Never has the cliched phrase "On any given Sunday" seemed more apropos than in the wake of Cleveland's 35-14 victory over the previously undefeated New York Giants. The defending Super Bowl champions were not only 4-0 this season prior to facing the Browns but they were riding an 11 game road winning streak that was tied for the second longest in NFL history--and that number did not even include their epic Super Bowl victory over the 17-0 New England Patriots, because the Super Bowl is considered to be a neutral site game. The Browns' sole victory prior to Monday night was a 20-12 decision against the still winless Cincinnati Bengals.
The Giants ran the ball well--outgaining the Browns 181-144 on the ground--but they never got their passing game in gear. Eli Manning threw three interceptions, one more than he had tossed in his previous eight games (regular season and postseason) combined. Midway through the fourth quarter, the Giants had an opportunity to score a touchdown to cut the Browns' lead to 27-21 but Eric Wright picked off Manning and raced 94 yards for a touchdown, the fourth longest interception return in Browns' history. Manning completed 18 of 28 passes but he only gained 196 yards and he had just one touchdown; that adds up to a 57.1 passer rating, his worst of the season.
The Browns were so dominant offensively that they neither punted nor committed a turnover; ESPN play by play announcer Mike Tirico noted that this is the first time a Giants' opponent has achieved both of those things in the same game since 1936, when the NFL began tracking turnovers.
Several key Browns' offensive players had superb performances. Statistically, Derek Anderson was the worst starting quarterback in the league during the season's first month but against the Giants he had one of the best games of his career, completing 18 of 29 passes for 310 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions en route to compiling a gaudy 121.3 passer rating. Wide receiver Braylon Edwards had a career night, catching five passes for 154 yards and one touchdown; he also caught a pass from Anderson for a two point conversion. Running back Jamal Lewis had his best game of the season with 21 rushes for 88 yards and one touchdown.
Anderson and Edwards both made the Pro Bowl last season, when the Browns went 10-6--the same record that the Giants posted before getting hot and romping through the playoffs--and narrowly missed qualifying for postseason play. Before this season, many people had high expectations for the Browns, who will appear on national telecasts more often than the Giants this season. Anderson and Edwards both suffered injuries during the preseason; in the early weeks of the regular season they struggled not only to regain form individually but also to reproduce the chemistry that enable them to hook up for 16 touchdowns last year, a record for a Browns' receiver. Many Browns' fans have been clamoring for Anderson to be replaced by Brady Quinn, a first round draft pick from last year.
A couple days before the game, ESPN's Ron Jaworski described to The Plain Dealer's Tony Grossi why Anderson struggled early in the season: "I think he's lost his confidence. He's a little tight-elbowed. He's not just dropping back and feeling good about what he's doing." Jaworski also noted that a lack of continuity on the offensive line has led to more pass rush pressure on Anderson and Anderson has compounded that problem by not reading the pressure very well: "It's got him playing a little bit skittish in the pocket. He's been struggling mechanically a little bit. In the past, I'd see him make a lot of the throws that he's missing this year. The pressure begins to cloud your decision-making, so you're forcing some throws, not reading the blitzes, getting the ball out of your hand. There will always be bodies around you and you have to learn to throw from different platforms. He did make some plays at the end of the Bengals game, so that should be a confidence-builder."
None of those problems were evident on Monday. The most important thing to understand about all this is that even a very good quarterback can have a bad game--just look at how Manning played in this game. However, there are very few quarterbacks who can make the reads that Anderson did against the Giants and deliver the ball with such accuracy and velocity. Watching this game made it crystal clear why the Browns have been so reluctant to bench Anderson. It is important to keep in mind than Anderson is still a young player. Remember all the bad things that people said about Eli Manning before he won the Super Bowl? It takes quarterbacks time to develop and it does not help matters to yank them out of the lineup at the first sign of trouble; sometimes that is necessary but it should be avoided if possible.
Interestingly, the one ESPN commentator who picked the Browns to beat the Giants is Steve Young, who I think provides some of the deepest and most thought provoking football analysis available on any of the NFL pregame or postgame shows. I didn't expect that the Browns would win this game but when I saw that Young picked them I thought that maybe they have a chance after all. Young said that the Anderson we saw on Monday is the one that we will probably see the rest of the year, adding that Anderson's performance was "top five quarterback material. That's how good I thought he was but I think he has to be consistently that way. He's capable of being that good of a quarterback. I'm excited for the potential of Derek Anderson's career and I'm also excited for Brady Quinn whenever he gets a chance."
I was in Chicago over the weekend, so before I headed home I stopped by the ESPN Zone to watch Monday Night Countdown and the game, figuring that there would literally be wall to wall coverage there since ESPN promotes and cross promotes itself incessantly. Ironically, although ESPN Zone showed Monday Night Countdown on several TVs, they did so without audio until the conclusion of game four of the National League Championship series; one of the employees told me that they have a policy of not giving precedence to pregame shows--even their own--over live events. So, ironically, I went to ESPN Zone to watch Monday Night Countdown but missed most of the show! Fortunately, the NLCS game ended in time to catch the final third of Monday Night Countdown and all of the game.
Here are some notes/comments about Sunday's action:
The biggest story in the NFL this weekend prior to Cleveland's shocking win was that Dallas quarterback Tony Romo broke the pinkie finger on his passing hand during Arizona's 30-24 overtime victory over the Cowboys; in an instance of truly adding injury to insult, not only did Dallas lose Romo but punter Mat McBriar suffered a broken foot on the punt block that the Cardinals returned for the game winning touchdown. Romo is expected to be out of action for a month, which means that he will likely miss three games (the Cowboys have a bye during that period). Brad Johnson, who quarterbacked Tampa Bay to a Super Bowl title five years ago but is 40 years old and has not started a game since 2006, will take over for Romo. Johnson is less mobile than Romo and his arm is not as strong as Romo's but Johnson is also much less apt to commit the careless turnovers that Romo does; in 2002 and 2005 Johnson had the lowest interception percentage of any passer in the league and he ranks 19th all-time on the career list in that category. Romo does not have a terrible interception percentage but his percentage is worse than Johnson's and Romo also leads the NFL in fumbles this season with six.
Shifting gears from a playoff contender to a perennial pretender, a big reason that the Cincinnati Bengals' season is over before it began is that the team's two Pro Bowl receivers selfishly put their personal issues and contact gripes ahead of team priorities. Dan Pompei of the Chicago Tribune recently wrote:
An example of how business can affect football is evident in Cincinnati.
In the off-season Bengals wide receiver Chad Ocho Cinco said he wanted to be traded and to emphasize his point, he did not show up for workouts. His teammate T.J. Houshmandzadeh also did not show up for workouts because he was entering the final year of his contract and apparently wanted to make a statement about what the Bengals were or were not offering him.
"Neither guy came to camp in shape to play football," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. "They have admitted to that. They did not participate in the off-season [workouts] and it showed. They both got injured in camp. They had very little time with the quarterback. Until we got to the third game of the year, they were not up to speed.
"If you don't participate in the off-season and you come to camp and you're standing on the sideline all the time, what good are you to me? You can't have a football team that way, or at least I don't know how to."
In the regular season both Pro Bowlers subsequently got off to slow starts. Ocho Cinco, who ranked third in the league in receiving yards in 2007, ranks 80th after five weeks.
And their team is 0-5.
Lewis said both receivers have worked into the flow now. He said Ocho Cinco has worked extremely hard to rehab his shoulder injury.
But the damage has been done.
"Those guys have forgotten a little bit how they got to be the players they were," Lewis said.
The Bengals fell to 0-6 after losing 26-14 to the New York Jets. The Jets overcame a subpar performance by Brett Favre, who had a season-high completion percentage (25-33, .758) but averaged fewer than six yards per attempt and threw two interceptions but only one touchdown. Despite the off game, Favre has tossed 13 touchdowns so far as a Jet, tying an NFL record for most TD passes by a veteran QB in his first five starts with a new team; is it just me or some rather arcane records being tracked now? Don't get me wrong--I love those kind of stats nuggets.
Running back Thomas Jones scored three short touchdowns for the Jets, two on the ground and one via the air. Loco Cinco actually had his best game of the year but when your season-highs are five receptions for 57 yards you are not having much of a season. Houshmandzadeh contributed seven receptions for 49 yards. Neither receiver reached the end zone.
Cleveland's Monday night upset capped off a very wild NFL weekend in which five games were decided by scores in the final two minutes of regulation or in overtime: Minnesota 12, Detroit 10; Atlanta 22, Chicago 20; St. Louis 19, Washington 17; Houston 29, Miami 28; Arizona 30, Dallas 24 (OT). The Bears' loss was particularly galling, not only because of the sudden turn of events but also because it it was their third defeat by three points or less; they are eight points away from being 6-0 but they also could very well miss the playoffs. Kyle Orton's touchdown pass to Rashied Davis with 11 seconds left seemed to be the winning score but then the Bears made the questionable decision to use a squib kick on the ensuing kickoff. The Falcons took advantage of their good field position by completing a 26 yard pass with one second left to get into range for Jason Elam's game winning 48 yard field goal.