Browns, Hillis capitalize on awful Broncos trade

·NFL columnist

Maybe the hooded sweatshirt was hanging over Josh McDaniels' eyes the entire 2009 season. Or maybe he never took the time to watch all of the Denver Broncos' game film from 2008. Or maybe Mike Holmgren and the Cleveland Browns' new front office is a whole lot smarter than we realized.

Or maybe there's no reasonable explanation for how Peyton Hillis(notes) ended up where he is – sparking the suddenly feisty Browns, and leaving Broncos fans writhing in agony over the worst trade of last offseason.

Where is Brady Quinn(notes) these days? You'll find him scraping barnacles off the bottom of the depth chart, languishing behind Tim Tebow(notes). Yes, that's the guy whom McDaniels traded Hillis for – he of the career 66.8 quarterback rating and 52 percent completion rate. And it wasn't even a straight up player-for-player deal. Denver kicked in a sixth-round pick in 2011 and a conditional pick in 2012 to sweeten the pot. Nothing like a couple of bamboo shoots under the fingernails on draft day to remind fans of a team's brain-searing roster machinations.

[Photos: See more of unlikely star Peyton Hillis in action]

The Browns' Peyton Hillis rushed for 184 yards and two touchdowns vs. the Patriots.
(Tony Dejak/AP Photo)

Of course, you could give Hoodie Jr. a pass and say that there was no way McDaniels could have known Hillis would be a player who almost singlehandedly destroyed Hoodie Sr. (Bill Belichick) and the Patriots, en route to 220 yards from scrimmage (including 184 yards rushing) and two touchdowns – a guy who through eight games is on pace to rush for 1,288 yards and score 16 total touchdowns.

You could say McDaniels couldn't have known, and you'd be right. He couldn't, because McDaniels never took the time to try and know what Hillis was capable of accomplishing. Despite Hillis' five yards per carry average and five TDs in a meager 68 rushing attempts in 2008, he didn't get a sniff when McDaniels took over. Instead, the new regime, in its infinite wisdom, went out of its way to try almost anyone at running back other than Hillis. They drafted Knowshon Moreno(notes), signed J.J. Arrington(notes) (then cut him and signed him again), and scooped up injury-addled veterans Correll Buckhalter(notes) and LaMont Jordan(notes). And into the abyss Hillis went, never to be heard from again in 2009, save for 13 meaningless carries in 14 games.

The truth is, McDaniels never believed in Hillis, and the running back said as much when he joined Cleveland this offseason. Maybe only Hillis believed in himself, since nobody in the media (including me) was shooting a thumbs-up in Cleveland's direction at the time of the deal. Just like nobody talked about Hillis when they lauded the sick talent in the University of Arkansas' backfield in 2007, yammering non-stop about Darren McFadden(notes) and Felix Jones(notes), and almost never saying a word about Hillis.

Hindsight is cruel in the NFL, and Hillis' success is downright merciless for a Broncos team that can't run the football (last in the NFL heading into this weekend) and has watched Moreno struggle to stay on the field.

So Hillis delivers the two-pronged entry this week, making Denver's shortsightedness a loser, and Cleveland's sheer luck a winner. I have a feeling both cities will be talking about this trade for years to come.

On to this week's other winners and losers …


Falcons defenders separate Bucs running back LeGarrette Blount from his helmet and stop him short of the goal line at the end of the fourth quarter.
(Curtis Compton/AP Photo/Atlanta Journal & Constitution)

Atlanta Falcons defense
The unit overcame some special teams issues and the playmaking of Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman(notes), coming up big when it was needed the most. The fourth-and-1 stand from the 2-yard line late in the fourth quarter might be its defining moment. If you think safety Thomas DeCoud(notes) isn't a game-changer for the Falcons, watch his hit on the fourth-down play that essentially ended the game.

New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez(notes)
He was getting outplayed by Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford(notes) into the middle of the fourth quarter, but Sanchez turned it on with five minutes left. Trailing 20-10, Sanchez engineered the Jets' final three drives for 13 points, including the winning field goal in overtime. He finished with the highest passing total of his career – 323 yards – and looked every bit like the clutch leader the coaching staff has been seeking.

Minnesota Vikings coach Brad Childress
His coaching obituary was being written by seemingly everyone late into the fourth quarter against the Cardinals. Fire Chilly? Trailing 24-10 in the final minutes, the question was whether he would make it to the locker room before owner Zygi Wilf chased him down with an axe. But an utterly inept Cardinals team was undone by Brett Favre(notes) and Adrian Peterson in the final minutes and overtime. Give this to Favre: the guy never quits. So Chilly presumably lives to fight another week.

Seyi Ajirotutu caught four passes for 111 yards and two touchdowns.
(Dave Einsel/AP Photo)

San Diego Chargers
The defense had a superb second half, holding the Texans to three points. Quarterback Philip Rivers(notes) continues to put up points with third- and fourth-string receiving options, this week's stars being wideout Seyi Ajirotutu(notes) (four catches for 111 yards and two touchdowns) and tight end Randy McMichael(notes) (two touchdowns). The schedule the rest of the way isn't brutal, and you have to wonder how prolific this offense will be when Malcolm Floyd and Vincent Jackson(notes) step back into the mix. The Chargers' AFC West hopes aren't dead yet.

New Orleans Saints defense
You have to be careful about any giddiness following a win over a bad Panthers team, but this unit is getting back to last season's form. The pocket pressure was consistent, and some of the hits (hello again, Darren Sharper(notes)) were devastating. It's saying something when your defense plows its way to an opponents' third quarterback and third running back.

Baltimore Ravens
They've lost two games this season by a combined eight points, and the defense had a big spring in its step coming out of the bye week. Safety Ed Reed(notes) had another interception in the win over the Dolphins, giving him three in two games. They've got Atlanta and Tampa Bay in two of their next three games, but I fully expect that the Dec. 5 game against Pittsburgh will sort out who looks like the best team in the NFL heading into the playoffs. If the Ravens' defense continues this rise, that game should turn the clock back to those 2008 title bouts.

New York Giants
Five straight wins since the 1-2 start, and the offense has been crushing it for four straight games with Sunday's landslide win over the Seahawks. Eli Manning(notes) has 12 touchdowns and five interceptions in that span, and give a load of credit to the offensive line and backfield, too. Manning has only been sacked three times in the past four games, as the line has played some of its best football of the season. Running backs Ahmad Bradshaw(notes) and Brandon Jacobs(notes) have found their groove. Before anyone crowns this the NFC's best team, the defense needs to prove it can slow down prolific teams.

Philadelphia Eagles defense
Since 2008, only one team had sacked Peyton Manning(notes) three times in a regular-season game, until the Eagles accomplished the rare feat in Sunday's win. It wasn't a perfect effort, but the Eagles kept Manning off balance for much of the day, limiting him to a 59 percent completion rate (yes, that counts as success against Manning) and forcing him into a pair of interceptions. The defense would have added a fourth sack and a fumble recovery if it hadn't been for defensive end Trent Cole(notes) brushing against Manning's helmet during a fourth-quarter hit.

Oakland Raiders wideout Jacoby Ford(notes)
His 94-yard kickoff return for a touchdown brought the Raiders back to life in the second half against the Chiefs. And his 148 receiving yards were ultimately the difference in the overtime win, moving Oakland into decisive scoring position. His last two catches, a 29-yarder he stole from Chiefs cornerback Brandon Flowers(notes), and his 47-yard catch in overtime, were as big as anything an Oakland wideout has done all season.


The Bucs and coach Raheem Morris lost to the Falcons 27-21.
(Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Raheem Morris
For a minute, the Bucs had you believing that maybe they were going to live up to Morris' proclamation that they were the best team in the NFC. But while this one could be counted as a moral victory, you have to wonder why Morris took the ball out of the hands of his playmaker, Josh Freeman, when the Bucs had it first-and-10 at the Atlanta 11. The Bucs ran it four times and turned it over on downs. Freeman should have gotten the opportunity to finish. He has earned it.

• Inconsistent touchdown celebrations
I'm still wondering when the NFL is going to step in on Adrian Peterson's end zone celebrations when he drops to his knees. While going to the ground is not usually allowed, Peterson's act is considered one of prayer, and not a touchdown celebration. Unfortunately, when he went to the ground at one point against Arizona, he also blew a two-handed kiss to the crowd. I'm not a fan of clamping down on celebrations, but if you're going to do it, at least be consistent.

New England Patriots
Quarterback Tom Brady(notes) has been giving indications that the younger players on the roster still have a lot to learn about winning. That may be the case, but I still don't understand how this offense is supposed to function at a high level without Randy Moss(notes). Brady's top three receivers in the loss to Cleveland were a pair of rookie tight ends (Aaron Hernandez(notes) and Rob Gronkowski(notes)) and a utility running back (Danny Woodhead(notes)). Where is the serious deep threat? Deion Branch(notes)? Not good.

Matthew Stafford lies on the ground after being sacked by the Jets' Bryan Thomas. The Jets defeated the Lions 23-20 in overtime.
(Leon Halip/Getty Images)

Detroit Lions
Stafford went down with yet another shoulder injury in the fourth quarter, and you could feel the team sink immediately. I think Detroit would have won this game had Stafford not been hurt. Just when Detroit starts to build momentum and show promise, something like this happens. And frankly, it's a little worrisome that this is the third time Stafford has suffered a shoulder injury on what appeared to be a fairly innocuous play.

• Bad teams
Bad teams find way to lose games, and Sunday showed three struggling franchises at their collapsing worst. The Lions, Cardinals, and Buffalo Bills all were one sustained clock-eating drive from winning on Sunday. And thanks to a series of questionable calls, mistakes and undisciplined play, they all imploded.

Arizona Cardinals
Even when it looks like there is no way they can lose, they fall apart. We could go on and on about the quarterback spot, but that wasn't even the worst part of the loss. The defense crumbled late. But Arizona wins this game if it can simply string together a handful of first downs. You can't do that without a running game, either. I used to think Donovan McNabb(notes) could still land here in 2011. Now I wonder if he would want to make such a move.

Houston Texans
They start the season 3-1 and slide right back into the AFC South basement. The schedule gets brutal after next week's game at the Jaguars. And you have to believe head coach Gary Kubiak is fighting for his job at this stage. Even with the DeMeco Ryans(notes) injury, this team is too talented to be 4-4 at the midway point. I'd pay the price of admission to see what Tony Dungy could do with this team.

Carolina Panthers
It's a good thing they squeaked out a win over San Francisco, because there is a chance the Panthers won't win again this season. There isn't a starting caliber quarterback on the roster. And Jimmy Clausen(notes) … I'm not sure he has shown anything to indicate he's going to solve that problem down the line. Yes, he's a rookie. But take a look at Colt McCoy's(notes) starting performances in Cleveland and you'll see a drastic difference. Clausen looks lost.

• Dolphins quarterback Chad Henne(notes)
His zero-touchdown, three-interception outing vs. Baltimore was his worst game of the season. He's got one touchdown pass and five picks in his last three games, and a 1-2 record in that span. His ups and downs remind me of how Jason Campbell(notes) used to play in Washington. You see talent in moments, but it is never consistent, and it's only a matter of time before a big mistake changes a game. One more like this, and Henne won't be starting much longer.

Seattle Seahawks offensive line
The left side of the line has been decimated by injuries, and it's hard to believe this offense will get much better barring some miraculous healing. I wouldn't read too much into Charlie Whitehurst's(notes) poor first start behind that line. And I feel for running back Marshawn Lynch(notes), who might be working behind a worse unit than the one in Buffalo.

Indianapolis Colts wideout Austin Collie(notes)
Collie took a brutal hit between two defenders in the first half against the Eagles sustaining a concussion and being knocked out before he even hit the ground. It might have been the scariest post-hit scene this season, and that's saying something in this particularly violent year. Fortunately, Collie will recover fully, but a quick return definitely doesn't look likely.



Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis breaks up a pass intended for Calvin Johnson.
(Carlos Osorio/AP Photo)

Loved: The Lions going right at Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis(notes) with a bomb on the first play of the game. Revis made a great move, knocking the ball away, but the Lions showed some attitude going after him from the start.

Loathed: Reading over some stats Sunday morning and realizing Bears quarterback Jay Cutler(notes) hasn't quarterbacked a winning team since high school. There's not another current full-time starter in the NFL for whom that's the case. Even Matt Cassel(notes) had a winning record during his lone season as a starter in New England.

Loved: Peyton Hillis' insane hurdle of a Patriot on Cleveland's first offensive series Sunday. It looked like one of the eye-popping plays you'd see from Minnesota's Adrian Peterson. Denver's running game sure could use Hillis right now. Whoops.

Loathed: Panthers tailback Jonathan Stewart(notes) leaving the field in the first quarter with a head injury against New Orleans. There hasn't been a bigger tandem backfield letdown than Stewart and the injured DeAngelo Williams(notes).

Loved: Aaron Hernandez's focus on his 2-yard touchdown catch that ricocheted to the back of the end zone in the second quarter against Cleveland. I'm still not sure how he tracked the ball and still got his feet inbounds.

Loathed: Wide receiver Roddy White's(notes) first half knee bruise against Tampa Bay. It had to leave a huge lump in the throat of that coaching staff. Other than Matt Ryan(notes), there isn't a more indispensible player for Atlanta.

Loved: Texans running back Arian Foster's(notes) game. He is one of the smoothest runners in the league. And watch his head. He looks past the hole and sets up cuts long before he has to make them.

Loathed: Yet another special teams failure by the Chargers with the blocked punt in the first quarter against Houston. This might be the worst special teams unit in the NFL.

Loved: The awesome CBS nugget about Colt McCoy, who is the first quarterback to make his first three career starts against three Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks: Ben Roethlisberger(notes), Drew Brees(notes) and Tom Brady.

Loathed: Seeing Jeremy Shockey(notes) writhing in pain with injured ribs after his first-half touchdown catch against Carolina. Quietly, Shockey is in the midst of his best season since 2006. But he left the stadium in an ambulance, and you have to wonder if this will be his latest injury undoing.