In this week’s “The Fabulous and the Flops,” we’ve got our usual mix of praise and scorn. In our look at the numbers and storylines coming out of this weekend’s game, we find a coach who’s messing around like he wants to be fired, a group of overmatched offensive linemen who helped create career days, and a veteran specialist who had something resembling a perfect game.
We start in Atlanta, though, where an All-Pro probably cost his team the game without anybody realizing it.
New Orleans Saints 26, Atlanta Falcons 23 (OT)
Fabulous: Marques Colston. When the Falcons revealed that they had built their game plan around stopping Darren Sproles, Drew Brees naturally adapted and found his old primary target. While Jimmy Graham still paced the team with 12 targets, Colston got nine throws and caught eight of them, producing 113 yards and eight first downs. Four of those passes were third-down conversions, including a third-and-11 on the team’s final drive in regulation.
Flop: Eric Weems, the All-Pro special teamer who had one of the worst days a special teams player can put together without fumbling. Weems let one punt roll to the 1-yard line, took a fair catch on his own 6-yard line, and accrued two personal foul penalties (unnecessary roughness and interference with opportunity to catch). He had a lot more to do with the Falcons’ losing than coach Michael Smith did, and his disappointing performance this year is yet another reminder of how fleeting great performances on special teams can be. The only exception, really, appears to be Devin Hester, and even he has peaks and valleys of special teams value.
Oakland Raiders 24, San Diego Chargers 17
Fabulous: Michael Bush. There’s no room for Bush in Oakland with Darren McFadden starting, but as an unrestricted free agent after the season he’s going to get paid by somebody based upon the performance he’s put up in McFadden’s absence. After his 30-carry, 157-yard performance on Thursday night, Bush now has 17 games in his career with more than 10 carries. In those games, he has 317 carries for 1,525 yards (4.8 yards per carry) and 11 touchdowns. He’s an effective receiver and a capable pass-blocker. Who would you rather have: Chris Johnson for $30 million or Michael Bush at half that price?
Flop: Brandyn Dombrowski. After left tackle Marcus McNeill left the game in the first quarter with a neck injury, Dombrowski came in and made the Kamerion Wimbley contract look great for the Raiders by allowing four sacks of Philip Rivers. Wimbley had just two before being gifted a turnstile at left tackle. Dombrowski’s a competent right tackle, but he simply doesn’t have the pass-blocking chops to play the line’s most demanding position. If McNeill is forced to miss time, the Chargers are simply going to have to give Dombrowski help by adding a tight end or a running back to his side of the formation on pass plays.
Tennessee Titans 30, Carolina Panthers 3
Fabulous: The Tennessee defense, which gets a team award for their effectiveness in shutting down all facets of Carolina’s offense. Taking down Cam Newton is easier said than done, but the Titans repeatedly penetrated into the backfield and prevented Carolina from making any big plays. The longest play of the day for the Panthers went just 26 yards, and there were plenty of negative plays. The Titans sacked Newton five times (for 46 yards), knocked him down on three additional plays, and had eight tackles for loss. When Newton got his passes off, there were also usually Titans players in the way, as the rookie quarterback completed just 23 of his 40 attempts and had six passes broken up by Titans. They might have put together the best performance by any team on either side of the ball on Sunday.
Flop: Greg Olsen, who caught just four of the 11 passes thrown to him, with one particularly egregious drop on the sideline at the end of the first half that kept an Olindo Mare field goal from turning into a chip shot. Mare promptly missed the 50-yard field goal attempt. Olsen’s worst play, though, came on one of his catches. G-Reg fumbled on the Titans’ 10-yard line as he picked up a first down during the Panthers’ second possession of the game. If Carolina scores there, it’s a 7-7 game; instead, the turnover led to a quick 90-yard drive and a touchdown for Tennessee, and at 14-0 their defensive linemen could pin their ears back and go after Newton.
Pittsburgh Steelers 24, Cincinnati Bengals 17
Fabulous: William Gay, the much-maligned Steelers cornerback who had his best game as a pro. After getting beaten by Torrey Smith for the game-winning touchdown last week, Gay broke up four passes on Sunday. One of his deflections led to the Steelers’ first interception, and he sealed the win by jumping a slant pattern and picking off Andy Dalton on the Pittsburgh 19-yard line with 2:33 left. Of course, with those two plays, he is now responsible for a full one-third of all Pittsburgh turnovers this year. Maybe that sounded like it would be more impressive in August.
Flop: Ben Roethlisberger, who was worse than his numbers appeared — 21-of-33 for 245 yards with a touchdown and an interception (admittedly on a Heath Miller tip) seems reasonable enough, but he also threw a second interception that was dropped only because two Cincinnati defenders smacked into each other. It was such a bad throw and hard hit that the refs probably could have called the second defender for hitting a defenseless receiver. He’s also been terribly inaccurate throwing downfield this year, missing open receivers week after week. This time, it was Mike Wallace on a third-and-12 deep post in the fourth quarter. Wallace was one-on-one with Reggie Nelson and had the safety beaten by two yards. A two-score lead versus Andy Dalton with 12 minutes to go would have basically been an excuse to beat the traffic, but Roethlisberger badly missed his biggest throw of the game.
St. Louis Rams 13, Cleveland Browns 12
Fabulous: Clete Blakeman. Faced with the worst game of the week on Sunday, the NFL’s second-youngest referee kept things moving and was able to finish this disgusting tilt in three hours flat.
Flop: Ryan Pontbriand. Franchise player Phil Dawson was able to put his first four field goals through the uprights despite windy conditions in Cleveland, but his fifth was more trouble. The Cleveland offense set Dawson up for a game-winning chip shot from 22 yards out with 2:13 left, but instead of giving the Browns a 15-13 lead, Dawson pulled his kick wide to the left. Why? Because Pontbriand, his long snapper, decided to roll the ball on the ground to holder Brad Maynard. Maynard did a great job of getting the ball in some sort of condition to kick, but Dawson wasn’t able to keep the kick straight. The weirdest thing was that Jim Mora, who was doing the game for Fox, somehow managed to blame the miss on Olindo Mare.
Dallas Cowboys 44, Buffalo Bills 7
Fabulous: Tony Romo, who had one of the best halves of football you’ll ever see. During the first 30 minutes of action, Romo was 18-of-19 for 237 yards with 11 first downs and three touchdowns. He hit everyone in stride, held for three extra points, and presumably tended bar in that cave near the locker room entrance at halftime. Obviously, he can’t be that good over the rest of the season, but if he’s going to elevate his game now that his ribs are back to 100 percent, the Cowboys might become the favorites to win the NFC East.
Flop: Ryan Fitzpatrick, who threw three picks and completed 20 of his 31 attempts for only 146 yards against a pass defense that was missing its best cornerback. As we mentioned last week, teams are picking up on the fact that Fitzpatrick struggles with his accuracy downfield and lacks a big-play target down the sideline. The Bills did line up C.J. Spiller and had him run a go route at the beginning of the third quarter, but Fitzpatrick’s pass was a yard too far. On passes that traveled 15 yards or more downfield, Fitzpatrick was 2-of-6 for 39 yards with an interception; notably, the Bills didn’t even attempt such a pass until the second half began.
Jacksonville Jaguars 17, Indianapolis Colts 3
Fabulous: Jacob Tamme, who was probably not picked up on quite as many fantasy football waiver wires as he was last year, but still had a day that evoked memories of the Manning era. In for an injured Dallas Clark, Tamme caught six of the eight passes to him and gained 75 yards. That included receptions of 11 and 29 yards on third-and-10 while Curtis Painter was in the lineup; those two receptions represented a full 42.5 percent of Painter’s total passing yardage on the day.
Flop: Deji Karim. The Jaguars’ backup running back helped keep the Colts in the game by gaining just nine yards on his seven carries. Note that he gained eight yards on his very first rushing attempt, so his subsequent six carries gained yes, a single yard. He contributed some as a receiver and in the return game, so he wasn’t dreadful, but it’s hard to spin seven carries for nine yards as something good.
Denver Broncos 17, Kansas City Chiefs 10
Fabulous: Von Miller. Yet another one of the rookies quietly making a big impact this season, Miller was a big reason the Broncos’ secondary was able to hold the Chiefs to a lone touchdown. Miller sacked Matt Cassel once and split another with Elvis Dumervil, knocked Cassel down on three other occasions, and had two tackles for loss. He now has eight sacks in nine games, which is the third-highest total in the AFC.
Flop: Dwayne Bowe. The Chiefs’ star wideout was able to bring in only two of the seven passes Matt Cassel threw to him, producing just 17 yards in the process. Of course, that may have had something to do with Cassel’s finger, as Bowe caught the first pass thrown to him (and a second pass that was called back for offensive holding), but then was able to reel in only one of the subsequent six throws. And now he gets Tyler Palko to play with!
Miami Dolphins 20, Washington Redskins 9
Fabulous: Leonard Hankerson, who caught 8 of 9 passes for 106 yards in his second career start before suffering a season-ending torn labrum in his hip. Poor guy. We have a more important point to make, though, in the flop section.
Flop: Mike Shanahan. Listen. This is getting ridiculous. After giving Roy Helu a surprise start and virtually every touch at running back last Sunday, Shanahan went and benched Helu for most of the game this weekend, turning back to Ryan Torain, who had already been inexplicably benched without warning twice this season. Torain carried the ball 11 times for 20 yards before Shanahan went back to a full dose of Helu. Meanwhile, Shanahan said that John Beck was his starter at quarterback, but then gave Rex Grossman practice reps with the first-team offense during the week and named him the starter on Sunday morning. Grossman was also predictably terrible.
The joke is that Shanahan is doing this to anger fantasy football players, but how on earth can any of his players think that their coach has any idea what he’s doing? Does anybody watching Redskins games besides Shanahan (and probably Kyle, his son and offensive coordinator) think that this cycle of unexpected benchings and out-of-nowhere playing time is ideal for the players involved? Why would any of Shanahan’s quarterbacks or running backs have even the slightest sliver of confidence? What’s his goal? Do they really change their mind each week about the identities of their best quarterback and running back? Is it some kind of test that we’re all failing as observers? Is Shanahan trying to get fired? That might be the only rational explanation.
Arizona Cardinals 21, Philadelphia Eagles 17
Fabulous: Larry Fitzgerald, who deserves a better quarterback by now. Fitzgerald caught only seven of the 13 passes thrown to him, but oh, the catches he made. He finished with 146 yards and two touchdowns on the day, and he was inches away from producing a third with an incredible diving catch. Of course, this isn’t exactly something new with Fitzgerald and the Eagles. In four games against Philadelphia, Fitzgerald now has 26 catches for 456 yards and eight touchdowns. Eight!
Flop: Michael Vick. Vick deserves some toughness points for playing through two broken ribs for most of the game, but he also deserves some toughness demerits for that very same reason. Vick simply wasn’t accurate as a passer, completing just 47 percent of his passes and throwing two interceptions (although one was something close to a Hail Mary) while notably missing a wide-open Brent Celek for what would have been an easy touchdown. His passer rating of 32.5 was the lowest of Vick’s Eagles career, and he had 25 starts as a Falcon with a worse passer rating than his next-worst Eagles start by that metric. That start happened to be his game against the Bears last Sunday night, which leads us to the other problem: Vick simply isn’t producing right now. He remains a stunningly effective runner, but the huge gains he made in accuracy from last season aren’t sticking this year. His completion percentage (60.3 percent) and interception rate (3.7 percent) are both below league average at this point, and he hasn’t been making the sort of huge plays needed to make up for that inaccuracy. We’re not saying that Vick has been playing so poorly that he deserves to be benched, but that the difference between an injured Vick and a healthy Vince Young might be a lot smaller than you think.
Houston Texans 37, Tampa Bay Buccaneers 9
Fabulous: Arian Foster. Actually, Gary Kubiak, too. With an early lead and Matt Schaub struggling through his Lisfranc injury for most of the game, the Texans turned the ball over to their running game and their three primary backs (Foster, Ben Tate, and Derrick Ward), giving them 41 carries. Foster got only 17 of them, which is actually a good thing, since the Texans were in the middle of a blowout and didn’t need Foster to actually carry the load. With those 17 carries, Foster ran for 84 yards, including four first downs and a touchdown. Not bad, but he was much better as a receiver. Foster caught all four passes thrown to him and turned them into 102 yards, highlighted by a 78-yard touchdown catch that ended the game as a contest early in the second quarter.
Flop: Josh Freeman. It’s not just that Freeman went 15-of-33 for 170 yards with three picks (and a touchdown). It’s that Freeman went to the media after the game and claimed that he is playing the best football of his career. Now, perhaps Freeman is playing under a mask in an adults flag football league somewhere and has gaudy numbers there. In the NFL, though, Freeman has gone from averaging 7.3 yards per attempt and throwing nearly five touchdowns for each interception last year to averaging 6.4 yards per attempt and throwing more interceptions than touchdowns this season. In fact, Freeman now has 13 picks in nine games this year, more than double his total of six from a full 16-game slate last season. Statistics can be deceiving. So can pride.
Seattle Seahawks 22, Baltimore Ravens 17
Fabulous: Steven Hauschka. When a quarterback comes back to play his old team, it inspires thousands of words about revenge and how the quarterback is going to try so hard to prove his old employers wrong. Even if that’s the case, of course, nobody ever writes the story about how a right guard or a middle linebacker tries harder when they play the team that once paid them. Most players don’t have a good reason to dislike their old team, but Hauschka was unceremoniously dumped by the Ravens after missing four of 13 field goal attempts in 2009. On Sunday, he got his revenge by going 5-of-5 on field goals. While all of them were within 39 yards, it’s always nice to make your ex feel stupid. Had he thrown in a couple of 50-plus yarders, well, Hauschka would have had the equivalent of a “You’re So Vain”-level kicker performance.
Flop: Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith. Joe Flacco wasn’t particularly accurate during this game, but his two starting wide receivers really seemed to struggle. Boldin and Smith combined to catch five of the 17 passes thrown to them, and those passes gained a total of only 50 yards. Meanwhile, when he was throwing to the rest of the team, Flacco was 24-of-35 for 205 yards.
Chicago Bears 37, Detroit Lions 13
Fabulous: Earl Bennett. We also would have accepted “the entire defense,” but let’s focus on a member of the Bears offense not named Matt Forte for once. When the Bears weren’t scoring touchdowns on defense or special teams, they were moving the ball because of Bennett. The Bears threw him six passes, and he caught all six of them. He caught a 15-yarder on second-and-13, a 17-yarder on third-and-13, and a 30-yarder on second-and-3. In his four games this year, Bennett has caught 14 of the 16 passes thrown to him. That’s not sustainable, but it’s pretty clear that he has the best hands on the team and serves a niche that nobody else is capable of filling. He’s playing a role reminiscent of the one played by Sidney Rice on the 2009 Vikings, and the Bears offense is significantly better with him healthy and active.
Flop: Matthew Stafford. You saw it. Four picks in 63 attempts, a 52 percent completion rate, and an embarrassing, petulant fight to top it all off. Standard-issue bad game or a sign of things to come? Hard to say. The excuse going around after the game was that Stafford was dealing with a fractured finger, but Stafford broke that finger during the Broncos game in Week 8, in which he completed 70 percent of his passes and threw zero interceptions. The finger should have affected him in the Broncos game and been better after 13 days, not worse. The fractured finger is a red herring. Something else is up here.
San Francisco 49ers 27, New York Giants 20
Fabulous: David Akers and Andy Lee. The 49ers’ specialists are their hidden weapons, consistently creating excellent field position and making the lives of their offense and defense much easier. Sunday was a prime example of what they can do. Akers hit all four of his field goals, including a 52-yarder, and produced touchbacks on four of his six kickoffs. Oh, and one of the kickoffs he didn’t put into the end zone was a perfect onside kick that gave the Niners an extra possession. (For those wondering, his sixth kickoff went five yards deep into the end zone, but Da’Rel Scott was compelled to bring it out and took it all the way to the Giants’ 11-yard line. That’s better than a touchback!) Lee, meanwhile, punted three times and accrued net yardage totals of 48, 50, and 56 yards. Most punters struggle to punt the ball 50 yards even before the return is factored in.
Flop: Derrick Martin, who committed three penalties on those punt plays, including the impressive feat of picking up two penalties on one punt return. One of his penalties was a 10-yard holding call on Lee’s 56-yard punt, turning it into a 66-yarder and setting the Giants up for their final drive of the game on their own 20-yard line. That Giants drive, you will remember, finished on the 49ers’ 10-yard line, exactly 10 yards short of their goal.
New England Patriots 37, New York Jets 16
Fabulous: Rob Gronkowski. The Jets have some of the best linebackers and cornerbacks in the league, but they really struggle to cover Gronkowski. How bad of a mismatch was Gronkowski? The Jets actually moved Darrelle Revis off of Wes Welker to cover Gronkowski at times during the second half. The only other tight end in the league that Revis sees reps against is Antonio Gates. Gronkowski was 8-of-11 for 113 yards with two touchdowns, and if not for a stray footstep in the end zone, it would have been three. What he’s doing as a red zone threat is unprecedented; teams know the Patriots are going to go to him and still don’t seem to have a prayer of stopping him. Gronkowski is now two touchdowns away from becoming just the second tight end in NFL history to score 10 or more touchdowns in back-to-back seasons, a distinction he will also solely share with Gates. And keep in mind that no tight end has ever been able to score more than 10 touchdowns in a season more than three times in his career. Gronkowski’s about to do it twice in his first two seasons. This could be the best tight end ever, folks.
Flop: D’Brickashaw Ferguson. While Jets right tackle Wayne Hunter is commonly seen as the liability of the line in pass protection, Ferguson is supposed to be the safety valve that locks up one side of the line without help. Patriots end Andre Carter had a career night on Sunday, with 4.5 sacks and four other knockdowns of Mark Sanchez, and Ferguson got beat on at least two of them.
Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.
Previously from Bill Barnwell:
Ultimate Fighting Is Ready for Its Close-Up
Vegas & the Packers’ Quest to Go 16-0
The All-Bettis Team
NFL Midseason Report: The NFC
NFL Midseason Report: The AFC
Vegas Sportsbook Review: Caesars Palace
Breaking Down the Suck for Luck Campaign
Handicapping the 2011 NFL MVP Race
The Hedge, the Tease, and the Life of the NFL Bettor
Read more of The Triangle, Grantland’s sports blog.
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