Questionable Decisions, Worse Officiating, and One Great Penalty

I’m not sure what was more surprising.  That the Baltimore Ravens were actually flagged with an offensive holding call.  Or the play on which that call occurred.

Late in their Week Seven victory over Seattle, the Ravens were called for holding.  After five complete games and a little more than half-way through the second quarter of the sixth game – after more than 200 consecutive running plays – the Baltimore Ravens were finally flagged again for holding.  With first-and-ten at the Buffalo 49-yard line, fullback Patrick Ricard lifted the right shoulder pad of Lorenzo Alexander briefly while Gus Edwards scooted past.

Don’t get me wrong.  It was a penalty.  But over the previous five-and-a-half games the Ravens committed many infractions at least that severe without getting called for any of them.  Right guard Marshall Yanda begins almost every play by grabbing his opponent’s shoulder pads.

Faced with a very rare first-and-twenty, quarterback Lamar Jackson threw too high for his receiver and was intercepted on the next play.

But even though what must have been a record streak of runs with no holding calls has finally come to an end, Buffalo – Baltimore’s opponent last Sunday after noon – could still hope to have been better served by the officiating crew.

On the very last play of the third quarter – with the Bills still within 8 points – Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen heaved a pass up the right sideline to the Raven 33-yard line, where Robert Foster waited to pull it in.  And he might have, too.  But beaten defender Jimmy Smith came up behind Foster and went through his back trying to make a play on the ball – a process that is supposed to draw an interference penalty.  But the official standing right in front of them waved it off.

In the end, though, it probably wouldn’t have mattered.  So dominant was Baltimore’s defense that it is doubtful that Buffalo would have managed anything even with a first down deep into Raven territory.

In the game’s first half, the Raven defensive unit sacked Allen 4 times and held Buffalo to 74 total yards.  They also created one crushing turnover that set the offense up on the Bills’ 24-yards line, leading to the game’s first touchdown.  The second half featured two more sacks, while Josh completed just 9 of his last 22 passes.  The Bills last failed drive was helped along by three big defensive penalties from the Ravens that set Buffalo up with a first-and-ten from the 18-yard line.

But Buffalo never could handle the Raven blitzes, and the series ended with three consecutive incompletions to wrap up Baltimore’s 24-17 victory (gamebook) (summary).

Jackson continues to garner the lion’s share of the attention that Baltimore is getting.  I continue to maintain that the real heroes are the defenders that keep Jackson from having to play from behind.

The Patriots Feel Their Pain

Of course, when it came to adventures in officiating, no Week 14, playoff-implicating game was more excruciating than Kansas City’s 23-16 conquest of New England (gamebook) (summary).

With the rulebook allowing a coach a maximum of three challenges, there has always been the question of what happens when the same team gets screwed four or more times in the same game.  What then?

I’m not sure if that has ever happened before last Sunday, so Jerome Boger’s crew may have made history that afternoon.  The game in general was not well officiated at all – on both sides.  Several penalties were missed outright, and some that were called were mystifying.  Kansas City’s Travis Kelce was called for offensive pass interference on a play where nothing he did even approached being illegal.

But the brunt of the poor officiating was born by New England, who had three touchdowns taken away from them – two of them after they had run out of challenges.

Time to Revisit the System

Of course, the fact that it was the Patriots does make the outcome a little more palatable.  Without much doubt, New England is the NFL’s most hated team.  Moreover, over the years, there have been a great many teams that have felt that the Patriots received the benefit of a good many pivotal officiating calls.  So a little comeuppance here is not something that will be widely mourned across the NFL.

However, since something similar could happen to any team at a critical juncture of the season, I think it’s time for an overhaul of the replay system.

Recognizing the potential for disaster, here, the NFL over the years has taken significant measures to soften the three-challenge maximum.  All scoring plays are automatically reviewed, so no coach has to expend a challenge.  The same is true of all turnovers.  This, of course, applies to plays that are ruled on the field as either scores or turnovers.  If a player scores or turns the ball over and that is not how it is ruled on the field, the coach will still have to challenge.  Both of those events happened to New England on Sunday.

Moreover – and most significantly – all challenges are automatically handled by the officiating crew inside the last two minutes of either half and for all of any overtime periods.  Ponder, for a moment, the implications of this.  Inside the last two minutes and in overtime, the entire concept of a coach’s challenge is done away with.  The officiating gods who watch over the field of play simply stop play when a questionable moment occurs, and then they review it.  It is the simplest and most elegant aspect of the entire replay system.

But it is only employed for four minutes of every game.  If it were true that the only times a bad officiating call could determine the outcome of a game were in the last two minutes of the half or in overtime, that would be sufficient.  But every week the NFL demonstrates that bad calls do – or potentially could if not overturned – decide the outcome of a game at any time.  Why cannot the NFL simply do from the first minute of the game what it so easily and effectively does in its last minute?

Before some other team less hated than the Patriots gets its playoff hopes dashed by an antiquated replay system, it’s time the NFL abandon the challenge system entirely.  Just watch the game and fix what needs fixing.  Simple.

More Patriots-Chiefs

It does injustice to the game, though, to lay New England’s defeat squarely on the officials.  In spite of Boger’s crew’s best efforts to bury the Patriots, this is a game New England should at least have tied and could easily have won.  Their own decisions and execution in the kicking game doomed them every bit as much as the bad non-calls.

With 2:06 left in the first quarter and New England ahead 7-3, kicker Nick Folk had a makeable 41-yard field goal blocked.  By the time that the second quarter was half way through, Kansas City had pulled ahead 17-7.  Now the Patriots faced fourth-and-seven from the Chief 27-yard line.  But, instead of attempting a makeable 44-yard field goal, Tom Brady threw an incomplete pass.

Now, we are in the waning moments of the third quarter.  New England has just scored to pull to within ten points of KC, 23-13.  If they had gone for and made the 44-yard field goal, the score would have been 23-16, and New England would have kicked the point to make it a six-point game.  If they had made both previous field goals, the score would have been 23-19, and, again New England would have kicked.

But now, they went for a two-point conversion to make it a one-score game, with James White’s attempted run up the middle falling about a half yard short.

The game finally ended with the Patriots throwing incomplete on fourth-and-three from the KC five-yard line.  The score, at that point, favored the Chiefs 23-16.  If they had kicked the second field goal and the extra-point, it would have been a 23-20 game, and New England would have had a relatively routine 22-yard field goal to tie the game.  If they had made all of their kicking opportunities up to that point, the game would have been tied, and Folk’s potential short kick would have given them the win.

Aggression in a head coach can be a useful thing.  From time to time, though, those decisions can come back to haunt you.

And Another Thing

One more note on that fourth-down pass.  Brady was trying to throw to Julian Edelman in the end zone.  Edelman never was open.  But Jakobi Meyers was.  Edelman’s route carried him in between Meyers and Tyrann Mathieu, who had Jakobi in coverage.  A throw to Meyers would have produced – at the very least – a first down, and it is unlikely that Mathieu could have kept him out of the end zone.

One of the reasons that double-teams on Edelman and White work so well, is that Brady sometimes doesn’t trust his other receivers to make catches in critical moments of the game.

And One More Thing

At the end of the day, New England had three scoring drives – and needed help on all of them.  The initial touchdown was scored on a trick play after getting big first downs on a couple of KC defensive penalties.  The second touchdown came after a blocked kick, and the field goal followed an interception.  There have been a lot of days lately, where this offense seems incapable of putting together a scoring drive of any considerable length.

A lot of ink has been expended discussing what is wrong with the New England offense.  Most believe that the receiving corps is too thin.  While another play-making receiver wouldn’t hurt – especially if that receiver were a tight end – this is honestly not the Patriots’ biggest problem.

Always one of the NFL’s best, the New England offensive line is now among the worst in football.  They entered the week averaging just 94.5 rushing yards per game, and just 3.5 yards per carry – both figures among the worst in the league.  Additionally, they struggle against almost every blitz that opposing defenses throw at them.  Brady spends most of his afternoons running for his life and throwing the ball away.  If they cannot fix this, the receivers won’t matter.  Even if they do get Gronkowski back.

Saints Aggression Also Comes Back to Bite Them

San Francisco defensive back Ahkello Witherspoon committed, arguably, the best penalty of the season last Sunday in New Orleans.

With 4:58 left in the first quarter, Saint quarterback Drew Brees heaved a pass toward the end zone, where tight-end Jared Cook leaped to pull down.  As he returned to earth, Witherspoon rung his bell (as they say) with a shot to the head, drawing the foul.

That penalty achieved two things that eventually made all the difference in the 49ers’ 48-46 win (gamebook) (summary).  First, the head-shot knocked Cook out of the game.  In the early going, Cook was proving to be a huge match-up difficulty for San Fran.  On the field for 8 plays, Jared had caught two touchdown passes totaling 64 yards.  The 49ers now would not have to deal with him for the rest of the afternoon.

The second thing the penalty did was move the extra-point try to the one yard line.

Already up 13-7, New Orleans could have kicked the extra point and taken fifteen yards on the kickoff.  But, with the option to try the two-point conversion from the one, Saints’ coach Sean Payton couldn’t let the opportunity pass.  And when the conversion failed, the Saints spent the rest of the game chasing that point.

With one minute left in the game, Brees’ fifth touchdown pass of the game pushed New Orleans back in front 46-45.  Had they kicked the earlier point, it would have been a 47-45 lead, and New Orleans would have kicked the point here, too.  But realizing that a two-point lead at this point would still leave them vulnerable to a game-winning field goal, they were compelled to make a second two-point try.  This one also failed.

For the game, these two offenses matched each other almost perfectly.  Each team scored six touchdowns and added two field goals.  Each turned the ball over once.  While San Fran punted three times, New Orleans punted just once, but also turned the ball over on downs and possessed the ball when the first half ended.

But the 49ers kicked 6 extra points.  The Saints had only 4 with two missed two-point attempts.

If they had scored on that first attempt, the decision would have been hailed as brilliant.

How Can We Trust the Texans

One week after a galvanizing victory over their New England nemesis, Houston was pounded into submission by the 5-8 Denver Broncos.  The final was 38-24, though at one point the Denver lead was 38-3.

All along, I have been supposing that Houston would ultimately take control of the very competitive AFC South.  Over recent weeks, though, it has been clear that the Tennessee Titans have been the division’s best team, and now they have two games against Houston over the last three weeks – beginning this Sunday.

It is difficult not to see the Titans finishing on top here.

Houston’s Night to Remember

Even on the replay it wasn’t overly clear.  There was Will Fuller in the end zone, with the football in his hands, turning and about to make that final step that would legitimize the catch and the touchdown.

And then, there was Jonathan Jones with his hand knocking the ball free.  Was he too late?  Or was this another one of those Patriot plays that we’ve seen so often over the years?  How often have the Patriots been a finger-tip or a fraction of an inch away from disaster when someone makes a nick-of-time play to save the day?  (Remember the tackle that kept Jessie James out of the end zone in the Championship Game against Pittsburgh a few years ago, or the seeming touchdown pass that was batted away in last year’s Super Bowl?)

When the play originally happened – and it was called a touchdown on the field – the Houston crowd erupted.  After years of frustration – especially against New England – they had finally driven a dagger through the monster’s heart.  The touchdown had made it 20-3 with just 5:49 left in the third quarter, with the extra-point pending.

But, after a small eternity in the review booth, referee Tony Corrente came back with agonizing news for the 72,025 in attendance at NRG Stadium (and the millions of Houston fans and Patriot haters watching on Sunday Night Football).  Incomplete pass.  Third-and-ten from the New England 35.

Immediately, the Houston fan-base knew exactly what would happen next.  An incomplete pass followed by either a punt or a missed field goal.  They had had their foot on the throats of the once-beaten defending champions.  And now, New England would escape again and fashion another one of their inevitable comebacks.  At that point, the mood in Houston was glum, indeed.

If there was a moment last Sunday night when the trajectory of a franchise might have changed, this was it.

On the third-and-ten play, Houston lined up with DeAndre Hopkins wide right and Kenny Stills wide left.  The Patriots responded with man coverage, with safety Duron Harmon over the top.  Harmon, however, didn’t stay there long.  As Hopkins pressed his way up-field, Harmon drifted to his side to join Stephon Gilmore in a double-team.  That left Stills one-on-one with Jones, the hero from the previous play.

Knowing there was no inside help, Stills stemmed inside long enough to get sufficient separation from Jones, and then turned up-field running to almost the exact spot where the potential touchdown pass to Fuller had gone.

While quarterback Deshaun Watson had put together a magnificent game by getting the ball quickly out of his hands, this time Deshaun held the ball – dancing adroitly around the confines of the pocket until it was time for lightening to strike for the second time.

Unperturbed over the previous result, Deshaun Watson launched his second consecutive perfect 40-yard bomb – this time to Stills in that same left corner of the end zone.  This time Jones wasn’t close enough to come up with another miracle, and this time, when the official’s arms went up, there would be no reprieve.

The extra-point made it 21-3 Houston, on their way to a 28-22 conquest (gamebook) (summary).

Depending on how the rest of the season goes, this might be the moment the Texans will look back on.  However significant this game may or may not turn out to be for Houston, it is more than a little significant to the rest of the league.  Watson and his Houston cohorts became the first conventional offense to vanquish what has been a remarkable defensive season from the Patriots.

Pushed around a few weeks ago by the wildly unconventional Baltimore Ravens, the New England defense, nonetheless, came into the contest ranking second in total defense and having allowed the fewest points of any NFL team (117).

The lynch-pin of the defense is a pass defense that was on a historic pace.  Entering the game, they allowed only 53.9% of the passes thrown against them to be completed; had allowed just 4 touchdown passes against 20 interceptions; and were muffling opposing passers, holding them to a 50.5 rating (the NFL average is 91.0).

In addition, their run defense – ranked ninth in the league – was completely smothering Houston’s sixth-ranked running attack.  Houston finished the night with just 52 rushing yards and a 2.3 average per run, leaving the Texans’ offensive hopes squarely on Watson and the passing game.

Deshaun didn’t disappoint.  Completing 18 of 25 passes (72.0%) Watson threw for 234 yards and 3 touchdowns (he also caught a touchdown pass – so the Patriots were hit for as many touchdown passes in this game as they had allowed all season to that point).  Deshaun’s passer rating for the evening was a more than satisfying 140.7.

Although they played more zone against the Texans than they usually do, the Patriots are known for nearly air-tight man coverage, supported by one of football’s best pass rushes.  With 37 sacks already this year, New England is dropping their opposing passers on 9.1% of their drop-backs – both of those figures ranking fourth in the league.  Basically, your receivers never have time to shake free before the pass rush is burying your quarterback.

As Watson has a history of holding the ball (in an earlier game against Baltimore he held the ball for 10.31 seconds before finally taking a sack), he seemed an unlikely candidate to re-write the narrative.  But that’s just what Deshaun and the Texans did.

Whether against zone or man, Watson didn’t diddle around in the pocket.  He looked for the first open receiver and got the ball out of his hands.  In truth, the Patriots had their moments.  They sacked Deshaun three times and hurried him three other times.  For the most part, though, the ball was gone before New England knew what hit them.  A couple times, the Patriots had free blitzers in on Watson who still couldn’t reach him in time.

With 6:33 left in the third quarter, and Houston facing third-and-seven, Harmon came untouched on a blitz.  But before he could get to the Houston quarterback, Watson delivered a rocket throw down the middle to Stills for 20 yards and a first down.  Early in the fourth quarter, on a similar play, Watson completed a 27-yard pass over the middle to Hopkins, even though Kyle Van Noy came virtually untouched across the line.

Against zones, they ran a series of short turn arounds.  The game plan against the man coverages involved short crossing patterns that forced the Patriot defenders to work through traffic.  It was a simple, basic, patient approach that strained the New England defense like no one they have faced so far this season.

In just his third season, Watson has become very proficient at understanding defenses and quickly deciding where to go with the football.  For the first time in maybe forever, the future looks pretty bright for the Houston Texans franchise.

Ravens Almost Toppled

Just after Justin Tucker’s 30-yard field goal had given Baltimore a 17-14 second quarter lead, the San Francisco 49ers began their final possession of the half on their own 25 with 1:58 left and all three of their time outs.

A minute and a half later – after Raheem Mostert ran out of bounds on the Baltimore 42 yard line – the 49ers finally became serious about the drive.  But it was too late then.  After managing just four plays over the first 92 seconds of the possession, San Francisco would cram four more plays into the next 22 seconds, making a belated bid for at least a tying field goal going into the half.

The best they could manage was a 51-yard field goal attempt from Robbie Gould that sailed wide left.  Officially, Marlon Humphrey was credited with a block as he grazed the ball with a fingertip, encouraging the kick to sail wide.

The second half would belong to the defenses.  Not only would there be no more touchdowns scored, there would be no offensive plays longer than 18 yards.  The conditions were a factor, as the entire game was played in an incessant rain.  But the field absorbed the water well, and never turned muddy or sloppy.  The story of the second half was – quite simply – the story of two defensive lines and the offensive lines that tried to pound them into submission.

Baltimore came into the game having run the ball 407 times through their first 11 games – the most rushing attempts in the NFL.  San Francisco was second in rushing attempts at 371.  True to form, the Ravens ran the ball 19 times in the second half (throwing the ball just 9 times), and San Francisco dialed up 16 running plays against just 10 passes.  The game was decided in pure Neanderthal fashion, as Baltimore drained the last 6:28 off the clock with a 12-play drive (9 of them runs) that set up Tucker’s clinching 49-yard field goal that made the final 20-17 Ravens (gamebook) (summary).

The end has kept me wondering about that missed opportunity at the end of the first half.  Almost two minutes and all of their time outs is oodles of time.  The 49ers have been more than moderately aggressive all year.  In fact, their first touchdown of the game came when quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo threw deep on fourth-and-two.  But here, they chose discretion over valor – and lived to regret it.

Lamar Jackson’s day as a running back was superlative, again.  The elusive Jackson ran for 101 yards and a touchdown on only 16 carries.  Jackson the passer fared less well, completing 14 of 23 for just 105 yards.  His looping, 20-yard touchdown pass to Mark Andrews was Baltimore’s only play of the game to surpass 19 yards.  Jackson averaged just 4.57 yards per pass attempt, and just 7.5 yards per completion.  Factor in the one sack he suffered, and Baltimore’s average running play (4.7 yards) was greater than its average passing play (4.4 yards).

In the post-game, Lamar admitted that he struggled with the weather conditions.  Fair enough.  But playoff games in Baltimore in January aren’t likely to be any better.  Just saying.

Still No Holding Penalties

In spite of the fact that Baltimore ran the ball 38 times in a consistent ran, with a quarterback darting all over the backfield, the Ravens, once again, were not called for a single holding penalty.  They were actually flagged for holding twice in the Ram game, but one penalty was offset and the other was declined.

So, over the last five consecutive games, the Ravens have run the ball 187 times with no accepted holding calls, and only two holding flags thrown their way.  If this is not already a record, it has to be getting very, very close.

Just to be clear, the Ravens do hold sometimes.  They just never get flagged for it.

What’s Wrong With the Cowboys?

On their first play from scrimmage in the second half, Ezekiel Elliott darted off left tackle for 12 yards.  At that point in the game, Elliott had 68 yards on 11 carries.  Two plays later, Elliott ran for 3 yards up the middle.  There were still 9 minutes and 6 seconds left in the third quarter, but Elliott would never carry the ball again.

On the subject of what’s wrong with the Cowboys, there are no shortage of answers.  In their 26-15 Thanksgiving Day loss at home to Buffalo (gamebook) (summary) there were the usual litany of critical mistakes.

There was Dak Prescott’s sack-fumble late in the second quarter that set up Buffalo’s go-ahead touchdown; the blocked field goal at the end of the half (one of two missed field goals); the facemask penalty on Xavier Woods that helped set up a Buffalo field goal on the opening drive of the second half; and Michael Gallup’s inability to hold on to a would-be touchdown pass at the end of the third quarter (and Prescott’s subsequent bad pass on fourth down).

In all of their losses this year, there has been a similar laundry list of mostly mental errors that have kept Dallas hovering at 6-6.  Certainly, they have to make fewer mistakes.  But let me add a couple other issues that Dallas really should address.

In the first place, their best team isn’t the team they think they are.  This references the usage of Elliott that I pointed out earlier.

Earlier this season, Prescott and number one receiver Amari Cooper had a couple of brilliant games – and now, all of a sudden, the Cowboys define themselves as a passing team with a solid supporting run game.  In the best version of the Dallas Cowboys, the offense runs through Elliott.  Two caries for Ezekiel in the second half for 15 yards just isn’t enough.

The pass-first version of the Cowboys will usually rack up a lot of yards (and the Cowboys moved the ball for 426 yards last Thursday) but will frequently struggle to convert those yards into points.

The other point – that really must be obvious to everyone now – was clearly illustrated in what I consider to be the play of the game.

With 2:17 left in the first half, Buffalo faced a fourth-and-one on the Cowboy 30.  The score is still tied at 7.  Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen fumbles the snap.  In the chaos around the line of scrimmage, Allen manages to find the ball, pick it up, and plow his way through the Dallas defense for three yards and the first down.  On the next play, Buffalo employed a piece of trickery that ended with wide receiver John Brown lofting a touchdown pass to Devin Singletary.  Buffalo would never trail after that.

In the postgame, talking about that play, Allen said “I wanted it.  I wanted it really bad.”  This has been a recurring pattern in Dallas.  The Cowboys play pretty well, but never seem to want the game as badly as their opponents do.  Thus they are never able to overcome their mistakes.

How badly do the Cowboys want this?  This is a question that will dog coach Jason Garrett, but lands on general manager Jerry Jones’ plate as well.  Jerry, I think, believes that all he has to do is sign a bunch of name players and he will automatically have a great team.  For fantasy football, it’s a scheme that might work well enough.  Putting together a locker room is more of an art form.  One that Dallas hasn’t quite mastered yet.

The Win They Needed

With Philadelphia refusing to take advantage of the opportunities that the slumping Cowboys have presented them with, Dallas’ holding on to the NFC East Division title still seems more likely than not.  For Buffalo, though, this was a very significant victory.

Long assumed to be a wild card team, Buffalo still faces a very daunting closing schedule.  They follow Thanksgiving in Dallas with a game against the unbeatable Ravens, and then go on the road to Pittsburgh and to New England.  Buffalo’s only win this season was over Tennessee in Week Five when Marcus Mariota was still their quarterback.  It’s not resume enough to make me confident in their ability to win any of these upcoming games.

They needed to find at least one win amongst those four teams, and beat the Jets in Week 17 to make it to the 10 wins they will probably need to secure that playoff berth.

This win in Dallas does that for them.  Now even if they lose their next three, a win over the Jets likely puts them in.  That Week Four victory over Tennessee gives them the necessary tie breaker.

Falling from grace will likely be the Indianapolis Colts.  Two weeks ago, Indy was sitting in the catbird seat.  They were 6-4 and commanding the division.  But consecutive losses to Houston and Tennessee have damaged them significantly.  In an AFC where you will probably need ten wins, Indy is now 6-6.  Between them and winning out is a Week 15 date in New Orleans.  Colt fans will probably look back at this week’s home loss to the Titans and shake their heads.

With Indy’s potential demise, their division will likely fall to the Houston Texans – now 8-4 after getting the big win they needed against New England.  They play Tennessee twice in the last three weeks.  If they can manage a split, that would almost certainly be enough to give them the division.

And, of course, that Houston game has other repercussions, as the Patriot loss combined with the Baltimore win makes the Ravens the new first seed in the conference by virtue of their earlier win over New England.

The most impactful NFC game was Seattle’s Monday night win over Minnesota.  That Viking loss now looks like it will give Green Bay – who is still undefeated within its division – just enough advantage to slip past Minnesota to win the NFC North.  They would effectively switch playoff places with the Vikings, sending Minnesota in as the sixth seed.

Four games to go.  I expect a few more surprises before all is said and done.

The Smiths May Need a Little Help

After a disastrous first half, the second half couldn’t have possibly started out better for Matt LaFleur and his Green Bay Packers.  A second-and-16 statement sack of San Francisco’s Jimmy Garoppolo (split by Za’Darius and Preston Smith) highlighted a three-and-out from the defense.  Then, the offense that was dominated by the 49er defense for the entire first half showed its first signs of life.

A 13-play, 65-yard 8:34 drive that included a conversion on fourth-and-four and two helpful San Francisco penalties resulted in a touchdown pass from Aaron Rodgers to Davante Adams on a wide receiver screen.  After the two-point conversion, the Packers had closed the San Francisco lead to 23-8 with still almost four minutes left in the third quarter.

And then – almost as quickly as hope was re-kindled – it was snuffed out again.

Less than a minute later, San Francisco was lining up with a first-and-ten on their own 39-yard line.  They came out in a three tight end set, with George Kittle and Garrett Celek tight to the formation on the left, and Ross Dwelley tight to the right.  Richie James – the lone wide receiver – was split to the right. Green Bay answered with a cover-3.  Hurt through most of the first half when they tried to play man against the 49ers, Green Bay had switched to zone defenses with the intention of limiting big plays in the passing game.

The play began as a zone run right, as all eight 49ers close to the line began blocking the nearest Packer to their right, while Garoppolo turned to hand the ball to running back Raheem Mostert, also heading to the right.  At the same time, though, wide receiver James came running, right to left, back behind the line of scrimmage, headed up the left sideline.  Unblocked on the offensive left end of the line was Packer pass-rush specialist Preston Smith.  He was hanging back, ready to play a possible cutback by Mostert.

The play, of course, was not a run.  At about the same time that P Smith noticed James racing toward the left flank, he also noticed that Garoppolo did not hand the ball off, but was booting back around to his left – presumably to lob a short pass to the undefended James, who would be racing up the left sideline.

At this point Smith realized that he could not reach Smith in time to prevent the pass, so Preston transitioned into pass defender and began a hopeless pursuit of the fleet James as he turned the corner and headed up-field.

Elsewhere, all three tight ends were headed into the pattern.  Kittle would run the deep post up the left sideline, while Celek would sustain the run action the longest before drifting over the short middle.  But the most problematic route for Green Bay was Dwelley’s.  Running from the right, Ross went about ten yards up-field before breaking back across the middle on a medium crossing route.

That route drew attention from safety Darnell Savage – who had responsibility for one of the intermediate zones.  Critically, though, it also drew the attention of safety Adrian Amos, who saw Savage trailing the route and decided to jump it.

The problem here was that Amos had the deep middle in the cover-3 defense, and as he abandoned that responsibility, he left a gaping void in the middle of the defense.

Cornerback Kevin King, who had endured a frustrating first half in man coverage, was now in a dilly of a pickle.  He was responsible for the deep left in the cover-3.  But he also noticed that Amos was no longer in his deep third.  As Kittle threatened his third of the field, King retreated to stay on top of George’s route.  When he got within three yards of King, George took a step toward the sideline before he stemmed back to the middle – a step that turned King around.  As Kevin was turning, he noticed James also racing up his sideline with Smith trailing well behind him.  King decided to keep defending the left sideline against James, hoping someone else would be over the middle to pick up Kittle.

No one was.

In a play more reminiscent of the practice field than an actual game, Jimmy Garoppolo, standing all alone in the pocket without a pass rusher in the same area code, lobbed a pass to George Kittle, equally isolated, 35 yards downfield.  King and corner Jaire Alexander made desperate attempts to catch him from behind.  To no avail.

The 61-yard touchdown pass completed a two-play drive.  After Green Bay had labored for almost nine minutes to regain the momentum and creep back into the game, San Francisco needed just 57 seconds to silence them.

Another six-minute Green Bay drive ended with a sack on fourth-and-eight, and San Francisco responded with a 10-play, 69-yard touchdown drive of their own that ate 6:31 of the clock and put a bow on their 37-8 victory (gamebook) (summary).

It was a day of answering critics for Garoppolo, who finished with 14 completions in 20 passes for 253 yards and two touchdowns – good for a 145.8 passer rating.

But the night really belonged to the 49er defense, which made life uncommonly miserable for one of the great passers of this generation.  Aaron Rodgers finished his night 20 of 33 for just 104 passing yards – an average of 3.15 yards per attempt and 5.2 yards per completion.  Mix in the five sacks, and Green Bay finished averaging 1.9 yards per passing play.

In fact, of Aaron’s 20 completions, 12 of them were to receivers at or behind the line of scrimmage.  The total yards that all of his completions traveled in the air (relative to the line of scrimmage) was an astonishing negative 5.  I believe the furthest downfield he completed a pass was seven yards.

The 49ers, of course, already believe in themselves.  But this was an important win for the rest of us who were a little uncertain about a defense that had given up some yards and some points over the last three weeks.  This game helps me believe in them as a legitimate number one.

As to the Packers, the loss, of course, drops them into a tie in their division with Minnesota – with the remaining game between these teams to be played in Minnesota.

But, beyond that, it may be time to face some legitimate concerns about the Green Bay pass defense.

The Packers opened the season with victories over the Bears, Vikings and Broncos during which the pass defense was outstanding.  Their first three opponents combined to complete 60 of 106 passes (56.6%) for just 671 yards, the one touchdown pass they allowed being offset by 4 interceptions.  Green Bay also picked up 12 quarterback sacks in those games.  Through three games, the passer rating against them was a minuscule 63.1.

Over the last nine games, the narrative has been much different.  In these games, opposing passers have completed 172 of 261 passes (65.9%) for 2338 yards (a concerning 13.59 yards per completion).  They have just 16 sacks over the last 9 games, while serving up 13 touchdown passes and recording just 5 interceptions – a passer rating against of 102.9.

For the season, Green Bay now allows 13.0 yards per completion – the third highest average in the NFL.  After allowing 5 pass plays of more than 20 yards on Sunday night, Green Bay has now given up 43 such plays this year – 18.5% of all the completions they’ve allowed have gone for at least 20.  That is the sixth highest percentage in the league.  Worse than that, the two touchdown passes they allowed were both over 40 yards – the twelfth and thirteenth such passes they’ve given up, tying them with the New York Giants for most 40-yard pass plays allowed.  They are the worst in the NFL as far as percentage of completed passes gaining at least 40 yards at 5.6%.

Against San Francisco they were taken advantage of in both man and zone coverages.  And the one constant in all of the big plays struck against them was Jimmy Garoppolo with all the time in the world in the pocket.

Over the off season, Green Bay bolstered its pass rush with the addition of Preston (signed away from the Washington Redskins) and Za’Darius Smith (no relation, formerly with the Ravens).  Their impact on the defense has been notable.  The Smiths have combined for 10.5 sacks, 19 hurries, and 61 pressures.

Increasingly, though, the problem in Green Bay is that no one else is contributing much to the rush.

The entire rest of the defense has 7.5 sacks, 16 hurries and 43 pressures.  Third on the sack list is Blake Martinez, who recorded his second of the season on Sunday night.  After 34 pressures from Z Smith and 27 more from P Smith, the next closest Packers are Kenny Clark and Kyler Fackrell with 10 each.

With the reminder that to win the division, Green Bay must still go into Minnesota and beat a Viking team that has been shredding opposing pass defenses recently, this is not an encouraging development.

If the Packers are going to reclaim their division, the Smiths are going to need some help.

More Frustration in Dallas

For two very brief moments, Amari Cooper had two very big catches.

With less than two minutes left in the third quarter, Cowboys trailing by four, Cooper finally shook free of Stephon Gilmore on a short crossing route.  Quarterback Dak Prescott dropped the ball perfectly into his hands.

It had been third-and-three from midfield.  By the time Gilmore caught up with Cooper, Amari had gained 15 yards, and the Cowboys were temporarily in business with a first-and-ten at the New England 35.  A holding call on tackle Tyron Smith deleted the gain, and pushed Dallas back to its own 40 – third and 13.

Two Cowboy pre-snap penalties later, and they were punting, fourth-and-23, from their own 30 yard line.

That disappointment was a preamble to Amari’s other catch that wasn’t.

Now it’s the fourth quarter, Dallas still down by 4 and down to their last gasp.  It is fourth-and-11 from their own 25 with 1:50 left in the game.  On a drizzly cold evening, where the temperature hovered in the mid- to upper-30s, Prescott delivered a pass over the middle – placed where only Amari could get it.  It was a difficult catch, to be sure.

Cooper laid out for the pass, cradling it into his body as he descended – a catch.  A 20-yard pass play that extended the game.  Or so it seemed.  As the play was reviewed, it became apparent that Cooper never really controlled the ball, which bounced off the turf just at the end of the play.

The catch was overturned.  Cooper finished the night with no catches and two targets. The ball was given to New England, and 1:44 of football time later, the Patriots left the field with a tightly contested 13-9 victory (gamebook) (summary).

Patience is now wearing thin in Dallas – where the Cowboys have fallen to 6-5.  It is still enough to keep them in the lead in their division (and as I watch Philadelphia struggle to find anything that works on offense, I am less and less convinced that they can supplant the Cowboys, even though they are only one game behind at the moment and have the Week 16 game against Dallas in Philadelphia).

The supposition has been that Philadelphia’s relatively easy schedule and the home game against the Cowboys gives them a significant advantage.  While Dallas’ schedule appears harder on paper, it is, in fact, a series of winnable games against somewhat fading opponents.

But, while the Cowboy playoff hopes are not in grave danger yet, a 10-6 (or maybe even a 9-7) fourth-seeded team is hardly what Jerry Jones had in mind when he put this team together.

And, I understand his frustration.  Dallas is a puzzling team.  They have had their way with the struggling teams on their schedule (with the exception of a dumfounding loss to the Jets in Week Six).  Other than the Jet game, all of Dallas’ other losses have been to teams in football’s top echelon – the Saints, the Packers, the Viking and now the Patriots.  These are teams that everyone loses to.  The problem, of course, is that Jerry expected his team to be in that grouping, and to be capable of winning their share of those games.

The game itself was less than artistic, with the rain playing havoc with the passing game of both teams.  Prescott finished with a 64.2 rating on 19 of 33 passing for 212 yards and 1 interception.  New England’s Tom Brady finished 17 for 37 for 190 yards and 1 touchdown – a 70.8 rating.  But both quarterbacks threw the ball better than that.  Both saw balls slide through the hands of usually sure-handed receivers.

The game’s only touchdown – a 10-yard pass from Brady to rookie N’Keal Harry in the waning seconds of the first quarter – came two plays after a blocked punt set the Patriots up on the Dallas 12-yard line.

For the Patriots defense, this was an encouraging performance.  After dominating a series of flailing offenses to begin the season, New England was handed its lunch by Baltimore two weeks ago – enough history to raise questions about how good this defense really was.  On Sunday afternoon, against the top ranked offense (including the NFL’s top ranked passing game), the Patriot defense rose to the challenge.

Yes, the weather helped, but even without that, it was clear that the Dallas receivers were struggling to separate from the New England defenders, and even the talented Cowboy offensive line had difficulties keeping New England off of Prescott.  Dallas had moments where it looked like they could hurt New England with the run – and they finished with 109 rushing yards and a 4.2 average.  But they were just 2-for-13 on third down, and couldn’t sustain their drives.

At the end of the day, both teams followed familiar patterns.  Dallas is now 1-4 in one score games.  The Patriots are 3-0 in those games.

Colts Manage to Lose

Playing in Houston on Thursday night, the Indianapolis Colts had their opportunity to take a big step toward the division title.  Both teams came into the game 6-4, with Indy having taken the earlier meeting between these two teams.  A road win here against Houston would give them a virtual two-game lead over the Texans.

In so many ways over the course of the game, the Colts showed themselves to be the better of the two teams.  They dominated time of possession in the first half, as they ran the clock for 18:32, rushing for 70 yards while holding Houston to just 35 yards on the ground.  They continued to punch Houston in the running game throughout the second half, piling up another 105 rushing yards on 22 carries.  They took a 17-10, third quarter lead on a 66-yard drive that took 11 plays – 10 of them runs.  They didn’t punt at all in the second half.

And yet, they managed to lose the game, 20-17 (gamebook) (summary).

The glaring difference in the second half was production from the passing game.  Houston’s Deshaun Watson completed 9 of 15 for 182 second half yards – including the game-winning, 30-yard touchdown pass to DeAndre Hopkins in the fourth quarter.  Indy’s Jacoby Brissett was just 3 for 7 for 25 yards. The Colts gained just 130 total yards in the second half, gaining no more than 13 yards on any of their final 29 plays.

The Colts talk about Brissett as though he were a franchise quarterback.  All too frequently, though, he looks like the backup quarterback that Indy was stuck with when Andrew Luck retired.  Yes, he is playing under some disadvantage.  His number one receiver T.Y. Hilton has been banged up (he was only on the field for 25 plays), and his number two receiver Devin Funchess has been missing with an injury since early in the season.  Of course that impacts the passing game.

But other franchise quarterbacks have been asked to play with stripped down receiving corps – Carson Wentz is one – and they still manage to make the occasional big play.  Indianapolis is a very solid team everywhere you look – except, perhaps, at quarterback.

Even with the loss, Indianapolis’ chances at the division title are still pretty good.  The whole division is a scrum.  The Texans are currently 7-4, with the Colts (6-5), Titans (also 6-5) and Jaguars (4-7) all bunched pretty tightly.  No one from here is going to win out.

What the Colts have in their back pocket is that this week’s critical game against Tennessee is in Indy.  The Colts have already beaten the Titans in Tennessee this year (19-17 in Week Two).  If they can take care of business at home, they will finish their round-robin play against their top two competitors at 3-1 – and if all three finish tied (a not unlikely scenario) – that record will be the first tie breaker.

If Tennessee rises up Sunday afternoon and evens their score against the Colts, then the entire AFC South will be thrown into chaos.

Three Games to Decide the North

With the Packers’ thumping Sunday night in San Francisco, the NFC North is a dead-heat between Green Bay and the Minnesota Vikings – both now 8-3.  The Packers beat the Vikings in Green Bay (21-16) in Week Two, and are currently leading the division by that tie-breaker.  The re-match, though, is coming in Minnesota in Week 16.  With the Vikings playing much better lately, and the Packers not as well as they were in Week Two, it’s not difficult imagining the Vikings winning this game and the division crown with it.

Two other interesting games to keep your eyes on in this division.  This week, coming off their bye, the Vikings go into Seattle – always a significant challenge.  The other game to keep an eye on is the Week 17 matchup between the Packers at the Detroit Lions.  The Lions have had a disappointing season, and may not have Matthew Stafford back for that game.  But the Lions have been playing with considerable pride and have kept most of their games close.  Ten of their eleven games this year have been one-score affairs, including a 34-30 loss to Kansas City and a 23-22 loss in Green Bay.

If the division title is still up for grabs in Week 17, I wouldn’t put it past Detroit (playing at home) to upset the Pack and send the Viking into the playoffs as the number three seed and make Green Bay play as a wild card.

All Lamar, All the Time

I’m not sure that I have ever seen this before.

There is 10:47 left in the second quarter of a still scoreless game.  Baltimore is driving toward its first score – it is first-and-ten at the Houston 31-yard line.

The Ravens had only one wide receiver on the field – Seth Roberts – who was split wide to the left.  He and Houston’s Lonnie Johnson were the only players on the field that were left of the left hashmark.  The other 20 players were all bunched between that hash and the numbers on the right. (Parenthetically, both of the Ravens’ longest runs of the day would come from this same look.)

Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson was in his beloved pistol with Mark Ingram directly behind him as the tailback, and Patrick Ricard just to his right as the fullback.  Tight ends Hayden Hurst and Nick Boyle were tight to the formation on the right.

The left side of the line (Ronnie Stanley, Bradley Bozeman and Matt Skura) singled up on outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus, defensive end Charles Omenihu and inside linebacker Zach Cunningham (who spent much of his afternoon trying to spy on Jackson), respectively.

With defensive lineman D.J. Reader lined up over right tackle Orlando Brown, he was double-teamed by both Brown and Marshal Yanda, the right guard.  Hurst took care of linebacker Brennan Scarlett, and Ricard went through to take the middle linebacker Benardrick McKinney (who had a very long afternoon) out of the play.  And let me point out here that throughout the game the Houston linemen made very little effort to tie up the Raven offensive linemen.  McKinney was under siege the entire game.

All of this left Houston’s other defensive lineman, Brandon Dunn – listed at 310 pounds – standing for a brief second unblocked at the point of attack.  Until tight end Boyle came through the hole and drove him out.  Ingram – the ballcarrier on this play – scooted in right behind Boyle.

The gain was a modest 4 yards, but the design was a novelty.  Boyle didn’t accidentally end up on Dunn because the design of the play went awry.  The design was for Boyle to single up on the nose tackle and beat him.

Football’s tight end is a hybrid position.  He is an eligible receiver, so catching passes is an important part of his function.  He is also a sixth offensive lineman, of sorts.  They are frequently called on to pass block and even more frequently to block for the running game.  Obviously, throughout the league, some are better at one assignment than the other.

When the tight end blocks, it is usually against outside linebackers – players who are quicker than they are big – or undersized defensive ends.  It is not uncommon to see them join with a tackle in double-teaming some end.  Their most important contribution to the running game usually is pinning the end inside, setting the corner for an outside run.

Until Sunday, though, I don’t think I have ever seen a tight end asked to blow a nose tackle off of the point of attack.  And there was no chicken fighting going on here.  Boyle wasn’t just getting in his way.  Nick lowered his left shoulder and buried himself into Dunn, driving him a good three yards off the line and wedging open the hole for Ingram.

Always, these days, when the Baltimore highlights are played it is all Lamar all the time.  It’s like he turns every play into a punt return, and his faster-than-the-speed-of-thought changes of direction and his almost super-human acceleration do make for electrifying viewing.  But the revolution in Baltimore is about more than just re-prioritizing the role of the quarterback.  A lot of what’s going on in Baltimore involves the evolving function of the tight end.

The Ravens have three who get significant playing time.  Boyle (66% of the offensive snaps), Hurst (40%) and Mark Andrews (47%).  They are frequently all on the field at the same time.  In the on-going chess match that is the NFL, coach John Harbaugh is using his tight ends like knights.  They do unexpected things and have to be accounted for on every play.

While Boyle is the best, all of them block – and, apparently Harbaugh isn’t afraid to let Boyle, at least, take on anyone on the field.  They transition seamlessly when they play changes suddenly from a passing play to a run.

And they have become Lamar’s primary weapons in the passing game.  Together, the Baltimore tight ends have 44% of the targets in the passing game (125 of 284), 46.2% of the completions (91 of 197), 45.2% of the passing yards (1060 of 2346), and 40% of the passing touchdowns (8 of 12).  The tight ends have caught 72.8% of their targets (91 of 125).

They are all particularly adept at elevating above defenders and all have excellent hands.  Of the three, only Andrews has dropped passes this season (he has 5 drops).

All of this adds to the reasons why defenses that rely on man coverage should rethink this strategy when opposing Baltimore.  In their 41-7 drubbing at the hands of the Ravens (gamebook) (summary), Houston played a lot of man coverage – and was hurt in all of the following ways.

First, man coverage easily allows Baltimore to move defenders out of half of the field they intend to run to.  On several occasions, Willie Snead’s crossing routes served only to pull Justin Reid from one side of the field to another.  On the first play of the second quarter, both Snead and Boyle went in motion (at separate times, of course) to pull Reid and Tashaun Gipson from the offensive right side to the offensive left.  Ingram ran to the right side for 11 yards.

Man coverage, of course, also forces defenders to turn their back to the quarterback.  With many quarterbacks, this is not much of an issue.  With Lamar Jackson it is a dangerous approach.  During the game against Houston, Jackson had three scrambles out of passing formation that went for 12 or more yards.  All of them came against man coverage schemes.

If you are going to spy on Jackson – and Houston tried what looked like a double-spy system, with Cunningham and a linebacker (Martin or McKinney) – then that strips the other defenders of their help over the top.  Spying on Jackson is a mostly unworkable concept, as few linebackers – or even defensive backs, for that matter – can keep up with Lamar in the open field.

And, finally, man coverage means – in this case – covering the tight ends.  Mostly, you play man coverage because you have several talented cornerbacks who can match up well with the wide receivers on the other side.  Baltimore has a talented core of defensive backs and they play a lot of man coverage.  Not too many teams can man up against a talented tight end.  Against Baltimore, you would have to be able to play man coverage against three talented tight ends.  They hurt Houston to the tune of 8 receptions for 111 yards and a touchdown.

Zone defense comes with its own set of issues.  Play-action can cause widened gaps in between the zones.  Also, Lamar has gotten very adept at dumping short passes to running backs underneath the zone.  Still, given the choice between keeping Lamar in the pocket with all eyes on him, or having your defenders trying to play man while keeping an eye on Jackson, the choice should be pretty clear.

Make them crawl.  Short runs, short passes, 14-play drives, and see if they will make a mistake along the way.

And, if that mistake should be a holding call, it would be nice if the officials would flag them.

Are the Officials Mesmerized by Jackson?

Something that I’ve been noticing recently is that among all the things going right for the Ravens right now, the officials seem to be on their side as well.  Yes, of course, I’m referring to the missed pass interference penalties – offensive and defensive – that cost Houston one touchdown and gift-wrapped another for the Ravens.  But this team (Baltimore) doesn’t even get called for the occasional holding penalty.  It’s not that they don’t commit them. They just don’t get flagged for them.

The most egregious missed holding call that I noticed came on a 9-yard run from Ingram with 4:44 left in the third quarter.  Yanda (who looks like he’s borderline on the holding call on almost every snap) put hands on both of Reader’s shoulders and pulled him away from the play.  But there were a half-dozen or so other incidents that are sometimes flagged that just never are with Baltimore.

On a 12-yard scramble by Jackson with 5:15 left in the second quarter, Lamar darted through a small gap between his left guard Bozeman (who had his arms completely around Angelo Blackson) and center Skura (who had two fists full of Brandon Dunn’s jersey).  On his (Jackson’s) 39-yard scramble in the third, Skura did briefly grab Reader’s arm and prevent him for just a second from pursuing the play.  I’ve seen less than that called before.

A lot of these events are the marginal kinds of activity that don’t always draw flags, but do sometimes.  Except when Baltimore is doing the holding.  They finished the Houston game with 36 running plays and no holding penalties.  They ran the ball 23 times against Cincinnati the week before, and 41 times against New England the week before that – again with no holding calls.

I didn’t go back further than that, but I did notice that over the last three games Baltimore hasn’t even drawn a holding penalty on any of their passing plays.  Now, I get that these guys are a talented bunch, and that they are exceptionally well coached.  But still that is at least 175 consecutive snaps – 100 of them runs – with no holding penalties?  Really?

About That Pass Interference Challenge

Toward the end of the first period, Raven defensive back Marlon Humphrey began tackling DeAndre Hopkins in the end zone before the ball arrived.  The penalty, of course, was missed by the officials, and coach Bill O’Brien – with unwarranted faith in the system – threw his challenge flag.  Sometime thereafter, Jacksonville coach Doug Marrone watched Indianapolis corner Rock Ya-Sin grab the back of receiver DJ Chark’s jersey.  The officials missed this one as well, and the trusting Mr. Marrone threw his challenge flag too.  In spite of the fact that the pass interference was clear on both of these plays, both coaches lost their challenge.

But just at the point where you are ready to write the new pass interference challenge rule off as a scam, San Francisco’s Richard Sherman pulls Arizona’s Christian Kirk down in the end zone in one of the late games – a penalty again missed by the on field officials.  Arizona coach Kliff Kingsbury threw his challenge flag.

Sherman’s penalty was no more flagrant than Humphrey’s or Ya-Sin’s.  In fact, you could probably say that it was less obvious than the penalty committed by Humphrey on Hopkins.  But Kingsbury won his challenge and got the penalty.

It’s almost enough to drive a coach bats.  How can the same person look at all of these challenged penalties and reverse only this one?  The answer, I believe, is that it is not the same person reviewing all of these plays.

For every game, the NFL assigns a replay official.  They don’t make a big deal about this individual’s identity, but it can be discovered.  I have, in fact, looked up the names of all three replay officials, and am ready to name names.

The replay official for the Arizona-San Francisco game is a man named Brian Matoren.  As opposed to most of the New York replay officials, Brian gave a good faith review of the play.  He actually watched the play to see if pass interference had occurred, and ruled on the play accordingly – giving this challenge the same respect that he would give to any other challenge.

But Michael Chase (who had the Houston-Baltimore game) and Carl Madsen (who had the Jacksonville-Indianapolis game) betrayed the good faith of the coaches and fans of the NFL.  Instead of actually reviewing the play (they may not have even watched it) they ignored the fact that both of the receivers in question were interfered with and dismissed the challenge.

Pass interference is missed all the time in the NFL.  Occasionally, it is also called when no interference occurs.  This year, the NFL offices have given the coaches the gift of asking for a second look at some of the potential pass interference penalties that eluded the on field officials.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of replay officials (including Madsen and Chase) are fundamentally dishonest in regards to their responsibility to the NFL fans and coaches.  I don’t fully understand the reason behind their unwillingness to fairly review pass interference challenges, but their failure to do so compromises the integrity of the NFL and its policies.

As the season progresses, I will continue to name names and keep a list – a naughty or nice list, if you will.  It will be interesting to see if a consistent pattern emerges.

Always Drama in New England

At our first glance at the replay, we knew the call would be overturned and the Eagles would score the game’s first touchdown.

On a play eerily reminiscent of the game-winning touchdown in Super Bowl 52 between these two teams, Dallas Goedert battled for a pass from Carson Wentz at the goal line with New England defender Jonathan Jones.  In the end zone, Jones came away with the football, and the play was ruled an interception.  For the moment.  Clearly on replay, Goedert carried the ball over the line and only lost possession after the play should have been over.  In an easy reversal, the Eagles pushed their advantage to 10-0.

And suddenly, we were worried – temporarily, anyway – about the New England Patriots.

Three weeks earlier, the defending world champs had brushed off the Cleveland Browns by a 27-13 score.  At that point, they were 8-0 and with a defense that was on several record paces.  The fact, though, was that their early season schedule was so soft that it was hard to tell how good this defense really was.

Then, two weeks before the Philadelphia game, the Patriots were slapped around by Baltimore, 37-20.  This beating was followed with a bye week for Bill Belichick and his team.  Now they were in Philadelphia, where the desperate Eagles were having their way with them.  The Goedert touchdown polished off one of the most impressive drives imaginable.

Beginning on their own 5 yard line with 7:09 left in the first quarter, the Eagles moved 95 yards on the Patriots, the drive consuming 16 plays (8 runs and 8 passes) and an eye-opening 9 minutes and 33 seconds of clock time.

Meanwhile, in their first two possessions of the game, the Patriots had failed to get past their own 40-yard line, managing just 29 yards and two first downs on 9 plays.  The Eagles chalked up 8 first downs on the touchdown drive, alone.

There was still a lot of football to play, but at that point New England was suddenly looking very average.

As unlikely as it seemed at the moment, Philadelphia wouldn’t score again.  Out of the rubble of that drive, the New England defense re-asserted itself.  The next 8 Eagle possessions would end in 7 punts and one turnover.  Their next 21 plays would earn just 34 yards.

The Patriots finished the half allowing no more than 8 yards on any running play, and sacking Wentz 4 times. After completing 11 of 16 first half passes, Wentz was just 9 for 24 (37.5%) after the intermission.

Philadelphia finished the game with just 255 total yards (a season-low), averaging just 3.9 yards per offensive play.  Thus that one drive accounted for 37% of the offense the Eagles would managed all day.

As they have done so often, New England came back to pull the game out, 17-10 (gamebook) (summary).  The Patriots opened the second half with an 84-yard drive, capped by a touchdown pass from Julian Edelman to Phillip Dorsett.  That pass (and the two point conversion that followed) ended the scoring for the afternoon with still 10:55 left in the third quarter.

In the aftermath, there are new questions in New England.  With the defense seeming (for the moment, anyway) to have righted itself, there is fresh concern over the Gronk-less offense.

In the first half of the Eagle game, New England managed just one play of over 20 yards (a 22-yard pass to Ben Watson), while quarterback Tom Brady struggled to a 55.9 passer rating on 11 for 25 passing.

For the game, Brady picked up just 216 passing yards on his 26 completions – a very un-Brady-like 8.31 per.  During that opening drive of the second half, a shovel-pass from Brady to fullback Rex Burkhead sprung for thirty yards.  It was the only play of 20 or more yards for New England in the half, and only the second of the game.  At 15 yards, the touchdown pass Edelman threw was longer that any of the passes that he caught.

Over the offseason, Tight end Rob Gronkowski retired, and ever since New England has struggled to get production from the position.  With his big game on Sunday (3 catches for 52 yards), the 39-year-old Watson now leads all New England tight ends with 11 catches for 124 yards.  That’s for the season.

In one 2015 game against the Jets, Mr Gronkowski finished with 11 catches.  In that one game.  As for Watson’s 124 receiving yards, Rob had 9 regular season games (and 2 more playoff games) that exceeded that total.  He had three games with 160 or more receiving yards.

Brady’s 97.7 passer rating from last year has faded to 90.1 ten games into this season.  Rob has also been missed in the running game – now ranked twenty-fourth in the NFL after ranking fifth last year.

So this is certainly an adjustment.  I understand about 25% of Bostonians are on a suicide watch if Gronk isn’t back in the lineup by the playoffs.

So, at this point, I think it’s important to note that this New England team is still 9-1 and currently holding the AFC’s top playoff spot.  While not suggesting that there are no issues to address, I remind New England fans that every season is a process for the Patriots.  It’s unusual that the offense should still be searching for its identity.  Usually it is the defense that takes a while to get its ducks in a row.  Last year, this New England team lost its Week 14 game to Miami 34-33, surrendering 412 yards to the Dolphins.

Two months later, they were shutting down the Rams in the Super Bowl.  Even during their recent struggles, nothing suggests to me that the Patriots are in danger of slipping back into the pack anytime soon.

Neanderthal Rams?

As for the other team in last year’s big game, the Los Angeles Rams were engaged in a defensive struggle of their own.

After New England had lost their afternoon game in Miami in Week 14 last year, the Rams played the Sunday night contest in Chicago.  They were 11-1 as they entered the contest.  The Bears were 8-4.  Both were first place teams, heading for the playoffs.

What a difference a year makes.

Last Sunday, the Bears and Rams played on Sunday Night Football again, this time in Los Angeles.  The Bears were 4-5 coming in, and the Rams were 5-4.  Neither is likely to get a playoff invitation.

Fighting for their lives, the Bears came out and played a nearly perfect first half.  They took the ball away from the Rams in both of LA’s first two offensive series.  They didn’t fumble.  They committed no penalties.  And they controlled the clock for 18:00 of the half.

They did everything but score.

They threw incomplete on one fourth down, and quarterback Mitchell Trubisky tossed an interception of his own.  And, oh yes, they missed two more field goals.  The Rams went into the locker room at the half holding a 10-0 lead, on their way to a 17-7 victory (gamebook) (summary).

The blood is in the water as far as Trubisky is concerned.  11-3 last year with a 95.4 quarterback rating, Mitch has seen that rating slide to 82.2 this year on the heels of his 24 for 43, 190 yard performance Sunday night.  It hasn’t been Mitch’s best year, but it’s difficult to lay all of this game’s frustration on his shoulders.  With Ram superstar Aaron Donald dominating the line, Mitch spent the evening running for his life.  Top receiver Allen Robinson was mostly worn out by new Ram cornerback Jalen Ramsey.  Robinson finished with 4 catches for 15 yards.  A 19-yard outlet pass to running back David Montgomery was Chicago’s longest play of the night.

While it’s back to the drawing board for the Bears, the Rams, now 6-4, are still on the periphery of the playoff hunt – although their chances aren’t very good.  However that pans out, one of the most interesting developments from the game was the drastic shift in their offensive philosophy.

With an offensive line shuffled due to injury, the Rams moved from a zone run team to a more downhill, double-team, smash-mouth running attack.  Whether it worked or not depends on which set of numbers you care to look at.  For the game, LA averaged just 3.2 yards per rush, with Todd Gurley managing just 3.9 per carry.  So they didn’t exactly gash the Chicago defense.

As interesting as the new style of running was the prominence the game plan placed on the running game.  Quarterback Jared Goff threw only 6 passes in the first half, and just 18 for the game.  Gurley’s 97 rushing yards were his most since he ran for the same yardage in Week One against Carolina, and his 25 rushes from scrimmage were his most since he carried 25 times against Green Bay in Week Eight of last year.

For a few hours last Sunday night, the Rams became Neanderthals, running the ball 34 times.  Those were the second most rushing attempts from the Rams this season (they ran 36 times against the Falcons in Week 7).  Throughout the entire second half, they stubbornly ran the ball right into the teeth of Chicago’s six-man fronts – 18 running plays for just 37 yards.

Whether this is a trend they will continue will be interesting to see.  Their next game is against football’s top Neanderthal team, as they will host Baltimore next Sunday.  The Ravens currently rank seventh against the run (allowing 94.3 yards per game).  But few teams have run against them the whole game.  Two teams that did are the two teams that have beaten the Ravens.  Kansas City ran for 140 yards against them, and Cleveland tacked on 193.

Punching that defense in the nose might not be a bad strategy.

Playoff Impact – AFC

With last night’s victory, Houston earned a split with Indianapolis this season, and regained a one game lead in the AFC South.  The game carried an air of being the decisive game in the division, but I am less than convinced.  The Colts have stumbled a bit of late, with last week’s victory over Jacksonville surrounded by losses in Pittsburgh, at home to Miami, and now in Houston.

Here’s the thing the Colts still have in their back pocket.  Last night’s game was the end of their tough stretch.  In Week 15 they visit New Orleans in a game they should lose, but the rest of their schedule is very winnable.  Their remaining road games (other than the Saints) are in Tampa Bay and Jacksonville.  They also play the sometimes difficult Carolina team, but that game will be at home.

The Texans will also play in Tampa Bay, but I’m less convinced that they will take care of business there.  Houston also has a game against New England and they will play Tennessee twice in the last three weeks.  Houston is one of those teams that always seems to find a way to lose a late season game that it needs to win.

For the moment, I’m still siding with Indianapolis to win the division, with Houston taking a wild card spot from Buffalo.

The Bills are 7-3 at the moment, and should beat Denver to go 8-3.  Thereafter, though, their schedule gets brutal: at Dallas, home against Baltimore, in Pittsburgh, and in New England.  They finish up at home against the Jets, but I am not at all convinced that Buffalo can handle the brutal stretch of its season.

NFC Still Muddy

I am still hesitant to put an order to the NFC until I have a better idea of who the 49ers really are.  They have Green Bay coming up on Sunday night, and that game should give some idea about both of those teams.

The Chief Offense Must Do More to Protect its Run Defense

On the game’s signature running play, no one blocked Chris Jones.

The play – a zone run to the offensive left – began with the ball marked on the right hashmark.  By the time Tennessee power back Derrick Henry cut the run back upfield, nine of the eleven tiring Kansas City defenders had flowed past the left hashmark.  When Henry cut back, there were only two Chiefs on that half of the field; cornerback Bashaud Breeland – who was downfield in coverage – and Jones – the only KC defender who was playing the possible cut back.

Breeland couldn’t make his way around Tennessee receiver A.J. Brown, and was never a factor.  Playing the potential for a deeper cutback, Jones was too far away from Henry to do anything other make a futile dive at his feet.  Although running to his right, safety Juan Thornhill was able to stop and position himself directly in front of the hard-charging Titan hammerback.  Thornhill – who lists at just 205 pounds – make a desperation dive at Henry’s feet, but Derrick easily hopped over the attempt and sprinted the rest of the way untouched – a 68-yard touchdown run.

In his first game back after missing a couple of weeks with a knee injury, Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes showed a little rust.  He threw several balls high.  But nonetheless led a very productive offensive attack.  He ended up throwing for 446 yards and three touchdowns, while leading the Chiefs to 530 yards of total offense and 32 points.  The points could have been more, were it not for two botched field goal attempts on back to back fourth-quarter drives.

But for all of this, Kansas City lost for the fourth time in ten games this season, 35-32 (gamebook) (summary).  As they head into their Monday Night game against the Chargers, they Chiefs rank twenty-second in the league in total defense.  They have now allowed 12 rushing touchdowns – the fifth highest total in the league – and 288 rushing attempts against them – the fourth highest total in the league.  The 5.1 yards they average per rushing attempt against is the thirtieth best average in the league, and – allowing 148.1 rushing yards per game – Kansas City is only the thirty-first ranked rushing defense in the NFL.

The glaring weakness suggested by these numbers was fully and completely exploited by Tennessee last week.  Take away the long touchdown run, and Tennessee still piled up 109 rushing yards on 16 carries (6.8 yards per carry).  And that was just the second half.  Tennessee finished the contest with 225 yards on the ground, and 2 rushing touchdowns.  This is now the second time this season Kansas City has served up more than 200 rushing yards, and the fifth time in ten games that they have been shredded for at least 180 rushing yards.

When you watch them on film, there is no mystery behind this.  The Chiefs are a small defense, built for quickness and rushing the passer.  Safeties Thornhill and Tyrann Mathieu are among the least physical safeties in the NFL, and the defensive line features pass-rush specialists like Frank Clark who are decided liabilities against the run.

Kansas City does have a few big defenders on its roster – Khalen Saunders is listed at 324 and Derrick Nnadi is reported at 312.  Both are quite young – Nnadi drafted in the third round last year, and Saunders was this year’s third rounder – and neither is as effective against the run as the Chiefs may have hoped.

In a more representative run, with 9:27 left in the game, Titans guards Nate Davis and Rodger Saffold drove Nandi and Saunders (respectively) straight up the field, while tackle Jack Conklin popped unobstructed into the second level where he deleted linebacker Reggie Ragland from the equation – just another 12-yard run from Henry.

I can’t really think what KC can do at this point to shore up this weakness, so it will become imperative as the season winds its way down that the offense protect the run defense.  There are two ways this can be done.

The first is with a grinding, ball control offense – one that will run the clock and keep the smallish defense resting on the sidelines.  The Super Bowl winning Dallas teams of the early 1990’s won with a small, quick defense.  But they protected them with Emmitt Smith and a clock-eating offense.  This, however, would require an almost complete overhaul of who the Chiefs are on offense.

The other way an offense can protect a small defense is with early leads.  Teams that fall behind early 21-3 or 28-7 generally retire their running games for the evening and lean almost exclusively on their passing attacks – a course that will play right into the hands of the Chief defense as currently constructed.

Going forward, Kansas City will have to embrace one of these philosophies.  Offensively, I believe they are still potent enough to make the playoffs, but unless they protect their defense more, they will be one and done when the second season arrives.

NFC is a Scrum

Last week, I took a look at the standings and, weighing that against what I’ve seen so far this season, speculated on eventual playoff seedings.  After the carnage of Week Ten, I am still relatively confident about my take on the AFC contenders.  But, as far as the other conference goes, there is no other way to put it.  The NFC is a scrum.

The previously undefeated San Francisco 49ers lost at home in overtime – but could just as easily have won if their backup kicker had made a 47-yard field goal.  The New Orleans Saints were pelted by the one-win Atlanta Falcons.  The Dallas Cowboys also lost at home to Minnesota, although the Vikings needed to withstand two Dallas red zone drives in the closing moments.  Green Bay beat Carolina in the snow at home, but by the narrowest of margins as Christian McCaffrey’s final second assault on the end zone ended up a scant few inches short.

The NFC contenders show a great disparity in records – from San Francisco’s 8-1 to four teams at 5-4 – but the play has been consistently pretty even.  This conference still feels very much up for grabs.

San Francisco Loses

I wish I had a nickel for every time the Monday Night booth mentioned the MVP award.  Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson’s candidacy for this post-season award almost seemed to overshadow the game itself, which was a beaut.  Myself, I have never invested much interest, either in the opinions of a bunch of sportswriters (whose analysis tends toward the shallow), or in the validity of the concept of a most valuable player in any team sport – much less football, where any level of success is a result of a team effort.  But, if I did expend energy worrying about football’s best player, I probably wouldn’t do it in Week Ten with nearly two months of games left to be played.

That being said, I think I would as soon watch Russell Wilson play as I would anyone playing the game today.  Whether he is the “MVP” or not, he is certainly a master at his craft, and the heartbeat of his team.  Russell Wilson can play for me anytime.

On this particular evening, the San Francisco pass defense gave as good as it got against Wilson and the Seahawks.  Russell entered the evening leading all NFL quarterbacks in touchdowns (22), touchdown percentage (7.5), interception percentage (0.3 – he had only thrown one), and passer rating at 118.2.  He also ranked third in passing yards (2505) and fifth in average yards per pass attempt (8.55).  On their end, the 49ers pass defense brought its share of statistical evidence, allowing the fewest passing attempts (226), fewest completions (127) and highest sack percentage (11.7%).  They were first in the league in total pass defense (by yards) and second by passer rating points (65.7).

The contest between the two showed how evenly matched they were.  The pass rush dropped Wilson 5 times, held him to fewer than 10 yards per completion, and intercepted him for just the second time this season (and that in the red zone in overtime).  Meanwhile, Wilson completed 70.6% pf his passes (24 for 34) and tossed just the eighth touchdown pass allowed by the 49ers.  His passer rating at the end of the day more-or-less split the difference, at 86.9

The difference in Seattle’s 27-24 overtime win (gamebook) (summary) was the dominance of its own running game and a surprising resurgence of its own underperforming defense.

Not as run-centric as they were last year, when they ran the ball 534 times while throwing just 427 times, the Seahawks are still very Neanderthalish in their offensive approach.  While ranking just eighth in rushing yards, Seattle came into the contest fourth in the NFL in running attempts with 273 – just slightly more than 30 per game.

The approach features Chris Carson as the hammerback.  Listed at just 5-11, but 222 pounds, Chris is that running back that defensive secondaries hate to deal with in the second half of games.  He entered Monday’s contest as the NFL’s fifth leading rusher with 764 yards, and second in carries – having taken 175 of Seattle’s rushing attempts.  The Hawks had handed off to Chris at least 20 times in 5 of its previous 6 games – and would do so again Monday night.

In spite of the fact that San Francisco jumped out to a 10-0 first-quarter lead – and in spite of the fact that the per-carry yield wasn’t great – Seattle kept giving Chris the ball.  His 6 first half carries netted just 19 yards.  But in the second half and overtime, Carson led a 26-carry, 114-yard ground game with 70 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries.  On a night when their passing game wasn’t consistently effective, Seattle was still able to rely on its running game to sustain drives (8 of their 19 first downs came on running plays) and control the clock.

More important (and surprising) than the success of the Seattle running game was the breakthrough performance of its defense.

Last week, when I suggested that Seattle was going to fade from playoff contention in the second half, I cited its surprisingly poor defensive performance.  Of the first nine teams to line up against the Seahawks, eight of them scored at least 20 points, and five piled up at least 400 yards – with the Falcons gaining 510 in Week Eight.  Seattle’s defense came staggering into their showdown ranked twenty-fifth in total defense and twenty-second in scoring defense.  They had gotten to opposing quarterbacks just 15 times in 9 games and had allowed 12 rushing touchdowns – the second highest total in the league.

Regardless of how the contest between Wilson and the San Fran pass defense played out, this was the mismatch that was expected to decide the game.  The 49ers came into Monday night with the league’s second most productive running game (a remarkable 171.1 yards per game) with a league-leading 13 rushing touchdowns.

Coach Pete Carroll and defensive coordinator Ken Norton responded to the mismatch the only way they could, by committing eight and sometimes nine defenders to stopping the run.  At all costs, they were not going to let San Francisco shove the ball down their throats.  It would leave the pass defense somewhat vulnerable and playing more man coverage than usual, but the intent of the game plan was clear.  They were putting the game on the shoulders of 49er quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.  If San Francisco was going to win this game, Jimmy would have to throw them to victory.

Halfway through his first full season at the 49ers helm, Jimmy Garopollo is very much an unknown quantity.  His record as a starter (16-2 coming into the contest) was spectacular, but Jimmy was much more a cog in the machine than the featured weapon.  The 49ers this year are among the most Neanderthal of teams.  Eight games into the season, Jimmy had thrown the ball just 226 times, while he had handed off 303 times.  With a dominant running game, and football’s top defense, Jimmy’s job has been more to not lose games.  The league had not yet seen how he would perform if the game rested on him.

So it was on Monday night that Seattle mostly muffled the San Francisco running game.  Leading rusher Matt Breida finished with just 18 yards on 10 carries, and the team finished with just 87 yards on 27 carries (3.2 per).  Under the microscope for the first time this season, Jimmy’s numbers were disappointing – he finished 24 for 46 for just 248 yards, throwing 1 touchdown pass, but also tossing one interception.  His 66.2 rating (which was 41.8 in the second half) was less than impressive, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.  Garoppolo was operating without his only two reliable targets (George Kittle and Emmanuel Sanders).  He also faced a much more productive Seattle pass rush than anticipated.

Jimmy went down 5 times on the evening (only the third time this season that Seattle has managed more than two sacks in any game).  In the middle of this mayhem was defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.

For five seasons, Clowney was an impact defender in Houston.  While he had played well since becoming a Seahawk in the offseason, Jadeveon hadn’t yet shown his new team the elite playmaker he had been through his earlier career.  That changed on Monday night, as Clowney threw around San Francisco offensive linemen like they were so many rag dolls.  He finished with just one of the five sacks, but pressured Garoppolo ten times, hurrying him 5 times and knocking him down on 4 other occasions.

He also recovered a fumble and scored Seattle’s first points of the night.  When Clowney is playing at this level, the Seahawk defense suddenly looks a whole lot better.

It should also be pointed out that Garoppolo had six passes dropped, a couple of them on those critical overtime drives.

The truth about Jimmy is that his numbers could have easily been much better.  They also could have been much worse.  Two of his first four passes in that critical game-tying drive in the waning moments of the fourth quarter were thrown directly into the hands of defenders K.J. Wright and Bobby Wagner. Both easy interceptions were dropped.

My own read on Garoppolo is that I don’t think he’s “special.” He’s not a guy who can raise the level of the team he’s on.  But he did more good things than bad last week.  He’s a guy who will always give the 49ers a chance to win.

Answering Questions in Dallas

On October 13 of this year, the Minnesota Vikings season suddenly became a whole lot more interesting.  That was the date of their Week Six contest against Philadelphia.

To that point, the Vikings were at 3-2, but the wins were against the Falcons, Raiders and Giants – teams that were struggling to put things together.  Their losses were against the only two contending teams they had played so far – Green Bay and Chicago.  The defense – always Mike Zimmer’s top concern – was performing quite well (Minnesota had allowed only 73 points to that point), but the offense was – as usual – a concern.  Five weeks into the season, they were a very good running team.  They averaged 166.4 rushing yards per game, and 5.4 yards per attempt.

Ah, but the passing game.

With fine performances against the lesser teams, quarterback Kirk Cousins carried an even 100.0 passer rating into the contest.  But, as had been his disturbing pattern, he had underperformed in the bigger games.  He was only 14 for 32 with 2 interceptions against the Packers.  He threw for just 233 yards against the Bears with no touchdowns and 6 sacks.  The whispers that have dogged Cousins’ career were increasing in volume and frequency.  Not a guy who can win the big game.  Doesn’t show up when the lights are brightest.

Two winters ago, the Minnesota Vikings were standing in the wrong place at the wrong time.  They were in Philadelphia playing in the NFC Championship Game against the Eagles when Nick Foles suddenly went off.  The rest, is history.

In Week Six, it was the Eagles standing in the wrong place at the wrong time.  They were in Minnesota when everything clicked for Kirk Cousins.  The Vikings’ supposed franchise quarterback stopped second guessing himself, and just threw the football.  The difference was immediately noticeable.

By halftime, he had thrown for 209 yards and two long touchdown passes to formerly disgruntled wide receiver Stefon Diggs.  Kirk would finish that game 22 for 29 for 333 yards and 4 touchdowns.  He would be charged with one interception on a pass that bounced off of Diggs’ hands.

But his 138.4 passer rating was just the start.  Kirk never looked back, showing the same form in wins over Detroit and Washington, and also threw well in a loss to Kansas City.  In the four games preceding the Sunday night showdown in Dallas, Cousins had completed 88 of 127 throws (69.3%) for 1175 yards with an 11-1 touchdown to interception ratio.  His four-week passer rating of 124.0 brought his season number to 112.0 – third best in the NFL.

Now, Kirk would be faced with that big, primetime, everyone-watching game against the Cowboys in Dallas.  Would he be able to respond?

The first half of the game belonged to the quarterbacks.  Cousins didn’t disappoint, as he completed 16 of 21 (76.2%) for 170 yards and 2 touchdowns without an interception.  His opponent, Dallas’ Dak Prescott more or less matched him, hitting 12 of 21 for 189 yards and 2 touchdowns of his own – also without interception.  Cousins went into the locker room with a 17-14 lead and a 131.1 rating to Prescott’s 118.9.

The second half belonged to the Minnesota linemen – offensive and defensive.  In a way, the second half of Minnesota-Dallas looked an awful lot like the second half of Seattle-San Francisco.  The Vikings polished away their 28-24 victory (gamebook) (summary) by running the ball and stopping the run.

After his excellent first half, Cousins threw the ball just 11 times.  Meanwhile the NFL’s leading rusher – the Vikings Dalvin Cook (894 yards) had been a bit under-utilized in the first half, finishing with 27 yards on 9 carries.  He battered the Cowboys with 17 second-half carries for 70 yards and a touchdown.  The game’s signature drive was a 13-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that the Vikings closed the third quarter with.  Eleven of the 13 plays were runs, including four straight once the Vikings achieved a first-and-goal from the six.  The drive consumed 6:59 of the clock, and left Cowboys trailing 28-21.

In all, Minnesota called 24 running plays in the second half alone, racking up 110 yards (4.6 per). The Vikings controlled the ball for 18:10 of the second half.

On the other side of the ball, Minnesota’s defense inhaled the Dallas running game.  Ezekiel Elliott (on his way to a 47 yard rushing game) carried only 8 times after intermission, gaining just 10 yards.  His longest run of the day was just 6 yards.  The Cowboys as a team finished the second half with just 6 yards rushing on 9 carries, and just 50 yards for the game.  Dallas finished the game with no rushing first downs – something fairly unheard of.

Prescott responded by throwing 25 times in the second half, with mixed results – 16 receptions for 208 yards, 1 touchdown, and 1 interception.  Cowboy receivers Amari Cooper (11 catches for 147 yards) and Randall Cobb (6 catches for 106 yards) had big games, and Prescott ended up with 397 yards passing.

But once again, the Cowboys loss coincided with their inability to establish a running game.

And the Usurpers Bowl

The LA Rams journeyed to Pittsburgh in a game between two teams that are just on the outside of the playoffs but had – at the start of the week – and inside track on replacing two of the teams currently holding playoff positions.  Again, defense carried the day as the emotional Steelers throttled LA’s tenth-ranked offense by a 17-12 score (gamebook) (summary).

LA finished the first half 0-for-8 on third down, and quarterback Jared Goff finished the half with a 65.9 rating.  He was sacked 3 times in the half, and was under constant pressure throughout.  The high-powered Rams had just one play of 20 yards in that half.

The Steelers sewed things up with 3 second half turnovers, in a game that saw no offensive touchdowns in the half.

Most of the playoff optimism in Pittsburgh stemmed from the fact that between this game against the Rams and their season ending contest in Baltimore, Pittsburgh plays one of football’s softest schedules.  In that regard, Thursday’s loss in Cleveland has damaged them more than the victory over Los Angeles helped them.  Certainly, should Pittsburgh finish out of the playoffs, Thursday’s loss in Cleveland will linger in the memory.

Patriots No Match for Running Ravens

In all honesty, it was a lot like trying to tackle a feral cat.

There is about a minute and a half left in the third quarter.  Baltimore is leading New England 24-20, and is driving, with a first-and-ten on the Patriot 16.  Tight End Mark Andrews and running back Gus Edwards both ran flat routes to the offensive right side, and quarterback Lamar Jackson rolled to that side, probably with the intent to lob a short pass in that direction.

But Patriot defensive tackle John Simon came free on the blitz and met Jackson about ten yards behind the line – dropping him for a big loss and bringing up second and long.  At least, it looked like that would happen.

But, with Simon one yard away from his prey, Jackson came to an immediate dead stop and in the blink of an eye pivoted 90 degrees to his left and started to shoot up the middle.  He immediately realized that this was a bad idea, as end Lawrence Guy stood just in front of him.

Before the mind could quite register that Lamar was headed up the middle, he turned on his right foot in the act of running, and was suddenly running to his left again, away from both Guy and Simon, only to look up and find linebacker Kyle Van Noy not three yards away from him, ready to gather him in.  Or so he thought.

Jackson, still seven yards behind the line of scrimmage, was completely boxed in by this trio of Patriots that converged on him quickly.  Just not quick enough.  Before Van Noy and Guy could meet at the quarterback, Lamar was gone – darting through the small gap between them.  And suddenly a sure 10-yard loss had become an 11-yard gain – with Baltimore setting up with a first-and-goal on the five.

Two plays later, Lamar would loop a short scoring pass to Nick Boyle for the back-breaking touchdown in Baltimore’s eventual 37-20 conquest of the previously undefeated Patriots.

Jackson runs with remarkable instinct.  He feels the nearness of defenders, and his feet and body adjust and course correct faster than Lamar’s brain could possibly comprehend the situation.

Later Jackson set up Baltimore’s last touchdown with a nine-yard run through a hole that just didn’t really exist.  Like a page of newsprint blown by a fierce breeze, New England spent a frustrating Sunday evening just trying to get a grip on the problem that is Lamar Jackson.

There is no question that Jackson is a gifted, gifted athlete.  The question of whether he is an NFL quarterback still has no easy answer.  With Sunday’s victory, Lamar is now 12-3 lifetime as a starter, and his pelts now include the defending champions in New England.  So to that extent, you would have to say that yes, Mr. Jackson is indeed an NFL quarterback.  And, if you don’t accept throwing the football as a primary function of a quarterback, then Lamar definitely fits the job description.

However, if you believe that an NFL offense needs more than one dimension, then Jackson remains a work in significant progress.  His final numbers from Sunday evening were terrific.  He completed 73.9% of his passes against the vaunted New England defense (17-23) with a touchdown pass, no interceptions, and a 107.7 passer rating.  And, yes, the Patriots did enter the game allowing just 52.4% of the passes thrown against them to be completed. Prior to Sunday, they had allowed just two touchdown passes, while intercepting 19 passes and holding opposing throwers to a 40.6 rating.  In all of those numbers, they led the league – and by a substantial margin.  So the statistics support Lamar’s arm.

Watching the game, however, left you with a distinctly different impression.

Jackson’s longest pass play of the afternoon was a 26-yarder to wide receiver Marquise Brown.  From the point where Lamar released the ball to the point where Brown gathered it in, the football traveled maybe three inches as this was one of those flip passes in the backfield that Kansas City has popularized.  Of his 23 passes, 8 were thrown within a yard of the line of scrimmage (he was 8-8 on those passes) and 14 of the 23 didn’t travel more than 5 yards from scrimmage.

For the evening, Jackson threw only 3 passes more than 10 yards from scrimmage – completing just one.  His 16 completions for the evening were in the air a total of 51 yards – fewer yards than he contributed with his legs (61) and fewer yards than Mark Ingram earned on his longest run of the day – a 53-yarder.

Now, you can spin this a lot of ways if you want, but the in front of your eyes fact of the matter is that Baltimore’s dominant running attack and solid defense allowed the Ravens to mostly hide the passing aspect of their quarterback play.  Just watching Lamar throw, the ball doesn’t look like it fits in his hand quite right.  He runs like a gazelle, but throwing the ball almost looks like he’s committing an unnatural act.

I’m afraid that I still believe that if Baltimore ever needed to depend of Jackson’s arm to win a game for them, they will be in trouble.  Even in this game against New England, you could tell that Lamar still had the element of surprise every time he threw.  Even on third down, New England was playing run first.

The question then becomes, will Baltimore, in fact, ever need Lamar to pass them to victory?  Of the Ravens’ 372 offensive total yards, Jackson directly accounted (rush yards and pass yards) for just 224 – relatively low for a quarterback.  Runners other than Jackson accounted for 149 of Baltimore’s 210 rushing yards (71%).  None of this is meant to diminish Lamar’s impact on the game.  He is certainly the fear element on the offense – none of their running backs or receivers strike fear into the hearts of defenders.

This is just to establish that the Ravens are more than just Lamar Jackson.  Their offensive line is arguably football’s best, and could probably sustain a dominant running attack whoever the quarterback might be.  Lamar is the extra gear on top of a very dangerous offensive machine.  On game day, he looks like a one man offense – and the announcers talk about him as though he were a one man offense.

Moreover, this Baltimore attack would lose its lynchpin if something were to happen to Jackson.  But don’t misunderstand.  This is a dangerous offense, no matter who is standing under center.  In the purity of its Neanderthal principles, the Baltimore Ravens have reduced the video-game aspect of today’s NFL into a primordial expression of basic manhood.  They come to punch you in the mouth.  Last Sunday evening, it was more than the defending world champions could recover from.

Last week, I questioned the Patriot defense, essentially asking whether their record-setting numbers were legitimate or a function of the softness of their schedule.  Looking back at the game they played against Cleveland the week before, I pointed out some areas of vulnerability that I suspected future opponents might exploit.  In their victory last Sunday, Baltimore exploited almost every one of them.

Frankly, I’m expecting to see a re-match here later on in the playoffs.  Having seen them, now, up close it will be interesting to see what adjustments New England makes.