The Will to Keep Running the Ball

Although they went into the half trailing 14-6, the Baltimore Ravens had sent their rivals in Pittsburgh a clear message.  Repeatedly during that first half, Baltimore’s featured back, Alex Collins slashed the Steeler defense right up the middle.  That the Ravens couldn’t cash in on this production came from the fact that Baltimore had no answer for the Steeler blitz schemes.  Joe Flacco wasn’t sacked, but he finished the first half just 9 of 16, with Baltimore converting just 2 of 7 third downs.

But, with Collins providing the spark, Baltimore had gained 57 yards in 14 rushes – and average of 4.1 yards per.  It would certainly seem to be an advantage to build on.

Baltimore ran the ball exactly twice in the second half.

I could probably write about this every week.  In an NFL that is increasingly passing-centric, the will to keep running the ball is becoming increasingly rare.

In Baltimore’s case – even though they went into the half down by just 8, the Steelers opened the second half with an impressive 15-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that ate up the first 8:14 of the second half.  Six of the plays on the drive were runs (three times as many runs in that drive than Baltimore would attempt for the rest of the game).

Emotionally, that drive was damaging, but the reality of the situation was that the Ravens trailed just 20-6 with still 6:46 left in the third and the entire fourth quarter left.  More than enough time to run their offense.  But the will to keep running the ball failed them.  So, even though they struggled protecting Flacco – and even though their running attack was the most effective aspect of their offense in the first half – the Ravens folded up their running game. 

Flacco threw the ball 21 times in the second half, getting sacked on two other drop backs.  With little time to look downfield, Joe’s tosses became mostly a series of short dump offs.  He completed 14 of those passes, but for just 97 yards.  The Ravens finished the second half with just 99 yards of total offense, on its way to a 23-16 loss (gamebook) (box score).

Playing with the lead, Pittsburgh wasn’t shy about pounding the Baltimore defense.  Although they never gained more than 5 yards on any single second half run, Pittsburgh nonetheless ran 17 times in the second half – earning just 40 yards with those attempts (2.4 per).  Nonetheless, the Steelers converted 6 of 9 third downs and controlled the ball for 20:14 of the second half.

Seattle is Willing

In stark contrast is the game the Seattle Seahawks played at home against the Los Angeles Chargers.  Seattle has re-committed to the run, and even with primary hammer-back Chris Carson nursing hip and thigh injuries – and even though they spent the entire second half trailing by as much as 15 points, the Hawks never stopped running the ball.  Of their 32 running attempts on the day, 15 came in the second half.  They finished with 154 rushing yards, and 35:41 of possession. 

Seattle did lose this game, 25-17 (gamebook) (box score), but were throwing into the end zone from the Charger 6-yard line as the game ended.  As with the Ravens, the Seattle passing game couldn’t take advantage of the production from the running game.  The Chargers denied Seattle’s receivers any down-the-field opportunities, forcing Russell Wilson into an endless string of dump-off passes.  Tyler Lockett finished the game with 3 catches for 22 yards – none longer than 9 yards.

The Chargers – who racked up 160 rushing yards of their own – had just enough to hold them off.  Both of these teams will be in contention down the stretch, and one of the reasons will be their commitment to balance.

Both play defense pretty well, too.  The Chargers and Seahawks combined to go 1-for-13 on third down in the second half. 

A final thought about this game:

Seattle is now 1-2 at home this year.  Every game in Seattle they show the noise decibel graphic (the highest I think I remember seeing was 106 – which is good and loud).  You also get plenty of shots of the crowd cupping their lips with their hands in a desperate attempt to affect the game with sheer volume.  In the first place, of course, just screaming is an artistic achievement of dubious merit.  More than that, though, the effect seems to be negligible.  Some years ago, it was much more effective than it has been recently, as the league seems to have mostly adjusted.  The Chargers didn’t seem overly disturbed by it.  Seattle has also lost at home to the Rams – a division opponent that comes into Seattle every year and seemed not to notice the noise.  But you Seattle fans, you keep on screaming at the top of your lungs – you’re so cute when you’re just senselessly yelling.

Rodgers v Brady

Already this season, there have been several marquee quarterback matchups – many of which have absolutely lived up to the hype. 

Back on September 16, the Kansas City Chiefs and the Pittsburgh Steelers engaged in an entertaining 42-37 contest (won by KC).  In that game, Ben Roethlisberger threw for 452 yards and 3 touchdowns, but was out-done by rising star Patrick Mahomes, who threw for 326 yards of his own.  And 6 touchdowns.

Then on September 23, the New Orleans Saints finally subdued the Atlanta Falcons 43-37.  In that matchup, Matt Ryan gave the Saints all they could handle, throwing 5 touchdown passes among his 374 yards.  Not quite enough, as it turns out, as Drew Brees threw 3 touchdowns of his own among 396 passing yards.

The New England Patriots have already been involved in two such free-for-alls.  They had their own encounter with Kansas City, winning 43-40 behind Tom Brady and his 340 passing yards – just barely overcoming 4 more touchdown passes from Mahomes and his 352 passing yards.

They followed that game the next week with an exciting 38-31 conquest of Mitchell Trubisky and the Bears.  Trubisky threw for 333 yards in the defeat.

My favorite so far this year has been the September 27 contest between Jared Goff and the LA Rams and Kirk Cousins and Minnesota.  In this back-and-forth game, both quarterbacks executed at a remarkably high level.  Cousins completed 36 of 50 passes for 422 yards and 3 touchdowns (without an interception).  His passer rating for the evening was an impressive 117.2.  His team lost.

Goff completed 26 of 33 for 465 yards and 5 touchdowns (also without interception), leading the Rams to a 38-31 conquest.  His passer rating that game was a maximum 158.3. 

(You will hear many commentators refer to 158.3 as a “perfect” score.  It is, of course, not perfect.  Jared did miss on 7 passes.  It is more accurate to refer to that number as the maximum rating, as the system will not permit a higher rating.  If Goff’s night had been perfect – if he had completed all 33 of his passes for 619 yards and 7 touchdowns, the passer rating system would not – indeed could not – reward him with a higher rating.)

Brees and Goff also met up in Week 9 in another game that lived up to the hype – that game will be looked at in a bit.

And so, last Sunday night – as two legendary quarterbacks squared off – much of America was hoping for a similar shootout.  Again, the Patriots and Brady would be involved – this time opposite Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers.

This time, though, the expected shootout never developed.

Both of the legendary throwers did well.  Rodgers finished the night 24 of 43 (55.8%) for 259 yards and 2 touchdowns.  Brady threw for 294 yards on 22 of 35 throwing (62.9%) and 1 touchdown.  Rodgers’ receivers – who seem to be a rather ordinary collection this year- repeatedly had difficulty beating their man coverage assignments.  Rodgers spent much of the evening scrambling around in the backfield waiting for a receiver to come open before checking the ball down.

As for the Patriots, they spent the evening re-discovering their running game.  Even with top running threat Sony Michel on the sidelines, New England still ran the ball 31 times for 123 yards and 3 touchdowns.  James White got a few more carries than usual (12), and the Patriots continued the re-purposing of receiver/kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson as a running back.  Patterson finished the day with 11 rushes for 61 yards and a touchdown.

Patterson may have been as impressive as anyone on the field.  Now in his sixth season, the talented Mr. Patterson – who has never quite found his niche as a regular in the offense – may have finally discovered himself at running back.  Cordarrelle is a violent, take-no-prisoners, downhill runner.  In fact, if you kind of squinted as you watched him running with the ball, you might swear you were watching LeGarrette Blount.  He even has a similar weakness.  When the defense could get him going sideways, his impact was much less.  If the Patterson at running back experiment continues, this could have very interesting long-term repercussions.

In the end – as usually happens when the Patriots take the field – New England walked off the victor, 31-17 (gamebook) (box score).  One way or another they almost always figure out a way to beat you.

Deferring a Mistake?

Let me begin by saying that I am a big fan of deferring after winning the coin toss.  Often you will hear coaches and commentators chat about the opportunity to end the first half with a score, and then open the second half with another.  Sound philosophy, but I maintain that even if you don’t end the first half with that score, you still want to begin the second half with the ball in your hands aware of what has to happen in the second half for you to win the game.

Therefore, it came as no real surprise that – after the Los Angeles Rams won the toss against New Orleans – they deferred.  Five minutes and 35 seconds later, the Rams watched as running back Alvin Kamara completed a 10-play, 75-yard drive by skirting left end for an 11-yard touchdown run.

Nothing the Saints could have done could have worked better to engage the home crowd.  From time-to-time throughout the rest of the game, the Rams would momentarily silence the crowd.  But the rest would only be momentary.  The Saints continually re-sparked them.  Perhaps, when you’re on the road against one of the most dynamic offenses in the league, deferring may not be the best option.

As opposed to the Seattle crowd, the fans in the Superdome had just come to watch and enjoy a football game.  Their contribution was less outright noise, and more a contagious energy that the home team clearly feeds off of.

Three minutes and 17 seconds into the game, New Orleans coach Sean Payton upped the anti.  After a third-and-two run came up short, Payton kept his offense on the field.  In fact, he kept backup quarterback Taysom Hill in the shotgun, trusting him to throw the pass in this critical situation.  It looks like he wanted to throw to starting quarterback Drew Brees – who had lined up at receiver.  But when Hill wasn’t completely sure, he pulled the ball down and sprinted 9 yards for the first down, punctuating the run by lowering his shoulder and driving Ram defensive back Lamarcus Joyner backward for the last couple of yards.

In no uncertain terms, the Saints, the Rams, the crowd at the Superdome and all the fans watching on TV understood that Sean Payton was coaching this like a playoff game.  He had no intention of trading field goals for Ram touchdowns.

The Saints went on to score touchdowns on 5 of their 6 first half drives (the other ending with a turnover), going 5-5 in the red zone.  This was all part of a first half, offensive orgy, the likes of which the fans tuned in hoping to see.  Neither team punted, and the first half saw 52 points scored and 557 yards of offense.

To this point, most of the offense favored the Saints, who carried a 35-17 lead into the locker room.  To the Rams’ credit they didn’t let the game end like that.  Rarely behind at all this season, the heretofore undefeated Rams came roaring back.  Trailing 35-14 at one point, Los Angeles evened the game at 35-all with still almost ten minutes left in the game.

After turning around the organization last year, the Rams are back this year intent on proving that they are as good as anyone in the game.  They left that lingering impression, even as New Orleans pulled away late for the 45-35 win (gamebook) (box score).  The game’s clinching play came with about 4 minutes left when Michael Thomas slipped in behind Ram corner Marcus Peters.  Brees (who finished the game with 346 passing yards and 4 touchdowns) lobbed the ball over Peters’ head, and Thomas did the rest on a 72-yard catch-and-run touchdown.

Prominent in this game is an officiating trend that I find quite disappointing.

The game is tied at 14 in the second quarter, with 13:14 left before halftime.  The Rams, facing fourth-and-four, are setting up for a field goal (they are on the Saint 16-yard-line).  But it’s a fake.  Holder Johnny Hekker took off with the snap and raced around right end, stretching the ball toward the first-down marker.  The spot was not generous, and the ball was marked short.  The Rams challenged the call.

Looking at the replay, it looked for all the world that Hekker had extended the ball past the marker, but after review, the call stood. 

Later, the tables seemed to balance a bit.  As Ram running back Malcom Brown weaved down the sideline for an 18-yard touchdown, it appeared – on replay – that he had clearly stepped out at about the eight-yard line.  Again, the call on the field (touchdown) was upheld.

The NFL has made no secret that this year they are making a sustained effort to back the call on the field.  I confess myself perplexed by this.  There are certainly problems with the replay system as it’s now run, but one of the problems is not the replay replacing the official’s correct call with an incorrect one.  The one constant in the system is that the replay (most of the time) gives a clearer view of what actually happened on the play.  Wherever possible, replay gets it right.  The most fallible element in the equation continues to be the human referees.  Why we are now treating them as mostly infallible makes little sense to me.

Looking at the Playoff Picture

With the NFL season creaking past the half-way mark, the playoff picture is beginning to come into focus – a little bit, anyway.  With a lot of football left to play, here is an early look at how things might play out.    We’ll consider by conference and division.

AFC

Western Division

The Kansas City Chiefs, from the opening game, have been one of the most compelling stories of 2018.  With first-year starter Patrick Mahomes sparking the offense, the Chiefs have won eight of their first nine.  As of today, Kansas City holds the top seed in the conference.

Their one loss, of course, has been to the New England Patriots, leading many to think that perhaps that may come back to bite them – and it might.  But for now they still have a one-game lead over New England, and unless someone else can topple them, I still give them the advantage.

The Chiefs opened the season by rolling over the Los Angeles Chargers 38-28.  The Chargers would start the season with losses in 2 of their first 3 games.  With slow starts being a long-standing tradition for the Chargers, it was easy to sort of dismiss them.  But, of course, the Chargers’ losses have been to the Chiefs and Rams, two teams that have only been beaten once each all season.  As to the Chargers, they haven’t lost since, and, at 6-2 hold the first wildcard spot.

Nothing suggests that they will give up that position.  It has been a long time since Philip Rivers and company have been in the playoffs, but it looks for all the world like that drought is about to end.

Eastern Division

Even with their victory over Kansas City, the New England Patriots are still a game behind the Chiefs for first over-all in the conference.  As has been their recent pattern, the Patriots stumbled a bit out of the gate – losing 2 of their first 3 games.  They have won their last six in a row.  That the Patriots will win their tenth consecutive division title is pretty much a foregone conclusion.  The great question will be, can they catch KC.

The date to circle here is December 16.  New England’s Week 15 matchup is against the Steelers in Pittsburgh.  If the Patriots continue to run the table to that point, then this game will likely determine the top seed in the conference.  If New England pulls it out, they will probably earn that seed.  If not, that loss will probably give KC just the breathing room it needs.

Rising in the division are the Miami Dolphins.  After squeaking out a 13-6 win against the Jets, the Dolphins sit at 5-4 just a tick behind the 5-3 Bengals for that last playoff spot.  While I think Miami may stay in the hunt through the end of the season, the Dolphins don’t really do anything terribly well, and their closing schedule is quite rugged.

In addition to another game against the Patriots, the fish have road games in Green Bay and Minnesota.  Right now, the tell-all matchup could be their Week 12 contest.  They play Indianapolis in Indianapolis.  After a brutal start, the Colts have begun to play better.  If Miami is good enough to win this game on the road, they could be a significant part of the free-for-all for that final wildcard spot.  Right now, I don’t believe that they will, so – as of this writing – I don’t see Miami in the playoff pool.

North Division

The AFC North is a bit of a scrum so far this season.  As of this writing, the Pittsburgh Steelers (another team that started sluggishly) has fought its way back into first with a 5-2-1 record, just better than Cincinnati’s 5-3 mark.  Baltimore lurks at third.  They have fallen to 4-5 after last week’s loss to the Steelers, their third straight loss.

As the weeks roll on, the Steelers look more-and-more like they are still the class of this division.  After a 1-2-1 start, Pittsburgh has consecutive wins against Atlanta, Cincinnati (on the road), Cleveland, and Baltimore (also on the road).  They currently hold the third seed, and the present expectation is that they will hold on to that.

Less convincing – in my opinion – are the Bengals.  Currently holding that last wildcard spot, the Bengals are thirtieth in scoring defense and thirty-second in yards allowed.  Their closing schedule is notably tough.  They still have road games in Baltimore, Los Angeles (against the Chargers), and Pittsburgh.  Their home schedule includes New Orleans and Denver.  Unless Cincinnati fixes their defense real fast, it’s hard to imagine them surviving their second-half schedule.

Baltimore, on the other hand, is mostly through with the difficult part of its schedule.  Their road games are fairly challenging.  They will play Atlanta, Kansas City and Los Angeles (also the Chargers).  But four of their last seven are fairly soft home games against Cincinnati, Oakland, Tampa Bay and Cleveland.  If they take care of business at home and win one of those road games, then the Ravens will be looking at a 9-7 record.  Considering that one of those wins was a 21-0 shutout of Tennessee in Week 6, that record could very well earn them that last spot.

Certainly that game against Cincinnati two weeks from now will weigh heavily.  If the Bengals want the playoff opportunity, they will probably have to go into Baltimore to get it.

Southern Division

Continuing the trend of turnarounds are the Houston Texans.  Left for dead after an 0-3 start, Houston has won 6 straight and have claimed the lead in this division.  And, while none of the teams they’ve beaten have been upper-echelon teams, it has been convincing enough to establish the Texans as the probable class of the division and probable number 4 seed.  The streak includes division road wins in Indianapolis and Jacksonville.  Closing out the season, Houston plays 4 of its final 7 at home – and those are all winnable games (Tennessee, Cleveland, Indianapolis and Jacksonville).  Their road games are tougher, but not really terrifying.  They have games in Washington, New York (Jets), and Philadelphia.

Houston ranks ninth in total defense, seventh in scoring defense, and second in run defense.  Their position is currently quite good.

Behind them are the 4-4 Titans of Tenessee and the Indianapolis Colts, who are lurking at 3-5. 

As for the Colts, their slow start included losing 5 of their first 6.  But the Colts are now coming off two decisive victories and have 5 of their next 7 at home.  Those five home games are all winnable.  They have the Jaguars, Titans, Dolphins, Cowboys and Giants coming in.  One of their road games is against the fading Jacksonville team.  Even though they also have probable road losses in Houston and Tennessee, a 9-7 finish is not out of reason for Indianapolis.

Unfortunately for them, a home-and-home split with Tennessee – if they can get it – will probably not be enough.

After Monday night’s conquest of the Cowboys, the Tennessee Titans become the real unknown of the division.  They have been scuffling through the first part of their season playing behind a compromised quarterback.  Last night, Marcus Mariota looked considerably better.  If this is true – and the NFL is such a week-to-week league that one game isn’t enough to convince – then the Titans could easily re-write the playoff lineup.

But it will have to happen immediately.  Basically, the critical part of the Titan’s schedule is the next three weeks.  They play at home against the Patriots, on the road in Indianapolis, and on the road in Houston.  If they can steal one of those games, their prospects brighten considerably.

They end the season at home against the Jets, at home against the Jaguars, on the road against the Giants, then at home against the Redskins and the Colts.

Remember, though, that the Ravens hold the tie-breaker against them, so Tennessee’s closing run will probably have to be at least 6-2.  Doable, but a stiff challenge.

NFC

Southern Division

There is a strong feeling that the conference’s top seed was decided last Sunday during New Orleans’ dazzling 45-35 conquest of the LA Rams.  The game leaves the Saints at 7-1 with the tie-breaker over the now 8-1 Rams.  Again, there is a long way to go, but the Saints have had that air about them all season.

They may cough up that top seed, but they will have to be caught from behind – difficult to do.

Also in this division is the top wild-card team.  The Carolina Panthers have looked as legit as the Saints, and are an equally solid bet to hold on to their place.

Western Division

With the loss, the Los Angeles Rams – for the moment, anyway – surrender the top seed.  They, along with the Chiefs and the Saints, have been one of the top stories in the league.  Another team that mostly seems unstoppable at times, the Rams are clearly headed for the playoffs.

At the moment, the Seattle Seahawks don’t seem to be too relevant.  After a disappointing 25-17 loss at home to the Chargers (I’m telling you, that team is worth keeping an eye on), the Seahawks sit at an uninspiring 4-4.  Things will probably get worse before they get better.  Their next two road games will be in LA against the Rams and in Carolina.  Assuming they win the home game in between against Green Bay, they could face their last 5 games with a 5-6 record.

However, from that point on, the schedule mostly becomes their friend.  Their final five games include two against San Francisco and a home game against Arizona.  They also have Minnesota, but at home.  Even assuming they can’t keep up with Kansas City (even though that, too, is a home game), with the soft end of schedule, a 9-7 record is not out of reason.

And that would probably be enough to get them a playoff ticket.

Northern Division

In one of the most competitive divisions, the Chicago Bears have eked in front of the Minnesota Vikings with a 5-3 record to the Vikes 5-3-1 mark.  Close now, my expectation is that as the season wears on the Bears will pull away.

Gaining confidence with each week, Chicago’s remaining road schedule is less than daunting.  They will yet play in Detroit, New York (against the Giants), and San Francisco before ending the season in Minnesota – by which point the division should be decided.  Their remaining home games are stiffer, and will give a sense of how good this young Chicago team is.  Three of the games are division matches against the Lions, Vikings and Packers.  They will also host the Rams.  So there is opportunity for them to slide back in the pack. But, with their easy road schedule, if they can represent at home, this division is theirs for the taking.

As for the Vikings, in addition to both games against the Bears, Minnesota will also face road challenges in New England and Seattle – games that I don’t expect them to win.  The game in Seattle in Week 14 will probably be the most decisive.  The winner here probably gains that final playoff spot.  With the tie on their record, Minnesota will almost certainly not be involved in any tie-breakers.  They will probably either end the season 9-6-1 or 8-7-1, meaning they will go into the playoffs before any 9-7 team (if they finish 9-6-1), but after any 10-6 team.

Eastern Division

The Eastern Division of the NFC is limping through the season as the parity division.  Washington currently holds the division lead, at just 5-3, one game better than the 4-4 Eagles.  With the season at the half-way mark, Washington is the only current division leader that I expect to relinquish its lead and – in fact – miss the playoffs entirely.

While the Eagles have yet to remotely resemble the team that soared to last year’s title, my feeling is that they are still intrinsically the better team, and will rise to the top before the season is quite completed.  These two teams still have both of their games against each other before them.  If Washington is the better team, they will have their opportunities to demonstrate that.

Fading Hopes

As the early playoff picture takes shape, two of last year’s premium combatants will be challenged to return.  Two years ago, the Atlanta Falcons played in the Super Bowl.  Last year they played as deep as the Divisional Round before yielding to the eventual champs.  Last year’s Jacksonville Jaguars weren’t ousted until the Patriots took them in the AFC title game.

This year’s Falcons sit third in their division at just 4-4.  There is still plenty of time for them to rebound, but it hurts that they are in the same division as New Orleans and Carolina – two teams that seem to be among the NFL’s best.  At best, the Falcons seem to be battling for that last wildcard berth.

Adding to the stress is a very challenging closing stretch.  Their last six games take them into New Orleans, at home against Baltimore, on the road in Green Bay (this will be December 9, and the tundra is likely to be frozen), home again against Arizona, on the road in Carolina (both of their remaining games against the top two teams in their division will be on the road), and then a final road game in Tampa Bay.

It’s a tall order.  If the Falcons fight their way back into the playoffs, they will have definitely earned it.

Jacksonville’s situation is a little more desperate.  After a 3-1 start that included a convincing 31-20 conquest of New England, the Jaguars have lost 4 straight.  They are now tied for last in their division, and trail Houston by two games.

The record, though, isn’t the greatest concern here.  That would be – as it has been through most of his career – Blake Bortles.  The four losses have followed a similar formula: stop the run, get a lead, and force Blake to beat us with his arm.  In the 4 losses, Bortles is 78 for 140 (55.7%) for 926 yards with 3 touchdowns and 5 interceptions.  His 68.3 passer rating in these games highlights the concern.  Jacksonville has scored 46 point in the 4 games.

Does Jacksonville have enough season left to climb back in?  No question.  Do they have the quarterback to get them there?  To be determined.

Last Sunday’s Rams/Saints clash had a decided playoff atmosphere to it.  That intensity will become more and more common as we head down the stretch and seasons will start to be defined by the outcomes.

It’s my favorite time of the year.