Tag Archives: New Orleans

Miracle in Minnesota

Up until there were ten seconds left in the fourth and final playoff game last weekend, the New Orleans Saints were fashioning the greatest come-from-behind story in their history.

The first half couldn’t have been worse.  After allowing a touchdown to the Vikings on their opening drive, New Orleans cornerback Ken Crawley was flagged for two questionable pass interference penalties against the Vikings Stefon Diggs.  These penalties were part of a 6 penalty first half that cost the Saints 92 yards and handed Minnesota 4 first downs.  They led to a second-drive field goal and a 10-0 Viking lead.  Before the half would end, Minnesota would turn an interception into another short-field touchdown to give them 17 points.

Offensively, the first half had been just as disastrous.  The first quarter saw New Orleans run 12 plays for 33 yards.  They earned as many first downs (1) as they threw interceptions (also 1).  But the second quarter was even more frustrating.  Finally finding a little rhythm, the Saints put together to long drives.  In the two drives, the Saints combined to run 20 plays for 117 yards and 8 first downs.  And no points.  The drives ended with a red zone interception (off a deflection) and a missed field goal (the miss – it should be pointed out – was from 58-yards, so it was hardly automatic).

So, New Orleans went into the locker room at the half, trailing the best defense in football on their home field, 17-0.  Not terribly encouraging.

And then, in the second half, New Orleans erased the entire deficit.

Second Half Heroics

Star quarterback Drew Brees – who completed 72% of his passes this season and fashioned a 103.9 passer rating in 2017 – was dominated by the Viking defense through the first two quarters.  He was just 8 for 18 with 2 interceptions.  His passer rating for the half was a stunning 26.6.  In the second half, Drew was Drew again.  He completed 17 of his last 22 passes (77.3%) for 177 yards.  Against a Viking defense that had surrendered only 13 touchdown passes through 16 regular season games, Brees tossed three in his spectacular second half – leading to a passer rating of 139.6.

When Will Lutz drilled a 43-yard field goal with 25 seconds left in the game – putting New Orleans ahead 24-23 – it looked like the remarkable comeback was complete.  Fifteen second later, when Minnesota broke the huddle for the game’s last play, they faced third-and-ten, still about 25-yards away from field goal range.  At this point, a Viking win seemed remote.

Ten seconds later, Diggs was standing in the end zone holding the football.  There was no time left on the clock.  The Vikings had won the game 29-24 (gamebook).

Diggs spent the next five minutes or so striking his go-to pose – standing with his arms crossed in front of him with a god-like, worship-me look on his face – while thousands of cameras flashed in his direction.  Stefon had caught the desperation pass from Case Keenum and transported it over the goal line.  But the story of the last play belongs to New Orleans’ rookie defensive back Marcus Williams.  Coming off an impressive rookie season that included an interception of Keenum earlier in the game that provided a crucial turning point, Williams had the play in front of him.  He missed the tackle.  And that was it.  It handed Minnesota its only second-half touchdown – but it was enough to send the Vikings on and send the Saints home.

What Happed to New Orleans?

At their height, New Orleans was a dominant running team.  From Week Six through Week 13 (an eight-week span), the Saints averaged 166.9 yards on the ground.  Not co-incidentally, they averaged 32.5 points per game and won seven of the eight games.

Over their last six games – including their two playoff games this year – the running game struggled noticeably.  Over those games, they averaged just 80 rushing yards a game, and scored just 25 points per game.  They lost three of those six. As the season progressed, it became fairly evident that the dominant running game was the element that transformed New Orleans into one of the elite teams in football.  When the running game fell off, the Saints became merely a good team.

Atlanta Goes Down, Too

This dynamic was also generally true for Atlanta.  When they ran the ball effectively, they very much resembled the Atlanta team that marched to last year’s Super Bowl.  But when the running game stuck in neutral, the entire offense was beset with inconsistency.

Against Philadelphia, the Falcon running game was nearly thrown into reverse.  Running back Devonta Freeman – who scorched New England for 75 yards on only 11 carries in last year’s Super Bowl – was held to 7 yards on 10 carries.  His 4 second half carries netted a loss of one yard.

The Falcons finished with only 86 rushing yards in a game in which they were mostly dominated on offense.  Winners of 7 of their previous 9 games, Atlanta never did drive the field against Philadelphia.  Their lone touchdown came after an 18-yard drive set up by a muffed punt mid-way through the second quarter.  They finished with just 281-yards of total offense.  They had been held under 300 yards only twice through their first 17 games.

While Foles Leads the Offense

Meanwhile, Nick Foles – playing in the very large shadow of the injured Carson Wentz – kept on keeping on.  Nick threw the ball only 30 times in the victory – with only 3 of those passes travelling 15-or-more yards in the air.  He missed on all 3 of those passes.  But when throwing the shorter passes, Foles completed 23 of 27.  Throughout the second half, Foles completed 12 of 15 passes against the Falcons (a cool 80%).  It all added up to just enough to push Philly past the Falcons, 15-10 (gamebook).

All year (here for instance) I have been reminding you that Philadelphia was more than just Wentz.  I’ve documented the strong running game and top-shelf defense.  Both of those other aspects were very much in evidence in the win.  Even though the running game wasn’t remotely prolific (the Eagles averaged only 3.0 yards per rush), it was relentless.  Thirty-two times the Eagles ran the ball against the Falcons.  In the second half, their 16 rushes managed only 19 yards (1.2 yards per rush).  None of those second-half running plays gained more than 7 yards.  But they kept at it.

Still, it was hard to shake the feeling that Philadelphia was trying to – if not hide their quarterback, at least make sure they didn’t depend on Foles to win the game for them.

Minnesota in Philadelphia

So the NFC Championship is set for Sunday afternoon, as the Cinderella rides of Keenum and Foles continue on.  Midnight will strike for one of them in a few days, but one of these two unheralded and much-given-up-on quarterbacks will lead his team into the Super Bowl while fabled quarterbacks Brees and Matt Ryan will be home planning for next year.

Some years the NFL is an easy read.  Some years it seems that anything can happen.  This year is one of the latter.

Staggering Into (and Out of) the Playoffs

Week 17 is always the most unpredictable week in the NFL season (Week One is the second most unpredictable).  The week is a composite of varying energies and passions, and it’s nearly impossible to tell, sometimes, which games mean more to which teams.

For the Baltimore Ravens, it was all there to be had.  At 9-6, the playoff berth was theirs for the taking if they could win at home against a disappointing, 6-9 Cincinnati team.  They lost.

The Chargers did everything they could to complete a stunning turnaround from an 0-4 start to almost claim a playoff spot.  They beat Oakland 30-10 (finishing with a 9-7 record), but were edged from contention when both Buffalo and Tennessee won – both claiming wildcard spots.

In a season that seems to be something of a changing of the guards, Buffalo, Jacksonville, the Rams (St Louis and Los Angeles) and Tennessee all broke long playoff droughts.  How long any of them will last in the playoffs is another question.  All of them have question marks.

Of the playoff neophytes, the Rams have had the best season (and sit with the best record).  But they will enter the playoffs without place-kicker extraordinaire Greg Zuerlein.  The quickest way to lose playoff games is to miss points in the kicking game.

The other three are harder to take seriously.  Buffalo’s 9-7 record includes only two wins against over .500 teams.  They have wins against Atlanta when the Falcons were slumping early and Kansas City while the Chiefs were going through a mid-season slump.  In between, they have losses to Carolina, New Orleans (47-10), the Chargers (54-24) and New England twice (23-3 and 37-16).  At one point during the season, their starting quarterback was benched.

Tennessee Takes Jacksonville

As to the Titans and Jaguars, they finished the season against each other in a game in which neither managed to impress.

When the dust had settled, it was Tennessee who walked off the field with the victory, 15-10 (gamebook), but it was hardly a showcase effort.

The Titans began four drives on Jacksonville’s side of the field – including two inside the Jaguar’s 30-yard line.  The results were two field goals, a punt and a fumble.  They controlled the clock for 19:40 of the second half, but managed only 3 points.  Eric Decker dropped three passes in the second half, and the Titan running game (minus quarterback Marcus Mariota) managed just 56 yards in 29 carried (1.93 yards per carry).

The only consistent offense the Titans had all evening came on keepers by Mariota.  Up until his kneel-down ended the game, Marcus had sprinted for 61 yards on 9 carries – most of them designed runs.  Tennessee ran for 5 first downs in the second half – and Mariota accounted for 4 of them.

But as beatable as Tennessee looked last Sunday, Jacksonville – already in the playoffs –  seemed even more mortal.  Even granting that they had less to play for than the Titans, their performance was just as concerning – especially as the game wore on.

They finished with just 74 total yards in the second half, averaging just 2.8 yards per offensive play.

With their running game throttled (Jacksonville managed just 83 rushing yards on 24 carries – with none of them longer than 9 yards), the Jaguars put the ball in the hands of quarterback Blake Bortles, who finished the game with 2 interceptions and a sobering 33.7 passer rating.  He was especially cold in the second half, when he connected on just 4 of 15 passes for just 47 yards and both interceptions.  His passer rating for the second half was an almost impossible 0.6.

Jacksonville never did score an offensive touchdown.

Jacksonville’s defense ranks among the best in the league – second in both yardage and points allowed.  Tennessee finished the season ranked thirteenth in total defense and seventeenth in points allowed – not gaudy rankings, but they are fourth against the run, and they proved once again that the Jaguar passing attack is unlikely to win a game without significant contributions from its running attack.

Tampa Bay Wins in Strange Fashion

The New Orleans Saints – with their division crown on the line – ended the regular season in Tampa Bay.  Were they to lose and Carolina to win, the Panthers would win the division and send the Saints to the tournament as a wild card.  The Buccaneers (already eliminated from the playoffs) were only playing for pride.

But for the game’s first thirty minutes, that pride looked like it might be more than enough.  Tampa Bay held the ball for 20:02 of the half, converting 10 of 11 third downs.  They went into the locker room with a 233-125 lead in yardage and a 17-7 advantage in first downs.  In just the first two quarters, Tampa Bay had rolled up 101 rushing yards and 24 carries – numbers many teams would be pleased to see at the end of a game, much less at halftime.

Yet – courtesy of two interceptions, a blocked extra-point, and a 106-yard kickoff return against them – the Bucs trailed 14-13 at the half.

New Orleans mostly reversed the domination in the second half.  Quarterback Drew Brees completed 15 of 17 passes (88.2%) and rolled up a 125.2 passer rating for the half.  He finished the game completing 22 of 30 passes (73.3%).  Meanwhile, the run defense that was dominated in the first two quarters surrendered only 9 rushing yards on 4 attempts over the last two quarters. They controlled the ball for 18:29 of the last half.

Yet a fumbled punt that Tampa Bay returned for a touchdown, and a 39-yard touchdown heave from Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston to Chris Godwin with 9 seconds left pushed the Bucs past the Saints 31-24 (gamebook).

One of the NFL’s dominant teams through October and the first half of November, the Saints look very much like a team that peaked too soon.  They finished the season splitting their last six games.  After being untouchable throughout most of their 8-game winning streak, New Orleans looks decidedly vulnerable as they begin the playoffs.

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).


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.

Tyrod’s Last Interception

As the game got progressively farther and farther out of reach, the New Orleans defense dropped into deeper and softer zone coverages.  With 8:41 remaining in the third period, already leading 24-3, and with Buffalo facing a third-and-12 from their own 23, the Saints rushed only three while the other eight members of the defensive unit started backpedaling at the snap.  Among those dropping into coverage was 299 pound (listed) defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins – who took one step to rush the passer, and then dropped back.

Deep into the zone, wide receivers Kelvin Benjamin (lined up wide left) and Deonte Thompson (lined up wide right) began running their deep crossing routes.  In the slot to the right, Jordan Matthews curled wide open into the right flat – but on third-and-12 a flat pass would be fairly inconsequential.

Also aligned right was tight end Charles Clay.  As he started to run his underneath route, he noticed Rankins standing there, and adjusted his route away from him and toward the right sideline.  Quarterback Tyrod Taylor noticed the same thing and tossed the ball toward Clay running away from Rankins.  Matthews was just as wide open, but the decision to throw the ball to Clay was sound.  It was a shorter throw and Charles was running away from a slower defender.  With a head of steam, Clay had the better chance to convert the third down.

And none of that is changed by the fact that Sheldon ended up with the ball in his hands, chugging towards the Buffalo goal line (right tackle Jordan Mills finally shoved him out of bounds at the 3-yard line).

The Interception and its Aftermath

The throw wasn’t terrible.  It could have been caught.  Clay could certainly have helped his quarterback by pulling it in.  At the same time, it wasn’t a really good throw.  It was behind him enough that it him in the shoulder.  From there, it popped into the air and dropped into Rankins hands.  Even if Clay had caught the ball (because Taylor couldn’t properly execute the pass) he still wouldn’t have achieved the first down because the throw pulled him back into the defender.

The Saints would make short work of the opportunity – they scored on the very next play – and continued on to a 47-10 victory (gamebook).  Taylor would play two more series (going 1 for 3 for 8 yards) before relinquishing the reins to Nathan Peterman – who played almost the entire fourth quarter.

That would prove to be a warm-up, as a few days later he was granted this Sunday’s start in Los Angeles against the Chargers.  It will be a career first for the rookie fifth-rounder out of Pittsburgh.

Assessing Tyrod Taylor

All things considered, it was an odd end (or perhaps temporary interruption) in the story of the converted running back/wide receiver.  Always an unorthodox quarterback – and one I always had my doubts about – Taylor goes to the bench having thrown just 3 interceptions and holding a 91.4 passer rating this year and a 92.1 rating for his 52-game career (including 38 starts).

On the other hand, his team is now 19-18 with him as the starter.

In this particular game, Taylor finished 9 of 18 for just 56 yards, with no touchdowns and the interception.  His longest completion of the night was for 9 yards.  His longest run was for 13 yards, as he almost had more running yards (27) than passing yards.

While the numbers were pretty atrocious, it should also be pointed out that his opportunities were fairly limited.  His receivers were rarely able to find the seams of the zones, and had great difficulty shaking man coverage in those moments – mostly early – when New Orleans mixed in some man coverage.

Certainly if it had been Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers or one of the elite quarterbacks, he would have challenged the zones.  He would have zipped passes into the tight windows.  But not everyone is a Brady or a Rodgers.  I believe that quite a few NFL quarterbacks would have struggled in that situation last Sunday.

Taylor was failed by the play-calling as well.  On their second offensive snap. Buffalo went play-action, drawing the New Orleans linebackers back toward the line and opening a significant gap in the zone.  Tyrod hit Benjamin on the slant for 9 yards.  For whatever reason, they never went back to play action again, surrendering one of their most effective tools against the Saints’ zone defenses.

There was certainly enough blame to go around.

Missed Opportunities

But, of course, Tyrod could have done better.  The few chances he had he mostly missed, with his best opportunities coming in Buffalo’s opening drive.

Putting together their only sustained drive of the game, the Bills reached the New Orleans 18-yard line with 11:12 to go in the still-scoreless first quarter.  They faced second-and-9.  Getting man coverage, Benjamin ran up the right sideline.  But cornerback Ken Crawley was with him all the way.  Moreover, Benjamin’s route  drew the attention of free-safety Marcus Williams – who was also waiting for the throw in the corner of the end-zone (which sailed over everyone’s head).

Meanwhile, to the left side of the formation, tight end Clay had beaten safety Vonn Bell to the inside, and, with Williams vacating the deep middle, Clay would have had an easy touchdown.  But Taylor – who had been watching Clay’s route develop – gave up on him and turned his attention to Benjamin just at the point where Clay left Bell behind.

It would be Tyrod’s best chance to put Buffalo in the end zone all day.

On third down, New Orleans played zone.  Benjamin – again lined up to Taylor’s right – sat down in front of Crawley, as open as he would be all day.  This potential first down fizzled as Taylor’s pass was well behind Kelvin.  Buffalo settled for a field goal.  They wouldn’t score again until their last drive of the game, when Peterman threw a touchdown pass to Nick O’Leary with 1:54 left in the game.

Why Buffalo is Changing Gears

In between, it was all the things that have concerned me about Tyrod.  He didn’t anticipate receivers as they were about to break open.  He didn’t throw with great accuracy.  He didn’t challenge the zone coverages.  And – especially later in the game – he gave up on plays too early.  By the third quarter, he was ready to run at the first glimpse of daylight.

But more than all of this – and what I think is the predominant reason why coach Sean McDermott is moving away from Taylor – is the feeling that once this offense falls behind it cannot come back.  Under Taylor, the Buffalo offense has been dynamic from time to time, as long as they can keep running the ball and Taylor can look for big play opportunities.  But once they fall behind, the passing game by itself isn’t usually explosive enough to bring the Bills back into the game.

So, Nathan Peterman will get the next start.  In his one quarter of work, Peterman completed almost as many passes and for more yards than Tyrod did in three quarters.  Nathan finished 7 of 10 for 79 yards and the touchdown.  Encouraging, but to be taken with a grain of salt.  Once the Saints’ lead pushed toward the 40-point mark, much of the intensity of the game diminished.

It could be argued that former coach Rex Ryan’s commitment to Taylor cost him his job.  McDermott seems unwilling to let that happen to him.

Where This Does to the AFC Playoff Picture

The loss, of course, doesn’t help Buffalo’s playoff chances.  They do still currently have a hold on that last playoff spot, but it looks increasingly like they will lose it.  Once 5-2 and riding a dangerous running game and an opportunistic defense, Buffalo has yielded 81 points in losing their last two games.  The team that allowed only 561 rushing yards through their first seven games (80.1 per) has been brutalized for 492 in the last two games alone.  With a rookie quarterback at the helm, and with Kansas City and New England (twice) looming on their schedule, it becomes increasingly difficult to see Buffalo in the playoffs.

It also becomes increasingly difficult to see them knocking off New England on Christmas Eve.  When I was contemplating playoff positioning here, I felt that this was one surprise game the Bills might pull off.  It was a loss that might have pushed the Patriots into the fourth playoff spot.  Without that loss, the top of the AFC becomes a real scrum.  If this comes down to strength of victory, the Patriots could ease past Jacksonville for the third seed.

Fear New Orleans

Meanwhile, after opening up a 17-3 halftime lead, New Orleans took the air out of the ball.  Drew Brees threw just 5 times in the second half.  The Saints rolled for 214 rushing yards in the second half alone.  They ran 33 times and controlled the clock for 24:08 of the last 30 minutes.  The week before against Tampa Bay the Saints controlled the ball for 17:08 after intermission, running 20 times for 112 yards.  So, in the second halves of their last two games, New Orleans has piled up 326 rushing yards on 53 rushing attempts.  Brees has thrown a total of 13 passes in the second halves of those games.

Over their last two games, teams have exploited the relative “lightness” of the middle of Buffalo’s defensive line.  Built for speed, Buffalo has no defensive ends listed as heavier than Shaq Lawson’s 269 pounds.  Their interior line had only two listed at 300 pounds or heavier.

And it was here – the middle of Buffalo’s defensive front – that New Orleans concentrated its attack.  Relentlessly, New Orleans’ guards Larry Warford (listed at 332) and Andrus Peat (listed at 312) pushed Buffalo’s smaller interior linemen out of the way in an offensive game plan that was as subtle as a sawed-off shotgun.  Among the awards that the NFL doesn’t give out is offensive lineman of the week.  If they did, Saint center Max Unger might be a worthy candidate.

Against New Orleans, Buffalo began with Cedric Thornton lined up over center.  At 299 pounds (listed) Thornton wouldn’t seem to be a lightweight – although at 6-6, Cedric might seem to be a better fit on the outside.  But neither Thornton nor the since-released Jerel Worthy were a match at all for Unger.  Max dominated both to an extent rarely seen in the NFL.

Still a dangerous passing team with one of the league’s elite quarterbacks, New Orleans now boasts the league’s third best running game (averaging 142.2 yards per game).  They also feature the league’s eighth-ranked defense (number six against the run and number seven against the pass).

There are few weaknesses to find here.  The NFL season is long, and much can and will change between now and January.  But this is a team to be feared.

Throw-Back Saints Keep Throwing

Last week, I talked about the new vertical NFL.  This week, though, is throw-back week as we will spend a few minutes with the New Orleans Saints during their convincing 30-10 triumph over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (gamebook).

Nine weeks into the NFL season, Drew Brees sits (statistically) among the elite quarterbacks of the league.  He currently ranks first in completion percentage (71.6), third in passes completed (197) and passer rating (105.0), and fifth in passing yards (2214) and yards per pass attempt (8.05).  Yet, he is doing all of this without an “elite” receiver.  In Ted Ginn, Drew does have a receiver who can provide a vertical threat – but not in the way that the elite guys like Julio Jones and Antonio Brown can provide it.  Michael Thomas is probably underrated in the NFL world at large.  He has caught 50 passes already this season.  But nobody speaks of either of these receivers in reverential tones.

In an increasingly vertical NFL, Brees and the Saints are still among the very best at the horizontal passing game.

Tough Days in Tampa Bay

Opposing them last Sunday – perhaps better said – offered up to the Saints last Sunday were the tilting Buccaneers.  Their 2-1 start now just a distant memory, the Bucs walked the plank for the fifth consecutive time Sunday.  Injuries, youth and the frustration of their season slipping away from them have all taken their toll.  In addition to being outgained 217-88 in the first half, allowing the Saints to control the clock for 17:08 of the second half, watching their three top pass catchers (Mike Evans, Cameron Brate and DeSean Jackson) held without a catch in the second half, and seeing top running back Doug Martin held to 7 yards on 8 carries for the game; Tampa Bay also saw their starting quarterback Jameis Winston leave at the half with a re-injury to his shoulder, saw a blocked punt turn into a touchdown, and watched Evans ignite and altercation when he came off the sideline to blindside Marshon Lattimore.

In short, the wheels are starting to come off just a little in Tampa Bay.

In their current condition, these Bucs were no match for the peaking Saints.  In the vertical NFL discussion, I pointed out that the driver for all of this was the shutdown corner.  Tampa Bay is still looking for that guy.  Now minus veteran cornerback Brent Grimes, they opposed New Orleans Sunday with four rookies or first-year players and one second year player seeing significant playing time in the Tampa Bay back seven. With so much youth, the Bucs were limited to simple coverages – two deep zones and safe man coverages, with cornerbacks lining up eight yards off of the receivers and back-peddling at the snap.

Saints Taking Advantage

With volumes of underneath room, Brees and the Saints took everything the Bucs gave them.  And took and took and took.  Drew threw the ball over 20 yards only three times all day – completing just one.  He also threw (and completed) one 19 yard route and one 11-yard route.  Everything else was thrown within ten yards of the line of scrimmage.

Twenty-two times Brees threw short routes – including 6 screen passes.  He completed 19 of these throws for a total of 190 yards – 148 of those yards coming after the catch.  These include 14 passes thrown within five yards of the line of scrimmage.  Thirteen of the fourteen were completed for 111 yards – 113 of the 111 yards coming after the catch.  For the game, 155 of Brees’ 263 passing yards came after the catch.

Drew mostly picked on Grimes’ replacement.  First year player Ryan Smith, making his third career start at right corner, gave plenty of room and got plenty of attention.  Of Drew’s 29 passes, 16 went to the offensive left side.  Brees was 12 of 16 for 145 yards throwing to his left – even though Robert McClain, on the other side, was giving just as much room.

The struggling secondary was further exposed by a mostly non-existent pass rush.  Brees was sacked once and hit – I think – only one other time on a blitz.  Tampa Bay sits last in the NFL with only 8 quarterback sacks this season.

Defining Moments

Perhaps the day on defense could be summed up by the afternoon of rookie safety Justin Evans.  Making just his fourth career start, Justin was at the focal point of the two worst moments of Tampa Bay’s day.

There was only 1:06 left in the second quarter.  New Orleans, ahead only 9-3 at this point, faced first-and-10 at Tampa Bay’s 33-yard line.  Brees dumped a screen pass into the hands of Alvin Kamara – one of the NFL’s impact rookies – and the screen pass broke big.

Catching up to him at about the 15-yard line, Evans tried to wrap his arms around the shifty Kamara, only to be spun about like last week’s laundry and left sitting on the turf while Kamara finished a weaving 33-yard touchdown run.

Now there is 9:46 left in the third quarter – the Saints leading 23-6.  They have the ball on the Buc 36-yard line, first-and-10.  It is perhaps understandable – given that the Saint passing game had consisted almost entirely of short tosses – that Evans might have expected more intermediate passing.  Even so, he was standing flatfooted looking into the backfield as Ginn sped past him.  Seconds later, Ted pulled in Brees’ perfectly thrown strike for the 36-yard touchdown that iced the contest – New Orleans’ only completed long pass of the game.

Next For the Saints

While Tampa Bay seems headed for a “growth” year, New Orleans increasingly looks like a team to be contended with.  After Brees threw for 185 yards in the first half, the Saints opened up their running game for 112 yards in 20 rushing attempts in the second half alone.  They now rank fourth in passing yards and seventh in rushing yards in the NFL.  Defensively, they still rank fifteenth, but that’s a little deceptive.  After allowing 470 yards in their first game and 555 in their second, New Orleans hasn’t allowed more than 347 in any game since.  They are averaging 264.7 yards allowed per game over their last six.  It’s a team that can beat you in a lot of ways.

Their winning streak – now at six games – has already included three road wins (in Carolina, Miami and Green Bay).  Now they will journey to Buffalo – a different sort of team with a unique offensive and defensive style.  In the week-to-week NFL, it will be interesting to see how they adjust.

Life After Mr Rodgers

Week Six became an official week of mourning in Wisconsin when Aaron Rodgers went down and out with a broken collarbone.  The expectation is that Rodgers will miss the rest of the season.

I don’t intend to chronicle every major injury that occurs during the season, but a few weeks ago when Houston lost J.J. Watt for the season, I pointed out that his loss went beyond his on the field contributions.  The same is true for Rodgers.  Like Watt, he was the face of his franchise and one of the marquee faces of the NFL.  Any team that loses its starting quarterback faces a long season.  When that quarterback is, arguably, the best in the game, it casts a pretty long shadow over the rest of your season.

I fully believe everyone in the Green Bay organization completely understands the magnitude of this loss.  To their credit, they are not whining or looking back.  They have saddled up the new man and expect to win games with him.  It was evident in the post-game press conference (after last week’s 26-17 loss to New Orleans[gamebook]) that Head Coach Mike McCarthy truly expected his team to win that game.  One of the best signs to come out of the New Orleans game is the resolve of the coaching staff.  This will not be a lost season.  It was also heart-warming to watch the Green Bay faithful embrace the new guy.  There is another very interesting development to come out of this game.  But first let’s introduce the new guy.

Let the Brett Hundley Era Begin

Drafted in the fifth round (#147 overall) in 2015 out of UCLA, Brett Hundley started for the Bruins in his freshman year.  After three seasons at the Bruin helm, Brett passed on his senior season to enter the draft.  In 1241 college passes, he completed 67.4% of them for almost 10,000 yards (9,966 to be exact), a 75-25 touchdown-to-interception ratio, and a 150.8 passer rating.

He also ran for 30 touchdowns (in 40 games) and caught a touchdown pass – so Brett has some tools.

Before this season, he had only appeared in four games, completing just 2 of 10 passes with an interception.  This season he appeared in the end of the Week Four victory over Chicago, completing his only pass for 0 yards.  Then, a week ago Sunday, he saw his first extended action in the NFL against Minnesota.  The results were less than inspiring (18 of 33 for just 157 yards with 3 interceptions).

Making his first start, Brett led the Packers on touchdown drives in two of his first four possessions last Sunday.  Halfway through the second period, Green Bay led 14-7.

It was downhill after that – and ultimately there wasn’t enough production from Brett and the passing game.  The first half ended without a completed pass to either of Green Bay’s top two receivers (Jordy Nelson or Davante Adams), and Hundley finished the day 12 of 25 for just 87 yards, with no completion longer than 14 yards.

But alongside Hundley’s growing pains was another very interesting development.  The resuscitation of the Packer running game.

Yes, That Was the Packers with 181 Rushing Yards

Last year’s 10-6 team ranked only twentieth in rushing, and didn’t crack the 100-yard mark in any of their playoff games.  They had no runner that managed even 500 yards for the season.  The last Packer team to have any real commitment to the run was the 2014 team, led by their last 1,000-yards rusher, Eddie Lacy (that team went 12-4, losing the NFC Championship Game to Seattle in overtime).  When you have a passer like Rodgers, it’s hard to commit strongly to the run.

But now, with one Aaron on the shelf, the Packers have to run the ball.  And Sunday afternoon a new Aaron emerged.

Hello Aaron Jones

The Packer’s fifth-round draft pick this year was invested in running back Aaron Jones from UTEP.  Like Brett, Aaron skipped his senior year after 35 college games and 4,114 rushing yards (a 6.3 average per carry).  He ran for 33 touchdowns and caught passes for 7 more.  He first came to the nation’s attention when he chalked up 125 yards in a Week Five win in Dallas.  But Sunday was his coming out party as well.  In his first game as the centerpiece of the offense, Jones showed great burst and finished with 131 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries.

With 44 yards from Hundley, the Packers piled up 180 rushing yards through the first three quarters.  But the passing game’s inability to convert those yards into points forced Green Bay to shelve the run game in the fourth quarter.

Heroes on the Line

But while Jones was good and Hundley had his moments, the revelation of this game was Green Bay’s offensive line.  Mostly recognized only as the big guys protecting Rodgers, this group has been generally under-appreciated.  Right guard Jahri Evans has been named to 6 Pro Bowls, but the rest of the group has combined for only one such honor (David Bakhtiari last season).

Given, now, the chance to run the ball as the main cog of the offense, the entire line – including the less recognized Brian Bulaga (RT) and Corey Linsley (C) showed that they could possibly be a dominant run-blocking line.  Particularly impressive, I thought, was left guard Justin McCray.  Undrafted out of Central Florida, the rookie lineman opened large holes in the middle of the Saint defense, and pulled with great authority.  In the long run, his emergence might be as important as any on an otherwise disappointing day in Green Bay.

Also worthy of note is tight end Martellus Bennett.  Not the most enthusiastic blocking tight end I’ve ever seen, Bennett is, nonetheless, quite effective.  On most of the productive running plays, it was Bennett who was neutralizing New Orleans’ star defensive lineman Cameron Jordan – including Jones’ two longest runs of the afternoon (his 46-yard touchdown sprint in the first quarter, and his 21-yard run around right end in the third).  On that last run, Bennett was one of three tight-ends on the right side and was pivotal in opening up the sideline for Jones.

Bennett also threw my favorite block of the game.  On the play before the 21-yard run, Martellus lined up on the left side and tossed DE Trey Hendrickson to the ground like he was a stuffed animal.  Bennett is an excellent receiving tight end – and apparently a better blocker than people may realize.

For this to have much meaning, Hundley and the passing game will have to gain enough effectiveness to allow the running game to pound people for the full four quarters.  But if Green Bay can mount a top-ten running game to go with the air attack once Rodgers gets back, this could bode very well, indeed, for the Packer future.

Meanwhile in New Orleans

The flip side of this story isn’t so rosy for the Saints, who won the game but were pushed around in the run game again.  Now allowing 114.2 rush yards a game (dropping them to twentieth in the league), and now allowing 4.9 yards per rush (ranking them thirtieth out of thirty-two teams), run defense remains a persistent shortcoming for this team.  In the six games they’ve played so far, only the Dolphins and the Lions have failed to run for at least 119 yards against them (and neither of those teams tried very hard).

In watching them play, it doesn’t look like a problem that will just go away.  The two inside linebackers, Craig Robertson and A.J. Klein are much better in coverage.  Against the run, neither shows great instinct. Neither distinguished himself as a tackler, either.  Starting right defensive end Alex Okafor is very quick on the pass rush, but is undersized and a liability against the run.  By the second half, Hendrickson was playing in his place on running downs – with only marginal improvements.

As long as the offense can put points on the board and force other teams to keep throwing the ball, the Saint defense should hold up pretty well.  But, eventually, this will rise up and bite them.

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.