NFL Week 9: Expert Takeaways from Sunday's Action
Sometimes, things go as expected in the National Football League.
Very few people believed that the undefeated Kansas City Chiefs would have trouble with the Jeff Tuel-led Buffalo Bills, and while it was a close game, the Chiefs will head on to their Week 10 bye a perfect 9-0.
However, any given week in the NFL is also filled with surprises.
That was certainly the case in Seattle, where a one-loss Seahawks team that hadn't lost at home since 2011 was taken to overtime by the winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
That game certainly raised some eyebrows, as did a big upset in the Big Apple.
Here's a look at what else caught the eye of Bleacher Report's National and Division Lead Writers in Week 9.
New Orleans Saints Getting Cold at Just the Wrong Time
Here at Bleacher Report, I compile an aggregate list of expert NFL picks each week.
Of the 45 experts polled in Week 9, only three picked the New York Jets to upset the New Orleans Saints. NFL National Lead Writer Ty Schalter was the only writer at Bleacher Report who got the call right.
In Schalter's opinion, Sunday's setback is emblematic of bigger problems for the Saints:
Sean Payton, Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints got off to a roaring 5-0 start, putting the rest of the NFL on notice. After Payton’s year-long forced vacation, it looked like the Saints were going to be unstoppable.
After a stunning last-second collapse at New England, and a predictably comfortable win over the Buffalo Bills, the Saints seemed to be sitting pretty at 6-1. After falling 26-20 to the New York Jets, though, cracks are starting to show in the Saints’ invincible facade—and at the worst possible time.
After hosting the similarly up-and-down Dallas Cowboys in Week 10, the Saints host the San Francisco 49ers and Carolina Panthers and travel to Atlanta and Seattle to take on the Falcons and Seahawks. The Saints, in their current form, could easily lose three, four or all five of those games; the contest against Carolina (and its rematch in Week 16) will likely determine their season.
While Cam Newton and the Panthers are red hot, Brees and the Saints are cooling off. Going into the Jets game, Brees had thrown just five interceptions all season. He threw two to the Jets. Brees—famous for spreading the ball around—is increasingly relying on hampered tight end Jimmy Graham. Graham caught nine of Brees’ 30 completions and both of Brees’ two touchdowns.
Entering Week 9, the Saints had a plus-eight turnover differential, per Pro-Football-Reference, second-best in the NFL. Somehow, they couldn’t even get one off Jets quarterback Geno Smith, who’d thrown 13 interceptions in his first eight games.
If Rob Ryan’s defense can’t get back to its ball-hawking ways, and Brees can’t spread the receiving wealth, the Saints will struggle to come out on top of the NFC South, let alone the NFC.
Vikings’ Circus Season Adds Another Episode in Dallas
A year ago, the Minnesota Vikings rode a great second half of the season into the playoffs.
It certainly doesn't look like a return trip to the postseason is going to happen. After falling to the Dallas Cowboys 27-23 in Week 9, the Vikings are a 1-7 mess of a football team.
NFC North Lead Writer Zach Kruse combed through the wreckage:
Just eight games into the 2013 season, the Minnesota Vikings have eclipsed their loss total from last year.
Thanks to another defensive collapse that saw Tony Romo drive the Dallas Cowboys 90 yards for a late win, the Vikings dropped to 1-7, only one season after finishing 10-6 and qualifying for the NFC playoffs.
The circus just keeps rolling on for Minnesota.
The Vikings have started three different quarterbacks, and the one who started Sunday—Christian Ponder—is now 0-5 in 2013. Josh Freeman, signed for $2 million roughly a month ago, was made inactive for the third time in four games with Minnesota.
Sunday's loss featured more head-scratchers.
The Vikings couldn't convert a 4th-and-1 situation early in the game that cost the team points. After heading into the locker room with a four-point lead, Minnesota spent the first four minutes of the second half giving away two touchdowns and turning a strong first 30 minutes into an uphill climb.
Even when the Vikings came back and took the lead, kicker Blair Walsh shanked the extra point—and it came back to hurt Minnesota. Down four points instead of three on the final drive, Ponder had to attempt a final Hail Mary instead of attempting to get into field-goal range.
The game was a microcosm of sorts for the Vikings season. Instability at quarterback, confidence-rattling mistakes and a defense lacking a clutch gene have all but sunk what was once considered a promising club.
Believe It or Not, the Kansas City Chiefs Are 9-0
If you took a poll before the season asking, "Who will be the NFL's last undefeated team in 2013?" there would have been any number of responses.
As NFL National Lead Writer Matt Miller points out, nearly every one of those responses would have been wrong:
There is one undefeated team in the NFL, and it’s the same team that finished with just two wins last year. Led by Andy Reid and Alex Smith, the quarterback the San Francisco 49ers didn’t want, the Kansas City Chiefs just keep winning.
Doubters will say the Chiefs haven’t played anyone yet or that they are pretenders. I’ll point you to the fact that this is the NFL, a league in which anything can happen week-to-week. This is the NFL, a league built on the idea of parity.
Yes, the Chiefs are playing a worst-place schedule based on their 2012 results, but it’s also true that in an average year, we see a 50 percent turnover of playoff teams. That last-place schedule isn’t as easy as it sounds.
Sure, the Chiefs have played some bad teams and bad quarterbacks, but no matter who has been in front of them, they’ve won. Through weeks with bad quarterback play and weeks with poor play from their very respectable defense, they’ve won.
Experts and critics may not want to recognize just how hard it is to win in the NFL—unless it fits into the narrative of which teams are good or bad. But make no mistake, the Chiefs are good. Very good.
They may not have national superstars or a sexy offense, but they have something no other team can boast: A perfect record.
Suspect Play Calling on the Goal Line Costs the Chargers a Win in Washington
One of the more exciting contests of Week 9 happened in the nation's capital, where the San Diego Chargers and Washington Redskins needed overtime to decide their game.
The Redskins prevailed 30-24. In the opinion of NFL National Lead Writer Matt Bowen, if San Diego head coach Mike McCoy is looking to place blame for the loss, he should start by looking in the mirror:
To close out wins on the goal line in the NFL, you must show the ability to run (and execute) the power game. Put your big-boy pads on and control the line of scrimmage at the point of attack.
The problem with the Chargers on Sunday versus Washington? They didn’t even try to run the Power O or the Lead Open or the Lead Strong.
Instead, Mike McCoy’s team—with timeouts remaining—rolled out a series of suspect calls from the 1-yard line that led to a field goal and an eventual loss to Washington in overtime.
The Chargers ran the inside zone with Danny Woodhead out of the shotgun, the fade to Antonio Gates and then came back to the sprint-out combination on third down.
That’s as soft as it gets.
And everyone in the stadium knew the sprint route was coming on third down. Offset back to a slot formation. Come on. That’s an easy pre-snap key from a defensive perspective to sit on the flat-curl or flat-7 (corner) combination.
Washington sent zero pressure, and the defensive backs matched the pattern. Drive to the hip of the receiver and play through the route. Just like they are coached to do.
But why did the Chargers throw the power game in the trash that series?
That’s a question for McCoy after a series of play calls that were tissue soft—and cost them a win on the road.
Long-Term Starting QB Job in Philly Is Nick Foles’ to Lose
You may want to sit down before you read this.
Nick Foles threw seven touchdown passes for the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday.
Not only did that explosion propel the Eagles to a 49-20 win over the Oakland Raiders, but NFC East Lead Writer Brad Gagnon thinks it also went a long way toward ending any quarterback controversy in the City of Brotherly Love:
Maybe this isn't a “We landed on the moon!”-level takeaway, but I’ve recently been exposed to so many staunch Michael Vick supporters and equally staunch Nick Foles haters that I’m certain there are still some myopic Philadelphia Eagles fans out there who believe Vick remains a better quarterback option than Foles.
After torching the Oakland Raiders for an NFL-record-tying seven touchdowns while posting a perfect passer rating on the road Sunday, Foles is a near-lock to earn NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors for the second time in three starts this season.
Yes, he was terrible in that other start, completing just 11 of 29 passes in an embarrassing performance against Dallas, but it’s become apparent that was an aberration for a quarterback who—and it’s easy to forget this—is still only nine starts into his NFL career. The 2012 third-round pick is practically a rookie, and yet his touchdown-to-interception ratio this season is now 13-to-0.
And that’s really the key. Unlike Vick, Foles rarely makes costly mistakes. He’s had some ups and downs, but at his worst, he throws incomplete passes. The broad sample size indicates he has the pocket presence, the awareness and the discipline to become a franchise-leading quarterback.
Foles hasn’t secured the 2014 starting job just yet, but I believe he should be getting close. A few more strong performances—even with a dud or two mixed in—should be enough to at least cause Philly to avoid using a first-round pick on a quarterback.
And from our standpoint, there’s almost nothing Foles can do now that won’t make Vick expendable as soon as the 2014 offseason arrives.
Atlanta’s Level of Play Is Bad, but It Shouldn’t Be Sloppy
The Atlanta Falcons entered the 2013 season amid talk of a Super Bowl run.
After a Week 9 blowout at the hands of the Carolina Panthers, that talk has turned to different subjects for the 2-6 Falcons.
Like say a team in absolute free fall, according to NFC South Lead Writer Knox Bardeen:
With Sunday’s 34-10 loss to the Carolina Panthers, the Atlanta Falcons have dropped two in a row and are sitting at 2-6, thankful the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are a bigger dumpster fire at the moment.
With the slew of injuries in Atlanta, it’s easy to point a finger in that direction. But the finger wouldn’t be pointed in the right direction, at least not solely. The Falcons are having execution issues, scheme issues and even coaching issues.
One portion of those coaching issues shouldn’t be happening under head coach Mike Smith.
At 6.5 penalties and 55.9 penalty yards on average per game, Atlanta ranks 16th in the NFL. Last season, the Falcons were the least penalized team in the league.
Since their bye week, the Falcons were penalized nine times against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for 101 yards, 10 times against the Arizona Cardinals for 55 yards and seven times Sunday in Charlotte for 59 yards. Against Carolina, Atlanta’s penalties actually cost the Falcons points.
One first-quarter holding penalty took a Steven Jackson touchdown run off the board. Atlanta had to settle for a field goal. A pass-interference penalty on Desmond Trufant kept a drive in the red zone alive and led to a Carolina touchdown.
With the Falcons still down by only seven points in the fourth quarter, an extra man on the field on defense changed a 3rd-and-short situation into a first down and gave the Panthers momentum to drive and score and then pile on more points.
It’s acceptable for the Falcons to not be as strong after circumstances have weakened the team this season. But silly penalties shouldn’t be happening, no matter their record.
Smith needs to put a stop to this sloppy play.
Patriots Offense Just as Dangerous as Years Past
In Week 9, the New England Patriots piled up 55 points and 610 yards against the Pittsburgh Steelers. It was the most the Steelers have ever allowed in either category this year.
It was far and away the Patriots' best offensive showing this season, and AFC East Lead Writer Erik Frenz thinks Sunday's offensive explosion underscores the fact that reports of New England's demise were premature:
Doom. Gloom. There was nothing but these two things for the Patriots offense in the first eight weeks of the season, despite the team’s 6-2 record. Now? Sunshine. Rainbows. And most importantly of all: points.
We either forgot that their two best skill-position players (besides the quarterback) were on the sideline, or we chose not to remember for the purpose of furthering a narrative.
Thus, it may or may not come as a surprise when you see the stat lines. Rob Gronkowski: nine catches on 10 targets, 143 yards and a touchdown. Danny Amendola: a perfect 4-of-4, 122 yards and another score.
You read that right: Brady had one incomplete pass when throwing to the two receivers this offense was supposed to be built around. As a result, whether direct or indirect, the Patriots put up their highest point total since scoring 59 against the Tennessee Titans in 2009.
Now, with Amendola and Gronkowski back in the fold and back to a productive level, along with the emergence of rookie receiver Aaron Dobson, the Patriots offense may be just as dangerous as years past. Now, they can hit you over the middle, down the sidelines and deep.
Some critics have opined that the Patriots offense lacks an established identity. While it is true that they still haven’t found a “bread-and-butter” that they can turn to in tough times, that identity-less quality may actually make them tougher to defend, especially considering the continued effectiveness of the running game.
This offense may not be the chain-moving, point-scoring juggernaut it’s been in years past, but at its best, this offense is close to just as tough to defend as any of those units.
“Any Given Sunday” Cliche Works for Receivers Too—Just Ask Greg Little
One of Week 9's bigger surprises took place in Cleveland, where the Browns snapped an 11-game losing streak against the Baltimore Ravens with a 24-18 win.
As AFC North Lead Writer Andrea Hangst reports, one of the heroes of the game for the Browns was an unlikely one indeed:
Browns wide receiver Greg Little has been the butt of many jokes over his three seasons in the NFL, so when he makes an impact as a playmaker, he deserves a little positive attention.
Little, who has earned the reputation as drops-prone in his career—he’s dropped 28 passes in three years—had a very good game against the Baltimore Ravens defense on Sunday, with seven catches on nine targets for 122 yards.
Though he didn’t score any touchdowns, he led the Browns receivers in yardage, he made tough catches, he brought down all five of the passes thrown his way in the first half, and he got an important first-down conversion before leaving the game late with a shoulder injury.
Getting Little going this year has been more important than ever for the Browns. With no run game to speak of—they had only 73 yards on their 28 rush attempts on Sunday—having reliable receivers is the only way their offense can move the ball down the field. For the most part, that job has belonged to wideout Josh Gordon and tight end Jordan Cameron.
However, both were shut down on Sunday, with Gordon catching three passes for 44 yards and Cameron just one for four. Having someone else able to pick up the slack for the top two playmakers was necessary for the Browns this week, and Little finally showed up at an opportune time.
The key will be for Little to continue this one instance of inspired play over the final half of the season. It was Little’s first 100-plus-yard receiving game this year and, for the Browns’ sake, hopefully not his last. He has chemistry with quarterback Jason Campbell, which is a good indication his struggles could be behind him.
Doug Baldwin Comes Up Big When Seattle Needed Him
The Seattle Seahawks have the best record in the NFC at 8-1, but it almost wasn't so.
The Seahawks trailed the winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers 21-0 in Week 9 before mounting the biggest comeback in franchise history.
According to NFC West Lead Writer Tyson Langland, more than a little credit for Sunday's 27-24 win belongs to wide receiver Doug Baldwin:
Coming into Week 9, the loss of wide receiver Sidney Rice was looming over offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell's offense. Sure, Rice hadn't played up to expectations through the first eight weeks of the season, yet the Seattle Seahawks weren't particularly deep at the receiver position anyhow.
This, in turn, meant they needed another wideout to take his game to a whole new level in Rice's absence. Fans and media members alike expected that player to be Jermaine Kearse, but they were forgetting about one young pass-catcher who has been in the spotlight before: Doug Baldwin.
Even though Baldwin hasn't been able to match the production of his rookie season, he has proven that he is still capable of playing top-notch football when given the opportunity. And Sunday was his opportunity.
Despite two disappointing drops in the first half, Baldwin regrouped and made tough catch after tough catch down the stretch.
Without a doubt, his biggest catches came in the third and fourth quarters. Early on in the third, down 24-7, quarterback Russell Wilson hit Baldwin down the left sideline on a spectacular tip-toe catch. That throw and catch set up a touchdown run from Wilson on the very next play.
Then in the fourth quarter, when the Seahawks were down by seven, Wilson connected with Baldwin for a 10-yard score on third down. That not only tied the game but also swung the momentum in Seattle's favor. From that point on, the 'Hawks never looked back.
His box-score numbers (six catches, 75 yards and one touchdown) weren't off the charts, but Baldwin proved to be Wilson's favorite target when it mattered most.
Without him, there's no way the Seahawks would have been able to mount their historic comeback.
As well as the defense played in the second half, there's no question that Baldwin deserved the game ball in the locker room.
Praise of the Oakland Raiders Was Premature
The Oakland Raiders entered the 2013 season as one of the favorites to post the NFL's worst record, but the Silver and Black had been a competitive squad this year en route to a 3-4 record.
However, the Raiders were blown out in Week 9 by the Philadelphia Eagles. In the opinion of AFC West Lead Writer Christopher Hansen, Sunday's shellacking demonstrates that while the Raiders have made some progress, there's still a long way to go:
The Oakland Raiders were 3-4 coming into Sunday, but they got blown out at home against the Philadelphia Eagles 49-20. Nick Foles obliterated Oakland’s revamped defense, Terrelle Pryor looked mostly lost as a passer and Darren McFadden got hurt again.
Maybe this game is just an example of the type of growing pains rebuilding teams go through, or maybe we prematurely praised a team for victories against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Pittsburgh Steelers and San Diego Chargers at home.
A few of the narratives of the past few weeks included Pryor being a legitimate franchise quarterback and how a group of defensive players playing on one-year contracts had Oakland’s defense on track. Can we say either of those two statements are absolutely true after the Raiders got embarrassed by the Eagles?
Oakland’s offense barely got the ball into the red zone all afternoon and had trouble putting it in the end zone once they got there. For three quarters, the Raiders offense consisted mostly of Pryor running around trying to make plays.
The Eagles didn’t respect Oakland’s defense at all. The victims included rookie first-round pick D.J. Hayden, future Hall of Famer Charles Woodson and everyone in between. The Raiders couldn’t cover, and they couldn’t tackle, which is not a good recipe in the NFL.
Oakland’s coaching staff and front office have done some good things, but Sunday’s loss is a reminder of how far they still have to go. The Raiders need to be able to win games against teams like the Eagles if they want to be respected. Until then, the Raiders will still remind us of the bad team we’ve been watching for over a decade.
Colts Offense Has No Idea How to Exist Without Reggie Wayne...Yet
The Indianapolis Colts' victory over the Denver Broncos two weeks ago was an expensive one, with veteran wide receiver Reggie Wayne suffering a season-ending ACL tear.
That injury didn't cost the Colts in the victory over the Houston Texans Sunday night, but as NFL National Lead Writer Michael Schottey relays, the bill is going to come due unless something changes offensively in Indy:
Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton has no clue what to do.
Andrew Luck has no clue what to do.
The offensive line and the rest of the Colts receivers clearly have no idea what to do.
While the Colts ended up winning the game, they did so on a bevy of big plays they shouldn’t have needed against the moribund Texans.
Most of the adjectives that could be used to describe just how bad the Colts offense is in the post-Reggie Wayne era simply wouldn’t make it past the censors on this site.
Running game? There’s no running game! The offensive line is horrid, and recent acquisition Trent Richardson has never met a backdoor cut that he wouldn’t ignore.
Without a running game, the passing attack is reduced to simply taking shots down the field. That will work—occasionally—because T.Y. Hilton and Darrius Heyward-Bey have vertical speed, but neither is Reggie Wayne.
No one on the Colts roster is Reggie Wayne.
It’s not about talent—the Colts have talent. It’s not about speed—the Colts have some of that too. It’s about trust. The Colts don’t have anyone whom Luck trusts (or, frankly, who is trustworthy) when things break down.
The offense needs to adjust. No longer can the Colts build around a running game. The play action that made Luck an epic threat at Stanford isn’t going to work in 2013 in Indianapolis. A bunch of 3rd-and-8's are going to be awfully low-percentage plays without Wayne on the field to catch Luck's passes.
Spread the field out. Let Luck protect himself with quick throws on short-to-intermediate routes. Use the pass to set up the run, not vice-versa. It’s time to coach the players you have, not the players you wish you had.
The Colts won on Sunday night, but if they want to keep rolling, they’ll need to adjust.