Week 8: Young Bucs emerging in wide-open NFC
Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Raheem Morris left himself open to criticism last week when he said his team was the best in the NFC.
Someone has to be the best in one of the strangest NFC races in years. Morris' team won its fifth consecutive road game on Sunday (dating to last season), beating the Arizona Cardinals 38-35. And he has a young quarterback, Josh Freeman, who shows the ability to come back in the fourth quarter.
Although it's hard to endorse a team that was blown out in home losses to Pittsburgh and New Orleans, the 5-2 Bucs have a lot going for them. They are one of the few teams stepping up now that the Dallas Cowboys are essentially out of the playoffs at 1-6, the San Francisco 49ers still look flawed at 2-6 and the Minnesota Vikings, at 2-5, look as wobbly and beaten up as Brett Favre's ankle and bloody, stitch-filled chin.
Looking at the NFC overall, the New York Giants are about the hottest team and the Atlanta Falcons look good when they are playing in the Georgia Dome. The Green Bay Packers pulled off a huge road win over the New York Jets, but no one knows how long the Packers can hang in there with a defense that is riddled with injuries.
The Bucs have a supreme test in Week 9 when they visit the Falcons. After that, though, they have winnable games against the Carolina Panthers and 49ers. Morris' team may not be the best, but at least it will hang around longer than the Vikings, Cardinals and Cowboys, three NFC playoff teams from 2009 that seem to be vacating their spots in the tournament.
Here are five things I learned in Week 8.
1. Overthink tank: The lesson learned during the Packers' 9-0 victory over the Jets is not to overthink, just play. Packers coach Mike McCarthy learned that lesson, and was able to get away with it. McCarthy admitted that he adjusted his offense too much in trying to prepare for Rex Ryan's blitz packages and the Jets' strong man-coverage cornerbacks.
"You can't go out there and try to be right all the time," McCarthy said of a game plan that was arguably too conservative. With 26 running plays and a puny 3.1-yard average, the Packers had so many third-and-long situations they converted only two of 14 third downs. "You need to just play," McCarthy said.
Ryan, meanwhile, should also be found guilty of overthinking. He tried a fake punt by Steve Weatherford in the first quarter that came up just short and handed the Packers their first of three field goals. Ryan made two debatable replay challenges (he lost both) that exhausted his chance to challenge in the second half, when he could have successfully overturned a Charles Woodson interception. After the Jets drove to the Packers' 37-yard line in the fourth quarter, Ryan and the offensive staff called for three consecutive intermediate-to-long passes to Jerricho Cotchery, all three of which went incomplete.
Perhaps the worst decision came during the week. Ryan released defensive lineman Howard Green, knowing Green would probably end up in Green Bay. Green helped limit the Jets' running attack to 119 yards on 29 carries. With defensive end Ryan Pickett out with an ankle injury for a second consecutive week, the Packers were signing linemen off the street.
"We were having training camp during the week," Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said.
Give Capers credit for putting together the Packers' first road shutout since 1991. His defense was down four linemen and three linebackers. When Capers noticed the Jets were lining up in three-receiver, two-back sets, he called off the blitz and dropped more players into coverage. That allowed the Packers' secondary to hold Mark Sanchez to only 16 completions in 38 attempts.
2. Continuing the theme ... New Meadowlands Stadium wasn't the only venue that had some overthinking. For Mike Shanahan to bench a healthy Donovan McNabb in the fourth quarter with the Washington Redskins down by only six was amazing. McNabb has 25 fourth-quarter comebacks in his career and his presence in the fourth quarter has been one of the reasons the Redskins already have won as many games as they did last year. Rex Grossman entered and immediately fumbled, giving the Detroit Lions an easy touchdown in a 37-25 win.
"I thought Grossman gave us the best chance to win," Shanahan told reporters. If that's the case, why did the Redskins make the trade for McNabb? According to Shanahan, Grossman is more comfortable with the team's two-minute offense.
In Carolina, the Panthers opened their 20-10 loss to the St. Louis Rams with a flea-flicker that was picked off by linebacker James Laurinaitis. It gave the Rams the ball at the Panthers' 37. After a three-and-out, the Rams tried a 51-yard field goal that was wide left, but it sure set a bad tone for the Panthers' offense.
"Well, it didn't hurt us," Panthers quarterback Matt Moore said. "They ended up missing a field goal, so we kind of started fresh after that. It's not how you want to start, obviously, but we got over it quick."
Not that quickly, though. The Panthers tried another gadget play later in the game and lost 12 yards on a David Gettis reverse.
You also have to think Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt is overthinking the quarterback position. Undrafted rookie Max Hall is playing like an undrafted rookie. He's not a factor. Whisenhunt may not trust Derek Anderson, but Anderson gave the Cardinals a spark during the second half of their loss to the Buccaneers. With Matt Leinart gone, the Cardinals have only one option -- Anderson. Whisenhunt and the Cardinals have to live with that fact.
3. Big things for Dolphins, finally: In baseball terms, the Miami Dolphins' offense has played too much "small ball" this year. The Dolphins simply don't make big plays even though they have Brandon Marshall, one of the most dangerous receivers in football. In a 22-14 win over the Cincinnati Bengals, the big plays finally came and when they did, they changed the fortunes of this 4-3 team.
Leading 15-14 in the fourth quarter on five Dan Carpenter field goals for the second straight week, the Dolphins' offense finally enjoyed some big plays. From the Dolphins' 4, Chad Henne hit Marshall down the right sideline for 25 yards. On the next play, Brian Hartline took a short pass and turned it into a 24-yard gain. Three plays later, Hartline caught a 30-yard pass. Halfback Ricky Williams set up his 1-yard touchdown with an 18-yard run.
Before that drive, the Dolphins had only seven plays of 18 yards or longer in 27 quarters this season. The lack of big plays has forced the Dolphins to settle for 18 field goals.
4. Raiders for real? The AFC West is getting interesting. The Kansas City Chiefs are 5-2 and appear to be the team to beat in the division unless the San Diego Chargers prove they can win on the road. But the Oakland Raiders are making their presence felt. They have scored 92 points in their past two games. In Sunday's 33-3 victory over the Seahawks, Jason Campbell completed 15 passes for 310 yards even though wide receivers Chaz Schilens and Louis Murphy were inactive because of injuries. The Raiders entered the game with only 43 receptions going to their wide receivers. Campbell completed five passes to Darrius Heyward-Bey for 105 yards on Sunday, and rookie Jacoby Ford, a fourth-rounder, had two catches for 22 yards.
All of a sudden, the Raiders, who are 4-4, look like the surprise team some expected at the beginning of the season. Next Sunday's home game against the Chiefs -- believe it or not -- is huge.
5. Third-down woes: Have you ever seen a Sunday as bad as this one was for third-down conversions? The Redskins and Lions went a combined 6-for-31 on third down. The Packers were 2-for-14 against the Jets. The Seattle Seahawks were 1-for-16 in a loss to the Raiders. The Raiders won despite going 5-for-17. The Denver Broncos have been having third-down problems of late and were 2-for-10 against the 49ers. In the 11 games played before the Sunday nighter, teams converted only 116 of 317 third downs (36.6 percent).
Part of the problem is the increased number of holding penalties, which are setting up longer first and second downs for offenses. More teams have either offensive line problems or bad running attacks. That's a problem. Two of the success stories were teams with losing records. The Chargers were 12-of-18 on third downs, best of the day. The Buffalo Bills had an incredible 23 third-down opportunities. They converted 11.
The Bengals' secondary was thin Sunday, which may have been the reason it wore down in the fourth quarter of a 22-14 loss to the Dolphins. With Adam Jones on injured reserve and Johnathan Joseph out with a hamstring injury, the Bengals were down to Leon Hall and fourth corner Morgan Trent as the starters. They were also down three safeties with Roy Williams and Chinedum Ndukwe inactive because of injuries and Gibril Wilson out for the season. Tom Nelson and Chris Crocker had to handle the safety work. The Chiefs rushed for 274 yards on 45 carries, their third consecutive 200-yard rushing day. They haven't had a three-game running stretch like that since 1978. One problem, however, with running so much and not getting touchdowns is that the strategy eats up the clock, but leaves bad teams like the Bills in the game. The Bills came back and took the game into overtime, forcing Todd Haley & Co. to scramble to win. The Broncos, who have injuries at linebacker, started in a 4-3 defense for the second time in the past month. They lost 24-16 to the 49ers. Although they didn't do it much, the Dolphins used the Wildcat for a couple of plays Sunday. It was the first time since Oct. 4 they've used the formation. 49ers tight end Vernon Davis left the win over the Broncos after he re-injured his ankle. It ended a streak of 427 consecutive plays for the tight end. He hadn't missed a play before Sunday. Jaguars safety Don Carey violated Roger Goodell's edict to avoid helmet hits by making a helmet-to-helmet hit on Cowboys tight end Jason Witten, but Carey paid the price -- he was injured. He was flagged for unnecessary roughness and he'll be fined this week. Broncos quarterback Kyle Orton took a legal blow to the head, but he didn't miss much time. The Chargers' special teams continue to be a laugher. They opened the game by having a punt blocked. It was their fourth blocked punt of the season. Brett Favre's health isn't the only thing declining on the Vikings. According to ESPN Stats & Information, teams are averaging 3.8 yards a rushing attempt up the middle against the Vikings. The Vikings last year allowed only 3.0 yards a carry up the middle. So this is how the Cowboys rallied around Jon Kitna. Three receivers had balls bounce out of their hands for interceptions. Terrell Owens has five touchdown receptions in his past four games. For the season, he has 45 catches for 629 yards. But the Bengals continue to lose even though his numbers are great.
John Clayton's game balls
• Offense: A week ago, David Garrard didn't make the trip to Kansas City because he had a concussion. On Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys, he played a near-flawless game. Garrard completed 17 of 21 passes for 260 yards and four touchdowns in Jacksonville's 35-17 victory. The Cowboys couldn't stop him from the opening kickoff. He completed his first 10 passes for 126 yards and two touchdowns, giving the Jaguars a safe 14-3 lead. This was an important game for Garrard, because he can feel the winds of change behind him. He knows Jaguars management picked up veteran Trent Edwards with the thought that he could be a challenger to Garrard in the future. Garrard knows the team may draft a quarterback next year. But Garrard had his day against the Cowboys, putting up a 157.8 quarterback rating.
• Defense: Ndamukong Suh might have jumped to the lead for the defensive rookie of the year honors with his dominating game in Sunday's 37-25 upset of the Redskins. Suh looked like Albert Haynesworth when Haynesworth was a dominating player for the Tennessee Titans. Suh had two sacks, two tackles for losses, two quarterback hits and a forced fumble. He also had a 17-yard fumble return for a touchdown to lock up the Lions' victory. With the Redskins adjusting to Suh's dominance, the Lions' defensive line had an easier time getting to the quarterback. Ends Kyle Vanden Bosch and Cliff Avril each had two sacks. In Tennessee, Haynesworth opened up sacks for his ends, and that's what Suh is starting to do in Detroit. By the way, Haynesworth, playing for the Redskins, showed life with his second consecutive good game, getting four tackles and a sack. For the season, Suh has 6½ sacks. Asked what Suh liked more -- the sacks or the touchdown -- he said: "Sacks. They mean a little bit more to me. I got the recovery for the touchdown, but I love the sacks more."
• Special teams: Based on his numbers alone, Redskins kick returner Brandon Banks would have won the honor just on the legal plays in Sunday's 37-25 loss to the Detroit Lions. He had six kickoff returns for 213 yards, including a 96-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. He added 58 yards on five punt returns. His numbers might have been record-setting had his 95-yard touchdown in the third quarter not been overturned. Banks was dueling Lions returner Stefan Logan, who had a 71-yard punt return in the game. An illegal block below the waist by the Redskins' Reed Doughty wiped out the 95-yarder, which would have put Banks over 300 yards on kickoff returns and over 350 in overall return yards. The Redskins trailed 14-13 in the third quarter and had to start the next drive after the penalty at their 8-yard line. His 96-yarder in the fourth quarter should have won the game because it gave the Redskins a 25-20 lead with 7:05 remaining. The Lions ended up scoring 17 unanswered points to win.
Week 8 rundown
• Jacksonville 35, Dallas 17
A failed goal-line possession late in the second quarter pretty much summed up the Cowboys' season. Even simple handoffs have become a problem for Dallas.
• Detroit 37, Washington 25
Welcome back Matthew Stafford. In his first full game of the season, Stafford (four TD passes) contributed to a stirring fourth-quarter comeback and took a big step toward forging solid chemistry with Calvin Johnson (9 catches, 101 yards).
• Green Bay 9, N.Y. Jets 0
Bye-bye swagger? The Jets came out flat after their Week 7 bye, and plenty of people will be questioning some of coach Rex Ryan's decisions.
• San Francisco 24, Denver 16
Broncos fans were already down on Josh McDaniels. This loss, Denver's fourth straight, certainly won't help the coach's cause. The 49ers' Mike Singletary, meanwhile, enters the bye week on solid ground -- for now.
• San Diego 33, Tennessee 25
Stat of the week: Chargers QB Philip Rivers has thrown for 2,649 yards this season. It is the highest total any quarterback has ever thrown for through eight games in NFL history.
• Oakland 33, Seattle 3
The Raiders have won two straight and have outscored their opponents 92-17 in the process. Should they start thinking playoffs in the Black Hole?
• Tampa Bay 38, Arizona 35
The 5-2 Bucs are for real -- deal with it. They know how to win on the road and the emergence of LeGarrette Blount (120 rushing yards, 2 TDs) means their offense still has plenty of upside.
• New Orleans 20, Pittsburgh 10
Opportunistic D What a difference a week makes for the Saints. Coming off an ugly loss to the Browns, New Orleans proved it can still play with anyone.
MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL• Houston at Indianapolis (ESPN, 8:30 ET)
An early look at next weekend's biggest games:
• Tampa Bay (5-2) at Atlanta (5-2): NFC South supremacy on the line.
• Miami (4-3) at Baltimore (5-2): The Dolphins have been money on the road this season. Should the Ravens be worried?
• Indianapolis (4-2) at Philadelphia (4-3): The Eagles will be well rested. The Colts will be playing on a short week.