Welcome to The Fabulous & The Flops of the NFL
If you loved the “Five Up, Five Down” feature in our Monday morning wrap-ups of the NFL, well, you’re going to be very fond of our new Tuesday feature here in Grantland, The Fabulous & The Flops of the NFL. After the dust has settled on Monday Night Football, we’ll go through every game of the past week and use our proprietary mix of common sense and statistics to identify a hero and a villain from each contest. What do the numbers in the box score fail to tell you? Who flew underneath the radar? What’s the most important fact you need to take away from each contest? These are the sorts of questions we’ll answer in this space each week. This column is your overly-obsessed-with-the-NFL friend who stayed up all day and night Monday watching the games while you were at work. Everyone needs one of those!
Atlanta Falcons 31, Carolina Panthers 17
Winner: Michael Turner, who ran for 139 yards on 27 carries while scoring twice, vulturing one of the Roddy White end zone defensive pass interference penalties we discussed on Monday morning. Is it 2008 all over again? Is it too early to be nostalgic for Keyboard Cat and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull? The numbers after Turner has had a workload this large during his time with the Falcons aren’t pretty; in the games after the ones in which he’s had 27 or more carries, Turner has averaged just 3.6 yards per carry. If only he got to play the Panthers and their mostly theoretical run defense each week!
Loser: Cam Newton, who we are very hesitant to insult because he is the Patron Saint of the Late-Game Cover and we want to benefit from his special skill in fourth quarters to come. Against a Falcons defense that ranks among the league leaders in yards per pass attempt allowed, Newton was able to average just 6.5 yards on each of his 35 pass attempts. He produced only 226 yards through the air, and 62 of those yards came on the now-traditional meaningless final drive. On the bright side, he ran for 50 yards and a touchdown, and while he threw three picks, one of them was a Hail Mary. We count interceptions on Hail Mary passes to be equivalent to, say, the Matt Moore interception in the red zone on Monday night, because statistics are dumb.
Cincinnati Bengals 27, Indianapolis Colts 17
Winner: Andy Dalton. The bar for rookie second-rounders is extremely low, so even though Dalton was playing one of the league’s worst pass defenses, it was nice to see him competently execute a game plan designed to neutralize the impact of Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. Dalton started the game by going 21-of-26 for 223 yards with 11 first downs, as Cedric Benson exhibited his usual productivity for keeping the chains perfectly still. Through his first six games, Dalton has completed 62.4 percent of his passes; only Rick Mirer and Joe Flacco completed a higher percentage of their passes as rookies through their first six starts.
Loser: Jacob Lacey. How do you follow giving up seven catches and 128 yards to Dwayne Bowe? Well, if you’re Jacob Lacey, you allow 101 yards to the uncoverable force that is Jerome Simpson before you get benched. Consider that the Colts were starting Jerraud Powers — who literally said it was a “Miracle by God” that he was physically able to play on Sunday with a hamstring injury — across from Lacey at cornerback, and yet the Bengals still targeted Lacey’s side of the field repeatedly.
San Francisco 49ers 25, Detroit Lions 19
Winner: The 49ers Pass Rush. The combination of Justin Smith, Ahmad Brooks, and rookie sensation Aldon Smith simply took over this game. They combined for 4.5 sacks, five tackles for loss, a forced fumble, a safety, and six quarterback hits. The pressure prevented Matthew Stafford from making plays downfield (he didn’t have a single pass go for more than 15 yards in the first half) and finished the game with just four completions of 20 yards or more. That’s a victory against the Lions.
Loser: Nate Burleson. Although the refs were kind enough to give Burleson his touchdown on a play that nearly awarded the kicking net its first-ever pass defensed, he was thrown 10 passes and caught just four of them. After catching 14 of his 16 targets during the first three games of the season, Burleson has caught just seven of the 18 passes thrown to him during the past three. Football players have hot streaks, too!
Green Bay Packers 24, St. Louis Rams 3
Winner: Steven Jackson, who actually played very well even before the game became a blowout. Jackson produced 125 yards from scrimmage and had seven first downs on his 22 touches, although he did fumble. He converted a third-and-1 and a fourth-and-1 on one drive, and if his team ever played defense long enough to put together a lead, he’s still a good enough runner to close out a game.
Loser: James Starks, who remains the weakest link of a scary Green Bay offense. His 15 touches were responsible for 66 yards and three first downs, one of which came on the final play before the Packers went into Victory formation. In his designated role as the guy Aaron Rodgers checks down to on third downs when he’s given up on a play succeeding, Starks’ biggest reception of the day was a 9-yard grab on third-and-17.
New York Giants 27, Buffalo Bills 24
Winner: Corey Webster, who held the primary responsibility in shutting down star Bills wideout Stevie Johnson. Johnson was thrown the ball 10 times, but he finished with only five catches for 39 yards. Webster was able to turn two of those targets into interceptions, including a great pick inside his own 5-yard line that stopped the Bills from scoring and started the game-winning drive for the Giants.
Loser: Victor Cruz. A week after blowing the game with a fumble inside the 5-yard line against the Seahawks, Cruz was targeted just four times and had two catches for 12 yards. Welcome to Tom Coughlin’s doghouse, Victor! Be sure to grab Plaxico Burress’ bunk! Fred Taylor’s is all musty, and unless you have a particular interest in haggis, you’re really not going to want to share Lawrence Tynes’.
Pittsburgh Steelers 17, Jacksonville Jaguars 13
Winner: Rashard Mendenhall. After a terrible start to the season that saw him average fewer than three yards per carry, Mendenhall returned from his hamstring injury with a 146-yard performance against a rush defense that was 10th in DVOA. Of his 23 carries, 13 went for more than 3 yards, and he highlighted his return with a touchdown and a 68-yard scamper within the first 17 minutes of the game.
Loser: Marcedes Lewis. With Pittsburgh’s front seven blasted to shreds by injuries, Lewis should have been rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert’s most reliable target against the remnants of the Pittsburgh pass rush. Instead, Lewis caught just two of the eight targets thrown towards him. After catching 66 percent of the passes thrown to him and scoring 10 touchdowns last season, he’s caught just 42 percent of his targets this year and hasn’t scored once. Fortunately, we’re only a few games into Lewis’ $35 million contract, so he’ll have plenty of time to turn it around.
Philadelphia Eagles 20, Washington Redskins 13
Winner: Jeremy Maclin. Because DeSean Jackson is capable of being such a devastating deep threat, people tend to think of Maclin as a possession receiver. He’s not; the correct adjective to apply to Maclin is complete receiver. He caught five of the seven targets in his direction on Sunday, picking up 101 yards and three first downs. He was also the supposed “target” on Vince Young’s memorable duck, and while he was unable to catch the only pass that Young may ever throw in an Eagles uniform, he did tackle DeAngelo Hall before Hall could turn it into a pick-six.
Loser: Jabar Gaffney. In the interest of not picking on Rex Grossman any further, we will just note that his former teammate at Florida saw 10 targets and produced two catches. One of them was a 45-yard grab on a flea flicker, but Gaffney was also the target on three of Grossman’s four interceptions. As Gaffney noted about the reunion in happier times, “We haven’t missed a step.”
Baltimore Ravens 29, Houston Texans 14
Winner: The Ravens defense. It’s a team award, but give the Ravens credit for producing a dominant display on third and fourth down. The Texans went there 19 times and converted just six times. Most teams would allow a few extra conversions on a meaningless final drive, but not the Ravens! They stuffed Arian Foster on a fourth-and-2 with two minutes left and a 15-point lead. Holding Foster to 49 yards on 15 carries is impressive enough. They sacked Matt Schaub four times in 41 dropbacks, pushing their sack rate to eighth in the league. Remember: They had the worst sack rate in football last year.
Loser: Advertisers. These run-happy teams are capable of some pretty long drives, but what they pulled off during the first quarter was pretty remarkable. The Texans started the game with a 13-play drive that took five minutes off the clock, but netted only 38 yards. After they punted, the Ravens ran a 17-play drive that ended with a Joe Flacco touchdown plunge. It took nearly nine full minutes off the clock, and the Texans ran two plays before the quarter ended. Compare that to the Jets-Dolphins game, which had eight different changes of possession in the first quarter alone!
Oakland Raiders 24, Cleveland Browns 17
Winner: John Fassel. Who’s John Fassel? Only the finest special teams coach in the land. Sure, getting to work with Sebastian Janikowski and Shane Lechler makes things pretty easy, but Fassel has now pulled off a fake field goal and a fake punt in consecutive weeks. This week’s fake was a simple pass from Lechler, serving as the holder, to tight end Kevin Boss. It was Boss’ only catch of the day, but the 35-yard touchdown proved to be the game-winning score.
Loser: Peyton Hillis. The Madden Curse is supposed to inspire broken bones, torn ligaments, and drastic, obvious disaster seasons. Instead, Peyton Hillis has spent this season slogging through mediocre performances and nagging ailments. He managed to get both in the picture this week, picking up just 14 yards on six carries and a target before leaving with a pulled hamstring.
New England Patriots 20, Dallas Cowboys 16
Winner: Rob Gronkowski. As an effective blocker at tight end, Gronkowski can have an impact on a game without even catching a pass. It’s even scarier, though, when he catches all seven of the passes thrown to him. Those catches produced five first downs, and one of the two passes short of the sticks was good for nine on first-and-10. At this point, he is arguably the second-best player on what very well could be the best offense in football.
Loser: Tashard Choice. Once a valuable change-of-pace as a more complete back than Felix Jones, Choice has lost his confidence and doesn’t belong on an NFL roster. He had five carries and five targets on Sunday, and those 10 chances produced just 30 yards and as many first downs as fumbles (one). And now that Jones is out with a high ankle sprain, Choice’s role is about to expand.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 26, New Orleans Saints 20
Winner: Michael Koenen. The former Falcons punter/kicker had an enormous game for the Bucs, gaining valuable field position time after time. His four punts averaged 49.8 net yards, including a 53-yarder that was downed at the 2-yard line with 55 seconds left in the first half. Of course, Drew Brees still drove the Saints 82 yards in 40 seconds without using a timeout, but that’s not Koenen’s fault. He also produced four touchbacks, as all seven of his kickoffs landed in the end zone.
Loser: Mark Ingram and Pierre Thomas. In “Thunder and Lightning” running back combinations, lightning is always more fun than thunder. Nobody liked Ron Dayne more than Tiki Barber in 2000, I promise you. But thunder still has to hold their own. Against what has been one of the league’s worst run defenses over the past two seasons, the combination of Ingram and Thomas — presumably the thunder to Darren Sproles’ lightning — were able to muster just 33 yards on 16 carries. While Ingram scored a touchdown, Thomas chipped in with a fumble. With Chris Ivory set to be activated off of the Physically Unable to Perform list, Thomas’ days in New Orleans are numbered.
Chicago Bears 39, Minnesota Vikings 10
Winner: Devin Hester. In addition to his 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to seal the game up in the third quarter, Hester caught five of the seven passes thrown to him, including a 48-yard touchdown pass that saw him run a deep post right by coverage specifically designed to stop him from running the deep post.
Loser: Husain Abdullah. Hester ran that deep post right by Abdullah, the safety who did not offer the Vikings any safe haven on Sunday night. After getting torched on that touchdown, Abdullah failed to control a fumble on the sideline and fell out of bounds without possession. Then, he caught a Jay Cutler gift in the end zone and failed to drag his feet, instead leaping out of the end zone as if it was made of lava.
New York Jets 24, Miami Dolphins 6
Winner: Darrelle Revis. Although Revis allowed several completions to Brandon Marshall and would have given up a touchdown catch to him with a better throw from Matt Moore in one of two different situations, it’s hard to argue with the importance of picking a pass off in the red zone and returning it 100 yards for a touchdown. Also, the alternate entry we had in here for this game was “People who had other plans.”
Loser: Matt Moore. With two weeks to prepare for this start, Moore should have shown a lot more touch and poise than the guy who accidentally found himself in New Jersey. Moore exhibited his weakness on the opening drive, as he totally ignored a wide-open Lex Hilliard on a third-and-1 pass to throw a deeper ball to Clyde Gates, totally covered by Revis. He literally had to look past Hilliard to throw the ball. It didn’t get much better from there, as Moore routinely threw the ball too late or put it in the wrong spot. Better throws to Marshall could have honestly produced a three-touchdown game; instead, Moore turned those throws into a pick-six and a field goal. Very disappointing.
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