- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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Close games continue to be a prominent theme in 2012.
In one of the tightest NFL seasons in history, nine of the 11 Sunday games were decided by a touchdown or less.
The Jacksonville Jaguars may be doomed to a horrible season. They lost in overtime to the Oakland Raiders, and lost RB Maurice Jones-Drew (foot) and QB Blaine Gabbert (shoulder) to injury. Both were in street clothes in the second half. At 1-5, the Jags' outlook looks grim.
Here is what else stood out in Week 7. ...
1. What separates RG3:
Cam Newton was the first pick of a Carolina Panthers team that was 2-14 in 2010. Andrew Luck went to an Indianapolis Colts team that was 2-14 in 2011. What's becoming clear is that Robert Griffin III, the second pick in this year's draft, may be the first of the three quarterbacks to think playoffs. Even though the Washington Redskins lost to the New York Giants 27-23, RG3 proved he can stay with Eli Manning pass for pass and quarter for quarter. This isn't to minimize Luck. He's doing what I thought he would do -- outduel young quarterbacks at home. He rushed for two touchdowns in a 17-13 victory over the Cleveland Browns and Brandon Weeden.
When I previewed the season, I thought Luck would win five games at home because the Colts hosted five rookie or second-year quarterbacks. Though he lost to Gabbert and the Jaguars in Week 3, he made up for that loss with an upset win over the Green Bay Packers. He has a great chance to beat Ryan Tannehill and Jake Locker to get to five.
But winning on the road is tough, and that's where RG3 shines. He has won in Tampa Bay and New Orleans and did enough to beat the Giants on the road. His 77-yard drive for a touchdown in the final three minutes that put the Redskins ahead 23-20 was amazing. His ability to scramble allowed him to escape pressure and complete a fourth-and-10 pass to tight end Logan Paulsen. Griffin then scrambled for 24 yards, which set up his 30-yard touchdown pass to Santana Moss. Manning's heroics -- he hit Victor Cruz on a 77-yard TD pass with 1:13 remaining -- was the only reason Griffin III came up short of victory.
Last year, we marveled at how Newton made big play after big play but struggled to pull out victories. This year, Newton isn't making the big plays and is off to a 1-5 start. Part of the problem is a negative vibe he presents when he makes a mistake or when his team is struggling.
RG3 is as positive as sunshine. Although he's a rookie by definition, he's looking like a seasoned vet.
2. Not built for the road? I've seen it too many times: The Baltimore Ravens go on the road, Joe Flacco drops back to pass and it takes forever for his receivers to get separation from cornerbacks.
The problem is not the no-huddle. It's how the Ravens use it and where they use it. At home, Flacco and the Ravens are almost unstoppable. The crowd adds to the tempo. But the Ravens' no-huddle didn't work well in Houston, which boasts one of the best defenses in football.
Flacco was 21-of-43 for 147 yards in the Ravens' 43-13 blowout loss. You saw the same thing a couple weeks ago in Kansas City, where the Ravens squeaked out a 9-6 victory. Kansas City cornerback Brandon Flowers limited deep threat Torrey Smith in man coverage. Despite a nagging groin injury that negatively affected him for two weeks, Texans cornerback Johnathan Joseph held Smith to four catches for 41 yards and returned an interception for a touchdown.
Flacco was 0-for-7 on passes that went at least 10 yards in the air, according to ESPN Stats & Information. When the Ravens don't use Jacoby Jones as a third wide receiver, every receiver not named Torrey Smith can be contained in man coverage.
For the Ravens to win, they have to rely on their offense and Flacco. Their best leader (Ray Lewis) and their best corner (Lardarius Webb) are on injured reserve. Linebacker Terrell Suggs (Achilles), defensive tackle Haloti Ngata (MCL knee sprain) and safety Ed Reed (torn labrum) are playing courageously, but the Ravens' defense is getting run over like a speed bump.
The Texans put up 420 yards on offense, including 181 yards on the ground.
The Ravens are good enough to be in position to meet the Texans again in the playoffs, but they need to make adjustments on offense. On the road this year, Flacco is a 50-50 proposition. He has completed 56 of 112 passes for 556 yards, two touchdowns and four interceptions. The offense is averaging 15 points a game on the road.
3. Feast that felt like a famine: Minnesota Vikings defensive ends Jared Allen and Brian Robison knew Sunday's game against the Arizona Cardinals could be a big day for sacks. Cardinals offensive tackles Bobby Massie and D'Anthony Batiste entered the game having allowed a combined 16.5 sacks in the Cardinals' first six games.
"I remember a game where the Chicago Bears gave up about eight or nine sacks against Detroit the week before we played them and everyone was thinking we were going to get a lot," Allen said. "They ended up having backs chip, tight ends stay in and they got rid of the ball quickly."
Arizona had no such luck Sunday, as Allen and Robison combined for five of Minnesota's seven sacks in a 21-14 victory. Still, the Vikings' D felt like it left some opportunities on the table.
Allen admitted there were times he and Robison converged on Cardinals quarterback John Skelton but Skelton was able to get rid of the ball. Allen praised Skelton for his ability to step up in the "B" gap and escape some of the pressure. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, Skelton was not very effective under pressure. Though he completed 25 of 36 passes for 262 yards, most of his passes were short. They had to be. If you are a Cardinals quarterback, it may be difficult to secure health insurance. Cardinals quarterbacks have been sacked 35 times in seven games.
I went back in history to find a worse tackle combo for sacks allowed. In 1997, Jermane Mayberry and Barrett Brooks of the Philadelphia Eagles combined to allow 28½ sacks. Massie and Batiste are now at 21.
As for the surprise teams that entered the week at 4-2, the Vikings have sustainability; the Cardinals don't. In their next three games, the Cardinals play the 49ers, Green Bay and Atlanta. What the Cards do have is a defense that keeps them in games. Four of the Vikings' final six drives were three-and-outs.
"It's a good thing to be disappointed when you are 5-2," Ponder said.
4. It's a fine line: Because there are so many close games, more decisions and more plays are being scrutinized. A mistake here or there could be the difference between victory or defeat. That continued to be apparent Sunday.
Leading the Tennessee Titans 34-28 with 2:57 left in the fourth quarter, Buffalo Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick was intercepted by Titans cornerback Jason McCourty. The Bills had a third-and-7. An incompletion would have forced a punt, but the interception gave the Titans great field position at their 48-yard line. Matt Hasselbeck then saved the Titans' season by driving for a game-winning touchdown drive.
"I just got greedy in a situation that I did not have any business being greedy in," Fitzpatrick said. "It was a dumb throw, dumb decision by me. Third down at the end of the game, game on the line, Chan [Gailey] put the ball in my hands essentially and I threw an interception. So that one hurts."
Newton still continues his nightmare of close calls in close games. Trailing 16-14 to the Dallas Cowboys with 2:11 left in the fourth quarter, Newton couldn't connect with Louis Murphy on a fourth-and-1 from the Panthers' 40. The Panthers are now 0-for-4 on fourth downs this year.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost a 35-28 home game to the New Orleans Saints. But the Bucs may have lost because of what happened in the third quarter. Josh Freeman completed a 95-yard pass to Vincent Jackson, who got to the Saints' 1 and couldn't get the touchdown. The Bucs tried three LeGarrette Blount runs that netted no yards. Greg Schiano went for it on fourth down, and Freeman scrambled and suffered a 4-yard loss. The Bucs trailed by seven and never made up the difference.
5. Jets just miss: The New York Jets showed heart, but the Patriots broke it. Rex Ryan could be proud his Jets didn't concede anything to Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, but the 29-26 overtime loss was bitter.
"We made too mistakes to beat them," Ryan said. "I will say this: I'm proud of my team. We had an opportunity to win the game. We kept fighting. We were right there."
Mark Sanchez likely earned a respite from any quarterback controversy by throwing for 328 yards. Still, he has wild swings in games. He started out strong, but missed Stephen Hill with an underthrown pass toward the end zone in the first half.
As great as the victory was for the Patriots, they continue to show they are vulnerable. Arizona beat them at home. They lost last week to the Seattle Seahawks.
Ryan credited Brady for using screens to go against the Jets' man coverage. That moved the Jets into a zone for a short time, and Brady hit Rob Gronkowski with a touchdown pass.
The Jets showed they have confidence. The Patriots may have a lead in the AFC East, but it's hardly insurmountable. Nevertheless, the loss was bitter for the Jets.
What's going on with injuries at center? The Dallas Cowboys' Phil Costa suffered what might be a serious leg injury. Already this year, seven starting centers have ended up on injured reserve. Trent Richardson, the Browns' rookie tailback, was hit hard on a play in the first half and wasn't on the field for the second half. Browns coach Pat Shurmur called Richardson's absence more of a benching than an injury break. Richardson had eight carries for 8 yards. The Cowboys' need for a third receiver resurfaced. Kevin Ogletree opened the season with eight catches for 114 yards against Giants fourth cornerback Michael Coe. On Sunday against the Panthers, he was benched in favor of Dwayne Harris. In the past five games, Ogletree has 13 catches for 134 yards. Last year, the Cowboys signed Laurent Robinson before the start of the season, and he was sensational as a third receiver. He ended up getting $6.5 million a year from the Jacksonville Jaguars. With starting right tackle Wayne Hunter out with a sore back, the St. Louis Rams started one of the most unknown offensive lines in football. Joe Barksdale, Shelley Smith, Robert Turner and Barry Richardson were four of the five starters against the Green Bay Packers. Their combined salaries are $2.405 million. The only notable name on the line is guard Harvey Dahl. Surprisingly, the Rams limited the Packers to three sacks and averaged 4.9 yards per rush. One of the keys to the Raiders' come-from-behind overtime win over the Jaguars was Carson Palmer going into a no-huddle. The pick-six trend continues. Two more interceptions were returned for touchdowns. That brings the season total to 29.
1dEric D. Williams