Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Tuesday Morning Quarterback: NFL Week #12 Winners and Losers

Once as a kid, watching pro football with my Dad, I heard him say something like this: “Does it really matter who your running back is? Seems to me if your offensive line is in synch and blowing out big holes in the defense, that any reasonably talented runner could gain 100 yards a game.” I think he had a point. Matter of fact, I think Bill Belichick and Mike Shanahan and Mike McCarthy and Herman Edwards would agree completely.

Shanahan’s Broncos have been changing running backs like underwear in the past decade, yet adhering to disciplined blocking schemes seems to net them 100-yard performances no matter who’s carrying the ball. In the past two games, Broncos running back Andre Hall, an undrafted rookie free agent from South Florida who no one ever heard of, has stepped up to replace big-money off-season free-agent acquisition Travis Henry and has netted 187 yards on 33 carries. After losing Larry Johnson to injury and then Priest Holmes to retirement, the Chiefs’ Edwards turned this weekend to 5th round rookie draftee Kolby Smith out of Louisville. He gained 150 yards on 31 carries. McCarthy’s Packers had no running game at all this year. Then they put in nobody Ryan Grant, who had carried the ball only six times in the team’s first six games. Now he’s got 494 yards on 107 carries, including three 100-yard games out of the past five.

As for the 11-0 Patriots, they’ve got a high-priced stud in Laurence Maroney, who’s gained 467 yards on 105 carries in 2007. But they’ve also got the tandem of lesser-knowns comprising Sammy Morris, Kevin Faulk, Kyle Eckel and Heath Evans, who have combined for 777 yards on 191 carries, a 4.1 average, and offer solid proof of dear ol’ Dad’s theory.

Barry Sanders, O.J.Simpson, Eric Dickerson, Earl Campbell, Curtis Martin, Tiki Barber. All great runners with one thing in common: None ever won the Super Bowl.

It’s all about blocking and teamwork. Don’t ever forget it.

The scores:

Bears 37, Broncos 34—A tremendously entertaining game in which the Broncos blow a 14-point fourth-quarter lead then lose it in overtime. They also kept daring Devin Hester to return kicks for the Bears; so he obliged by returning two for TDs. The win fueled the Bears’ hopes for a wild-card slot (still pretty iffy at 5-6) and cost 5-6 Denver a share of the AFC West lead. Speaking of running backs, the Bears’ Cedric Benson sustained an injury that will require season-ending surgery. With his 3.4 yards-per-carry average, Benson has remained a bust: a #1 draft choice in 2005 who was burned out when he arrived in Chicago after playing four incredibly full college years at Texas. He’s injury-prone to boot, and this’ll force the Bears to go another direction. Maybe give rookie scatback Garrett Wolfe a shot at it.

Bengals 35, Titans 6—The Titans defense has totally collapsed without injured DT Albert Haynesworth, but can one guy actually make that much of a difference? The team’s three-game losing streak has also been marred by poor running, receivers with stone hands and a clearly frustrated Vince Young. At 6-5, they’re losing steam in the wild-card race, and they look uninspired. Bengals regained some of their offensive rep with huge games from Carson Palmer and Chad Johnson. They’re now 4-7, still with little hope for the postseason, but they could rattle some cages down the stretch for sure.

Patriots 31, Eagles 28—Eagles claim title as best 5-6 team in the league with a heroic effort on the road against all-world undefeated Pats (11-0). Eagles backup QB A. J. Feeley proves that Pats’ D can be exploited, which should be a valuable lesson for the rest of the teams on New England’s schedule. But even a hepped-up, well-schemed Philly defense couldn’t shut down all the offensive options at Tom Brady’s command. Helluva game, though.

49ers 37, Cardinals 31—Losing at home, in overtime, on a Kurt Warner fumble in their own end zone, is not what the Cards needed. They fell to 5-6, now two games behind the NFC West-leading Seahawks. They’re still in the wild-card hunt (like of a lot of NFC mediocrities), but they hurt themselves badly with this one, in which Warner racked up almost 500 yards passing but made more mistakes than his counterpart, Niners journeyman Trent Dilfer. Frank Gore gains 116 yards rushing for San Francisco, now 3-8 after breaking an eight-game losing streak.

Browns 27, Texans 17—The 7-4 Browns take a serious step toward total respectability and the playoffs with strong home showing. Offense clicking on all cylinders, including RB Jamal Lewis, who amasses 134 yards rushing. There are still questions about the Cleveland defense, but the team looks capable of hanging with just about anybody. Texans play hard but just can’t keep up, and are now 5-6, in last place in the AFC South.

Vikings 41, Giants 17—The story here is New York QB Eli Manning, who threw four INTs, three of which were returned for TDs. Vikings RB Chester Taylor had some moments in his role as replacement for injured Adrian Peterson, and even struggling Vikes QB Tarvaris Jackson played error-free ball and threw a big TD pass to WR Sidney Rice. With the exception of four sacks, Giants look lame-o at home and fall to 7-4 but still have a good leg up in the wild-card race. Vikings move to 5-6 with second consecutive win.

Buccaneers 19, Redskins 13—Skins join the 5-6 crowd with their third straight loss. They knocked Bucs QB Jeff Garcia out of the game early, and still couldn’t capitalize. While Tampa Bay floundered offensively behind sub QB Bruce Gradkowski, Skins QB Jason Campbell continued to build his resume as “really gifted young quarterback who amasses impressive stats and then throws untimely and ill-advised passes that become interceptions that spell defeat.” (Skins now also trying to deal with loss of safety Sean Taylor, who was shot at his Miami home yesterday and was in critical condition as of this writing.) Surprising Bucs are now 7-4, tops in the NFC South. Winning ugly is still winning.

[Update: Redskins safety Sean Taylor died early this morning. He was 24 years old. Besides the tragedy, it's a very strange story that requires close investigation. How could an intruder make his/her way to Taylor's bedroom unannounced and undetected? No security system?? Unfortunately, it's not going to be easy to dismiss this as a random act of violence. God's grace on Taylor and his family.]

Saints 31, Panthers 6—As Panthers’ head coach John Fox says, “We’re not playing very good football.” Brilliant assessment. Their running game has vanished (43 net yards), the QB problems are immense, and five losses in a row move them from 4-2 to 4-7. They lost at home, too, where they are now 0-5 on the season. Saints improve to 5-6, two games behind the division-leading Bucs. They used a committee approach to their running game to net 113 yards, but it’s Drew Brees’ passing that’s keeping the team’s playoff hopes alive. Saints dominate time of possession by almost 2-to-1.

Seahawks, 24, Rams 19—Rams blow a 19-7 halftime lead, and lose QB Marc Bulger to injury, which puts backup Gus Frerotte in position to fumble away the team’s last-second chances on fourth-and-goal. Rams get some decent running from Steven Jackson (90 yards), as well as five sacks and an INT on the defensive side, but being 2-9 means you don’t win the close ones. Seahawks still hard to assess, but they’re 7-4 and lead the NFC West.

Raiders 20, Chiefs 17—Chiefs do what Carolina and Arizona do: lose at home to a team they need to beat to be taken seriously in the playoff picture. They won the time-of-possession battle and got 150 yards out of rookie RB Smith, and still lost to a fairly lackluster Oakland squad, which benefited from Justin Fargas’ 139 rushing yards on 22 carries. KC drops fourth in a row, falling to 4-7. Raiders threatening third place in AFC West at 3-8.

Chargers 32, Ravens 14—Philip Rivers stepped up and gave the Chargers an overdue good game at quarterback. Some occasional highlights from RB LaDainian Tomlinson and four sacks from the defense also helped the cause for 6-5 San Diego, who now lead the AFC West (for the moment). Ravens, 4-7, are reeling with five losses in a row, and recorded no sacks, no INTs and no forced fumbles. Bright spot: QB Kyle Boller did not throw an interception. Next up for the Ravens: hosting the undefeated Patriots on Monday night.

Jaguars 36, Buffalo 14—Jags QB David Garrard reestablishes his key role in the team’s playoff hopes with a gutty performance bulwarked by 104 rushing yards by Fred Taylor, who sure didn’t look like a 31-year-old injury-prone has-been. Taylor still has greatness about him and now has 10,221 career rushing yards with gas left in his tank. I’m thinking Hall of Fame for Freddie. Now the 8-3 Jags take the show on the road for a Sunday showdown with division-leading Indianapolis. Bills are 5-6, and all things considered should be glad they are. QB J. P. Losman will be benched next weekend in place of rookie Trent Edwards.

Steelers 3, Dolphins 0—A Monday Night Football Mud Bowl extravaganza that remains scoreless until the Steelers kick a field goal with 17 seconds left in the game. Incessant rain turns freshly sodded Heinz Field into a swamp, which in turn gives the winless Fins a shot at victory on a level (read: completely unpredictable) playing field. Pittsburgh pulls it out though, running their record to 8-3. Miami is now 0-11, and they’ve lost six games by three points or fewer. Newly re-signed Ricky Williams ran the ball for the Dolphins (to little avail) and we got our first look at rookie QB John Beck, who looked pretty poised. Dolphins should win a game before the season is over.

The Thanksgiving Games

Packers 37, Lions 26—Favre excels, backed by solid running of Ryan Grant and terrific receiver play. Pack, now 10-1, getting ready to lock up NFC North, but head to Dallas next week for conference bragging rights. Lions, once 6-2, are now 6-5. Their offense looks out of synch, and they never really had a defense, so the early promise of postseason possibility looks in serious jeopardy now. Their schedule toughens up too.

Cowboys 34, Jets 3—A Thanksgiving turkey if ever there were one. Guess Jets QB Kellen Clemens isn’t a savior, after all. Cowboys do it all in advancing to 10-1. Jets do what 2-9 teams often do: nuthin’.

Colts 31, Falcons 13—Peyton turns in an efficient professional effort, which means the kind of day most pro QBs would take any Sunday (or, in this case, Thursday): 22-32, 272 yards, 3 TDs, 1 INT. Colts also get 74 rushing yards out of Kenton Keith, who used to play in the CFL. Indy now 9-2, but Jacksonville is hot on their tail. Falcons, now 3-8, get four sacks, but their offense is dead.

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