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A Man Among Lions

The legendary performance of Calvin Johnson, plus the rest of the Week 8 news

There was no obstruction call, but the ending to that Cowboys-Lions game wasn’t half-bad, huh? Amid the backdrop of Calvin Johnson’s historic receiving day, the Lions resurrected a game that had been left for dead with the help of one of the worst penalties you’ll ever see, given the context and the goals of the players involved. It reinforced what we think we know about one team and reinvigorated the possibility that the other might be on a new path. It might be enough to push the Lions into a playoff spot, and at the end of the season, it could be this stunning loss that keeps the Cowboys out.

It all starts with the miraculous final drive produced by the Lions. Let’s be clear: That almost surely never should have happened. The Cowboys had a win expectancy of 99 percent after the Lions failed on fourth-and-12 from their own 31-yard line, turning the ball over to Dallas on downs inside the two-minute warning. The announcers started talking about what the postgame press conferences would be like. They went back to their graphics about how the Lions had a minus-4 turnover margin during the game, and how teams with a minus-4 turnover margin are 8-212 (3.6 percent) since 2000.

Of course, the Lions bucked those odds and won, and that happened almost assuredly because they picked up a free timeout along the way. The Cowboys ran the ball twice to force Detroit to use its final two timeouts on that drive, but when they ran on third down in the hopes of taking 40 seconds off the clock, left tackle Tyron Smith committed offensive holding, stopping the clock in the process. It’s an indefensible penalty given the circumstances. You’re not protecting your quarterback from a sure hit. You’re not saving a touchdown. You’re just trying to eat as much time off the clock as possible while running for as many yards as possible to set up a field goal. The Cowboys’ inability to get a first down, along with the holding call stopping the clock, created an opportunity that likely wouldn’t have existed for Matthew Stafford & Co. with 35 seconds left and no timeouts. It’s the worst holding call I can remember given the context, with the last example I can think of being another Cowboys tackle; that was former right tackle Alex Barron, who filled in against the Redskins in Week 1 of the 2010 season and committed holding on what would have been a game-winning touchdown pass on the final play. Smith’s hold wasn’t as bad. But it was close.

It’s fair to say this is a game last year’s Lions didn’t win. I say that not because they’ve learned something about winning or redevoted themselves to believing when nobody else does, but just because they were the ones having their hearts broken at the end of the game. Remember last year for the Lions? They went 3-8 in games decided by one touchdown or less. It was brutal. That included the 44-41 squeaker against the Titans, when they came back to tie the game before failing in overtime on an accidental snap to backup quarterback Shaun Hill. There was also the 34-31 overtime loss to the Texans that went to a fifth quarter only because of the Schwartz Rule. A week later, they lost 35-33 to the Colts when Andrew Luck threw a touchdown pass on the final play from scrimmage. Heck, even this year’s Lions might have struggled with this; they basically punted their way into a loss against the Bengals last week with a late bust of a punt, but they were not to be denied on Sunday.

It all seemed lost two minutes earlier, and that nearly happened because of conservatism. As the crowd that says “take the points” on fourth-and-goal circled this week, virtually every team that went for it on fourth down on its opposition’s side of the field enjoyed success with its decision. I won’t get into the blow-by-blow of that, but the Lions had such a play early on, going for it on fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard line and scoring on a Johnson slant. They needed those points, but later head coach Jim Schwartz decided to kick a 20-yard field goal that put his team within three points at 13-10 with 13:16 left. The move quickly cost the Lions, who traded touchdowns with the Cowboys and failed to take the lead while falling behind two scores when Dallas picked up its touchdowns. Had the Lions scored a touchdown as opposed to kicking a field goal, they could have won the game on that final drive with a field goal as opposed to requiring a touchdown; had they kicked in the first quarter, the game would have been out of reach at the end. Schwartz didn’t attempt a fourth-and-2 near the goal line and, on the penultimate drive, had to try to convert a fourth-and-12 instead.

Instead, once they got the ball back, Stafford led a quick drive downfield before cleverly sneaking up for a would-be spike and diving over the pile for the game-winning touchdown. It wasn’t Stafford’s first notable comeback win — the 38-37 win over the Browns when Stafford played through an injury on the final drive before throwing a touchdown pass with no time left on the clock comes to mind — but it was almost surely his biggest. The Lions had been wildly inefficient on offense up until that point, with the excellent work done by Megatron overshadowed by the team’s four turnovers. Johnson himself fumbled once, while Reggie Bush threw in another one to go with Stafford’s two interceptions (one of which wasn’t really his fault). Stafford did an excellent job making decisions on the final drive, putting throws in places where there was actually something to be gained from a completion and firing up for big plays to his other receivers. It’s one thing that Kris Durham got open for the biggest play on the final drive, but that’s a throw most NFL quarterbacks can’t or don’t make. Kudos to Stafford for hitting it.

The win is an enormous victory for the Lions. At 5-3, they’re now extremely well-positioned to make a run to the playoffs, especially considering how easy their schedule is over the second half of the season. Their future opponents have a current combined record of 20-38 (.345), meaning the average upcoming Lions opponent is performing at the level of a team between 5-11 and 6-10. And that doesn’t even consider that one of the better teams, Chicago, will likely be without Jay Cutler and Lance Briggs when Detroit returns from a much-needed bye week to face the Bears in two weeks.

It can also end up being a catastrophic loss for the Cowboys. At 4-4, they reign at the top of the league’s worst division, but they’re hardly out of the NFC East woods. They’re blessed to already have victories over each of their NFC East brethren, which will come in handy if they need a division-winning tiebreaker, but they’re only one game ahead of the Eagles and two ahead of the Redskins and Giants. They also still have to travel to New Orleans and Chicago (with a presumably returned Cutler), host Green Bay, and travel inside the division to New York and Washington. And while they currently have all those NFC East tiebreakers, if the Cowboys do miss out on the divisional crown, they’re going to be down a tiebreaker against what will likely be one of their main rivals for a wild-card berth. If that somehow ends up costing the Cowboys a playoff spot, this loss will be even more painful for Cowboys fans — and even more joyous for Lions backers.

Calvin Johnson

I’m Waiting for the Man

I’m not sure what to say about the big day from Calvin Johnson. I mean, you saw the plays. You know that 329 receiving yards in a game is a lot. You can probably guess that catching 14 of the 16 passes thrown to Johnson when everybody in the stadium knows that Stafford wants to force the ball to Megatron is pretty good, especially against one of the league’s better cornerbacks in Brandon Carr.

What I wondered about instead is what Johnson has to do to earn serious consideration as an MVP candidate. When he identified non-quarterback MVP candidates a couple of weeks back, Robert Mays put Johnson atop his list and noted how limited the Detroit lineup looked without Johnson around against Green Bay. We saw how Stafford and the Lions couldn’t do much of anything against the Packers. Does anyone think for a second that the Lions would have had a prayer of beating the Cowboys without Johnson’s contributions? Of course not.

So, how much more does Megatron have to do to justify MVP consideration? Some of it is obviously out of his control; he needs the people around him to not stand out as clear winners. Peyton Manning was head and shoulders above the competition when I took stock of the league with the quarter-season awards, but Manning hasn’t been quite as impressive since then. Andrew Luck might have jumped into the lead, especially considering how he has played against other prominent teams and the decades-old trend of sports award voters tiring of giving awards to the same players year after year.

Let’s say the Colts win 11 games, easily claim their division, and Luck plays at a high level without Reggie Wayne around. What does Johnson have to do to beat out Luck for the MVP award? Keep in mind that Megatron set the single-season receiving yards record last year and was fourth all-time in catches for a single season and didn’t even sniff the vote. He was playing for a bad team, but that helped him set the record, because the Lions were throwing all the time. He also made it through 16 games, which isn’t going to be the case this year. The best he can do is 15.

Johnson has 47 catches for 821 yards and seven touchdowns through seven games, with eight to come. If you prorate those numbers to a full season, Johnson ends up with 101 catches, 1,759 receiving yards, and 15 touchdowns. There’s no way that’s enough. Johnson needs to break his own receiving record, become the first receiver to hit 2,000 yards, and preferably set the mark with some style points to spare.

Let’s throw this line out there: 110 catches, 2,200 yards, and 16 touchdowns. Could that be enough? Would that even be feasible? To pull that off, Johnson would need to produce a 63-1,379-9 line the rest of the way; that’s just less than eight catches and just more than 173 yards per game. Sunday was the first time Johnson was over 173 yards all season, and while he was over it with another 156 yards to spare, it’s hard to imagine that even he could be that consistently good for an entire half-season.

Basically, Johnson would have to be as good during his second half as Adrian Peterson was a year ago, when Peterson averaged in excess of 165 rushing yards per game during his magic second-half spell. That’s probably the best eight-game stretch of running in NFL history, so it seems foolhardy to compare the two and suggest Megatron is likely to match Peterson’s performance, but after Sunday, would you want to bet against him? Even if he doesn’t win the MVP this year, it’s incredible to think about just how much Johnson means to the Detroit Lions.1 We’re blessed to watch him play in his prime.

Jason Garrett

The Gift

After the game, because I have picked this path for myself and it’s easy to second-guess decisions in 140 characters, I saw plenty of arguments that Jason Garrett blew the game for the Cowboys. Now, I’m not exactly Garrett’s biggest fan when it comes to late-game decision-making. It has come up, um, once or twice. But this time? I don’t think you can really fault Garrett for what he did.

Let’s quickly start with Dallas’s first attempt to close out the game, which started at 3:33 with the ball on its own 19-yard line, up three with Detroit having all of its timeouts. The Cowboys ran four offensive plays and two of them were passes, but I don’t think they had any other choice. On the first play, the Lions pushed both safeties into the box and dared Dallas to throw; Tony Romo threw a slant to Dez Bryant that would have been a big play had the Lions not been whistled for pass interference. That’s a killer if it comes on third down, but it’s not a terrible play on first down because it only costs the Lions a few yards while stopping the clock. It’s also not a bad call by Garrett. Then, after two runs went nowhere, the Cowboys tried to throw the ball to Cole Beasley on third-and-12 and couldn’t get a completed pass. You’d like a screen or something that would almost ensure the clock kept going while retaining some possibility of a first down, but the Cowboys can’t just run the ball and punt there; Detroit’s offense had been too effective for Dallas to rely entirely on its defense, especially since the Lions would still have had one timeout and 2:30 or so to work with while needing only a field goal to tie.

The next series was more controversial. Here, the Cowboys took over on the Detroit 31-yard line with 1:24 left, still up three, and with the Lions retaining two timeouts. Dallas chose to run the ball three times, which was the right move. Some folks suggested the Cowboys should have kneeled three times, but you can’t assume the Cowboys are going to take a holding penalty that would stop the clock. A first down running the ball closes the game out, and you have to try to end the game on offense.

Then, on fourth-and-5, Garrett decided to kick a 44-yard field goal with the clock stopped while passing on the opportunity to seal the game up with a conversion. I don’t see how you can justify going for it here. It’s not fourth-and-an-inch, at which point you might consider it; five yards is a significant road to cross. You can’t burn any noticeable time off the clock by going for it (since the clock stops on a change of possession), and if you fail, the Lions need a mere 40 yards or so for a legitimate shot at a game-tying field goal. I don’t think a relatively safe field goal try, which forces the Lions to score a touchdown as opposed to a field goal, is a terrible idea.

The numbers here seem to agree. The Advanced NFL Stats fourth-down calculator suggests the Cowboys should go for it only if they have a 58 percent chance or better of succeeding, something that seems unlikely with five yards to go. This also doesn’t included the relative success of the Detroit offense, which would make defending a short field even tougher. I would have kicked the field goal here, but given the choice, I would have rather avoided the holding penalty, taken more time off the clock, and punted than seen the clock stop and kick a field goal. In any case, as excited as I was to break down what Garrett got wrong, I don’t think he screwed anything up here.

Marvin Jones

Perfect Day

The unlikely winner for biggest blowout of the season showed up this week, as the Cincinnati Bengals beat the Jets 49-9 at home on Sunday, becoming the first NFL team this season to win by as many as 40 points. The Bengals were admittedly favored in Vegas by six points heading into the tilt, and there are easy tidbits to point to that paint a bizarre, unsustainable picture of the victory, but they mask the bigger picture. This was a very good win from a very good football team. Both the performance and the Bengals themselves are likely underrated.

Start with the goofy stuff. Cincinnati created two Geno Smith pick-sixes in this game, with the rookie becoming the first quarterback to do so in 2013.2 Smith was even pity-benched for Matt Simms in the fourth quarter. The Jets won the time-of-possession battle, holding the ball for 33:17, which should tell you how useless that statistic is. The Bengals’ defense held the Jets to 3.7 yards per play on 65 snaps, which is one of the best performances you’ll see all year, even though Cincy lost star corner Leon Hall to a torn Achilles last week.

Even more noticeably, the Bengals had an out-of-nowhere star on offense. Wide receiver Marvin Jones had four career touchdowns through his first 18 games as a pro, but he followed that up Sunday with a shocking four-touchdown performance, catching all eight passes thrown to him for 122 yards in the process. Jones became the first player to pull this off since Randy Moss and Terrell Owens did it on the same day in 2007, and Jones is just the fifth player this millennium to haul in four receiving touchdowns in one game. It’s dangerous to extrapolate a future from one game (see: Flynn, Matt), but there are really no busts on this list of four-touchdown receivers. The worst player to pull this off might be Marcus Robinson, and Robinson’s nine-year career would be a very happy pull for a fifth-round pick like Jones. Jones spent most of his day picking on whichever Jets cornerback was opposite Antonio Cromartie, starting with rookie first-round pick Dee Milliner before Milliner was benched.3 Replacement Darrin Walls wasn’t much better.

Get past the tidbits, though, and there’s a lot to be impressed with here. The Jets, for one, aren’t slouches. Beating the Falcons in Atlanta and the Patriots in Jersey would have been a pair of much more impressive feats before the season, but New York was a 4-3 team when it traveled to Cincinnati on Sunday, and there was little to suggest it should have expected to receive such a shellacking.

Furthermore, what the Bengals did on offense against this Jets defense was even more noticeable. Sure, Cincy got two pick-sixes to aid its points total, but it still finished with 35 points across eight offensive possessions before it brought in Josh Johnson in the fourth quarter. That total includes five touchdown drives, a 63-yard drive that ended with a fourth-and-1 stuff, a freak interception on a defensive linemen tip drill, and one three-and-out. That’s 4.4 points per possession against what had been the league’s fourth-ranked defense per DVOA heading into the week, one that had been allowing just 1.7 points per possession.

That leads to a scary truth: Andy Dalton might actually be the guy in Cincinnati. We were all calling for a step forward from Dalton this season, and while it’s unfair to use a guy’s numbers right after he has a big game, they are a noticeable step ahead of where he was a year ago:

Dalton was completing 65.9 percent of his passes and averaging 7.7 yards per attempt heading into this game, so it’s far from a one-game creation. And yes, Dalton is still benefiting from playing with A.J. Green, but he’s playing better when he’s not throwing to his star receiver. Green is averaging just more than 30 percent of the pass targets and receiving yardage, just as he did a year ago, but Dalton is doing much more with the other guys in the offense. During his rookie year, Dalton completed 58.6 percent of his passes to non-Green receivers; that rose to 63.7 percent last year and a whopping 70.2 percent this year. He’s averaging 7.8 yards per attempt on those throws, well ahead of his 5.8 YPA figure from his rookie season or his 6.4 yards per attempt a year ago. If this is the real Andy Dalton, he’s good enough to lead Cincinnati a long way.

And Cincinnati is likely to play a meaningful role in the playoffs. The win over the Jets takes the Bengals to 6-2, with wins over the Patriots and Packers. With the Steelers and the Browns in shambles, it appears that the Bengals’ only competition for the divisional title comes from Baltimore, and Cincinnati is already 2.5 games ahead of the Ravens with two games between the pair to come.

What’s even more subtle, as Chase Stuart noted on Twitter, is that the battle for the third seed in the AFC is going to be more important than normal. Assuming that one of the AFC West juggernauts claims the league’s top seed, it’ll get a first-round bye. The Bengals, if they win the division, will likely be competing with the Patriots and Colts for the second, third, and fourth seeds in the AFC. If the Bengals don’t earn the other first-round bye, they’re going to really want that third spot. Why? Because the fourth seed in the AFC will likely be hosting the Chiefs or the Broncos in the wild-card round, which seems like a bad matchup. Compare that with the third seed, who will likely host the Dolphins, Ravens, or Chargers. I know who I’d rather play.

There’s still a half-season to go and a lot of football to be played; after all, the Bengals were 3-5 this time last year and still managed to make the playoffs. At the moment, though, it sure seems like Cincinnati is one of the four best teams in the AFC. Sunday’s win was a refresher of how dominant it can be at its peak.

Chip Kelly

Growing Up in Public

Well, it didn’t take long for the NFL to figure out the Chip Kelly offense. Over the past two weeks, Kelly and his vaunted offense have been held to exactly three points, with the Cowboys limiting them to a field goal before the lowly Giants shut out the Philadelphia offense on Sunday. Only a special teams touchdown on a botched punt could get Philly on the board, and even that wasn’t enough to produce a victory for the rapidly fading Eagles.

This is the story that’s beginning to surround the Kelly offensive attack; that it was effective for one half against the Redskins, and once the league figured out you could man up the receivers and take away DeSean Jackson, it was lights out for the naive college coach who thought he could bring his silly “numbers” to the NFL. Even worse, it’s vanilla. Nothing produced at Oregon is vanilla! Neon vanilla, maybe.

Anyway, that story is just flat-out untrue. The Eagles do have their issues on offense right now; it’s hard to score three points over two games without having problems. But they were plenty successful after the Redskins game, and they’re not being schemed out of opportunities by adapting defenses. They’re creating opportunities and failing to execute upon them. And that reveals what might be the biggest difference between what Kelly was able to do in college and what he can get away with this year in the pros.

First, the idea that the Eagles’ offense had somehow stalled out after the first half of the Redskins game is just inaccurate. They scored 33 points in that game … and then averaged 26.6 points over their next five games, one of which came against the best defense in the league, Kansas City. (The Eagles scored 16 points in that game and produced 431 yards of offense, nearly 100 more than anybody else has against the Chiefs this season.) Philadelphia was fourth in the league in points per game heading into that Dallas game, and even better, it was second in the league in offensive DVOA. This isn’t even up for debate; if you think the Eagles weren’t playing well on offense before the Cowboys game, you are objectively wrong, and it’s not particularly close. I’m not sure how much simpler I can make it than that.

So, what’s happened to the Eagles over the last two games? Matt Barkley happened. With injuries to Nick Foles (concussion) and Michael Vick (hamstring) forcing the Eagles away from their starting quarterback in each of these last two games,4 they’ve had to turn the ball over to their rookie third-string quarterback for significant reps, especially against the Giants. That hasn’t been pretty; Barkley has thrown four interceptions, fumbled three times, and dropped a couple of snaps amid his 49 dropbacks these past two weeks. Barkley’s a rookie fourth-round pick, which means he’s not ready to play this early in his career, regardless of which system he gets thrown into. We were spoiled last year by Russell Wilson.

Furthermore, when the nominal starters have been in the game, they haven’t been effective. Vick was a shell of himself Sunday, struggling with his mobility within the pocket and his mechanics as a passer. He reaggravated his hamstring injury and had to come out during the first half. Foles suffered a concussion that forced him out, but before that, he was simply having a poor game. As the indispensable Sheil Kapadia noted, Foles left a number of big plays on the field against the Cowboys. Kapadia suggested that average quarterback play would have netted 300-plus yards and 20-plus points against the Cowboys, given how many times receivers were open for big plays. And that speaks to how Kelly’s system is creating opportunities; it just needs a skilled quarterback to actually capitalize on those opportunities and recognize open receivers.

I think that’s the biggest difference between what Kelly was able to do at Oregon and what he might need to do to succeed in the long term in Philadelphia: His offense will require a good quarterback. At Oregon, Kelly basically ran through a series of middling options at quarterback and got great work from just about everybody he tried: Dennis Dixon, Jeremiah Masoli, and Darron Thomas all had success with Kelly as relatively unheralded (or, in Dixon’s case, relatively unsuccessful) options at quarterback. Marcus Mariota was a three-star recruit coming out of Hawaii, but he was the most productive quarterback Kelly had at Oregon, and that was as an 18-year-old redshirt freshman.

At the professional level, the windows Kelly’s offense creates are smaller, and the decision-making his quarterback needs to perform has to be done faster and more reliably than the speed at which his current options operate. Foles misses too many big plays. Vick holds on to the ball too long and isn’t accurate. Barkley is a project at best. Philadelphia’s quarterback of the future — the guy who will eventually prove whether the Kelly offense can sink or swim in Philadelphia — isn’t on the roster right now. The Eagles will almost surely draft a quarterback in the talent-rich class of 2014, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if they picked Mariota.

Until then, the Eagles will probably be a pretty good offense that takes an unnecessary amount of flak for being unconventional. As long as they’re starting an overmatched midround rookie in Barkley, they’re going to look bad on offense, because that’s what happens to overmatched midround rookies. Then again, just as I cautioned with the Bengals, remember how low Washington sank during the middle of last season. Its hot start on offense gave way to a disappointing halfway point, including two games in which it scored a combined 25 points against the Steelers and Panthers. The Redskins came back after their bye and scored more than 25 points in six of their seven ensuing games. If the Eagles can get Vick or Foles active and healthy, they should be an above-average attack. And once they get Mariota or some other hotshot young quarterback whom Kelly can mold into his system, they’ll be even better.

Filed Under: Bill Barnwell, People

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

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