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.

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