Commentary

Week 15: Rough road for some

Saints suffer stinging loss; Patriots' offense comes up short without Gronk

Originally Published: December 15, 2013
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

In Week 15, most of the top playoff contenders played on the road.

The Seattle Seahawks, Chicago Bears, San Francisco 49ers, Green Bay Packers, Arizona Cardinals and Kansas City Chiefs took care of business with victories.

The New England Patriots lost at Miami, but the real stunner was the New Orleans Saints' 27-16 loss in St. Louis. Saints coach Sean Payton described the loss as "pretty ugly." It was. But so was the Dallas Cowboys' 37-36 home loss to the Green Bay Packers in which Tony Romo threw two key interceptions down the stretch.

The impact of those losses was huge. Dallas remains a game behind a Philadelphia Eagles team that lost to Minnesota on the road. But the Saints were the biggest losers. It's now clear to Payton that they aren't the same team on the road.

"You know that's where it is right now," Payton said. "We looked flat coming out. We can't line up to kick a field goal. We can't stop the run. ... At some point, you can't keep watching."

The Saints travel to Carolina in Week 16. They are now in jeopardy of losing the NFC South and being just a wild-card team forced to play on the road to get to the Super Bowl. That's a road the Saints don't want to take.

Here's what we learned in Week 15:

1. Limited without Gronk: As expected, the absence of tight end Rob Gronkowski loomed large for the Patriots in a 24-20 loss to the Miami Dolphins. Tom Brady & Co. scored only one touchdown in four tries inside the Dolphins' red zone.

In the first quarter, Brady had a 16-play field-goal drive for 83 yards that stalled at the Dolphins' 4-yard line after two incompletions to two different wide receivers. In the fourth quarter, the Patriots had a 15-play, 81-yard field-goal drive that was stopped at the Dolphins' 5. After the Dolphins took the lead with 1:15 left in the game, you knew Brady would have enough time to get the ball into the Dolphins' red zone. But in five plays from inside the Dolphins' 20, he had four incompletions and a game-ending interception.

Gronkowski would normally turn those opportunities into touchdowns. Coming into the game, Brady completed 16 of 25 passes to Gronkowski for eight touchdowns in the red zone.

"We didn't do a good job in the red zone," Brady conceded. "We didn't do a good job of finishing off drives."

Without Gronkowski, the Patriots are settling in as a team that scores in the twenties instead of the thirties, and that could cost New England a top seed and maybe even a playoff bye. The Patriots will find it difficult to win games on the road in the playoffs scoring only around 20 points a game.

2. Speed bump in Minnesota: On Jan. 18, the city of Minneapolis is taking the air out of the soon-to-be vacant Mall of America Dome. On Sunday, the Vikings took some of the air out of the Eagles' playoff run. An Eagle team that had been soaring looked disrupted in a 48-30 loss to the Vikings. Not only was the Eagles' defense shredded by Vikings backup QB Matt Cassel, but Chip Kelly's offense was out of sync.

Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson got into a shouting match with teammates and coaches after a third-quarter pass to him was intercepted by the Vikings. Kelly called that decorum unacceptable and said he would talk to Jackson and his position coach. If Jackson's shouting was unacceptable, the loss was even worse. The Vikings were missing their top two running backs -- Adrian Peterson and Toby Gerhart -- and featured Matt Asiata, who had only three carries in his NFL career before Sunday.

"We didn't execute on offense," Kelly said. "We didn't play well enough to win the game."

But listening to Kelly after the game made me feel as though the Eagles can still win the NFC East. His words had some meaning because he brought the team together after a bad start, allowing it to go on a five-game winning streak.

"We need to stick together," Kelly said. "It's what we did when we were 3-5. It's what we need to do now to finish this off the right way." It won't be easy. The Eagles, who lead the Cowboys by one game in the division, host the Chicago Bears on Sunday night and finish the season on the road against Dallas.

[+] EnlargeChicago's Josh McCown and Jay Cutler
AP Photo/David RichardJay Cutler overcame a shaky start and led the Bears to a crucial victory.

3. Cutler shakes off rust: In the first half of the Bears' 38-31 victory at Cleveland, a lot of Chicago fans were likely thinking "I told you so," with regard to coach Marc Trestman's decision to go with Jay Cutler instead of the hot Josh McCown at quarterback. Cutler's fourth pass was intercepted by Browns safety Tashaun Gipson. In the second quarter, Gipson turned a Cutler interception into a pick-six. It was Gipson who said earlier in the week that Cutler has a tendency to throw it up to defenders.

Cutler, however, took control of the game in the fourth quarter by completing five of seven passes for 71 yards and two touchdowns. He led three touchdown drives to clinch a much-needed win.

"I started rusty," Cutler said. "The guys rallied around me. It was a fun, fun game."

Everyone, including Cutler, knows McCown put up strong numbers during Cutler's absence, but it also has to be noted that those games were against beatable defenses. Two of McCown's 350-plus-yard games were against St. Louis and Minnesota, and the Bears lost those games. The postgame interviews of Brandon Marshall and Cutler confirmed why most the team and coaching staff were on the same page going to Cutler. Marshall admitted he made a mistake on the first interception by running the route. The pick-six? Marshall said that was on Cutler. "He stunk on that one," Marshall said. He laughed and so did Cutler.

Marshall knows the ride with Cutler can be bumpy. He mentioned the debate of the 2010 NFC Championship Game in which Cutler couldn't finish because of knee injury. He knows Cutler will throw some picks. But Marshall and Cutler are friends and Cutler's other teammates respect him. Trestman was right in going to him, and now general manager Phil Emory has to be right after the season and give Cutler a contract extension.

4. Loss for the ages: The Cowboys blew a 23-point lead and lost to Green Bay. Once again, it was Romo making the mistakes and the coaching staff not being able to close out a game.

After the game, Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said the plan was to run the ball and force the Packers to call timeouts. But Romo, who has the freedom to switch between running plays and passing plays, ran only one running play on Dallas' final two drives. Both possessions resulted in interceptions, helping Green Bay overcome a late, 12-point deficit.

It was the greatest choke job in Cowboys history. The Cowboys were 46-0 all time when they had at least a 20-point halftime lead. The NFC East was theirs to claim and once again Romo and the Cowboys are blowing it.

5. Heat's on Lions: Trestman's decision to go with Cutler helped the Bears beat Cleveland. Sheer guts enabled the Packers to overcome a 23-point halftime lead to beat Dallas. If the Lions lose at home to Baltimore on Monday night, they might blow their chance to win the NFC North.

No doubt the Packers had the gutsiest performance Sunday. The Cowboys were shredding them. A sad Aaron Rodgers was on the sidelines in street close because Dr. Pat McKenzie didn't believe Rodgers' fractured left collarbone had healed. The Packers had backup Matt Flynn and what seemed like a remote chance to win.

"When you put yourself in a hole, you have to fight, scratch and claw," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "For us to get those turnovers was huge."

At 7-6-1, the Packers have a chance. If they get Rodgers back next week, they might win out and make the playoffs.

SHORT TAKES

The decision by Washington Redskins coach Mike Shanahan to go for a two-point conversion instead of a game-tying field goal at the end of a 27-26 loss to the Atlanta Falcons is as baffling as his decision to shut down a healthy Robert Griffin III. If you are showcasing Kirk Cousins over three games, let the game go into overtime. Cousins completed 29 of 45 passes for 381 yards and looked like a quarterback who could net a first-round pick for the Redskins in a trade. The 320 offensive yards he posted in the first half were the most for a Redskins team since 1991. With 22 seconds left in regulation and trailing by one, Shanahan called for a Cousins pass that didn't connect with Pierre Garcon. As a result, the Redskins are 3-11 and close to securing the No. 2 draft choice for the St. Louis Rams. If you are wondering, NFL teams have been successful on two-point conversions about 50 percent of the time this season.. ... How bad were things for New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning in a 23-0 loss to Seattle? Wide receiver Hakeem Nicks was asked about Manning's interceptions. "Which ones?" Nicks said. Manning threw five, including two each to Byron Maxwell and Richard Sherman. Manning has 25 for the season. ... Russell Wilson led the Seahawks with 50 rushing yards. "We've never had a philosophy of featuring the QB," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "We want him to be the one who distributes the ball in a balanced attack." Wilson might be changing that thinking. He's that good. ... It's starting to look as though Matt Cassel is the best quarterback to emerge in Minnesota this year. Cassel completed his first nine attempts in blowing out the Eagles and he has had the five longest completions of the season for the Vikings. Cassel threw for 382 yards and two touchdowns Sunday. ... Down five starters to injury, the Indianapolis Colts welcomed the return of AFC South play to fix what has ailed them for the past month. They blew out the Houston Texans, 25-3. They visit the Kansas City Chiefs next Sunday in what will be a playoff preview. If they lose, though, they will be 4-6 against the rest of the league and 5-0 against the AFC South. ... One thing stood out in the Buffalo Bills' 27-20 win over Jacksonville. Their five sacks increased their season total to 49 and they became the second team since 1982 to have four players with at least eight sacks. The 2006 Baltimore Ravens were the only other team to have four players with that many. ... The NFC swept four games against the AFC on Sunday and won the interconference battle. The NFC has a 34-27 edge with only one game remaining. ... One of the motivations for the Panthers on Sunday was what Jets wide receiver Santonio Holmes said about their secondary. He said it was the weak link of the Panthers' defense. In the 30-20 win over the Jets, the Panthers allowed only 140 net passing yards. ... The Arizona Cardinals kept their slight playoff hopes alive by beating the Titans in overtime, 37-34. Their challenge now is trying to beat Seattle and San Francisco in the final two games, which will be tough. Nevertheless, Bruce Arians and Carson Palmer have done a great job getting Arizona to nine wins.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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