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Brandon Jacobs is tackled in the fourth quarter.
(Bill Kostroun/AP Photo)
Week after week, defeat after defeat, the New York Giants echoed a collective mantra: Don't panic. This is still a good team. This is not an emergency. Four losses later, I'm beginning to wonder if maybe that message was part of the emergency.
Clearly, after falling short against four good teams, it's worth questioning whether we gifted the Giants "elite" status a little too quickly. Maybe when Antonio Pierce(notes) told the world that playing the Oakland Raiders "felt like a scrimmage," it's because that's what the Giants had been doing – scrimmaging. With four cottony soft wins wrapped around the road victory at Dallas on Sept. 20, it's becoming clear that some of the Giants' issues were likely masked by vastly inferior teams.
One month since that 5-0 start, we're seeing a defense that is struggling significantly with health issues, an offense that is out of balance and a psyche that has to be, at the very least, extremely concerned about how those problems will be fixed. And as much as they'll sell the healing powers of the bye week, that does little to address what is waiting for the Giants on the other side. If New York is healthy – and that's a big "if" at this point – five of the Giants' seven remaining opponents would be in the playoffs if the postseason started after Week 9. That is just a roundabout way of saying that the schedule is about to get wicked.
Of course, some will point to Sunday's 21-20 loss to the Chargers and say it was a sign of progress. They'll point at the defense's intensity and two sacks and pair of interceptions and look at it as a silver lining. Personally, I think Sunday revealed something even more troubling. We'd seen the Giants get blown out in losses to the Eagles and Saints, and we'd seen them give up leads against the Arizona Cardinals. But up until Sunday, we hadn't seen the Giants blow an opportunity to close a win. And that's precisely what happened against the Chargers.
First came the inexplicable play-calling on second-and-goal from the San Diego 14-yard line. Leading 17-14, the Giants dialed up consecutive running plays to thumping running back Brandon Jacobs, all but ensuring they would position themselves for a field goal. It bears repeating: When they could have put the game to bed, the Giants gave the Chargers a chance at life by playing for three points.
And if that wasn't disappointing enough, the defense that had played so solidly all game suddenly couldn't get a stop when San Diego was driving for the winning touchdown. In a situation where the Giants knew without a doubt that they would be facing nothing but passes, Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers(notes) dropped back eight times, faced little or no pressure, and then hit Vincent Jackson(notes) for an 18-yard touchdown.
So let's recap. The Giants need a touchdown late to close the door, and they surrendered almost any chance of getting one. Then when they needed to stop a touchdown late, they couldn't. So what is worse, getting blown out from the start or getting manhandled at the end, when the game is still in your hands? There's no right answer, but the fact that you can even ask that question about the Giants is troubling.
The reality is that this team probably has just never been as good as we thought. Despite some flashes from Ahmad Bradshaw(notes), the running game has never been as dominant or dependable as last season. The passing phase, while balanced and often impressive, still goes through bouts of inconsistency. Too many key defensive pieces (Chris Canty(notes), Aaron Ross(notes), Michael Boley(notes), etc.) have been on the sidelines. And the elite pass rushing skills of Justin Tuck(notes), Osi Umenyiora(notes) and Mathias Kiwanuka(notes) (11½ sacks through eight games) haven't created the consistent chaos that was expected.
Certainly, the injuries have created some of the problems. The secondary, for example, would be exponentially better if Ross and Kenny Phillips(notes) were on the field. And falling behind has forced Manning to press in the passing game, which has never been ideal. But some of problem has been coaching, too. How do you explain the defense occasionally dropping Umenyiora and Tuck into pass coverage? (Look at DeSean Jackson's(notes) 54-yard touchdown catch when the Giants played the Eagles last weekend. It's mind-boggling.) Why scheme to create confusion when you should be able to generate it through a natural pass rush? And if you can't generate a natural pass rush, what has changed from past years?
The point is that the Giants have a jumble of problems, and none is easily solved. You can't just get healthy and everything changes. Running the football like it's 2008 won't make this an elite team again. Indeed, the issues are all tied together. And it's going to take more than one week to sort them out. But until that happens, the Giants are going to have to be accepted for what they are: an above-average team with a litany of issues keeping it from being elite.
While that's not an emergency in September and October, it becomes an urgent situation in November. And make no mistake, the sirens are ringing for the Giants. It's time to panic.
Here are the other Week 9 winners and losers …
Michael Turner rushed for two touchdowns.
(John Bazemore/AP Photo)
• Atlanta Falcons running back Michael Turner
We had been waiting for Turner to break out and show the pounding dominance of last season, and now we've seen it. Turner has gone for 317 rushing yards and three touchdowns in his last two games. That's good news for the Falcons, who have seen quarterback Matt Ryan(notes) struggle a bit with turnovers recently (nine in the past four games, including Sunday's interception in the win over the Redskins). Turner's running should help take some pressure off Ryan to produce downfield while also creating more play-action opportunities.
• The Cincinnati Bengals
I wondered earlier this season whether this was a team that could be trusted with its own success, and the Bengals have answered that doubt in resounding fashion. Sunday's 17-7 win over Baltimore completes an impressive season sweep and gives Cincinnati three tough wins inside the division – the other against Pittsburgh. Somehow, Cincinnati has been able to maintain a pass rush without defensive end Antwan Odom(notes), getting to Joe Flacco(notes) four times Sunday. With Cedric Benson(notes) running the football and the stout defense, the Bengals almost look like the Steelers. We'll have plenty of time to compare going into next week's suddenly highly anticipated game at Heinz Field.
• The Arizona Cardinals passing game
Quarterback Kurt Warner(notes) bounced back after five interceptions last week, tying his career high with five touchdown passes against Chicago. From the pass protection to the combination of Larry Fitzgerald(notes) and Steve Breaston(notes), the Cardinals looked a lot like last season's high-powered unit. Fitzgerald has really come on since the Cardinals' bye week, putting up 123 receiving yards and two touchdowns while abusing Bears cornerback Charles Tillman(notes). Watching Sunday's continuity, you have to wonder if it might be best to keep Anquan Boldin(notes) deactivated until his ankle is close to 100 percent.
• Indianapolis Colts tight end Dallas Clark(notes)
Whether it has been Peyton Manning(notes), Reggie Wayne(notes), the young receivers or the solid defense, Clark has gotten lost a bit in the many storylines surrounding the Colts. However, he's quietly putting up a career year while establishing himself as the AFC's best tight end. He might be Manning's most reliable option at this point. If he continues at his current pace, he'll put up more than 1,400 receiving yards, which would be one of the best seasons by a tight end in league history.
• San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers
The more I watch him, the more obvious it is why this guy played in five bowl games (including the senior bowl) and won the MVP trophies in all of those games. He just carries himself with a ridiculous amount of confidence, talent and emotion. Sometimes the emotion has gotten the better of him, but I'd rather have too much in my quarterback than not enough. To see him bounce back on that final fourth-quarter drive after a string of mistakes says a lot about his mental makeup, especially when you see him do it in the Meadowlands.
• Tennessee Titans quarterback Vince Young(notes)
OK, I'll give him the respect he deserves. He is playing mistake-free, opportunistic football right now, and that is allowing the Titans to find ways to win. Honestly, he's playing a lot like Kerry Collins(notes) was during last season's groove, albeit with fewer pass attempts. It certainly helps to have running back Chris Johnson playing out of his mind, too. But give Young his due: He looks composed and decisive in the pocket, and he is being very smart about how he uses his feet when he moves outside the pocket. Frankly, after back-to-back wins, I have to believe the veterans in that locker room are starting to come around to Vince being a leader again. Winning games fixes a lot of problems.
• Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman(notes)
I really, really hesitate to say this, because people will certainly fly off the handle: Freeman looked a bit like Joe Flacco as he threw for 205 yards and three touchdowns Sunday. He moves a little better than what you would expect for his size, and he has some ability to make plays on the fly. That's not to say Bucs fans should expect Freeman to have a huge impact the way Flacco did for the Ravens as a rookie, but he did showcase a strong arm and an ability to spark an otherwise moribund offense. We'll see what happens when teams start mixing up their coverages and hitting Freeman regularly. Something tells me Sunday's surprising success won't be consistent.
• Jacksonville Jaguars wideout Mike Sims-Walker(notes)
Talk about a guy with a penchant for big games. Sims-Walker dropped 147 receiving yards in a win over Kansas City. That's the third time in six starts this season that Sims-Walker has put up more than 100 receiving yards, giving him 554 yards and four touchdowns during that span. If he hadn't been a little-used backup in Week 1 or deactivated in Week 5 for breaking team rules, he would likely be among the league's best receivers at this point. Jacksonville may have a ways to go to get back in the mix in the AFC, but with Sims-Walker and others, it certainly doesn't lack for young talent.
• The Kansas City Chiefs
I'm not big on putting a losing team in the winners column, but I really liked the way Kansas City battled late in the fourth quarter against Jacksonville. Down 24-6 with 4:26 left, most teams would punch their time card and coast to a loss. But the Chiefs fought back with a 54-yard touchdown to wideout Chris Chambers(notes), then recovered an onside kick that allowed quarterback Matt Cassel(notes) to hit Chambers for a second score. Sure, it still ended in a loss, but the Chiefs showed emotion and appear to have a more potent passing game with the acquisition of Chambers. It's a positive sign of life.
Randy Moss had 147 receiving yards and one touchdown.
(Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
• New England Patriots wideout Randy Moss
Moss busted up Miami's secondary and Vontae Davis(notes) all day long, notching 147 receiving yards and one touchdown. How is this for a testament in Moss' favor: In what some people consider a "down" season, Moss is now on pace for over 1,400 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns. Now consider that in 2008, Larry Fitzgerald put up a career year with 1,431 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns. Even at 32 and with defenses constantly scheming for him, Moss is just otherworldly. Did I mention he tied Terrell Owens(notes) for second on the all-time touchdown reception list with 140? Hmmm … who do you think will win that battle?
• The New Orleans Saints
The Saints keep showing some grit, digging out of a fairly significant hole for the second time in three weeks after trailing Carolina 17-3 late in second quarter. Much like they did when trailing Miami, the Saints got their offensive woes perfected quickly, outscoring the Panthers 27-3 the rest of the way. It's interesting that for all the talk about this team being driven by Brees, the Saints now have three games when he has accounted for a grand total of one touchdown. Not one touchdown per game … one total touchdown in those three games. And yet, the final score of those three games is 81-37. It says something when you have an upper-tier quarterback but can win consistently when he struggles (pay attention, New York Giants).
• The Seattle Seahawks defense
Five interceptions, two sacks and an interception returned for a touchdown against Detroit accounted for this unit's best game of the season. It's hard to read too much into it because it came against Detroit, but after getting hammered last week against Dallas, it was a nice rebound. For the life of me, I can't figure out how linebacker David Hawthorne(notes) went undrafted in 2008. Even before Sunday's nine tackles and two interceptions, he had been a solid playmaker for the Seahawks.
Aaron Rodgers was sacked six times.
(J. Meric/Getty Images)
• The Green Bay Packers
It's hard to look at this team and not be pretty disappointed. Losing to Brett Favre(notes) and the Vikings twice is one thing, but falling to an utterly terrible Buccaneers team is just a new low. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers had one of the worst games I can remember in a while concerning some of his decisions. Still, something has to be done about the sack issues (six to the Bucs; 37 for the season). If the tackles can't stop the rush, go more max protect. If Rodgers is holding the ball too long, it's something he will have to correct with coaching. But it's not like that's the only problem. Someone needs to explain how rookie Josh Freeman throws the ball 31 times and yet only suffers one sack. Coming off last week's sackless game against Favre, that's embarrassing.
• The Washington Redskins offense
The lack of decisiveness on the part of quarterback Jason Campbell(notes) and the shaky play of the offensive line is just a bad mix. You could see it in various situations in Washington's loss to Atlanta, with Campbell getting sacked five times and knocked out of the game at one point. Campbell is now on pace to get sacked 50 times this season, if he actually makes it through the entire duration.
• Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith
You can feel the tide building against the Bears head coach, whose saving grace in Sunday's blowout loss to Arizona was that the Bears didn't completely quit after falling behind 34-7. But still, losing so badly at home is only going to fuel the backlash from a fan base that has never seemed to fully embrace Smith since Chicago's loss in Super Bowl XLI. Still, I can't believe there is any way the penny-pinching Bears ownership would cut Smith loose with two years and $10 million left on his deal.
• The Baltimore Ravens' playoff hopes
Last week's emotionally charging 30-7 win over Denver was erased pretty quickly with a loss at Cincinnati. I can't even remember the last time this franchise allowed a pair of 100-yard running games by the same player in a season. The AFC North is really starting to get away from the Ravens, and it's becoming increasingly clear that Baltimore has a more realistic shot of earning a wild-card berth. The schedule isn't overwhelming, but considering the inconsistency both offensively and defensively, it's hard to assume any wins or losses for this team the rest of the way.
• The Houston Texans
The 20-17 loss to the Colts is the kind of defeat that comes back to haunt a team. Going into the bye with a 6-3 record and a win over the division leader on the road would have been huge. Now you have to figure the AFC South is all but wrapped up for Indianapolis – and the Tennessee game coming out of the bye week hardly looks like a breeze. The bottom line: Houston had too many blown opportunities against the Colts – particularly the fumble by running back Ryan Moats(notes) at the Indianapolis 1-yard line into the end zone and subsequent touchback, and Kris Brown's(notes) blown field goal that would have sent the game into overtime.
• The Miami Dolphins hype
They have fallen to 3-5 and been extremely inconsistent. Sure, the Wildcat is good for a highlight or two, but can we all just agree this is an average team at best? Depending on how you feel about the New York Jets, they arguably don't even have a quality win this season. The more I watch Miami, the more tiresome all the hype becomes. The Wildcat is a gimmick. Regardless of what the plays in that set produce, they keep the rest of the base offense from getting into a legitimate flow. You can't just look at one set of plays. You have to look at the whole picture. And for the results in wins and losses, the talk about Miami is far out of whack.
• Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford(notes)
Yeah, his play is starting to become concerning. He's making some really awful decisions and despite the great arm, his mechanics need work. He seems to throw flat-footed a lot without squaring up. He's got the arm strength to do it, but he's really erratic. He just looks like a guy who needs polish added to his game. He doesn't snap off a lot of intermediate stuff, and he doesn't showcase consistent touch. The 5-to-12 touchdown to interception ratio is just plain ugly. On the plus side, he sure doesn't seem to get discouraged. That should be a tremendous plus in the long run.
(FIVE THINGS I LOVED AND FIVE THINGS I LOATHED)
Loved: ESPN's feature on Miami's debut of the Wildcat against New England last year. Yes, we're all feeling burned out on the Wildcat, but it was interesting to hear Patriots defenders talk about the overwhelming frustration they were feeling. Said Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo(notes): "Coach [Bill] Belichick had to come over and calm everybody down because we didn't know what was going on." That's something you just don't hear from inside one of the NFL's most intensely prepared franchises.
Tommie Harris was ejected in the first quarter.
(Charles Rex Arbogast/AP Photo)
Loathed: Seeing the ridiculous uppercut that Bears defensive tackle Tommie Harris delivered to the face of Cardinals guard Deuce Lutui(notes). The punch, resulting in Harris' ejection, was easily one of the stupidest things I've seen this season, and extremely dirty. Lutui was on his stomach and being held down by Harris, who then threw the powerful punch. It looked like something from a UFC fight. Harris expectedly will face a fine and at least a one-game suspension. More great news for an already depleted Bears defense.
Loved: The fantastic one-handed interception by Dolphins cornerback Vontae Davis against the Patriots in the first quarter. Davis was stuck in single coverage on Randy Moss and showed some major athleticism by tapping the ball back to himself while leaping over the back of Moss. Clearly he's got every bit of the physical talents of his brother, Niners tight end Vernon Davis(notes).
Loathed: The fumble by Texans running back Ryan Moats at the Indianapolis 1-yard line, when the Texans were down 13-0 late in the first half. Houston is just snake-bitten with the turnovers from the running back spot. The Moats fumble was just a huge momentum swing that this team couldn't afford. If I was the Houston staff, I'd have one-time fumble-prone tailback Tiki Barber(notes) on retainer for the next month, teaching Moats and Steve Slaton(notes) how to hold the football.
Loved: The beautiful 33-yard touchdown pass from Chicago's Jay Cutler(notes) to Greg Olsen(notes) in the first quarter. It's the kind of pass that makes you understand Cutler's ridiculous amount of skills. Against an Arizona blitz, Cutler rolled to his left and perfectly led Olsen with a razor sharp spiral, away from two defenders. If Cutler sets his feet, he is money almost every time.
Loathed: Tampa Bay's awful orange creamsicle throwback jerseys. I still think they border on pink. Maybe it's salmon. Whatever the case, they are worse than the ones Denver wore with those putrid striped socks. I'm not sure if there are uglier throwbacks … in any sport.
Loved: The one-handed 36-yard catch by New England's Randy Moss that put the Patriots at the 1-yard line en route to a first-quarter Laurence Maroney(notes) touchdown run. Moss used his trademark of keeping his arms down until the last possible second, then reached out and stabbed a leading pass from Brady. The more you watch Moss, the more you realize his hands and body control could keep him in the NFL long after his speed diminishes (if that actually happens).
Loathed: The late hit put on Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan by Washington Redskins safety LaRon Landry late in the second quarter. It was a dangerous play that will likely carry a fine. Landry is no stranger to toeing the line of being a dirty player with some of his hits, and this one won't help his reputation. Ryan had to be a full 2 yards out of bounds when Landry hit him.
Loved: Watching Arizona's Beanie Wells run the football with a full head of steam. If he wasn't carrying Chicago players, he was running over them at times. I know he's a liability in pass coverage, and that has to get better, but he has a sick skill set to go with his power.
Loathed: The scary hit that knocked out Washington's Clinton Portis in the first quarter against the Falcons. On the play, Portis had his head simultaneously hit by the helmets of cornerback Chevis Jackson and safety Thomas DeCoud. Portis went limp after the hit much like Brian Westbrook did on his concussion two weeks ago. Maybe it's just me, but it seems like someone is getting knocked out in the NFL on a weekly basis. It might be time for some drastic changes to the headgear.