Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Monday Night Football Quick Hits: Titans Topple Colts Edition

Playing error-free if unspectacular football, the Tennessee Titans beat the Indianapolis Colts 31-21 to take firm control of the AFC South, a division that the Colts have won for five straight years; the Titans--the only undefeated team in the NFL (7-0)--opened up a four game lead over the Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars and Houston Texans. Dating back to last season, the Titans have won 10 regular season games in a row, the longest active streak in the league and tied for the best such run in franchise history. Kerry Collins has somehow acquired the derogatory tag of "game manager" even though he has led a team to the Super Bowl (the 2000 New York Giants) and he ranks 15th in NFL history in career passing yards (including third among active players in that category, trailing only Brett Favre and Peyton Manning). Collins completed 24 of 37 passes for 193 yards versus the Colts; he did not throw any touchdowns or have a connection longer than 23 yards but he methodically and efficiently led an offensive attack that controlled the ball for 34:14. The Colts stacked the line to thwart Tennessee's strong running attack and Collins deftly took advantage of this to complete short and midrange passes that steadily moved the chains. As Ron Jaworski put it, a "caretaker" is a quarterback who the coaching staff does not trust to make throws but there is nothing bad about being a savvy veteran quarterback who understands how to take what the defense is giving and is able to make stick throws on third down. Collins is "managing" games for the Titans in the best sense of the word.

Manning's Colts led 14-6 early in the third quarter but down the stretch Manning did not get the job done, twice failing to convert fourth down plays as the momentum shifted to the Titans. Manning completed 26 of 41 passes for 223 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. The Colts simply look like a shadow of the team that used to annually open seasons with the type of undefeated run that the Titans are currently enjoying. Manning does not look sharp at all, but that is not entirely his fault; his pass protection is not nearly as good as it used to be and Marvin Harrison (one reception for 12 yards) seems to have rapidly declined from being an elite receiver to a very ordinary one. Not only will it take a monumental collapse by Tennessee and a very strong closing kick by the Colts for Indianapolis to win the division title but in the wide open AFC it is entirely possible that the Colts will miss the playoffs entirely this year. Seven AFC teams have better records than the Colts and four others match their 3-4 record, with San Diego just a half game back at 3-5.

Here are some notes/comments about Sunday's action:

*New England owns a share of first place in the AFC East with a 5-2 record after defeating St. Louis 23-16. The Patriots were playing without three of their running backs and operating on a short week after their 41-7 Monday Night Football win over Denver. Matt Cassel completed 21 of 33 passes for 267 yards and one touchdown, though he did have two interceptions. ESPN's Cris Carter keeps maligning Cassel as a "high school quarterback" because prior to Tom Brady's week one injury Cassel had not started a game since high school--but what difference does it make when Cassel last started a game? The only thing that matters now is whether or not Cassel is prepared to start for the Patriots. Cassel has a respectable 84.6 passer rating and the bottom line is that the Patriots are on pace for 11 or 12 wins. Cassel cannot match the record breaking standard that Brady set last year but it is useful to remember that in Brady's first year as a starter--when, like Cassel, he was an inexperienced player stepping in for an injured veteran--Brady was not Brady either or at least he was not the Brady of recent vintage: the Patriots closed the 2001 season with six straight victories en route to winning the Super Bowl but in those six games Brady had just six touchdowns and five interceptions, compiling a passer rating below 64 in three of those contests (his passer rating overall that season was 86.5); during the three game playoff run Brady had one touchdown pass and one interception, accumulating passer ratings of 86.2, 84.3 and then 70.4 in the Super Bowl. I'm not saying that the Patriots are going to win the Super Bowl this year--but given Bill Belichick's track record it would be foolish to totally dismiss their chances. I've always called Belichick the "Mad Scientist" and I mean that in a very positive way: he goes into his "laboratory," looks at game film of the opposing team and concocts the perfect game plan to take away what that team does best. The Patriots are not going to be a dominant team this year in terms of margin of victory but they will be a very tough out in the playoffs.

*Chad Pennington completed 22 of 30 passes for 314 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions as the Miami Dolphins defeated the Bills 25-16. Pennington's 117.9 rating versus Buffalo marks the fourth time in seven games this season that he has had a rating of at least 100 and he is now tied with Washington's Jason Campbell for fifth in the NFL in that category with a 100.5 rating. The New York Jets willingly discarded Pennington in order to make room for Brett Favre but so far Pennington is performing much better than Favre, who ranks 13th in the NFL with an 89.5 rating. Pennington is second in the league in completion percentage (.693) and he is also second in yards per attempt (8.47), contradicting his reputation as someone who cannot deliver big plays. Pennington has thrown just three interceptions, while Favre is tied for the league lead with 11. The Dolphins went 1-15 last year but are 3-4 this season; the Jets have also improved, already posting a 4-3 mark after going 4-12 last year, but it should be noted that with a healthy Pennington in 2006 the Jets were a 10-6 playoff team, while the Dolphins have been on a downward spiral for quite some time. In other words, Pennington is truly playing a key role in revitalizing a moribund franchise, while it is far from certain that Favre will be able to even bring the Jets back to where they were two seasons ago with Pennington at the helm--despite the fact that the Jets upgraded themselves at several other positions in the offseason.

*Favre led the Jets to a 28-24 come from behind win over the Kansas City Chiefs, who fell to 1-6--but the reason that the Jets had to rely on a late touchdown pass from Favre to Laveranues Coles is that Favre tossed a season-high three interceptions, including a fourth quarter pick that Brandon Flowers returned 91 yards for a touchdown after Favre carelessly threw into double coverage. There has been so much talk about Favre's revival season last year that people seem to have forgotten that in the previous three seasons he had 64 interceptions--including a league-high 29 in 2005--against 68 touchdowns; also, in his last eight playoff games he has a 3-5 record, 14 touchdowns and 16 interceptions: his comeback victories receive a lot of publicity but the reality is that his recklessness constantly puts his team in jeopardy. Jets' fans booed Favre after the third interception, a strong suggestion that the honeymoon may already be over for Favre in New York. After the game, Favre testily observed that the booing was "a little premature" but in a sense the booing was prescient: the fans have already figured out how the Favre saga is going to play out--there will be some thrills but ultimately the Jets will fall short, most likely not even qualifying for the playoffs.

*The Dallas Cowboys have been criticized for being a glitzy and glamorous team full of Pro Bowlers who lack toughness but--with starting quarterback Tony Romo sidelined by injury for the second consecutive week--the Cowboys showed their tough and gritty side, grinding out a 13-9 victory against a tough Tampa Bay team that began the day holding down first place in the NFC South. With Brad Johnson (19-33, 122 yards, 1 touchdown, no interceptions) playing in Romo's place, the Cowboys employed a very conservative offensive scheme and ramped up their defensive intensity. Johnson's longest completion was a 14 yard dump-off pass to running back Marion Barber. Terrell Owens had five receptions for a team-high 33 yards. Owens' numbers may not look like much but it is important to note two things: (1) his output represented a sizeable portion of Dallas' total passing yardage; (2) he was open downfield on several occasions but Johnson was unable to deliver the ball on time and on target.

*Derek Anderson spread the ball out to eight different receivers, completing 14 of 27 passes for 246 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions as the Cleveland Browns defeated the Jaguars 23-17 in Jacksonville. The Browns squandered two late chances to put the game away, settling for a field goal to make the score 20-17 after having first and goal at the one yard line and then settling for another field goal in the wake of a zero yard "drive" after recovering a fumble on the kickoff return following the previous field goal; a touchdown in either case would have all but clinched the game but instead the victory was not secured until Matt Jones was unable to haul in David Garrard's pass in the endzone as time expired. The high powered offense that Cleveland displayed last season has only shown up sporadically this season but the Browns' defense is markedly improved. Although Anderson had a fine performance, the player of the game was defensive tackle Shaun Rogers, who the Browns acquired in an offseason trade; Rogers had nine tackles, a sack, numerous quarterback pressures and a blocked field goal that forced the Jaguars to have to go for a touchdown in the game's waning moments.

*No NFL team has ever gone 0-16, although the expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers went 0-14 in 1976 and extended that losing streak to 26 by dropping the first 12 games of the 1977 season. There have been some pretty sorry teams that managed to go 1-15 and I have long thought that no NFL team will ever go 0-16--but the Cincinnati Bengals seem well equipped to make a run at that dubious distinction: their starting quarterback Carson Palmer may be out for the year, there is no discernible leadership or pride among the players who are ostensibly the team's leaders (hello, Ocho Loco), the team seems to be getting worse as the season progresses and the players seem to have tuned out Coach Marvin Lewis. This is the fifth 0-8 start in Bengals' history; the previous four times, they won in week nine but next week they face a physical Jacksonville team that is still very much in the playoff hunt.

*Vernon Davis may not be a knucklehead but he acted like one on Sunday and it was so refreshing to see San Francisco Coach Mike Singletary banish the tight end to the locker room (see Quote of the Week, below). Teams need to stop coddling players who do not demonstrate the work ethic, discipline and/or focus that is necessary to be successful in pro sports. It is true that players ultimately win games but the players have to be led by a coach who crafts a solid game plan, creates a winning culture, commands respect and demands accountability; if that kind of leadership is not in place then a team will not be successful.

Quote of the Week: "I'd rather play with 10 people and just get penalized all the way until we have to do something else rather than play with 11 when I know that right now that person is not sold out to be a part of this team. It is more about them than it is about the team. Cannot play with them, cannot win with them, cannot coach with them. Can't do it. I want winners. I want people that want to win."--San Francisco Coach Mike Singletary, talking about why he banished tight end Vernon Davis to the locker room in the middle of San Francisco's 34-13 loss to Seattle after Davis committed what Singletary considered to be a stupid penalty and then had a nonchalant attitude about the mistake.

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