Tag Archives: Los Angeles Rams

No One Beats the South But the South

Five of the eight teams that took the field for Wildcard Weekend represented the southern divisions of their respective conferences.  The AFC South sent Jacksonville and Tennessee and the NFC South was represented by New Orleans, Carolina and Atlanta.  Of the five, only Carolina will not be advancing to the Divisional round as they were the only Southern team to play another Southern team.  Their 31-26 loss in New Orleans marking the third time they had lost to the Saints this season.

But – from an array of compelling numbers coming out of these games, the most compelling just might be 88.  That was the number of rushing yards that Jacksonville quarterback Blake Bortles amassed.  Those 88 yards were the most by any player in the game.  In fact, the quarterbacks combined for 119 rushing yards on 18 attempts (6.6 yards per).  All of the running backs in the game combined for 166 yards on 48 carries (3.4 yards per carry).

But what makes that number 88 so compelling is that it is one yard more than his total passing yards for the game.  Blake finished the passing portion of his evening with 87 passing yards on 12 completions in 23 attempts.  He averaged just 3.78 yards per attempted pass, and just 7.25 per completion.

And won the game 10-3 (gamebook).

The Jaguars have been a team I have been reluctant to buy into all year – primarily because I wondered if they could muster a sufficient passing attack to win a game against a quality opponent on a day when their running game stalled and their defense gave up some points.  Sunday against Buffalo, Jacksonville held the ball for only 9:49 of the first half.  Their three leading receivers on the season (Keelan Cole, Marqise Lee and Allen Hurns) had no pass receptions among them, and each had only one pass tossed in his direction.  In the game’s second half, Blake threw only 8 passes while running 7 times.

Of all the winners from the Wildcard Round, Jacksonville is clearly the least impressive.

They won because the defense smothered Tyrod Taylor’s passing attack.  Taylor finished with a 44.2 rating.  Of the 37 passes he threw, only 17 were completed – and that for just 134 yards with no touchdowns and one interception.  His yards per pass attempted (3.62) and per completion (7.88) were very similar to Bortles.

Maybe we’ll just say it was excellent defense.  Sure, we’ll stick with that.

The Jaguars live to fight another round, but the looming challenge in Pittsburgh is much tougher than the one they’ve left behind.

More Defense in the Coliseum

The 2016 edition of the Atlanta Falcons was an offensive juggernaut.  In seemingly effortless fashion, they blazed their way to 504 regular season points (an impressive 31.5 points a game) and then added 108 more in three playoff games.  Along with their point total, they led the entire NFL in highest average per pass (8.2 yards).  They were second in total yards and touchdown passes.  They were third in both passing yards and rushing yards.

Quarterback Matt Ryan finished with a frightening 117.1 passer rating; top receiver Julio Jones missed two games, but still finished with 1409 receiving yards; and running back Devonta Freeman piled up 1079 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns while averaging 4.8 yards a carry.

Very deep, very balanced, and very scary were the 2016 Falcons.  On offense.

The defense, however, lagged.  Their rankings were a much more modest twenty-seventh in points allowed and twenty-fifth in yards allowed.  They ranked seventeenth against the run and twenty-eighth against the pass.  Opposing passers threw almost as many touchdown passes against them (31) as Ryan tossed for them (38), contributing to an opponent’s passer rating of 92.5 – much higher than you would expect to see against a contending team.

At various points this season, we’ve discussed some of the Falcons’ offensive struggles.  Although with much the same personnel, nothing has come quite so easily for them this year.  They checked in with 151 fewer points this year (353) and Ryan’s passer rating sank to 91.4 – still excellent, but much more mortal than 2016.  In their first playoff game this year they scored 26 points on 322 yards – both fairly pedestrian totals – in their 26-13 victory (gamebook).

But, while the offense has been up-and-down, over the last two weeks a surprising development has taken place.  As the end of the regular season has bridged into the playoffs, the Falcon defense – especially their pass defense – has become Atlanta’s most noteworthy unit.

Two weeks ago, they smothered Cam Newton and the Carolina passing game.  They allowed just 14 of his 34 passes to be completed, while harvesting three interceptions.  Newton’s passer rating was a humbling 31.5.  Then last week against a high-flying Rams team (on the Rams’ home field no less) they shackled Jared Goff with a 77.9 rating as Goff completed only 24 of 45 passes for 259 yards.

Over the last two weeks, two very dangerous passing attacks have combined for 38 completions in 79 attempts (48.1%) for 439 yards (5.56 yards per attempt).  Newton and Goff combined to throw 2 touchdown passes against 3 interceptions for a combined passer rating of 57.9.

Against the Rams, they were everywhere – blanketing LA’s receivers like few teams have been able to all year.  If this is who the Falcons are now, they presents a strong challenge to their remaining opponents.  The offense has been sporadic, but that explosive team from 2016 is still in there somewhere.  If they can play elite pass defense, it significantly raises their stock.

Of all the teams playing on Wild Card Weekend, the Falcons looked most like the team that could force its way into the Championship Round or beyond.

I still think, though, that this is a team that could be handled by the team that is willing to keep running the ball against them.  A defense that values speed and quickness might struggle to hold up for four quarters against a team that keeps running at them.  The Rams finished with 115 rushing yards in a game where they only ran the ball 16 times.

With a backup quarterback running the offense, Philadelphia may not have a balanced enough offense to hurt Atlanta with their running game.  Should the Falcons make it past the Eagles, it will be interesting to see what challenge awaits them in the Championship Game.

Adventures in Officiating

Officials – as you may have heard – are human, too.  Even the good ones make mistakes.  In the replay era, many of those mistakes can be caught, but not all.  When an officiating crew has a rough afternoon it’s bad enough.  When their bad day seems to tilt in favor of one of the teams, it can lead to significant frustration.

Unfortunately, three of Week Sixteen’s most important games were marred – to a greater or lesser degree – by curious officiating.

Kelvin Benjamin’s Touchdown that Wasn’t

Apparently the weekend’s most controversial call was the replay that overturned a touchdown that Buffalo’s Kelvin Benjamin seemed to score against New England.  Buffalo, here, is fighting for its playoff life and the Patriots are trying to tighten their grip on the number one seed in the AFC.

There are 6 seconds left in the first half, and New England is clinging to a 13-10 lead.  But the Bills have third-and-goal from the Patriot 4 yard line.

The Bills line up with three receivers bunched to quarterback Tyrod Taylor’s left, and Benjamin split out all by himself to the right, where he would be singled up against Patriot corner Stephon Gilmore.  Just before the snap, Gilmore backed up into the end zone in a position to hem Benjamin against the sideline.  Taylor lofted the ball to the very back right corner of the end zone, where Benjamin looked for all the world like he caught the pass that would give Buffalo the lead at the half.  Field Judge Steven Zimmer – with the play in front of him – was convinced enough to raise his arms for the touchdown.

Moments later – when the touchdown was reversed – there was consternation on the Buffalo sideline.  Yet, watching the replay, Kelvin didn’t catch the ball cleanly.  He reached with his right hand and batted the ball back toward him.  He did drag the left foot along the turf. But only while the ball was fluttering back toward his chest.  Once he secured the ball, Benjamin tried again to drag the toe.  But it hit against the heel of his right foot instead.

A lot of people in the NFL fandom get quite exercised when calls like this go New England’s way – and I get that.  Hating New England is a trendy position to take.  And this touchdown certainly could have stood.  It was exceedingly close.

But there was sufficient evidence for an overturn – and Buffalo settled for the field goal and the halftime tie.

Patriot quarterback Tom Brady threw only 9 passes in the second half – completing all of them for 105 yards and another touchdown.  He finished the game completing 21 of 28 passes (75%).  Meanwhile, the Patriot running attack ground away at the Bills.  Running back Dion Lewis rolled up 83 yards in the second half on his way to a 129-yard afternoon, and the Patriots finished with 193 rushing yards and 2 touchdowns to finish off Buffalo 37-16 (gamebook).  The Bills finished 0-for-4 in the red zone, and scored no offensive touchdowns on the day.  Even if the replay had upheld the Benjamin touchdown, it’s exceedingly hard to beat the Patriots scoring just one offensive touchdown.

Merry Christmas to the Los Angeles Rams

In Tennessee the fading Titans spent Christmas Eve struggling for their playoff lives matched against a Rams team that is right in the thick of the NFC playoff picture.  In fact, a victory in this contest would punch the Rams’ playoff ticket for the first time since 2004.  The officials (it was Walt Anderson’s crew) didn’t do the home team any favors.

At the center of the controversy was a handful of penalties that should have been called, but weren’t.  Two of them came on Titan punts.  Twice in the second half, Rams special team players pummeled Tennessee punter Brett Kern.  Both times Anderson claimed the kicks were partially blocked.  It is unlikely the first one was.  It is clear the second one was not.

That second missed roughing-the-kicker penalty was probably the more costly of the two.  There was 7:31 left in the game and Tennessee trailed by four.  They had fourth-and-ten at midfield.  The call there gives them a first down on the Ram 35-yard line.

If there was a call more galling to the Titan faithful than either of the missed roughing-the-kicker penalties, it could well have been the missed false start.

There is 7:13 left in the third quarter, with the game tied at 13.  The Rams are on the Tennessee 13-yard line, and have decided to go for it on fourth-and-one.  As they lined up to run the play, tight-end Tyler Higbee – lined up to the left side – flinched.  All of the Titan defenders on that side of the field started pointing and leaping desperately – trying to will the officials to throw a flag.

But they missed it.  False starts are almost never missed.  I don’t actually remember the last time I saw an offensive lineman get away with a false start.  But this one they missed.

Adding injury to insult, instead of being fourth-and-six (forcing a field goal try), the Rams ran the ball right into the area where the Tennessee defenders were flipping somersaults to draw the flag.  Ram running back Todd Gurley burst through the distracted defenders for a ten-yard gain.  On the next play, Jared Goff tossed the touchdown pass that gave Los Angeles the lead.

Sometimes It’s Best to Just Play

So.  Yes, it was an egregious error by the officials.  They should have stopped the play and assessed the penalty.  But increasingly the players are trying to officiate their games as well as playing them.  They spend endless energy reaching for their imaginary flags, as though they had some secret power over the officiating crew.  Usually it’s just harmless posing.  On this occasion, the Tennessee Titans would have been better served if they had just focused on stopping the play.  Had they stopped the Rams there, not only would Los Angeles not have scored the touchdown, but (since it was fourth down) they would not even have had the opportunity to kick the field goal.  That one stop – had Tennessee focused on it – may well have won them the game in spite of the officiating.

Sometimes, it’s best to just play.

There is one noteworthy exception to this rule, and that is the case of pass interference.  I like to believe this isn’t true, but I swear there are times when the official waits to see if the receiver complains before he throws the flag.

Of course, we can’t let this game pass without mention of the onside kick that wasn’t.

Immediately after Tennessee had tied the score at 20, they ran a hurry-up onside kick.  As soon as the official made it to the sideline after marking the ball for play – and while the Rams were still congregating on their sideline – the Titans rushed to the field and bounced an undefended on-side kick that they recovered around the fifty.

Unfortunately, they caught not only the Rams, but the officiating crew off-guard.  A flag was thrown.  A conference was held, and Walt and his crew decided that the play didn’t count because the Rams had called a time out.  Of course, they hadn’t – and after some further discussion the time out was restored to Los Angeles, but the play still never happened.  And this is probably just as well for the Titans, as one member of the kickoff team was certainly off-sides, at least half never set, and a couple were running forward with the kicker.

Still in all of this, Anderson and his crew seemed to be several ticks behind.  To some degree, they seemed that way the entire game.

Gurley’s Big Day

Of course, Tennessee might have won anyway if they had found an answer for running back Todd Gurley.  His 22 rushes for 118 yards added to his 10 catches for 158 yards.  He scored two touchdowns, one of them an 80-yard scoring play off of a screen pass.  It works out to 276 yards from scrimmage on 32 catches.  He was the driving force in Los Angeles’ 27-23 victory (gamebook).

Early Presents for the Saints

But of all the teams saddled with a lump of coal on Christmas Eve, the most frustrated may have been the Atlanta Falcons.  They spent the afternoon in New Orleans.

As the game began, Atlanta found itself trailing the Saints for the division lead by one game, and – since they had beaten the Saints two weeks earlier – a win here would give them the tie-breaker.  So they were playing Sunday afternoon for no less stakes than the division title.

This game came with an extra-helping of irony.  The Falcon win two weeks earlier came with the Saints being flagged 11 times for 87 yards (against only 4 penalties called against Atlanta), and ended with a frustrated coach Sean Payton rushing onto the field to try to get a time out called.  The Falcons had been given 9 first downs off Saint penalties that day.

From the very beginning, it was evident that things would be much different in this game.  The Falcons drew three penalties in their first two offensive series – including a phantom unnecessary roughness penalty against Devonta Freeman.  They were subsequently penalized 3 more times in their next offensive series.  Over those first three series, Atlanta pushed for 89 yards of offense, but gave back 59 of them in penalties.

For the game, Atlanta ended up with 10 penalties for 91 yards, while the Saints were only flagged 3 times for 30 yards.  But this wasn’t to say that the Saints played a clean game.  Notable among the plays the Saints got away with were two fairly obvious pass interferences against Julio Jones.  Julio was also involved in the most head-shaking play of the day.

On the very last snap of the third quarter, Atlanta – trailing 20-3 at the time – had third and goal on the New Orleans 6-yard line. Quarterback Matt Ryan tolled to his right and rifled the ball to Jones, standing a yard deep in the end zone.  Just behind Jones was Saint cornerback Marshon Lattimore.  As the pass arrived in Jones’ hands, Lattimore pushed him out of the end zone.  Jones made the catch, but Down Judge Steve Stelljes called him down at the half-yard line.

A myriad of replays from all angles seemed to show that Julio had caught the ball with at least half of the ball over the line.  But it wasn’t convincing enough for the replay official to overturn.

As with many other opportunities presented to Atlanta that afternoon, the damage could have been mitigated if they could have pressed their advantage.  Facing fourth-and-inches for the touchdown that would put them back in the game, Freeman was buried in the backfield and the ball went over on downs.  Devonta Freeman was in the eye of the storm the entire game.  He had fumbled away an earlier chance at the one-yard line (in addition to getting called for the phantom penalty).

For the game, Atlanta scored just one red-zone touchdown in four such opportunities.  In half of their trips to the red zone – and both of their goal-to-go opportunities – Atlanta came away with no points at all.  Additionally, the aroused New Orleans defense sacked Ryan 5 times and held Atlanta to just 2 of 13 on third down.  That – in combination with the inconsistent performance of Peter Morelli’s crew – pushed the Saints to a 23-13 victory (gamebook).

Summary

My belief going into the weekend was that the teams that ended up winning these games were the teams that I thought were the better teams, so part of me wants to suppose that the Patriots, Rams and Saints would have found ways to win anyway.  It’s easy to say that about New England, as they dominated the second half of their game.  But the other two contests were quite a bit closer – ten points in the case of the Atlanta game, and Tennessee fell just four points short of their upset.  Close enough that a reversal of any of those calls would certainly have profoundly affected the game.

With one game left in the season, Buffalo, Tennessee and Atlanta all still have playoff chances.  Tennessee and Atlanta both face significant challenges (Jacksonville and Carolina, respectively).  The Bills immediate task (beat Miami) is easier, but they will be playing on the road and will need substantial help (beginning with Cincinnati beating Baltimore).

In all cases, these teams will be hoping for more consistency from the officiating crew.

Marquee Games Entertain, But Resolve Little

Two of the most anticipated games of Week 14 turned out to be two of the most entertaining games of the season.  Ultimately, though, neither may have added any clarity to the playoff picture.

Sunday night saw the suddenly hot Baltimore Ravens invade Pittsburgh.  Baltimore may not have been getting the attention that they – perhaps – merit this season.  In their Week Four game at home against these same Steelers, Baltimore trailed 19-0 at the half, staggering to an uninspiring 26-9 loss.  (Curious in that game is that other-worldly wide receiver Antonio Brown caught only one second half pass for just 8 yards, on his way to a 4-catch, 34-yards game.)

They entered their bye at just 4-5, and as late as the beginning of Week 13 they still ranked last in passing yards and next to last in total offense.

Through all the low moments of the season, John Harbaugh’s troops never flinched.  Believers in their locker room and trusting that over the course of the 16-game schedule the cream would eventually rise, the Ravens kept putting the pieces together.

In their Week 13 game, they overhauled the Detroit Lions 44-20.  They churned out a season-high 370 yards that day.  They also held the Lions to 78 rushing yards.  From Week Three to Week Seven, they surrendered at least 100 rushing yards in every game – and were pounded for at least 160 rushing yards in four of the five games.  In the five games since Week Seven, they have not allowed more than 78 yards in any of them.

Now it was the Sunday night of Week 14, and the Ravens found themselves with a 7-5 record and facing their 10-2 nemesis in Pittsburgh.  Offensively, the Ravens showed themselves every bit the equal of the Steeler defense that entered the game ranked second against the pass, fourth overall, fifth in points allowed, and eighth against the run (although it is worth noting that Pittsburgh was playing its first game without injured linebacker Ryan Shazier).  The Ravens put together six different drives of at least 50 yards, pounded Pittsburgh for 152 yards on the ground (led by Alex Collins and his 120 yards on 18 carries), scored touchdowns on all four of their red zone possessions (and all three of their goal-to-go possessions), and after falling behind 14-0 early in the second quarter, raced to a 31-20 lead by the end of the third quarter and a 38-29 lead midway through the fourth quarter.

But it was the Raven’s defense – the defense that had kept Baltimore alive all through the team’s offensive struggles – that was not up to the task at hand.  The Ravens’ defense entered the contest ranked first in interception percentage (5.1%), second in lowest passer rating against them (68.2), third in total pass defense and points allowed (207), fourth in sacks (33) and seventh in total defense.

But Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh offense had their way with them.  They converted 6 of 7 third downs in the first half – on their way to converting 12 of 18 for the night. Roethlisberger ended up throwing the ball 66 times for 506 yards – much of the damage coming on passes to Antonio Brown.

Held to just 34 yards in the first game against the Ravens, Brown scorched the Baltimore defense for 139 yards on 7 catches.  And that was just the second half.  For the game, Antonio checked in with 11 catches for 213 yards as the Steelers scored 10 points in the last 3:30 of the game to pull out a gutsy 39-38 victory (gamebook).

The win does – I suppose – demonstrate that Pittsburgh is still the better team.  But of course, their comparative records already hinted at that.  Very little else changed with the verdict.  The victory doesn’t change Pittsburgh’s trajectory that much.  Winners again of their division, all of their chips are on the table for this week’s game against the defending champion Patriots.  That game will likely determine the AFC’s top playoff spot.

For Baltimore, the loss isn’t devastating – although certainly disappointing.  Even with a win, Baltimore was unlikely to overtake the Steelers for the division title.  Meanwhile, their remaining schedule is less than frightening.  This week they travel to Cleveland to face the 0-13 Browns.  They end with home games against Indianapolis (3-11) and Cincinnati (5-8).  No victories are assured in the NFL, but this is a very manageable closing schedule.  A 10-6 record and a probable fifth-seed are all before them – if they take care of business.  Depending on who else does what to whom, a loss in one of those games may not sink them, but it will certainly open the door for a myriad of other teams.

The Changing AFC Playoff Picture

Also rising in the AFC race are the Los Angeles Chargers.  After their 0-4 start, I have been hesitant to jump on their bandwagon.  With last week’s conquest of Washington, the Chargers now sit in a tie for the division lead with the Kansas City team that was – at one point – 5-0.  Those two teams meet tonight (I am typing this it is about 2:30 Central Time), with the winner probably taking the division crown and the loser probably making the playoffs as a wild card team.

Both Baltimore and Los Angeles have profited from the demise of the Tennessee Titans.  After stubbing their toes in Arizona, the Titans are still 8-5 and are still clinging to the first wildcard spot.  Buffalo (7-6) currently has the other, with the Ravens and Chargers (who are both also 7-6) currently out of the picture – separated by the NFL’s intricate tie-breaking system.

But Tennessee still has the re-invigorated San Francisco 49ers, followed by the Rams and Jaguars (both 9-4 teams) left on their schedule.  Tennessee really needed the Arizona game.  Seeing them finish at better than 8-8 now is a stretch.  For their part, the Bills host the Miami Dolphins this week (the Dolphins hot off their surprise conquest of New England), but then finish the season on the road in New England and in Miami.

Like Baltimore, the Chargers are finally coming to the soft spot of their schedule.  After tonight’s big game, they finish with the Jets and Raiders.  Given the remaining schedules, it is not at all difficult to see Baltimore and LA pushing Tennessee and Buffalo out of the last two playoff spots.

The Dolphins’ victory did not materially damage the Patriot’s playoff chances.  With the conference’s second best record, it would be hard to imagine them not getting a playoff invite.  Nonetheless, the loss was not insignificant.  If they now lose to Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh Sunday afternoon, New England’s chances of finishing with the third seed and being relegated to the wild card round increases significantly.  A loss on Sunday would be their fourth.  If Jacksonville wins out (and their remaining schedule is Houston, San Francisco and Tennessee) they will also finish the season with just four losses, and a conference-record tie breaker over the Patriots.  (Under this scenario, the Jags would finish 10-2 in conference play with the Patriots finishing 9-3).

Of course, if New England beats Pittsburgh, they will probably go in as the number one seed.  That is how much is riding on this particular game.

Meanwhile, in the NFC Showdown

A few hours before Baltimore and Pittsburgh squared off, the big NFC showdown between Philadelphia and the LA Rams took place. With the Eagles starting play at 10-2 and the Rams at 9-3 (and playing at home) it was easy to see home field throughout the playoffs riding on this game.

Coming off a disappointing loss to Seattle the previous week, the Eagles were ready for the Rams from the opening kick.  They scored 3 touchdowns in the game’s first 20 minutes, and took a 24-14 lead into halftime.  The Eagles rolled up 304 yards of offense and 17 first downs in the first half alone.

But the Rams would not go away quietly.  In a furious second half that featured two touchdown drives of 70 or more yards (each of which took less than three-and-a-half minutes) and a blocked punt returned for a touchdown, the Rams pushed their way to a 35-31 lead early in the fourth quarter.  But the Eagles scored the last 12 points of the day to finish with a 43-35 victory (game book).

Now at 11-2, the Eagles sit on top of the conference – and with the win over Los Angeles (and the tie-breaker that comes with that) – a clear path to the top seed in the division.

Except for the fact that they lost their quarterback along the way.

With about four minutes left in the third quarter, quarterback phenom Carson Wentz squirted into the end zone for an apparent touchdown.  The play wouldn’t count due to a penalty, but the hit he endured certainly would.  Sandwiched between two defenders as he dove over the line, the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in Carson’s left knee gave way.

Wentz actually finished the drive – even throwing an eventual touchdown pass to Alshon Jeffrey – before retiring to the sideline for good.  His spectacular 2017 season has come to a close.

Into the breach now is Philadelphia’s once-and-future starter, Nick Foles.

Foles led Philadelphia to a playoff berth in 2013, and was so impressive that the Rams traded Sam Bradford to Philadelphia for Nick.  But Foles was a disappointment in his one season for the then-St-Louis Rams, going 4-7 in his 11 starts for them in 2015.

So now Nick is back in Philly.  As I have pointed out numerous times this season (here for example), the Eagles have been more than just Wentz.  They have been bolstered by an excellent defense and a running game that has – at times – bordered on the phenomenal.  It is not inconceivable that Foles can bring them home with the top seed in the conference.  With the Giants, Raiders and Cowboys left (those last two games at home) the Eagles chances at home field throughout the playoffs are better than OK.

The question will be, what happens once the playoffs start.

The NFC Playoff Picture – as it Now Stands

Last week, the Seahawks took a leg up on the last NFC playoff spot with their upset win over Philadelphia.  This week, they gave it back through the combination of their own loss in Jacksonville and Atlanta’s upset of the New Orleans Saints.

Behind the 11-2 Eagles sit the 10-3 Minnesota Vikings (who are also coming off a loss).  The Rams and Saints – both 9-4 – come next, with the Rams holding the tie-breaker with their earlier win over New Orleans.

Carolina – after their big victory over Minnesota – has tied New Orleans at 9-4, but the Saints won both games against the Panthers, so they hold the tie-breaker.  The Panthers are solidly entrenched as the fifth seed, while Atlanta (by virtue of their win over New Orleans) has currently passed Seattle (after their loss to Jacksonville) for the last playoff spot.  Both of those teams are 8-5, with the Falcons holding the tie-breaker due to an earlier victory over the Seahawks.

While I think we’ll still see some shifting in the AFC, the NFC is starting to look pretty settled to me.

Congratulations to the Fans of the Miami Marlins

In a quick baseball note, it was announced earlier this week that the baseball team in Miami had traded All-Star outfielder Marcell Ozuna to the Cardinals.  In exchange, Miami received arguably the most electric arm in all of the minors and three more prospects.

The 2018 season will obviously be another re-building year in Miami, but for the years 2019 and beyond Marlin fans should be giddy about the trade.  Sandy Alcantara – the key figure in the trade – lights up the radar gun, routinely hitting 101 and sometimes 102 with an almost nonchalant delivery.  He also has devastating breaking pitches.  Sandy is just 22, and his command isn’t major league ready just yet.  But he has all the ability to be a dominant pitcher in this league for years to come.

If it were me, I would have never traded Alcantara for Ozuna even straight up.  Miami would have had to give me another solid major league player and one or two top prospects for Sandy.  To think that the Marlins not only didn’t have to give anything else to the Cardinals, but actually received three other excellent prospects – including a very exciting outfielder in Magneuris Sierra makes this trade nothing short of highway robbery.

My congratulations to the Marlin organization.  They read the smell of desperation coming from the Cardinal front office and took full advantage.  You may need to wait a year or two to see the fruits of this effort, but they will come.

Are the Falcons Really the Falcons Again?

Perhaps your memory of the 2016 Atlanta Falcons is similar to mine.  As they hit their peak last year, they came out of the locker room ready to play.  On their playoff run, they developed a “shock-and-awe” meme that served them very well.

On the final game of the regular season (January 1 of this year), Matt Ryan tossed 4 touchdown passes, and the running game provided 88 yards and another touchdown.  And that was just the first half, as the Falcons jumped to a 35-13 lead (scoring touchdowns on their first five possessions) on their way to a 38-32 conquest of New Orleans.

Against Seattle, in the Divisional Round, it did take them a few possessions to solve the league’s third-ranked scoring defense, but the Falcons punched through with 19 second-quarter points, on their way to a 36-20 win.  In the Championship Game against the Packers, they were ahead 10-0 after the first quarter and 24-0 at the half, scoring touchdowns after both Green Bay turnovers.  They eventually built a 37-7 lead, and went on to win that one 44-21.

And then in the Super Bowl, Atlanta raced out to a 21-3 halftime lead.  Halfway through the third quarter, they led 28-3 – again scoring two touchdowns on turnovers.  In all three phases (as the familiar cliché goes), the Falcons put you on the defensive from the very beginning.  It almost gave them an aura of invincibility.

This Year’s Falcons a Work in Progress

For a variety of reasons, that aspect of the Falcons has been kind of hit and miss this season.  Even during their 3-0 start, they were sometimes that team and sometimes not.  Some of this has been due to stubbornness on offense.

Last year’s passing attack was uncommonly explosive.  Trigger man Matt Ryan tossed 38 touchdown passes and averaged a league-best 13.3 yards per completed pass.  Un-coverable receiver Julio Jones was a huge cog in the machine.  He finished 2016 with 1409 yards on 83 catches even though he missed two games.

For most of the season, the Falcons have been struggling to regain that trademark deep strike attack against defenses geared to prevent just that sort of thing.

Over the last two games, though, Atlanta has started to adjust.  Their last two games (a 27-7 win over Dallas two weeks ago and last week’s 34-31 victory over Seattle in Seattle – gamebook) showed a similar pattern.

Crucial Wins

Both games played closely for a half.  The Falcons led Dallas 10-7 after thirty minutes, and then went into the locker room ahead of Seattle 24-17.

Both games saw a resurgence of the running game in the second half.  In the Dallas game, Atlanta managed 41 first half rushing yards (just 3.2 yards per carry).  The first half running was even worse against Seattle – 12 yards on 14 carries.  But 16 second half carries against the Seahawks produced 77 yards (4.8 per), one week after the Falcons racked up 91 yards on 21 second half carries against the Cowboys (4.3 yards per).  So, over the last two games, Atlanta is a combined 27 rushes for 53 yards in the first halves of those games (1.96 yards per), and a combined 37 rushes for 168 yards (4.5 per) in the two second halves.

Off of that resurgent running game, Ryan and the Falcons have layered a more patient passing attack – one less reliant on big plays and more willing to take what the defense is offering.  Against Dallas, Ryan began 11 of 17 for just 94 yards with no touchdowns and one interception.  After the half, he riddled the Cowboy pass defense to the tune of 11 of 12 for 121 yards and 2 touchdowns.  Similarly, he went into halftime against Seattle just 9 of 15 for 98 yards and 1 touchdown.  Thereafter, he was 10 of 12 for 97 yards and another touchdown.

So – again combining the halves of the two games – Matty is 20 of 32 (62.5%) for 192 yards (6.00 per attempt and 9.60 per completion) with 1 touchdown pass and 1 interception in the two first halves – a very pedestrian 76.6 passer rating.  In his last two second halves, Ryan is 21 for 24 (87.5%) for 218 yards (9.08 yards per pass and 10.4 per completion), with 3 touchdowns and no interceptions.  This adds up to a passer rating of 144.1.

Looking Like Last Year’s Falcons

Against the Seahawks, Atlanta took the opening kickoff and marched 52 yards for a touchdown.  The defense contributed a quick interception, setting the offense up again for a short-field touchdown.  It was 14-0 Falcons after just 7 minutes of play.  When the Falcons returned a fumble for a touchdown early in the second quarter, their lead swelled to 21-3 after less than 16 minutes of play – very reminiscent of the shock-and-awe Falcons at the end of the 2016 season.

With these two crucial victories, the Falcons have pushed their way – temporarily – into the playoff picture.  But it will be an almost weekly grind for this Atlanta team.  Now 6-4, their last 6 games will feature two games against the 4-6 Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  The rest of the schedule will be two games against the 8-2 New Orleans Saints, and games against the 9-2 Minnesota Viking and the 7-3 Carolina Panthers.

The up-and-down Falcons cannot afford to take any more weeks off – even against Tampa Bay.  The path before them is very daunting.

Seattle Footnote

The Seahawks have now lost two consecutive home games and barely survived Houston the game before.  None of these teams seemed overly disturbed by the intense noise generated by the crowd.  This was especially true of the Falcons – who have now been exposed to it several times over the last few years.

Don’t Look Now

The Falcon’s opponents in that last Super Bowl have been on a roll of their own.  After losing two of their first four games, the New England Patriot’s secured their sixth straight victory with a 33-8 domination of the Oakland Raiders (gamebook).

Part of this was fairly expected.  Pass defense has been an inviting Raider weakness all season.  They entered the game allowing opposing passer’s a devastating 110.5 rating against them.  Not an encouraging situation when facing Tom Brady and the heralded Patriot passing attack.  Brady flayed them to the tune of 30 of 37 for 339 yards and 3 touchdowns.  Of course, he threw no interceptions – leading to a 131.9 passer rating.  New England started the game 5 of 6 on third down, and then averaged 8 yards per offensive play in the second half.

The Patriots’ Pass Defense is a Thing

But the thing to take strong notice of with the Patriots is the defense – especially the pass defense.  Mostly disorganized and something of a mess early in the season, New England’s first four opponents exploited the Patriots’ re-constructed pass defense.  They completed 69.7% of their passes against them, averaging 13.5 yards per completed pass.  In those first four, New England allowed 11 touchdown passed while intercepting just 3 passes.  It all added up to a distressing 116.5 passer rating against.

Over the next three games, the pass defense started to show improvement.  The completion percentage dropped to 63.5%.  The yards per catch also diminished to 11.5.  Over those next three games, New England allowed just 4 touchdown passes, with their 2 interceptions bringing them to a more normal 89.4 passer rating against.  (NFL averages are currently 62.5% completions, 11.3 yards per completion, and an 88.2 passer rating.)

Over their last three games, Patriot opponents have now completed just 56.3% of their passes, gaining just 10.6 yards per completion.  The touchdowns and interceptions have been equal at 3 each.  The passer rating against them over those games has been just 71.7.  While one of those contests was against Brock Osweiler and the struggling Denver offense, the other two have been against the Chargers and Raiders with dangerous quarterbacks Philip Rivers and Derek Carr.  Rivers entered that game with an 89.9 passer rating.  Carr’s was 91.8.  They combined for a 71.1 rating in their games against New England.

Especially in these last three games, the Chargers, Broncos and Raiders played very well for most of the game.  But every time they had a little lapse, they paid for it.  And every one who plays New England understands that this is how it is when you play the Patriots.  They will make you pay for all of your mistakes.

Just like last year.

The AFC Playoff Picture

With Kansas City’s surprising loss, the Chiefs – once 5-0 on the season – are starting to slip behind the crowd fighting for the number one seed.  The Week 15 contest between New England and Pittsburgh still looks like it will decide the AFC’s top seed.  Jacksonville now pushes ahead of the Chiefs for the number 3 spot.  Tennessee currently leads Baltimore for the fifth wildcard spot, but as the teams come down the stretch, I’m expecting the Ravens to swap places with the Titans.  Baltimore still looks out of sync on offense, but Tennessee has three road games in their next four, and when they finally come home they will have the Rams and the Jaguars to face them – too tough for a team that I don’t really believe in yet.

Speaking of the Rams

In one of the season’s more anticipated games, the Los Angeles Rams (then 7-2) visited the Minnesota Vikings (then also 7-2).  Most anticipated was the clash between the Ram offense – leading the NFL in scoring at 296 points, while ranking third in total offense, fifth in rushing (128.8 yards per game) and sixth in passing (led by hot second-year quarterback Jared Goff and his 101.5 rating) – and the Minnesota defense – ranked third against the run (just 81.3 yards per game), fifth in total yardage, and tenth in allowing fewest points (just 165).  Opposing passers struggled to an 80.8 rating against Minnesota – the eighth lowest rating in the NFL.

For as anticipated as the matchup was, the result was disappointingly one-sided.  The impressive Viking defense smothered the Rams’ running game.  Todd Gurley ended the day with just 37 yards on 15 carries, never gaining more than 8 yards on any run.  They also eliminated the big-play passing attack.  The Rams had no completion over 23 yards.  In the game’s second half, they had no play longer than 15 yards.  Goff completed 12 second half passes for only 107 yards (8.92 per completion).  He finished the game with a very modest 79.2 rating.

Meanwhile, the Vikings capably exploited Los Angeles’ defensive weakness against the run.  The Rams came in allowing 118 rushing yards a game (ranked twenty-fourth).  Minnesota pounded then to the tune of 171 yards – running the clock for 20:06 of the second half – on their way to a convincing 24-7 win (gamebook).

More about Minnesota next week.

Next Up New Orleans

For the Rams, this is a sobering dash of cold water one week before one of the defining games in the NFC this season.  The Rams have some issues to address before facing the New Orleans Saints – currently riding an eight-game winning streak and boasting the top offense (by yards) in the NFL and the third best running attack (144 yards per game).  At 4.8 yards per rushing attempt, the Saints have the most explosive running game in the league.  After last week’s pounding, the Rams are now twenty-seventh in the NFL in yards per rushing attempt (4.5) and twenty-eighth in rushing yards allowed per game (123.3).

In a contest that will significantly impact home field advantage in the playoffs, the Rams have this game at home.  But they will have to find some way of stopping the New Orleans running attack without leaving themselves too vulnerable to Drew Brees and that passing attack.

It will be a tall order.

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.

Offense from Defense

Six weeks into the 2017 NFL season, the scoreboard shows that – of the 444 touchdowns scored so far – 402 have been scored by the offensive team (276 TD passes and 126 TD runs).  But Week Six was noteworthy – in part – for touchdowns racked up by special teams and, especially, defense.  Of the 34 defensive touchdowns scored this season, 10 were scored in Week Six.  Of the 8 special teams touchdowns scored this season, 5 were scored this week.

These two alternate touchdown sources contributed to one of the most entertaining games of the season last Sunday when New Orleans held off a late Detroit rally to “escape” with a 52-38 victory (gamebook).  That game alone contributed 4 defensive touchdowns and 1 special teams score – with four of these five alternate scores occurring in the game’s last 24 minutes.

Along the way, the Saints may have become the first team ever to score 50 points while going just 2 for 12 on third down (including 0 for 7 in the second half).  It is also surprising in that superstar quarterback Drew Brees suffered through his worst statistical game of the season.  Hitting the field with a 108.3 passer rating for the season, Brees – who had thrown no interceptions on the seasons and was averaging 7.47 yards per pass – tossed 3 interceptions in Sunday’s second half and averaged just 6.00 yards per pass on his way to a 78.2 passer rating.  His afternoon featured a goal-line interception for a Detroit touchdown that – for the moment – fueled the Lions’ furious comeback.

When your opponent rolls up 38 points, it’s rare that your defense is regarded as heroic.  Nonetheless, with the score against them inflated by a defensive score and a punt return for a touchdown, the Saint defense sacked Lion quarterback Matthew Stafford 5 times, hit him on 6 other pass attempts, deflected 12 passes, intercepted 3 and recovered 2 fumbles.  The Saint defense scored 3 touchdowns outright, and set up another.  In between, they saw Detroit make some plays – but on this day, the big-play New Orleans defense was more than a match.

After losing their first two games (to 4-2 Minnesota and 4-2 New England), the Saints have cobbled together three consecutive wins (against 4-2 Carolina, 3-2 Miami, and now 3-3 Detroit).  As you can see, New Orleans’ early schedule has been pretty challenging.  Things could get a little softer for the next few weeks.  They will line up Sunday against the 4-2 Green Bay Packers – but without their superstar quarterback Aaron Rodgers who went down last week with a broken collarbone.  After that, they draw the Bears (2-4) and Buccaneers (2-3).  After yielding 1025 total yards in their first two games (with no turnovers), the New Orleans defense has only surrendered 821 over their last 3 (with 9 turnovers).

If the Saint defense has turned the corner – and if the offense stays as balanced as it’s been the last three weeks – this Saints team could hold its own in the highly competitive NFC South all the way into December.

Matthew Stafford

There are moments when sports become transcendent.  I’m going to waft a little poetic, here, for a few paragraphs – so if your tolerance for bad poetry is a little low, you might want to skip this section.

With the third quarter about half over, a fortunate deflection of a Stafford pass landed in the arms of Saints’ rookie first-round-pick Marshon Lattimore.  Twenty-seven yards later, Lattimore was being swarmed by his teammates after he had scored what seemed to be the back breaking touchdown.  With 23 minutes and 34 seconds left in the game, Detroit trailed 45-10.  Not only were they trailing, but they were paying a horrific physical price.

About four minutes before, safety Glover Quinn was lost after taking a knee to the head.  About two minutes later, the other safety Tavon Wilson went down for a while.  With six-and-a-half minutes left in the third – and with the Lions’ still 35 points behind – they lost their most explosive playmaker when Golden Tate went to the sidelines with an AC joint sprain in his shoulder.

And then there was the beating the offensive line took.  Already missing starting guard T.J. Lang, Detroit lost two more offensive lineman in the third and fourth quarters, as both Greg Robinson and Ricky Wagner suffered ankle injuries.  So, on top of everything else, Detroit faced a five-touchdown deficit with, essentially, three backup offensive linemen in the game.

In the midst of all of this adversity was battered quarterback Matthew Stafford.  Already hobbled by a bad ankle and a tender hamstring, Stafford endured a savage beating at the hands of the physical New Orleans defense.  Before the comeback even got up a head of steam, a shot to the ribs had Matthew flinching for the rest of the drive.

With every reason to sit their remaining healthy starters and just wind out the clock.  With no legitimate chance for victory, and no coherent reason to keep trying, the emotionally resilient Lions pulled their broken bodies off the Superdome turf and mounted a comeback for the ages – almost.

Pounded by free-rushers, and scrambling as much as he could on a bad ankle, baby-faced Matthew Stafford was every inch a man on Sunday afternoon.  Coming back for more every time he was belted to the turf, and with his limping teammates rallying around him, the Lions improbably reeled off 28 consecutive points – and did so in a span of just 14:15 immediately after they had lost their most explosive playmaker.

When defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson stepped in front of Brees’ quick slant and waltzed into the end zone, the Detroit Lions sat just seven points back (45-38) with still 6:41 left on the clock.  Immediately afterward, the Lion defense held New Orleans to a quick three-and-out.  There was still 5:23 left on the game clock as punter Thomas Morstead launched his kick to the left-corner of the end zone, where one final mistake would doom the Lions and their comeback.

On an afternoon when Detroit would surrender 193 rushing yards and would turn the ball over five times, their clinching mistake would involve neither.  Already having scored on a 74-yard punt return, Jamal Agnew now muffed Morstead’s punt.  As it rolled toward the end zone, Agnew raced after it.  He managed to scoop it up and advance it just enough out of the end zone to avoid the safety.  As it turned out, the safety might have worked out better.

Setting up on their own one-yard line, the Lions promptly surrendered their second in-their-own-end-zone touchdown of the game as defensive end Cameron Jordan hauled in his own deflection for the final points of the day.

The loss leaves Detroit 3-3, but still very much in the mix in the NFC North, where the Packers will have to soldier on without Rodgers.

In the end, it was just a loss, and the fact that they made a game out of it matters not at all in the standings.  If they had pulled the plug on the game at 45-10 and gone down quietly, it wouldn’t have hurt them any more in the standings.  But as it relates to the team going forward, the almost comeback is enormous.  On an afternoon when Stafford had – statistically – his worst game of the season (and one of the great ironies of Week Six is that the highest scoring game of the season so far featured the worst statistical games of the season so far for both star quarterbacks), Matthew’s uncommon toughness galvanized his team.

Detroit has some issues that need to be dealt with.  Their running game still isn’t a positive force for them, and for some reason they have a hard time getting started until the fourth quarter.  So Jim Caldwell and his crew have work to do.

But the heart of this team is something they will not have to worry about.

A Look at the Dandies

There were lots of story lines possible for Sunday’s Duel of the September Dandies.  The two quarterbacks were potential story-lines.  Los Angeles Rams’ second-year signal caller, Jeff Goff – a September sensation – was coming off a scuffling 48.9 passer-rating performance in last week’s loss to Seattle.  On the Jacksonville side, quarterback Blake Bortles had thrown 1 pass in the second half of the Jaguars impressive victory over Pittsburgh.  So a revenge of the quarterback’s theme could have been one story line.

More likely, this would be a story of the feature backs.  The Rams Todd Gurley was mostly ignored in the Seattle game (he carried 14 times), while Jacksonville’s dynamic Leonard Fournette racked up 181 yards against the Steelers.  Since neither defense had shown much ability to stop the run (the Rams came into the game allowing 133.6 rushing yards per game and 4.5 yards per carry, while the Jags were getting stung to the tune of 146.4 rushing yards per game and 5.4 per rush), it was easy to see both backs enjoying big afternoons.

Then, of course, there was the offensive shootout story line.  The Rams came into play averaging 30.4 points per game, while Jacksonville was scoring 27.8 points per contest.

In the end, none of those story lines proved decisive – all though all of them had their moments.

As to the quarterbacks, Goff had a fine bounce back day against a decidedly tough secondary.  He finished with a solid 86.2 rating day, although he threw only 21 times (just 7 times in the second half).  As for Bortles, he threw 15 times in the second half and 35 times for the game.  But, once again, it was obvious that Jacksonville’s passing attack is less than supremely dangerous.  Once the Rams pushed ahead in the fourth quarter, forcing the Jags’ running game to the sideline, it was clear how run-dependent they are in Jacksonville.

The running backs were a better story.  On Fournette’s very last carry against the Steelers the week before, Leonard streaked 90 yards for the clinching touchdown.  On his first carry Sunday, he sprinted 75 yards for a touchdown.  I’m not sure how many players have had back-to-back touchdown runs that totaled 165 yards or more.  Fournette is a threat from anywhere on the field.

However, after that initial burst, the Rams’ talented defensive line took over the game.  Leonard carried 20 more times during the game for a total of just 55 yards.

Gurley, on the other hand, never had that monster burst.  But he consistently found yardage between the tackles.  Todd finished with 116 yards on 23 carries (5.0 per), and proved to be the most consistent offense that either team was able to sustain.

As to the shootout story line, the first quarter ended with the Rams on top 17-14.  But things settled down surprisingly after the first 15 minutes.  In fact, after the first quarter neither team managed another offensive touchdown, as St Louis ground its way to a 27-17 victory (gamebook).

At the end of the day, though, it was the difference in the special teams that decided the game.  One great advantage the Rams have is two elite kickers – and both contributed to the win.  Punter Johnny Hekker did bounce one punt into the end zone, but finished with a 43.1 net punting average for the game.  Place kicker Greg Zuerlein added two field goals (one of them from 56 yards).

But it was the other side of the special teams game (when Jacksonville kicked to Los Angeles) that decided the game.  The Rams returned a kickoff and a blocked punt for the deciding touchdowns, while a shanked punt set up a field goal.  Jacksonville kicker Jason Myers also missed two field goals, although both of them were from more than 50 yards out – underscoring the value of having that long-range weapon.

In the game’s aftermath, I find myself not completely convinced by either team.  Remembering that these teams combined for a total of 7 wins last year (4 by the Rams and 3 by the Jags), it is impressive that these teams have achieved that total already this year (4 for the Rams and 3 for the Jags).  But both franchises have some growing to do before they could be considered among the elite teams.  Both have developed top running games, but both are less than astonishing in the passing game.  Both also seem a little vulnerable defending the run.  Jacksonville’s pass defense looks like it has risen to one of the better pass defenses in the league.  The Rams, of course, excel in the kicking game.

Both of these teams are clearly headed in the right direction.  It will be interesting to watch their development as the season progresses.

That Team from Carolina is Relevant Again

After losing a thrilling Super Bowl after the 2015 season, Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers stumbled out of the gate in 2016.  Hitting their bye week at 1-5, they recovered somewhat afterwards, but still ended the season 6-10.  The biggest tumble – statistically – came on the defensive end.  The 2015 team had finished sixth in both points and yards allowed.  They closed 2016 ranked #21 in yards and #26 in points allowed.  Their top ranked scoring offense also fell to #15.

The NFL, it seems, is more than just a week-to-week league.  It’s also a year-to-year league.

Shaking off the memory of last year as though it was a bad dream that never happened, the Carolina Panthers have re-emerged this season.  They sit at 4-1 heading into tonight’s intriguing matchup with the also 4-1 Philadelphia Eagles.  We’ve chatted about the Eagles a few times already this season.  Perhaps we should take a few minutes to get to know the 2017 Carolina Panthers.

The personnel is pretty much the same that took the field for Super Bowl 50.  It’s still Cam Newton at quarterback.  He is coming back from off-season shoulder surgery, and has been particularly sharp his last two times out.  Against the Patriots and Lions he completed 48 of 62 passes (77.4%) for 671 yards, 6 touchdowns and 1 interception.  That should be enough to keep the Eagles concerned.

Behind him is running back Jonathan Stewart (who has been playing through his own little injury – a badish ankle).  His top target in 2015 – tight end Greg Olsen – is still with Carolina, but not on the field these days – he is sidelined temporarily by a broken foot.  In his absence, the offense has gotten more balanced, as Newton has spread the ball around more evenly.

Cam has four receivers who have between 237 and 272 passing yards.  Of the four, only Devin Funchess figured prominently for the 2015 team (he caught 31 passes that year for 473 yards).  He already has 24 this year for 269 yards.  Leading the team in receiving yards so far this season is Kelvin Benjamin with 272 yards.  He was injured for all of 2015.  Behind him at 271 yards is venerable Ed Dickson, who began the year as Olsen’s backup.  His numbers jumped precipitously after his career afternoon in Detroit.

Until Sunday, Dickson’s career best had been only 79 yards – and he hadn’t done that since 2011.  He collected almost that many yards on one play Sunday.  With 6:14 left in the first quarter, Carolina faced a second-and-14 from their own 32.  Newton tossed the ball to Dickson between two defenders about seven yards beyond the line of scrimmage.  The supposed dump off pass turned into a 64-yard dash as several would-be tacklers failed to get the rumbling Dickson to the ground until he had brought the ball to the Detroit 4 yard line.

This was the centerpiece in a dynamic first half for both Newton and Dickson.  Although Carolina went into the locker room ahead just 17-10, Cam had lit up the Detroit defense to the tune of 15 for 17 for 237 yards.  Ed had caught 4 of those passes for 152 yards.  For a little context, in three full seasons in Carolina, Ed had never had more than 134 receiving yards in any of those seasons.

Both players had a bit more pedestrian second half.  Newton was a solid 11 for 16 for 118 yards, with just one of those passes going to Dickson for 23 yards.

Fourth Quarter Detroit

Once again, the fourth quarter belonged to Detroit.  Trailing 27-10 with just 8:58 left in the game, the Lions drove for 122 of the 133 total yards they would gain in the second half on their last two drives – both resulting in touchdowns.

Detroit had used two of its timeouts on defense during the Carolina possession in between the Lion touchdowns.  Holding the one last timeout, and with 3:32 still on the clock, Detroit elected to kickoff and try to hold the Panthers again.  It almost worked.  With 2:30 left in the game, Carolina faced a third-and-9 on its 24.  One more defensive play would give the ball back to Matthew Stafford with nearly two minutes left, needing just a field goal for a tie.  But one final completion from Newton to Benjamin down the left sideline for 17 yards sealed the deal (gamebook).

The Lions now sit at 3-2.  Both losses have been at home, but both have been razor-thin losses to two teams (Atlanta and Carolina) who are a combined 7-2 and look like they will be January heavyweights.  Next for them is a very dangerous New Orleans team.

Early Assessment

Both teams leave this contest with questions to answer.

Detroit has been excellent in almost all considerations, but a persistently non-existent running game threatens to derail their season.  In week two, they racked up 138 rushing yards against the Giants (in a 24-10 win).  In their other 4 games they have totaled 300 yards.  In the second half of Sunday’s game, their running line was 4 attempts for 5 yards.  That’s even more distressing when you realize that those rushes included one 12-yarder from Ameer Abdullah.  Detroit’s other 3 running plays in that half netted a loss of 7 yards.  This is an area that needs to be fixed if Detroit is ever going to compete with the big boys.

Carolina’s running game also ranks in the lower half of the league (they rank nineteenth, averaging 98.6 yards per game), but they haven’t typically struggled here.  In fact, they took the field Sunday having racked up 465 rushing yards through their first 4 games – a fine 116.3 per game.  They had gained 272 rushing yards in their previous two games.

But Detroit’s surprising run defense did an impressive number on them.  Carolina struggled to end the game with 28 yards on 28 rushes.  Even though Newton’s final three kneel-downs surrendered 6 yards, Carolina’s second half rushing totals of 13 yards on 17 carries is more than a little surprising.  In fact the two teams combined for only 18 rushing yards in 21 attempts – uncommonly low, even in this passing era.

More concerning for Carolina is the pass defense.  After a slow start, Stafford became the latest quarterback to enjoy a big afternoon at the Panther’s expense.  Stafford was 14 of 19 (73.7%) after intermission for 158 yards and the 2 closing touchdown passes – a 133.2 rating.  For the season, opposing QBs are completing 69.8% of their passes against the Panthers, tossing 7 touchdowns while Carolina has collected just 1 interception through its first 5 games.  The QB rating against them so far this season is an elevated 98.1.

In their defense, the last three quarterbacks they have lined up against are all pretty good – Stafford follows Drew Brees and Tom Brady.  But they need to come up with some answers.  They face another real good one tonight in Carson Wentz.

September Dandies

The beginning of every new season brings with it a few September dandies.  These are the teams that take the league by surprise.  Usually, they are teams that have been bad recently – Jacksonville, for example.  Sometimes, they are teams that have been pretty good, but are suddenly playing at an other-worldly level – like Kansas City.  It’s usually about this time of the season that these teams start coming back to earth.

Two of these dandies got a little splash of reality last Sunday.  Buffalo – off to a surprising 3-1 start – fell to Cincinnati.  The surprising Rams of Los Angeles (who had also been 3-1) had scored 142 points through their first four games.  But that gaudy offense came to a crashing halt Sunday at home to a still vulnerable Seattle team in a 16-10 loss (gamebook).

Saddled with an offensive line that has yet to come together, the Seahawks have exploited San Francisco and Indianapolis for 325 rushing yards in those two games, and only 221 yards combined rushing yards in the other three.  Against Los Angeles’ leaky run defense (which had surrendered 531 yards over their previous 3 games), Seattle managed just 62 yards on 25 carries.  Quarterback Russell Wilson has also been running for his life entirely too much.

On the defensive side of the ball, Sunday’s game was not dissimilar to most of the other games Seattle has played this year – significant yards given up, but few points. Seattle ranks just seventeenth in yardage allowed, but they are the fifth hardest team to put points on the board against so far this season.  On Sunday, the Rams had several opportunities to spin the scoreboard in what ended up as a frustrating loss.

Los Angeles turned the ball over 5 times, including an uncommon lost opportunity on their first drive.

Beginning on their own 38, the Rams marched smartly to the Seahawk 12 in just 6 plays – facing no third downs on the drive.  Then running back Todd Gurley broke around left end heading for the end zone, where safety Earl Thomas closed quickly on him.  Gurley was in the act of stretching the ball toward the end zone (and, in fact, the play was originally ruled a touchdown), but before it could get there, Thomas batted it lose.  On its way out of bounds, the loose ball struck the pylon and rolled through the end zone.  Ruled a touchback, the Rams couldn’t even get a field goal chance out of their impressive opening drive.

And so it went.  In addition to the turnovers, usually automatic kicker Greg Zuerlein shanked a 36-yard field goal to open the second half.  And, in a final indignity, with 8 seconds left and the Rams facing a fourth-and-10 from the Seahawk 20, quarterback Jared Goff found rookie third-round draft choice Cooper Kupp breaking clean over the middle in the end zone.  But Jared’s potential game-winning toss was agonizingly too high and wide and only grazed off of Kupp’s fingertips.  The Rams finished the game outgaining Seattle 375-241, but only had 10 points to show for it.

In what was, perhaps, the first high-stakes game of his career (first-place in the division was on the line), Goff finished 22 of 47 (46.8%) including just 14 of 32 in the second half (43.8%).  In many of those instances, Jared had receivers as open as you can expect to get against Seattle, but he couldn’t get the ball on target.

Whether this loss signals the beginning of the end for the Rams remains to be seen.  Los Angeles will get its chance to respond Sunday when they line up against Jacksonville in an early-season “Dandy” bowl.  When the schedule came out, not too many would have circled this Week Six game between Jacksonville (3-13 last season) and the Rams (4-12 last season) as a game of interest.  But so it is.

As I mentioned earlier, the NFL is a year-to-year league.