With another NFL week in the books, it’s time to traverse the football landscape and identify the heroes and villains from Week 7. In “The Fabulous and the Flops,” we sift through the reams of numbers and narratives produced by each game from the previous weekend to somehow make sense of a game that doesn’t always make sense. Like how the young quarterback who received plenty of praise for his game really didn’t play all that well. (And no, we don’t mean Tim Tebow.) But more on him later. We’ll start in Detroit, where two teams previously traveling in opposite directions crossed paths and seemed to reverse field.
Atlanta Falcons 23, Detroit Lions 16
Fabulous: The Falcons pass defense, which held Matt Stafford to a completion percentage under 50 percent and allowed the Lions to convert on just one of their 12 third-down attempts. Stafford completed just three passes amidst those 12 third downs, and one of them was for four yards on third-and-24.
Flop: The Lions defense’s ability to play by the rules, which handed the Falcons seven of their 22 first downs through penalties. In all fairness, the Lions committed defensive pass interference, personal foul, and encroachment penalties on consecutive plays from their one-yard line, which might actually be an optimal strategy for a team that’s willing to take risks. Why not try to jump the snap count every time from the 1-yard line? If you get caught offside, who cares? It’s still goal-to-go from the 1 and probably a touchdown either way. If you jump it perfectly and make a play in the backfield or force a turnover, you’ve actually accomplished something! It’s no-risk, high-reward.
Denver Broncos 18, Miami Dolphins 15 (OT)
Fabulous: The Dolphins pass rush. Tim Tebow isn’t exactly the easiest quarterback to take down, so full credit to Cameron Wake & Co. for sacking him seven times. They also had two other quarterback knockdowns. Then again, they also mostly disappeared during the final two drives of the game.
Flop: Demaryius Thomas. In his first game back after tearing his Achilles in the offseason, Thomas caught the touchdown that set up the game-tying two-point conversion. That’s a nice story, but the Broncos threw him the ball 10 times on Sunday, and he produced just three catches for 27 yards. When Tebow threw to his other receivers, he was 10-of-17.
Houston Texans 41, Tennessee Titans 7
Fabulous: Arian Foster, who had 234 yards from scrimmage on his 30 touches while picking up three touchdowns and an additional six first downs for the Texans. Foster had just two carries for negative yardage and caught each of the five passes thrown to him, including a 78-yard touchdown catch on the college misdirection pass that the Texans seem to run more frequently — and effectively — than anyone else in the pros.
Flop: Chris Johnson, with a line that a bruising fullback might be proud of: 10 carries for 18 yards, with a fumble and a long carry of three yards. He caught all six of the passes thrown to him, but those passes gained only 27 yards. His 16 touches resulted in just two first downs. After the Titans gave in and rewarded Johnson for his holdout with a $53 million contract virtually written to his specifications, Johnson has rewarded them with 268 rushing yards on just 93 carries, a rushing average of just 2.9 yards per attempt. Some of his struggles have been rightfully chalked up to bad blocking, but what’s to say that some — or perhaps a large portion — of his success shouldn’t be chalked up to effective blocking, too?
Chicago Bears 24, Tampa Bay Buccaneers 18
Fabulous: Matt Forte, who might want to adopt that adjective as his nickname instead of the rather ostentatious “Pay the man!” Forte produced seven of the Bears’ 19 first downs and averaged more than 6.3 yards on his 27 touches. 6.3 yards doesn’t sound like anything great, but just like the Usage Rate concept in basketball, a player who plays at an above-average level on 29 touches is more valuable than a player who produces at a similar level on 15 touches. And when the Bears didn’t give the ball to Forte, they averaged 5.6 yards per touch.
Flop: Jay Cutler and Josh Freeman. The two quarterbacks ensured that the inevitable London franchise and its fan base will be supporters of a hyperconservative run-first offense, as they combined to throw six picks in 83 dropbacks. Freeman threw four of those interceptions, but Cutler might have been worse; he had an interception dropped in the Buccaneers end zone and a likely pick-six placed gently on the ground by Ronde Barber.
Cleveland Browns 6, Seattle Seahawks 3
Fabulous: Leon Washington. Placed into the starting lineup as the lead running back after Marshawn Lynch injured his back during warm-ups, Washington produced 39 yards on his seven carries and returned a punt for a touchdown. The refs called the touchdown back on what might charitably be called a phantom penalty. The only downside is that his four receptions resulted in just 10 yards.
Flop: Football, which might have been set back 15 years if anyone had actually been able to watch this game all the way through. (Your intrepid reporter made it through assorted glances on Sunday Ticket, but no more.) These teams averaged just 3.2 yards per play and produced just one play from scrimmage longer than 20 yards. If addiction to football were a recognized disease, this game would be part of the detox program. The mathematical equation for this game is (Instant Classic x -1). You get the idea.
New York Jets 27, San Diego Chargers 21
Fabulous: Shonn Greene. Greene was on-point. Despite suffering what appeared to be a catastrophic leg injury during the game, he missed just one play before coming back onto the field. He ran for 112 yards and seven first downs on 20 carries, often dragging Chargers with him for extra yardage along the way. A healthier Nick Mangold at center certainly helped lead the way.
Flop: Vincent Jackson. While Jackson might have received a healthy dose of Darrelle Revis on Sunday, he caught just one of the eight passes thrown to him, producing only 15 yards. If we had some sort of overrated category (“Fiction?”), we’d give that trophy to Plaxico Burress, who caught just four of the eight passes thrown to him and produced 25 yards. Three of those passes were touchdowns, but Burress isn’t going to turn 75 percent of his catches into touchdowns, and he’s still struggling to gain separation with his routes.
Carolina Panthers 33, Washington Redskins 20
Fabulous: Olindo Mare. The Panthers kicker hit on all three of his field goals, including a pair of 45-yarders, and neutralized Redskins kick returner Brandon Banks by producing touchbacks on six of his eight kickoffs.
Flop: Mike Shanahan, who continues to drive fantasy football players up a wall after all these years. Presumed starter Ryan Torain didn’t touch the ball at all in the first half, and had just two carries (for a combined minus-5 yards) in the second half. And those came only because Tim Hightower, who had gone from starter to third-stringer and apparently back during the first seven weeks of the season, tore his ACL after 17 carries in the first half. Forget the fantasy angle. How can this possibly be an optimal way to split the carries between your running backs? Why would any of them have any confidence? How could they?
Pittsburgh Steelers 32, Arizona Cardinals 20
Fabulous: Ryan Clark. The Steelers finally got another turnover! Pittsburgh’s one interception of Kevin Kolb gave it its third takeaway of the season. That’s the fewest turnovers produced by any team in its first seven games since the merger, and if the Dolphins get a takeaway in their game next week, only one other team (the 1998 Redskins) will have failed to hit five. The book continues to be “They’ll be great when they start forcing turnovers,” but if they couldn’t induce Blaine Gabbert or Kevin Kolb into interceptions, who can they take advantage of?
Flop: Rashard Mendenhall. After finally producing the big game everyone was expecting from him last time out, Mendenhall was back to his disappointing tricks against the Cardinals. He gained just 32 yards on 13 carries, and 10 of those yards came on one run, which ended up being his only first down of the day. We know that his offensive line isn’t great, but Isaac Redman and Mewelde Moore have to run behind the same unit, and they had 55 yards on 12 attempts.
Kansas City Chiefs 28, Oakland Raiders 0
Fabulous: Dustin Colquitt. The secret story of this game is that the Chiefs offense was pretty awful. When the Raiders weren’t throwing pick-sixes to the Kansas City defense, the Chiefs offense was stinking up the joint, producing just 4.3 yards per play while turning the ball over twice themselves. The Chiefs were able to overcome their offensive woes by virtue of a great punting day from Colquitt, who had a net average of 47 yards on his seven kicks. Some punters can’t even put up a gross (without any return yardage included) average of 47 yards on their boots.
Flop: Hue Jackson. As the de facto personnel man in Oakland after the passing of Al Davis, the Raiders’ coach got his quarterback position all wrong this week. First, he dealt too much for Carson Palmer. Then, despite Palmer not knowing the playbook, he publicly vacillated throughout the week as to whether he would start Palmer or Kyle Boller on Sunday. (Jackson noted that he would make his decision while drinking Irish coffee on Friday night, a cute sound bite that looks pretty flippant now.) Each quarterback got reps with the first-team offense in practice, but neither of them got anything resembling a full week. That produces the sort of timing issues and rustiness that we saw on Sunday. Jackson finished up by mismanaging his quarterbacks on Sunday, benching Boller after an awful first half for a clearly underprepared Palmer, who arguably played worse. Jackson took the blame for the loss afterward. He should have.
Dallas Cowboys 34, St. Louis Rams 7
Fabulous: DeMarco Murray. The list of backs who have run for 250 yards in a single game is awfully impressive. The worst back on it is probably Mike Anderson, who pulled it off by virtue of playing behind that legendary Broncos offensive line, but even having Mike Anderson’s career is a pretty good fate for a young running back. Even ignoring his 91-yard touchdown run to start the game, Murray produced eight first downs and 162 yards on his other 24 carries. You know a running back has done something truly special when you can take his one long carry out of the equation and still have a great stat line. Murray still has some improving to do as a pass-blocker, and he’ll face much tougher run defenses than this, but if Felix Jones doesn’t come back from his injury, Murray could lead the league in rushing from this week on.
Flop: Danario Alexander, who caught just two of the six passes thrown to him and produced just nine yards with those catches. Even worse, the oft-injured Alexander suffered a hamstring injury, and appears to have lost his starting gig to the newly acquired Brandon Lloyd.
Green Bay Packers 33, Minnesota Vikings 27
Fabulous: Adrian Peterson, who had his best game since the opening week of the 2009 season. AD ran for 175 yards, a touchdown, and seven first downs on 24 carries despite playing with a backup center and losing right guard Anthony Herrera during the game. Peterson doesn’t look quite as fast on film as he did when he came into the league, but many of his big runs came on carries in which he bounced outside and outran Packers players to the edge. That’s a good sign for the Vikings offense going forward.
Flop: Christian Ponder. Let’s review Ponder’s day. He started the game with a 72-yard bomb to Michael Jenkins on a blown coverage, and followed it with a two-yard touchdown pass to Visanthe Shiancoe. Great start. After that, Ponder was 12-of-30 for 147 yards with a touchdown pass and two picks. The Vikings moved the ball because Peterson ran effectively and Ponder, incredibly, picked up eight of the 14 third downs he faced. Offenses that are effective on first and second down can pick up third downs (when they actually face them) that frequently, but when an offense struggles on first and second down and then suddenly picks up third downs at a 57 percent clip, well, that’s not historically sustainable.
New Orleans Saints 62, Indianapolis Colts 7
Fabulous: The Saints. Yes, the whole team. The Saints scored 62 points, tying the record for most points by a team in one game since the merger in 1970. Sure, nine teams scored 63 or more points in a game before then, but it’s a different game now. While teams score more frequently, the salary cap, access to game film, and the assorted other advances the league has made since the ’50s have created far more competitive balance and dramatically reduced turnovers. When the Bears dropped 73 on the Redskins in the NFL Championship Game, the Redskins turned the ball over nine times. That just doesn’t happen nowadays. For all intents and purposes, this might actually be the most impressive pure offensive performance in NFL history.
Flop: The Colts. Hope you guys like Andrew Luck.
Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.
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