Stafford, Quinn provide shine for tarnished clubs
You can follow Charles Robinson on Twitter at @YahooSportsNFL
This was the personnel evaluator’s dream. It’s the reason countless hours are poured into talent procurement, and unproven quarterbacks are lavished with millions of unearned dollars: the endless pursuit of accuracy, poise, leadership and heroics.
It’s why so many football evaluators loved Detroit Lions rookie Matthew Stafford(notes). And for that matter, why they once liked the Cleveland Browns’ Brady Quinn(notes), too. So maybe it was fitting that their coming-out parties came Sunday, when the two struggling-but-highly-touted talents faced each other for the first time.
For one day, the two first-round picks – Stafford from the 2009 NFL draft and Quinn from 2007 – showed why so many NFL front offices salivated over their individual skill sets. In a wild game that was arguably the most entertaining of this weekend, Stafford and Quinn combined for nine touchdown passes, 726 passing yards, and a thrilling finish, which saw Detroit win 38-37 with no time left on the clock.
Stafford threw five touchdown passes – the final one coming with an injured non-throwing shoulder and in a game-winning situation, after a pass interference penalty on a Hail Mary put Detroit at Cleveland’s 1-yard line with no time left. Stafford was available to take the final snap only after Cleveland coach Eric Mangini called a timeout, giving the injured quarterback time to get back on the field. All of this came after Detroit trailed 24-3 at one point in the game’s first quarter. Stafford’s fifth score constituted a league record since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970. No other rookie passer in that span had ever thrown five touchdowns in a single game, including such accomplished first-year starters as Dan Marino, John Elway and Peyton Manning(notes).
Quinn was remarkable in his own right, throwing for his first career 300-yard game to go along with his four touchdowns. And while both performances came against ghastly defenses, each suggests some much-needed light at the end of the tunnel for these downtrodden franchises. One month ago, Stafford was being booed by his own home crowd and compared to former first-round bust Joey Harrington(notes). Meanwhile, Quinn couldn’t even get off the Browns’ bench, stranded by a coaching staff that supposedly didn’t believe in him, and burdensome contract escalators the franchise likely wasn’t interested in paying.
The Browns may have lost Sunday, but in truth, nobody really lost. Both fan bases will get a shot of renewed excitement, while viewers got to see two flawed teams play a thriller. Even the NFL wins, with proof that its weakest product can at times yield great results, if only for one day.
Here are some of Week 11’s other winners and losers …
• The Kansas City Chiefs
They’ve done nothing but get better since the bye, which not-so-coincidentally is when this team moved away from Larry Johnson(notes). The morale is improved and the offense is moving better with the versatility of Jamaal Charles and the big-play ability of Chris Chambers(notes). The signing of Chambers has been a stellar move. Linebacker Andy Studebaker(notes) (two interceptions) helped the Chiefs establish a good defensive second half. This looks like a team building some mental toughness.
• The Indianapolis Colts defense
Along with linebacker Gary Brackett(notes), this remains one of the underrated units in the NFL. A week after struggling mightily against the Patriots, the Colts defense carried Peyton Manning and the offense in a win over the Ravens. The defense forced two key turnovers late in the fourth quarter: one on an interception and another on a foolish lateral on a punt return by Baltimore’s Ed Reed(notes).
• Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers(notes)
The offensive line and running back Ryan Grant(notes) deserve some of this credit, since Rodgers had plenty of help in the win over San Francisco. But there’s no denying Rodgers’ ability to carve up teams if he’s not consistently hounded. It’s amazing how little fanfare he has gotten this season, despite now having 22 total touchdowns (including three rushing) and only five interceptions.
• Buffalo Bills wideout Terrell Owens(notes)
Clearly, quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick(notes) was insistent on getting Owens involved early and keeping him in a groove. Owens’ nine catches were the most he’s had in a game since 2007, and his 98-yard touchdown showed he’s still got some juice left in his legs. Time will tell if this is just one of those last flourishes we knew we’d see, or whether Owens and the offense have truly been reinvigorated with the firing of Dick Jauron.
• Jacksonville Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio
How he’s keeping this defense propped up without consistently getting to the quarterback is beyond me. Whatever he’s doing, Del Rio has recaptured a locker room that was starting to slip away from him late last season. Whether this is a playoff-level team isn’t clear. Only one of Jacksonville’s six victories – against the Houston Texans – has come against a team that currently has a winning record. The next two weeks, on the road against San Francisco and at home against the Texans, will say a lot about this team.
• New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning(notes)
Once again, we see what Manning is capable of when he’s not facing a lot of pressure. His offensive line looked like the unit we saw early in the season, bottling up Atlanta’s pass rush and giving Manning time to go through his progressions. For the second straight game, he made solid decisions, spreading his 25 completions around to seven players, and looking toward tight end Kevin Boss(notes) consistently in the red zone.
• The New Orleans Saints running game
You have to be impressed by the fact that Pierre Thomas(notes), Mike Bell(notes) and Reggie Bush(notes) have each found a way to produce when called upon. Bush’s latest knee problems opened the door for Bell again, and he responded with 75 rushing yards and two touchdowns on only 13 carries. Thomas added 92 yards on 11 carries, and the Saints dominated the tempo all game long against Tampa Bay. If the Saints’ defense can get healthy down the stretch, this team should be able to beat opponents in a multitude of ways come playoff time.
• The Dallas Cowboys
Yes, it was as ugly as can be but the 7-6 win over the Redskins gives Dallas five victories in its last six games. The Cowboys pulled it together when it mattered most against the Redskins, and quarterback Tony Romo(notes) was clutch on that 60-yard touchdown drive. The offensive struggles of the last two weeks are troubling, though, particularly with a stretch of offensively capable opponents coming up, including the Giants, Chargers and Saints.
• Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre(notes)
I think he’s forcing himself into the league MVP conversation. His performance Sunday, in which he completed 22 of 25 passes for four touchdowns and no interceptions, has been greatly overlooked. It’s like he has gotten to a level that we expect this kind of greatness every week from him. His touchdown-to-interception ratio is better than any quarterback in football right now, and it’s not cheap either. He takes as many shots downfield as Peyton Manning, Tom Brady(notes) and Drew Brees(notes).
• The Arizona Cardinals rushing attack
Tim Hightower(notes) and Beanie Wells(notes) combined for 184 yards on 28 carries and controlled the tempo fairly well against the Rams. Granted, it was against a poor run defense, but you have to start somewhere. The Cardinals also got some run for Matt Leinart(notes), after Kurt Warner(notes) left with what isn’t considered to be a serious head injury. Leinart was relatively solid, too, completing 10 of 14 passes for 74 yards. The next two weeks at a rejuvenated Tennessee and versus Minnesota will set the tone for the rest of the regular season.
• The New England Patriots
You just knew this is how this franchise was going to respond to last week’s letdown against the Colts, as well as the early season loss to the Jets. Wes Welker(notes) didn’t play in the first game against the Jets. This time around, he had 15 catches for 192 yards. To me, the significant storyline developing for the Patriots is the play of running back Laurence Maroney(notes). He’s got six touchdowns in his last five games, and is becoming a consistent part of that offense. If the Patriots get some consistency from that rushing game down the stretch, this team could easily run the table.
• The San Diego Chargers defense
Certainly the offense has been fantastic, but the story of this team right now is the defensive improvement. The sack numbers haven’t been eye-popping, but if you go back to where this five game-winning streak began – a 37-7 win over Kansas City – San Diego’s pressure has been much better. Shawne Merriman(notes) and Shaun Phillips(notes) have gotten closer to being consistent factors in the pass rush, and that has helped free up other players. The Chargers offense has helped as well, pushing teams into a passing mode and making opponents one dimensional. This is as good as the Chargers have played collectively since late last season.
• The Oakland Raiders
It’s amazing that Bruce Gradkowski(notes) wasn’t sacked a single time, and turned the ball over only once against a team that has feasted on quarterbacks. But this was really about the defense, which forced three key turnovers (four overall) as Cincinnati was poised to put points on the board. The Andre Caldwell(notes) fumble late was a fluke, but Oakland made its own opportunities for much of the day. It’s amazing this team has beaten the Bengals and Philadelphia Eagles this season and yet been so bad.
• The Pittsburgh Steelers
The offensive line is regressing, and the late-game issues from early in the season have popped up again. The Steelers can’t put teams away in the fourth quarter. One week after allowing Cincinnati to kick a pair of decisive field goals in an 18-12 loss, the Steelers let Kansas City drive 91 yards for a game-tying touchdown in the fourth quarter, and then 76 yards for a game-winning field goal in overtime. The secondary was woeful in both drives. This is why the Steelers miss safety Troy Polamalu(notes) so much.
• The Baltimore Ravens offense
Joe Flacco(notes) hasn’t thrown a touchdown pass in three straight games, as this unit has sputtered. If it wasn’t for the playmaking ability of running back Ray Rice(notes), the Ravens would be downright inept inside the red zone. There isn’t a lot of creativity on offense right now, and tight end Todd Heap(notes) has vanished since the bye week. Coordinator Cam Cameron has a lot of work to do.
• The Atlanta Falcons defense
Atlanta showed some nice late-game mettle coming back from a 31-17 deficit to send the game into overtime. But the injuries are taking their toll on the defense. There appears to be a dearth of playmakers along the defensive line, and the lack of a pass rush is really hurting on the back end. The secondary can’t hold up for an extended period in coverage. That has translated into opponents scoring an average of 33.5 points in the last four losses. Patching up this side of the ball is going to be vital to any hopes of a playoff run.
• Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Raheem Morris
I don’t see any signs he was ready to be a head coach in the NFL. If anything, his start reminds me of former Bucs assistant Rod Marinelli, who also went straight to a head coaching gig from a positional spot. Like Marinelli’s stint in Detroit, Morris’ roster doesn’t appear to be showing signs of progress. Yes, quarterback Josh Freeman(notes) has had some flourishes, but for the most part Tampa is overmatched in every way. The defense, which should be Morris’ forte, is pitiful.
• The Washington Redskins
In some ways, they just look snake-bitten. Quarterback Jason Campbell(notes) played solidly between the 20s, and the defense put together one of its best games of the season. But the red-zone issues materialized again, and running back Ladell Betts(notes) suffered an apparent season-ending injury. Maybe the best sign for the future is that Washington doesn’t appear to be playing out the string. Clearly there is some pride among the veterans, particularly on defense.
• The Seattle Seahawks defense
The Vikings are an elite team, but the 35-9 loss has to be embarrassing for Seattle. You can’t blame injuries, either. There is still more than enough talent on this unit to be competitive. But this is part of the problem with Jim Mora-coached defenses. They will coast at times or not show up. That was one of the maddening issues in Atlanta, too. With all the great coaches out there, I still have to wonder if maybe Mora won’t be safe if this team implodes down the stretch, particularly with general manager Tim Ruskell in the last year of his deal. A GM/coach sweep wouldn’t be a shock.
• New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez(notes)
Sanchez has sort of hit the cycle of futility. His four picks in the loss to the Patriots mean he has now had games where he has thrown one (on two occasions), two, three, four, and five interceptions this season. I suppose it’s far too late to bench Sanchez, but you have to wonder if this starts to become a regression process and if the defensive veterans are getting frustrated with being put in bad spots by Sanchez’s mistakes. Clearly, there is some internal balancing for the Jets to do.
• The Denver Broncos
Things are starting to come apart at the seams, and not just because wideout Brandon Marshall(notes) and running back Knowshon Moreno(notes) were caught shoving each other on the sideline. The offense has scored three touchdowns in the last 16 quarters. Meanwhile, the defense isn’t looking nearly as stout as it did during the 6-0 start. Undoubtedly, this isn’t a team that can play from behind consistently. There just aren’t enough big plays out there to get it done. With Kyle Orton(notes) clearly hobbled, this team has to find its strong running game from earlier this season and try to control games.
• The Cincinnati Bengals’ playoff positioning
The loss to Oakland is going to hurt a lot in the long run. This is going to be a team fighting tooth and nail for the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs. A win over the Raiders would have kept the Bengals ahead of the competition. Now there are five other teams either tied or within one game of Cincinnati at 7-3. This is the kind of game the “new” Bengals should always win.
(FIVE THINGS I LOVED AND FIVE THINGS I LOATHED)
Loved: ESPN’s “Sunday NFL Countdown” feature on fourth-down mathematics and how NFL coaches could use it to their advantage. The numbers involved were fascinating, as was some archived footage from 2002 featuring then-Ravens coach Brian Billick blowing off a mathematical theory on fourth downs. Some archived clips from Steve Mariucci and Bill Belichick made the piece very entertaining.
Loathed: The Rapid Fire segment from Fox’s pregame show in which the analysts discussed whether Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James could play in the NFL. What a waste of breath. This is just like the moronic debate about track sprinter Usain Bolt. It’s impossible to argue in any valid way, and frankly, the repetitive nature of this conversation is beyond stale.
Loved: Colts tight end Dallas Clark’s(notes) one-handed touchdown catch in the first quarter against Baltimore. Clark’s ability to palm the ball one-handed without gloves was amazing. A feathery soft pass from Peyton Manning certainly helped. Clark might be the most underrated offensive player in the NFL this season.
Loathed: The nasty facemask by Buffalo Bills linebacker Paul Posluszny(notes) on Jacksonville’s Maurice Jones-Drew(notes) in the second quarter. Posluszny was hit with a 15-yard penalty, and should get a fine, too. At best, the play was reckless and dangerous. At worst, it appeared to be dirty.
Loved: Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman’s 18-yard touchdown pass against the Saints in the first quarter. Freeman’s mobility was amazing on the play, as he avoided a sack three times and then zipped a perfect pass to Michael Clayton(notes). Freeman has shades of Ben Roethlisberger(notes).
Loathed: Seeing Pittsburgh’s kick return coverage give up a touchdown for the fourth time in five games, this time to Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles. The unit has given up touchdowns to Josh Cribbs, Percy Harvin(notes), Bernard Scott(notes) and now Charles. The group’s tackling is terrible.
Loved: The first half of Cleveland at Detroit. Amazingly, this was one of the most entertaining halves of the season. Not just for the 51 points and six total touchdowns, but for the way the two teams were throwing it around. Even the fake field goal was entertaining. It was like an arena football game. You had to love how Detroit battled back from a 24-3 deficit, too.
Loathed: San Francisco’s tackling against the Packers. If they weren’t running into each other (like two defenders did on Greg Jennings’(notes) first-half touchdown), the 49ers were throwing out flimsy arm tackles much of the day. Mike Singletary’s film review session is going to be a bloodbath.
Loved: Seeing New Orleans wideout Robert Meachem(notes) (two touchdown catches) continue to go off. If you’ve seen a Saints practice and Meachem was healthy, you likely noticed him. He’s got the skill and athleticism to be a big playmaker on the NFL level. He’ll be a great No. 2 for the Saints next season.
Loathed: Watching Jason Snelling(notes) run the ball with so much ferocity for Atlanta and realizing that he’ll return to his fullback role when Michael Turner(notes) and Jerious Norwood(notes) are healthy again. Snelling (25 carries, 76 yards, two TDs) ran the ball as hard as any back on Sunday, and should continue to get the ball in his hands.