- Ashley Fox
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Start fast or finish strong? If you could choose only one way to play a game, which would it be: Get up on an opponent early, or finish it off late?
"I tell everybody when I talk about starting fast, you only get one opportunity to make a first impression on an opponent," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "You want to make it one they're going to remember in a positive way."
Smith has a quarterback who has done both. Through the first five weeks of his fifth season, Matt Ryan has played his way right into the middle of the "elite" quarterback debate. What does an elite quarterback in the NFL do? He gets up on an opponent early by finding his receivers and avoiding mistakes. He puts his foot on their throats late by having the resolve and belief in himself to make plays. He has the poise and tenacity to endure a game of ups and downs and still find a way to win.
That's been Ryan's season in a nutshell so far. He was the NFC's offensive player of the month in September, and through five weeks of the season he has completed 68.3 percent of his passes for 1,507 yards. His 13 touchdown passes are second only to Drew Brees' 14, and his 106.1 passer rating is second only to Alex Smith's 108.7. Most importantly, his Falcons are 5-0 for the first time in franchise history, with the 1-3 Oakland Raiders coming to town on Sunday.
In the first three weeks of the season against Kansas City, Denver and San Diego, Ryan led the Falcons into the end zone on their first possession of each game (aided by a Peyton Manning opening-drive interception). In the past two weeks against Carolina and Washington, Ryan led them on game-winning scoring drives in the fourth quarter. He has started fast in some games, finished strong in others.
"What's impressed me more than anything is probably his resiliency of not playing our best the last two weeks and still being able to have success and get the outcome that we wanted," Smith said. "His ability to handle those types of situations is impressive. He's had 18 fourth-quarter comebacks in four years and six games. Matt, he's a guy that doesn't get rattled easily. You've got to have that. He's a calming influence across the board for the entire team."
Last week against Washington was a prime example. The Falcons did not start fast. Their first five drives ended with three punts, an interception and a fumble. They trailed the Redskins 7-0 with 2:16 left in the first half. To that point, Ryan had completed only 14 of 24 passes. The Falcons got the ball at their 21-yard line, and on an eight-play drive that included zero rushing attempts, Ryan completed seven passes to four receivers, including a 21-yarder to tight end Tony Gonzalez.
On that play, the Falcons got the look they wanted from the Redskins defense, and Ryan hit Gonzalez in the seam near the goal line. Ryan found Gonzalez again on the next play for a touchdown.
"That drive just says a microcosm of what he's done all season long," Smith said. "He distributes the ball to the guys. He got Tony, Roddy [White], Julio [Jones] and Harry [Douglas]
"People ask me, 'Are you a running team? Are you a throwing team?' We're trying to be a scoring team, and there's lots of ways you can score."
So far this season, the Falcons are a winning team. For Ryan to solidify a spot in the "elite" category, he will have to parlay this regular season into something he's never had before: postseason success.
"It's just a start," Smith said.
A fast start that Smith hopes will lead to a strong finish.
Kansas City fans weren't cheering Matt Cassel's injury on Sunday. They were cheering the fact that the Baltimore Ravens did what Romeo Crennel -- or was it Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli? -- would not do: bench a quarterback who has been awful this season.
Know this about Chiefs fans: They are loyal, passionate and knowledgeable. Former Kansas City coach Dick Vermeil called them "understanding, appreciative fans." They continue to fill Arrowhead Stadium even though the Chiefs haven't won a playoff game since 1993. But patience will only last for so long. This team, Pioli's fourth season with the club, was billed as a playoff contender, one that should battle for the AFC West title. Instead, thanks in part to Cassel's 13 turnovers -- more than some teams have -- the Chiefs are 1-4 and headed nowhere.
"I think anybody with appreciation and understanding gets tired of losing, you know?" said Vermeil, who coached the Chiefs from 2001-05. "People get disappointed, and they care an awful lot about their team. I don't know the fans to be those kinds of fans. I never experienced that myself. It sort of surprised me."
Kansas City won the division in 2010 but lost a wild-card playoff game to Baltimore. The Chiefs have finished last or tied for last in four of the past five seasons and are in last place heading into Week 6.
• • •
Scott Fujita is as upstanding and reputable a player as there is in the NFL. So when Fujita eviscerated commissioner Roger Goodell on Wednesday after Goodell refused to exonerate him and three other players implicated in the Saints bounty scandal, it carried significant weight. It also was a clear indication of how many players feel about the commissioner. They don't trust him to do what is right for them.
Consider this passage from Fujita's blistering statement: "The commissioner says he is disappointed in me. The truth is, I'm disappointed in him. His positions on player health and safety since a 2009 congressional hearing on concussions have been inconsistent at best. He failed to acknowledge a link between concussions and post-career brain disease, pushed for an 18-game regular season, committed to a full season of Thursday night games, has continually challenged players' rights to file workers compensation claims for on-the-job injuries, and he employed incompetent replacement officials for the start of the 2012 season. His actions or lack thereof are by the league's own definition, 'conduct detrimental.'"
To be fair, Goodell has acknowledged a link between concussions and post-career brain disease, but it took the league longer than it did for doctors and researchers to get there. And Fujita's accusation about workers' compensation is a bit of a stretch; the league is trying to keep players from filing in California when they only play an occasional game in that state.
Nevertheless, although Fujita is speaking for himself, he is a voice for many other players. What he says matters. When he blasted the commissioner, he said what many of his peers wish they could.
• • •
Players lie. It happens all the time and dates to the beginning of football. Players want to play. They don't want to sit out a game because of an injury. They want to protect their roster spot, their reputation, their standing with the head coach and their stature in the locker room.
This has been particularly dicey when it comes to head trauma, because at least part of evaluating a player in the days after he suffers a concussion comes from the player himself. How does he feel? Does he have headaches? Any blurry vision? Anything unusual?
Robert Griffin III practiced with the Redskins on Wednesday, just three days after getting hit in the head -- known as being "shaken up," in Redskins-speak -- against Atlanta and forgetting the score of the game and what quarter it was. After Wednesday practice Griffin said he "felt good" and was optimistic that he would play Sunday against the Vikings, according to The Washington Post.
"There's never a doubt as a player," Griffin said.
There's never a doubt as a player that you can play. But there is often doubt about whether a player is telling the truth about how he really feels. Hopefully Griffin is OK and telling the truth about recovering so quickly from what the team termed a "mild" concussion, and not just telling team officials what he knows they want to hear.
• • •
Back in July, when the temperature in South Carolina was as high as the Carolina Panthers' expectations, Ryan Kalil boiled down his job as a professional football player to the simplest terms.
"I think it's easy for people to forget that us players are fans of the game," he said, talking about why he took out a full-page ad in the Charlotte Observer promising Panthers fans a Super Bowl victory this season. "We were at a young age. It's why we started playing in the first place, and so the heart of that letter really was a letter for the fans. It was intended for the fans by a fan and really just the message was to let them know that better days are to come, and that this team is a team that's serious about winning it and getting good again."
On Wednesday came the news that Kalil, the Panthers' starting center for all but four games of the past five seasons, is done for the year with a Lisfranc injury. For a team that has struggled to run, is 1-4 and has a quarterback who could use a steady hand hiking him the ball, it was a crushing development. This team doesn't look to be headed to the Super Bowl, as Kalil promised, and now he won't even get to help them try -- as far-fetched as it might seem -- to get there.
• • •
Patriots coach Bill Belichick was been on the receiving end of a Wes Welker barb. "He's relentless," quarterback Tom Brady said of Welker, who -- after catching 13 passes for 104 yards against Denver on Sunday -- told Comcast SportsNet in Boston that "it's kind of nice to stick it in Bill's face every once in awhile."
Welker said it with a wink, but the funny thing about humor is that it often masks the truth. After losing out in contract negotiations and then catching only three passes for 14 yards in the Patriots' season opener at Tennessee, Welker did probably like showing Belichick that he can still play. And that the Patriots offense is better with him than without.
But Welker probably shouldn't tweak his head coach too much. He is in a contract year.
"He always has to have the last word," Brady said of Welker, "and he usually gets it because he stays on it until you're worn out. Those are usually the guys you don't want to go after."
• • •
What's at stake this weekend? Thirteen teams playing in Week 6 are either 3-2 or 2-3. Under the current playoff system, teams that have started 4-2 have made the playoffs 62.2 percent of the time, and teams that have started 2-4 have made the playoffs 9.2 percent of the time, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Are you listening, Green Bay and Denver?
By his own admission, Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers has not played well this season. He has taken 21 sacks in six games, and although he is completing 68.6 percent of his passes, he is missing on throws he has made in the past.
Take last week against Indianapolis. On the Packers' sixth offensive play of the game, Green Bay faced third-and-6 from its own 33-yard line. Four receivers were on the field. Jordy Nelson was split right and beat Colts cornerback Jerraud Powers on a go route. Rodgers badly overthrew him deep on what otherwise would have been a probable touchdown.
"Rodgers hasn't missed those," said Greg Cosell, executive producer of ESPN's "NFL Matchup." "I think his ball location has been a problem. His footwork and balance have been a problem. I think on a number of throws he's not getting a clear picture, and that's why his head has not been calm. He's struggling right now."
Cosell said that if Rodgers were playing better, no one would discuss how much the Packers miss wide receiver Greg Jennings or that the offensive tackles haven't protected well. Cosell also said that, judging from the game film, Rodgers' struggles go back to the last few games of the 2011 season, including Green Bay's playoff loss to the Giants.
"I think it's been a little bit of a continuation from the end of last year," Cosell said. "Now, there's no question that if he always had a clean pocket and never had bodies around him, he might be more inclined to be more comfortable and maybe could come out of this quicker, but that's unrealistic. There's always bodies around you."
This week, the Packers face a Texans defense that will be without linebacker Brian Cushing, who tore his anterior cruciate ligament Monday against the Jets.
STATS & INFO
New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin said earlier this week "nobody gives us a chance to win" against San Francisco on Sunday, in a rematch of last season's NFC Championship Game, won by the Giants in overtime. One reason is that in their past two games, the 49ers have outscored the Jets and Bills 79-3, with 54 first downs, 1,000 net yards, 556 rushing yards and 10 total touchdowns. Another is that San Francisco has the sixth-ranked offense in the league and the second-ranked defense.
Yet another reason is that New York's pass rush has disappeared. The Giants finished tied for third in sacks last season with 48, but with just eight sacks in five games this season (tied for No. 24 in the NFL), they are on pace for 25.6 sacks. New York has recorded three sacks -- tied for fifth-fewest -- at a rate of one every 39.3 dropbacks (fourth-worst) when rushing four or fewer defenders, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Last season, the Giants recorded the second-most sacks (34) at a rate of once every 13.6 dropbacks (second-best) when using such pressure.
Disrupt the quarterback. New York isn't doing it enough.
"Just woke up from a nap. This is not news to me pride won't let him admit he's wrong. guy died from a roach eating contest, now that's news"
Vilma got a measure of victory Tuesday, when Roger Goodell elected not to reduce his season-long suspension but allowed him to be paid for six games on the physically unable to perform list. But that won't appease Vilma, who is adamant he did not offer a bounty or other incentive to teammates to injure an opposing player. It is safe to say fans have tired of this story, but it is far from over.
"Where is the NFL's protection on blocks below the waist like that on Cushing. Double standard!"
Defensive players hate chop blocks for the exact reason we saw Sunday. New York Jets guard Matt Slauson ran past Houston linebacker Brian Cushing and then doubled back and dived at Cushing's left knee, with his helmet hitting Cushing's left leg. The result: a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Cushing's season is done. Matthews and Cushing were teammates at USC for four seasons and were both first-round draft picks in 2009.
"I got the Heart of a Champion .. I will turn this around believe it!!"
Vick leads the NFL with five lost fumbles and has thrown six interceptions, although he's had none in the past three games. His fumble at the goal line against Pittsburgh cost the Eagles a touchdown in a game they lost 16-14. With eight fumbles (three recovered by Philadelphia), Vick is on pace for 26 fumbles this season, which would break the NFL record of 23 set by Kerry Collins (2001) and Daunte Culpepper (2002).
All games Sunday unless otherwise noted. All times ET.
Kansas City (1-4) at Tampa Bay (1-3), 1 p.m.
The Buccaneers are 3½ games behind Atlanta in the NFC South. Can they, or anyone in the division, catch the Falcons? Buccaneers 20, Chiefs 17.
Indianapolis (2-2) at New York Jets (2-3), 1 p.m.
The Colts showed that a team still can win a game on emotion. How long will #chuckstrong carry them? Colts 21, Jets 17.
Cincinnati (3-2) at Cleveland (0-5), 1 p.m.
Andy Dalton leads all starting quarterbacks with a 127.7 fourth-quarter passer rating. Can Cleveland, with the 28th-ranked defense in the NFL, slow the Bengals down? Bengals 24, Browns 21.
Detroit (1-3) at Philadelphia (3-2), 1 p.m.
Four of the Lions' next five games are on the road, where they have won just once in their past seven attempts, including the postseason. Can they win on the road and right their season? Eagles 17, Lions 16.
Oakland (1-3) at Atlanta (5-0), 1 p.m.
Matt Ryan is off to a blistering start, completing 68.3 percent of his passes, with 13 touchdowns and just three interceptions. But against Oakland's NFL-worst run defense, will Michael Turner lead the day? Falcons 31, Raiders 17.
St. Louis (3-2) at Miami (2-3), 1 p.m.
Who would have thought before the season that a Miami player would lead the NFL in receiving yardage? Brian Hartline has 29 catches for 514 yards. Dolphins 20, Rams 17.
Dallas (2-2) at Baltimore (4-1), 1 p.m.
After a bye week, the Cowboys enter a brutal stretch, with four road games (at Baltimore, Carolina, Atlanta and Philadelphia) in the next five weeks. If they play like they did against Chicago, what happens then? Ravens 27, Cowboys 13.
Buffalo (2-3) at Arizona (4-1), 4:05 p.m.
Mario Williams, where are you? Cardinals 20, Bills 9.
New England (3-2) at Seattle (3-2), 4:05 p.m.
The Patriots are killing teams for blitzing them. Will the Seahawks try to bring pressure when other teams haven't had success doing so? Patriots 27, Seahawks 23.
New York Giants (3-2) at San Francisco (4-1), 4:25 p.m.
The 49ers haven't forgotten hearing the Giants celebrate winning the NFC Championship Game in their building in January. Can they get a different result this time? Niners 34, Giants 27.
Minnesota (4-1) at Washington (2-3), 4:25 p.m.
Robert Griffin III learned a valuable lesson last week against Atlanta: It's more important to get out of bounds than to get an extra yard. Will he take the path of least resistance against the Vikings? Vikings 20, Redskins 14.
Green Bay (2-3) at Houston (5-0), 8:20 p.m.
What is wrong with the Packers, and how in the world can they correct it against one of the best defenses in football? Texans 31, Packers 21.
Denver (2-3) at San Diego (3-2), 8:30 p.m. Monday
This is a game Peyton Manning and Broncos must win. On the road, in the division, after another tough loss. Just feels like it sets up for Denver, doesn't it? Broncos 27, Chargers 24.
Idle: Jacksonville, Chicago, Carolina, New Orleans.
Last week: 9-4. Season: 46-27.
Whether the Falcons are ahead early or rallying late, the result is the same -- Matt Ryan just wins.