Sunday’s surprising, fascinating, revealing and comfortingly satisfying Seahawks-Broncos overtime battle was much more than a Super Bowl rematch. The Seahawks’ 26-20 victory, after Peyton Manning and the Broncos defense worked in tandem to spur a brilliant fourth-quarter comeback, may also have been a Super Bowl preview.
Oh, I can hear you howling. It’s still early! The Eagles are undefeated! Have you forgotten what the Chargers did just last week? THE PATRIOT WAY WILL GRIND YOU BENEATH THE CHARIOT WHEELS OF HISTORY.
Of course, there is a lot of football left to play. Who would you pick to go to the Super Bowl after three games? Thought so.
Teams like the Eagles, Chargers and Cardinals (and one other team we will save until the end) look like worthy contenders, but there is a difference between contenders and Contenders. At the end of last season, it was very clear that:
- The Seahawks were the best team in the NFL.
- Either the Broncos or 49ers were second, based on whether you prefer franchise quarterbacks or whole franchises.
- The Patriots were fourth, and...
- Everyone else was just playing for fifth place.
Last season ended with only four capital-C Contenders, and not much happened in the offseason to change the rankings.
The Broncos and Patriots added blue-chip missing pieces, as though they were jockeying with each other for the chance to face the Seahawks. They would figure out what to do in the Super Bowl once they got there.
The Seahawks lost some spare parts but kept their core intact. The 49ers, meanwhile, took the kitchen-sink approach, adding everyone from Steve Johnson to Jonathan Martin, plus about 75 draft picks, some of whom will be stashed on injured reserve until the next presidential election.
The big four Contenders separated themselves even further from the other contenders, or at least they appeared to back when we had nothing to watch but the transaction wire.
After three weeks, we have a clearer sense of the balance of NFL power:
- Either the Seahawks or Broncos are the best team in the NFL.
- The 49ers have suddenly lost the ability to salt away victories, which used to be their greatest skill.
- The Patriots are too busy playing their non-divisional schedule to truly participate in the rankings, and...
- Other “contenders” have gained on the Contenders, but only one appears to be any threat to the top two. And I am saving them for the end.
Let’s get the Patriots and 49ers out of the way before dealing with Sunday’s great rematch of February’s awful Super Bowl.
The Patriots needed a last-minute interception to beat the Raiders 16-9, after a holding penalty nullified Darren McFadden's game-tying touchdown. Maybe the Patriots are better than that score, but they are experiencing one of their temporary offensive fugues in which every pass is an over-engineered four-yarder to Julian Edelman and 10-play drives end with long field goals.
We will know more when the Patriots stop playing 1 p.m. games against terrible teams, but we have to wait for next Monday night for that to happen.
The 49ers have outscored opponents 59-16 in first halves but have been manhandled 52-3 in second halves. That is truly remarkable, because the 49ers used to build an eight-point lead midway through the third quarter and then munch away the clock with one 23-play, 86-yard, 22-and-a-half-minute drive.
Instead of burying the Cardinals under a thick layer of four-yard runs this week, the 49ers let Drew Stanton and Andre Ellington march downfield three times, turning a 14-6 halftime lead into a 23-14 loss.
The 49ers surrendered 107 penalty yards and completed just two passes longer than 20 yards. Like the Patriots, they are succumbing to their worst instincts: too much micro-passing, too many personal fouls. They still look like the physical, creative, athletic 49ers at the starts of games, but even against the Cowboys they grew timid and mistake-prone late.
If the 49ers don’t find a way to play four quarters against Chip Kelly’s High Speed Comeback Thrill Show (a team with its own first-quarter problem) in Week 4, they will lose their status as Contenders. That did not seem possible back in May, when they drafted half the NCAA and picked up Johnson with their bonus miles.
That brings us to the NFL’s lone remaining superpowers. Seattle's win told us a lot about what we can expect from these two teams in the weeks to come, shed some new light on that bear attack we saw in February and gave us a glimpse of what will happen if (when) these teams meet again in Arizona.
The Broncos' Newcomers Made a Major Difference
Von Miller (injured for the Super Bowl), DeMarcus Ware and T.J. Ward each recorded a sack; Miller was also in the middle of a game-changing safety. Ryan Clady (also injured for the Super Bowl) solidified Peyton Manning’s pass protection. Emmanuel Sanders caught 11 passes.
The healthier, reinforced Broncos were able to do more on both sides of the ball: more blitzing and coverage creativity on defense; deeper passes and more receivers in the pattern on offense. The trench battle still belongs to the Seahawks, but it is no longer an overwhelming advantage.
The Seahawks Defense Is Still the Seahawks Defense
Throwing screen passes against the Seahawks remains the biggest waste of offensive time in the NFL. It’s like throwing a curveball in the dirt to Ted Williams: He won’t swing, he won’t be fooled, and you will just find yourself behind in the count. Screens to receivers are a huge part of any Peyton Manning game plan, but the Seahawks shut them down as easily on Sunday as they did in February.
The Broncos ran the ball on 3rd-and-9 and 3rd-and-10 in the first half. When John Fox dips into the old Jake Delhomme playbook with Peyton Manning on the field, it’s a sign of just how much respect the Seahawks defense earns from opponents.
The Broncos had 19 rushing yards until Montee Ball squirted for 10 yards late in the fourth quarter. The Broncos could do more on offense than they did in the Super Bowl but far, far less than they can do against any other opponent.
At the start of the fourth quarter, Seahawks-Broncos looked like a slightly less embarrassing replay of the Super Bowl, with the Seahawks leading 17-3 and dictating on defense. But then...
The Seahawks Have a Deep Zone Problem
You probably did not notice last season, but the Seahawks were terrible inside their own 20-yard line. They executed 92 offensive plays deep within their own territory in 2013. Twenty-eight of those plays resulted in no gain or a loss, including six sacks.
Wilson threw two interceptions inside his own 20-yard line and lost a fumble on a strip-sack. The Seahawks gave up a blocked punt. Football Outsiders (subscription required) ranked Seattle 28th in “deep” zone offense last season. Luckily for the Seahawks, they are not pinned against their own goal line very often.
Two major Seahawks deep zone mistakes allowed the Broncos to come back Sunday: the Marshawn Lynch safety, made possible by Ware’s sack of Wilson at the goal line, and Chris Harris’ interception on the next Seahawks drive.
The Seahawks make mistakes inside their own 20 that they rarely make elsewhere, and they played into the hands of a defense built for sacks and turnovers. A little offensive quality control could solve Seattle's deep zone problem.
Lynch averaged over six yards per carry from within the Seahawks’ 20-yard line last year. The rest of the team combined to average 4.6 yards per run or pass play. Slamming Lynch into the line makes sense in the deep zone: If he does not succeed, the Seahawks defense can take over after a punt. Just give it to Lynch before getting sacked back to the one-foot line, not after.
Speaking of field position...
Field Tilt Makes a Difference
The Super Bowl, you may recall, was over by the middle of the second quarter. A bad snap led to a safety, and then some turnovers led to Seahawks scores. A convincing win became a rout when the Broncos had no choice but to take bigger and bigger risks, while the Seahawks could mix things up and play conservatively.
But Sunday, Seattle never reached the point at which it could do what it wanted on both sides of the ball.
The Super Bowl blowout was self-sustaining: Desperation made the Broncos worse and worse while playing to the Seahawks’ strengths. Sunday’s game was what the Super Bowl might have looked like if, let’s say: a) the Broncos had pounced on that game-opening fumble before it reached the end zone; and b) if Malcolm Smith had fallen down after intercepting Manning before halftime instead of running the pick back for a touchdown. Throw Miller or Clady into the mix, and that 43-8 Super Bowl would have looked much more like Sunday’s game.
And yet, after all of that, the Seahawks still won in overtime. The NFL still belongs to Seattle, but it’s closer now than it was at any time last year, for the Broncos or...perhaps someone else.
I left one obvious “contender” out at the start of this week’s Hangover. They have been hanging around for years, and they have played great football so far, but we won’t know until after Week 5 whether it is time to capitalize that “C.”
Beat the Patriots after your Week 4 bye, Bengals fans, and we will talk.
Not everyone deserves one, but everyone gets one!
Snap Fail Trophy
Awarded to the center who dooms a play before it starts.
There’s a tie this week. Giants long snapper Zak DeOssie delivered a slow roller on a field-goal attempt that started out like a long putt for birdie but turned into a seeing-eye single: It dribbled past holder Steve Weatherford and rolled nearly 30 yards before Josh Brown pounced on it.
But hey, long snapping is hard. Regular snapping is not.
Rams center Scott Wells executed a textbook snap for an under-center quarterback in the Rams-Cowboys game. There was only one problem: Davis was in shotgun. Wells held the ball at butt level for a split second, then realized that it was time to block and just plopped it to the ground, where the Cowboys recovered it.
How can a center not tell whether a quarterback’s hands are hovering over his buttocks? Maybe Davis has a particularly large aura.
True Grit Trophy
Awarded for toughness above and beyond the call of duty.
Nick Foles endured double-digit knockdowns behind an offensive line which featured Wade Smith, Andrew Gardner and David Molk (Molk! The milk substitute that’s made with real chalk!) after injuries and ejections took their toll.
Foles’ biggest hit came from Redskins lineman Chris Baker, who used a return of a near-interception as an excuse to blindside the already battered quarterback.
A flash mob ensued, but Foles dusted himself off to lead a touchdown drive for a team that was one injury/disqualification away from inserting tight end Brent Celek as a tackle.
Meaningless Fantasy Touchdown Trophy
For the most unnecessary, yet fantasy-relevant, touchdown of the week.
Hooray, Shonn Greene! Your one-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter made the final score: Bengals 33, Titans 7.
For fantasy owners who prefer young, speculative running backs to journeymen, Bengals rookie Jeremy Hill also scored a fourth-quarter touchdown to give the Bengals a 33-point lead.
There was something for everyone, except folks who thought Bishop Sankey or Justin Hunter was going to be fantasy-relevant this year.
Fantasy Leech Trophy
Awarded to the fullback, tight end, fourth receiver or moonlighting linebacker who scored so your first-round pick couldn’t.
With their three-to-five-headed running back committees and deep stable of wide receivers, the Saints have long been a team of fantasy leeches who siphon touchdown opportunities from each other.
But Sean Payton knows that some of you gambled on Khiry Robinson or Pierre Thomas with Mark Ingram hurt, while others have a high draft pick invested in Jimmy Graham. That’s why Josh Hill, the third-string tight end, caught a 34-yard touchdown against the Vikings. Actually, Hill caught the deep pass because Graham ran a short sideline pattern and two defenders chased him, ignoring Hill up the seam.
At least Thomas scored a short touchdown. Payton has Travaris Cadet on his roster, and he is NOT afraid to use him.
Everyone’s Fault but Mine Trophy
Awarded to the player who knows the NFL meaning of the word "accountability."
Rams tight end Jared Cook reliably turns one or two would-be touchdowns per year into fresh sources of Rams shame. Cook bobbled and dropped a short, easy touchdown pass that would have given the Rams an eight-point lead against the Cowboys early in the fourth quarter.
After St. Louis settled for a field goal, Austin Davis tried to give Cook a “Hey man, we’ll get it next time” handshake on the sideline. Cook shoved the second-year quarterback, then launched into a sideline snit fit that ended when defender William Hayes corralled the mistake-prone tight end.
Cook apologized for the incident. But really, it was Davis’ fault for throwing to him when he was wide-open. And the coaches’ fault for keeping him in the lineup. And the scheduler’s fault for not making the Cowboys play in prime time, when Tony Romo can be counted on for three fourth-quarter interceptions instead of leading a smooth comeback.
Cook was just being himself.
Salvador Dali Melting Clock Trophy
Awarded for mind-boggling clock management.
The Ravens settled for a 20-yard field goal while trailing by four points with 5:04 to play in the fourth quarter. Normally, this would be a terrible decision, but the rules of space-time do not apply when the Ravens (masters of the ugly, field-goal-laden victory) face the Browns (snake-bit organization whose coaches are always newbies who are afraid of getting fired).
The Browns got the ball twice in the final five minutes but managed to tick just one minute and 20 seconds off the clock in six plays, including three incomplete passes. That set up the ultimate Ravens endgame: one Joe Flacco bomb (to Steve Smith), one Justin Tucker field goal.
The Deconstruction of Kirk Cousins
Monday Morning Hangover is not here to tell you how to feel about Kirk Cousins’ performance Sunday. We’re not even here to tell you how to evaluate Cousins’ performance.
There will be plenty of articles this week that will do just that, complete with 8×10 color glossy pictures with circles and arrows, and a paragraph next to each one explaining what it is, as evidence of Cousins’ greatness or ordinariness. (GIFs and play diagrams, in other words.)
No, Mandatory Monday is here to tell you how to think about Kirk Cousins’ performance.
Cousins’ stats were remarkable: 30-of-48, 427 yards, three touchdowns, one interception. His highlight reel is impressive: an 81-yard bomb to DeSean Jackson (who tried to execute three end-zone celebrations at once and looked instead like an interpretive dancer having a seizure); a sideline teardrop to Pierre Garcon for 43 yards in a wild-and-wooly fourth quarter; lots of crisp shorter stuff.
The final result was a 37-34 Redskins loss to the Eagles.
But while the Bottom Line: He Didn’t Get it Done angle may keep the Cousins-is-better-than-RG3 narrative snowball from bulldozing everything in its path, it’s a silly argument to use about a game filled with special teams mistakes, freak injuries and brawls.
When making sense of a quarterback’s performance after only a start or two, you have to be very mindful of the situations he faces.
Last week’s Jaguars game was an example of a unique situation for Cousins: He played well against a team that has now given up 119 points through three games. He played with the lead for the entire game, which makes everything a quarterback does easier: 3rd-and-15 becomes a draw-play down when you are winning, not a “stand in against the rush and fire it into tight coverage” down.
Across a full season or multiple seasons, situational splits tend to even out. But after a game or two, all kinds of distortions can affect our perception of a quarterback’s performance, especially when we are predisposed to like him (the plucky backup replacing an overexposed, overpaid starter).
Cousins’ performance Sunday was full of the kind of situational extremes that can result in misleading evaluations. Here are some of them:
Lots of Short Passes
Cousins completed the first 14 passes he threw, which were labeled as “short” in the play-by-play.
“Short” passes travel fewer than 15 yards in the air, but Cousins threw lots of extra-short ones, notably a series of passes into the flat to Logan Paulsen, Niles Paul and Darrel Young. Cousins also fired some efficient quick outs to Andre Roberts and Jackson on the Redskins’ first few series.
Now, going 14-of-14 in any situation is great. But a game plan full of passes to the flats is generally designed to protect a new quarterback, not to showcase him. The Redskins had a package of designed plays to get their receivers open on the short sideline, and they used it to score 17 early points.
No offense can get through a whole season relying on nonstop quick-hitters.
Great Down-and-Distance Advantages
Between the clever early passing play calls and some tough running by Alfred Morris and Roy Helu, the Redskins kept Cousins out of 3rd-and-long, or even 3rd-and-medium, for the entire first half.
Washington was 7-of-9 on third-down conversions in the first half, but it faced three 3rd-and-1 situations, three 3rd-and-2’s, two 3rd-and-3’s and a 3rd-and-6. Later in the game, when Cousins started to face less-favorable down-and-distance situations, he went 0-of-4 on third and fourth downs of nine or more yards.
Again, setting up 3rd-and-short is a good thing: It usually means you completed a pass on first or second down. But Cousins still must prove that he can generate first downs on 3rd-and-long. Come to think of it, that was always a problem for his predecessor.
The Eagles won the penalty battle in an extra sloppy game: The Redskins committed 10 penalties for 131 yards to Philadelphia's nine penalties for 70 yards. But early in the game, when Cousins was completing 100 percent of his short passes, the Eagles were making all the mistakes.
Philadelphia committed four penalties on the Redskins' first three scoring drives, including an illegal-use-of-hands penalty that turned an incomplete pass on 2nd-and-22 into a first down. The Eagles also lost a fumble to halt a scoring drive, while the Redskins caught a break when Morris’ weekly fumble was recovered by Garcon.
None of these events mean that Cousins was enjoying unusual luck or his whole performance was a fluke, but they should be taken into consideration if we want to see the big picture. A 3rd-and-22 pass on the opening drive or a lost Morris fumble might have changed our whole perception of Cousins’ afternoon.
Chip Kelly likes to win the toss and kick off, and the Eagles benefited from an early kickoff-return touchdown, so the Redskins ran 23 plays before the Eagles offense took the field.
Large numbers of early-game plays can inflate total statistics.
A late-game brawl left the Eagles so short on their offensive line that they could not effectively run the ball with a 10-point lead, giving Cousins a chance to lead one final touchdown drive.
It’s impossible to adjust for all of the unusual circumstances surrounding Cousins’ performance. When the situational dust settles, he could turn out to be a very good quarterback, or just a competent one; he has never shown evidence of being a lousy one. But it will take a few weeks for that dust to settle.
We know as much about Cousins as we knew about Josh McCown after he had some big games last year. Remember McCown? A legion of Bears fans was 100 percent certain that he was a better “fit” for the team than Jay Cutler at the end of last season.
Fans were mad when Cutler signed an extension and McCown left via free agency. Those fans have probably changed their minds by now, but there was nothing unusual about their overreaction.
Overrating a backup quarterback after a start or two is a football tradition, but that does not make it smart or right. The smart thing to do is keep watching and discovering. It’s more fun, too!
The most important takeaway from the Redskins game Sunday is that they are still the Redskins. Their special teams are terrible. Judging by all the late hits, the referee’s whistle must resonate at a pitch their defenders cannot hear, like my kid’s cellphone ringtone.
Morris is still fumble-prone, and the bench is still thin. It does not matter if Robert Griffin or Kirk Cousins is your quarterback when you make so many fundamental errors against an opponent that was poised to get beat.
That’s the problem with quarterback storylines: Team realities often get in the way. Griffin became the stumblebum who got injured last week because of a bad environment. Jay Gruden and the Redskins should not be looking for a short-term solution or a “system fit.” They need to focus on making sure that history does not repeat itself.
Let’s wrap up with some enduring images from Week 3.
LeGarrette Blount Hurdling Antoine Cason
A fun moment of steeplechase from the late game, a 37-19 Steelers win over the Panthers: Blount broke free in the open field and decided to go over Cason, despite all the open running room to Cason’s left and right.
Blount did not quite clear Cason; he kicked the safety in the face. I thought Blount could get higher than that. (Rimshot.)
Kyle Juszczyk Imitating LeBron James
The Ravens fullback celebrated a touchdown against the Ravens with a powder-less rendition of LeBron’s “powder toss” routine.
The gesture was meant to answer Terrance West’s LeBron-like triple-stomp touchdown celebration, but it sent a confusing message: “Hey, Cleveland sports fans, remember that guy you used to love, but then you hated? Well, now he is back, having won championships in another city. So there!”
Of course, the real message was: “I am a fullback, and therefore I have far more fantasies about touchdown celebrations than actual touchdowns.”
I never understood the LeBron powder toss anyway. “Look, I learned one of the tricks in Presto the Bunny’s Magic Show Kit (ages 4-7)!”
Angry Drew Brees
Captain Munnerlyn revealed a side of Drew Brees we rarely see when the Vikings cornerback finished a sack with something between a vertical suplex and Sub-Zero’s Mortal Kombat finishing move. Brees came up jawing, swinging a bit and gesturing to the crowd like an old-school wrasslin’ bad guy.
Everyone who stands between Brees and victory had better watch out. I would not want to be a Saints cornerback right now.
Shady Seeks a Helmet
LeSean McCoy took a blow to the head and appeared woozy in the second quarter of a very physical Eagles-Redskins game. Moments later, McCoy was seen arguing with an assistant coach and grabbing for his helmet, which the coach had confiscated during concussion protocols. McCoy disappeared into the tunnel for a few minutes and then returned hunky-dory and ready to play.
A cynic might suggest that the NFL’s concussion protocols now include: a) one on-camera scene involving denied access to a helmet, to show the league really means business; b) five minutes in the locker room with the Miracle Scalp Massager; c) a sideline report that it was definitely not a concussion; and d) a return to the field.
A more realistic cynic might suggest that, for all of the NFL’s evils, concussions cannot be diagnosed by casual fans watching television replays.
Kaepernick Muscles Rippling in Extreme Slo-Mo
The Fox broadcast team appeared to be obsessed with slow-motion imagery of Kaepernick throwing passes, handing off or simply warming up in the first half of the 49ers-Cardinals game.
There were several loving, frame-by-frame close-ups of undulating Kaepernick beef, chiseled and veiny and covered with extremely small typeface. It was hypnotic, a little creepy and—because of all of the reading material on Kaepernick’s body—somewhat educational.
It may have been an optical illusion, but Kaepernick appeared to have gotten some new ink. I swear I read a transcript of Roger Goodell’s press conference on his left forearm.
Roger Goodell, Face in the Crowd
The commissioner was seen walking among the common folk at MetLife Stadium during the Giants-Texans game. Perhaps Goodell has decided to apologize to fans one at a time about everything that has happened lately. That’s a plan we can all get behind.
Take to the American highway, Commish, and stop in high school stadiums and roadside diners. Tell everyone you are sorry. Shake a few million hands. It will increase your approval rating more quickly than any other strategy would. More importantly, it will keep you out of trouble for a while.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.