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Ten takeaways from an NFL weekend as we race to the playoffs …
Odell Beckham Jr.'s frustration and loss of control in Sunday's 38-35 defeat to Carolina wasn't a matter of one play or even two. Instead, the Giants' star receiver was seemingly on a permanent tilt after badly dropping an easy opening-drive touchdown against cornerback Josh Norman.
Nothing was uglier than in the third quarter, when Beckham targeted (and speared) Norman, launching himself into the side of Norman's helmet while on the periphery of a running play. Beckham was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct on the play, but officials didn't eject him, a questionable call after replays appeared to show malicious intent.
That moment came after two other incidents involving Beckham. On the Giants' second drive, he responded to physical play from Norman by throwing a right hook around the cornerback's neck, throwing him to the ground, and then landing a left-handed punch on the side of Norman's helmet and facemask. In the next incident, Beckham and Panthers cornerback Cortland Finnegan (who is no choirboy) jammed each other hard on a running play. But Beckham took it a step further, landing an open-handed roundhouse to Finnegan's helmet and then pulling him to the ground by his neck.
All of this was sandwiched inside a steady afternoon of Beckham and multiple Panthers players trash-talking, bumping and shoving. Norman and Finnegan combined for three unnecessary roughness penalties, but the day was most embarrassing for Beckham, who punctuated some drops with three unnecessary roughness penalties and emotionally stripping off his helmet to vent. If it weren't for the over-the-line targeting, the performance might have been passed off as merely a fiery, emotional day. But Beckham should have been ejected for targeting, and never should have been in the game to tie it at 35-35 on a 14-yard touchdown with 1:51 left. Indeed, had the Giants gone on to win, not tossing Beckham would have looked like a game-changing officiating blunder. Instead, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton saved the NFL from that fate, driving the Panthers 49 yards for a game-winning field goal.
2. Speaking of the Giants, ownership should sit tight with Tom Coughlin.
I first heard that the Giants might be looking to part ways with Coughlin in early November, while making calls about teams interested in New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton. The Giants surfaced in those conversations, largely because they were in the midst of a fourth straight season without a playoff berth. From a bottom-line stance, the questions are understandable. Four empty years during Eli Manning's dwindling prime is a problem. Coughlin also turns 70 in August, and coaches with that kind of mileage are on the clock. So if the Giants could swap Payton in for Coughlin, it would be a no-brainer.
Apart from that, Coughlin deserves one more year to see if this group can break through. The Giants (6-8) have continued to compete, with seven of their eight losses this season coming by six points or less. They took undefeated Carolina and previously perfect New England down to the last minutes. With another offseason adding to the defense and working toward fixing the run game (and the NFC East being so uncertain), this can be a playoff team in 2016.
3. Russell Wilson's pre-snap reads have helped his pass protection and helped fuel his recent hot streak for the Seattle Seahawks.
It wasn't long ago that Wilson was getting pummeled behind an offensive line that had seemingly lost all continuity. Sacked 31 times during a 3-4 start, Wilson rarely had the opportunity to let plays develop or go downfield with consistency. Part of the issue was Wilson's struggle with calling the correct pre-snap protections. Why? Pro Bowl center Max Unger helped Wilson with his reads prior to being traded this offseason. Without Unger, Wilson has been largely on his own in getting the right calls made – and that has been a work in progress this season.
Getting it right has played a part of his past seven games, in which the offensive line has surrendered only nine sacks. The difference was evident in Sunday's 30-13 coasting win against the Cleveland Browns. Compare that against the sack-fest in the first half of the season, and the protection has seemed to do a complete reversal. No doubt, the line itself and coach Tom Cable deserve a lot of credit for tightening up the group that has paved Seattle's playoff resurgence.
4. While we're on Wilson, he's playing as well as any quarterback in the NFL over the past five games – including Cam Newton.
How sick has Wilson been during Seattle's five-game winning streak? First, he and wideout Doug Baldwin have connected for more touchdown passes in a four-game span (10 in the past four) than anyone in NFL history. That's more than the Patriots' Tom Brady and Randy Moss ever did in a month. More than the San Francisco 49ers' Joe Montana and Jerry Rice ever had in a month. And it breaks the previous record of nine by the Green Bay Packers' Brett Favre and Sterling Sharpe.
Looking strictly at Wilson, he has 20 total touchdowns and zero (!) turnovers in his past five games. That span of five wins also includes victories against two likely playoff teams: at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers; and in Minnesota.
This rhythm is a big reason nobody wants to face Seattle in the postseason.
5. Kirk Cousins secured his claim to a long-term starting quarterback contract.
For a while, caution was in order regarding a long-term deal with Cousins, largely because he lacked statement games and success against teams with winning records. At the very least, he is erasing the gripes about statement games. Sunday's 35-25 win against the Buffalo Bills was as impressive as it gets for Cousins (319 passing yards, five total touchdowns), and represents the third time he has feasted on a bad defense.
That's not a back-handed compliment – good quarterbacks need to be able to beat up bad defenses. And while Cousins needs to beat a top-tier team in the NFL, don't entirely rain on his parade. Cousins is showing signs of growth and expanding confidence in his game under coach Jay Gruden. His past eight weeks are very impressive: 20 total touchdowns (16 passing, four rushing), three interceptions and five 300-yard passing games.
In his contract year, he has taken the strides to secure a deal that cements him as the long-term starter. One caveat: Like the deal of the Miami Dolphins' Ryan Tannehill, Cousins' new contract should have ample trap doors that allow the Redskins appropriate exits if he doesn't remain on the current growth track.
6. After extending the contract of quarterback Andrew Luck, fixing the run game and offensive line should be the top priority for the Indianapolis Colts.
In Sunday's 16-10 loss to the Houston Texans, the Colts finished with 50 rushing yards, adding to woes that have them ranked 28th in the NFL in rushing. This part of the offense has never looked right since coach Chuck Pagano and general manager Ryan Grigson took the franchise controls in 2012. Including that season, Indianapolis has ranked in rushing yards 22nd, 20th, 22nd and 28th (heading into Sunday). Even uglier: The Colts haven't had a 100-yard rusher since Dec. 16, 2012.
Do the Colts want to help Luck? If so, they must invest seriously and consistently in the offensive line and backfield.
7. This Denver Broncos quarterback situation is going to get really awkward, really fast.
Sunday started with an NFL Network report that Peyton Manning would not be comfortable with being a healthy backup to Brock Osweiler. This prompted an oddly worded rebuke from Broncos team president John Elway, who stated (with an exclamation point, no less) that Manning had "never told" Broncos coach Gary Kubiak or Elway that he didn’t want to be the backup.
The problem with Elway's statement? The NFL Network report never said Manning "told" anyone anything, so Elway is playing a semantics game. He's shooting down a report by refuting facts that were never reported. After the Broncos suffered a 34-27 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Elway was asked if Manning would be the team's starter once healthy. Elway ducked the question by saying he wasn't going to comment on "hypotheticals." Manning declined to talk about the topic altogether.
Here's what all of this means: Elway is nowhere near being sold on the idea that Manning can again lead Denver once he is healthy. If Elway was, he would have said so. Which means at some point, if Manning feels healthy enough to play (and that is surely coming), there is going to be a confrontation.
As a former elite player, Elway knows that Manning isn't going to be happy backing up Osweiler. So to suggest otherwise in any fashion is playing dumb.
The Broncos have a problem on their hands. Osweiler played well enough in the first half against the Steelers to retain his job. But against playoff teams, they are going to adjust and give you problems, and that’s what happened to Osweiler later in Pittsburgh. Osweiler's inability to adjust will only cement in Manning’s mind that he can start once he is ready to go. If Denver doesn’t believe that’s the case, someone needs to tell Manning and officially announce him as the backup because these questions aren’t going away, and Elway hasn’t looked good answering them.
8. Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul finally got a sack. But NFL teams are going to have a hard time figuring out what he’s worth as a free agent.
Coming into this week, Pierre-Paul had gone 317 snaps without a sack. That’s a lot, particularly for a player of Pierre-Paul’s caliber prior to his hand injury. That said, Pierre-Paul’s pass rush pressure had been pretty good: Pro Football Focus credited him with 26 quarterback hurries and five QB hits in those 317 snaps. Compared to a year ago, a healthy Pierre-Paul had 38 hurries and nine hits. But he also had 13 sacks, and that’s a huge part of the equation.
In Sunday’s loss to the Carolina Panthers, Pierre-Paul was solid. He pressured Cam Newton on a few plays and notched his sack on a first-down play in the second quarter (Carolina would punt three plays later). But Pierre-Paul has also stacked up some plays (including one prominent play Sunday) where he has issues wrapping up tackles because of the cast on his hand. There is no argument that in certain situations the hand has been a liability.
It remains to be seen whether the Giants will sign Pierre-Paul to a long-term deal after this season. But any team that decides to pay him is going to have some questions about whether his hand will be any more functional than it is right now, in that cast. And more important, whether Pierre-Paul will still have the ability to finish sacks. At times, getting that extra push that turns a pressure into a sack involves significant hand work – pushing, ripping, punching, gripping, etc. It’s fair to wonder whether Pierre-Paul is now a player who gets pressures but fewer sacks, or a player who is not back to his peak level. The difference between those two players could be tens of millions of dollars in free agency.
9. Regardless of his MRI results, Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota should be shelved for the rest of the year.
Mariota is the best thing the Titans franchise has going for it, and he has taken some hard hits over the past five weeks. In that span, the Titans have allowed 18 sacks and looked completely overwhelmed in road losses to the New York Jets and New England Patriots. On the bright side, Mariota and wideout Dorial Green-Beckham are developing some nice chemistry. But the offensive line and running game isn’t getting better at this stage, and that means Mariota is going to be exposed for two more games. With the team sitting at 3-11 and likely to capture the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft, nothing is worth risking Mariota any longer in 2015. Any significant knee injury at this point would create only a potential setback rippling into next season, and that shouldn’t be acceptable to ownership.
10. The most pivotal remaining game for the AFC wild card spots will likely be when the Patriots face the New York Jets next week.
We can do all kinds of gymnastics about which 9-5 teams will claim the two AFC wild-card slots. One of the three contenders (Steelers, Jets and Kansas City Chiefs) will slip up in the final two weeks, and that will make all the difference. The Steelers arguably have the easiest schedule, with road games against bad Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns teams. Yes, they’re road games in the division, but Pittsburgh has no business losing to either team at this stage. Kansas City’s schedule is a little tougher, with the Browns and Oakland Raiders heading into Arrowhead Stadium. Yes, they’re both home games, but the Raiders have shown the ability to beat good teams, and coach Jack Del Rio is going to want to end the season with some momentum.
That leaves the Jets, who have the Patriots at home on Sunday, and then a road game against the Buffalo Bills to wrap the season. The problem for the Jets is that the Patriots are playing for home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs. With that in mind, the odds of New England coming out flat on the road are as slim as they get. Even the road finale for the Jets – against former coach Rex Ryan in Buffalo – is far from easy. Strictly from a two-game sprint to the finish, those schedule realities put the Jets squarely in place as the likely odd team out in the AFC wild-card equation.
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