had ever done before them. What followed has been almost 30 years of heartbreak, but I’d go back and do it over again in the first place. The game is so different now, but also very much the same. Today, we’ll do the Marty McFly thing and get all obsessive over 1985.

What I wouldn’t give to reboot my sports-loving life back to the late 80s, and just for the avenue to think about it, I’m grateful for these Royals as they take on San Francisco in the 2014 World Series. Royals in six, by the way; not that anyone asked me.

What I Anticipated Most

Looks like we’re back under the lights to satiate my anticipation of Sunday football. It’s not the way I planned it, but it’s the way it’s been, so kudos to NBC for picking the right games to air. Once upon a time, a few years after that magical 1985 season, John Elway led his “Orange Crush” Broncos to a Super Bowl against a 49ers team that his Denver team simply could not compete with. The tables may have turned a quarter-century later, with Elway in the Broncos’ front office, and he may have built a better team around Peyton Manning than the suits ever gave him a player.

SBXXIV

It was a question of what 49ers team might show up, as they live life as the second-most popular team in their own city (no, not Santa Clara) in the moment. The fact is, some may be thinking the organization lost a little bit of its fire, on the heels of three straight Conference Championship appearance, starting with head coach Jim Harbaugh, who may already have his heart set on turning things around in Ann Arbor, but let’s wait and see on that. Andy Reid’s Eagles teams were also accused of complacency, having been so near the mountain top so many times. And, while the regular season can be taken lightly by a shoe-in like the Broncos, the Niners learned a year ago that the current landscape in the NFC and specifically in their juggernaut division means scratching and clawing until the clock hits 0 in Week 17.

Thank God this was a historic night in Denver, because there wasn’t much of a football after all of the anticipation. Blaine Gabbert and Brock Osweiler were the quarterbacks to finish the game, because it was over after 3 quarters with Denver up 42-10. We were all waiting to see if the Niners would surrender 3 passing touchdowns, and they did before the half. Manning’s 509th career touchdown pass went for three yards to Demaryius Thomas, who has been on the receiving end of 29 of Manning’s 510 scoring strikes.

I’ve been trying to put this in perspective, comparing it to baseball, because that’s what I’ve been talking about. Ten years ago, I might have said this is Henry Aaron’s career home run record, just to go tit-for-tat with the scoring aspect. Wouldn’t touchdowns be home runs while something like hits is more comparable with yards, since you’re talking about the means versus the end? I think I’d want to violate that logic, and put Manning passing Brett Favre up there with Pete Rose collecting more base knocks than Ty Cobb, only because I believe Manning will play long enough that no mortal will come close to catching him, even if they also pass Favre.

To give you an idea, Tom Brady has 372 and even if he’s not actually on the decline, anyone who says he has 138 touchdown passes left in him should be challenged. By the way, Broncos win this one by a count of 42-17

Thursday Is My Garbage Day

For a while there, it felt like the NFL was trying to make Patriots-Jets into a Red Sox-Yankees type of rivalry. I’m glad they don’t do that any more, because if a Boston-New York rivalry to exist, though nobody actually plays in the cities proper, it would be more appropriate to make the Giants the adversary of Brady and company. Sure, the league’s alignment makes that more Red Sox-Mets than Red Sox-Yankees, but it’s dumb to force that in the first place.

As for the game itself, despite the close final score and last minute drama, it was back to the typical garbage football that Thursday Night Football viewers have become accustomed to. In the end, it was the Patriots D-Lineman Chris Jones watching the universe balance itself out to give the home team a 2-point win on their home field. A year ago, Jones made a special teams gaffe in New Jersey that gave Nick Folk a reprieve in overtime after missing a 56-yard attempt on a little-known penalty. Folk nailed his mulligan and the Jets won 30-27. This time, Folk would be given no such opportunity with Jets victory on the line, Jones represented the jaws of defeat in blocking the 58 yard attempt.

As the final score might have indicated, the Patriots did just enough to hold off the Jets, but they spent plenty of time on Thursday night teasing them with hope. The Jets held leads of 9-7 and 19-17 during the game and had a chance to tie outside of the two-minute warning, after Geno Smith hit Jeff Cumberland for the final points of the night, but those points were not to be for the visiting Jets. However, the Patriots were only able to kill about a minute and a half after a failed onside kick attempt, and no one gave Smith much of a chance to get New York in field goal range with 66 seconds and no timeouts from his own 12. Of course it was not to be, and Rex Ryan’s team would fall to 1-6 on the year, but their young quarterback was 5-of-7 for 43 yards and gave his team a chance.

Maybe you like that if you’re trying to put a silver lining on this Jets season. By the way, these two franchises met in the AFC Wildcard Game in 1985 with the Patriots winning 26-14 at The Meadowlands, their first of three consecutive road playoff victories en route to being humiliated in the Super Bowl.

House of California Dreams

Sunday’s action in the NFL took place exactly 29 years after Game 1 of the 1985 “Show Me Series”, and Missouri’s chapters in the NFL stayed out of the way. Of course, the St. Louis team would only co-occupy Busch Stadium another three seasons before continuing their ineptitude in Phoenix, as the “Phoenix” Cardinals anyway, and those Cardinals fell to 3-4 in Pittsburgh while their baseball counterpart was in Kansas City scored four runs in the top of the ninth to hand the Royals a 4-2 defeat to take a 2 games to none lead in the 1985 World Series. Coincidentally, the Rams and Chiefs hooked up across the parking lot from Kauffman Stadium, but the Rams would still call Los Angeles home for another decade.

Funny how everything comes full circle, isn’t it? I know we’ve heard how owners benefit more from the NFL void in the City of Angels, given the leverage it gives them against their existing fan base, but the smart money says at least one team will bring the NFL back to La La Land very soon. If I’m a gambling man, I’m throwing money at it being the Rams, and if the town is big enough, possibly the Raiders too. Whether or not any of that happens, the Rams still have to deal with the beasts of the NFC West while calling the Gateway City home. That means a visit from the defending World Champs, but a dire need to improve on their 1-4 start.

It was going to take something special, some special teams play perhaps, for the Rams to knock off the visiting Sea Chickens, who figured to be fired up in the wake of a rare home loss a week ago. Sure, it’s special to see Austin Davis’s near-perfect stat line early in Sunday’s action, though it wasn’t for a lot of yards, and you can only laugh at how much a quarterback might pad his stats on jet sweep-like shovel passes, but he was getting it done for the last place Rams.

It wasn’t the Rams quarterback play that justified the price of admission in St. Louis on Sunday as much as it was the Steadman Bailey 90-yard punt return, made possible by his longtime-teammate Tavon Austin creating a diversion on the other side of the field, creating an open field for Bailey to put St. Louis up 21-3 in the first half. Austin may have signaled for a fair catch away from the ball, but Pete Carroll couldn’t make that case compelling enough to the game’s officials to achieve any kind of result. Seattle, being the winners that they are, found themselves back in the game and actually in a position to win it with a defensive stop late, holding St. Louis to 4th and 3 deep in their own territory, forcing a punt…allegedly.

The Rams punter, former high school quarterback Johnny Hekker, used his arm instead of his leg, connecting with Benny Cunningham for 18 yards to his own 36 yard-line to put this 28-26 win on ice.

Fins Drop Bears, Just Like ’85

The Rams of Los Angeles in 1985 would reach the doorstep, but they ran into a buzzsaw in Mike Ditka and Buddy Ryan’s Bears in the NFC Championship. As clearly as I remember anything else from that year, I remember how dominating the Bears were that year, and how those Bears were the benchmark for what I expected the Monsters of the Midway to be, even after Walter Payton had given way to Neal Anderson in the backfield. In their two playoff games, they outscored the Giants and Rams by a combined score of 45-0, and then they beat the Patriots 46-10 in the Super Bowl. They were 15-1 in the regular season, starting 12-0 before a fateful Monday night in Miami.

Now, those Dolphins were the best team in the AFC, and they were the defending conference champs to boot, but their 38-24 beatdown of the Bears sent a message. Of course, after a monumental comeback over the Browns in the divisional round of the playoffs, the Dolphins lost to New England at home in the AFC Championship, so they never got a second crack at Chicago, which could have been a very interesting Super Bowl. Fast forward to 2014, and neither of these teams can possibly be thinking Super Bowl, but hovering around .500 this early still means you’re in the hunt.

While we don’t need to discuss Jim McMahon or Dan Marino, this one came down to the present-day quarterbacks. The Bears entered play 3-0 when Jay Cutler doesn’t throw any picks, and conversely 0-3 when he does. He also lost a fumble on a Cameron Wake strip-sack, but it probably didn’t matter with the way his Miami counterpart played on Sunday. Ryan Tannehill was true on his first 14 passes, with 176 yards and 2 touchdowns in the first half alone, he finished his team’s 27-14 victory 25-of-32 passing for 277 yards, a nice bounce-back from his 2 interception outing in Miami’s loss to Green Bay last weekend.

These Chiefs Could Be Royal

When you’re in a division that forces you to look up at Peyton Manning and Denver in the standings, you need to win every game you can, but specifically those in your own division. The Chiefs had already suffered a division loss to the aforementioned Broncos, so a good showing against the surprisingly 5-1 Chargers at Qualcomm was imperative, and also necessary. While no one, probably no one, expects Andy Reid to take these Chiefs to the Super Bowl, the expectation has to be a playoff win. The next one will be the franchise’s first since 1993, which is nothing compared to the Royals 29-year drought, but you know you’re going to start hearing the noise if Reid’s team regresses, and missing the post-season this year will equal regression in the eyes of many.

The Chargers, winners of five straight since dropping their Monday Night opener to the Cardinals, may have been looking ahead to their Thursday Night tilt with Denver, but we find it hard to believe any AFC West opponent could be taken lightly. The game was tightly contested all afternoon, but for the second time in as many years, the fate of Kansas City’s trip to San Diego rested on the foot of a Kansas City kicker. Ten months ago, in a Week 17 game that meant everything to the Chargers and absolutely nothing to the Chiefs, Ryan Succop missed the potential game-winner and the Chargers went to the playoffs. This time, it was Cairo Santos, the rookie from Tulane, and he was true from 48 yards, giving the Chiefs a 23-20 win, boosting them to 3-3 on the season.

Separating the Cowboys from the G-Men

If you’ve watched the NFC East at any point in your life, you’ll find one thing to be true. No one knows anything when it comes to the NFC East. The Giants have been an up and down team all year, hitting their low point in a 27-0 nationally televised loss to Philadelphia last Sunday. The Cowboys peaked, and some concern has been raised on the airwaves that they peaked too soon, last week with a big 30-23 win in the Pacific Northwest. History tells us not to consider any of that.

While everyone anticipated a record-breaking night in Denver, DeMarco Murray’s run at history for the Cowboys was a little less celebrated, but still involves the name Jim Brown, so pay attention. With his seventh consecutive game with a rushing touchdown and at least 100 yards on the ground, the 4th-year back from Oklahoma surpassed the Hall-of-Famer’s 56-year mark of doing it in six straight games. While Tony Romo and Eli Manning matched each other on the stat sheet with 3 scoring strike apiece, it was Murray on the 1-yard score with 9 minutes left in the game that put Dallas up 28-14.

MurrayScores

It was a short scoring drive for the Cowboys, who only needed four plays to punch it in from the Giants’ 27 after a Justin Durant fumble recovery. Two of Romo’s touchdowns were to Gavin Escobar, the 2nd-year tight end from San Diego State. Escobar now has 3 touchdowns in his last two games, with just 7 total catches for 85 yards on the season.

Who Wants the Dynamic Duck?

We entered play in Week 7 with two winless teams and a handful of 1-win teams. Jacksonville joined the ranks of 1-15 being the worst case scenario, while Oakland had some chances against the Cardinals, despite falling to 0-6 with a 23-14 home loss. Tampa Bay was off, so they would stay at 1-5 and we know the Jets failed to pick up win #2 on Thursday night. The Rams picked up their second win against Seattle, and the Redskins made their worst case scenario 2-14 with a 1-point home win over 2-win Tennessee. I know it would be easy to send Marcus Mariota to Mark Davis in Oakland, but I still believe the Raiders will play their way out of the top spot in 2015’s draft, maybe even out of the Top 5 if Derek Carr continues to show promise.

Staying with our “like-1985” theme, I’ll point out that the Bucs had the first pick in 1986, and took Bo Jackson, who never played a down for them. Bo knew. He chose another year of baseball at Auburn before signing with the Raiders in 1987. It’s interesting if it isn’t Mariota at the top of everyone’s draft boards, because there’s a two-sport athlete at Florida State that could take a similar route. Anyways, I still believe it’s Lovie Smith that gets the quarterback from Eugene with the #1 team.

They’ll see the Vikings, Browns, and Redskins over the next four weeks and might get a quite apathetic Saints team at home in Week 17. I don’t know how they won in Pittsburgh, but I think those four opponents might yield a single victory, but that’s where hope lies for Tampa Bay to avoid picking first in May.

Actual Worst Game

We gave Cincinnati a long look for a second straight week for this distinction, but even a 27-0 loss on the road ot the Colts in their first game after a dismal 37-37 tie doesn’t trump the egg their upstate neighbors would lie in North Florida on Sunday. You want to say all of the right things here, that Jacksonville had a good defensive gameplan to stop the Browns rushing attack, that rookie quarterback Blake Bortles earned his first NFL win, and good for the Jaguars avoiding the history that a zero in the win column at the end of the year might bring. While I believe Bortles will be good some day, and that the Jaguars front seven played sound fundamental football against the Browns taxi-squad offensive line, Cleveland showed their fans how capable they are of playing Shurmur-ball.

Browns Jaguars Football

Former Michigan quarterback, now the Jaguars starting running back, Denard Robinson had 127 yards and a touchdown on the ground to lead the way in a 24-6 win over the Browns, who fell into a last place tie with Pittsburgh in the NFC North. Bortles threw two interceptions to Browns safety Tashaun Gipson, which Cleveland only turned into 3 points, failing to get the ball into the endzone for the first time all season. The story of the game can be told by the Browns side of the box score, the league’s #3 running team was held to 69 yards on 30 carries, while the sudden hometown hero Brian Hoyer was just 16-of-41 passing for 215 yards. A week ago, the Browns lost their Pro-Bowl center Alex Mack, and it showed on the stat sheet this week.

Dirty Laundry Award

The Saints were penalized 12 times for 134 yards in their 24-23 loss to Detroit. They were very sloppy in this game, continuing to negate the theory that they’re very good in any dome, when the truth is that they’re very ordinary, indoors or out, away from the Superdome. They were able to rebound from most of Sunday’s dirty laundry, but twice, on pass interference calls against Brian Dixon (31 yards) and Rafael Bush (3 yards), the Lions had their drives extended due to the flags.

For the Degenerates

If you ask their fans who don’t think beyond six Super Bowl rings, a 31-10 loss to Cleveland in Week 6 is rock bottom for the Steelers. Fire everyone, right? At 3-3, even with the losses to Tampa and the Browns, that’s a bit premature. Houston has been adequate, but nothing special on offense so far. Caesar’s has Pittsburgh as a 3-point favorite at home, and that feels so perfect that I’d go with Houston if they were getting an extra half-point and I’d like the home team if they were giving a half-point less. If you can’t bet the push, I’d reluctantly take Pittsburgh. The total point number is 44.5 and I believe there will be enough defense to stay under that mark.

Random, Perhaps Even Unimportant

Baltimore, a city without a football team in 1985, had no problem with Atlanta, a city that doesn’t care any of their present-day local teams, let alone the Falcons, on Sunday. The once-dominant Atlanta offense was held to four first downs in the first half and allowed a second-half safety when Terrell Suggs sacked Matt Ryan in the endzone in the Ravens 29-7 victory. With the Browns and Bengals going down on Sunday, they now sit comfortably atop the AFC North at 5-2.

The Bill signed Kyle Orton off the couch this year, and while they’re all-in play for Sammy Watkins on draft day still might raise an eyebrow or two, Buffalo is 4-3, just a game behind the Patriots in the AFC East. Orton, who (seemingly) played his college ball at Purdue in the early-80s was happy that Watkins was in the fold, or at least his touchdown pass to the rookie from Clemson with 1 second left would suggest they aren’t interested in giving Cleveland a marquee-pick in the first round of next year’s draft. It took a 15-play, 80 yard drive that included a 4th and 20 conversion to give them a 17-16 win over the struggling Vikings.

Since telling the good people of Green Bay to relax, all Aaron Rodgers has done is lead the Packers to 4 straight wins, including Sunday’s 38-17 trouncing of the Carolina Panthers, throwing 13 touchdowns against no picks along the way.

In a game between two awful teams that somehow lost out on being the Actual Worst Game of the week, a Chas Whitehurst v. Kirk Cousins slopfest was spoiled when Jay Gruden called Colt McCoy out of the bullpen for the Redskins in their 19-17 win over the sub-par Titans. McCoy was 11-of-12 for 128 yards in the second half for Washington, but the stat-padding assist of the week goes to Pierre Garcon for his 70 yard catch-and-run to inflate the dink and dunk numbers.

If Andre Ellington and Stepfan Taylor can provide a 1-2 punch in the running game that fans in the desert haven’t seen since the Cardinals moved to Arizona, it’s going to take a lot of the burden off of Carson Palmer and open up the offense for Bruce Arians. Against the Raiders, Ellington had 160 yards from scrimmage and Taylor, the second-year back from Stanford added 59 in the Birds 24-13 win in the Black Hole.

Next week, our Garbage Day game features the Chargers and Broncos, which may or may not give Denver some separation from the pack in the AFC West, a “rematch” of Super Bowl XX when the Bears visit New England, Ravens-Bengals Part II, and a desert showdown between this year’s last two unbeaten teams. Arizona and Philadelphia each only have that one blemish on their record, but the ’72 Dolphins got to uncork the champagne in early October this year.

42 years later, Merc has but one memory in his entire life.

Also, if he’s that obsessed with being the only perfect team, former Dolphin Mercury Morris needs to get a life.

Lastly, am I the only one that watches this Peyton Manning Nationwide spot, and think of other things Manning would say to the tune of the catchy jingle, like “I’m so much better than Eli” or “You should eat at Papa Johns”?  Just me?  That’s cool, I embrace being strange.

MLB Post-Season: A Week of Entertainment and Surprises

One week into the MLB post-season and things are starting to shape up as to who will be advancing and who will be waiting for next year. The 12 games so far have for the most part been exciting games. We have seen a little bit of everything; offense, defense, pitching, questionable umpire calls and questionable instant replay calls.

A week ago we were getting ready for the Wild Card games and while both games looked like good match-ups, the AL game between the Royals and the Athletics looked like the one to watch, mainly because of the starting pitchers. James Shields was obtained by the Royals two years ago simply for this type of situation…lead the team to the post-season and be there in a must win game. Likewise the Athletics obtained Jon Lester from the Red Sox at the July 31 non-waiver deadline to bolster an already strong pitching staff and he had a great post-season record. The game was everything we expected with one exception.

We thought that the game would be low scoring and would turn on a minor mistake or on a great play. The game looked like it was over when the Athletics led 7-3, but then the Royals running game got going. The running game was clearly helped by the injury to A’s catcher Geovany Soto early in the game as his replacement Derek Norris doesn’t handle the running game anywhere near as well as Soto. The A’s then went ahead in extra innings and again it looked like the Royals were done. Then that speed took over again, giving the Royals a milestone win and a date with the MLB regular season best Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

As for the Athletics, it now appears certain that they overplayed their hand in trading Yoenis Cespedes in the Lester deal. It was a gamble, designed to win this year and it backfired. If they don’t resign Lester it will be a huge setback for them or at the very least a huge missed opportunity.

I expected a good game in the NL Wild Card game as the Giants travelled to Pittsburgh. I thought the teams were pretty even and figured that home field would be the difference. Instead, the difference was a grand slam that put the first four runs of the game on the board and essentially it was over at that point. All that was left to find out was the final score and how dominating Madison Bumgarner would be for the rest of the game.

If we thought those games were good, we were just getting warmed up. The four Divisional Series have been entertaining games/series as well, complete with a few surprises.

The two AL series are over in the minimum three games. I did not expect to see the Royals and the Orioles come out winners and did not expect these series to be over in three games. The Tigers, with their three Cy Young winning starting pitchers appeared, on paper, to have it all over the Orioles, despite the fact that the Orioles won their division going away and the Tigers had to wait until game 162 to clinch the AL Central. The major Tiger weakness was known to be their bullpen, specifically the back end of the bullpen and the Orioles wasted no time exploiting that weakness. The Tigers find themselves in an awkward position. They are committed to several expensive players for next year, they have to spend money on the bullpen and they are not getting any younger.

In fact, the Tigers regressed this year, despite their fourth straight AL Central title. They were challenged by the Royals and by the Indians to some extent and they did not make it to the ALCS/WS for the first time in four years. Mike Ilitch and Dave Dombrowski may be looking to re-think their approach as the window appears to be closing. They have some serious decisions to make. Max Scherzer has given indications that he may not want to stay. Justin Verlander is not the same Justin Verlander he was two years ago. Whether David Price is/wants to be the long term answer has yet to be decided. In a series dominated by the Orioles, not only did the Orioles starting three outduel the Cy Young winners, of those Cy Young winners only Price was as advertised. Verlander and Scherzer didn’t pitch well enough or deep enough in their respective starts to justify their previous “stud’ reputations.

Kansas City proved the comeback against the A’s was no fluke. For two games in Anaheim they hung in until the 11th and then got going. Their series clinching win at home on Sunday night was extremely well done. Three consecutive extra inning wins is living a tad dangerously, but great for the fans.

Orioles-Royals is going to be an interesting, enjoyable and extremely refreshing ALCS.

If the AL has been exciting because of the “upsets” and sweeps, then the NL has been exciting because of the types of games we have seen in games one and two of both series.

The Giants had momentum from the Pittsburgh game and it carried over into the first two games in Washington. Two one run games were the result, but achieved in very different fashions. The Giants experience showed in game one as they jumped out to a 3-0 and then held on. Game two will go down as a classic post-season game. Jordan Zimmerman was masterful for 8 2/3 innings and it looked like one run would be enough to win it and the Nationals already had that run. Tim Hudson matched Zimmerman almost pitch for pitch and left the game trailing 1-0, but deserving better. With two outs in the Giants ninth, we may have seen the first of three turning points in the game.

Through my lens, Matt Williams over managed. He took Zimmerman out while he appeared to be cruising. Whether Zimmerman was on a short leash in the ninth we will never know and if he was, we will never know whether he knew it or not. Williams, not only a rookie post-season manager, but a rookie big league skipper period made the decision. The two-out walk represented the tying run and it may well have been that Williams felt he was protecting his pitcher by removing him, feeling that he didn’t want Zimmerman taking the loss in a game he had pitched so magnificently. That was a possibility if the next hitter he faced had homered or eventually come round to score. Drew Storen didn’t come through for the Nationals and the tying run scored on a typical Giants two out bottom of the ninth rally. I truly believe that Buster Posey was safe in his slide at the plate, but he was called out, thereby negating a second Giants run, which if it had been allowed, would have been the winner. The Home Plate umpire had a good view of the play and I believe he got it wrong. After seeing the numerous angles on the replay I was sure Posey was safe. The MLB umpires in New York didn’t agree with me and backed their colleague. While the Giants may have been cheated, baseball fans got a treat. Another nine innings of great baseball, that wasn’t settled until Brandon Belt’s second deck homer in the top of the 18th.

What a great name for a hitter who decides a game in that manner. While the Nationals obviously have the talent to come back in the series, you have to think that their confidence took a huge hit with that 18 inning loss.

Friday’s opening game in the Dodger-Cardinal series was even more of a shock. Not because of the result, but the way in which the game unfolded. I expected a 1-0 or 2-1 game, and was ready to sit back and watch Clayton Kershaw and Adam Wainwright; two of the best pitchers in the game match up. What we got was hardly what we expected. Kershaw gave up eight earned runs and Wainwright was gone after four and a third innings. Hardly the stuff that top of the rotation starters are made of. The Dodgers evening the series in game two was not a surprise. Most of us would have expected that series to be a four or five game series. If you’re not partial to either team, sit back and enjoy, because that will be a great two out of three series.

The post-season is baseball’s most exciting event, with perhaps opening day being the only other event even being close. To have seen the number of terrific games we have seen so far is amazing and to think we are only through one week of post season play. If the first week is the barometer to which we will compare the balance of the games, there is no question we are in for a great run.