Just inside the Packers locker room, off to the right in an adjacent equipment room, a wooden carving of the season’s defining word sits on a shelf in plain view. “It was a gift,” a smiling Aaron Rodgers said Sunday. “Fan mail.” The decorative “Relax” sign arrived after Rodgers’s Week 3 plea to Green Bay, and now, it’s more an artifact than a directive. For the second straight week, the Packers put up 50 points in a rout and became the first team in NFL history to score 28 first-half points in four straight home games. Panic is no longer a problem.
Outside of a speed bump in New Orleans, since Rodgers’s decree, all that has slowed down the Packers offense at Lambeau Field is mercy. They’ve thrown the ball at will, and they wasted little time starting that engine again Sunday, as Rodgers hit Jordy Nelson on a perfect 64-yarder lofted down the right sideline on the third play from scrimmage. Nelson was asked after the game if there were moments these days when Green Bay’s offense felt unstoppable. “Kind of,” he replied, which, coming from him, may as well be an answer the Macho Man would give Gene Okerlund.
Sunday’s throttling was the most notable thus far because it came against a defense that had been playing remarkably well. Lesser offenses than the Packers had left their tread marks on teams like the Panthers and Bears, but the Eagles came into this weekend ranked sixth in defensive DVOA, fresh off 60 minutes of turning Carolina’s offensive line into kindling. Philadelphia sacked Cam Newton nine times, but that pressure was nowhere to be found against Green Bay. Rodgers set up camp in the pocket and Green Bay’s receivers chewed up Philadelphia’s corners — the weakest group on the Eagles defense, but one that had avoided exposure thanks to a frightening pass rush.
With an offense that has faltered at times, the Eagles had been buoyed in other areas — by a stout, opportunistic defense and dominant special teams. But the Packers won in every hidden area Sunday, taking back both a fumble and an interception for touchdowns, while also adding a score in the return game. They beat the Eagles at Philadelphia’s game while also perfecting their own. “I told Fox in the production meeting,” Rodgers said, “this was important to gauge where we were at.” Green Bay’s defense got a leg up from Mark Sanchez turning back into a pumpkin, but it also had a strong day against the run and terrorized Sanchez when he went back to pass. He was sacked only three times, but the shots put on him — all three of them, really — should probably count double.
None of the Packers’ offensive success is new. Rodgers may be the league’s deserving MVP, but that’s true in any season he’s healthy. Rodgers has already played more games this season than he did all of the last one after breaking his collarbone, but the rest of the offense has also stayed on the field — and that, more than anything else, is what’s different about these Packers. Randall Cobb played only six games last year. Nelson played all 16 games last season, but missed four and parts of a few others in 2012. “We’ve been able to stay pretty healthy this year,” Rodgers said. “Having Randall stay healthy and be able to put up the kind of numbers he’s putting up. Obviously, Jordy is having a Pro Bowl season. But the offensive line, being able to have some continuity there … it’s given those guys a consistency they haven’t had here in a while.” Their Week 2 win against the Jets is the only game the Packers have played without the starting offensive line they took into the season.
Continuity has returned for Green Bay’s offense for the first time in a long time, and the Packers have used it to settle into a run of scoreboard pyrotechnics. For the second straight week, Eddy Lacy took a screen pass and chugged at least 30 yards for a touchdown. Lacy says he didn’t expect to score, that the final push from tight end Andrew Quarless is what got him into the end zone, but right now the Packers look like a group that expects to score on any play from anywhere on the field. Both Rodgers and Nelson were insistent Sunday that none of this is as easy as they’re making it look. If they want us to believe them, someone’s going to have to start making it look a little harder.
The Patriots clearly had a plan. Ten months removed from running all over the Colts to the tune of 234 rushing yards, New England topped that by 10, using Jonas Gray and an extra offensive lineman to turn the Indianapolis defense into putty. For the second straight game between these two teams, a Patriots running back finished with four touchdowns. Against the Colts, Bill Belichick has become that asshole who’s found one unstoppable Mortal Kombat move and refuses to do anything else.
Embrace the Mike Evans revolution. You know you’ve had a ridiculous day as a wide receiver when your quarterback has a huge game — 288 yards and two touchdowns on 12.5 yards per attempt for Josh McCown — despite throwing almost exclusively to you. Ten games into his rookie season, Evans is already a nightmare. This class of rookie receivers looked historically good before Evans was making his case as the group’s best. Now, it’s just stupid.
It wasn’t all Evans, though. The Bucs defense finally looked like the unit some (read: me and about three other idiots) thought it would before the season: six sacks (1.5 of those by Gerald McCoy), a decent showing against the ground game, and the type of return touchdown magic Lovie Smith had enjoyed for years in Chicago.
J.J. Watt (and His Quarterback)
Charles Woodson probably wouldn’t have won the Heisman without some snaps on offense and a few return touchdowns, and it almost seems like the Texans are using the same strategy for Watt’s MVP campaign. Plenty of defensive players have scored touchdowns, but Watt’s grab yesterday wasn’t Mike Vrabel or Jumbo Elliott leaking out of run-heavy formations untouched. This was Watt — inspired by watching Rand University — doing his best Randy Moss impression on a fade at the goal line. We’ve officially reached a point at which he should be draftable in standard fantasy leagues.
While scattered touchdowns might help Watt’s MVP case, an improbable wild-card run in Houston definitely would. A necessary part of that is better quarterback play, and at least through one game, the Texans found it with Ryan Mallett. As ESPN reporter Tania Ganguli pointed out yesterday, it took Mallett one start to match the number of 20-completion, 200-yard, two-plus touchdown games Fitzpatrick had in nine weeks. And it all came against a team that had been among the best in the league against the pass. Along with his production, Mallett also gives Houston’s offense another dimension. In Fitzpatrick’s starts, the Texans ranked 13th in air yards per pass attempt, at 8.26. Yesterday, Mallett’s average throw traveled 10.13 yards. That’s a nice dynamic to add to what Houston has been able to do on the ground all season.
Maybe it’s time we just accept everything Bruce Arians says as law. In Stanton’s first start since his coach claimed him more than capable of leading the Cardinals to a Super Bowl, the player was his purest self: a backup quarterback in a high-risk, high-reward offense. He threw two interceptions (and probably should have thrown a third), but there were enough big plays to go around for Arizona to come away with a win.
The Cardinals went 8-for-14 on third down, which ended up being the deciding factor against the league’s best defense. Stanton looked shaky on a few scattered plays, but his 70.5 QBR was nearly double what the Lions had allowed (33.9, the best mark in football) through 10 weeks.
Anyone who listens to the Grantland NFL Podcast knows that Borland is an American hero, but this guy is seriously playing out of his mind right now. Tackles can be misleading, but Borland ranks 48th in the league with 57 for the season. The insane part: He’s played only 258 snaps. The closest player ahead of him on the list is Nigel Bradham, who has six more tackles on 181 more snaps. It’s not as if Borland’s racking up tackles seven yards past the line of scrimmage, either. According to Pro Football Focus, he’s getting a run stop on 19.8 percent of his snaps. No one else in football is even at 15 percent. The guy can play.
Poor Eli. It feels like we’re due for one of these a year — only this installment was made worse by the last of his five picks coming with the Giants near the goal line, somehow still with a chance to win.
Not all of the picks were Manning’s fault — as is normally the case when a quarterback throws five — which shifts much of the worry from Eli to the Giants offense as a whole. Over New York’s five-game losing streak, the team has failed to top 24 points in any game. Manning ranks 21st in QBR over that stretch, and when it comes to yards per play, the Giants are 19th — one spot lower than the Jaguars. Only the Titans and Rams are producing fewer expected points per play. The promise of that touchdown-happy early-season stretch for Ben McAdoo’s offense seems like it happened years ago.
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Apparently, the cure for Andy Dalton’s woes — like I’m assuming it is for most people — is a trip to New Orleans. Dalton threw three touchdowns on 10 yards per attempt, and Jeremy Hill ran all over the Saints in Cincinnati’s 27-10 win.
The defense in New Orleans has been offense-friendly for most of the season, but what was even more surprising yesterday is how much trouble the Saints had moving the ball against a Bengals defense that hasn’t exactly been bulletproof. New Orleans averaged just 2.9 yards per carry against a run defense that ranked last in rushing DVOA coming into the game. The loss drops the Saints to 4-6, which miraculously still has them tied atop the division (although the Falcons hold the tiebreaker). We should probably extend Bugs Bunny’s thoughts on Florida to the entire NFC South.
The Colts Running Game
While we’re on miserable games against porous run defenses, let’s talk about Indianapolis. New England’s inability to slow down opposing rushers has been its most crippling weakness both this year — when the team has ranked 26th in run-defense DVOA — and last. The Colts aren’t the Mike Shanahan–era Broncos when it comes to the ground game by any stretch, but I thought their running backs could manage better than 0.28 yards per carry last night. That’s an average of 10.28 inches.
To compound the problem, it appears that Ahmad Bradshaw broke his ankle in the loss, leaving the Colts running game to rely on the plodding legs of Trent Richardson, who would have killed for 10 inches a carry last night. Save us, Boom Herron. You’re our only hope.
The Broncos Offense
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A few weeks from now, maybe we’ll realize that the Rams have the type of unit we all figured they might before the season began and that they’re the real winners here. But for now, I’ll say that I’m not mad at the Broncos; I’m just disappointed.
Traditionally, blitzing Peyton Manning equates to writing your own death sentence, and no team in football sends more extra pressure than the Rams (46.3 percent of opponent dropbacks). St. Louis scaled that back a tiny bit Sunday, sending at least five pass-rushers 41.1 percent of the time — but when the Rams did so, Manning was kind of a mess. His QBR on St. Louis blitzes was a drunk-in-a-Wendy’s-parking-lot tally of 17 and change.
This could just be a blip for Denver — on the road, against a blitz-happy team that’s played well lately — but it’s a loss with major implications. New England now has control of the AFC, with what amounts to a two-game lead thanks to its win over Denver, and the Broncos are now tied with the Chiefs in the AFC West. One rough week for the Broncos turned into two. They can’t afford a third.