The Carolina Panthers bludgeoned the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with a powerful and speedy running game, chewing up 299 yards on the ground in a 38-23 win. DeAngelo Williams gained a franchise single-game record 186 yards on 19 carries and Jonathan Stewart added 115 yards on 15 carries; each running back also scored two touchdowns. They are the first teammates to gain 100 yards in the same game while each scoring at least two touchdowns and each averaging at least seven yards per attempt. Although Jake Delhomme did not have a great performance (two interceptions, 73.5 passer rating), Steve Smith caught nine passes for 117 yards and one touchdown, his 23rd 100 yard game since 2005, the most by any NFL player during that period. The Panthers deserve a lot of credit for their game plan, their blocking and their running but this is a shocking setback for a Tampa Bay defense that held them to 40 yards rushing in a 27-3 Buccaneers rout in week six.
Carolina's stunning success on the ground overshadowed a brilliant aerial performance by Tampa Bay's Jeff Garcia and Antonio Bryant. Garcia completed 24 of 38 passes for 321 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a 107.5 passer rating, while Bryant caught nine passes for 200 yards and two touchdowns. Garcia and Bryant were teammates on the 2004 Cleveland Browns. Isn't it interesting how many players have success before and/or after being Browns but don't reach their full potential in Cleveland--or play well in Cleveland (as Bryant did, catching 69 passes for 1009 yards in 2005) only to end up on other teams? This is an indictment of how badly the team has been mismanaged and how poorly it has been coached, not just by the current Phil Savage-Romeo Crennel regime but dating all the way back to when the Browns rejoined the NFL in 1999.
Most of the Super Bowl talk this season has been about the New York Giants and Tennessee Titans but if the 10-3 Panthers win their final three regular season games--including a showdown with the Giants--then they will be the number one seed in the NFC playoffs. Meanwhile, the 9-4 Buccaneers have a one game lead over the contenders for the first Wild Card spot and could still claim the NFC South title if they win out and the Panthers stumble.
Here are some notes/comments about Sunday's action:
*It is not much fun to be a Cleveland Browns fan right now; not only will many ex-Browns players, coaches and executives be participating in the playoffs while the Browns will be home again in January but the team is lousy and is getting worse as the season goes along. After a Kerry Collins interception set the Browns up at Tennessee's 25 yard line in the first quarter, Cleveland had a four play, two yard "drive" for a field goal in their 28-9 loss to the Titans. That's not a drive. That's not even a Sunday stroll. That's just...pathetic. Other Cleveland "drives" in that game included three plays for two yards (punt), four plays for nine yards (punt), four plays for zero yards (punt) and, my personal "favorite," three plays for negative four yards (interception). I wonder if all the morons who cheered as Derek Anderson writhed in pain last week after suffering a season-ending injury enjoyed watching third stringer Ken Dorsey struggle to throw the ball farther than 10 yards--not that their classlessness would be justified if Dorsey could actually play but being happy about Anderson's injury is not only cruel but does not even make sense at any level when you know that his replacement simply does not have the arm strength to be an NFL quarterback. I will never understand what Anderson did to become the object of such hatred; last season he became the Browns' first Pro Bowl quarterback in two decades and, based on how this team is managed and coached, it might be two decades before another Browns quarterback plays in the Pro Bowl. The fans have all but run Anderson out of town; it would not surprise me at all if he became a Jim Plunkett-type, achieving success with another team. He is tough and has a strong arm and it would be interesting to see what he could accomplish on a team that has a good coach and a supportive, championship-level environment.
ESPN's Chris Mortensen reported that the Browns are considering the idea of bringing back Marty Schottenheimer as a replacement for Romeo Crennel. People may mock Schottenheimer for his less than stellar postseason record but at least his teams actually qualify for the playoffs; he sure has gotten a lot closer to the Super Bowl than the Browns have since they fired him 20 years ago. I'd much rather hear him say "There's a gleam" than hear Browns coaches talk about guys who played really hard--and then got their heads kicked in by the Steelers and pretty much everyone else on the schedule. One Cleveland columnist has already bashed the idea of hiring Schottenheimer, saying that the Browns need a long term solution, not a 65 year old retread. Yeah, why would the Browns want to hire a respected, successful coach? Ever heard of Dick Vermeil, who never won the "big one," left the NFL as the poster child for "burnout" and then came back from a long stint as a broadcaster to lead St. Louis to a Super Bowl victory?
Of course, it is important to remember that the football writing "experts" in Cleveland played a role in running off Schottenheimer--and later Bill Belichick--in the first place.
*"Bretty and the Jets," as Chris Berman refers to them, may be in the process of crashing to Earth and finishing with pretty much the record that I originally predicted that they would have. We all know that 99% of the members of the media love Brett Favre and after the Jets beat Tennessee and New England in consecutive games you would have thought that a lot of those writers and broadcasters had died and gone to heaven--but now the Jets have lost two straight games, including this week's 24-14 defeat at lowly San Francisco. Brett Favre went 20-31 for 127 yards, no touchdowns, one interception and a 60.8 passer rating versus the 49ers; Favre had a 60.9 passer rating last week in the Jets' 34-17 loss to Denver and did not have a touchdown pass in that game either.
Favre currently ranks 13th in the NFL in passer rating (88.2), trailing both the quarterback the Jets traded to Miami to make room for him (Chad Pennington, 93.7 rating, fifth in the NFL) and the quarterback who replaced him in Green Bay (Aaron Rodgers, 92.1 rating, eighth in the NFL). Favre is tied with Gus Frerotte with a league-high 15 interceptions, already matching his total from last year with three games to go.
*Meanwhile, "high school quarterback" (as Cris Carter called him) Matt Cassel and the New England Patriots are tied for first place (with the Jets and the Dolphins) in the AFC East with three games left in the season. Cassel bounced back from a tough game against Pittsburgh to complete 26 of 44 passes for 268 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions and a solid 84.3 passer rating in New England's 24-21 win at Seattle. The Patriots have had to overcome not only Tom Brady's season-ending week one injury but also a season-ending injury to starting running back Laurence Maroney and a string of injuries to defensive starters.
*It was a bizarre Sunday for the Dallas Cowboys. They blew a 13-3 fourth quarter lead at Pittsburgh to lose 20-13--but still moved up into the second Wild Card slot because the Atlanta Falcons (who are 8-5, just like the Cowboys) lost to the New Orleans Saints and thus have a worse NFC record than Dallas does.
In most sports when a team has a Hall of Fame a caliber player he is the central focus of their attack. Looking at the Cowboys, Terrell Owens is the only offensive player who I'm sure will be a Hall of Famer--and even though he turned 35 on Sunday it's not like he's lost a step: he is averaging 15.4 yards per reception this season (a half yard better than his stout career average) and he is tied for second in the league with nine touchdown receptions, including the Cowboys' only TD versus Pittsburgh. Owens caught three passes for 32 yards in the Pittsburgh game and it is befuddling that Dallas does not utilize him more frequently.
Usually, the Monday Night Countdown crew is pretty hard on Owens but even they realize that Owens should be a bigger part of Dallas' offense. Cris Carter noted that for years Owens has been a player who makes big plays and that it is vitally important to produce points out of the passing game. Point blank, Carter said, "You have to get him the football...When Santa Claus is coming around (i.e, in December games), Tony Romo is passing out losses and turnovers." Tom Jackson, normally one of Owens' harshest critics, said that Owens will likely finish second on the career list in all of the important receiving categories so it is strange that Tony Romo seems to go away from Owens at the end of games. Keyshawn Johnson offered a slightly different perspective, saying, "I don't think that Tony Romo has as much trust in Terrell Owens as in Jason Witten in those situations." He added that Romo and Witten are roommates on the road, while Owens has sometimes taken public shots at Romo (I don't remember that; it seems to me that Owens has defended Romo in public, including the famous time that Owens cried after a playoff game and pleaded with the media to not blame the loss on Romo). If Romo is truly making decisions about who to throw the ball to based on being his buddy--and not based on football skills--then the Cowboys are in serious trouble, but I'm not convinced that Johnson's analysis is correct.
Johnson also said that quarterbacks are "selfish" in the sense that they want to throw to guys who make plays for them; Romo's first two interceptions in the Pittsburgh game were thrown in Owens' direction, so Johnson believes that Romo was hesitant to throw to Owens after those plays. That does not really wash, because Owens made both his touchdown reception and a first down catch on a drive that led to a Dallas field goal after those interceptions happened. Also, if Romo and Witten have such a "bond," as Johnson claimed, then why were they so out of sync at the end of the game? Pittsburgh scored the game-winning touchdown on Deshea Townsend's interception return after Romo threw a pass in Witten's direction. Dallas' final offensive play wa a Romo pass to Witten that fell incomplete as Witten did not even turn around to try to catch the ball; if Owens had done that you can bet that his gaffe would be headline news. ESPN's Trent Dilfer said that reviewing the tapes of those plays, he concluded that Romo bears some responsibility but that protection breakdowns up front caused Romo to rush the throw that was intercepted and to "freelance" on the incompletion, a play that was designed to go to Patrick Crayton, who was open.
This just should not be that complicated: when Owens is single covered, the ball should be thrown his way; when Owens is double covered, he should take his defenders deep and thus leave a hole in the middle of the defense in which Romo can make an easy completion to someone else.