Each week the Washington Post’s Mark Maske provides in-depth Monday morning NFL analysis with “First and 10,” a dissection of the league’s most important developments from a weekend of action.

First and 10: Nov. 3


FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — They combined for 110 passing attempts, 67 completions, 771 passing yards and six touchdowns. But, truthfully, the 16th career meeting between Peyton Manning and Tom Brady wasn’t a memorably great quarterbacking duel. Manning even emerged grading his own performance in the harshest of terms.

“We just, on offense, didn’t do the things that we talked about doing,” Manning said Sunday evening at Gillette Stadium. “And that starts with me. I’ve got to play better. That’s pretty plain and simple. If the quarterback stinks, usually you’re not gonna win many games.”

It was a cold, windy day in Foxborough that began with snow showers before the skies cleared closer to game time. It felt more like January than early November, and it was an outcome that might have January implications.

Brady won for the 11th time in those 16 matchups with Manning. More importantly, Brady’s New England Patriots beat Manning’s Denver Broncos, 43-21, to improve their record to an AFC-best 7-2. They’re now in the driver’s seat to host the Broncos, who fell to 6-2, in a possible Brady-Manning XVII rematch in the AFC title game.

“We’ve got to keep going,” Brady said. “Coach said after the game seven wins doesn’t get you anything. That’s true. And I think that we’ve got to keep the pedal to the metal, and get back to work and take some time to figure out the things we need to do better over the next week and then get ready to go to Indy [for the Patriots’ post-bye game Nov. 16] because that’ll be here pretty quick.”

Brady completed 33 of 53 passes Sunday for 333 yards, with four touchdowns and one interception. Manning connected on 34 of 57 throws for 438 yards and two touchdowns, with two interceptions. He certainly didn’t speak of his efforts like a quarterback who’d just had a 400-yard passing game, and he resisted connecting this game with any previous matchups—or failures—against the Patriots and Brady.

“This is 2014,” Manning said. “I thought in today’s game, I thought they were better than us. I thought we were just pretty dead average on offense. I thought I was very below average and didn’t play well. So that’s all I can speak for, is really me. I’ve got to play better. We’ve got to do that starting next week.”

Manning was particularly harsh in his assessment of the second-quarter interception he threw to Patriots defensive end Rob Ninkovich, who had dropped into coverage, with the Broncos leading, 7-6. That set up a New England touchdown, and the Patriots never looked back.

“Bad play,” Manning said. “I thought that was a critical play. I thought that definitely gave them a lot of momentum and was one of the reasons we didn’t recover as well as we would have liked. They got a touchdown out of that, which you just can’t put your defense in a bad spot like that. … Just a bad decision, certainly at a bad time. Certainly a play I’d like to have back.”

The Broncos ended up in pass-only mode, finishing the game with only 43 rushing yards.

“That was more than we wanted to throw,” Manning said. “The score dictated that. The running game was kind of a grind all day. So we’ve got to find a way to be more effective when we throw it, find a way to score more touchdowns. That’s kind of Football 101.”

It was the Patriots, not the Broncos, who faced early-season struggles. But now it’s Manning and the Broncos who find themselves having to do the chasing.

“We’ve got to do it every week,” Manning said. “And we have been doing it pretty well every week. We’ve been executing on Sundays and making some plays and doing what we’ve been taught to do. But you’ve got to do it every week. I’ve got to do it every week. I was talking to [Denver radio broadcaster] Dave Logan. He said, ‘I’ve never heard you say that you stink before.’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t usually stink. But I stunk today.’ I don’t make any excuses. I don’t say, ‘Well, it happens every now and then.’ … You’ve got play better. You’ve got to practice better. … I thought we would have played better.”

The crowd chanted, “Bra-dy’s bet-ter” late in the game. It was only five games ago, of course, that so much of the football-watching world was wondering whether Brady’s most productive days were behind him. That came in the aftermath of an ugly 27-point Monday night loss at Kansas City–the Patriots’ second-most-lopsided defeat in Coach Bill Belichick’s tenure–in which rookie backup Jimmy Garoppolo finished the game.

Since then, the Patriots have gone 5-0 and Brady has totaled 18 touchdown passes and one interception.

“I think you’ve just got to believe in what you’re doing, believe what you’re doing is the right thing and if it doesn’t happen in the first three weeks of the season, you’ve just got to believe in it and keep working hard at it,” Brady said Sunday. “I think guys really believe in what Coach is talking about and we believe in one another, and it’s got us to a good point. There’s no reason to change now. We haven’t changed much in 14 years, 15 years since I’ve been here. We’re just gonna stay at it, keep trying to make improvements, hope our best football is ahead of us.”


1. NFC East QB Carousel

It was a day of quarterback reshuffling in the NFC East, as two teams turned to backups just as another got its starter back.

The Dallas Cowboys started Brandon Weeden at quarterback Sunday, six days after Tony Romo re-injured his back in last Monday night’s loss at home to the Washington Redskins. The Dallas offense actually had been more efficient against the Redskins while Weeden, the former first-round draft choice and starter in Cleveland, was in the game, before Romo returned and the Cowboys lost in overtime.

But that wasn’t the case Sunday, as Weeden and the Cowboys struggled in a 28-17 defeat to the Arizona Cardinals. Weeden threw two interceptions as part of an 18-for-33, 183-yard, one-touchdown passing performance. The Cowboys have lost two straight games, both at home, since a 6-1 start, and their early-season success suddenly could be coming undone.

It was a delicate balance that the Cowboys had while they were reeling off victories, with the running of tailback DeMarco Murray behind a talented offensive line and the play-making capabilities of Romo helping to take pressure off a defense that played surprisingly well in the early going after being ranked last in the league last season.

That balance has been thrown out of whack. Murray has had consecutive games with fewer than 20 carries, and Sunday he failed to top 100 rushing yards in a game for the first time this season. Romo wasn’t around to pick up the slack. He reportedly has fractures of two tiny bones in his back but is scheduled to accompany the Cowboys to London for next Sunday’s game against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

The Philadelphia Eagles, not the Cowboys, now lead the division after improving their record to 6-2 with Sunday’s 31-21 triumph over the Houston Texans. Mark Sanchez took over for Nick Foles at quarterback after Foles hurt his left shoulder. Foles’s left arm was in a sling at day’s end, and it was reported he’d suffered a broken collarbone. If true, Foles would be sidelined for a significant time period.

Sanchez played reasonably well Sunday, connecting on 15 of 22 passes for 202 yards and two touchdowns. He also threw two interceptions. Some within the league seem convinced Sanchez can play well for Eagles Coach Chip Kelly. His reputation within NFL circles has been restored somewhat after sagging badly near the end of his tenure with the New York Jets. Foles was superb last season, when he threw 27 touchdown passes with only two interceptions. He hasn’t played as well this season, throwing his 10th interception Sunday, and it’s possible the Eagles won’t lose all that much at the position if Sanchez fills in.

The Redskins’ quarterback situation returned Sunday to where it began. They turned back to Robert Griffin III as their starter after going from Griffin to Kirk Cousins to Colt McCoy already this season. Griffin’s return was accompanied, of course, by drama, with a flurry of pregame reports that owner Daniel Snyder and General Manager Bruce Allen, not Coach Jay Gruden, had made the decision to start Griffin this weekend and that Griffin’s level of support among his teammates is dwindling. The Redskins denied both reports.

The best reply to controversy is to win, though, and the Redskins again failed to do that. Their loss at Minnesota left them 3-6 heading into their bye week, and there was room to wonder if they would have been better served by giving one more start to McCoy and then allowing Griffin to return from his dislocated ankle following the bye, possibly better prepared to play.

2. Big Ben’s Encore

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s follow-up to his 522-yard, six-touchdown passing performance a week earlier against the Colts was to throw for six more touchdowns in Sunday night’s triumph at home over the Baltimore Ravens.

Roethlisberger’s 12 touchdown passes over two games is a new NFL record, breaking the previous mark of 11 held by Brady and former Raiders and Seahawks QB Tom Flores.

“You’ve got to give guys credit for putting the work in, the extra work, and when guys are all making plays,” Roethlisberger said in a postgame interview with NBC. “That last one was extra special because [tight end] Matt Spaeth just did a great play, and I was so happy for him to score there.”

The AFC North remains formidable as Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Cleveland all won Sunday. The Ravens, at 5-4, tumbled into last place.

3. Chargers in Full Retreat

The San Diego Chargers are fading fast.

Through six games, the Chargers were 5-1. They resembled a legitimate AFC contender and quarterback Philip Rivers was in the thick of the chase for league most valuable player honors.

Things have deteriorated badly from there. San Diego has lost its past three games. The Chargers headed into their bye week after a 37-0 defeat Sunday at Miami.

Rivers threw three interceptions against the Dolphins and has five touchdown passes and six interceptions during the three-game losing streak. He had 15 touchdown passes and two interceptions during the Chargers’ 5-1 beginning, and at one point he had a passer rating above 120 in five straight games.

The Chargers announced during Sunday’s game that Rivers had suffered a hand injury. Coach Mike McCoy said during his postgame news conference the injury wasn’t serious.

4. Saints are Best of Worst

It’s pretty clear the New Orleans Saints are the NFC South’s best team.

That’s not saying much. But at least the Saints give the pitiable division some hope of having a first-place team with a .500 or better record at season’s end.

The Saints won convincingly Thursday night at Carolina, 28-10, to take over the top spot in the division. They have a record of 4-4, with two straight victories following a 2-4 beginning. The second-place Panthers are 3-5-1.

The 2010 Seattle Seahawks became the first team ever to reach the playoffs with a losing record in a non-strike season. Will the Saints repeat that ignominious feat this season? It’s difficult to say. But it might be close.

The popular notion now is that the Saints have recovered from their sluggish start with their back-to-back triumphs over Green Bay at home and Carolina. Thursday’s road win over the Panthers was the Saints’ first victory of the season away from the Superdome. Quarterback Drew Brees has been extremely accurate in the past two games, completing a combined 51 of 66 passes. Tight end Jimmy Graham had 12 catches, two of them for touchdowns, in the two wins, that after having a zero-catch game against Detroit as he played with a shoulder injury. Tailback Mark Ingram has become a factor in the offense with consecutive 100-yard rushing games.

But the truth is the Saints had no answers for Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers until he hurt his hamstring during that game. If not for Rodgers’s injury, it’s not at all clear the Saints would have won that game. Beating another NFC South team, even on the road, is not particularly impressive. The Saints still have plenty to prove before anyone should rightfully believe they’re anywhere close to being the NFC heavyweight they were expected to be this season.

The Saints’ next four games are against San Francisco, Cincinnati and Baltimore at home, then at Pittsburgh. Those are formidable opponents, although the Saints are very good at the Superdome. They’re 3-0 at home this season. The schedule is more forgiving down the stretch, with matchups with each of their three NFC South foes and a game at Chicago.

Things clearly are set up for the Saints to win the NFC South and, as a division winner, host a first-round playoff game. But actually having a winning record and resembling a team capable of being a factor in the NFC playoffs? The best approach there, it seems, is to take a wait-and-see attitude.

5. Gronk Rolls On

Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski’s leaping, one-handed catch of a Brady pass in the fourth quarter Sunday was one of the plays of the year.

“It was unbelievable,” Brady said. “That was just an incredible play. He’s an incredible player, everything that he does. He’s been making incredible catches since he got to our team. It’s just a spectacular play from a great player. When he’s going, it’s hard to match up with him because he makes plays like that. It’s just pretty spectacular.”

Gronkowski continues to be one of the main contributors to the five-game resurgence by Brady and the Patriots. He has 36 catches for 516 yards and five touchdowns over that span. He had his second straight nine-catch game Sunday.

“He’s just a tough matchup for everybody,” Brady said.

6. Aldon Smith’s Suspension to End?

San Francisco’s standout linebacker, Aldon Smith, has served eight games of his nine-game suspension for violations of the NFL’s personal conduct and substance abuse policies. But it’s possible that Smith will return this week.

A person with knowledge of the league’s inner workings said there is “a reasonably good chance” Smith will be reinstated this week by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, one week early, as a positive reinforcement for the manner in which Smith has conducted himself since being suspended.

Smith would be eligible to play Sunday at New Orleans if the suspension is ended a week early. If not, he would not play until Nov. 16 against the New York Giants at the Meadowlands.

It does not appear, meanwhile, that defensive end Greg Hardy will play again this season for the Panthers. Hardy’s jury trial for a domestic violence incident, originally scheduled to begin Nov. 17, reportedly has been postponed until sometime after the NFL season.

Panthers Coach Ron Rivera expressed the view Friday that Hardy should be permitted to play. Hardy has been on paid leave while awaiting his trial after agreeing to be placed on the exempt-commissioner’s permission list.

Hardy had to give his permission at the time to be placed on the exempt list. Two people with knowledge of the case said in recent days that Hardy and his representatives would like to see him able to play if his trial is not going to be held until after the season. But those people also said the NFL has no inclination to allow Hardy to be removed from the exempt list and resume playing until after his trial. Hardy has been found guilty by a judge of assaulting and threatening his former girlfriend, and is to have a jury trial on appeal.

“The expectation always has been that he would remain on that list until the trial is completed,” said one of those people familiar with the case, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

Vikings running back Adrian Peterson reportedly is negotiating a possible plea agreement. He faces charges in Texas related to him disciplining his 4-year-old son by striking the child with a switch.

Peterson, like Hardy, has been on the exempt-commissioner’s permission list and has been receiving his weekly salary while not playing. It is not clear how the NFL would address Peterson’s playing status if his case is resolved.

Running back Ray Rice’s appeal of his indefinite suspension by the NFL is scheduled to be heard this week by former federal judge Barbara S. Jones. Goodell is to testify at the hearing, as ordered by Jones. Rice is seeking to be reinstated after being suspended indefinitely by the league in September after TMZ released video showing Rice striking Janay Palmer, then his fiancée and now his wife, inside a hotel elevator in Atlantic City in February. The NFL originally had suspended Rice for only two games.

Rice’s representatives are expected to argue at the hearing that Rice has been improperly punished twice for the same offense. The league has contended that the video represented new evidence in the case allowing for a modification of the suspension.

It is not clear when Jones will issue a ruling, and it seemingly remains unlikely Rice would be signed by a team this season even if he is reinstated. Front office executives with two teams said in recent days they would be surprised if any team would be willing to sign Rice this season. The Ravens released Rice in September, on the same day the TMZ video was made public and the league’s indefinite suspension was announced.

“I just don’t think it’s something that anybody would feel like they could do in good conscience and justify to their fans, no matter how much they might believe in second chances,” one of those executives said. “Not now.”

7. Trade Deadline Non-Excitement

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers provided the only action just before the NFL’s trading deadline last Tuesday, sending safety Mark Barron to St. Louis for fourth- and sixth-round draft picks and linebacker Jonathan Casillas to New England, along with a sixth-round choice, for a fifth-round selection.

That made for a collective yawn among fans, which is the usual reaction to trade-deadline day in the NFL.

There actually was a significant trade this season, of course, when the Seahawks sent wide receiver Percy Harvin to the Jets. But while there has been talk for years of possible changes that might make deadline day more interesting in the NFL, it’s probably a lost cause.

The NFL and the players’ union already moved back the trade deadline by two weeks in 2012. Cardinals Coach Bruce Arians expressed the view last week that more deals might take place if the trade deadline were to be pushed back even further, giving teams a better view of whether they are in or out of the playoff race.

But pushing back the deadline so late in the season would make the player being obtained by a new team even less valuable than is the case with the current deadline. Why would a team want to give up a draft pick for a player who might participate in only a few games?

This isn’t baseball, in which a player acquired in a trade-deadline deal can be plugged into the starting rotation for a few games or inserted into the lineup and possibly be a difference-maker down the stretch. It takes time in the NFL for a newcomer to learn the system and be worked into a contributing role, and that rarely happens successfully with a season well under way.

Trying to enliven the NFL’s trading deadline isn’t a bad idea. It’s just next to impossible to actually pull off, so it’s probably not even worth any debate in the future.

One player who stayed put at the trading deadline was Cousins. It appears that Cousins’s play this season has left him with little or no trade value for the Redskins in the foreseeable future.

The Redskins held on to Cousins in the offseason, apparently having resolved that they wanted a second-round pick in return if they were going to consider a trade. Such an offer never was made, although Cleveland reportedly was willing to part with a fourth-rounder for Cousins. Cousins also stayed put in the preseason when the Rams lost starter Sam Bradford to a season-ending knee injury. It was not clear if St. Louis had any interest at the time in trying to trade for Cousins.

But whatever trade value that Cousins had appears to have dissipated. Cousins got the first shot at the Redskins’ starting job this season after Griffin suffered a dislocated ankle, only to throw nine interceptions to go with his 10 touchdown passes and lose the job to McCoy. Griffin is back now and McCoy, after engineering last Monday night’s triumph at Dallas, seems to have demonstrated he can be a reliable backup, apparently leaving Cousins as the odd man out.

8. Niners Tumbling Out of Race

There has been persistent speculation all season that 49ers Coach Jim Harbaugh has worn out his welcome and has lost the trust and confidence of his players. That has been accompanied by conjecture that Harbaugh will not be back with the Niners next season.

He and others in the organization have dismissed the talk. The 49ers, despite being shorthanded on defense, managed to get off to a 4-2 start. But they’re now winless since Oct. 13, losing at Denver prior to their bye week and returning from it Sunday to suffer a 13-10 defeat at home to St. Louis.

The 49ers allowed quarterback Colin Kaepernick to be sacked eight times Sunday, that by a Rams defense that had managed six sacks in its previous seven games. Kaepernick lost a fumble at the goal line on a would-be game-winning quarterback sneak with two seconds to play, and now the 49ers find themselves three games behind the first-place Cardinals in the NFC West.

Harbaugh led the 49ers to three NFC title games and a Super Bowl appearance in the previous three seasons. Increasingly, it appears his stay with the team could end in less-than-satisfying fashion this season.

9. First-Year Coaches Well Below .500

The seven teams that hired new head coaches prior to this season have a combined record of 25-34.

Two coaches have had immediately successful impacts. Jim Caldwell is 6-2 in Detroit and Mike Pettine is 5-3 in Cleveland.

The other five first-year coaches have losing records. The Vikings’ Mike Zimmer and the Texans’ Bill O’Brien are each 4-5. Gruden and the Redskins are 3-6. Ken Whisenhunt is 2-6 in Tennessee and Lovie Smith is 1-7 in Tampa.

10. All Jerry, All the Time

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones received some criticism for being on the team’s sideline after Romo re-injured his back last Monday night. Jones left the owner’s box and headed to the locker room, where Romo was being examined by members of the team’s medical staff, and then went to the sideline to have a brief conversation with Coach Jason Garrett.

Some media members and fans regarded that as unnecessarily meddlesome by Jones. But those within the sport seemed to react with a collective shrug of the shoulders. Front office members with several franchises said they didn’t view the episode as a big deal.

“It’s just Jerry being Jerry,” a member of one team’s front office said. “No one should be surprised by now.”

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