Tag Archives: Houston Texans

The Savage Truth

On his very first play from scrimmage, Baltimore showed Houston quarterback Tom Savage the respect they had for his passing attack by sinking safety Tony Jefferson down to the line of scrimmage, creating an eight-man front.

Our first stop on what I will call “back-up quarterback week” is Houston, where Savage was making his fourth consecutive start in place of injured Deshaun Watson.  The week before, in just his second career win (31-21 against Arizona), Savage reached season-highs in pass completions (22) and passing yards (230).  He also set career bests in completion percentage (68.75), touchdown passes (2) and passer rating (97.1).  It was the first time in his NFL career that he was over 90 in rating points.

But as far as Baltimore was concerned, he was just Tom Savage whose best passing efforts should prove no significant challenge to the Raven’s second-ranked pass defense.

The Results

By game’s end, that would prove to be the case.  Houston would end up with only 16 points, and Baltimore would stay in the thick of the playoff hunt with a 23-16 victory (gamebook).  Along the way, Savage would toss two bad interceptions (against no touchdown passes), and turn the ball over a third time on a strip sack.  He would finish the game with a less-than-mediocre 57.5 rating.

Taken as a whole, Tom’s Monday evening looked like the typical evening endured by most back-up quarterbacks across all of the NFL.  Tom had many nice moments Monday night.  He completed 13 of 20 in the first half, and finished the night as the first quarterback this season to surpass 250 passing yards against the Raven defense.  Along the way, Savage showed a better touch on the deep pass than his opponent for the evening – the Raven’s Joe Flacco.

On his first drive he found Bruce Ellington over the middle for 29 yards, and drew a 19-yard pass interference penalty on a well-thrown long toss down the left side.  Those would lead to the only touchdown the Texans would score on the evening.

He hit DeAndre Hopkins over the deep middle in the second quarter for a 34-yard gain that set up a field goal.  Another well-thrown deep pass to Hopkins in the fourth (DeAndre would finish the night with 125 yards on 7 catches) would set up their final field goal of the night.  He also made many solid reads in the short passing game, throwing the ball for most of the night with good anticipation and excellent touch.

But, in the end, the mistakes and the missed chances in the red zone (he was 3 for 7 for negative 3 yards in the red zone) overcame any improvements and saddled Houston with its third loss in the four games that Savage has started in Watson’s absence.

Savage v Watson

In the five previous games that Deshaun had started, Houston had averaged 39 points, 420.6 yards and just 1.6 turnovers per game.  In the four games since, they have averaged 17 points, 307.8 yards and 2.5 turnovers.

Savage is an earnest laborer, but his talents are fairly marginal.  He doesn’t have a powerful arm, and doesn’t run a dynamic downfield passing game.  When your game is the controlled passing game, you don’t have the luxury of making mistakes.  Tom has thrown 5 interceptions over the last three games, and has lost seven fumbles on the season – even though he has played only 4.5 games.  This might be the best opportunity Tom will ever get to prove himself as a starting NFL quarterback.  So far, things could be going better.

Focus on the Run

It should also be noted that Savage’s opportunities were enhanced by Baltimore’s focus on the Houston running game.  This is another big change in the Houston offense in Watson’s absence.  In the last five games that Deshaun started, Houston averaged 141.4 rushing yards per game.  When they took the field for Watson’s last game, they carried the third-ranked running game in the NFL – and then added 142 more against a fine Seattle defense.

In the four games since, Houston has averaged only 95.8 rushing yards per game – falling now to seventh in the league.

Meanwhile, Baltimore keeps getting better and better against the run.  The truth is never as simple as the absence of one defender.  Nonetheless, during a five-game stretch that coincided with defensive tackle Brandon Williams‘ absence from the lineup, Baltimore was pounded to the tune of 169.4 rush yards per game.  In the last four games – all with Williams back in the lineup – the Ravens have allowed just 64.25 yards per game.  This includes holding the formerly potent Texans offense to just 66 rushing yards and just 2.6 yards per rush.

Breaking with the most recent trend toward smaller defensive lineman, the three Ravens who controlled the middle last night are sort of throw-backs to the recent era of large defensive tackles that muddle the middle of the line of scrimmage and allow their linebackers to flow to the play.  And Baltimore’s three big guys enjoyed quite a night.  Williams (335 pounds – listed), Michael Pierce (339) and Willie Henry (310) pushed around the middle of Houston’s line in a way the Texans haven’t been handled all season.  Houston center Nick Martin spent almost as much time in the Texans’ backfield as his quarterback.

This, too, takes its toll on the back-up quarterback.  With no effective running game to relieve the pressure, it becomes that much more difficult to cope with a defense that came into the game holding opposing passers to a 66.9 rating.

Wither Houston?

The Texans’post-game press conference was pretty grim – as you might expect.  The difference between the 5-6 record they might have had with the win and the 4-7 that they now hold is very nearly the difference between NFL life and death.  Savage came to the podium, but didn’t stay long enough to even hear – much less answer – one question.  And try as he might, even the valiant Bill O’Brien couldn’t keep the disappointment out of his voice.

O’Brien carries on the very best of old-school traditions.  Lining up against some of football’s best teams with a shadow of the team that he thought he would have, Bill persistently shoulders the blame for all of his team’s shortcomings.  He will never point to the long list of missing players, nor will he turn to any other excuse.  He understands that football will not weep for you.  In the emotionally savage realm that is the football season, you line up and play – and the injuries, however and whenever they come – can only be viewed as opportunities for someone else.

Houston’s season won’t get any softer.  Still ahead are games against Tennessee, Jacksonville and Pittsburgh.  After two straight division titles, a 2017 playoff berth is all but completely out of the picture.  This will almost certainly be a year of growth through adversity for the Texans.  But Bill and his team understand this important fact:

The minute that you allow yourself to feel sorry for yourself – the minute that it becomes OK to lose a game because of your injuries – you have lost a critical emotional discipline that all winning organizations carefully cultivate.  All organizations that sustain a championship culture take absolute personal responsibility for their results.  The words “if only” are never heard among teams like New England, Pittsburgh, and the other organizations with championship pedigrees.  You won’t hear them in Houston either.

The Texans will rise from this season mentally stronger.  With O’Brien at the helm, they are in good hands.

And as for Baltimore

The Ravens survived at home against Houston.  Now 6-5, Baltimore’s playoff chances are as good as any of the teams in the wild-card scrum.  This is not a great team, by any means.  Their offense mysteriously sits thirty-first out of thirty-two teams, and they are clearly surviving because of excellent special teams and a defense that ranks seventh-best in yards and second-best in points allowed.

Concerning about the Ravens is their inability to beat any teams with winning records.  They have losses to Jacksonville (44-7 in Week Three), Pittsburgh (26-9 in Week Four), Minnesota (24-16 in Week Seven) and Tennessee (23-20 in Week Nine).  Anyone watching this team would have strong doubts that they could win a critical game against a quality opponent.

Fortunately for them, they won’t need to do that until the playoffs.  Their remaining schedule has an upcoming home game against a dangerous but flawed Detroit team, and a difficult road matchup against Pittsburgh.  After that, they are on the road against winless Cleveland, and then they finish with home games against struggling franchises in Indianapolis and Cincinnati.

Of the teams in the hunt, they may have the easiest route.

Trending Up in Buffalo

Sitting just on the outside of the playoff hunt, Buffalo earned a critical road victory against a Kansas City team that I didn’t think they would beat.  This was a “found” win.  Now 6-5 instead of the 5-6 that I expected, Buffalo – like Baltimore – can see a clearing path to the playoffs.  They still have two challenging games against the Patriots, but the rest of the schedule is Indianapolis and Miami twice.

If Buffalo moves into the playoff picture, then probably falling out will be the Tennessee Titans.  At 7-4, the Titans are presently leading the AFC South (on the strength of an earlier win against also 7-4 Jacksonville).

Tennessee will conclude with a fairly challenging schedule.  They have this same Houston team up next week, followed by two road games (albeit against Arizona and San Francisco).  They then finish up at home against the Rams and Jaguars.  This is a team that I could easily see fading down the stretch.

Second Half Quarterbacks

In their last game in New England, the Los Angeles Chargers looked like they finally had found their running game.  They lost, but rung up 157 rushing yards, with feature back Melvin Gordon accounting for 132 of them on just 14 carries (9.4 per carry).  Gordon had gained 997 yards the previous year, in spite of playing in only 13 games (starting 11).  The re-discovered running game would be important going forward.

On the other sideline, the Jacksonville Jaguars were welcoming back rookie running sensation Leonard Fournette after a one-game suspension.  Leonard had amassed 596 rushing yards in six games, including 311 in his previous two games.  With the running game being the foundation of the Jaguars’ offense, his return was welcomed.

At the half of last Sunday’s game between the Chargers and the Jaguars, Los Angeles held a 7-6 lead.  Gordon had managed just 16 yards on 8 carries.  Fournette was held to 21 on 9 carries.  By game’s end – after more than 71 minutes of football – these two premier backs had accounted for 60 combined yards on 33 combined rushes – less than two yards a carry.

With the running games unable to get untracked, the contest hinged on the two passing games.

Rivers vs Bortles

For their part, Los Angeles had veteran Philip Rivers.  Going head to head against the number one pass defense in the NFL (and also the defense with the lowest passer rating against – 63.5), Rivers held his own. Philip finished 21 of 37 for 235 yards with 2 touchdowns and 1 interception.  Without much of a running game, and with consistent up the middle pressure, Rivers and the Chargers fought their way to 17 points – about as much as could be reasonably expected under the circumstances.

The curiosity in this game was the other quarterback – Jacksonville’s much discussed Blake Bortles.

The quarterback who earlier this year threw only one pass in the second half of the Pittsburgh game, now held Jacksonville’s fate in his hands.

Throughout the first half, Jacksonville maintained admirable balance.  Their 27 plays were 14 runs and 13 mostly safe passes.  Bortles took one downfield shot, overthrowing Keelan Cole.  But Blake was 11-for-11 throwing underneath against the Chargers.  However, the short passes only accounted for 75 yards, and the only time that Jacksonville found the end zone was on a spectacular fake punt.  Other than Corey Grant’s 56-yard explosion, the running game had contributed just 33 yards.

So, the wraps came off Bortles in the games second half (which ended up being almost three full quarters).  And with decidedly mixed results.

After throwing 12 times in the first half, Blake threw 39 times in the second.  But his 11 first half completions were answered by only 17 in the second half.  His completion percentage fell from 91.7% through the first 30 minutes to just 43.6% thereafter.  After managing just 75 passing yards early, Blake threw for 198 thereafter, but for only a 5.08 yard average per pass, after averaging 6.25 in the first half.

As the focus was decidedly more downfield, his average per completion rose sharply from 6.82 to 11.65, and he threw for his only touchdown of the day.  He also threw two bad-decision interceptions that nearly cost Jacksonville the game.

The Jags held on for a 20-17 victory (gamebook), but the questions continue.  If Jacksonville needs Blake to throw the team to victory against a top opponent (perhaps in a playoff situation), could he do it?

Sunday’s second half against Los Angeles casts some doubt.

Second-Half Jared

Facing a team that had rolled up more than fifty point in its previous game, the Houston defense held the Texans in the game for the first 35 minutes or so.  The Los Angeles Rams had gone in at halftime with just 3 field goals and a 9-7 lead.  As in the Jacksonville game, the Rams’ premier running back Todd Gurley was a non-factor (as a runner).  He rushed for 19 first-half yards.  Meanwhile, Jared Goff and the passing attack weren’t re-writing history either.  Jared went into the locker room with only 104 passing yards on 11 of 20 passing.  Of the 131 total yards LA had to show for the first 30 minutes, 43 came on a short catch and run by Gurley.  Had the Houston offense been able to take advantage, the story of the second half might have been much different.

But the Texans let the Rams hang around and then watched as LA pulled away with 24 unanswered second-half points – on their way to a 33-7 victory (gamebook).  There were a couple of quarterbacks who had brilliant second halves last week.  Arguably Jared Goff’s was the best.

A little bit rushed and flustered through the game’s first thirty minutes, Goff returned for the second half on fire.  Beginning with a perfectly-thrown, 94-yard touchdown strike to Robert Woods, Goff went on to complete 14 of his last 17 passes (82.4%) for an astonishing 254 yards (an average of 17.93 yards per completion) with 3 touchdowns and no interceptions.  On the receiving end, Woods caught all 6 second-half passes thrown to him for 161 yards and 2 touchdowns. Coming one week after his third-and-33 touchdown catch, Woods is, perhaps, forcing his way into a bigger role on this offense.

And, yes, that is the Rams now 7-2.  The intensity of the stretch drive and of the playoffs may catch up to this young team at some point, but nine games into the season they look like more than just a September illusion.

What to Make of the Atlanta-Dallas Game

If Jared Goff’s second half was better than Atlanta’s Matt Ryan’s, it was only marginally so.  Like Goff, Ryan started out a little average.  He completed 11 of 17 first half passes, but for only 94 yards, with no touchdowns and 1 interception.  But coming out of halftime and holding to just a 10-7 lead, Ryan and the Falcon offense finally found their groove.  Matty finished his game completing 11 of his last 12 for 121 yards and 2 touchdowns.

Perhaps the great awakening in the Atlanta offense was nothing more than patience and a little dose of humility.  Instead of stubbornly trying to throw up the field to Julio Jones against coverages overloaded to stop that very strategy, Ryan and the Falcons spent the second half of last Sunday’s game peppering the Cowboys with underneath routes.  For the game, Ryan completed only one throw of over 20 yards (a 24-yarder to Jones early in the second half).  All of his other completions exploited Dallas’ focus on Jones and the deep passing game.

Equally important, the Atlanta running game emerged in the second half, gaining 91 yards on 21 carries and the Falcons walked away with a 27-7 win (gamebook).  One of the things the first half of the season has taught us is that the more balanced the Falcon offense is, the more explosive it is.

The Zeke Factor

The tempting thing here, of course, is to say “well, Dallas was without premier back Ezekiel Elliott, so . . .” But I’m not sure that effectively accounts for the outcome.

Elliott, famously, has been fighting a suspension for the entire year – a suspension that finally began with this game.  Would he have made a difference?  Of course.  But to say he would have propelled Dallas to victory not only slights the Atlanta Falcons and Alfred Morris (who replaced Elliott), but grossly over-values Elliott’s contributions.

The truth is that running the football was probably the best thing that Dallas did on Sunday. They finished with 107 rushing yards, and Morris had 53 of those on 11 carries (4.8 yards per).  The failure to truly establish the run game had more to do with the defense’s inability to contain the Falcon offense – allowing the score to get out of hand – and the struggles of the Cowboy passing game.

With tackle Tyron Smith nursing injuries, Dallas turned to Chaz Green to man that all-important left tackle spot.  To say that he was overmatched by Falcon rush end Adrian Clayborn would be a sizeable understatement.

Cowboy quarterback Dak Prescott finished the game completing 20 of 30 passes – but for only 176 yards.  Prescott began the game having been sacked only 10 times all season.  In this game alone, he went down 8 times (for 50 yards) – 6 of them credited to Clayborn (a game he will remember for a while).

In general, I’m inclined to think this game was more about the Falcons re-discovering themselves than it was conclusive evidence that the Cowboys are rudderless without Elliott.  Next up for Dallas is a crucial division matchup against Philadelphia.  Atlanta journeys to Seattle to play the damaged but dangerous Seahawks.  We will probably know more about both these teams by this time next week.

Playoff Implications

The game was billed as a must win for the Falcons – and that is true enough.  At 4-4, Atlanta’s position was certainly precarious.  Even with the win, though, the Falcons chances still aren’t great.  They currently sit one game behind the Seahawks for the last spot, so a win Monday night could thrust them momentarily into that playoff spot.  The Falcons also have a very tough closing schedule.  After Seattle in Seattle, they will still have Minnesota and Carolina on their schedule, as well as high-flying New Orleans twice.

If Atlanta is going to fight its way in, they will have to earn it.

In the long run, the loss may hurt Dallas more than the win will help Atlanta.  Considering how much harder Dallas’ remaining schedule is than Carolina’s (the team they will likely be battling for that playoff spot) this loss was very damaging to the Cowboys.  They still have two games against Philadelphia, as well as Washington, Oakland and Seattle on their list.  Carolina will have challenges – they have New Orleans, Minnesota and Atlanta left – but clearly not as many.  With Dallas needing to make up a game and a half on the Panthers, facing a tougher schedule, and now without their best linebacker (Sean Lee) for a while, Dallas’ playoff hopes are suddenly looking pretty bleak.

And the Panthers (who looked ripe for the plucking last week) have seen their playoff conditions notably improved with the Dallas loss.  A Week 14 win against the Vikings (and that game is at home) could easily propel Carolina into the fifth seed, leaving Minnesota as the sixth.

Some Help for Russell Wilson

Last Sunday afternoon, Duane Brown manned his left tackle spot as his Houston Texans invaded Century Link Field to engage in a wild 41-38 shootout that his team lost to the Seattle Seahawks (gamebook).

Today, he is not back in Houston where the Texans are preparing to face the Indianapolis Colts.  Today, Duane – a former three-time Pro Bowl pick and one-time First-Team All-Pro – is still in Seattle, where his new team – the Seahawks – are preparing to face Washington.

To say that Brown will be a welcomed addition to the Seattle offense would be a profound understatement.  Even though they won the Sunday shootout on the strength of 452 passing yards and 4 touchdowns from the arm of Russell Wilson, the Seahawk running game reached near historic lows that afternoon.

That they finished with 33 yards on 21 rushes is a gross overstatement of the effectiveness of the Seattle ground game.  Those 33 yards were made possible by two late Wilson scrambles that totaled 32 yards.  Beyond that, the Seattle running game was a stunning 1 yard in 19 carries.  This total includes 6 tackles behind the line of scrimmage that totaled 19 yards in losses.  Seattle’s very first running play of the day was their only running play the entire game (not counting the scrambles) to gain more than 3 yards.  It gained 4.  Thereafter, the last 18 running plays lost a total of 3 yards.  Even conceding that two of those were kneel downs, the last 16 handoffs to running backs produced a total of minus 1 yard. Eddie Lacy and Thomas Rawls – two sometimes star running backs) combined for 12 carries for minus 1 yard.

This is domination that you rarely see anywhere in the NFL – much less against a contending team.  So, they will have a place in the lineup for Duane Brown – most probably left tackle.

The player who started at left tackle for Seattle on Sunday – Rees Odhiambo – was a third round pick in 2016 and made the first seven starts of his career this season.  He was an obvious weak link against the Texans, as Houston’s star defensive end Jadeveon Clowney turned him inside out all night.  Seattle made some attempts to help him with tight-end Jimmy Graham, but Graham wasn’t up to the task of stopping Clowney either.

The problem in Seattle, though, is that left tackle isn’t the only weak spot on the line.  In fact, if you watched the Seattle running plays, it would be hard to say that any of them won even a third of their individual matchups.  Throughout the game, Odhiambo could well have used some help from guard Ethan Pocic.  But when Ethan wasn’t up to his elbows in troubles of his own, he was needed to help center Justin Britt – who may have had the poorest afternoon of any of the Seattle linemen.

Given the low yardage totals, it goes without saying that none of the linemen created much space.  In Britt’s case, though, whoever lined up opposite of him seemed to spend quite a bit of time in the Seattle backfield.  This was mostly either D.J. Reader or Brandon Dunn.  At least once, it was middle linebacker Benardrick McKinney who lined up over center and shot past Britt into the backfield.

Beyond the inability to run to the offensive left (where Clowney was waiting – and the difficulties running up the middle (where Britt and the guards had trouble keeping the Texans out of the backfield) – the Seattle offensive line’s inability to get through the Houston defenders to the second level allowed McKinney and fellow linebacker Zach Cunningham to run mostly unimpeded from sideline to sideline.  So even when the Seahawks tried to turn the right corner, they usually had a couple linebackers waiting for them.

One of the most far-reaching implications of Seattle’s inability to generate anything from the offensive line was its effect on one of the staples of the Seahawk running game – the read option.

The interesting thing about most option plays in football – including the read option – is that the option belongs to the defense.  The defensive front seven chooses whether the quarterback hands off or keeps the ball.  In the several read options they ran on Sunday, Russell Wilson never ran the ball.  His four carries for the game were two scrambles and two kneel downs.  Houston’s defensive ends never bit on the running backs, because they knew they couldn’t be hurt by them.  The only running threat was Wilson, so every single time Houston opted to put the ball in the running back’s hands.

Duane Brown can’t get there fast enough.

Regarding the Crowd Noise

Seattle, of course, is famous for the crowd noise.  As opposed to – say – the Kansas City fans, whose enthusiasm for the game is natural, the Seattle crowd goes out with the intention of affecting every single offensive play run by the opposition.  As this phenomenon has gone on for several years now, I think it’s reaching a point of diminishing returns.

Early in the second quarter, Houston faced a fourth-and-1 on Seattle’s 48-yard line.  The crowd – which had been going full blast for the entire game – tried to find a higher level to try to interfere with the play.  But they didn’t really have a higher level.  They had been on “10” the whole game when their amplifiers didn’t have an “11.”  The noise level did, actually, rise a bit, but not enough to make a difference.  Lamar Miller burst up the middle for 2 yards and the first down, and four plays later Deshaun Watson was tossing another touchdown pass.  By the second half, the Texans were completely comfortable in the midst of all that noise.

It’s kind of like a pitcher who only throws 100-mph fastballs.  At 100-mph, that heater is a lot to deal with.  But if you keep seeing it over and over, it gets to the point where it doesn’t seem as fast as before.  And then, when that pitcher gets in a jam, he doesn’t have anything extra to reach back for.

I wouldn’t, for the world, suggest that the Seahawk fans vary their crowd noise – much less suggest that they just come to enjoy the game.  Some of them, I’m convinced, are more interested in making noise than watching the event.  I’m just suggesting that their fastball might be more effective if they learned to throw a change-up.

Speaking of Houston

I know I have spent the entire post talking about the offensive linemen instead of showering love on the quarterbacks.  They were terrific, and made for some truly great theatre.  I will have more to say about them later in the week.

On this evening, though, I do want to recognize the very first World Championship by the baseball team that resides in Houston – yes the lowly Astros are at long last Champions of the Baseball World.  I fondly remember the great battles we had with them when we were in the same division.  We always had the greatest respect for those Astro teams and for their fans.  And from what I can tell, the respect was mutual.  Congratulations, Houston.

And a Final Note

As the national anthem protests still seem to be making headlines – the Texans staged another protest before this game – I think for the next several posts I will offer a link to my insight on the whole thing.  I encourage everyone who has not read it to take a look.

Introducing the New Jacksonville Jaguars

As I was watching the game, I tried to remember the last time I watched Jacksonville play.  It may actually have been their last playoff game following the 2007 season.  Surely, I must have caught one of their games in the last decade?

Anyway, if – like me – the Jacksonville Jaguars have flown beneath your radar for the last few years, you should know that things are a bit different there these days.

First of all, there is a newish head coach.  Jack Del Rio hasn’t been here since 2011.  The head coach during most of the lost years between was Gus Bradley.  In four almost complete seasons (2013-2016) his teams never won more than 5 games.  The team is now entrusted to Doug Marrone, who started to turn Buffalo around a few seasons ago.

The defense has been refurbished.  Last year’s first-round draft pick – cornerback Jalen Ramsey – has given Jacksonville an attitude in the secondary.  He has been complimented this year by the additions of cornerback A.J. Bouye (who was an important part of Houston’s very good secondary last year), safety Barry Church (who came over from Dallas), and defensive end Calais Campbell (who was in Arizona last year).

And now, all of a sudden, there is a semi-legitimacy to the Jaguar defense (semi-legitimate because they allowed 569 rushing yards over the three consecutive games before Sunday).

The offensive concept is kind of new, too.  Less passing from quarterback Blake Bortles and more handing off to this year’s first-round draft pick, running back Leonard Fournette.  At 240 pounds (listed) Fournette is constructed along the lines of the power backs of old – the kind that wears away at the will of the defensive secondary to tackle him in the fourth quarter.

The re-birth in Jacksonville has been somewhat hit and miss so far.  They have losses to teams that you should think they would have beaten (Tennessee and the NY Jets).  They’ve had one game where they turned the ball over 3 times – but that was the only game that they’ve turned it over more than once.  Only once have they gained more than 313 offensive yards, while serving up at least 371 yards on defense three times in their first five games.  So there is some work that still needs to be done there.

Last Sunday, they engaged in a very interesting matchup against a somewhat similar Pittsburgh team.  As the two teams hit the field Sunday afternoon, both featured high-octane running games and tough secondaries that challenge every pass.  Both also featured suspect run defenses.  The Jaguars had just been chewed up for 256 yards by the Jets (of all people).  The week before that Chicago (of all people) had drilled the Steelers for 222 rushing yards – although it should be noted that that was the only game so far that they had allowed more than 91 rushing yards.

The way this game was expected to play out, the two running games would take turns bashing each other’s defenses, until Steeler quarterback Ben Roethlisberger would take advantage of enough opportunities downfield to give Pittsburgh enough margin that Jacksonville would be forced into a passing game.  That story line never developed.

Instead, it was only Jacksonville that followed the expected game plan.  Of their 32 first-half offensive plays, 18 ended up being runs.  They gained only 3.3 yards per rush, but they kept running.  Meanwhile, Pittsburgh never did really get back to Le’Veon Bell, who carried the ball only 9 times in the first half.  Thinking that they could open up the running game with an early passing attack, Ben threw the ball 21 times in the first half, with mostly tepid results (12 of 21 for 152 yards and an interception).

The Steeler strategy further dissolved in the second half, when consecutive possessions ended in deflected passes that wound up as interception touchdowns for Jacksonville.  Suddenly, a game that was 7-6 at the half had turned into a 20-9 Jacksonville lead.  Things went downhill for Pittsburgh after that.  Bell finished the day with only 15 carries.  Ben ended up throwing 55 passes and getting 5 of them picked.

Meanwhile, Jacksonville kept running.  Fournette had 14 carries in the second half alone – the last one being the most memorable.  Leonard burst off left tackle for a game icing 90-yard touchdown run.  He finished with 181 of Jacksonville’s 231 rushing yards (on 37 attempts) in Jacksonville’s 30-9 conquest (gamebook).

Perhaps the most telling number to come out of that second half was 1.  That was the number of passes thrown by Jacksonville quarterback Bortles.  Once Jacksonville pushed to that 11-point lead, Blake never threw again – this includes hand-offs on a third-and-7 and a third-and-11.

There are, apparently, a lot of pieces in place in Jacksonville.  One piece, I guess, that they are still looking for is that quarterback.

Up next for the Jaguars is a very interesting game against another franchise that is trying to rise from the ashes – the now Los Angeles Rams.

Meanwhile, in Houston . . .

While the Jags are probably still looking for their quarterback of the future, Houston thinks they have found theirs.  Again.

Last year, that was going to be Brock Osweiler.  Two years before that it was Ryan Fitzpatrick.  Since about the midpoint of the 2013 season, when they finally figured out that Matt Schaub was not the man who would lead them to the promised land, they have cycled a lot of quarterbacks in and out of Houston.

The newest quarterback of the future is Deshaun Watson, the twelfth overall pick in this year’s draft.  Around him they have crafted a clever, deception-based offense.  I would guess that almost 40% of their offensive snaps Sunday night (at least until they were behind far enough that Kansas City knew they would have to drop back and pass) involved some end-around motion from a back or receiver circling back into the backfield.  This was sprinkled in with a significant amount of zone-read looks.

The effect on the Houston running game – at least on Sunday night – was significant.  Several times the backfield action proved just distracting enough to allow the Texans significant yards between guard and center.  For the evening, Houston piled up 144 rushing yards and averaged 6.3 yards per carry.

On the passing end, the numbers have been very kind to Watson.  Through the first 145 passes of his professional career, Deshaun carries a 100.7 passer rating.  This comes mostly through the virtue of his touchdown passes.  He tossed 5 Sunday night, and now has 9 over his last two games, and 11 over his last three.  It’s a very encouraging start, but Deshaun is far from a finished product.

His decision making – both in passing and in the read-option run game – was sometimes spotty.  He wasn’t intercepted on Sunday night, but that wasn’t through lack of opportunity.  Kansas City had a few should-have-been interceptions (two that would have been returned for touchdowns) that were dropped.  Understand, I’m not saying Deshaun performed poorly.  What I am pointing out is that the talented Mr. Watson is still a rookie quarterback, and there will be some growing pains along the way.

Speaking of Pain

On two of the most innocuous-looking plays of the season, during the game’s opening drive, two enormous presences in the Houston defense were deleted for the season.  On the game’s seventh play, and after a seemingly uneventful pass rush, dynamic linebacker Whitney Mercilus knelt on the turf.  Seemingly nothing major, Whitney suffered a torn pectoral muscle – ending his season.  Seven plays later, superstar J.J. Watt went down just a little awkwardly on another seemingly uneventful pass rush.  The result – a tibial plateau fracture that would require season-ending surgery.  Such is the thin, thin line between an outstanding season and another bad-luck finish.  Houston is a courageous team, led by a fine head coach in Bill O’Brien.  But they will be challenged to plug two larger-than-life holes in their defense.

Watt’s exit was possibly the most heavily covered of any in recent NFL memory.  The cameras followed every step of the way.  We saw JJ hobble to the sidelines.  We saw him going into and out of the medical tent.  Watched him limp into the locker room; saw the ambulance waiting grimly for him outside the locker room.  We had the haunting shot of JJ sitting inside the closed ambulance, his face framed perfectly through the back window by the emergency insignia of the ambulance door.  We even had drone coverage of the ambulance’s arrival at the nearest hospital.

Over-done?  I don’t think so.  In his few short seasons in the NFL, JJ has exceeded simple legendary status.  He is more than just the face of the franchise – not that that’s a small thing.  He is one of the faces of the league.  Even more than that, he is kind of a symbol for Houston itself – especially in the wake of the recent natural disasters in the area.  JJ Watt will leave a legend-sized hole in the Houston defense and in the entire NFL.

And Then There is Kansas City

While Houston was having one of its more heart-rending evenings of the young season, the Kansas City Chiefs kept on keeping on.  With their informative and entertaining 42-34 win (gamebook) the Chiefs are 5-0 and the last undefeated team in the NFL.

How will this play out?  They have looked unstoppable, but that kind of thing has been known to happen through the early weeks of a season.  Quarterback Alex Smith has been playing on a level that most didn’t believe that he had in him.  After 158 passes this season, Smith is completing 76.6% of them, averaging 8.80 yards per attempted pass, and he checks in with a convincing 125.8 quarterback rating that features a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 11-0.

Is he for real?  Are the Chiefs for real?  It’s too early, I think, to tell.  Their recent success – and the recent struggles of the Steelers (discussed above) sets up a very interesting contest this Sunday as Kansas City hosts Pittsburgh.  The Steelers are a proud franchise, not used to being picked on by the Jacksonville’s of the league, and they are bent on responding.  Pittsburgh is also the team that ended Kansas City’s playoff run last year, when they invaded Arrowhead last January and escaped with an 18-16 victory (gamebook).  In that game, Alex finished 20 of 34 for just 172 yards with 1 touchdown pass and one interception (a 69.7 rating).

Perhaps our understanding of both teams will be a bit clearer after next Sunday’s game.

Plaudits for the Houston Pass Defense

As they went into the game as 16-point underdogs, no one was too surprised that Houston was brushed aside (34-16) in New England last Saturday night.  In the aftermath, not too many accolades came Houston’s way – even though they went into the half trailing by only four points and stayed within one score of the mighty Patriots until there were just 12 minutes and 16 seconds left in the game.

In the eye of the storm was Houston quarterback Brock Osweiler, whose predictable struggles hamstrung the offense.  Inside the game, though, was a much more interesting story – the story of the NFL’s number one defense (Houston’s) against the high-powered New England offense.  As Houston surrendered 34 points, one might assume that the New England offense dominated Houston’s top-ranked defensive squad.

That was pretty much the story of their Week 3 matchup.  In an overwhelming 27-0 victory, the Patriots (behind third string QB Jacoby Brissett) bludgeoned the Texans for 185 rushing yards and 3 rushing touchdowns.  Yes, New England only had two drives that went for more than 50 yards – but this was their third string quarterback, after all.  The Patriots were able to run the ball even though Houston knew they wanted to run.  The Patriots also fashioned touchdowns out of two fumbles they recovered deep in Houston territory and added a third TD on a drive that started on the Houston 47 after the Texans were forced to punt from deep within their own territory.  The first game was over early.

Even though the score of the re-match was decisive, the struggle between the Patriot offense and the Texan defense was a lot more even than might be suspected.  Houston’s special teams allowed one touchdown (Dion Lewis’ 98-yard kickoff return).  Houston’s offense gave up another after an Osweiler interception was returned to the Texan’s 6-yard line.  The Texan defense was only scratched for two touchdown drives that started in the New England side of the field, and one of those required a 30-yard pass-interference penalty against rookie cornerback A.J. Bouye on a pass that Chris Hogan might not have caught up to.

At game’s end, New England had been held to 98 rushing yards (and 3.6 yards a carry).  More impressively, Tom Brady and the passing game finished just 18 for 38 (just 47.4%) for 287 yards.  His 2 touchdown passes were off-set by two interceptions (matching the total number of interceptions he had thrown all year).  Tom ended the game with a passer rating of only 68.6.  It was just the second time in 13 games this season that Brady’s passer rating ended below 89 (Denver had held him to a 68.2 figure earlier).

Did the Texans give the NFL a blueprint on how to defend the New England passing game?  Sort of.  But it’s not the kind of game plan that any team can necessarily employ.  Looking at the teams that are left in the playoffs, I’m not sure that there is a whole lot of Houston’s game plan that will translate to either Pittsburgh, Atlanta or Green Bay.  Houston defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel lines his defense up in many confusing looks – causing more than his share of identification problems.  (Brady’s second interception came on a play where ten of the eleven Houston defenders were in man coverage, but outside linebacker Benardrick McKinney sat in a zone in the middle of the field and batted Brady’s pass in the air.) But the principles of the Houston plan were pretty basic.  Pressure up the middle and tight man coverage.

Six years ago in the Divisional Round, Rex Ryan – then the coach of the NY Jets – knocked off Brady and the Patriots 28-21 by pressuring him up the middle.  At that time, it was something of a revelation.  Tom was sacked 5 times that evening and rushed relentlessly.  Brady can usually sidestep pressure that comes from outside his pocket, but when the pocket collapses from the inside and Tom is forced to scramble he becomes much more mortal.

In last Saturday’s game, Brady got plenty of inside heat and threw a great many balls away while scrambling out of trouble.  Houston got significant pressure from budding stars Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus, but the unsung star of this game was a lightly regarded backup tackle taken in the sixth round of the 2015 draft – Christian Covington.  Covington had only one sack all year and has just three in his 31-game NFL career.  Listed generously at 295 pounds, he looked something like a Borg cube as he repeatedly menaced New England in this game.  Not someone you would generally think is all that quick, Covington consistently beat rookie left guard Joe Thuney to the inside.  He didn’t register any sacks, but his persistent collapsing of the pocket forced Brady out of his comfort zone.

None of this is a news flash.  Most fans who have followed Brady’s career know about his issues with inside pressures and I’m pretty sure Pittsburgh noted the struggles of the rookie guard.  At this point, I almost expect to see James Harrison frequently line up inside over this guard.  What Houston was able to do, though, that other teams can’t necessarily do is put consistent pressure on Brady without blitzing frequently.  Blitzing Brady carries with it its own set of risks.

But “A-gap” pressure is only half the formula.  What made it work so well for Houston was the coverage in the secondary.  Cornerbacks Johnathan Joseph, Bouye, and even Kareem Jackson (who did get picked on a little) did what few secondaries are able to do.  They hung with New England’s super quick receivers both vertically and horizontally the entire game.  Even on those occasions when his offensive line gave him ample time, Brady’s receivers frequently struggled getting separation.  Even linebacker McKinney also held up very well in man coverage against patriot tight end Martellus Bennett (who caught one pass for four yards).

As strategies go, there was some hit-and-miss to this.  When his receivers did get some separation, Brady usually turned it into a big play.  With his 18 completions accounting for 287 yards, Tom averaged an impressive 15.9 yards per completion and finished with six pass plays of at least 20 yards and another 19-yard touchdown pass to James White (beating McKinney, who had less success covering the backs).

But, because they challenged every pass and held the running game mostly in check, Brady had difficulty sustaining the offense.

And this is the part that I don’t see any of the other teams still in the playoffs able to execute.  The Steelers, Falcons and Packers are predominant zone teams and much less skilled at man coverage.  While guys like Julian Edelman can find easy seams in zone schemes, Brady will always have a quick outlet.

With three games left in the NFL season, the Patriots remain the NFL’s most daunting challenge.  In addition to a defense that just does not surrender points and a dangerous running game spearheaded by battering ram LeGarrette Blount, all-everything quarterback Tom Brady has a collection of super-quick receivers who are exceedingly adept at finding the open spaces in most zones.  How Pittsburgh attempts to slow this offense will be one of the most intriguing matchups of the Championship Round.

One Game More to Decide Playoff Teams

With surprising victories by Miami and Jacksonville, much of the drama that might have hung over Week 17 has been resolved.  We go into the last week of the season with the playoff teams mostly decided – if not yet seeded.  Here – essentially – is what is still to be decided:

AFC Eastern Division

New England (13-2) has been sitting on top of this conference virtually the entire season – in spite of the fact that All-Everything Quarterback Tom Brady was forced to sit out the season’s first four games.  They are currently the top seed in the conference, but Oakland is only one game behind at 12-3.  Should both teams finish at 13-3, Oakland will get the seed.  In that event, Oakland will be 5-0 against teams that both Oakland and New England have played, while the Patriots will be 4-1 in those games.

Oakland has beaten Baltimore (28-27), Denver twice (30-20 and they will have to beat the Broncos on Sunday to finish at 13-3), Houston (27-20), and Buffalo (38-24).  New England has wins over Houston (27-0), Buffalo (41-25), Baltimore (30-23), and Denver (16-3).  But in Week Four – the last week of Brady’s exile – the Pats were shutout by Buffalo 16-0.  That lonely loss is the only possible lasting impact of the Brady suspension – and for that loss to drop New England into the second seed, Oakland will have to win in Denver without their starting quarterback and Miami will have to beat New England (also without their starting quarterback) on Sunday.

Neither of those outcomes is unthinkable.

The Denver-Oakland game we’ll deal with in a minute.

As for Miami, the Dolphins won a defining game (and punched their playoff ticket) last Sunday when they went into freezing Buffalo and won in overtime with their backup quarterback.  That victory establishes them as one of the wildcard teams (currently the sixth seed).  If they win their last game against the Patriots and Kansas City loses on the road in San Diego, the Dolphins could finish as the fifth seed, pushing KC into the sixth slot.

I don’t know that the difference in seeding is enough for the Dolphins to give maximum effort in their last game.  I do think the fact that they will be playing at home against the hated Patriots is reason enough.  There are other reasons, too.  Matt Moore – the man at the helm in Ryan Tannehill’s absence – needs all of the real-time reps he can get.  Plus, the Dolphins are not so established that they can turn things off and turn them back on.  I don’t think that they think they have the luxury of resting starters.

All of that being said, I don’t believe that they could handle New England’s best game.  I don’t know, though, that they will get New England’s best game.  There is little on the table for the Patriots.  The slide from first to second will only matter if both New England and Oakland win their divisional round matchups – and the Raiders won’t have their starting QB.  I don’t truly expect to see Brady on the field too long – maybe the first half, or maybe just the first drive.  Some other notables (like LeGarrette Blount) may also be done early.  The Patriots may surprise me, but I think that this game is there for the Dolphins to take, if they want it.

AFC North

The 10-5 Pittsburgh Steelers wrapped up their division title with a gritty victory over the game Baltimore Ravens.  They are locked in as the number three seed.  The AFC South champions in Houston could finish at 10-6 if they win in Tennessee on Sunday, but for Pittsburgh to also finish at 10-6, they would have to lose at home against the one-win Cleveland team.  Even if that happens, Pittsburgh’s strength-of-victory index will be better than Houston’s.

AFC West

Oakland (12-3) leads the division, holds the second seed, and has a chance at the number one seed.  But they haven’t locked up the division, yet.  Kansas City sits right behind them at 11-4, holding the tie breaker by virtue of winning both games against the Raiders this season.  They (KC) finishes the season on the road against a fading but dangerous San Diego team, while the Raiders and backup QB Matt McGloin journey into Denver to play last year’s champions.

The disappointed Broncos will certainly give Oakland its best game, but I legitimately wonder if Denver can take Oakland even if they are playing at home against the Raiders’ backup signal caller.  The Bronco offense has creaked to a halt during the season’s final weeks.  During their current three-game losing streak, Denver has failed to score more than ten points in any of them.  However, the Raiders Achilles Heel even before the loss of Derek Carr was its defense (ranked twenty-eighth overall and allowing 24 points per game).  Denver managed 20 points against them in Oakland earlier this season.  If they can manage that many at home on Sunday, they can put the game in McGloin’s hands – and Denver still has football’s best pass defense.

While Denver is flawed, Oakland – minus its QB – is, I think, more flawed.  I expect to see Oakland lose this game (giving New England the number one seed, regardless).  I’m less clear on what to expect from the Chargers and Chiefs.  While the Chargers are always dangerous, they have mostly found ways to lose games this year while KC has mostly found ways to win games this year.  In the final analysis, I just don’t see Kansas City – with so much at stake – losing it all to a 5-10 team, even if they are a division opponent playing at home.  My best guess at the way this plays out has KC pulling off the division title and the second seed on the last day of the season, sending Oakland to the fifth seed and sending them on the road to open the playoffs in:

AFC South

Houston.  The Texans (now 9-6) have yet to lose a division game all season (they are 5-0 so far).  When 3-12 Jacksonville rose up last Sunday to rend the now 8-7 Tennessee Titans, they dropped Tennessee to 1-4 in the division.  So even though Tennessee could tie Houston at 9-7 with a win at home against them Sunday, the Texans own the tie breaker.  They are locked into the fourth seed and likely to draw the Raiders in the wildcard round of the playoffs, while Pittsburgh will most likely match up with Miami.

None of the AFC participants can change.  The only thing Week 17 can alter is the seeding.

NFC South

The Atlanta Falcons (10-5) are two games up on their closest competitor (Tampa Bay is 8-7) with one game left.  They are the division champion.  They are currently sitting in the second seed with its corresponding first-round bye.  A final week victory over New Orleans (at home) will clinch that seeding.  New Orleans is 7-8 and kind of a more dangerous version of the Chargers.  The Saints have averaged 29.1 points a game this year (making them the NFL’s second-highest scoring team this year).  They are also number one in yardage and number one in passing yards. Furthermore, this offensive juggernaut will be working against the Falcons’ twenty-third ranked defense (number 26 against the pass) that is allowing 24.9 points a game (the twenty-fifth ranked scoring defense in the NFL).

On the other hand, Atlanta is scoring 33.5 points a game (making them the NFL’s number one scoring offense) and ranks second in yards (behind New Orleans) with the number 3 passing attack and the number 7 running attack.  New Orleans answers with the number 30 scoring defense (allowing 27.7 points a game) and the number 25 defense by yardage allowed (number 30 against the pass).

To put it lightly, America is expecting a shootout.  The Falcons won the first meeting of these teams in New Orleans 45-32.  This is, by no means, a lock – although you have to think that the home-standing Falcons should prevail.

Behind them are the young and inconsistent Buccaneers.  Tampa Bay finishes at home against the dethroned Carolina Panthers.  If Tampa prevails, they will finish at 9-7, putting them (theoretically) in the mix for that final playoff spot.  The loser of the Detroit-Green Bay tilt will also be 9-7.  Washington currently sits at 8-6-1, and could finish at 9-6-1 with a playoff berth if they finish up their season with a win.

So while Atlanta controls its own fate, Tampa Bay decidedly does not.  My strong expectation is that they will lose to the Panthers on Sunday anyway, obviating any tie-breaking scenarios.

NFC East

As the Dallas Cowboys sliced and diced the Detroit Lions last week, they locked up their division title and the first seed.  Their final game in Philadelphia is meaningless, although the statements coming from the Dallas camp suggest that they will keep the pedal down.

Also locked up is the first wildcard spot (the fifth seed).  That belongs to the 10-5 New York Giants.

Behind them are the 8-6-1 Washington Redskins.  They play at home Sunday afternoon with everything to play for against the Giants whose only real motivation could come from knocking the Redskins out of the playoffs.  And because of the tie on their record, Washington will either be in or out depending on the result.  At 9-6-1 their record would be better than any of the teams that could be 9-7.  At 8-7-1, they would finish behind any 9-7 teams (and there will be at least one of those).

My expectation here is that Washington will take care of business.  I am not all that impressed with the Giants (although their defense can certainly rise to the occasion), and I don’t expect to see them win this game on the road against a desperate (and pretty good) Washington team.  In the world of most-likely-outcomes, Washington should win and complete the playoff field.

NFC West

At 9-5-1, Seattle will be the only team from this division to finish over .500.  They have already won the title, but lost control of the number two seed with a surprising loss at home against Arizona last week.  Should Atlanta fall to New Orleans, then the second seed will be theirs if they can beat the two-win San Francisco team (in San Francisco).  Seattle would fall to the fourth seed should they lose, as the winner of the Packers-Lions game will be 10-6.  Don’t see that happening.  The Seahawks have been wildly inconsistent at the end of the season, but should still be better than the struggling 49ers.

NFC North

The season ends on Sunday night in Detroit where the 9-6 Lions will square off against the 9-6 Green Bay Packers.  At stake will be the division title in a winner-take-all showdown.

The loser will probably be home for the playoffs – assuming Washington takes care of the Giants.  Should New York rise up and knock Washington out of the playoffs then both these teams will go into the playoffs – the winner as the division champion and possible number two seed, and the loser as the number six seed.

If Detroit wins (and Atlanta and Seattle lose), the Lions and Falcons would both finish at 10-6.  The tie-breaker here would fall to Detroit on record against common opponents.  The Lions would have four wins (Philadelphia, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Green Bay) against just one loss (Green Bay).  Atlanta would finish 3-2 against these same opponents, with wins against New Orleans, Green Bay and Los Angeles; and losses to Philadelphia and New Orleans (if they lose that last game).  A Falcons loss to New Orleans could push them down as far as fourth.

If it ends up Green Bay vs Tampa Bay for the last wildcard spot – with both teams at 9-7 – the Packers would get the nod based on strength of victory.

If the Sunday night game tilts the other way, with Green Bay winning the division, they would lose any tie-breaker to Atlanta (by virtue of a 32-33 loss to them in Week Eight).  So the highest the Packers could climb is the third seed (and it would take Seattle losing to San Francisco for that to happen).

If it comes to a tie-breaker between Detroit and Tampa Bay, Detroit would win on record against common opponents.  The Lions would be 3-2 (beating Los Angeles, New Orleans and Chicago; and losing to Chicago and Dallas).  Tampa Bay would be 2-3 against those same opponents (beating Chicago and New Orleans while losing to Los Angeles, Dallas and New Orleans).

So Tampa Bay isn’t really in the mix, regardless.

Under the most likely scenarios, the NFC seeding should end up Dallas, Atlanta, Seattle, NFC North Champion, NY Giants and Washington.

And who wins the NFC North showdown?  Green Bay.  And they’ll be a dangerous team to deal with in the playoffs.

At least that’s how I see it all playing out.

How the Giants Playoff Chances Improved

For most of the season, the New York Giants have been sitting snugly in one of the NFC wildcard spots.  Until now, I have been hesitant to embrace them as a likely playoff contestant.  After an uninspiring 2-3 start, the Giants pushed themselves into contention with a 6-game winning streak that came at the expense of some fairly suspect opponents.  They squeaked past Baltimore at home (27-23) before Baltimore figured things out and started playing well.  They eased past a bad Rams team, 17-10.  They just got past a fading Philadelphia team, 28-23.  They finished the winning streak against three straight sub-.500 teams – Cincinnati (21-20), Chicago (22-16), and winless Cleveland (27-13).

Now 8-3, New York faced a quality opponent – the Pittsburgh Steelers – and fell quietly 24-14.  Still 8-4, the tie-breakers didn’t favor them at 9-7.  To earn their playoff berth, the Giants would have to go at least 2-2 down the stretch.  As the stretch drive included games against Dallas, Detroit and a road game in Washington, this under-performing team seemed unlikely to squeeze two wins out of this schedule.  Somewhere in this stretch, they would have to “find” a win against a better team.

They found that win Sunday night when they fought their way past the Dallas Cowboys 10-7.

Even in this moment of triumph, the Giants managed to be mostly unconvincing.  While scoring only ten points, they left two other touchdowns on the field when Odell Beckham Jr. dropped a sure touchdown pass and when the ball slipped out of Eli Manning’s had as he had a receiver breaking open behind the defense.  Eli also threw at least three other passes right into the hands of would-be interceptors (all dropped) – so the Giant offense continues to invite concern.

Defensively, the Giants dominated the Cowboys.  It’s hard to say that when Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott ran for 107 yards, but make no mistake.  Dallas was dominated on offense.

After a dominating early season, the Cowboys finished their eleven-game winning streak with wins that were 3 parts grit and determination and 2 parts luck.  Since they went into their bye with a 5-1 record, the Cowboys’ defense has been frequently exposed.  Three times in the first five games after their bye, Dallas surrendered 23 points or more.  Even though they held Minnesota to 15 points in a Week 13 win, the Vikings still kept the Cowboy offense on the sideline as they ran 69 offensive plays and controlled the clock for 33:17.  Blessed with better red-zone execution (and, perhaps, a roughing-the-passer call on a two-point conversion attempt) the Vikings would have won that game.

The Giant’s lacked enough offense to take advantage of the Cowboy defense, but they did provide something of a blue-print for dousing the Cowboy offense – if there’s another defense out there that can do what they did.

First and most importantly, they competed with the Cowboy running game for the whole sixty minutes.  Elliott had his moments.  He had four rushes of at least 13 yards.  Those rushes accounted for 55 of Elliott’s yards.  His other 20 rushes accounted for just 52 yards.  In fairness, the Cowboys made it easy on the Giants in this regard.  After Elliott carried 15 times for 86 first-half yards, the Cowboys only gave him 9 second-half carries, only once giving him the ball on consecutive plays.  Thus Dallas never gave the Giants defense a chance to wear down, preferring instead to place their fortunes on the arm of quarterback Dak Prescott – who struggled to a 17-for-37, 165 yard game that featured three sacks and two interceptions.

Conventional wisdom might hold that defenses are adjusting to Dallas’ intriguing rookie quarterback.  That’s not what I saw Sunday night.  What I saw was a Giant defense that blitzed relentlessly – a risky strategy that worked because the New York defensive backs were spectacular in covering the Cowboy receivers.  Whether it was Dez Bryant, Cole Beasley or Jason Witten, none of the Cowboy receivers had any success in gaining any separation.  In the absence of the consistent running game, Prescott was faced with persistent heat in the pocket and covered receivers – conditions that would challenge the best and most experienced quarterbacks.

At 11-2, Dallas is still two games ahead in the chase for the top seed in its conference.  With three games left, it would take an impressive collapse for them to fall out of that position.  But Dallas has been scuffling lately, so it will be interesting to see how they do in the playoffs.

In the meantime, the Giants now need to win just one of their last three to pretty much assure their playoff berth.  This is a disappointing development for Tampa Bay, who had recently fought their way into serious playoff contention.  After surviving New Orleans last week, Tampa Bay is now 8-5.  But 9-7 will probably not be enough to get them in.  At 10-6 they would probably get a tie-breaker in conference record, but their closing schedule is daunting.  They have consecutive road games in Dallas and New Orleans followed by a home game against Carolina.  Finding two wins in those three games will prove a challenge.  They will now have to do what the Giants did – find a way to win a game they probably shouldn’t.

Houston or Tennessee?

Also last Sunday, the Tennessee Titans came up big against the Denver Broncos (a 13-10 win).  This leaves them tied for the lead in their division.  Unfortunately, in spite of the win, their playoff stock diminished as the Houston Texans came through with a surprising 22-17 road victory over Indianapolis.  Both Houston and Tennessee are 7-6.  Tennessee will host Houston on the last game of the season.  Before that game, Houston will have winnable home games against Jacksonville and Cincinnati.  If they win both of those games, they will head into that final showdown with a 9-6 record and a 5-0 division record.  The best the Titans can do in the division is 3-3 if they beat both Jacksonville and Houston.

This means that 9-7 will likely not be good enough.  Tennessee will pretty much need to win out to take the division title – their most realistic path to the playoffs.  That places Tennessee’s real playoff hopes squarely on this Sunday afternoon’s contest against the Chiefs.  In Kansas City.  If the Titans are going to make it, they will certainly earn it.