How hard is it to win on the road? Not too difficult, at least not in the Sunday afternoon games here in Week 6. Road teams won seven of the 12 affairs, providing plenty of fodder for this edition of Studs and Duds.
During my 6½ hours of channel flipping and NFL Blitz chatting, I saw a dancing tight end win in Cleveland. I watched a reborn quarterback sparkle in Minnesota and I noted disappointing crowd reactions in Houston and Foxborough, Mass. The details:
1. Tom Brady, New England Patriots quarterback: I had Brady down on my early list of Duds, a classification that seemed a lock after he threw a head-shaking interception with 2 minutes, 16 seconds remaining against the New Orleans Saints. I was prepared to note the Patriots' shutout of Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, but that work still left the them trailing by four points with 1:13 left. That's when Brady came in, capitalizing on what amounted to a third chance to lead a 70-yard game-winning drive. His 17-yard scoring throw to receiver Kenbrell Thompkins in the corner of the end zone was one of the best of his career, taking into account the situation and the accuracy required. For most of this game, Brady was a shell of his career peak. But when people say, "Nothing else matters because the Patriots still have Tom Brady," this outcome is exactly what they mean. It was the 39th game-winning drive of Brady's career, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com.
2. Resourcefulness, Green Bay Packers: After losing receivers James Jones in the first quarter and Randall Cobb in the second, the Packers played the second half Sunday with two wide receivers. How did they adjust against the Baltimore Ravens? Quarterback Aaron Rodgers targeted receiver Jordy Nelson and tight end Jermichael Finley on nine of his 11 second-half throws. Nelson caught a 64-yard touchdown and Finley converted a key third down with a 52-yard reception. Just as important, coach Mike McCarthy called designed runs on 59 percent of the Packers' second-half plays. It was their highest percentage of runs in a half in three years, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Running back Eddie Lacy made the emergency strategy pay off with 120 yards on 23 carries, including a smart decision to slide after picking up a game-clinching first down on his final carry.
3. Pass defense, Kansas City Chiefs: I noted during the week how good the Chiefs have been at disrupting opponent's dropbacks, a way of looking at big plays in pass defense: sacks, interceptions, batted balls or passes defended. Sunday's performance against the overmatched Oakland Raiders was incredible. The Chiefs disrupted 36 percent of quarterback Terrelle Pryor's dropbacks, the second-highest percentage in an NFL game this season. (The Chiefs also produced the highest percentage in a game as well earlier this season.) Unofficially, they finished with 10 sacks, three interceptions and 10 passes that were either tipped at the line or batted down by a defensive backs. Why are the Chiefs 6-0? As we discussed last week, look no further than how hard they're making it on opposing passing games.
4. Joseph Fauria, Detroit Lions tight end: Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan has unearthed quite a red-zone weapon in the 6-foot-7 Fauria, whose playing time increased Sunday because of Tony Scheffler's concussion. Quarterback Matthew Stafford targeted Fauria in single coverage three times against the Cleveland Browns, and he caught all three for touchdowns. Fauria has caught seven passes this season in nine targets. Five have gone for touchdowns, and he has quickly developed a cult following for corny but enthusiastic post-touchdown dances. According to his Twitter account, Sunday's dances were (in order): gas pedal, windmill and cabbage patch. I for one have no idea what any of that means, but wanted to provide the information for those who might.
5. Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers quarterback: Granted, Newton was facing what appears to be the NFL's worst pass defense. But Newton was everything the Panthers could hope he would be in that situation. He was efficient, completing 77 percent of his passes with just one sack and no turnovers. He also made big plays, throwing three touchdowns and scrambling for a fourth. I'm not sure if this was the best game of his career, but his 143.4 passer rating was his highest. Only time will tell how much of Sunday's performance should be attributed to an overmatched defense, but if nothing else, Newton provided another glimpse of how good he can be.
1. NFL crowds in Houston and New England: Houston Texans linebacker Brian Cushing used an appropriate term to describe Sunday's scene at Reliant Stadium: barbaric. There was a clear and unmistakable cheer when a leg injury forced quarterback Matt Schaub from the game. There is never a time when it's appropriate to cheer an injury, but the irony of the reaction Sunday was that Schaub wasn't among the top two or three reasons why the Texans were getting pummeled at home by the St. Louis Rams. Be it a vocal minority or otherwise, the offending fans stamped an indelible black mark on the entire fan base. Meanwhile, in New England, only about half of Gillette Stadium's original crowd saw Brady's final touchdown. Why? The rest left early. You left early when Tom Brady is your quarterback? And here I thought Patriots fans were among the league's most knowledgeable.
2. Midseason quarterback chaos, Minnesota Vikings: The Vikings produced one of their biggest home clunkers in recent memory, a 35-10 loss to the Panthers, and none of it should be attributed to the tragic 72 hours experienced by tailback Adrian Peterson. No, this is what happens when a franchise starts over at quarterback after four games. Players on the Vikings' roster aren't stupid. They know that they were playing with a starter (Matt Cassel) who is guaranteed to be benched for Josh Freeman no matter what happened Sunday. They understand what has happened here: The Vikings' decision-makers want to see if Freeman can be any better than Cassel or Christian Ponder in 2014. That makes winning in 2013 a secondary priority, at least based on its actions of the past week. That doesn't excuse Sunday's flat performance, but if your bosses' actions confirmed that winning now isn't the top priority, how would you react?
3. Pete Carroll, Seattle Seahawks coach: I'm blaming Carroll for a Garo Yapremian-like field goal disaster just before halftime in a 20-13 victory over the Tennessee Titans. With place-kicker Steven Hauschka being evaluated for a head injury, Carroll should have left his offense on the field for third-and-goal from the 4-yard line. Instead, he sent punter Jon Ryan in to attempt a field goal and safety Chris Maragos in to hold. Predictably, Maragos dropped the snap and then compounded his mistake by throwing a wild pass that the Titans' Jason McCourty grabbed and returned 77 yards for a touchdown. The backup field goal operation rarely practices during training camp, much less during the season. And unlike some backup holders, Maragos isn't a quarterback. How about trying to get seven points with your front-line offensive players rather than three with backup special teamers? There was no reason to risk that kind of mistake, and Carroll admitted as much after the game.
4. Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos quarterback: On a scale relative to his performance this season, Manning experienced surprising struggles against the 0-6 Jacksonville Jaguars. He committed three turnovers -- one interception and two fumbles -- and the Broncos needed a touchdown midway through the fourth quarter to seal what should have been an easy victory. Did the Jaguars provide a blueprint for slowing down the Broncos' offense? I'm not sure about that, but they did take a clear approach that could be mirrored: The Jaguars rushed four or fewer men on 41 of his 42 dropbacks, according to ESPN's Stats & Information. Manning responded by working underneath routes, targeting running backs 14 times. Five were dropped, and the Jaguars did a good job tackling after the passes that were completed. The Broncos finished with a season-low 116 yards after the catch. Let's see if opponents follow the Jaguars' lead and abandon the blitz.
5. Carson Palmer, Arizona Cardinals quarterback: Is Palmer done or is he still adjusting to Bruce Arians' offense? He took a safety and threw two more interceptions in Sunday's 32-20 loss to the San Francisco 49ers, bringing his season total to nine against five touchdown passes. He has been almost entirely ineffective on downfield passes -- he completed only one of eight Sunday that traveled at least 15 yards past the line of scrimmage -- and receiver Larry Fitzgerald did most of the work on a 75-yard scoring play. Palmer is an improvement over the mess the Cardinals employed last season, but that isn't saying much.