Judgements: Move over Denver; improved Colts on the way up


Denver not only is the best team in the AFC; it’s the best team in the NFL. But beware Indianapolis. I liked the Colts to win the conference before the season, and I like them more than ever now. The reason? Andrew Luck. Certainly. His supporting cast? Yes. Their five-game winning streak? Yes. But it’s more than that. It’s their defense … yes, a defense that a year ago looked like an open window. From the second quarter of the Colts’ defeat of Houston to the fourth quarter of Sunday’s shutout of Cincinnati, the Colts made 15 consecutive third-down stops. Moreover, they squeezed Cincinnati for twice as many sacks Sunday (4) as the Bengals surrendered all year (2). “Unbelievable job,” said coach Chuck Pagano. Baltimore and Seattle reminded us the past two years that defense wins championships. Denver got the message. Apparently, Indianapolis did, too. These two met the first weekend of the season. Count on them playing each other in January.

2. Did I say Cincinnati? Three weeks ago, the consensus was that it might be the best team out there. Then the Bengals met New England, and … presto! just like that … they turned into the Bungles, outscored 107-54 the past three weekends. Somebody cue Denny Green: “THEY ARE WHO WE THOUGHT THEY WERE!”

3. Maybe it means nothing but … in even-numbered years under Marvin Lewis the Bengals are 2-19-1. Mr. October, he’s not.

4. Not so, Aaron Rodgers. In his last 15 October games, he has 42 touchdown passes and 4 interceptions.

5. Guess that answers what happens to Kirk Cousins when RG3 returns. But before you get carried away with Colt McCoy, Washington fans, remember this: Cousins’ first pass this year was a touchdown, too.

6. Hello, Buffalo? About that C.J.Spiller deal: No thanks.

7. Sure wish I was on that Atlanta Falcons’ charter to London. Should be a lot of fun.

8. Nope, there’s no place like home … unless, of course, that home is Soldier Field or the O.co Coliseum. Home teams were 11-3 this week, with the Bears and Raiders responsible for two of the three defeats (San Diego was the third). No surprise there. Both are winless at home. Oakland I understand. But Da Bears? They’re so bad that the last Chicago team to win at Soldier Field was the Black Hawks. Honest. It was a 5-1 defeat of Pittsburgh on March 1.

9. The next litmus test for Dallas? Nov. 2 vs. Arizona.

10. Green Bay is hot, and Aaron Rodgers is hotter. He leads the league in passing and hasn’t thrown an interception in his last 192 attempts, while the Packers held the last six quarterbacks to play them to passer ratings of 85 or below. So what do we make of them? Stay tuned. Four of Green Bay’s next six opponents are 2013 playoff opponents.

11. My take on Kansas City’s upset of San Diego? Don’t schedule Andy Reid’s teams immediately following a bye. They’re 14-2.

12. Not sure which leaks more — the S.S. Minnow or Carolina’s defense. For the record, that’s the fourth time in five games the Panthers allowed 37 or more points. The Panthers didn’t allow more than 31 in any game last year. More of that this season, and River Boat Ron becomes Pink Slip Ron.

13. Here’s another reason for Atlanta coach Mike Smith to be concerned: That’s the 11th loss in the Falcons’ last 12 road games. For a coach that’s 6-18 over his last 24 regular-season games, that must improve … and fast. Or else.

14. It’s not Philip Rivers that will hold San Diego back. It’s the Bolts’ defense. It couldn’t make the critical stops on Kansas City’s two-minute drill Sunday, and it allowed four touchdown passes to a rookie quarterback the week before. Now comes the mid-term final: Denver this Thursday … in Denver.

15. The year’s biggest disappointment? Easy. New Orleans. The Saints are 2-4 and just blew another game. Yeah, I know they have six more home starts, but look at the next month: All their games are against 2013 playoff teams — and, OK, so three of them are home where the Saints won their last 10 regular-season games. They had to go to OT to beat Tampa Bay there. This team is going down, down, down.

16. Since when did the  San Francisco 49ers become the Washington Generals?

17. Now I know why Tampa Bay’s Lovie Smith thinks the Bucs can make a second-half playoff run. His division is like his team: It stinks. No one in the NFC South has a winning record.

18. I see where Percy Harvin says he thinks the New York Jets “have a lot of the pieces.” OK, I’ll buy that. But pieces of what?

19. Sorry, but I don’t buy Earl Thomas’ conspiracy theory. He thinks officials are ganging up on the defending Super Bowl champs, imploring them to “stay out of it,” as he put it, and “let us dominate.” Officials had nothing to do with those gaping holes in the Seattle defense nor with the Seahawks’ failure to stop Austin Davis from completing all but three passes. Thomas and his teammates need to wake up and smell some of that Seattle coffee. You’re not the team you were in January. More than that, your defense has lost its swagger, its poise and, yes, its mind.

20.  Don’t tell me the Arizona Cardinals are a surprise. Their 12-3 record over the last 15 games is the best in the NFL, and they’re 15-7 under Bruce Arians.  And speaking of Arizona … it’s a good fall to be a football fan in Phoenix. The Cards and ASU each are 5-1.

FIVE HALL-OF-FAME SIZZLES

1. Buffalo WR Sammy Watkins. He has a career-best 122 yards in catches; he has a career-best nine receptions; he has a career-best two touchdowns; and he makes the only catch that matters — a game-winning TD grab with one second left. Memo to St. Louis: You should’ve drafted this guy when you had the chance.

2. Washington QB Colt McCoy. He missed only one of 12 passes, threw a touchdown on his first attempt, put up a passer rating of 138.5 and led Washington to a come-from-behind victory. Now the question: RG3 or Colt McCoy? It’s a joke, people.

3. Arizona QB Carson Palmer. Hard to believe, but he’s 10-2 in his last 12 starts for the Cardinals.

4. St. Louis special teams coach John Fassel. Give him the game ball. The Rams don’t win without his genius. First, he pulls the mother of all deceptive punt returns. That’s one touchdown. Then he calls a fake punt with the Rams leading by two and facing a fourth-and-3 their 18. Gutsy. But the Rams make it, ice the victory and upset the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks. For once, we’re not talking about Jim when we’re talking Fassel. We’re talking about his son.

5. St. Louis QB Austin Davis. He missed only three passes vs. the Legion of Doom. Let me repeat that: He missed only three of 21 passes vs. the Legion of Doom. That may say more about Seattle’s defense than it does Davis, but give the guy credit. He did what others could not — throwing for two TDs, making no mistakes and upending the defending Super Bowl champions.

FIVE HALL-OF-FAME FIZZLES

1. New Orleans coach Sean Payton. Someone must  accept responsibility for the Saints’ failure to close out games, and Payton is the guy. After dominating a listless Detroit team for 56 minutes, the Saints blow a 13-point lead with under four minutes left and what’s new? No wonder former Saints’ quarterback Bobby Hebert opened his WWL AM-FM radio show Sunday by saying, “You got to be freaking kidding me.” Uh, no, Bobby, we’re not.

2. New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees. He hasn’t been himself all season, and let’s call this one as it is: The guy played well most of Sunday, except it was his interception with just over three minutes left that opened the door to Detroit. Then, when the Saints had a chance to mount a last-minute drive for a game-winning score, he did nothing — which sums up his fourth-quarter experience. He was 3 of 14 in the period, with 17 yards and a passer rating of 9.82. To quote Bobby Hebert, “You got to be freaking kidding me.”

3. Anyone on Cincinnati’s offense. So the Bengals played without A.J. Green. Injuries happen. The Lions played their last two without Calvin Johnson. Big difference. The Lions not only scored; they won … both. Cincinnati produced just 135 yards one week after rolling up 513. I want names and numbers.

4. Cleveland QB Brian Hoyer. More games like that, and Johnny Football loses the clipboard … and his Pilates gig.

5. N.Y. Giants TE Larry Donnell. His two fourth-quarter fumbles guaranteed that the Giants lose their fourth straight to Dallas.

WHAT WOULD LOMBARDI DO?

Cleveland is up 6-0, and the Browns are at the Jacksonville 24. It’s fourth-and-1, there are just under two minutes left in the first half and coach Mike Pettine is left with a decision: Kick the ball or try to get the first down? W.W. L. D.? This isn’t rocket science, people. You take the points. The Jags hadn’t done squat, so fall in line behind your defense and pad the lead. But, noooooooooooo, Mike Pettine not only goes for the first; he throws a pass to the sideline. It falls incomplete, the Jags get the ball back and …what do you know? … they score a go-ahead touchdown and go on to win.

ON THE HALL-OF-FAME RADAR

Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers. Forget that he’s on a four-game roll. The guy has 18 touchdowns, one interception and a passer rating of 117.3 — including a near-perfect 154.5 Sunday.

Miami QB Ryan Tannehill. He’s up. He’s down. He’s up … and he seldom looked better than in Sunday’s defeat of Chicago when he hit his first 14 passes, threw for two touchdowns and produced a career-best 123.6 passer rating en route to a demolition of Chicago.

Dallas QB Tony Romo. He didn’t miss a pass in the second half, beat the Giants for the fourth straight time, produced his second passer rating this season of 135.0 or better and put the Cowboys on top of the NFC East with a 6-1 record. With DeMarco Murray carrying the offense, Romo’s not making mistakes as he did in the past. In his last five games, all wins, he has 13 TD passes and only three interceptions.

Dallas RB DeMarco Murray. The guy just keeps rolling along, setting an NFL record with his seventh straight 100-yard game to start the season. Oh, yeah, Murray also threw in a touchdown run and didn’t fumble. If there were a mid-season MVP vote, Murray’s a runaway winner.

Kansas City QB Alex Smith. A San Diego native, he returns home and pulls off the upset by doing what he does best — making plays when they’re there and NOT making mistakes. Over Smith’s last five starts, he has eight TDs and one interception … and, suddenly, he has us taking the Chiefs seriously again … maybe.

THIS WEEK’S HALL-OF-FAME NOMINEE

Denver QB Peyton Manning. He breaks Brett Favre’s career record for passing TDs. He destroys San Francisco. He has his 33rd career game with four or more touchdowns. And he’s this close to perfect, with only four incompletions anda 157.2 passer rating. All in all, a night to remember.

THIS WEEK’S HALL-OF-FAME QUOTE

“Same mistakes. Same mistakes. Same mistakes. We’re 3-4. That’s unacceptable.” — Chicago wide receiver Brandon Marshall.

WALL-OF-FAME NUMBERS

0 — Third-down conversions in the first half of Indianapolis-Cincinnati game … .by both teams.

2-0 — Detroit without Calvin Johnson

4 — Straight games with T.Y. Hilton having 90 or more yards in catches

4 — Games with 400 yards in Dallas offense

5 — Consecutive games with a Von Miller sack

6 — Straight games with a Justin Forsett run of 20 or more yards

27 — First-half yards by Cincinnati

39:00 — Kansas City time of possession

1976 — Last time Cardinals were 5-1 … or, the year Peyton Manning was born

2008 — Last time Cleveland won consecutive road games

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