- Ashley Fox
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Even with a six-week sample size, it is tough at this point to identify just which is the NFL's best, most complete team. There isn't a clear-cut front-runner, even though the Atlanta Falcons are 6-0 and topped the Power Rankings ballots of all five of ESPN's voters, including mine.
The Texans were strong through five weeks and then got manhandled by Green Bay. San Francisco has shown flashes but lost at Minnesota and then at home last week to the New York Giants 26-3.
That was a statement game for the Giants, a dominating win over a very strong team, 3,000 miles away from home. New York didn't allow a point in the second half and held the Niners to just 80 rushing yards, 116.2 fewer than their season average heading into the game.
Although they've lost twice in their division, in the season opener against Dallas and in Week 3 at Philadelphia, the Giants just might be the best team in football.
Coming into this season, the two biggest questions about the Giants were: How good is the offensive line, and can New York run the football?
Journeyman Sean Locklear started the first two games at left tackle, then switched to right tackle when Will Beatty returned from injury. Locklear has been solid -- better than David Diehl -- and Beatty has played lights out.
Through six games, Eli Manning, who has thrown 225 passes, has been sacked only four times, a league low. Part of that is the protection he is getting, and part of that is because Manning gets rid of the ball so quickly. The Giants haven't given up a sack in three consecutive games, including to the 49ers, who sacked Manning six times in last season's NFC Championship Game.
Asked this week about why the line has played better, Manning said, "I'm not sure, but I'm not complaining about it."
Last season, the Giants finished last in rushing. This season, they rank ninth in rushing yards per game and sixth in rushing yards per attempt. And they have found a combination they like: Ahmad Bradshaw and fullback Henry Hynoski. Bradshaw has rushed 57 times in the last two games and averaged 158 yards per game and had two consecutive 100-yard performances. Of those 57 carries, 43 have come with Hynoski at fullback. That's nearly 80 percent.
The big question this week as the Giants get set to face Washington: How healthy is Bradshaw? He missed practice Wednesday with what was thought to be the same foot issue that sidelined him for four games last season. He practiced Thursday and said he was fine.
The Giants' offense is third in the NFL in total yards per game, second in yards per play, fifth in passing yards per game and tied for third in points per game.
The defense has had its issues. It has struggled to get to the quarterback, and Jason Pierre-Paul is drawing constant double-teams. Defensive coordinator Perry Fewell had linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka move up to the line last week to try to bring more pressure on San Francisco. This week against a Washington team that has had little trouble moving the ball, the line will get back Chris Canty, who spent the first six weeks of the season on the physically unable to perform list after having offseason knee surgery.
Canty should help. Safety Antrel Rolle is coming off a two-interception performance that earned him NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors, and second-year CB Prince Amukamara has played well in his last three starts.
The thing about the Giants that has become apparent is that although they sometimes play to the level of their competition, this team knows how to win. The Giants aren't going to get into a fourth-quarter battle and freeze. Their quarterback is clutch and efficient. Their coach might be the best in the league.
And they've won championships. That matters. They've been there, and done that, not once, but twice.
Tom Coughlin spent the week of the San Francisco game sandbagging, talking about how good the Niners were and how nobody was picking the Giants to win on the road. It was classic Coughlin. And then the Giants went to Candlestick Park and looked like the best team in football.
It's a long season, but in February, we just might be talking about the Giants again.
It has taken five years, but the Baltimore Ravens have finally transitioned from a defensive team to one that lives and dies with its offense. It has been a slow progression, but make no mistake, it has occurred. Now, with middle linebacker Ray Lewis and cornerback Lardarius Webb done for the year with injuries, it is time for the offense to prove it can handle the responsibility and win games for the Ravens.
When John Harbaugh arrived in Baltimore in 2008, the perception was that any time the team won, it was because of the defense. When it lost, it was because the offense screwed up. The offense's responsibilities essentially were: Don't screw it up, don't turn it over, just hand the ball off and punt and the defense will take care of the rest. The offense had cover.
Well, the Ravens are past that now. They have the pieces on offense to move the ball and put points on the board. After last week's 31-29 win over Dallas, Baltimore has the eighth-ranked offense (385.0 yards per game) and the 26th-ranked defense (396.7 yards allowed). It is ninth in scoring with 26.8 points per game, fourth in the AFC behind New England, Houston and Denver.
The Ravens are 5-1 -- their lone loss is to Philadelphia -- but for them to remain among the NFL's elite and make a push at another Super Bowl, the offense is going to have to carry the team. It is going to have to put points on the board early and build leads to alleviate pressure on the defense by making opponents one-dimensional. And it is going to have to eliminate turnovers, because with so many significant injuries on the defense, the offense no longer has cover. It has to be cover.
• • •
Andy Reid is desperately trying to hang on to his job, to give Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie enough evidence to do what Lurie ultimately wants to do and keep him for a 15th season. Firing defensive coordinator Juan Castillo wasn't desperate. It was smart. It had to be done.
Castillo is perhaps one of the nicest men in the league, but he was not cut out to be Philadelphia's defensive coordinator. He had never coached defense in the NFL or college. Reid promoted him from offensive line coach to defensive coordinator 21 months ago in a move that at the time seemed ill-conceived, something Reid essentially acknowledged by removing his longtime friend and colleague.
Reid had to pivot to Todd Bowles, his secondary coach and one of the up-and-coming assistants in the league, because the players could see through Castillo. When a player of Nnamdi Asomugha's stature questions late-game strategy, as he did after the Eagles blew a 10-point lead in the final 5½ minutes Sunday against Detroit, Reid became in jeopardy of losing the locker room. If he lost the locker room, he would have no shot at salvaging this season and, thus, his job.
Castillo was the scapegoat for bigger issues, of course. He didn't fumble or throw interceptions. He didn't fail to score in the red zone. But in their past 22 games, the Eagles have given up seven fourth-quarter leads -- including two this season -- the most in the NFL. That has to stop. Bowles, a former NFL safety, is well respected in the locker room. Philadelphia has a bye this week and then hosts the undefeated Falcons, so it has an extra week to figure out how to move forward, and how to finish games.
• • •
The NFL might try to spin this as evidence of parity, but the fact that there are only two teams in the AFC above .500 tells you all you need to know about the conference. It is down. There aren't many special teams. So far it has been Houston and Baltimore, which are a combined 10-2 and face off this week, and everyone else.
Just look at the AFC East. All four teams are 3-3. The Jets, amazingly, have the advantage of being 2-0 in the division heading into Sunday's game against New England, which is 1-0 in the division. Buffalo is 0-2 and Miami is 0-1.
"It's good news, bad news," Jets coach Rex Ryan said. "The good news is you're tied for first. The bad news is you're tied for last. But that's kind of the NFL right now."
Not really. There are seven teams in the NFC with winning records and four more at .500. And the NFC has dominated the AFC thus far, winning 19 of 28 matchups. Atlanta swept the AFC West. Only three teams in the AFC have winning records against the NFC: Indianapolis (2-1 with wins over Minnesota and Green Bay), Pittsburgh (beat Philadelphia) and Cincinnati (beat Washington). And aside from the Texans and Ravens, the remaining 14 teams in the AFC are 31-49 overall.
In the AFC, parity equals mediocrity.
• • •
New Cleveland owner Jimmy Haslam said earlier this week "no decisions have been made" about any of the Browns' employees, with the exception of team president Mike Holmgren, who will retire at the end of this season and is being replaced by new chief executive officer Joe Banner. But make no mistake: The Browns will clean house.
It will be an interesting process for Banner, who spent the last 19 years with the Eagles. There are at least eight Browns coaches or high-ranking front-office executives who worked in Philadelphia under Banner, including head coach Pat Shurmur, offensive coordinator Brad Childress, defensive coordinator Dick Jauron, general manager Tom Heckert, director of player personnel Jon Sandusky and director of college scouting John Spytek.
The Cleveland Plain-Dealer reported that Heckert wasn't optimistic about being retained. That's no surprise. Heckert was considered a Reid guy while in Philadelphia, and Banner found and groomed Howie Roseman to replace him, which Roseman did in 2010. Heckert found a soft landing spot with Holmgren, who is tight with Reid.
It is a shame, because Heckert has done a fine job building the Browns through the draft. Doing that takes time. Three of the top four players Cleveland drafted in 2010 ended the season as starters. Heckert drafted cornerback Joe Haden, safety T.J. Ward, defensive end Jabaal Sheard and defensive tackle Phillip Taylor to rebuild the Browns' defense. Heckert also took a calculated risk by selecting wide receiver Josh Gordon in the second round of the 2012 supplemental draft, a move that seems well worth it.
• • •
Maybe part of Jerry Jones' job as owner of the Dallas Cowboys is to keep an eye on the macro view. Coaches and players are notoriously narrowly focused during the season. It is all about the next practice, the next meeting, the next meal and the next opponent. The most important game is the next one. The least important one is the one that just passed.
The Cowboys are 2-3 after losing to Baltimore on Sunday 31-29, and travel to Carolina this weekend. Even so, Jones told KRLD-FM in Dallas earlier this week: "All of those things give us a chance to take a team that is, if you look at the pluses, evolving into a team that can compete for the championship. Not next year, this year."
Maybe so, but the Cowboys haven't looked like world beaters. Jones would help his team more by talking less.
What is Andy Reid going to do at quarterback? That is the hot question in Philadelphia as the 3-3 Eagles take their bye week and prepare to face the 6-0 Atlanta Falcons next week.
One example of why Michael Vick has struggled this season was apparent during Philadelphia's 26-23 overtime loss to Detroit. The Eagles were leading 23-20 with 2:41 to play and faced a third-and-4 from their 18-yard line. The play was for Vick to find Jeremy Maclin over the middle. Maclin was wide open, yet Ndamukong Suh tipped the ball at the line of scrimmage. The Eagles had to punt, and the Lions went on to force overtime and win.
"If you're just analyzing Vick, I think he's not put in a lot of really good positions," said Greg Cosell, executive producer of ESPN's "NFL Matchup" show. "I think they run a lot of vertical routes, which requires the offensive line to block and for him to do what he's not best at, which is be patient in the pocket. Even at his best, I would not describe Michael Vick as a commanding pocket quarterback. Now, oddly enough, in the last three games versus blitz, Vick has been outstanding -- he's 28-of-42, which is almost 67 percent, for 398 yards and four touchdowns.
"Now, the other issues you face with Vick is when you throw an awful lot, your quarterback has to be very, very efficient in the subtle details of the position. You are going to get pressure no matter how good your offensive line is. You are going to have to make adjustments at the line of scrimmage before the snap, and demonstrate pocket movement. You're going to have to be able to execute the subtle details of the position. My guess is even people who love Michael Vick would say he's not that kind of quarterback."
The play to Maclin, Cosell said, was the perfect example. Had Vick not sat on his heels and thrown it almost sidearm, but instead gotten up on his toes and thrown it over the defensive line, like Joe Montana was excellent at doing, "that might've been another 70-yard touchdown," Cosell said. "You have to find a way to get Maclin the ball."
STATS & INFO
Is Aaron Rodgers back? He certainly was sharp in a 42-24 win at Houston on Sunday. Four of Rodgers' six touchdown passes against the Texans were on throws longer than 15 yards. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Rodgers was 6-of-12 when throwing deeper than 15 yards. Prior to Week 6, he had completed 8 of 26 passes thrown such distances -- 30.8 percent -- with just one touchdown and two interceptions. He had not had a game with more than two such completions until the Texans game.
But consider this: Since 1960, quarterbacks have thrown six touchdown passes 28 times. In the previous 27 instances, only Kansas City's Len Dawson in 1964 threw more than three touchdowns in his next game.
"Sometimes you have to blame yourself. You can't try and always point the figure at someone else"
Samuel has a long memory. He is still peeved that Andy Reid suggested Samuel had lost a step after last season and that was why the Eagles traded him to Atlanta. Samuel hasn't. He had his 10th career interception return for a touchdown last week against Oakland. "I'm just saying... Aint no decline over here," Samuel tweeted.
"Crazy in Love with Beyonce (reportedly) being halftime show at NOLA Super Bowl."
-- George Atallah (@GeorgeAtallah) October 16, 2012
The assistant executive director for external affairs at the NFL Players Association isn't the only one crazy in love with the NFL finally securing an artist under the age of 40 for its halftime show. The only thing that would be better would be to have Jay-Z perform with his wife.
"Oh yea. Whoever broke into my car and stole my iPod the Tuck playlist is classic. Enjoy"
Even NFL players get their cars broken into. So there's that.
All games Sunday unless otherwise noted. All times ET.
Dallas (2-3) at Carolina (1-4), 1 p.m.
After losing consecutive games, the Cowboys desperately need a win this week. Up next: the Giants, Falcons and Eagles. Cowboys 17, Panthers 14.
New Orleans (1-4) at Tampa Bay (2-3), 1 p.m.
Did the Saints right their season with their win over San Diego two weeks ago? The schedule doesn't get easier after this week. Saints 28, Buccaneers 24.
Green Bay (3-3) at St. Louis (3-3), 1 p.m.
Aaron Rodgers had six touchdowns and zero picks last week against Houston's vaunted defense. What will he do to St. Louis? Packers 31, Rams 21.
Washington (3-3) at New York Giants (4-2), 1 p.m.
The Giants have the best record in the NFC East but are 0-2 in the division. Time to change that. Giants 35, Redskins 31.
Baltimore (5-1) at Houston (5-1), 1 p.m.
Next man up. That must be the mantra in Baltimore after losing Ray Lewis and Lardarius Webb. Oh, and tackle. The Ravens defenders need to tackle. Texans 27, Ravens 24.
Tennessee (2-4) at Buffalo (3-3), 1 p.m.
Despite losing three games by an average of 28.7 points per game, the Bills remarkably are still in the hunt for the AFC East, along with everybody else. Bills 17, Titans 16.
Cleveland (1-5) at Indianapolis (2-3), 1 p.m.
The Browns finally won a game. Good for them. New owner Jimmy Haslam, however, has his work cut out for him. Colts 20, Browns 14.
New York Jets (3-3) at New England (3-3), 4:25 p.m.
The Jets returned to ground-and-pound in Week 6. Will they stick with it? Rex Ryan is 3-4 against Bill Belichick. Patriots 35, Jets 20.
Jacksonville (1-4) at Oakland (1-4), 4:25 p.m.
Did the Raiders turn the corner last week in a three-point loss to Atlanta, finally getting not one but three interceptions? Maybe. Raiders 23, Jaguars 9.
Pittsburgh (2-3) at Cincinnati (3-3), 8:20 p.m.
The Steelers are winless on the road this season and blew fourth-quarter leads in all three games. With all the injuries, no reason to think that will change. Bengals 24, Steelers 23.
Detroit (2-3) at Chicago (4-1), Monday 8:30 p.m.
The Lions were dreadful for 3½ quarters last week against the Eagles. Sloppy mistakes. Penalties. If they play that way, Chicago will make them pay. Bears 31, Lions 12.
Idle: Atlanta, Denver, Kansas City, Miami, Philadelphia, San Diego.
Last week: 5-8. Season: 51-35.
14hEric D. Williams
14hSharon Katz & Hank Gargiulo