NFL Nation: 2013 Week 12 Upon Further Review

Upon Further Review: Redskins Week 12

November, 26, 2013
A review of four hot issues following the Washington Redskins' 27-6 loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Monday night:

Coaching future: Redskins coach Mike Shanahan points to several changes as examples of how the organization is better off now than when he was hired in 2010. But unless things change dramatically, the Redskins are looking at a third double-digit-loss season in his first four. You can point to reasons why they have taken a step back after last season. A 7-9 finish after a tough offseason -- quarterback rehabbing, team unable to sign quality free agents -- would be understandable. But the Redskins have not looked like a good team in any game this season. Even if the quarterback needs to develop, other parts of the team still can play well. That hasn’t happened. The Redskins have lost four games by double digits, the same number they lost in 2009 under Jim Zorn when they finished 4-12. They’re not losing close, hard-fought games and just need a little luck. Players still support Shanahan (Zorn had little to no support), and that’s good. But everyone here still has a lot to prove.

Quarterback’s future: Regardless of what’s true or not true when it comes to Robert Griffin III’s relationship with the coach and the offensive coordinator, there’s no doubt he’ll have to rebuild his reputation as well as his game. It’s not impossible: Griffin works hard and has talent. Patience is always needed with young quarterbacks; a week ago -- heck, until around 9 Monday night -- Colin Kaepernick was a struggling young quarterback. This morning he’s on his way back. Fickle game for young passers. I’ve said this before, but it remains true: Griffin needs to have a quiet offseason. That means no commercials, no joining the owner at big events, no documentaries. Work on your game and stay out of the spotlight. You can work hard and still do all those other things, but to rebuild yourself and your game, it’s best to lay low. I have a feeling Griffin won’t mind doing so after this season. If his career ends up being a good one, it could be that this year was a turning point. There’s a ways to go before this book is completed. This chapter, however, hasn't been pretty.

Rough night: Redskins corner Josh Wilson struggled Monday night, giving up big catches to receiver Anquan Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis. Some were in man; at least one was in zone. Boldin got free on an out route for one catch in which Wilson wasn’t close enough to get his hand between Boldin’s. Davis pushed off to get free on another and created too much separation. Another time, Kaepernick made a terrific throw that beat decent coverage from Wilson on Boldin. Overall, though, too many passes were directed in Wilson’s area. It was not a strong night. “We’ve got to be able to make plays and I wasn’t able to make plays that I definitely want to make,” Wilson said.

No offense: The Redskins’ offense was unable to do much of anything against San Francisco, which entered this weekend with the NFL’s seventh-rated defense. It’s the only team Washington has faced that currently has a defense ranked among the top half in the NFL. The Redskins couldn’t do much of anything. They ran for 100 yards on 27 carries; they had 90 net yards passing and 190 yards overall. They averaged 3.3 yards per play. This was definitely a bad matchup for them because the 49ers have an excellent front seven and speed at the linebacker position. It was a complete breakdown by the entire offense. Eight of their 12 drives lasted four plays or fewer, and it’s a huge reason why San Francisco’s average starting field position was its own 43-yard line. The Redskins started nine drives inside their 25-yard line; the Niners started one drive inside their 25.

Upon Further Review: 49ers Week 12

November, 26, 2013
LANDOVER, MD. -- A review of four hot issues from the San Francisco 49ers' 27-6 win at Washington on Monday night:

Kaepernick leads: The 49ers' offense was the key in this win, ending a two-game losing streak. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick and the offense had sagged the past two weeks. But he led a strong passing attack. Kaepernick completed 6 of 15 passes of 15 yards or longer against the Redskins. Last week in New Orleans, the 49ers' longest play was 17 yards. Niners coach Jim Harbaugh credited Kaepernick's leadership during the week. He said Kaepernick had a “perfect mix” of focus and looseness and it carried into the game.

Help on the way: The 49ers' passing game was finally more than Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis. Mario Manningham, in his third game of the season, had four catches for 45 yards. He was targeted early in the game, and that enabled Boldin and Davis to break loose for three touchdowns. And more help is on the way. Top receiver Michael Crabtree, who tore his Achilles in May, will be activated Tuesday and Harbaugh said he anticipates he will play Sunday against St. Louis. He might not be 100 percent right away, but having a receiving group of Boldin, Davis, Manningham and Crabtree will only make Kaepernick better.

Aldon Smith is back: The star pass-rusher made a huge impact Monday night. Smith had two sacks and looked like his normal self for the first time since returning from substance abuse treatment. This was his third game back since missing five games. He had had one tackle the past two games. Last week, 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said Smith was still getting acclimated. Monday night, he looked comfortable and he was active. Having a dominant Smith will be huge for this defense down the stretch.

James sparks return game: Harbaugh raved about LaMichael James' performance Monday night. James, a second-round pick in 2012, looked good on returns the past two games after taking over for the since-released Kyle Williams. Monday night, James made a huge impact. He had a 40-yard punt return in the third quarter. It was the 49ers' longest punt return in nearly two seasons. Harbaugh said it was a nice reminder to everyone that the 49ers have a return game. James runs with a purpose and with more aggression than Williams ever did.

Upon Further Review: Broncos Week 12

November, 25, 2013
An examination of four hot issues from the Denver Broncos’ 34-31 overtime loss to the New England Patriots on Sunday.

[+] EnlargeKnowshon Moreno
AP Photo/Stephan SavoiaDenver's Knowshon Moreno has been the most reliable running back for the Broncos -- but it's time for someone else to help shoulder the load.
Working overtime: Broncos running back Knowshon Moreno tore an ACL in 2011 and had another knee procedure this past offseason, and the Broncos have consistently talked about watching his workload. But then their other running backs kept fumbling the ball -- both C.J. Anderson and Montee Ball lost the handle against the Patriots on Sunday night -- so Moreno has been left as Mr. Reliable or the one, offensive coordinator Adam Gase said, who has "that trust factor." And after 37 carries as the piece of the team’s offense that could function in the cold Sunday night, Moreno left Gillette Stadium in a walking boot on his right leg. With his 27 carries the week before against the Chiefs, Moreno’s 64 carries in the past two games are more than he had in the previous four games combined before the win over Kansas City. Somebody else in that running backs meeting room must now step forward.

Thinning out: The Broncos kept 11 defensive backs on the roster when they exited the preseason, and at the time it looked like a healthy surplus. But then Champ Bailey aggravated his left foot injury in Indianapolis, and he has played in just two games this season. Then Rahim Moore had surgery on his lower left leg, and on Sunday, two other defensive backs left the game. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie suffered a freakish shoulder injury trying to make a diving catch on a Hail Mary play to end the first half Sunday night, and Omar Bolden suffered a concussion in the second half. It means Quentin Jammer will have to play more on the outside and rookie Kayvon Webster is going to act and play like a starter.

Cold as ice: The Broncos and quarterback Peyton Manning continue to say the cold isn’t an issue on offense, that Manning practices in it all the time. But all the rest of the world has to go on is the past two games the team has played in below-freezing temperatures. Against the Ravens in the playoff loss in January when kickoff temperature was 13 degrees (and wind chill was 2 degrees), Manning was 28-of-43 with two interceptions and didn’t push the ball down the field. Sunday night, with a kickoff temperature of 22 degrees (and a 22 mph wind made the wind chill 6 degrees), Manning was 19-of-36 for 150 yards and an interception. For many, the Broncos’ cold-weather postseason prospects will continue to be a question mark until they all show, including Manning, that it isn’t.

It’s time: Broncos interim head coach Jack Del Rio has said recently he liked rookie defensive tackle Sylvester Williams’ progress this season, that Williams was ready for far more in the defense. He said that even as Williams was a game-day inactive three times this season, twice in the past four games. Now Williams will have to lift his game with Kevin Vickerson’s right hip injury. Williams will have to play more and be an early-down force, especially in run defense, if the Broncos are to get some momentum going defensively down the stretch.

Upon Further Review: Patriots Week 12

November, 25, 2013
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- A review of four hot issues following the New England Patriots' 34-31 win over the Denver Broncos:

Ridley's fumbles and his future: It is often said that when a player carries the football, he carries the fate of the entire team in his hands. In that case, what do the Patriots do with lead running back Stevan Ridley? Ridley lost his third fumble in as many games and was benched after playing just five snaps. When asked whether the Pats had reached a breaking point with Ridley, Bill Belichick didn't directly address the question, but did say the team's ball security as a whole needs to improve (six fumbles, three of which were lost on Sunday night).

[+] EnlargeKnowshon Moreno
Jared Wickerham/Getty ImagesWith Knowshon Moreno producing, the Broncos were more than just a pass-happy offense.
Run defense: The Patriots played Sunday night's game almost exclusively in their 4-2-5 nickel, which had them lighter in the box against the run. The results weren't pretty, as the Broncos gained 280 yards on 48 carries (5.8 average). Part of that is matchup-based and there is also a personnel element to it as well, as the Patriots obviously miss perennial Pro Bowler Vince Wilfork. As the Patriots look at areas for improvement, run defense when playing in the nickel is near the top of the list.

Injuries pile up: Linebacker Dont'a Hightower came out of the game at the end of the second quarter and was one of three defenders not to play a snap in the second half, joining defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard. Each player's status will be monitored closely as the Patriots' defense is already short-handed. On offense, fill-in starting right tackle Marcus Cannon left in the second quarter with an ankle injury and didn't return. If Cannon is out for any length of time, it might require a roster move to add depth at tackle (practice squad tackle Jordan Devey is the top in-house option).

Avoiding the letdown: After such an exciting, emotional win, the Patriots now travel to Houston to face a Texans team that has lost nine straight games. This reminds us of last year's trip to Jacksonville late in December. This week will be as much about the mental challenge as the physical one for the Patriots.

Upon Further Review: Texans Week 12

November, 25, 2013
HOUSTON -- Analyzing four hot issues from the Houston Texans' 13-6 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars:

Revisiting the defense: In my rapid reaction last night, I talked about the defense having issues as well as the offense. Truthfully, holding the Jaguars to 13 points should have been enough for a win. The Texans allowed only one touchdown and held firm in the red zone once. J.J. Watt had another good game with one sack and one blocked field goal. But the Jaguars did significantly outperform their season average for yards, gaining 333 on Sunday, and were right about at their season average for points per game (12.9). The real story, though, was about the Texans' offensive ineptitude.

Tate ineffective: The Houston Chronicle dug up the statistic that Ben Tate became the first running back in the league this year to have only 1 yard rushing on seven or more carries. "We had planned on playing [running back Dennis Johnson] some, but when he went in he just looked so good running the ball so we played him a little bit more," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. Johnson finished the game with 74 of the Texans' 77 rushing yards. It was a good day for Johnson, but against a team that allows an average of 133.5 rushing yards per game, the third most in the NFL, that doesn't say much.

Not much blitzing: We've talked a lot about quarterback Case Keenum's inability to understand blitzes, but the Jaguars didn't do much blitzing at all. They sent five or more rushers on only eight dropbacks. Keenum completed 4 of 7 passes and was sacked once. They sent four or fewer rushers on 28 dropbacks. Keenum completed 14-of-26 on those with one interception and one sack. I'll write a little more about this later after reviewing each of Keenum's sacks this season. There are times when Keenum needs to be more aware of the right thing to do, and there are other times when the scheme could be more helpful.

Hopkins regression: Rookie receiver DeAndre Hopkins was targeted five times and caught one pass for 8 yards. From afar it seems hard to blame the receivers for a lot of what was wrong with the offense because a lot of Keenum's throws were off target. (The interception, though, wasn't Keenum's fault, as it bounced off Keshawn Martin before it was intercepted.) Kubiak referred to a fourth-quarter pass to Hopkins as one of the plays the Texans "have to" make. Keenum went deep to Hopkins. "It was a pretty tough ball," Hopkins said. "I tried to keep my feet in bounds and it glazed my fingertips. I don’t know. Maybe if I was 6-4, I would have caught it."

Upon Further Review: Bears Week 12

November, 25, 2013
A review of four hot issues from the Chicago Bears' 42-21 loss to the St. Louis Rams:

Run D still porous: Zac Stacy's 11-yard run on St. Louis' first play from scrimmage set the tone for what wound up being a rough day for Chicago's run defense. Two plays later, Tavon Austin took a pitch left, reversed field right and juked Bears safety Chris Conte to pick up a block to go down the home team's sideline for a 65-yard touchdown. St. Louis ripped the Bears for 82 yards rushing on its first three plays and set a Rams franchise record by finishing the first quarter with 123 yards rushing (100 coming on Austin's running and a 35-yard gain by Stacy).

[+] EnlargeJosh McCown
Michael Thomas/Getty ImagesDespite a tough road loss, Bears QB Josh McCown still threw for 352 yards and two touchdowns.
Austin and Stacy joined the company of runners such as Jonathan Dwyer, James Starks, Adrian Peterson, Reggie Bush, Ray Rice and Eddie Lacy, all players to bust runs for gains of 25 yards or more this season against the Bears. Chicago has now given up eight runs for gains of 32 yards or more, including three runs of 40-plus yards.

The Bears talk every week about needing to improve in this area. It's time now to actually do it.

Resilience: The Bears took a 14-0 punch in the face from the Rams, who scored their first two touchdowns 54 seconds apart, but stayed in the game because of their resilience. After Stacy scored on a 1-yard run to put the Rams up 14-0, Chicago marched 80 yards in 11 plays on the ensuing drive, capped by a Josh McCown 7-yard scoring strike to Martellus Bennett.

When the Rams took a 21-7 advantage at the end of the first quarter, Chicago responded with 5:19 left before intermission with McCown hitting Brandon Marshall for a TD pass to pull the Bears within a touchdown, 24-14 at the half. The wheels didn't start to fall off until the final 3:05.

Penalties still an issue: By halftime last week, the Bears had already topped their season high with six penalties for 61 yards. Chicago nearly topped that in the first half Sunday, as it was flagged five times for 47 yards in the first half. In all, the Bears were flagged 10 times for 84 yards with two calls taking away touchdowns.

The Bears played relatively clean football over the first eight games, but that's obviously changed some over the past two contests. With the Bears still fighting for a postseason spot, one penalty can make the difference in winning or losing. So the club needs to clean up some things.

Josh McCown: With Jay Cutler sidelined, if the Bears are forced to play the backup quarterback another week, McCown certainly inspires confidence. Although McCown threw an interception late in the game, he stood with poise in the face of tremendous pressure all game and delivered the ball accurately despite taking some vicious shots. McCown finished with a passer rating of 102.4 with a pair of touchdowns.

Upon Further Review: Titans Week 12

November, 25, 2013
OAKLAND, Calif. -- A review of four hot issues from the Tennessee Titans' 23-19 win over the Oakland Raiders at Coliseum:

Third down: Third down was key on both sides of the ball. The offense and defense were productive when it came time to stay on, or get off, the field. The offense converted 10 of 18 chances (7 of 9 in the second half). The conversions included two third-and-11s, two third-and-10s, three third-and-7s and a third-and-6. Defensively, the Titans allowed just three conversions by Oakland in 10 chances.

[+] EnlargeRyan Fitzpatrick
AP Photo/Beck DiefenbachRyan Fitzpatrick completed 30 passes for 320 yards against Oakland.
Perfect execution: Offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains and quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick deserve credit for the way they engineered the final drive. They had 6:10 to use and they used 6:00 of it as the Titans moved 80 yards in 14 plays. If they didn’t score a touchdown to win it, leaving Oakland virtually no time, they were going to be in close field goal range to at least force overtime. They converted three third downs along the way. They didn’t even need to use their third timeout.

Clean up: Ten penalties for 100 yards were just killer, and I’ve noted in the past the Titans’ inability to account for the way a game is being officiated. Once you’re called for a couple of holds, shouldn’t coaches be telling guys how it’s being called and making them more conscious of it? Six holding penalties, four against the offensive line, demand better explanation than the Titans offered. First-and-20 is no way to live. One nice thing here: They committed just one defensive penalty. I know safety Michael Griffin was going low and tight end Mychal Rivera was going down at the same time. There was an element of bad luck, but it was still a hit against a defenseless receiver that isn’t allowed.

Contributing nothing: Kenny Britt had two balls thrown his way, and dropped both. He had to dive for the second, but it went right though his hands. I figured the Titans would eventually need Britt again and get something from him. But it’s probably past time to give up and start deactivating him. Michael Preston is on the practice squad and if Damian Williams needs another week to get healthy, the Titans probably should find a way to get Preston on the roster to be the fourth receiver. They can’t have a receiver on the field who offers little to no chance of making a catch when the ball comes in his direction.

Upon Further Review: Steelers Week 12

November, 25, 2013
A review of four hot issues from the Pittsburgh Steelers' 27-11 win against the Cleveland Browns:

[+] EnlargeBen Roethlisberger
Ron Schwane/USA TODAY SportsBen Roethlisberger had a solid game in a win against the Browns, throwing for 217 yards and two TDs.
Big Ben shows his value: The absurdity of why the Steelers would consider trading Ben Roethlisberger was highlighted late in the second quarter. Browns fans booed Brandon Weeden, a first-round draft pick in 2012, as he jogged onto the field to take over for the injured Jason Campbell. A Weeden incompletion led to a punt and two plays later Roethlisberger threw a 41-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown. Roethlisberger's primary target on the play that changed the complexion of the game had been Jerricho Cotchery. But when he saw the Steelers' No. 1 receiver race past Browns cornerback Joe Haden, Roethlisberger launched a throw into a stiff wind. Brown made a nice adjustment on the ball to haul in his sixth touchdown catch of the season. While Roethlisberger continues to torment the Browns, the Browns continue to cycle through quarterbacks. They already have given up on Weeden and are likely to use their first pick in the 2014 draft on a quarterback. The Browns, who passed on Roethlisberger in the 2004 draft, know as well as any team that finding a franchise quarterback is not easy. And when you have one, you hang onto him.

Hurry back: Jason Worilds hasn't just put pressure on opposing quarterbacks the past two games. He also may have turned up the heat on left outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley. Woodley has missed the past two games with a calf injury, and the highest-paid defensive player in Steelers history can't seem to stay healthy. Woodley has missed 11 games since injuring his hamstring in a late October 2011 win against the Patriots. In the 25 games he has played in since returning from that injury, Woodley has managed only nine sacks. Worilds has started for Woodley the past two games, and the fourth-year veteran has recorded a sack and accumulated double digits in quarterback hits. Worilds was credited with six pressures against the Browns.

Line shines against Browns: The Steelers averaged just 2.5 yards per carry, but they ran the ball well enough to stick with it and achieve a perfect 50-50 split in running 34 times and attempting 34 passes as well. That balance helped keep the Browns from teeing off on Roethlisberger. So did an offensive line that has allowed only one sack in the past two games and didn't yield any to the Browns. "I thought they did a nice job," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said of the offensive line. "I appreciate keeping him clean."

Defensive line shuffle? Defensive end Al Woods recorded two sacks and two quarterback pressures, and he could play significant snaps if starting nose tackle Steve McLendon is lost for the rest of the season because of a broken ankle. The Steelers went with Woods instead of nose tackle Hebron Fangupo after McLendon went down at the end of the first quarter, and the former took advantage of his first extended playing time this season. Tomlin will provide an update on McLendon later today, but if he is sidelined for the rest of the season, Woods, Fangupo and Ziggy Hood could form a rotation at nose tackle.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- An examination of four hot issues from the San Diego Chargers41-38 win over the Kansas City Chiefs.

[+] EnlargeKeenan Allen
AP Photo/Charlie RiedelKeenan Allen caught nine passes for 124 yards, and he drew double coverage that opened things up for teammates.
Allen is a No. 1 receiver: Yes, the Chiefs showed the ultimate respect for Chargers rookie receiver Keenan Allen. After he blistered the Chiefs for eight catches and 104 yards in the first half, Kansas City double-covered him, putting a safety over the top of the cornerback on his side. Allen finished with nine catches for 124 yards, but the double coverage opened up opportunities for teammates such as tight end Ladarius Green and slot receiver Eddie Royal. And it shows that Allen is emerging as a true No. 1 receiver in the NFL. Allen said he looked forward to playing against the Chiefs because the corners play so much press man coverage. “That’s when I’m at my best,” Allen said. “I can work a release off the line of scrimmage and make a guy miss.”

Woodhead the utility man: Running back Danny Woodhead did a little bit of everything for San Diego. He finished with an 11-yard touchdown reception and a 3-yard touchdown run. He made a block that allowed Royal to pick up an important first down on a scoring drive. And he finished with 137 kick-return yards, helping to give San Diego good field position. Woodhead has a career-high five receiving touchdowns this season, and he leads all running backs in receptions with 59 for 469 yards.

Time for Cox to take a seat: Cornerback Derek Cox was benched for a third time in four games after giving up a touchdown to Donnie Avery. Cox was replaced in the lineup by Richard Marshall, and did not return. Cox obviously feels pressure to perform because of the four-year, $20 million deal he signed in the offseason. But Cox doesn’t seem right physically; he doesn’t appear to have the ability to hit another gear and run with faster receivers. Maybe it is time for him to be placed on injured reserve, or at least benched for an extended period of time until he gets his confidence back. Both Cox and coach Mike McCoy maintain the cornerback is healthy.

Home cooking: Along with Philip Rivers leading the offense, one of the main reasons NFL observers are giving San Diego a shot to make the playoffs is because of the team’s schedule down the stretch. The Chargers finish with four of their last five games at home, and still have three games against AFC West foes. The favorable schedule gives San Diego plenty of opportunity to make the postseason for the first time since 2009.

Upon Further Review: Panthers Week 12

November, 25, 2013
MIAMI -- A review of five hot issues from the Carolina Panthers' 20-16 victory against the Miami Dolphins:

Rewards of winning: Seven straight wins have earned the Panthers (8-3) their third prime-time game of the seaosn. NBC has picked up the Panthers' Dec. 8 NFC South showdown against the New Orleans Saints (9-2) for its Sunday night telecast as part of the league's flex scheduling. If the Panthers hold serve against Tampa Bay, a team it beat 31-13 on a Thursday night telecast, and the Saints lose at Seattle, which is almost unbeatable at home, this would be for the outright division lead. The teams also play in Charlotte on Dec. 22 in a game that could decide the division title.

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
AP Photo/Alan DiazCarolina's Cam Newton made big plays when they were needed in an exciting win against Miami.
Spitting blood: Quarterback Cam Newton might have to consider wearing a mouthpiece in the future. He was hit so hard by Miami's Cameron Wake on Carolina's first play that he called a timeout to make sure he hadn't bitten his tongue off. He doesn't like wearing a mouthpiece, because it gets in the way of calling plays and gives him dry mouth. He chews gum to keep his mouth moist. But the hit gave Newton reason to believe a mouthpiece might not be such a bad idea. "I'm not fond of wearing a mouthpiece, and hopefully my mom is not listening to this, because she always said you get one set of teeth," Newton said. "It's something I need to look at if we continue to have a problem."

Spitting blanks: Newton was 0-for-7 with an interception on throws of at least 15 yards downfield on Sunday. It was his first career game with at least seven attempts of that range and no completions. Newton also struggled against four or fewer rushers, completing only 41.7 percent of his passes. He had a 64.2 completion percentage against those fronts through the first 10 games. But Newton was good when it counted, completing a pass to Steve Smith that turned into a 19-yard gain on fourth-and-10 from his own 20 with just over two minutes remaining to keep alive the game-winning drive. He also ran 8 yards for a first down on a fourth-and-1 play from his own 41.

Three men and a sack: The Panthers were without sack leader Charles Johnson (knee), but his replacements did just fine. Yes, replacements. It took Mario Addison, Wes Horton and Frank Alexander to replace Johnson. Addison had a sack and tackle for loss, Alexander had three tackles, and the trio helped hold Miami to 52 yards rushing on 3.1 yards per carry. I'm not saying Johnson wasn't missed, but the Panthers were allowing 3.9 per carry with him.

Boom, boom, boom: Punter's often get overlooked, but Brad Nortman deserves props for his effort against Miami. He is a big reason the Panthers were able to keep the Dolphins from spending most of the game in Carolina territory. He had punts of 72, 61 and 58 yards, averaging 56.7 yards on seven punts. His net average of 46.6 was well above his 39.2 season average.

Upon Further Review: Giants Week 12

November, 25, 2013
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- An examination of four hot issues from the New York Giants' 24-21 loss to the Dallas Cowboys:

[+] EnlargeVictor Cruz and Jeff Heath
ndrew Mills/The Star-Ledger via USA TODAY Sports"For them to have a touchdown on a play like that," coach Tom Coughlin said of Jeff Heath's return of a Victor Cruz fumble, "is just unbelievable."
The final drive: Giants defensive end Justin Tuck was confused about the team's decision to play coverage on the Cowboys' final drive instead of trying to pressure Tony Romo into a mistake. "Maybe we needed to be a little more aggressive and play the way we played the previous four drives," Tuck said. And the fact that Romo converted three third-down throws on a 14-play, 64-yard drive that set up the game-winning field goal supports his theory. I'm not sure I agree, though. Pressuring Romo can create problems due to his ability to keep plays alive with his legs. And the conversions were on third downs of 7, 5 and 10 yards, so they weren't exactly letting him get into easy spots. Sometimes, you just get beaten by a better team and/or player. Romo and the Cowboys made the plays. The Giants didn't.

The fumble: Giants coach Tom Coughlin made it clear he thought the whistle should have been blown and forward progress ruled before Orlando Scandrick stripped the ball out of Victor Cruz's hands and into the hands of Jeff Heath, who ran it back for the game's first touchdown. "We started off the year knowing full well that the officials were going to blow the whistle this season for every play," Coughlin said. "You hope that the whistle should blow. For them to have a touchdown on a play like that is just unbelievable." Tough spot for the officials, obviously, since what happens if he gets loose and scores a touchdown and you have to bring him back because you ruled forward progress? Surely, the other sideline would have found that unbelievable. Judgment call, but the fact is the whistle hadn't blown and Scandrick made a great play.

The absentee: Wide receiver Hakeem Nicks was inactive for the game after missing practice time during the week due to an abdominal injury he says has been bugging him all season. Nicks was certain as recently as Friday that he'd play. He didn't speak after the game. The fact that the Giants didn't let him suit up obviously intensifies the questions about the remainder of his season and his chances of returning to the team next year.

The math: The Giants could still win their final five games and finish 9-7, but even if they did, that wouldn't guarantee them a playoff spot. As Prince Amukamara said after the game, the Cowboys have four division wins (two against the Giants), and the most the Giants can get is three. The Eagles also hold a tiebreaker edge over the Giants. Their chances of catching and passing either of those teams are insanely slim. Their chances of catching and passing both are inconceivable. The residue of the 0-6 start is a complete lack of margin for error. They couldn't lose another game, and they just did.

Upon Further Review: Jaguars Week 12

November, 25, 2013
HOUSTON -- A review of four hot issues from the Jacksonville Jaguars' 13-6 victory over the Houston Texans:

[+] EnlargeCase Keenum
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesJacksonville brought constant pressure against Case Keenum on Sunday.
Shorts involved: Jaguars coach Gus Bradley and offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch said they were going to get receiver Cecil Shorts more involved in the offense this week after Shorts complained about getting only two catches in a loss to Arizona. They were true to their word. Shorts was targeted a team-high 11 times and caught a team-high eight passes for 71 yards. The Jaguars got him involved early, too, targeting him four times on their first three possessions.

Good gambles: Bradley's new buzz word is "bold," and he's coaching that way. He went for it on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line on the game's opening possession and also called a Wildcat formation pass by Denard Robinson, a play that would have worked for a big gain had Shorts not dropped the pass. Bradley also told Fisch to stay with the offense and not just call running plays when the Jaguars got the ball back with 4:24 to play and clinging to a seven-point lead. "We preach to our players that we're going to be bold when opportunities present themselves," Bradley said.

Front plays well: Texans defensive end J.J. Watt is usually the one who bats down passes at the line of scrimmage, but the Jaguars did a better job of that on Sunday. Defensive tackle Sen'Derrick Marks deflected two and defensive end Andre Branch deflected one. The front seven pressured quarterback Case Keenum all day, sacking him twice and hitting him five other times. The Jaguars generally don't blitz a lot, but defensive coordinator Bob Babich called several middle blitzes to try to get players in Keenum's face. Keenum said he never felt comfortable and could never get in a rhythm.

Henne hangs in: Quarterback Chad Henne took a pounding against the Texans, especially early, but hung in there and had one of his better games despite not throwing a touchdown pass. Henne was sacked four times, including three in the first half, and hit 13 other times. Watt sacked him once and hit him five more times and linebacker Whitney Mercilus sacked him once and hit him four times. Despite the battering, Henne completed 23 of 32 passes for 239 yards. He did not throw an interception. "You just have to sit in there and sometimes you're going to get hit and sometimes you're not, but overall the offensive line did a good job," Henne said. "For the most part we got the ball out on time and really fought through and did really well."

Upon Further Review: Rams Week 12

November, 25, 2013
ST. LOUIS -- A review of four hot issues from the St. Louis Rams' 42-21 win against the Chicago Bears:

[+] EnlargeZac Stacy
Michael Thomas/Getty ImagesZac Stacy rushed for 87 yards and a score as the Rams rushed for a total of 258 yards.
Staying alive: The win moved the Rams to 5-6 on the season and though they are still on the outskirts of the playoff race, they managed to stay in the picture by knocking off a team that's in front of them in the mix.

With five games to play, the margin for error is small -- the Rams probably can't afford to lose another game to have a real shot at the playoffs -- but they now have consecutive impressive wins against playoff contenders in Indianapolis and Chicago. Heading into Monday night's game between San Francisco and Washington, the Rams sit two games behind 7-4 Arizona for what would be the final wild-card spot.

St. Louis' next two games come against the Niners and Cardinals, two teams ahead of them not only in the NFC West but in the NFC wild-card picture as well.

Battle of the Longs: Much was made of the meeting of Rams defensive end Chris Long and his brother Kyle, the Bears' starting right guard, last week. In a rare battle between brothers where they might actually cross paths on the field, there wasn't much to report with one notable exception.

Following an incomplete pass by Bears quarterback Josh McCown in the first half, Kyle Long got tangled up with defensive end William Hayes. The pair continued to battle after the play and Long actually appeared to throw a couple of kicks in Hayes' direction. Chris Long quickly ran in from the sideline to pry his brother out of the mix and away from his close friend Hayes.

It was a difficult situation for Chris Long, but he said he has long been accustomed to pulling his brother out of scrums.

Run game rolling: Immediate following the Rams' blowout loss to San Francisco in Week 4, coach Jeff Fisher made it clear the time had come for a philosophical shift for the offense. The idea was to develop some semblance of a reliable rushing attack with rookie Zac Stacy leading the charge.

After a promising start, the Rams' run game has gone to another level in the past four weeks. Capped by Sunday's 258 rushing yards, the Rams have run for 758 yards with six touchdowns on an average of 5.61 yards per carry. That average is the best in the league during that time frame. Without starting quarterback Sam Bradford, the run game's emergence has eased the burden on backup Kellen Clemens considerably.

Secondary struggles: The Rams' secondary hasn't exactly been able to lock down opposing passing games this season, but it was even tougher sledding Sunday against the Bears. The team placed cornerback Cortland Finnegan on injured reserve with an eye injury on Saturday and Trumaine Johnson, his replacement, suffered a head injury during the game. That left the Rams short at cornerback, and McCown threw for 352 yards and two touchdowns to keep Chicago in the game.

Pending Johnson's status moving forward, the Rams have only rookie Brandon McGee, converted safety Rodney McLeod and unproven Quinton Pointer behind starter Janoris Jenkins on the outside.

Upon Further Review: Cowboys Week 12

November, 25, 2013
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- A review of four hot issues from the Dallas Cowboys' 24-21 win against the New York Giants.

On to the next one: The icy weather conditions back in Dallas almost forced the Cowboys to spend the night in New Jersey. With the Oakland Raiders visiting AT&T Stadium on Thursday, that would have made a short week of preparation even that much more difficult. As it stands, the Cowboys will have a walk through Monday. Tony Romo got a jump on the preparation, looking at film on the way home.

[+] EnlargeDallas' DeMarco Murray
Photo by Elsa/Getty ImagesDeMarco Murray rushed for 86 yards against the New York Giants.
“I toyed with the idea of looking [early] but it wouldn't have been beneficial for me leading up to this game,” Romo said. “I really don't know Oakland all that well not being in our division. I will have to start on them and cram [Sunday night and Monday].”

Not running from scratch: Have the Cowboys started to find some consistency in the running game? In his past two games, DeMarco Murray has 89 and 86 yards rushing on 30 carries. The Cowboys ran the ball 20 times for 107 yards against the Giants. Lance Dunbar also had some effective runs on limited snaps. The key for the Cowboys is to have the threat of the run. This is an offense that will succeed on the merits of its passing game, but if it can run the ball, that should make things easier for Romo through the air. Murray, who has 634 yards on the season and four touchdowns, might leave yards on the field, but at least he is having the opportunity to leave yards on the field. In the past he did not even get much of a chance to run the ball.

A short week hurts: The hamstring injuries suffered by Morris Claiborne and Dwayne Harris on Sunday will likely keep them out of Thursday's game against the Raiders. Without Claiborne, B.W. Webb moves back into a prominent role and could force the Cowboys to find a corner on short notice. Without Harris, Terrance Williams and Cole Beasley handle the return duties. Linebacker Sean Lee hopes to do some running on Monday, which could go a long way in determining if he could play against the Raiders. If there is a question, the Cowboys will rest him and make sure he is good for Dec. 9 against the Chicago Bears.

A daily dime: For the first time this season, the Cowboys broke out a dime defense, utilizing six defensive backs. It was somewhat out of necessity with injuries to Lee and Justin Durant. Safety Barry Church moved to the Mike linebacker spot and rookies J.J. Wilcox and Jeff Heath took over the safety roles with corners Brandon Carr, Orlando Scandrick and either Claiborne or Webb. Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin likes to play zone, but the lack of a dime package caught the Cowboys' linebackers in difficult matchups. Facing some better passing teams down the stretch (Green Bay, Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington), the dime package could be more of a featured defense.

Upon Further Review: Browns Week 12

November, 25, 2013
An review of four hot issues from the Cleveland Browns' 27-11 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers:

Last seven: The Browns have no one but themselves to blame for what has happened the last two games. In the last seven quarters, they’ve been outscored 68-18. And in that time they’ve given up a touchdown on a blocked punt, a fumble return and an interception return. They also had a blocked punt, fumble and interception set up three other touchdowns. That’s 42 points directly given to the opposition.

Big non-catch: One small play in a game of many big ones did matter: Late in the first half, Brandon Weeden (who entered the game to replace Jason Campbell, who had suffered a rib injury) threw over the middle to tight end Jordan Cameron, who could not make the catch. That miss set up a short field for Pittsburgh, which capitalized on a long pass to Antonio Brown for a touchdown. Cameron said he simply should have made the catch.

Ordinary Joe: Joe Haden has been exceptional all season, but Brown had six catches for 92 yards and a 41-yard touchdown against Haden. The Browns corner misread the route on the touchdown, as he stopped, thinking Brown was going to make a move. Brown, though, kept going. Brown made some catches on Haden, but the overall picture on the Browns cornerback does not change. He has shut down a lot of the league’s best receivers.

Nowhere to run: At some point this season the Browns were going to see their poor running game catch up to them. The Browns ran 16 times for 55 yards, a total eclipsed by Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell alone. The Browns threw 52 passes. Game circumstance dictates a lot of play calls, but offensive coordinator Norv Turner lamented last week that the team had to throw 57 times against Cincinnati and said the Browns would not win doing that. Sunday they threw 52 times.




Sunday, 2/2