Sunday, October 27, 2013
NFL Week 8 Sunday Studs and Duds
By Kevin Seifert
MINNEAPOLIS -- So I turned off the television at the two-minute warning of Sunday's wild events at Ford Field. Figured I'd get a head start on game-day traffic for the big Metrodome matchup. Fortunately, I heard on the car radio what I wished I had seen in what will go down as one of the most memorable games of the 2013 season.
This post isn't intended to be a comprehensive review of the best and worst players from Sunday's action. It's a snapshot and cross-section of what I saw and thought about during the day and night. So my apologies ahead of time for an emphasis on the Detroit Lions' 31-30 victory over the Dallas Cowboys.
1. Calvin Johnson/Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions receiver/quarterback: Normally a receiver who produces the second-highest yardage total in NFL history would qualify for a stand-alone spot here. But Johnson's 329-yard game, which included seven receptions of 20 yards or more and was 7 yards shy of Flipper Anderson's record, would have been part of a losing effort had Stafford not led the 10th fourth-quarter comeback victory of his career. The Lions' 80-yard game-winning drive included a pinpoint 40-yard pass to receiver Kris Durham and a first-rate acting job in convincing the Cowboys' defense he would spike the ball -- just before scoring the final touchdown. Stafford now has a 22-31 career record as a starter, which means that 45 percent of his total wins have been fourth-quarter comebacks.
2. Basic football for the San Francisco 49ers: After bottoming out with a home loss to the Indianapolis Colts in Week 3, the 49ers have scored at least 30 points in each of their next five victories since then. And voilą: A 1-2 start has become a 6-2 record at the midpoint, courtesy of a very deliberate (and smart) move to play to the strength of their offense. Instead of continuing to push quarterback Colin Kaepernick into a more traditional passer's role, the 49ers pulled back and focused on the running game. Kaepernick attempted only 16 passes but scored two rushing touchdowns in Sunday's 42-10 thrashing of the Jacksonville Jaguars. In the past two weeks, Kaepernick has gained 122 rushing yards on 18 carries. (Kaepernick's Total QBR on Sunday was 99.8 on a 100-point scale. Last week, it was 99.0.) And during this winning streak, he has averaged 20.8 passing attempts per game after averaging 31.3 during the 1-2 start. That's just smart football, a reputation the 49ers have earned under coach Jim Harbaugh.
3. Marvin Jones, Cincinnati Bengals receiver: Someone caught four touchdown passes for the Bengals and it wasn't A.J. Green! Jones was the primary beneficiary of a stunning offensive explosion that put up 49 points against the New York Jets' usually respectable defense. Sunday's scoring output doubled Jones' total in his first 18 NFL games. That's right. Before Sunday, Jones had scored four touchdowns since the start of the 2012 season.
4. Hurt vs. injured: NFL players and coaches like to point out the difference between being "hurt" and "injured." To be "hurt" means you have an affliction that causes pain and/or discomfort while potentially posing some limitations. "Injured" refers to an ailment that prevents a player from contributing. Sunday, there was fear that New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham and New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady were injured. It turns out they were simply hurt. Dealing with a foot issue, Graham got into the game for red zone plays and caught two touchdown passes in the Saints' 35-17 victory over the Buffalo Bills. Brady, meanwhile, navigated the Patriots to a 27-17 victory over the Miami Dolphins despite swelling in his throwing hand. Brady was far from sharp, completing only 13 of 22 passes for 116 yards, but he still gave the Patriots a better chance to win than if they had turned to backup Ryan Mallett.
5. Metrodome history: Sunday night's game opened with Cordarrelle Patterson's 109-yard kickoff return. By definition, it can't get any longer than that. So it's worth noting the Metrodome, in its final season, has seen a few such three other "max plays." In 1983, Dallas Cowboys running back Tony Dorsett scored on a 99-yard run. In 2007, San Diego Chargers cornerback Antonio Cromartie returned a missed field goal 109 yard yards for at touchdown. And in 2008, Vikings receiver Bernard Berrian caught a 99-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Gus Frerotte. Just a bit of mostly worthless history for you in Week 8.
1. Dez Bryant, Dallas Cowboys receiver: After suggesting that he was just as good of a receiver as Johnson, Bryant finished with 11 fewer receptions and 257 fewer yards than Johnson at Ford Field. He did contribute two touchdowns, including one that he pinned to his shoulder with one hand while jumping over Lions cornerback Darius Slay. But the Cowboys are now 1-8 in games in which Bryant has caught at least two touchdowns, and Bryant flat out embarrassed himself with repeated sideline outbursts. In some instances, teammates and coaches tuned out Bryant to an extent that suggested they don't take him seriously. One of the outbursts came when the Cowboys were ahead in the second half, which means having a lead wasn't good enough for Dez Bryant, at least not on this day. There might not be a big difference between Bryant and Johnson from a physical standpoint, but when it comes to character, they're not in the same conversation.
2. Chip Kelly, Philadelphia Eagles' offense: Apparently, Kelly is going to need a little more time to take over NFL thought and strategy. His offense hasn't scored a touchdown in two games and his team is 3-5 at the midpoint of his first season. Kelly has learned what should have been a self-evident lesson: Good quarterbacks make the offensive scheme -- not the other way around. Michael Vick's leg issues have left the Eagles muddling through most of the past two games with backup Nick Foles and third-stringer Matt Barkley. Kelly's fast-tempo scheme, which included heavy doses of packaged plays and/or the read-option, might have caught some early opponents off balance. But it's pretty simple: When Vick and Foles have played well, the Eagles have won. Otherwise, there has been nothing Kelly's scheme could do to save the team.
3. Calling London wrong: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, in London for Sunday's game between the 49ers and Jaguars, said over the weekend that he hopes to place a team in both Los Angeles and London and doesn't care which one comes first. I can only assume Goodell's statement was an attempt to maximize stadium leverage in the few U.S. cities still battling local politicians for public funds. The vacant Los Angeles market has served that purpose well, and perhaps London could do the same. Otherwise, I don't think we've heard anything close to a cogent proposal for how logistics of a London-based team would work. Distance would seem to make this idea a nonstarter, no matter how much revenue could be at stake. There are lots of smart people in the NFL offices. They'll have their work cut out for them to make this work.
4. Rules that make you blink: Last week, ESPN's NFL Nation questioned whether the NFL rulebook has gotten too thick and nuanced for a reasonable person -- let alone an official -- to keep straight. We saw another example in the fourth quarter Sunday at Gillette Stadium. Referee Walt Anderson found the Dolphins' Olivier Vernon guilty of an "illegal bat" after Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was sacked and fumbled. The call made a 31-yard difference in field position -- the Patriots got the ball for a first-and-10 at the Dolphins' 13-yard line instead of third-and-29 at the 45 -- and directly led to a touchdown. Rule 12, Section 4, Article 1 of the NFL rulebook prohibits a player from intentionally batting the ball toward an opponent's goal line. Anderson ruled Vernon's play was intentional rather than an incidental. Presumably, the rule was installed to prevent a recurrence of a play that didn't pass the smell test at some point. In reality, it is simply one more thing to keep straight and a highly difficult judgment call for an official. Inferring intent from a flailing defender -- is he trying to "bat" the ball or is he just uncoordinated? -- is a tough task. It's also what we call "Sunday" in NFL officiating.
5. Third-down defense: After a lopsided game, you often hear that one team couldn't stop another. Sunday night, the Vikings REALLY never stopped the Packers. Consider it this way: The Packers didn't commit a turnover, they didn't punt and they converted 13 of 18 third-down opportunities. Of the five "failures," they went on to convert on fourth down twice. On the other three, they kicked field goals. Indeed, the Packers scored on their first seven possessions. On their eighth, quarterback Aaron Rodgers kneeled twice to end the game. That rundown helps you understand how dominating the Packers were -- and how dominated the Vikings came to be.