Week 9 NFL Wrap-up: The Hunger Games

Aaron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post/Getty Images

After all the hype, if Brady-Manning XVI resembled any matchup from the past, its closest sibling would be the original encounter. The Patriots scored 44 points in that 2001 beatdown of Manning and the Colts, still Brady’s best total against his archrival. On Sunday, just one month after he’d been widely written off as past his prime and even finished, Brady completed one of the best four-game stretches of his entire career by dropping 43 points on Manning’s Broncos.

It’s not shocking that New England would win, but given that the Broncos were the consensus choice as football’s best team before the game and one of just four teams since 2002 to be favored against Brady in Foxborough, it is perhaps a surprise the Patriots would win by 22 points. How did they pull it off?

As much as the pregame conversation involved Brady and Manning, there were two full teams competing this weekend in Foxborough, in part built to try to counteract the other’s strengths. New England’s team grossly outplayed Denver’s, often in places where we might not have looked amid the hype before the game. Those places include:

Shutting down Denver’s running game. The Broncos don’t need to dominate on the ground to win, but having a functional running game forces teams to at least pay some semblance of attention to the Denver backfield while allowing the Broncos to avoid third-and-long. Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball were at the head of a group that carried the ball 28 times for 107 yards in last year’s AFC Championship Game against New England, and while 3.8 yards per carry isn’t anything to write home about, it’s some marginal contribution to balance.

The Broncos couldn’t even approach competence on Sunday. Despite the fact that the Patriots are down Chandler Jones and Jerod Mayo and left recent trade acquisition Akeem Ayers on the field at linebacker for all but four of Denver’s offensive snaps, the Broncos could do nothing on the ground. Denver carried the ball 17 times for 43 yards, and even that figure includes the bizarre coaching decision to run C.J. Anderson three times for 18 yards while down 22 points during the final two minutes of the ballgame. Primary Broncos back Ronnie Hillman carried the ball 10 times and gained just 16 yards. Give credit to Vince Wilfork, who missed both Patriots-Broncos games last year, even if it’s only for wearing an enormous gold chain with a Coogi polo shirt in the postgame press conference.

Denver never pieced together a long drive to give its defense a rest and wear down New England’s relatively thin front seven. Its longest drive of the day, in terms of time of possession, lasted just three minutes and 30 seconds, and it was a five-play possession ending in a punt. It didn’t help that it went a combined 3-of-15 on third and fourth down.

Winning on special teams. You could have argued before the game that the one place New England had an obvious advantage over Denver was on special teams, given that the Patriots were fourth in special teams DVOA, well ahead of Denver at 22nd. That gap will increase this week.

The biggest play New England made on special teams, obviously, came when Julian Edelman picked up a Britton Colquitt punt and returned it 84 yards for a touchdown to make the game 20-3 in the second quarter. Colquitt took the blame afterward for dropping the snap and not getting enough hang time, but the Broncos did a poor job of coverage and made it too easy for Edelman to find a lane. New England also went 3-for-3 on field goals, while Denver kicker Brandon McManus pushed his lone field goal attempt of the day off an upright from 41 yards out.

Dominating field position. Picking up incremental amounts of field position normally doesn’t mean that much against the Broncos because Denver is so incredible at picking up yardage on offense that any sort of field position gap gets erased rather quickly. Not the case on Sunday. The average Patriots possession began on their own 38-yard line, while the typical Broncos possession opened up on the Denver 22-yard line. That 16-yard difference ended up being pretty significant when the Broncos were failing on so many drives.

Getting contributions from unlikely sources. Ayers had a key sack on a fourth-down twist that the Broncos simply didn’t pick up. Fellow trade acquisition Jonathan Casillas made three tackles on special teams and helped spring Edelman on his punt return touchdown.

And then there was Patrick Chung?! Of all the people to show up with a big game against Peyton Manning, Chung would not have been very high on the list. Once a promising safety for the Patriots, Chung fell out of favor during the 2012 season, lost his job, and signed with the Eagles, where he was also benched for subpar play and released after one season. Perhaps making his last stop before leaving football, he came back to the Patriots this offseason.

Chung beat out Duron Harmon for a starting job in training camp and had played 75 percent of the defensive snaps this year. He had been competent, but on Sunday, he was actually an impressive part of the defense. Manning was clearly excited to see him and targeted him repeatedly, but Chung mostly held his own, especially when matched up one-on-one with Jacob Tamme. He did allow Julius Thomas’s 18-yard touchdown reception, but even that was pretty good coverage overcome by a perfect throw and catch.

Chung was one of the key components in a New England secondary that matched up across the entire field with the Denver receivers. Chung spent more time in coverage as basically a hybrid safety/corner than he ever has in his career, while Brandon Browner spent most of his day battling with Julius Thomas. Kyle Arrington, another Manning target from the past, was able to hold his own against Wes Welker in the slot.

Welker’s subpar day is worth mentioning. He had three catches for 31 yards on eight targets, including an interception on a pass he should have caught but instead tipped into the air. Welker took a nasty hit on that interception, suffering a back injury that consigned him to the sideline for the remainder of the game. The reality, sadly, is that Welker looks like a shell of the player he was even two years ago.

He’s now averaging just 35.3 receiving yards per game this season, a far cry from the 59.8-yard average he had with the Broncos last year, let alone the 84.6 yards per game he had during his final season with the Patriots in 2012. Welker has looked and moved like a different guy this year, and if the hit he took impaired his back, it’s hard to imagine those figures getting better.

That interception, the second of Manning’s day, was part of a two-minute stretch that pushed the Broncos out of the game. Denver was being outplayed all day and rightfully behind to start the second half, but after intercepting Brady on the opening possession after halftime and scoring on the aforementioned throw to Thomas, the score was 27-14. The Broncos came up with a stop on third-and-5 on their own 37-yard line, a move that seemed to place Bill Belichick in a quandary, given the winds at Foxborough. But Belichick decided to simply go for it1 and Brady found Shane Vereen to move the chains. The Patriots added a field goal to go up 30-14.

Manning’s first pass of the next possession found an open Welker, who dropped the football in traffic and saw it bounce to Browner, who returned it to the 10. Brandon LaFell (who had a couple of early drops in key moments) scored on the next play. If the Patriots had punted from the 37-yard-line — and given the wind, I suspect a fair number of coaches would have — Manning would have had the ball down 27-14 with plenty of the third quarter to go. Instead, after the interception and the score, he got the ball back down 37-14.

If I was going to score the quarterback matchup on Sunday, it would have been a solid 10-9 for Brady. I read all kinds of comments after the game that Manning had padded his stats by getting to 438 yards later in the contest, but it wasn’t like he threw only in the second half. At halftime, he had exactly as many passing yards (178) on exactly as many pass attempts (27) as Brady did. The difference was that Brady had thrown two touchdown passes while Manning had thrown an interception, an ugly pass where he somehow failed to see Rob Ninkovich dropping into coverage. I won’t argue that Manning played great by any stretch of the imagination, but he was let down some by his team on Sunday.

Arizona Cardinals v Dallas CowboysRonald Martinez/Getty Images

Five Three Hill

The Broncos were generally regarded as the best team in football heading into this game with New England. With the Patriots blowing out the Broncos, should New England now be considered the best?

You can make a fair case for that, but I don’t think that’s a spot anybody wants to occupy right now. It hasn’t exactly gone very well for the last few teams who were there. The Bengals were the best team in the league after starting 3-0, and they got stomped by the Patriots. The Chargers took over after that, and after starting 5-1 against mostly bad competition, they’ve lost three straight games and are in disarray heading into their bye. After that, you could have gone with the Broncos or Cowboys, and, well, those teams had quite the week. Pick the Cardinals or the Patriots and I wouldn’t blame you.

If you do think the Patriots are the best team in football, shouldn’t we pay a bit of credence to the teams who beat the Patriots? As it turns out, both of those teams won this weekend in convincing fashion. The Chiefs, whom I wrote about two weeks ago, were never in danger of losing a low-key game against the Jets. Perhaps more excitingly and more notably, the Dolphins were narrow favorites against the Chargers and delivered a 37-0 shutout in front of their fans at home.

You’ll struggle to find a more complete blowout than what the Dolphins pulled. The Chargers went 77 yards on their opening possession with a classic San Diego drive, taking 7:24 off the clock while maneuvering deep into Dolphins territory, picking up a pair of third downs along the way. On third-and-17, though, Keenan Allen could muster up only 16 yards, and on the ensuing fourth-and-1, Branden Oliver was stuffed for a loss.

That was it for the Chargers, who went 1-for-8 on third down the rest of the way.2 They averaged 8.3 yards per drive over their next eight possessions, with Philip Rivers throwing three picks and losing the ball on a strip-sack. Cameron Wake ate 2013 first-round pick D.J. Fluker’s lunch, picking up a sack and three quarterback hits while preventing Rivers from moving around in the pocket. Oliver’s 13-carry, 19-yard rushing performance didn’t help matters.

As good as the Miami defense was against Rivers, the Miami passing offense might have been more impressive. Yes, the Chargers were without wunderkind rookie Jason Verrett at cornerback, but there are very few excuses that justify a 37-0 shellacking. The Dolphins began their drives with a 24-yard cushion (with Miami taking over, on average, on its own 44-yard line, while San Diego’s average starting field position was on the 20), which helps, but there’s an easier explanation: Ryan Tannehill might just have figured things out.

Remember that it was only a few weeks ago that the Dolphins appeared to be considering moving on from Tannehill altogether. After an ugly three-week stretch to start the season, Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin refused to announce his starter for Miami’s Week 4 game against the Raiders in London, even though he had privately told Tannehill he was the starter. Here’s how Tannehill’s numbers look before and after that conversation:

And here’s what is interesting about that leap: There’s no smoking gun. Tannehill and the Miami offense haven’t been much better on third down or in the red zone. Tannehill has done a much better job under pressure after Week 3, but he’s getting pressured by the other team at about an average rate. His personnel at receiver hasn’t drastically changed, even as Jarvis Landry’s role in the lineup seems to be growing. About the only thing you could really say is that Tannehill has played an easier slate of opponents, but an easy schedule doesn’t turn you from bench fodder into a Pro Bowl candidate overnight.

In all likelihood, Tannehill is growing more comfortable in the offense of new coordinator Bill Lazor, who himself is surely improving. If anything, across-the-board improvement that isn’t tied to a particular split is more promising than a more obvious explanation for why you’ve taken a leap forward.

Tannehill’s growth will be tested over the next three weeks, as the Dolphins are about to face a devastating stretch of pass defenses. Tannehill will play the pass defenses that were ranked first (Detroit), third (Denver), and fourth (Buffalo) in pass defense DVOA heading into Week 9. Even if the Broncos aren’t quite as high after losing to the Patriots, they should still rate among the better pass-stoppers in football. Over those next three games, we’ll find out a lot about whether Tannehill has taken a real leap forward or if it was just a mirage.

Philadelphia Eagles v Houston TexansThomas B. Shea/Getty Images

NFC Eek

Over the past nine seasons, the Eagles have gotten just one complete 16-game season (2008) from their opening day quarterback. Injuries have befallen Donovan McNabb, Kevin Kolb, and Michael Vick in each of those seasons, and on Sunday, the bug found Nick Foles. Multiple reports suggest the Eagles passer broke his collarbone during Philadelphia’s win over Houston, an injury that will sideline Foles indefinitely and push Mark Sanchez into the starting lineup.

How long will it take Foles to make it back onto the field? We’ll know more after a Monday MRI, but history can give us some insight. When I wrote about Aaron Rodgers’s fractured collarbone last year, I noted that the absolute best-case scenario was about a month, with a recuperation time of six to eight weeks more likely. Rodgers ended up missing seven weeks, returning for what amounted to a playoff game between the Packers and Bears in Week 17.

That six- to eight-week time frame would rule out Foles for most of the season. The Eagles have already had their bye, so every week Foles misses will cost him a game. That sixth week is the crucial one: That’s when the Eagles will host the Cowboys in a game that could prove critical to the NFC East race. Foles will almost surely miss the Thanksgiving night contest between those two teams, but if his collarbone miraculously heals in five weeks, he could make his way back into the lineup for what could be a game that decides the division.

More likely, Foles will be a question mark for the final two weeks of the year, during which the Eagles will head on the road to play their other NFC East rivals, Washington and New York. The longer end of that time frame, eight weeks, would see Foles miss those final two games and sit out the remainder of the regular season. It would be a surprise to see the Eagles put Foles on injured reserve, but if he does miss eight full weeks, would they be brave enough to insert him back into the starting lineup if they make the playoffs?

While the Eagles won’t consider inserting Foles into the lineup until his collarbone is fully healed, their reticence to make a switch once Foles is able to play will likely depend upon how Sanchez performs over the next two months. The former Jets starter stepped onto the field Sunday afternoon and threw meaningful passes for the first time since 2012.

Against a Texans defense that was missing both of its starting cornerbacks and first overall pick Jadeveon Clowney, Sanchez gave Eagles fans reasons to be both hopeful and terrified. He made a number of impressive throws on time to open receivers, including a 52-yard bomb to Jeremy Maclin on a drive that ended with a smooth pass up the seam to Jordan Matthews for an 11-yard touchdown. Sanchez also threw two interceptions, and while the first wasn’t his fault, he also had a pair of would-be picks on a second-half drive that were dropped by Texans cornerback Andre Hal. Sanchez looked like a guy with some tools in a great system who hasn’t played meaningful football in nearly two years. Chip Kelly clicked on Mark Sanchez, and the hourglass is still spinning.

How will Sanchez perform during the remainder of his audition as the starting quarterback in Philadelphia? Nobody knows, at least not yet. Kelly’s offense doesn’t necessarily require a juggernaut at quarterback to succeed; he cycled through QBs during his time at Oregon, eventually landing on then-unheralded Hawaiian freshman Marcus Mariota. Foles was a third-round pick coming off an unmemorable rookie season who then lost a camp competition to Vick in 2013 before posting one of the best 10-start lines in NFL history. The difference between the offense Sanchez ran in New York and what he’s expected to do in Philadelphia (and the coaching improvement he’ll enjoy) is larger than the difference between just about any two other sets of offenses in football. Sanchez is more likely to experience a rebirth here than he would be anywhere else.

The other truth is that Sanchez doesn’t have to be a superstar to replace Foles. There’s no way Sanchez could match up with the Foles who averaged 9.1 yards per attempt and threw 27 touchdowns against two picks from 2013, but that guy wasn’t around this year. Foles finished his first half of 2014 with numbers down across the board. His completion percentage (59.9 percent) and yards per attempt (6.9) are underwhelming, and he’s thrown 10 interceptions in eight games after having just the two in 10 starts a year ago.

It was impossible to imagine that Foles would be able to keep up his 2013 numbers over a full season in 2014 — nobody could do that — but he’s been more disappointing than most expected. Foles has been extremely inconsistent on the tape; he doesn’t lack for arm strength or toughness, but his decision-making has been spotty and he’s missed plenty of throws downfield, notably struggling to make throws on corner routes to his tight ends for big plays. The perpetual question is whether he’s an above-average starting quarterback or a guy who happened to fall into the NFL’s best offensive system.

Sanchez will be an interesting data point in that discussion, regardless of whether he succeeds or fails. The range of possibilities for Sanchez and the Eagles over the next six weeks is enormous. Sanchez could be good enough to win the starting job, usurp Foles, and totally revitalize his career. He could be so subpar that he derails Philly’s offense and drags them out of the playoffs. More likely than either is the possibility that he plays just well enough to keep the Eagles going without clearly outplaying his predecessor. Bottom line, I don’t know if they’ll be better or worse with Sanchez in the lineup, but somehow, they’ve just become even more compelling theater.

Arizona Cardinals v Dallas CowboysRonald Martinez/Getty Images

The Cowboys, meanwhile, have injury problems of their own. The team announced on Saturday that quarterback Tony Romo had suffered two transverse process fractures in his back during his team’s loss to Washington on Monday night.3 Romo then sat out Sunday’s loss to the Cardinals, a game in which Brandon Weeden looked positively Weedenish in going 18-of-33 for 183 yards with two picks and a meaningless late touchdown to Dez Bryant. Dallas’s backup was a combined 5-of-19 for 46 yards on passes to starting wideouts Bryant, Cole Beasley, and Terrance Williams. So that went well.

Once the transverse process fractures were announced, it became exceedingly likely that Romo would miss the Cardinals game. I couldn’t find a player who suffered such an injury without missing at least one game; one notable comparable is Baylor starting quarterback Bryce Petty, who missed one game earlier this season after going down with the same transverse process fractures. I couldn’t find a definitive sample of players who had suffered from the injury — it’s pretty obscure, even in football — but my estimate is that Romo is looking at a timetable of one to four weeks.

That’s an interesting timetable in the context of Dallas’s upcoming schedule. Romo already sat out the loss to the Cardinals. Next week, the Cowboys have to fly eight hours to London to play the 1-8 Jaguars in Jacksonville’s home away from home, and afterward, they have a bye. If Romo sat out this upcoming week, the Cowboys would be able to use the bye and part of the subsequent week to ensure he got close to four consecutive weeks of rest, a move that would surely do wonders for a guy who has broken bones most of us have never heard of before.

While the Cowboys certainly don’t want Romo to get reinjured, desperate teams are rarely rational, and the Cowboys are about to get desperate. This time last week, Dallas was 6-1 with a pair of home games and a neutral-site game against the Jaguars4 to come before their bye. A 9-1 start seemed likely. Now, they’re 6-3 and out of first place in the NFC East. My gut feeling on Saturday before the Cardinals game was that Romo would sit out versus Arizona and stay out against the Jaguars if Weeden looked competent. It’s no surprise, then, that Romo has already said he’ll be making the trip to London and prepare as if he’ll be starting against the Jaguars.

Dallas will surely be favored to beat Jacksonville, but if there’s one thing the Jaguars do well, it’s get after the quarterback. The Jags have sacked opposing quarterbacks on 7.5 percent of their dropbacks, the sixth-highest rate in football. While they were 27th in points allowed per game before this week, the Jags ranked 11th in defensive DVOA, a difference accounted for by the fact they’ve had to face so many short fields after turnovers and subpar offensive play. Romo is a massive upgrade on Weeden, but the Jaguars are unlikely to roll over and give Romo the day off if he plays.

As for Weeden, well, it’s hard to really see what the Cowboys could have done. They actually had an expensive backup last year in Kyle Orton, but salary-cap restraints and the unexplained falling-out the team had with Orton earlier this year, which led to his release, prevented them from adding much more than a replacement-level talent to suit up behind Romo. Weeden is on a two-year deal for close to the league minimum, as he’ll make $570,000 this year. This is the bed Jerry Jones has made. Occasionally, he has to lie in it.

If you had gone to any Cowboys fan before the season and told them the team would be heading to London with a 6-3 record and Sanchez starting at quarterback for the Eagles, they would have thanked you and then asked lots of weird questions about how you can see the future. From where the Cowboys were sitting seven days ago, though, this perch seems a lot less comfortable. It would probably be better for the Cowboys if they hid Romo’s passport and helmet for a couple weeks, but if Dallas somehow loses to the Jaguars on Sunday, desperation would turn to panic.

Filed Under: NFL, New England Patriots, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos, Miami Dolphins, Ryan Tannehill, San Diego Chargers, Philadelphia Eagles, Nick Foles, Mark Sanchez, Dallas Cowboys, Tony Romo

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell