Mike Tanier's Monday Morning Hangover: Romo's Redemption, the Race for 2nd Place

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterSeptember 29, 2014

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP Images

Love him or hate him, you cannot fall asleep when Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo is playing.

Romo threw for 202 yards and two touchdowns on 17-of-22 passing in the first half Sunday night, building a 24-0 lead against the New Orleans Saints. That forced the NFL-viewing world to watch the Cowboys-Saints game to the final gun.

For most established starting quarterbacks, a 24-0 lead is safe. For Romo, it’s the opposite. It’s foreshadowing. It’s Anton Chekhov’s gun on the mantle, and Romo is preparing to shoot himself in the foot with it late in the fourth quarter. 

Sure enough, the Cowboys got sloppy and silly late.

Romo fumbled a snap and took some sacks, the offensive and defensive coordinators (J. Jones and Jerry J.) got conservative, and the Saints briefly pulled back into the game. But Sunday night would not be a Romo choketacular: A late Cowboys defensive stop (including a sniff-out of a sad Saints fake punt) led to a smart, balanced late-game drive.

The Cowboys won 38-17, Romo finished with 262 yards passing and three touchdowns in a brilliant performance, and all of the "Romo stinks in big games" noise has been put to rest forever. Or at least until the next nationally televised Cowboys game.

ARLINGTON, TX - SEPTEMBER 28:  Tony Romo #9 of the Dallas Cowboys celebrates with Doug Free #68 of the Dallas Cowboys as the Cowboys take on the New Orleans Saints in the second half at AT&T Stadium on September 28, 2014 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by To
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

That’s right, folks, it’s time for another "Referendum on Tony Romo’s Worth as a Quarterback and Human," a regular feature on the NFL conversational landscape. The debate between Romo detractors and people who try to analyze football carefully and objectively has taken on a predictable tone over the years:

Person Interested in Facts: Calling Romo a "choke artist" is really untrue. Did you know he has led 21 fourth-quarter comebacks and 24-game winning drives in his career?

Romo Basher: Nuh-uh.

Person Interested in Facts: Did you know that his career fourth-quarter passer rating was 102.9, with a 69-27 touchdown-interception ratio, entering Sunday’s game?

Romo Basher: Stats are for losers, Poindexter.

Person Interested in Facts: Romo has led the Cowboys to a 15-8 Sunday night record after beating the Saints, with 41 touchdowns and 22 interceptions on Sunday Night Football. Sure, there are some clunkers in there, but Romo has been very impressive for a team that has been pretty weak for much of his career!

Romo Basher: If you love Tony Romo so much, why don’t you marry him?

My middle school-aged son has more intelligent debates with his friends about what would happen if Nicki Minaj dated Slender Man.

All of the stats listed above are true. One reason the Romo Chokes/Stinks Movement exists is because his worst games tend to be prime-time, high-profile contests. Romo’s Cowboys are 5-6 on Monday Night Football, with a few legendary stinkers in the mix: a five-interception mess against the Bears in 2012, most notably.

A few other noteworthy losses, like last season’s shootout versus Peyton Manning’s Broncos (a five-touchdown, one-interception game for Romo) and a 2008 end-of-year collapse against the Eagles with the playoffs on the line, were seen in prime time.

Throw in three playoff losses, and Romo has a habit of looking silly on national television.

But not as often as you might expect. Romo’s Cowboys are 7-2 on Thursdays, with the signal-caller throwing 22 touchdowns and seven interceptions, mostly on Thanksgiving. He now has five three- or four-touchdown performances on Sunday nights: four wins and a loss.

Romo has only had two three-plus-interception performances on Sunday nights. It is much easier to find a hard-luck Romo loss on Sunday night than a defeat that rests squarely at the feet of an admittedly turnover-prone quarterback. Take for example 2011’s four-touchdown outing against the Giants, which ended with two quick Eli Manning touchdowns, a blocked Dan Bailey field goal and a 37-34 Giants win.

Romo-bashing has always been about the heart, not the mind.

His Cowboys are hated rivals of all the East Coast big-market teams, the faded "America’s Team" rhinestones invite a degree of mockery, and Romo’s mini-Tim Tebow early career and Carrie Underwood dalliances made him the perfect quarterback to mock.

When Dallas was dangerous early in Romo’s career, his foibles were reassuring to Cowboys, Eagles and Redskins fans: He’ll vacation in Mexico with a starlet and return with an interception-happy hangover, and all shall be well again. When the Cowboys became Jerry Jones’ vanity project, Romo became a bumbling extension of the owner’s id.

There is one other factor that fuels Romo-bashing: He is overexposed.

This weekend’s game was Romo’s 11th appearance on Sunday Night Football since 2011. He has also played in three Monday Night Football games, three Thanksgiving games, a Wednesday night season-opener and a handful of late-afternoon Games of the Week in the last three seasons.

The Cowboys have been exactly .500 in all of those seasons and were coming off a 6-10 campaign when the 2011 games were scheduled.

Sharon Ellman/Associated Press

In short, the Cowboys are the mediocre team we see on television far more often than we see many good clubs. If you base your quarterback perceptions upon the players you see in prime-time games, Romo is up there with Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Drew Brees.

Romo is not in the same class as those quarterbacks, and Dallas cannot compete with the success of those franchises, but the Cowboys bring television ratings, so Romo gets extra opportunities to look bad in prime time. When he obliges, we remember his (and his team’s) failures, connecting the dots across almost a decade to make a rather misleading line.

The Cowboys have two more Sunday night games, a Monday nighter and Thanksgiving against the Eagles scheduled this year. Currently 3-1, they may be excellent candidates for late-season flexing. If the Cowboys keep playing the way they played against the Saints, Romo has a chance to silence all but the most inveterate haters.

But it’s just as likely that the Cowboys will lose one of two prime-time Eagles games, or the Giants national game, or a shootout with Andrew Luck in Week 16. Any bad Romo plays will be used as evidence against him. Everything that happened Sunday night, the easy slice 'n' dice of a Saints defense that was supposed to be dangerous, will be forgotten by the bashers.

We will be back to familiar territory:

Person Interested in Facts: Look, I know he threw an interception at the end of a 41-38 loss to the Colts after throwing four touchdowns. But remember how great he looked against the Saints?

Romo Basher: Poindexter and Romo, sitting in a tree. K-I-S-S-I-N-G...

The Race for Second Place

The 49ers were standing tall Sunday. But how good are they?
The 49ers were standing tall Sunday. But how good are they?USA TODAY Sports

With the Seahawks on bye, the other NFC contenders got an opportunity to make their cases Sunday. Unfortunately, they all made a case for second place.

The 49ers and Eagles, Saints and Cowboys, and Packers and Bears faced off in a mini tournament of the five NFC teams most expected to challenge the Seahawks for the NFC throne. (Plus the Cowboys, who are 3-1 now and whose owner really believes in them.)

The three games clarified the balance of power in the NFC, though not in the way most of the would-be contenders would have liked. The Seahawks are still the class of the conference and the NFL. Everyone else is just swapping paint.

Let’s take a look at what we learned from the 49ers and Packers, whose much-needed wins pulled them back to .500 and silenced some doubters; from the Cowboys, who for once played a statement game with a statement other than “We are owned by a ninny”; from the Eagles and Bears, who returned to the pack due to some predictable flaws; and from the Saints, who have become a diner grease fire.

We’ll rank the contenders at the end.

Team: 49ers

Claim to Second-Place Fame: Always in NFC title game. Sometimes win.

Biggest Overall Problem: Team has the collective personality of one of those guys who takes up two parking spaces at the mall before Christmas.

What Sunday Taught Us

Despite their 26-21 victory over a playoff-caliber opponent, the 49ers are a team with issues. Too much of their offense consists of Colin Kaepernick dropping to pass, not liking what he sees and scrambling around a collapsing pocket in search of big plays.

Kaepernick can create big plays, like productive scrambles or Houdini passes to a forgotten Frank Gore on the far side of the field, but the 49ers lack a consistent, sequential offense.

Kaepernick is reluctant to throw early or throw deep, and this season’s sloppy interceptions (including Malcolm Jenkins’ pick-six Sunday) confirm a recurring problem from last year: Kaepernick is not always sure what he is seeing downfield.

The offensive line is inconsistent, plowing a big hole on one play but whiffing on easy blocks the next, and it lost Anthony Davis to a knee injury Sunday. Receivers get flagged for offensive pass interference too often. The running game is still effective but is not the pile driver it once was. Vernon Davis (back) is hurt again.

Also, a team with depth like San Francisco should not have one punt blocked and allow another punt to be returned for a touchdown.

The 49ers remain one of the most physically tough and athletically gifted teams in the NFL. They can beat many opponents with sheer talent, speed and hitting. That said, they would have lost Sunday to an Eagles team that wasn’t starting a stitched-together offensive line full of backups.

A Seahawks-caliber opponent would have blown them out.

Team: Eagles

Claim to Second-Place Fame: Playoff team last year. Trendy offensive operating system.

Biggest Overall Problem: Chip Kelly’s 19-month energy shakes may be wearing off.

What Sunday Taught Us

It’s impossible to manufacture a running game when your offense is full of guys named Andrew Gardner and David Molk, even if you have LeSean McCoy in the backfield and an offense with more wrinkles than great-grandma’s neck.

Furthermore, an offense built on option-flavored runs will not go far if it cannot run the ball. Until the Eagles get some blockers back, they cannot lay claim to second place in the NFC. Lane Johnson returns from suspension next week, which will improve two positions by moving Todd Herremans from tackle to guard.

Someone get this guy a center, guard and right tackle.
Someone get this guy a center, guard and right tackle.Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

That said, the Eagles defense and special teams combined for 21 points. The special teams has already provided punt- and kickoff-return touchdowns and a blocked-punt touchdown, while opponents are getting nothing done in the return game.

The personnel, from Darren Sproles to gunner Chris Maragos (a Niners and Seahawks castoff), is very good. Philadelphia's special teams look as good as Chicago's special teams of 2006 right now (that was Devin Hester’s heyday, although we may be living in another one).

With the defense forcing turnovers, the specialists making plays and Kelly digging deep into the magic bag, the Eagles should be able to beat the Rams and Giants, reach the bye and reevaluate their offensive line. Coming out of this offensive line crisis 5-1 would be a fine accomplishment.

Team: Saints

Claim to Second-Place Fame: Playoff team last year. Super Bowl pedigree.

Biggest Overall Problem: Play on the road as if they swam to the game.

What Sunday Taught Us

The Saints defense is terrible, their offense is not as good as it should be and their special teams is a minus, providing missed field goals, goofy fake punts and a zilch in the return game.

Jimmy Graham lost a fumble Sunday against Dallas, the third by a Saints ball-handler in four games. It was another team-effort loss on the road for a club that has lost six straight regular-season road games.

ARLINGTON, TX - SEPTEMBER 28:  Drew Brees #9 of the New Orleans Saints passes against the Dallas Cowboys in the first half at AT&T Stadium on September 28, 2014 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The good news for the Saints is that the rest of the NFC South looks mediocre, and there are only five road games left. New Orleans gets to host the Packers, 49ers, Bengals and Ravens. That's two teams that could represent head-to-head tiebreaker foes if the Saints pull back into the playoff race, plus two strong AFC opponents, one (the Ravens) with their own crazy home-road split history.

The bad news is the New Orleans defense and special teams are not playoff-caliber in any stadium, and no would-be contender looked worse Sunday than the Saints, unless we count the one-man Panthers.

Team: Packers

Claim to Second-Place Fame: Playoff team last year. Super Bowl pedigree.

Biggest Overall Problem: Team’s last innovative offensive or defensive idea was posted on Myspace.

What Sunday Taught Us

A 38-17 win over the Bears marked the debut of the Packers team many of us expected to see this season. Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews made their expected big plays, while the supporting cast played largely mistake-free football.

The team allowed just one sack, played turnover-free and only a had handful of costly penalties (like a Corey Linsley body slam that negated a nifty Rodgers touchdown).

Even in their victory over the Jets, the Packers needed to hammer away at a bad team’s biggest weakness to come away with a win. This week, Green Bay looked complete and convincing, particularly on offense.

Some of that completeness might be a mirage caused by "Acts of Jay Cutler," the Bears’ kindergarten fire drill of a secondary and Jared Allen’s absence. The Packers, Lions and Bears are playing a rock-paper-scissors game right now, but at least we can be sure Green Bay can crush, cover or cut a decent team.

Team: Bears

Claim to Second-Place Fame: Veteran team always on the verge of breaking big.

Biggest Overall Problem: Veteran team always on the verge of breaking big.

What Sunday Taught Us

We have figured out that Jay Cutler throws bunches of interceptions into defenders' bellies (whenever he throws one, you know its buddy is following close behind), and Chris Conte thinks the shortest distance between two points is a flailing dive at one of the point’s feet.

But we are still figuring out the riddle that is Marc Trestman.

CHICAGO, IL - SEPTEMBER 28: Jay Cutler #6 of the Chicago Bears looks for a receiver against the Green Bay Packers at Soldier Field on September 28, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

If Trestman feels it is time for a surprise onside kick, then a kick he orders, and suddenly Aaron Rodgers has the ball at his own 39-yard line. A pass to the 1-yard line with nine seconds left before halftime and no timeouts? Riddle me this, Batman: What good is a 79-yard scoring drive when you are 80 yards from the end zone?

Trestman’s game plan before halftime was masterful. The Bears ran at will and kept the Packers off-balance with a variety of misdirection plays. Trestman is an analytics maverick who studies the percentages and plays them. The problem with playing the percentages when they contradict conventional wisdom is that you get a lot of lazy criticism when things go wrong.

That said, if you are going to tempt the probability gods, it’s not a good idea to do it with a quarterback who makes obvious mistakes and a secondary that cannot tackle.

Team: Cowboys

Claim to Second-Place Fame: Jerry Jones thinks they are an overlooked contender.

Biggest Overall Problem: Jerry Jones thinking.

What Sunday Taught Us

We covered Romo at the top.

The Cowboys offensive line may be the best in the NFL, with DeMarco Murray plowing for his fourth 100-yard game. The defense is not all that bad.

The Cowboys can hold good opponents under 30 this year, which is all they need to finish over .500 against a schedule full of Redskins, Jaguars and not-as-good-as-their-record Texans.

NFC Power Rankings (Who Will Be No. 2?)

8. Saints: The Giants and Lions are better teams at this point.

7. Bears: Taking their familiar place at the fringe of the wild-card picture.

6. Cowboys: There is still some strength-of-schedule skepticism at work here.

5. Packers: Would rank higher if their defense did not still treat every option, reverse or misdirection like first contact with an alien race.

4. Eagles: The fact that they were a few yards from winning Sunday was revealing.

3. 49ers: One Anquan Boldin injury away from never being spoken of again.

2. Cardinals: Congratulations, Bruce Arians, you won the bye week!

Participation Trophies

Not everybody earns one, but everybody gets one!

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

Minimalist Stat Line Trophy

(Awarded to the player who did the least damage with the most touches.)

Arian Foster and Alfred Blue combined to rush 17 times for 15 yards in the Texans’ 23-17 victory over the Bills. Their longest run was six yards. Ryan Fitzpatrick led the Texans with 14 rushing yards thanks to an 11-yard scramble.

HOUSTON, TX- SEPTEMBER 28: Arian Foster #23 of the Houston Texans breaks the tackle of Brandon Spikes #51 of the Buffalo Bills in a NFL game on September 28, 2014 at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
Bob Levey/Getty Images

The Texans won with no rushing game at all because: a) J.J. Watt is awesome, and b) they were playing the Bills.

With the Texans trying to kill the clock and facing 3rd-and-10 late in the fourth quarter, Fitzpatrick dumped an eight-yard pass to Foster over the middle. Foster fell as he caught the ball. Defenders Keith Rivers and Preston Brown stood and looked at him on the ground for a second. Then Foster rolled two yards for a first down before Rivers and Brown remembered that they were supposed to touch him. The Texans were able to eat up extra clock and timeouts.

Maybe if Foster and Blue had used the "stop, drop and roll" method on handoffs, they would have gained more yardage.

Meaningless Fantasy Touchdown Trophy

(For the most unnecessary, yet fantasy-relevant, touchdown of the week.)

Ahmad Bradshaw caught a 15-yard touchdown from Andrew Luck to give the Colts a 41-17 lead over the Titans in the fourth quarter. It was Luck’s fourth touchdown of the game.

The AFC South is your source for meaningless fantasy touchdowns, thanks to the Titans and Jaguars. When in doubt, reach for a Colts role player. But go ahead and drop Alfred Blue.

Fantasy Leech Trophy

Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

(Awarded to the fullback, tight end, fourth receiver or moonlighting linebacker who scored so your first-round pick couldn’t.)

Patrick DiMarco is the nephew of PGA golfer Chris DiMarco, who won a handful of Tour events in the early 2000s. He is also a fullback for the Falcons.

His first career touchdown, in the second quarter of the Falcons' 41-28 loss to the Vikings, had extra leech characteristics because it came just after an apparent Steven Jackson touchdown was ruled a stop at the 1-yard line.

Antone Smith also rushed for a Falcons touchdown, his third of the season. If you are carrying Jackson right now, you are carrying a handicap.

Snap Fail Trophy

Lefteris Pitarakis/Associated Press

(Awarded to the center who dooms a play before it starts.)

This was a banner week for bad snaps, but two deserve special attention.

Steve Wisniewski welcomed Raiders backup quarterback Mike McGloin to London by flinging a shotgun snap past his head; Cortland Finnegan recovered it and raced 50 yards for a Dolphins touchdown.

The Chargers faced 4th-and-inches in the second quarter of the Jaguars game, and Philip Rivers lined up under center for some hard counts. Center Doug Legursky must have thought San Diego was just trying to draw the Jaguars offside, because he did not budge, even as Rivers and nine other Chargers began to execute a play.

A false start penalty forced San Diego to punt and helped keep the Jaguars in the game. Rivers must have been missing Nick Hardwick at that moment.

Best Game Plan of the Week

We will get to what the Vikings did for Teddy Bridgewater in the next segment. But Bill Lazor and (if we have to) Joe Philbin deserve credit for emphasizing the option wrinkles in their offense as the Dolphins blew out the Raiders.

Ryan Tannehill runs a fine option, and the play-action opportunities set up by options made Tannehill look like the quarterback the Dolphins have been waiting for. Now to do it a) in America; b) against a real opponent; and c) with fewer dropped passes...Dolphins, please?

Worst Game Plan of the Week

The Steelers made numerous mistakes on both sides of the ball in their 27-24 upset loss to the Buccaneers. A whole article can be built around unnecessary flea-flickers and 29-yard punts, but here are three late-game blunders worth discussing:

1) Facing 4th-and-3 from the Bucs' 37-yard line late in the third quarter, Ben Roethlisberger dropped from shotgun to punt formation and attempted a pooch punt. Left-footed.

Big Ben apparently throws right but punts left. The punt itself was not that bad, but a confused Marcus Gilbert committed a false start. The Steelers tried just about everything against the Buccaneers late in the game except moving the football.

2) The Buccaneers committed three delay-of-game penalties, as interim offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo had a hard time communicating with Mike Glennon in noisy Heinz Field.

PITTSBURGH, PA - SEPTEMBER 28:  Mike Evans #13 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers avoids a tackle by Troy Polamalu #43 of the Pittsburgh Steelers during the third quarter at Heinz Field on September 28, 2014 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Justin K. Alle
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The Steelers responded by trying to jump the snap count, figuring that the Buccaneers offensive line would be ragged when and if they did get a play off. Unfortunately, Pittsburgh only thinks it is good at jumping snap counts, and Arthur Moats jumped offside to give the Buccaneers a first down on 3rd-and-2.

Troy Polamalu jumped offsides on a "leap into the backfield at the same time as the snap" play earlier in the game, and he grabbed Doug Martin’s facemask the one time he did break through cleanly. But taking away Polamalu’s privilege of crowding the line because of constant penalties is a little too much like hiding grandpa’s car keys.

3) The Steelers' game-ending playground lateral play went from Ben Roethlisberger to Heath Miller to Markus Wheaton back to Ben Roethlisberger. It looked like one of those Bugs Bunny routines that always ends up with Elmer Fudd’s shotgun pointed at Daffy Duck’s face. It’s a football, not a boomerang, guys.

Care and Feeding of Your Rookie Quarterback

Teddy Bridgewater earned boffo reviews in the Vikings’ 41-28 victory over the Falcons. He completed 19 of his 30 passes for 317 yards, adding 27 rushing yards and a rushing touchdown.

Bridgewater suffered a mild ankle sprain late in the game, but coach Mike Zimmer told reporters he expects Bridgewater to play Thursday against Green Bay. The QB's performance offers Vikings fans hope for the not-too-distant future.

Blake Bortles’ Jaguars debut was much more lukewarm: He finished 29-of-37 for 253 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions and 24 rushing yards as the Jaguars endured a 33-14 loss to the Chargers.

Despite the final scores and statistical differences, Bridgewater and Bortles had similar performances Sunday. The circumstances they faced made Bridgewater look great and Bortles look meh.

Rookie quarterbacks require more care and maintenance than veterans, but while both the Vikings and Jaguars put as much scaffolding as possible around their first-time starters, Minnesota was much better equipped than Jacksonville to give its rookie what he needed to succeed.

Here is a breakdown of just that:

Emphasize the Short Stuff

Screens and flat passes are a rookie quarterback’s best friend. Bridgewater’s first three passes were receiver screens; the third netted 52 yards after a Jarius Wright bob-and-weave. 

The Jaguars mixed in their share of screens early in the game and Bortles established a comfortable rhythm, but Jacksonville got no big plays from them.

Grades: Vikings A+, Jaguars B

Don’t Lean Too Much on the Short Stuff

At some point, the defense will play tight man on the receivers, dial back on the blitzes and force the rookie to throw downfield into tight windows.

Bridgewater threw one screen to Cordarrelle Patterson that the receiver had to swat out of bounds in self-defense because he was so surrounded by defenders. Bridgewater and coordinator Norv Turner adjusted, and the signal-caller began incorporating more play-action downfield throws into his routine. 

Bortles threw downfield comfortably on several third downs early in the game, but coordinator Jedd Fisch grew skittish after a second-half interception. Bortles threw for a loss of one to Denard Robinson on 2nd-and-2, then to Clay Harbor for a loss of two on 3rd-and-3.

That’s short passing gone wrong.

Grades: Vikings A, Jaguars C

Establish the Power Run With Your Adrian Peterson Surrogate

Matt Asiata rushed for 3.9 yards per carry, which is as good as Matt Asiata is ever going to get. He also scored three touchdowns on simple, option-flavored inside runs.

Matt Asiata and the Vikings were all in for Teddy Bridgewater.
Matt Asiata and the Vikings were all in for Teddy Bridgewater.Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press/Associated Press

Toby Gerhart carried 10 times for 32 yards, fumbled and was stuffed on a fourth down. Bortles was also foiled on a fourth-down sneak. A short-yardage conversion or two can make a whole offense look sharper.

As mentioned above, the Jaguars got all weird and short-pass happy in short-yardage situations, which is an easy way to put too much pressure on a rookie.

Grades: Vikings B-, Jaguars D

Use That Converted College Quarterback Playmaker Guy on Your Bench

With all of the options and screens in the game plan, it may be time to give some touches to that former quarterback you drafted as a running back; you know, the "offensive weapon" you never use because he cannot pass protect or something?

Jerick McKinnon gained 152 yards from scrimmage for the Vikings and provided a speedy option the Falcons were not prepared for.

Denard Robinson rushed nine times for 25 yards and caught three passes for seven yards. The Jaguars cannot seem to figure out that Robinson is not the player they think he is.

Grades: Vikings A, Jaguars D

Field Position Helps

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - SEPTEMBER 28: Teddy Bridgewater #5 of the Minnesota Vikings passes under pressure from Paul Worrilow #55 of the Atlanta Falcons at TCF Bank Stadium on September 28, 2014 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images)
Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

It’s easier to score when you are 53 yards away from the end zone instead of 91.

Bridgewater started drives on his own 47, his own 45 and the Falcons' 30, thanks to returns and turnovers. Bortles’ best starting field position was his own 32-yard line, and he started two failed drives at his own 9.

Grades: Vikings B, Jaguars D

Make a Game of It

The Vikings game was close throughout, and they pulled away at the end.

A Gerhart fumble on the first play of the game gave the Chargers a 7-0 lead. The Jaguars pulled to a 14-14 tie, but Jacksonville's defense was no match for San Diego in the second half.

Bortles’ second interception came late in the fourth quarter, a point in the game when the Vikings were handing off on three straight plays to set up long Blair Walsh field goals.

Oh yeah: Long field goals help rookie quarterbacks too!

Grades: Vikings A, Jaguars D

Bottom Line

Both Bridgewater and Bortles had promising debuts. Bridgewater was better, but if they switched teams and opponents, Bortles might have been the one who enjoyed long Jarius Wright catch-and-runs and Jerick McKinnon scampers, as well as the win.

There’s more to come from both quarterbacks; neither a lopsided loss nor a sprained ankle should be reason for discouragement.

Last Call

Patric Schneider/Associated Press

A handful of random images from a very unpredictable Sunday.

The Many Moods of J.J. Watt

HOUSTON, TX- SEPTEMBER 28: J.J. Watt #99 of the Houston Texans intercepts EJ Manuel #3 of the Buffalo Bills pass and returned it for a 80 yard touchdown in the third quarter in a NFL game on September 28, 2014 at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas. (Photo by B
Bob Levey/Getty Images

Watt had another magnificent game for the Texans, whose fans are one step away from nominating him for governor of Texas. Watt merchandise is flying off the shelves, from jerseys and towels to tattoos and sarcophagi you can be bury your loved ones in.

Sunday’s victory over the Bills provided two enduring images:

1) Watt outrunning everyone on both sides of the ball for his 80-yard pick-six touchdown; as awesome as he is, the fact that a 290-pound lineman outran the field may be a reason why we won’t be seeing a Texans-Bills AFC Championship Game anytime soon.

2) Watt coming up growling and angry after Cyril Richardson landed on him in the end zone after one desperate Bills play. Richardson lists at 330 pounds, but that’s before barbecue night. If you cannot block Watt, drop heavy objects on him! Richardson played at Baylor but probably won’t be welcome in Texas for a while.

The Many Faces of Steve Smith

BALTIMORE, MD - SEPTEMBER 28:  Wide receiver Steve Smith #89 of the Baltimore Ravens scores a touchdown in the second quarter of a game against the Carolina Panthers at M&T Bank Stadium on September 28, 2014 in Baltimore, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Get
Rob Carr/Getty Images

The Ravens’ 38-10 win over the Panthers was all about Steve Smith, who caught seven passes for 139 yards and two touchdowns in his first meeting with the Panthers.

We saw many facets of his personality Sunday.

Smith the Peacemaker hugged it up and joked around with former teammates and owner Jerry Richardson before kickoff; Richardson is always happy to chat with someone he is no longer paying.

Smith the Instigator jawed with defenders after tough catches.

Smith the Magician caught one touchdown off a volleyball tip from Owen Daniels, and another after Joe Flacco bobbled a snap and had to (this is the scariest word in the world when describing Joe Flacco) improvise.

Smith the Smart Aleck waited until he was well off the field to enjoy a sneaky "drink the football" celebration next to a television camera.

In short, Smith provided a whole month’s worth of interesting offensive Ravens highlights Sunday: two of them! Think Cam Newton misses him? Newton misses everyone. Newton is lonely. And very, very bruised. 

Antonio Brown’s Celebration

PITTSBURGH, PA - SEPTEMBER 28:  Antonio Brown #84 celebrates his touchdown with Le'Veon Bell #26 of the Pittsburgh Steelers during the first quarter against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Heinz Field on September 28, 2014 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Before all heck broke loose for the Steelers against the Buccaneers, there was time for a moment of joy. Antonio Brown spun the football like a top on the ground after a touchdown, wobbled his body as the ball wobbled, and fell to the ground when the ball fell.

Fifteen-yard penalty, of course: The ball was used as a prop, you awful, awful, unsportsmanlike person.

Even the NFL Network's highlight narrators chuckled, because of course they broadcast the dirty, filthy display of showmanship, perhaps as an example of something young athletes everywhere should never, ever do.

Brown handed the football quietly to the referee after a later touchdown. I wait for the day when a referee flags a player for handing him the football: Isn’t ritually handing the football to a referee a form of celebration?

Isn’t "acting like you belong in the end zone" prideful and disrespectful to opponents who are trying to keep you out? And isn’t the ball automatically a prop in such a celebration? The NFL needs to police this. Because there is absolutely nothing else to worry about right now.

England for Beginners

The largely unwatchable Dolphins-Raiders game featured the usual images from London before and after commercial breaks: Big Ben, London Bridge and the like—plus one ridiculous graphic explaining the significance of Wembley Stadium to Americans who do not get out much.

"Home to England’s National Soccer Team," the graphic explained. "Hosted concerts by artists like Madonna, U2 and Metallica." And finally, "Hosted annual NFL game since 2007."

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 28:  Rock band Def Leppard perform prior to kickoff during the NFL match between the Oakland Raiders and the Miami Dolphins at Wembley Stadium on September 28, 2014 in London, England.  (Photo by Nicky Hayes/NFL UK - Pool /Gett
Pool/Getty Images

Er...we have heard of Wembley Stadium, guys. There was this thing called the Olympics two years ago. Also, Live Aid (a different venue but on the same site) and dozens of other concerts of international significance took place there over the decades.

I mean, it does not have the international name recognition of O.co Coliseum, but we have heard of it. We don’t need to be reassured that Metallica has played there to appease our Neanderthal football brains.

The NFL should host a game at the Roman Coliseum so we can all enjoy the Fox graphic explaining its significance.

"All of that stuff from Gladiator happened here!" "Backdrop for many 1960s movies that featured topless girls!" "Model for Pasadena’s Rose Bowl!" And of course, "These crazy people call ice cream 'Gelato!'"

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.


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