HBT’s NFL Pulse Check – Week 7

NFL, Peter Curtin

St. Louis Rams running back Todd Gurley (30) runs between Cleveland Browns defensive end John Hughes III (93) and strong safety Donte Whitner on his way to a 48-yard gain during the third quarter of an NFL football game Sunday, Oct. 25, 2015, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Billy Hurst)

Most Important Matchup: Jets 23 – Patriots 30

The Patriots tightened their vice grip on the AFC East with a well-earned victory against a strong Jets team. To circumvent the Jets’ dominant run defense, Bill Belichick decided to abandon the concept of running the football entirely. Tom Brady threw 54 passing attempts and, for the first time in his career, led the Patriots in both rushing attempts (4) and rushing yards (a whopping 15).

New York’s best chance of stealing a win against New England involved a solid defensive performance and use of the running game to chew up clock. Unfortunately for New York, the Patriots defense, ranked 29th in rush defense DVOA entering this game, did a terrific job of taking away offensive centerpiece Chris Ivory, who managed just 41 rushing yards on 17 attempts. Jets quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has been sneakily adequate for the Jets this season and he was able to counter Brady with a solid performance of his own (7.6 yards/attempt, 2 TDs, 73.9 QBR), but the Jets’ inability to establish the run resulted in a Brady-Fitzpatrick shootout for the win. They were forced to play right into New England’s hand.

Nothing ever completely takes the sting out of a loss to a hated rival, but if there is a bright side for Jets fans, it is that New York was able to give the reigning Champs their toughest game of the year. Despite this loss dropping their record to 4-2, their odds of making the postseason as a wildcard team remain high, even if their odds of winning the East are now exceptionally remote.

As for New England, the Patriots entered this game ranked 1st in the NFL in rush offense DVOA and 2nd in pass offense DVOA. Here is the list of teams that have been either 1st or 2nd in both categories since 2005: the 2015 New England Patriots, the 2010 New England Patriots, and the 2007 New England Patriots. That’s it. That’s the list. It’s not a question of if the offense will move the ball with ruthless efficiency, it’s just a question of how. The Patriots … are the Patriots. They’re the NFL’s best team and they already look like a lock for a Bye and home-field advantage in the playoffs.

 

What Everyone is Talking About: Cowboys 20 – Giants 27

Dallas finally ran the offensive game plan most expected after Tony Romo’s injury to no avail. Darren McFadden’s breakout game (152 yards on a heavy 29 carries) led an overwhelming rushing effort from Dallas’ offensive line and running backs (233 rushing yards on 41 carries). That dominance in the running game was overshadowed and completely negated by a very poor performance from QB flavor-of-the-week Matt Cassell. Cassell was the sloppiest element of another exceptionally sloppy NFC East affair, throwing three bad interceptions including a pick-six to Giants’ cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.

Eli Manning managed to avoid his counterpart’s calamitous turnovers, but not much else can be said in favor of a performance well-below his standard (13/24, 170 yards). Instead, the Giants found success on the ground, rushing for 132 yards on 25 carries. They also got a big helping hand from Dwayne Harris in the return game. His 100-yard Kickoff return Touchdown in the 4th Quarter gave the Giants the go-ahead score they would need to close out a divisional win at home. It also served as the catalyst for the sideline confrontation that dominated our national Monday-morning NFL discourse.

The Dallas Cowboys were an offensive behemoth and a defensive sieve one season ago. The combination of very little space under the salary cap and the bad draft position that comes with a 12-4 record left Dallas with a short list of ways to make significant upgrades in a short timeframe (a short timeframe like, say, the timeframe before Tony Romo needs an epidural to stand up straight in the morning. Just an example). Taking a cheap flyer on a highly talented player who has been cast off from another team due to off-field concerns is on that list.

Greg Hardy’s signing in Dallas did not come surprise anybody, and this sideline spat should not surprise the Cowboys. They knew exactly what they were signing up for, and this incident coupled with Jerry Jones’ insistence that Hardy was in the right makes it tough to feel anything but that this team and this player deserve each other. It’s incredibly upsetting that honest and thorough coverage of this league requires discussion of Greg Hardy, so there’s no better time for –

 

What Everyone Probably SHOULD Be Talking About: Texans 26 – Dolphins 44

After starting 1-3 under since-fired Head Coach Joe Philbin, Miami has scored huge wins in back-to-back weeks by a combined score of 82-36. There’s a playoff race in the AFC, you guys! The Dolphins jumped out to a gigantic 41-0 first-half lead before parking the bus, as Houston racked up consolation points in yet another garbage-timey second half.

Miami’s Lamar Miller was one of the most disappointing players of the season’s first month, amassing just 131 rushing yards and 0 touchdowns 37 carries. He has gone completely berserk in the two games since, gaining 354 yards from scrimmage for three touchdowns. Miami’s defense has also done a 180 turn after a poor start. After early struggles rushing the passer, fearsome defensive line duo Cameron Wake and Ndamukong Suh combined to sack Houston quarterback Brian Hoyer four times on Sunday.

It’s not difficult to look good against AFC South opponents, though, and Miami has pivotal games in the next two weeks against New England and Buffalo. The Fish were considered a preseason playoff favorite by many and have only begun to look the part in their last two games. But, in this season of obvious Haves and more obvious Have Nots, witnessing the beginnings of a playoff race that the Dolphins are now solidly part of is certainly exciting.

 

Your “Football Is the Best” Moment of the Week: Buccaneers 30 – Redskins 31

Kirk Cousins and the Redskins rebounded from a 24-0 first half deficit to stage the biggest comeback in the history of their franchise, winning on a last-minute Touchdown pass to Jordan Reed. Washington’s much-maligned quarterback turned in the best game of his career (33/40, 317 yards, 3 Passing TDs, 1 rushing TD) to silence his critics, at least for one week. Also worth noting from this game are standout performances from Jameis Winston (21/29, 297 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INTs) Mike Evans (8 receptions, 164 yards, TD), and Jordan Reed (11 receptions, 72 yards, 2 TDs).

 

Your “Football Is the Worst” Moment of the Week: Saints 27 – Colts 21

One season after a 40-Touchdown campaign, Andrew Luck has been shockingly bad through the first seven games of a win-now season. The Indianapolis Colts STINK, football fans, and that’s bad news for everybody who enjoys watching football. Fortunately for Colts fans, it is difficult to think of any division (ever, in history,) being as poor as 2015’s AFC South, and “STINK” may just be Number 1. That and, it isn’t like Andrew Luck has had great defenses or offensive lines before. It’s unthinkable that he will could continue to play this poorly, regardless of the limitations of the players around him.
Quick Hits

Seahawks 20 – 49ers 3: See here.

Bills 31 – Jaguars 34: Jaguars rookie running back TJ Yeldon had a big day with 115 yards on 20 carries and the Jaguars made backup Bills quarterback EJ Manuel pay for his interceptions with 2 defensive Touchdowns. Manuel can’t play, but a better defensive effort from Buffalo’s better half could have salvaged this win. This might be one that looks really bad at the end of the year when the Bills are vying for a Playoff spot and every game counts.

Falcons 10 – Titans 7: Atlanta really didn’t want this win, but they got it anyway in a close contest that should have been a boat race. Matt Ryan had a very poor afternoon, throwing two Interceptions and barely outdueling the Titans’ Zach Mettenberger despite only being hit by the Tennessee pass rush one time. The Falcons were arguably the best offense of the early season. Julio Jones had one of the best three-week stretches a wide receiver has ever had and Devonta Freeman took the NFL by storm. Yet, despite those early season triumphs, this is their third straight unimpressive offensive output against poor competition. Atlanta’s defense has been surprisingly competent – 20th in DVOA before this week; will presumably go up after holding Tennessee to 7 points – but a team featuring Matt Ryan, the NFL’s best running back so far, and the NFL’s best wide receiver so far should not be trying to ride its defense to glory. All the same, this win kept them within striking distance of division-leading Carolina with both of those pivotal division matchups to come.

Vikings 28 – Lions 19: Hooooooooly crap, this Vikings defense is fun to watch. They spent Sunday afternoon making Matthew Stafford’s life miserable, recording a whopping 7 sacks to go along with another 6 QB knockdowns. It seems that few are talking about Minnesota, yet if the season ended today, they would be in the Playoffs as the NFC’s second wildcard team at 4-2. In order to keep their balance on that precarious perch, the Vikings need to make hay while the sun shines. After winnable games in the next three weeks against the Bears, Rams, and Raiders, the Vikings’ final seven opponents have a nightmarish combined record of 32-14. Did I mention that four of those losses came from the Seahawks?

Steelers 13 – Chiefs 23: One week after leading the Steelers to a surprising win, Landry Jones looked like the 3rd-string quarterback that he is against Kansas City. The Chiefs offense finally managed to get back on track with good performances from Alex Smith and backup running back Charcandrick West, who filled in admirably for the injured Jamaal Charles (22 carries, 110 yards). Reports out of Pittsburgh indicate that Ben Roethlisberger may be set to return on Sunday for the Steelers’ tie with the Bengals. If that’s the case, it’s the game of the week. Tip your cap to the Pittsburgh defense for keeping the Steelers afloat while their quarterback nursed his wounds.

Browns 6 – Rams 24: Well would you look at that, the Rams won a game they’re supposed to win! Maybe they might end up going better than 7-9 after all. St. Louis got big contributions from their pass rush, which recorded four sacks and another three quarterback hits against Josh McCown and Johnny Manziel. The Rams were always going to excel on the defensive side of the ball this season. Their chances of bursting through that 7-9 ceiling depended on their ability to field a semi-productive offense. They don’t have a quarterback or an offensive line, but with Todd Gurley in their backfield that might not matter. Yeah, he’s that good.

Raiders 37 – Chargers 29: Derek Carr was great again on Sunday (9.3 yards/attempt, 3 TDs, 0 INTs) to lead this blowout effort that was never as close as the final score might indicate. Amari Cooper continues to make fools look silly. Damn it all if the Oakland Raiders aren’t a lot of fun to watch this year. And the Chargers are just an absolute mess on the defensive side of the ball. Oakland’s offense is actually pretty good, particularly throwing the ball (8th in pass offense DVOA), but this is San Diego’s 7th game of the season and they have yet to hold an opponent under 24 points.

Eagles 16 – Panthers 27: Carolina survived Cam Newton’s off night thanks to a good defensive performance and a standout game from running back Jonathan Stewart (24 carries, 125 yards). Carolina continues their undefeated start and kept Atlanta from gaining ground in the NFC South standings for another week. Despite losing All-Pro left tackle Jason Peters to back spasms, the Eagles likewise found success running the ball (177 rushing yards on 30 carries). The passing game was another story. Philadelphia’s wide receivers certainly didn’t offer quarterback Sam Bradford much help, but Bradford had another miserable game, averaging just 4.5 yards/passing attempt. This season, the only QB who has been worse in that respect among qualified passers is Ryan Mallett. All the same, as poor as the Eagles have looked at times, their defense may just be the best thing about any NFC East team until Tony Romo returns to the Cowboys’ offense. As long as Philly can lurk close enough to the Giants, it’s too early to discount Las Aguilas.

Ravens 18 – Cardinals 26: The Ravens have lost six games by a combined 30 points. It’s tough to recall a team having this much bad luck in close games. Their -27 point differential this season is not what we’ve come to expect from a consistent franchise, but it’s the same point differential as the 3-4 Colts and it’s 50 points better than the 2-5 49ers. The Ravens defense has been porous all season, ranking 22nd in pass defense DVOA, and those troubles continued on Monday with Carson Palmer having another strong performance for Arizona. The Cardinals’ League-best point differential (+96) has led to a strong 5-2 start. They’ll expect the good times to keep rolling next Sunday against Cleveland before entering their bye in first place.

 

Author

Peter Curtin

Peter Curtin is a working professional based in Washington, DC. A life-long sports fan, he has previously written as a contributor for Philadelphia-based sports site, thewoodercooler.com. Follow him on Twitter @Pete_Curtin.

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