Monday Morning Digest: 3 Teams a Cut Above After Statement Sunday in the NFL

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterNovember 14, 2016

Monday Morning Digest: 3 Teams a Cut Above After Statement Sunday in the NFL

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    There are currently 16 teams—half the NFL—within one game of .500 in the standings.

    Whether you find that exciting or depressing depends on not only your feelings about parity but also your expectations entering the season. The Titans and their fans are pleased to be hovering at .500. The Packers and Steelers faithful are inconsolable about their teams' middling status. The Rams feel right at home and may never leave.

    All of the parity makes for a chock-full Monday Morning Digest, where we learn that:

    • The Broncos were lucky to escape New Orleans with a win.
    • The Titans have a real shot at a playoff berth.
    • The Chiefs can rise above the .500 fray just by sweating the small stuff.
    • The Jets' quarterback situation is a perpetual motion machine powered by failure and regret.
    • Kirk Cousins sings like he's huffing helium at an Old Crow Medicine Show concert.

    But let's put the .500 soup on hold and start at the top. The cream of the NFL crop—most notably Seattle and Dallas—made some statements Sunday. And Digest was listening to every word.

Top Story: Cowboys, Patriots, Seahawks Shine on Statement Sunday

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    Here are the official NFL power rankings, as calculated by anyone who was paying even a little attention during Statement Sunday:

    1. Seahawks
    2. Patriots
    3. Cowboys
    4. Everyone else

    That "everyone else" includes the Steelers, who forfeited their right to uncontested fourth place by following a brilliant fake-spike touchdown with 42 seconds of the dumbest football ever played; the three AFC West teams—Denver, K.C. and Oakland—who battled to two last-minute victories and a bye; all of the streaky NFC also-rans; and even some dark horses such as the Titans.

    It's a crowded field. All that is certain is the Seahawks, Patriots and Cowboys lead it.

    You can quibble with the order if you like. But the Seahawks won in Foxborough on Sunday night. That's been the gold standard in NFL regular-season achievements for 15 years. The Cowboys have a rookie quarterback. Yeah, he looks great. You ready to rank a team with a rookie quarterback above the Patriots? The Cowboys have the line and running game, the Seahawks the defense, the Patriots the Tom Brady.

    These three teams matter the most, so we had better get to know them best:

    C.J. Prosise's emergence at running back for the Seahawks is a balance-of-power changer for the NFC. Prosise's versatility as a rusher-receiver diversifies the Seahawks offense, making him an almost Percy Harvin-like presence.

    Opponents can't guess the formation and tendency when he's in the game; unpredictability is a big deal for a team that can barely protect its quarterback. Prosise generated 153 yards on 24 touches Sunday night.

    The Patriots look depleted on defense right now. They have missed Chandler Jones as an all-purpose defender, and whatever their issues with Jamie Collins, they were better off with him. The Patriots lack cornerback depth after Malcolm Butler, and it showed when Russell Wilson completed fades along the sideline.

    The front seven has talent and potential but didn't dominate the way it should against the Seahawks. Are these reasons to worry? Nah. By the time the Patriots reach the playoffs, we'll be talking about guys such as Trey Flowers and Elandon Roberts as if they shared the huddle with Mike Vrabel and Tedy Bruschi.

    The Dak Prescott-Tony Romo controversy is one of the most inane, manufactured NFL dramas of recent memory. No one in Dallas, including Romo, is losing any sleep over who starts at quarterback as long as Ezekiel Elliott is racking up 209 yards and three touchdowns on rushes and screen passes against good opponents.

    It was always a loaded comparison of Prescott, beneath a "hot rookie" halo, and Romo, encircled by every mistake we remember him making over the last decade. But now it's a moot point unless Prescott gets hurt or goes on an unexpected turnover spree. So please stop parsing Jerry Jones' every utterance for hidden meanings.

Digestible Nuggets

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    Feel like the season's slipping away? You are not alone. Here are quick takes on some teams that are wondering what's wrong with them right now. Teams are listed in descending order of optimism.

    Atlanta Falcons: The run defense is porous. The pass defense is inconsistent. And the "Matt Ryan for MVP" talk never really stood up to game-tape scrutiny in the first place. Mitigating Factors: A game-and-a-half division lead, a 3-1 NFC South record and the fact that the Panthers are currently four-point underdogs against their own self-doubt.

    Minnesota Vikings: Left tackle Jake Long (pictured) suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in the loss to Washington, according to Chris Tomasson of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Mike Zimmer is out of tackles, but I have an inflatable Frosty the Snowman in my garage he can borrow. Mitigating Factor: The division is wide-open because the Packers stink like microwaved cod fritters.

    Arizona Cardinals: Yeah, they beat the 49ers. But they committed four turnovers and let Colin Kaepernick march down the field for a game-tying, fourth-quarter touchdown in the final minutes. The Cardinals have zero wins against quality opponents this season and have the Falcons and Vikings on their upcoming schedule. Mitigating Factor: The Falcons and Vikings are also on this list.

    Pittsburgh Steelers: The run defense gets manhandled too often. The secondary grabs facemasks like it thinks receivers come with screw-top lids. The "let's go for two all the time" tactic looks great on paper, but it's one more way for problems to snowball and compound when things aren't going well. Mitigating Factor: Four more divisional games, two against the Browns.

    San Diego Chargers: Philip Rivers threw four interceptions. The stadium referendum failed. Everyone else in the AFC West is partying while the Chargers trip over their fellow mid-majors. Mitigating Factor: You should see what those stadium referendums do to your tax load.

    Green Bay Packers: I've seen a Lhasa Apso dressed in little devil costume for Halloween that had more dignity than the Packers displayed Sunday. Mitigating Factor: It's now impossible to pretend that everything is OK and the team will bounce back as soon as some player or another gets healthy. 

Game Spotlight: Broncos 25, Saints 23

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    What Happened 

    Justin Simmons leaped over the center to block an extra point after what appeared to be a game-winning Saints touchdown, and Will Parks (pictured) returned the block for what turned out to be a game-winning defensive two-point conversion.

    But you probably saw all of that on the highlight package.

    Before that, the great Saints offense and Broncos defense and miserable Saints defense and Broncos offense interacted in surprising and unpredictable ways.

    The Broncos thumped out just enough rushing yards (103 at 2.8 yards per carry) to sustain some drives, and they benefited from spectacular Demaryius Thomas catches (8-87-1). But Trevor Siemian endured six sacks and two jittery interceptions under constant pressure.

    The Saints moved the ball well all afternoon but committed four turnovers.

    It was a back-and-forth game of tipped passes, open-field strip fumbles, missed field goals, missed opportunities and momentum shifts, culminating with one of the strangest late-game sequences in history.


    What It Means 

    The Broncos offense escaped the three-and-out purgatory of recent weeks, but that's not to say it played well.

    The Saints' front seven looked faster and more physical than the Broncos line, and Siemian appears to be operating at the edge of his physical limitations when trying to make things happen against a pass rush. The Broncos will take the road win in the standings, but their offensive problems linger, and balanced teams with lots of weapons (such as the Saints and Raiders) can find all the soft patches in their defense.

    The Saints went as far as Drew Brees will ever take them from 2009 through 2013 and have spent over two-and-a-half seasons reinforcing that fact. Sunday was just extra confirmation.


    What's Next 

    The Saints travel to Carolina for a rematch. The Broncos have a bye week to come up with a new idea on offense. Hey, Paxton Lynch is a new idea!

Player Spotlight: Bryce Petty, Quarterback, Jets

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    What He Did

    Bryce Petty threw a gorgeous 52-yard sideline bomb to Robby Anderson. He then got a pass-to-assist touchdown by throwing a screen to Brandon Marshall, who lateraled to Bilal Powell in a play coordinator Chan Gailey must have dreamed up after an evening of taste-testing small-batch moonshines.

    And that was it for Petty, who only completed two other passes of 10 or more yards in a 9-6 loss to the Rams that was just as excruciating as the phrase "9-6 loss to the Rams" suggests.

    Gailey didn't have many other tricks up his sleeve for Petty besides the Anderson bomb and the Marshall-Powell pick-and-roll; Petty spent much of his surprise first start handing off to Matt Forte and pretending to run the option after the give. His last-gasp final drive consisted of three short completions and an Alec Ogletree interception.


    What It Means 

    Repeat after me: The Jets quarterback of the future is not currently on the roster.

    If it was Petty, the team would not have capitulated and re-signed Ryan Fitzpatrick on the eve of training camp. If it was Christian Hackenberg, the team would never have kept Geno Smith around.

    The Jets are rummaging through the bad third- and fourth-stringers behind their bad starter and backup, using "youth" and "potential" as an excuse for putting a second-year player on the field who could only score one measly touchdown because Gailey stole a page from Gregg Popovich's playbook.


    What's Next 

    Jets quarterback drama is like Kardashian drama. It's utterly meaningless to the real world yet annoyingly fascinating somehow. The upcoming bye week is no break from the intrigue, just a chance for Fitzpatrick, Marshall, Todd Bowles and others to go into the tabloid confessional and broadcast more grist for the melodrama.

Game Spotlight: Chiefs 20, Panthers 17

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    What Happened 

    The Panthers and their fans are probably still asking themselves that question Monday morning.

    The Panthers built a 17-3 lead against a Chiefs team that isn't known for its comeback capability, then embarked on a 20-play clock-pulverizer of a third-quarter drive that should have put the game out of reach.

    Next, the Panthers suddenly began making every fundamental mistake a team can. A pair of sacks at the end of that 20-play saga pushed them out of field-goal range. Kansas City took over, and jitterbug receiver Tyreek Hill (pictured) caught three passes for 51 yards to set up a field goal to make it 17-6 with 12:02 remaining.

    Cam Newton threw an ugly pick-six off his back foot to Eric Berry on the next drive. After another stalled Panthers drive, Hill returned a punt 21 yards to set up a game-tying field goal with 4:25 left.

    The Panthers defense stiffened to give Newton one last chance in the final seconds, but Marcus Peters stripped a completion from Kelvin Benjamin at the Panthers' 34-yard line with 29 seconds left. Cairo Santos kicked the game-winning field goal a few plays later.


    What It Means 

    No team manufactures victories out of the contents of a recycling bucket quite like the Kansas City Chiefs. They netted just 256 yards of offense and went 2-of-12 on third-down conversions. Yet they won thanks to this combination: a pair of turnovers to give them a plus-14 differential for the year, solid special teams, stout run defense, good field position and the ability to cobble together just enough offense without injured Jeremy Maclin to stay in the game.

    The Chiefs must be nearly mistake-free to win games the way they do, but they have done it consistently for the last three seasons.

    This looked like the Panthers' best chance to claw back into relevance against an opponent that lacks the firepower to challenge their secondary. Instead, their beat-up offensive line deteriorated as the game went on, and situational mistakes down the stretch once again suggested the Panthers aren't as dialed in as they need to be to salvage their season.


    What Happens Next 

    The Chiefs host the Buccaneers before a tough Broncos-Falcons road trip. The Panthers must survive Saints-Raiders-Seahawks (the last two on the road) or else slide into oblivion.

Player Spotlight: DeMarco Murray, Running Back, Titans

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    What He Did 

    DeMarco Murray rushed 17 times for 123 yards and a touchdown, caught two passes for 33 yards and threw a touchdown to Delanie Walker on a tailback option in the Titans' 47-25 feeding frenzy against the Green Bay Packers.


    What It Means 

    The 5-5 Titans are legitimate playoff contenders. Murray and the running game are primary reasons why.

    Mike Mularkey's system allows Murray to do what he does best: take downhill handoffs from an offset I formation, find a crease, make one cut and outrun defenders in the open field. Excellent run blocking and a creative approach to the running game have helped Murray bounce back from his exile year in a Chip Kelly offense that did not suit him (or anyone else).


    What Happens Next 

    The big question is whether Murray and the Titans have what it takes to reach the playoffs. Let's run through their schedule quickly:

    Week 11 at Colts: The Colts won the first meeting, but they are a lot like the Packers: a franchise quarterback, four or five good players and about four dozen guys who don't really believe in each other. Let's call this a win.

    Week 12 at Bears: Jay Cutler has already donated two turnovers for this game. Win.

    Week 14 vs. Broncos: Probably a loss after the bye.

    Week 15 at Chiefs: Chiefs are tough at home. Loss.

    Week 16 at Jaguars: Doug Marrone will be the Jaguars head coach by then, Chad Henne the quarterback. Titans win.

    Week 17 vs. Texans: The Texans won the first meeting, so this may decide the postseason. On the other hand, the Texans are just about the weakest 6-3 team you will ever see. Assuming Murray and the running game are still humming, the Titans should be poised not just for revenge, but a playoff berth as well.

Unsung Hero of the Week: Vernon Davis, Tight End, Redskins

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    What He Did 

    Vernon Davis caught three passes for 66 yards and one touchdown in Washington's 26-20 win over the Vikings. He now has 14 catches on 14 targets for 238 yards in his last three games. Not bad for a guy you probably thought was doing color commentary on the ACC Network two months ago.


    What It Means 

    Washington's system is built around giving Kirk Cousins outstanding protection and a wealth of weapons for ball distribution. When everyone is healthy, Jordan Reed and Pierre Garcon are the possession monsters, DeSean Jackson takes cornerbacks and safeties on 50-yard downfield dashes, and Jamison Crowder is the nifty-shifty slot guy.

    Davis' job is to line up in two-tight end sets and convince some poor overmatched linebacker that he is still Vernon Davis. So far, it has worked.

    Davis' presence allows Washington to be unpredictable in two-tight end sets and has taken the sting out of the losses of Jackson and Reed at various times this season. Davis is even run blocking with a little more eagerness these days, forcing opponents to pick their poison when he is on the field.


    What's Next 

    Washington faces the Packers. Imagine if Aaron Rodgers had a receiving corps like Cousins has, with Davis as the fifth or sixth option. If Davis played for the Packers, he would probably lead them in receiving and rushing by now.

Awards Digest

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    Defensive Player of the Week: Tony Lippett (pictured) had trouble with receiver Tyrell Williams at times but recorded two interceptions in the fourth quarter of the 31-24 Dolphins victory over the Chargers: one in the end zone and one on the final drive. It was a big day for the Dolphins defense overall, with Cameron Wake adding two sacks and Kiko Alonso providing the decisive edge with a late pick-six.

    Offensive Line of the Week: The Eagles rushed for 198 yards, spread among three different running backs. Carson Wentz absorbed just two sacks and had plenty of time to throw for much of the afternoon. It was an impressive performance for a line riddled with injuries and suspensions. Kudos to Jason Peters, Stefen Wisniewski, Jason Kelce, Brandon Brooks and (cutting, pasting, not even trying to spell it myself) Halapoulivaati Vaitai.

    Special Teamer of the Week: Justin Simmons wins for his game-winning extra-point block for the Broncos. The NFL will close the loophole that allows defenders to leap over the long snapper in the offseason, so enjoy the acrobatics while they last and hope no one gets hurt.

    Johnny Hekker Moment of the Week: Hekker blasted a 78-yard punt for the Rams in the fourth quarter, flipping field position so the Rams got the ball near midfield after a three-and-out and setting up the game-winning field goal. Hekker's heroics mean everything is A-OK with the Rams and there is no need to do anything rash like start the first overall pick in the draft at quarterback or hire a coaching staff that can assemble a functional offense.

    Mystery Touch of the Week: Late in the fourth quarter against the Panthers, Alex Smith caught his own pass after it was batted back at him. He scrambled a bit and then attempted another pass to Charcandrick West. That second, illegal forward pass wiped away Smith's self-catch, which is bad news if you had him in a points-per-reception fantasy league.

    Mystery Play Call of the Week: The Steelers' fake spike to set up a Ben Roethlisberger-Antonio Brown go-ahead touchdown with 42 seconds left was a thing of beauty, from Big Ben's body language before the play to the throw and catch. If the Steelers had won, we'd be talking about it for decades. But they didn't, losing 35-30 to Dallas. So let's look at the Steelers' final desperation play instead.

    Roethlisberger hits Brown for a short pass, Brown turns upfield and races up the sidelines against a soft prevent defense (so far, so good) and then...lets himself get run out of bounds? No pitch play? No desperate turn to heave the ball toward the middle of the field? No nothing?

    The Steelers played every snap after the fake spike like they thought they had already won and could put their brains on power-saver mode.

Fantasy Digest

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    This week's Fantasy Digest focuses on four important running backs who returned from injuries this week. Or were supposed to, anyway.

    James Starks has always met the minimum weekly requirements of being an NFL running back, no less and no more. The Packers gave Starks seven scattered carries, and he added a short touchdown reception.

    However, the Packers were content to rotate him with converted receiver Ty Montgomery, throw the ball instead of rushing in goal-to-go situations and abandon the run altogether at the first sign of trouble (which occurred around 1:06 p.m. Eastern time this week).

    The Packers have a long history with all of these ill-fated tactics, so expect Starks to keep producing change-up rushers' numbers.

    Doug Martin (pictured) plowed out 33 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries, but fantasy owners should be pleased with the Buccaneers' goal-to-go tactics. They stacked extra lineman Gosder Cherilus and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy into the formation as extra blockers and gave Martin three straight carries inside the 5-yard line to punch in his touchdown.

    Peyton Barber outperformed Martin for much of the game, but that won't matter if Dirk Koetter remains committed to Heavy Jumbo Caveman football in goal-line situations.

    Carlos Hyde produced a vintage Chip Kelly running back stat line: 13 carries for 14 yards.

    Don't worry, Carlos: Chip will either quit or get fired, or perhaps trade you for someone who likes his preferred quinoa recipes. You will enjoy a DeMarco Murray-like comeback season while Chip explains his outside-zone running system (which is precisely one outside-zone running play) to some other poor soul.

    Dion Lewis was supposed to be activated by the Patriots, but he was a late scratch. What, you thought Patriots injury information was reliable? James White is the more versatile back anyway, and LeGarrette Blount has the goal-line job sewn up.

    Waiting on a Patriots one-year wonder running back to come back will break your fantasy heart.

Final Thoughts

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    Our final thoughts focus mostly on some weird and wacky moments from Week 10.

    • Blake Bortles tries to ground the ball, bounces a pass off T.J. Yeldon's foot for a turnover instead. When Bortles takes a shower, the water blasts out ice-cold, so he frantically turns the spigot the other way, then he shouts "HOT-HOT-HOT-HOT" while accidentally pulling the spigot right out of the fixture, tries to escape the scalding shower, slips on a bar of soap and gets tangled in the shower curtain like a tuna in a fishing net. Every single time.
    • Philip Rivers does almost the same thing Bortles did. Rivers bounced a pass he was trying to throw into the ground off a lineman's back. But...Blake Bortles, amiright?
    • LeBron James endorses Ezekiel Elliott for MVP on Twitter. Elliott was probably like, "Hey, an endorsement from King James. That's cool. Say, what happened to the last person LeBron publicly endorsed? Wasn't it Hil...OH NO OH NO OH NO OH NO OH NO OH NO OH NO OH PLEASE HEAVEN NOOOOOOOOOO..."
    • Kirk Cousins celebrates victory by singing "Whoo-ee" through the stadium corridors. He sounded like Roger Rabbit trying to sing backing tracks on Music From Big Pink. Finally, someone guaranteed to be unwelcome at the Country Music Awards! If Washington fans take a cue from Cousins' "You Like That" celebration and start signing "Whoo-ee" after touchdowns...well, let's just say it won't help bring a divided nation together again.
    • Tajae Sharpe penalized for "falling asleep" after touchdown. And yet no one penalized the Packers for sleepwalking for 60 minutes against the Titans.
    • Mike Evans sits during the national anthem, protesting Donald Trump's election. This is not exactly an unexpected development, and it will probably be one of the defining topics of the next few weeks, months or years. It sure was fun not thinking about politics for a few hours Sunday (and the last 10 slides), wasn't it? We're probably going to just get used to enjoying those moments when we can.