INDIANAPOLIS — The New England Patriots won the DeflateGate rematch. Somehow, that became just a subplot here Sunday night after the Indianapolis Colts tried to fool the Patriots with a trick play in a second-half punting situation, and failed spectacularly.
The Patriots had to be satisfied with a 34-27 triumph that was far less lopsided than some had envisioned, and with a 5-0 record that they will take into a key AFC East matchup with the New York Jets this coming Sunday in Foxborough, Mass.
“We treated it just like another game,” Patriots tailback LeGarrette Blount said here late Sunday night. “Everybody prepared for it as we would do any opponent. Everybody was ready to play this game and was excited about it, just like we would be excited about playing anybody else. It doesn’t matter who it is. As long as we get the win, I feel like we’re satisfied with it.”
The Patriots continued to roll along with three touchdown passes by quarterback Tom Brady. Blount ran for a touchdown and caught one of Brady’s touchdown throws.
Perhaps just as significantly, the Patriots reinforced the notion that they are the league’s best-prepared team. When the Colts tried their oddity late in the third quarter, shifting out of punt formation and ending up with only two players standing over the football and everyone else lined up far to the right side of the field, the Patriots calmly did exactly as they should have done.
When the Colts ill-advisedly snapped the ball anyway, the Patriots were ready. They tackled the Colts for a loss, took possession and essentially sealed the outcome with the Brady-to-Blount touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
“I take responsibility there,” Colts Coach Chuck Pagano said. “The whole idea there was on a fourth [down] and three or less, shift to an alignment to where you either catch them misaligned [or] they try to sub some people in, catch them with more men on the field, 12 men on the field. And if you get a certain look, you’ve got three yards, two yards [to go]. You can make a play.
“But we shifted over and I didn’t do a good enough job of coaching it during the week. Alignment-wise, we weren’t lined up correctly. And then [there was] a communication breakdown between the quarterback and the snapper. And that’s all on me. I take full responsibility on that. I didn’t do a good enough job of getting that communicated to the guys and obviously it played a huge factor in this loss, given the field position at the point in the game and the touchdown that resulted from that.”
The Colts couldn’t have picked a worse time to try what they tried. They couldn’t have chosen to do it against an opponent less likely to be caught off guard. But they did it anyway. The Patriots are playing so well and are so efficient on offense that teams facing them feel they must push the envelope. The Colts’ first touchdown Sunday night came on a fourth-down gamble. Pagano also dialed up a first-half onside kick that didn’t work.
“We didn’t want to leave any bullets in the gun,” Pagano said. “We wanted to be aggressive in all three phases. … Some of it worked out well. Some of it, we didn’t execute. And some of it, they defended it and so you’ve got to give them credit.”
But no one, it seemed, was all that eager to talk about under-inflated footballs any longer.
“It had nothing to do with this football game or anything else,” Pagano said. “That was a long time ago…. I thought our guys did a nice job of focusing on what they needed to focus on and that was preparing for this game.”
All of those who didn’t believe in the legitimacy of the Carolina Panthers, it’s time to rethink things.
It’s true the Panthers seem to be doing it with mirrors. They lost wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin to a season-ending knee injury suffered in training camp. They had to play much of the season’s early stages without linebacker Luke Kuechly, who was sidelined after suffering a concussion. The offense at times resembles a one-man show by quarterback Cam Newton.
But somehow, the Panthers are for real. They came back late to win Sunday at Seattle, 27-23, on Newton’s final-minute touchdown pass to tight end Greg Olsen. The winning touchdown capped a seven-catch, 131-yard performance by Olsen.
The Panthers are 5-0 and are alone in first place in the surprisingly powerful NFC South. They are 3-0 on the road and they no longer can be dismissed as an honest-to-goodness NFC contender.
As for the Seahawks (2-0), there’s clearly issues. The defense can’t hold leads. Quarterback Russell Wilson was sacked four more times Sunday and seems to be forced into survive-and-improvise mode virtually every time he drops to pass. Tight end Jimmy Graham had eight catches for 140 yards against the Panthers but tailback Marshawn Lynch averaged only 3.2 yards per carry in his return to the lineup.
Seattle perhaps is one botched call, the illegal batting penalty that wasn’t called against the Detroit Lions, from being 1-5. There still is time to get things fixed. But a third straight Super Bowl appearance seems far from certain at this point.
Dan Campbell deserves credit for bringing some life and enthusiasm to the Miami Dolphins.
Campbell won his debut Sunday in Tennessee after taking over as Miami’s interim coach following the firing of Joe Philbin. History says that in-season coaching switches generally don’t do much to change an NFL team’s fortunes. But the Dolphins, in coasting to a 38-10 triumph over the Titans, looked like a completely different team from what they’d been earlier this season under Philbin.
The Dolphins had six sacks and intercepted two passes by Titans rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota. Cameron Wake had his first four sacks of the season, all in the first half, and forced two fumbles. Miami got some style points on offense by scoring on a “Statue of Liberty” play. The Dolphins won for the first time since a season-opening triumph over the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field.
The one thing that can’t be defended is the low hit by the Dolphins’ Olivier Vernon on Mariota. It was one of two hits by Vernon that drew roughing-the-passer penalties, and it resulted in Mariota wearing a brace on his left knee. The Titans expressed displeasure with the hit, and rightfully so.
EJ Manuel was reasonably productive Sunday while filling in as Buffalo’s quarterback for the injured Tyrod Taylor. The former first-round draft choice threw for 263 yards and a touchdown as the Bills lost at home to the Cincinnati Bengals, 34-21.
Manuel probably played well enough to keep the Bills from regretting having traded Matt Cassel to the Dallas Cowboys. But he didn’t play well enough to win, and he probably didn’t play well enough to stake a claim to the starting job once Taylor’s injured knee is healed.
4. Catch rule, part infinity
What’s a catch and what isn’t?
Don’t ask the NFL, whatever you do.
The confusion over what constitutes a legal catch and what doesn’t in pro football seems to multiply almost weekly.
The latest installment came Sunday when Lions wide receiver Golden Tate grabbed the football briefly in the end zone on a pass from quarterback Matthew Stafford. Tate lost possession of the ball just before being dragged to the ground by cornerback Kyle Fuller, and Bears linebacker Jonathan Anderson caught the ball on the deflection. The Bears were awarded possession of the football and a touchback by the officials on the field.
Tate and the Lions were awarded a touchdown via a replay review, however. That meant the officials ruled that Tate had possession of the football and legally was a runner, not a receiver in the process of making a catch, and had crossed the goal line before losing possession.
“We’ve looked at that play 10 more times, and find it hard to believed based on the current guidelines that he was a runner[,]” Mike Pereira, the NFL’s former vice president of officiating and now a rules analyst for Fox, wrote on Twitter.
Pereira also wrote: “Clearly the most confusing part of the game right now, determining whether it’s a catch or not after turning… Needs to be looked at.”
NFL rules require a receiver who makes a catch while in the process of going to the ground to maintain possession of the football while on the turf to be awarded a legal catch. The non-catch rulings against Johnson, Bryant and Eifert emphasized that.
The officials ruled that Tate was not in the process of going to the ground while making the catch, even though Fuller eventually knocked him to the turf on the play.
“This is different than the plays we’ve been talking about, the Dez Bryant play or the Calvin Johnson play,” Dean Blandino, the league’s VP of officiating, said in a video posted to the NFL’s Twitter account. “This is not a receiver who’s going to the ground. The issue here is: Did he become a runner before the ball came loose? Did he have control, both feet down and then time enough to become a runner after the second foot is down?
“When you watch the play, [when] the ball comes loose, he is taking his third step. The third step is almost on the ground when the ball comes out. He had demonstrated possession, had become a runner. Once the ball breaks the plane of the goal line in possession of a runner, it is a touchdown and the play is over at that point.”
The NFL’s competition committee attempted to clarify the catch rule last offseason but did not ditch it in favor of a new rule.
That inaction is beginning to look irresponsible in retrospect.
In a season filled with officiating controversies, from an illegal batting penalty that was not called to cost the Lions a late chance to win in Seattle to a lost 18 seconds on the clock that did not prevent the Pittsburgh Steelers from prevailing in San Diego, the still-murky catch rule certainly isn’t helping things.
On Sunday, Peyton Manning again looked like a quarterback who perhaps has hung on for one season too long, with his passes too often wobbling into the hands of players on the wrong team.
But he did manage to summon just a few moments reminiscent of his past greatness, some of which were rewarded by his receivers and some of which weren’t.
The final result was that Manning and the other members of the Denver Broncos’ offense did just enough to help their superb defense keep the team unbeaten. The Broncos won in Cleveland, 26-23, on an overtime field goal by kicker Brandon McManus. They take a record of 6-0 into their bye week.
The question is: Can it continue to work this way for the Broncos?
The Denver defense clearly appears capable of doing its part and handling the heavy lifting.
But can Manning do his part, even as diminished as it has become?
The end seems near for Manning, whose deterioration as a passer once more was evident Sunday. The day began with a quarterback matchup of Manning against Browns career journeyman Josh McCown, and it was not clear which one you’d rather have at this point. One team in the game had a quarterback who had been highly productive lately. The other one had Manning.
Manning contemplated retirement last offseason before opting to return for another season in Denver. He accepted a pay cut to stay. With the way Manning has played this season, it’s not clear if he made the right choice.
Sunday was a case in point. Manning continues to look uncomfortable when performing the rollouts featured in the offense of Gary Kubiak, the Broncos’ first-year coach. Most of Manning’s best moments this season have come when the Broncos have put Manning in the shotgun formation and run Manning’s offense, not Kubiak’s. The blending of the two has been far from seamless.
Manning threw three interceptions Sunday and had a passer rating of 53.3. He threw one interception that was returned for a touchdown by Cleveland’s Karlos Dansby in the fourth quarter. He threw another interception in overtime, snagged by the Browns’ Barkevious Mingo, that could have cost the Broncos the game.
But it didn’t. And Manning also had some good moments. He threw for 290 yards and a touchdown. He had two 100-yard receivers in the game, Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. He had a 75-yard touchdown pass to Sanders in the fourth quarter.
His numbers would have been better if Thomas hadn’t had two costly drops, and if a long would-be completion to Sanders at the end of regulation hadn’t been ruled incomplete after a replay review.
But make no mistake: The defense won the game for the Broncos, just as it has been doing all season. Cornerback Aqib Talib had a touchdown on an interception for Denver, the Broncos’ fourth touchdown this season while on defense. The Broncos allowed two touchdown passes to McCown but intercepted him twice and limited him to a passer rating of 63.3 on 20-for-39 throwing accuracy. McCown had 213 passing yards.
The injuries are beginning to pile up a bit for the Denver defense. One pass rusher, DeMarcus Ware, was on the inactive list for the game because of a back injury. Another, rookie Shane Ray, exited the game with a knee injury.
The Broncos are strikingly fast on defense. Sometimes it seems that their best chance to score is when their defense is on the field.
Manning, for the season, has seven touchdown passes and 10 interceptions. Two seasons ago, he had 55 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Even last season, it was 39 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. He is not the quarterback that he was even a year ago.
But can he be the quarterback who does just enough to get a terrific Denver defense to a Super Bowl? That will be one of the league’s most intriguing story lines for the remainder of the season.
The fact that second-year Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel was not arrested or charged with a crime following last week’s incident involving his girlfriend, Colleen Elizabeth Crowley, does not necessarily mean that he does not face potential discipline by the NFL under its personal conduct policy. Provisions of the policy allow the NFL to conduct its own investigations and to take disciplinary action when it deems such measures appropriate.
Manziel reportedly admitted to drinking earlier in the day. He and Crowley reportedly admitted to arguing in a vehicle. But police determined that Manziel was not intoxicated. Police attributed a mark on Crowley’s wrist to Manziel’s effort to keep her from getting out of the car. Crowley reportedly told police that Manziel pushed her head against the glass of the car but he did not strike her and she was not afraid that he would harm her.
Whatever the outcome, it is disappointing to see Manziel back to generating headlines for the wrong reasons. He spent time in a treatment facility, reportedly for possible alcohol dependence, last offseason before rejoining the Browns for offseason workouts. He put himself back into the quarterback conversation in Cleveland during the preseason and he played well while winning his only start this season when McCown was sidelined by a concussion.
McCown’s productive play since then has kept Manziel on the bench. Even so, he has managed to restore his football reputation, at least somewhat, in recent months. He must be equally diligent about his off-field reputation.
7. Recalling Spurrier’s NFL days
“The whole thing wasn’t working,” Spurrier said that day. “If we need a lot of new assistants, you might as well have a new head coach. This is the best thing for everyone concerned. I really believe that. They can start fresh with a new coaching staff, and I can start fresh with something else in my life. It’s best for everyone. It’s best for the Redskins, and best for me.”
Spurrier was reached that day between shots in a round of golf. He had hired agent Jimmy Sexton to negotiate his departure from the Redskins after two seasons in which he went a combined 12-20. But when he initially spoke to a reporter that day, he was not aware that Sexton had completed the transaction and denied that he’d resigned. Later that day, he acknowledged it.
“I’ve been a head coach for 20 years,” Spurrier said then. “That’s a long time, a long grind. Coming to the NFL, I certainly didn’t think it would be to have 5-11 seasons. It’s probably time for me to ease on out a little bit…. I think I’m out of coaching for a good year or so. Who knows what will happen after that? I’ll see if anything comes along.”
If Spurrier, now 70, is done being a head coach, his Redskins tenure will be remembered as the one and only stop at which he didn’t make things work. But Spurrier was not as far from winning in the NFL as some would have you believe.
The Redskins went 7-9 in Spurrier’s first season in 2002. He might have progressed rather than regressed in his second season if he hadn’t lost defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis, who left to become the head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals. Lewis was the voice of NFL reason on Spurrier’s coaching staff. He was as detail-oriented as Spurrier was, in many respects, detail-averse.
Spurrier’s ideas and offensive concepts were fine. He simply lacked the approach that a successful NFL coach needs. He had no interest when it came to roster construction, except where his former Florida players were concerned. Defensive lineman Michael Myers made a free agent visit to the Redskins between Spurrier’s first and second seasons. Spurrier ran into Myers in the front lobby at Redskins Park. The two struck up a conversation and Spurrier asked where Myers had played the previous season. Myers had played for Dallas — and had faced Spurrier and the Redskins twice.
Spurrier might have won in the NFL if he’d been willing to bend and do whatever it took to win. Instead, he insisted on being surrounded by coaches with whom he was familiar (and who lacked NFL coaching experience). He wanted to bring in ex-Gators players. Spurrier was unhappy when he was overruled by owner Daniel Snyder and Vinny Cerrato, then the team’s front office chief, and the Redskins released former Florida quarterback Danny Wuerffel before Spurrier’s second season.
It seemed almost as if Spurrier’s NFL coaching time was an experiment designed to see if his offense, coached by his coaches and run by his players, could succeed in the league. It didn’t. So he left.
He was an always-decent, always-interesting person while in Washington. But he also was the wrong guy in the wrong place.
The Cowboys used their bye week to make some changes, with Coach Jason Garrett announcing that Cassel will take over for Brandon Weeden as the team’s fill-in starter at quarterback and that rookie La’el Collins will move into the starting lineup at guard.
The switch to Cassel was inevitable, with the Cowboys winless in three games since Weeden took over after Tony Romo suffered a broken left clavicle. It certainly wasn’t all Weeden’s fault. He was reasonably productive at times. But it was clear from the moment the Cowboys traded for Cassel following Romo’s injury that he would give Garrett another option if things weren’t going well.
Is Cassel really an upgrade over Weeden? If so, it’s not by much. He has a career passer rating of 80.1, to Weeden’s 74.6. But it’s not as if the Cowboys are grooming Weeden to be their quarterback of the future and are willing to be patient in the name of long-term considerations. They are struggling but very much in the thick of the race in the far-from-imposing NFC East. The switch to Cassel has the feel of simply trying something else when things aren’t going well. That probably is justified under the circumstances.
The promotion of Collins to the starting lineup also had appeared to be a matter of when, not if, ever since the Cowboys signed him after he went undrafted because of his off-field issues. He is a gifted player who potentially makes the Cowboys’ offensive line better than it already was. That is the move that actually could have the more lasting impact, if Collins plays up to his considerable on-field potential.
Mistakes were the undoing of the Atlanta Falcons in their loss Thursday night at New Orleans. They lost three fumbles and allowed quarterback Matt Ryan to be sacked five times in falling from the ranks of the NFL’s unbeaten teams. They also surrendered a touchdown on a blocked punt.
But the Falcons also should have learned something about their offensive approach. They began the game in throw-first mode against the shaky New Orleans defense. And when they fell behind early, the Falcons remained in passing mode. Ryan threw 44 passes in the game while tailback Devonta Freeman had only 13 carries while rushing for 100 yards.
Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan received plenty of credit, and rightfully so, when the Falcons sprinted to their 5-0 start. Shanahan is back in his element in Atlanta, with an efficient pocket passer in Ryan and a dominant wide receiver in Julio Jones, after designing offenses with college-style elements for Robert Griffin III in Washington and for Manziel in Cleveland when the rookie got his chance to play last season.
But Shanahan was questioned at times while with the Redskins for going away from the running game a bit too quickly on occasion. The Falcons probably would be well served as this season progresses to hand the ball to Freeman with great regularity and allow the big plays in their passing game to develop once defenses have been forced to respect the run.
10. L. Jones keeps Steelers above .500
Pittsburgh moved on to its third quarterback of the season when Landry Jones took over Sunday for Michael Vick, who has been starting in place of the injured Ben Roethlisberger.
Jones threw a pair of touchdown passes to wide receiver Martavis Bryant after taking over for the injured Vick. The second of those touchdowns covered 88 yards, thanks to Bryant’s run weaving through Arizona defenders, and sealed the outcome in a 25-13 victory over the Cardinals at Heinz Field.
Jones had an eye-catching passer rating of 149.3, connecting on eight of 12 throws for 168 yards.
Roethlisberger participated in seven-on-seven passing drills and could be nearing a return. But now the Steelers don’t have to push things with him. Jones’s performance Sunday kept them, at 4-2, within two games of the Bengals in the AFC North. It also might have given the Steelers confidence that they could turn to Jones if needed, in case Roethlisberger isn’t quite ready to come back.