Most Important Matchup: Bengals 31 – Cardinals 34
Carson Palmer has been a revelation in Bruce Arians’ offense this season, playing the best season of his career in his age 35 season, less than a year removed from his second torn ACL. On Sunday night against his former team, he overcame two early interceptions to finish with 4 Touchdown passes. On the other side of the ball, Andy Dalton broke from his previous career form in nationally televised games by putting together a nice performance. The Bengals were repeatedly able to gash Arizona in the short passing game. Running back Giovani Bernard had a huge day, recording 128 yards on a game-high 8 receptions.
Much was made Monday morning of Domata Peko’s unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that turned a 44-yard field goal attempt to win the game into a 32-yard cupcake. The Bengals have remarked that defensive players trying to confuse offensive linemen by screaming out signals is something that happens on almost every play of every game and that it never gets called. That’s a valid point. It’s also valid to point out that it’s against the rules, that everyone knows that it’s against the rules, and that because of that, no one gets to act indignant when they get penalized.
There’s no question that the penalty made the game-winning kick easier. 32-yarders are bunnies for modern kickers who convert those attempts nearly 100% of the time. But it also isn’t as though 44-yard field goal attempts don’t get routinely sent through the uprights in 2015. That small difference in success rate is reflected in pro-foot-reference’s win probability model for Sunday night’s game. Peko’s unsportsmanlike conduct moved Arizona’s win probability up from 89% to 99.88%. In other words, if that scenario were to play out 10 times without the penalty, stats-based estimates indicate it only would have produced a different outcome one of those times. The call/non-call discussion is much less interesting than an evaluation of whether or not the penalty was of actual consequence.
In some ways, this game was actually rather irrelevant. The Cardinals and Bengals are both overwhelmingly favored to win their divisions and neither had much to gain or lose by beating an out-of-conference opponent. In others, it could be seen as an opportunity for two great teams to enhance their Super Bowl Contender credentials. Arizona answered the bell to send both teams to 8-2 before the home stretch.
What Everyone Is Talking About: Packers 30 – Vikings 13
The Vikings have been a pleasant surprise this year, but Green Bay still owns the North. Completely stripped of context, this game made perfect sense. If this exact game had happened in Week 1, it would have been the kind of performance one would expect from both teams. In context, this game made no sense whatsoever.
Aaron Rodgers was back to his old self, elevating the play of a deficient set of receiving targets. Eddie Lacy, ineffective all season, looked like the bruising runner he is supposed to be. The Green Bay front 7 made Teddy Bridgewater and Adrian Peterson’s lives hard all day. This was exactly the performance Green Bay needed. It’s surprising, though, that everything came together on the road against a good team instead of at home against a bad one week ago. It may actually be better for them that it did, though.
On the other side of the equation, it’s odd to describe a game that meant the difference between being 8-2 and 7-3 as a “must-win” for anyone, but it may have been just that for Minnesota. It’s hard to believe, but a home game against a Green Bay team in the throes of an offensive crisis was the easiest game Minnesota had left on their schedule. ‘’They now probably need to go 3-3 over their last 6 games against the NFL’s toughest schedule.
What Everyone Probably Should be Talking About: 3-for-1 AFC Wild Card Special
The Chiefs, Jets, Texans, and Bills are all now 5-5 and tied for the AFC’s second wild card spot. The Jets have taken a nosedive since a promising start. I’m not sure what rock bottom is, but losing a professional football game to TJ Yates can’t be far away. It’s hard to fault the Bills too much for losing to the Patriots, but they also haven’t registered a really impressive win yet. Could everything be breaking right for the Chiefs to make a run? Even after the 1-5 start and losing their most important player for the season? Really? Kansas City’s been sneaky good this season, but coming back from a 1-5 start just doesn’t happen.
There aren’t very many closely contested playoff races this year, but the race is on for the AFC’s wild card spots. Kansas City and Buffalo square off next Sunday afternoon in a game that is suddenly quite important.
Your “Football is the Best” Moment of the Week: Redskins 16 – Panthers 44
Carolina thrashed the Redskins to improve to 10-0 in convincing fashion. So much of the coverage of Carolina this year is focused on how much better they are than anyone expected. We can stop talking about Carolina being better than expected. They’re just good. They are, without caveat or qualifier, a great football team that’s getting better every week.
Not much to report here as far as playoff implications are concerned. These teams are both done, but their matchup on Sunday gave us one of the season’s more disturbing moments. I hate that this game hurts people. Moments like a clearly-concussed Case Keenum getting peeled off the turf to insist he knew where he was make me hate that I love it. Fuck this sport.
Colts 24 – Falcons 21: Matt Hasselbeck and the Colts eeked out a win to stay atop the AFC South while the Falcons cliff dive continues for another week. Atlanta looked like they could rival Carolina for the NFC South title and they were the better team of the two in the first month of the season. Matt Ryan’s struggles are making their promising start go up in flames
Broncos 17 – Bears 15: So the Brock Osweiler era begins … or at least it should. Osweiler was better than Manning has been this year in every imaginable way. Benching a legend is never easy or pleasant, but if Denver wants to win, it’s what has to be done.
49ers 13 – Seahawks 29: Don’t look now, but here come the ‘Hawks. Keep an eye out for their big games in the next two weeks against Pittsburgh and Minnesota.