The Lions and Panthers each went out on the road Sunday and came back having made their point. By coming up with narrow victories over the Bears and 49ers, respectively, Detroit and Carolina produced wins that should legitimize their status as playoff contenders in the wide-open NFC. They even helped each other out in the process. Their road wins paid tribute to both the randomness of football and the efforts they’ve each made to overcome past mistakes. Week 10 wasn’t the turning point for either of these teams; it was proof that they’ve long since turned the corner on the disappointments they used to be.
After last season, you would have forgiven the Lions and Panthers if they started to sweat the possibility of a close game. The Panthers led the league with eight losses in games decided by one touchdown or less, with the Lions coming in just behind them at seven. Together, the two were a disgusting 4-15 in games decided by one touchdown or less. That included five of the six losses Detroit incurred while being swept by the NFC North, and all three of Carolina’s losses inside the NFC South.
And, of course, many of those losses were of the traumatic-collapse variety. The Panthers famously converted a would-be game-ending third-and-short against the Falcons, only for Cam Newton to fumble the ball and recover it on the other side of the sticks, producing a punt and a quick drive from Atlanta that snatched away the victory. They would later lose a traumatic game to Tampa Bay after already losing earlier in the season to the Bears in similar fashion. Detroit … take your pick. It fumbled away an accidental snap in overtime against the Titans, got pushed into an overtime loss by the Schwartz Rule on Thanksgiving against the Texans, and then blew a fourth-quarter lead before allowing the Colts to score on the final play of regulation.1
Part of breaking down football is trying to understand and merge the big picture with the smaller one. We know from history that teams that win or lose a large percentage of games decided by one touchdown or less tend to see their performance in those games regress toward the mean during the following campaign. (Drink.) At the same time, it would be impossible to look at the Panthers and Lions and not notice problems that aren’t random. Carolina mismanaged late-game situations and couldn’t come up with the big stop on defense when it needed one. Detroit was undisciplined and sloppy. And on Sunday, we saw the big picture and the small picture come together.
For the Lions, their endgame saw them repeat their prior mistakes, yet still overcome them. Detroit led 21-13 with 2:17 left and still managed to nearly blow the game. Its much-improved pass defense had kept the Bears at bay, but with Josh McCown in for a reinjured Jay Cutler, the Lions finally collapsed. They allowed McCown to drive his team 66 yards in 90 seconds for a touchdown, a drive that included a conversion on fourth-and-1 and an unnecessary roughness penalty by one of Detroit’s young linemen, defensive tackle Nick Fairley. With the game — and quite possibly the NFC North — on the line pending Chicago’s attempt to tie with a two-point conversion, the Lions jumped McCown’s rollout and forced him into a desperate incompletion, only for another lineman, Willie Young, to be penalized for roughing the passer.
You could see the story coalescing, just as it had the year before. The articles were being written and the Detroit hearts were being broken. The Lions had blown it again. They just couldn’t handle the pressure and couldn’t hold their temper long enough to seal up a critical victory. It was the same old defensive line. The same old Jim Schwartz. The same old Lions. And then, suddenly, they finally caught their break: Fairley read the ensuing two-point play perfectly and shot through the line, taking out Matt Forte in the backfield for a loss.
Carolina, meanwhile, had battled bravely in San Francisco after going down 9-0; the game’s lone touchdown and a fourth-quarter field goal from Graham Gano had been enough to narrowly push Carolina into the lead, 10-9. The Panthers took over with 2:27 left and the ball on their own 32-yard line, likely needing two first downs to win the game without having to punt and turn the ball over to their defense for a stop. They got one on a breathless third-down pass to Steve Smith. Then, the butterflies seemed to set in. Jonathan Stewart fumbled on first down, only for the indefatigable Mike Tolbert to come out of the pile with the ball. Two plays later, facing third-and-2 and seemingly setting up for a referendum on Riverboat Ron Rivera’s newfound faith with a possible fourth-and-short, the Panthers stayed sloppy, with star center Ryan Kalil and Newton failing to complete the snap. The Panthers were again fortunate to recover, but now they would have to punt.
And then, despite their defense having capitulated and blown fourth-quarter leads 11 times during Rivera’s two-plus years at the helm — including in each of their two close losses to start the 2013 campaign — the defense held. Greg Hardy put an exclamation point on his brilliant day by sacking Colin Kaepernick on first down before Kaepernick forced a throw into traffic on second down that Drayton Florence easily intercepted, giving Rivera his biggest win as Carolina’s head coach.
The final moments of those games might fool you into thinking that the Panthers and Lions learned how to close out games, or something else as arbitrarily specious, but we know that’s not the case from how they played on their final drives. The Panthers still got sloppy and still had to punt the ball away while leading by one point. The Lions still extended the game with penalties. This time, the randomness went in their favor: Carolina recovered both of their fumbles as opposed to giving the 49ers incredible, likely game-sealing field position. The Lions held up on what amounts to a coin flip, that second two-point conversion. If either of those breaks don’t go their way, we’re all mumbling about the same old Panthers and the same old Lions on Monday morning.
Instead, what has really changed about these teams is the bigger picture — what they did over the first 58 minutes of the game. In both cases, that points to the brilliant work done by their pass defenses. The Panthers have had one of the league’s best pass defenses all season, ranking fourth in DVOA heading into the week, but injuries and questionable performances have led them to shuffle their starters in the secondary. That’s no surprise for a team that lost its best defensive back from a year ago (Chris Gamble) to retirement without being able to replace him because of cap concerns; the best Carolina could do is move on from the overmatched likes of Haruki Nakamura and hope fresh blood would solve its problems. That has led to some unlikely ascensions into the starting lineup, but they’ve worked: Sunday saw undrafted rookie cornerback Melvin White help shut down Anquan Boldin, while Raiders castoff Mike Mitchell2 flew around the field at safety, picking up a sack of Kaepernick and forcing what appeared to be a Vernon Davis fumble inside the Carolina 10-yard line, only for the play to be ruled an incomplete pass. With Carolina’s offense struggling, the pass defense kept it in the game long enough to win with a mere 10 points.
Detroit’s pass defense hasn’t been all that great this year3 — Schwartz has benched each of his top three cornerbacks at one point — but it came up with a dandy against Chicago. Despite missing first-round pick Ezekiel Ansah, the team’s best outside pass-rusher, the Lions held Cutler to a pedestrian line: 21-of-40 for 250 yards with a touchdown and an interception. The defensive line came up with arguably the biggest play of the first three quarters when Ndamukong Suh tipped a Cutler pass in the air at the goal line, with linebacker DeAndre Levy coming underneath it for an interception. Detroit only sacked Cutler once, but the combination of Suh and Fairley dominated on the interior, knocking down Cutler and McCown a total of eight times.
Beyond the pass defense, the Lions also did something they hadn’t been able to do with leads in years past: run the football. The combination of Reggie Bush and Joique Bell carried the ball 24 times for 146 yards, averaging in excess of six yards per carry. Running with a lead in the second half kills time, but the Lions took it one better by actually adding to their lead while running; Bush carried the ball three times for 29 key yards on Detroit’s final meaningful drive, which eventually produced the decisive touchdown. The former USC star is now averaging 4.7 yards per carry, more than any other featured back for Detroit has averaged during the Schwartz era. Bush might very well be the weapon that pushes Detroit toward the mean in close games.
These wins will play an enormous part in determining who qualifies for the NFC playoffs, especially in terms of wild-card tiebreakers. I broke some of this down in last week’s piece about Aaron Rodgers, but by winning these games, the Panthers and Lions secured tiebreaker victories over teams that are likely to be competing with them for a playoff spot if they don’t win their divisions. Detroit has to be considered the heavy favorite to win the NFC North at this point, as it already holds the tiebreaker over the Bears and will have a chance to even up its tiebreaker against the Packers on Thanksgiving. If the Lions don’t win the NFC North, they hold the tiebreaker against the Cowboys. The Panthers are a game behind the Saints in the NFC South with a home-and-home still to come, but if they miss out on winning the division, they hold tiebreaker wins over the 49ers and the theoretically relevant Giants. And tiebreakers are going to be extremely important, since the best-seeded wild-card team will likely play whatever flotsam emerges from the NFC East and possibly avoid a trip to Seattle in Round 2, with the Seahawks likely finishing as the NFC’s top seed.
And as exciting as the wins are for the Lions and Panthers, the home losses for the Bears and 49ers have to be depressing. Chicago is now 5-4 with a quarterback conundrum on its hands, with Cutler adding a sprained ankle to his already ailing groin. McCown came in and led the Bears to a touchdown on his only drive of the day; he might very well be the best option for Chicago against the Ravens on Sunday. Many of the Bears’ key players are banged up, notably Charles Tillman. Their only win by more than a touchdown came against the Steelers. And now, Chicago is a game and a half back of the Lions in the NFC North given Detroit’s sweep.
The 49ers, meanwhile, have major questions to ask about their passing game, especially if Davis is out for any significant length of time after suffering a concussion on that aforementioned hit by Mitchell. They’re now two games back of Seattle in the NFC West and have to travel to New Orleans next week, where a loss would likely all but end the NFC West race and leave the 49ers fighting for a playoff spot. They remain almost obsessively dependent upon winning the turnover battle; it took a bizarre fumble off a Carolina blocked punt to battle the Panthers to a draw. Since Jim Harbaugh arrived in San Francisco, the 49ers are 32-2-1 when they win or draw the turnover battle and a scary 1-9 when they fail to do so.4 Last week, the league cast an accusatory eye at the weak opposition in Carolina’s winning streak; we might very well look back and note that the five-game winning streak that San Francisco just lost included wins over the Rams, Texans, Titans, and Jaguars.
If the Packers have to start Scott Tolzien for the next month, the NFC will end with seven or possibly eight teams fighting for six playoff spots. It’s exceedingly likely that at least one of the four teams in these two critical matchups from Sunday will miss the playoffs. Those game-deciding moments from yesterday afternoon might very well have punched somebody’s ticket onto the golf course in January.
One team has actually already beaten the Lions and Panthers this year, which is pretty impressive, considering those two contenders are a combined 12-4 otherwise. That team wasn’t getting much attention in the playoff picture and got written off in a sentence in Bill Simmons’s playoff breakdown from Friday, but with a win on Sunday, they’re now above .500, and they’re likely to rise to 6-4 with a win over the Jaguars next week. They’ve got a dominant side of the ball and a playmaker who can take over games when he gets going, so is it time to show the Arizona Cardinals some respect?
The Cardinals had to sweat a bit after a late fumble and a ridiculous ensuing touchdown catch from Andre Johnson brought the Texans within three points, but their 27-24 win over Houston pushed Arizona over .500, a place where they’ll likely stay after next week’s game against Jacksonville. That comes on the back of a supremely underrated defense, which has quietly emerged as one of the league’s best. Football Outsiders actually ranked them as 2013′s best defense before Week 10 per DVOA, thanks to the efforts of Patrick Peterson and his cohorts. They allowed 24 points to the Texans, but 17 of those points came on drives that started on the Arizona side of the field, thanks to turnovers by the offense. Houston had an 80-yard drive, a 55-yard drive, and then nothing else for more than 26 yards all game.
Peterson, to be specific, has been an absolute monster in his third season. On Sunday, although Johnson scored two touchdowns, one came on that nearly intercepted tip drill play, and Case Keenum couldn’t remotely rely on his star receiver as a chain-mover, as Johnson caught just five of the 12 passes thrown to him, totaling 37 yards in the process. Peterson has done great work defending the opposing team’s top receiver all year; heading into this week, the Cardinals had the fourth-best pass defense DVOA against top receivers, trailing only a group of cornerbacks playing around Peterson’s level: Alterraun Verner of the Titans, Aqib Talib of the Patriots, and Tarell Brown of the 49ers. For a secondary that lost three other starters from the league’s second-ranked pass defense of a year ago, I really can’t help but be impressed with Peterson’s work as their top player.
The offense is a work in progress, but it’s far better than the shield-your-eyes performances of the Max Hall and John Skelton days. Carson Palmer has more interceptions (15) than passing touchdowns (12), but he’s done a good job of spreading the ball around and taking what the defense gives him when it has been focused on Larry Fitzgerald. Arizona’s star wideout had just three catches for 23 yards on Sunday despite the fact that starting Houston cornerback Kareem Jackson went down with an injury during the game. Fitzgerald is now on pace for a 69-876-9 campaign, which is hardly an appropriate return on an eight-year, $126 million contract. The quarterback situation was supposed to be holding Fitzgerald back, but Palmer is a competent enough thrower to make Fitzgerald’s struggles genuinely surprising.
Instead, the most dangerous weapon on offense might very well be the NFL’s most criminally underused playmaker. Andre Ellington wasn’t expected to produce much as a rookie after the Cardinals took him out of Clemson with the 187th pick in April’s draft, but since the season began, Ellington has been the player every fan dreams about: the guy who seems to make magic happen every time he touches the football. He’s overqualified for a bigger role.
Ellington is playing behind Rashard Mendenhall, whose most notable asset is that he had a good season as the featured back for the Steelers under Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians … in 2009. Given Ellington’s versatile skill set, Mendenhall’s likely argument in favor of more reps comes solely from his abilities as a ball carrier. Which makes it weird, then, that he is averaging a lowly 3.1 yards per carry this season. Throw in Mendenhall’s non-Ellington backups at running back and the Cardinals fall all the way down to 2.9 yards per carry. Ellington? On his 54 carries this year, Ellington’s averaging 7.2 yards per pop. That includes an 80-yard touchdown run, but even if you remove that play, Ellington would still be averaging 5.8 yards per carry, well ahead of the backs around him.
And the truth, honestly, is that I don’t know why Ellington isn’t playing more. He held up to a moderate workload as the primary starter at Clemson. He was drafted because of his versatility, specifically as a pass-catcher and pass-protector, so it’s not like he’s Cincinnati’s Gio Bernard, who does wonders when he touches the ball but often gets lost in protection. Arians criticized his pass protection recently, but he’s also the same guy who suggested Levi Brown was an elite pass protector before the season and told Drew Stanton he would be the starting quarterback in Arizona this year, so I don’t know how much I trust what he says.
The only other explanation I can think of would be the fear that Ellington might make rookie mistakes, but Sunday might have proven that Ellington wasn’t the one to worry about there. When the Cardinals fumbled inside their own 5-yard line to set Houston up with critical field position late in the fourth quarter, it wasn’t Ellington handling the ball; it was Mendenhall. Arians said after the game that Ellington’s 13 touches were plenty, but there’s still reason to hope the key Mendenhall fumble might have been enough to swing the time-share his way. Rookies don’t really fumble that much more than veterans, anyway; I found in a prior study that rookies do fumble slightly more frequently than veterans, but the difference amounts to about one extra fumble every 300 touches.
The Cardinals don’t need to go the Zac Stacy route in giving Ellington 25 carries per game regardless of the game situation, but the split of touches between Mendenhall and Ellington is clearly suboptimal. It’s also clear that Arians is sticking with Mendenhall out of some level of experience and comfort with his veteran back, but in doing so, he’s actually hurting his team’s chances of making the playoffs. He has already made the move to bring Tyrann Mathieu into the starting lineup on defense, and now it’s time to bring Ellington into a featured role on offense. That move might not be enough to push Arizona into the playoffs, but it’s the right move.
Return the Warmack
Break up the Jaguars! Jacksonville’s downtrodden march toward 0-16 came to a close Sunday when it came up with an unlikely road win in Tennessee. How unlikely? I was putting together a post on Jacksonville’s chances of going 0-16 last week that fell through the cracks after the Rodgers injury news broke. Using the log5 method with each team’s point differential, the numbers suggested the Titans had a 97.3 percent chance of beating Jacksonville at home.5
Of course, that didn’t happen. How does a double-digit underdog like the Jaguars pull out a victory over a previously competitive team like the Titans? Well, for one, you get lucky. There were eight fumbles in this game — eight! — and the Jaguars recovered six. That included the opening play from scrimmage, when exceedingly expensive halfback Chris Johnson fumbled the ball to Paul Posluszny, who recovered and set the Jaguars up to score three plays later. Maurice Jones-Drew would run for 19 yards on the three carries that made up that drive, and afterward, he ran the ball 18 more times for a total of 22 yards. Johnson finished with 12 carries for 30 yards, marking his 19th game since 2011 with 10 or more carries and a rushing average of less than three yards per pop. Nobody else has more than 11 (Ray Rice) over that time frame.
And that, really, is what to take away from the Titans loss. Getting beaten by a horrific winless team in your own stadium is one thing. It’s that every plan the Titans had went wrong in the process. Johnson, the same back who somehow got a $54 million contract but also needs a runner to spell him at the goal line, had another dismal performance. Chance Warmack, the team’s first-round pick and one of the two investments the team made this offseason at guard to try to create running lanes for Johnson, committed offensive holding in the end zone to produce a safety that eventually served as the margin of victory. He has been hugely erratic during a highly anticipated (well, for a guard) rookie season.
Most notably, though, is that the Jake Locker experience might have come to an end. After rushing back from a hip injury to suit up against the 49ers in Week 7 and delivering an inconsistent performance against the Rams in Week 9, Locker suffered a Lisfranc injury to his foot against the Jaguars that will likely end his season. It’s another in a series of major injuries for Locker, who hasn’t been able to stay healthy as a pro. Locker showed signs of solid play when I watched him closely earlier this year, but his numbers are still pedestrian for a player who was supposed to be breaking out by now; if he’s done for 2013, he’ll finish with a completion percentage of 60.7 percent while averaging 6.9 yards per attempt, with both figures coming in below league-average.
Locker’s injury creates an awkward situation for the organization. It really needed to find out whether Locker is its quarterback of the future this year, since Locker will be entering the final year of his rookie contract in 2014. You don’t want to have your quarterback in a possible situation where he can get away (or get stuck with the franchise tag) if he’s productive, but you obviously can’t commit to a guy who hasn’t played very well and can’t stay healthy.
And that extends to the careers of the people running the show in Tennessee. If Locker hasn’t developed into a viable quarterback, chances are the organization would likely see that as the fatal blow to the jobs of general manager Ruston Webster and head coach Mike Munchak. You can’t make that move until you’re sure of what Locker might become, and the people evaluating that development are the same people whose job security depends upon extending that process for as long as possible. And if you get impatient and move on from those two, you bring in a new staff that will likely want to bring in or develop its own quarterback, which prevents you from evaluating Locker. What a conundrum.
It’s also worth considering that the ownership situation in Tennessee has changed; longtime owner Bud Adams died last month, and the team is now being run by Adams’s son-in-law with his grandson on the board of directors6 The new ownership group might very well be more comfortable with a rebuilding project than the 90-year-old Adams was. In any case, it seems likely the Titans will move on from Locker and Johnson (saving $8 million in the process) after the season, with Webster and Munchak likely to follow. That’s the truly disappointing thing about Tennessee’s loss. Losing to the Jaguars is one thing. Realizing you need to change your master plan and the faces of your franchise to ensure it doesn’t happen again? That’s another.