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. 14
1. Ratings watch | 2. Gronk vs. Chancellor
3. Two-point tries | 4. Ugliness in the Meadowlands
5. NFC Norths struggles | 6. The Browns’ QB misstep
7. New coaches are blue coaches | 8. Thursday blowouts
9. Harbaugh’s challenge | 10. Extra point excitement
Until Sunday, this NFL season had been primarily about sagging television ratings, national anthem protests and plenty of uninspiring football.
That changed with Sunday’s two tremendous games, the Dallas Cowboys’ late-afternoon triumph at Pittsburgh followed by the Seattle Seahawks’ nighttime victory over the New England Patriots in Foxborough, Mass.
Which leads to the question: Which would be a more compelling Super Bowl matchup, Cowboys vs. Patriots or a Seahawks-Patriots rematch?
The answer is: Either one would be plenty good, and exactly what the NFL needs to cap a 2016 season in which so many observers have been quick to criticize the on-field product.
The Cowboys’ 35-30 win over the Steelers featured seven lead changes, including four in the fourth quarter, three in the final two minutes and two in the last minute. The two prized rookies for Dallas, quarterback Dak Prescott and tailback Ezekiel Elliott, were brilliant.
“It was a crazy game,” Elliott told Fox after the game. “Another nail-biter, man. That’s how every game in the NFL is gonna be. So it was fun to come into this fun environment playing against a great team [and] come out with a win.”
The Cowboys extended their winning streak to eight games and upped their record to 8-1. Their performance led Tony Dungy, the former Super Bowl-winning coach for the Indianapolis Colts, to sound very much like he was declaring them the NFC’s Super Bowl front-runner at halftime of the NBC telecast of the Patriots-Seahawks game.
“I like where they are in the NFC,” Dungy said. “They’re playing the best ball.”
The Seahawks might have something to say about that, however. They held on for a 31-24 win in Foxborough when safety Kam Chancellor tied up Rob Gronkowski and kept the tight end from catching quarterback Tom Brady’s lob into the end zone on a fourth-and-goal play from the Seattle 1-yard line with 11 seconds to go.
“Mental toughness, man,” Chancellor told NBC after the game. “Physical toughness. Never giving up—that’s one thing we preach on our team. We want to fight until we can’t fight no more. And whether that’s 60 minutes or however long we’ve got to go, we go the distance. But we want to play until we can’t play no more.”
The Seahawks, at 6-2-1, have ground to make up on the Cowboys in the race for the top seed in the NFC playoffs. Either would be a formidable Super Bowl test for the Patriots if New England, seeking its fifth Super Bowl title with Brady and Coach Bill Belichick, can get there.
Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson threw three touchdown passes Sunday night to wide receiver Doug Baldwin in a game that also featured seven lead changes. The Seahawks won after having to travel across the country on a short week following their victory at home Monday night over the Buffalo Bills. They handed the Patriots their first loss since Brady’s return from his four-game Deflategate suspension.
And this time it was the Patriots who could not score from the 1-yard line, just as the Seahawks so famously were thwarted at the 1-yard line when they lost to New England in the Super Bowl to close the 2014 season.
“It was a challenge, obviously, coming to Foxborough—a tough, tough place to play,” Wilson told NBC late Sunday night. “It’s not easy to win here. There are not many losses here [to] opponents for them. But it was a battle. We played one play at a time. The defense stepped up when we needed to right there and made some great plays. The offense, we made great plays when we really needed to, man, and we were clutch on third downs when we needed to. We battled. Guys made phenomenal catches…. So many guys made plays.”
… AND TEN
1. TV ratings: Now that the election is over, everyone will be paying close attention to the TV ratings generated by this weekend’s games. Particularly with the attractive Sunday night matchup in Patriots-Seahawks following the high-profile late-afternoon pairing of Cowboys-Steelers, much undoubtedly will be made of whether the ratings get an immediate boost.
That will be only partially justified. Yes, the presidential election has been cited as a reason for the dropoff in the NFL’s TV ratings this season. But it has been listed as only one of many reasons, and no one should expect an overwhelming change right away.
Whatever happens when this weekend’s ratings are released, the NFL should hope for gradual improvement in what remains of this season as the games increase in importance.
There was plenty of contact, and Gronkowski looked around for a penalty flag for pass interference on Chancellor. But none was thrown. Gronkowski was at least as responsible for the contact on the play as Chancellor was, and the view here is that the officials made the correct judgment in letting it go.
The Steelers, so fond of two-point attempts, went zero for four against the Cowboys.
Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll made a curious decision late in the game at New England, going for two while already up by seven points. It was an aggressive call by Carroll, who was trying to put the game away, in effect, by pushing the lead to nine points. But if he’d merely gone with an extra point and the Seahawks had converted, he would have had an eight-point lead and the Patriots would have had to get both a touchdown and a two-point conversion against his formidable defense to tie.
That one is interesting and debatable. Seattle’s two-point attempt failed, and the Patriots had their late chance to tie with a touchdown and an extra point.
4. Meadowlands ugliness: At the other end of the excitement spectrum from what the Cowboys-Steelers and Seahawks-Patriots games produced was what transpired between the Los Angeles Rams and the New York Jets at the Meadowlands. It should have come with a warning label: Do not stare directly at this game. Severe retinal damage could result.
The Jets were correct to start second-year quarterback Bryce Petty over Ryan Fitzpatrick in a lost season. They need to find out if Petty or rookie Christian Hackenberg, who still hasn’t made it on the field this season, can play. But the early returns on Petty were not particularly promising.
The Rams won, 9-6, with Case Keenum at quarterback and rookie Jared Goff, the No. 1 overall selection in this year’s NFL draft, still inexplicably on the sideline. It’s a good thing the Rams didn’t go with Goff. How could he ever have matched the 72.2 passer rating produced by Keenum and the three field goals generated by the Rams’ offense?
5. Bad times for Packers, Vikes: The problems are serious for the Minnesota Vikings. They lost another offensive lineman Sunday when veteran Jake Long, their most recent starter at left tackle, suffered an Achilles’ injury that Coach Mike Zimmer said probably is season-ending.
Kicker Blair Walsh missed yet another extra point. The offense was shut out in the second half. And the Vikings lost, 26-20, to the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field to drop their record to 5-4. That’s after a 5-0 start to the season.
Things are even worse for the Green Bay Packers. They were overwhelmed, 47-25, Sunday at Tennessee to drop their record to 4-5. They’ve lost three straight and four of five games, and speculation is intensifying that Coach Mike McCarthy’s job soon could be in jeopardy.
That led to a social-media defense Sunday by Brian Billick, the former Super Bowl-winning coach for the Baltimore Ravens.
“For those calling for McCarthy’s job… just know you won’t get a better coach than Mike,” Billick wrote on Twitter. “You can get different, but not better.”
6. Hue’s QB move: The feeling here generally has been that, despite the Cleveland Browns’ 0-10 record, Hue Jackson has done a decent job as their first-year coach. The cupboard truly was bare when Jackson took over, and the decision to trade down in the NFL draft rather than staying put at No. 2 and selecting quarterback Carson Wentz certainly didn’t help.
But the Browns are going in the wrong direction, becoming less competitive rather than more so. They have been outscored by a margin of 63-17 over the past two games after losing, 28-7, Thursday night in Baltimore.
Jackson’s quarterback switch Thursday from rookie Cody Kessler to veteran Josh McCown was calamitous. McCown was dreadful, completing only six of 13 passes and throwing two interceptions, and the Browns were outscored, 22-0, in the second half.
Kessler might not be the long-term quarterback solution in Cleveland. But he has played relatively well as a rookie. The Browns clearly are headed nowhere. What difference does it make, really, if they win one or two games instead of zero? The only sensible thing is to put Kessler on the field and leave him there to find out what sort of quarterback he can be.
There has been speculation that Robert Griffin III could play again this season after he threw passes on the field during pregame warmups Thursday. Griffin, remember, began the season as the Browns’ starter but injured his left shoulder in the opening game and has not played since. But what would playing Griffin solve at this point? It’s unlikely that he could step back into the lineup after such a layoff and succeed. And the Browns would be no closer to knowing if Kessler can be a starter, a reliable backup or neither of those moving forward.
But the five other new coaches this season have a combined record of 24-21. The New York Giants’ Ben McAdoo is 5-3 entering Monday night’s game at home against the Cincinnati Bengals. Philadelphia’s Doug Pederson and Miami’s Adam Gase are 5-4, Tennessee’s Mike Mularkey is 5-5 and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Dirk Koetter is 4-5. Gase, Mularkey, Pederson and Koetter won Sunday in a 4-1 day for the new coaches, while Kelly lost.
So the new coaches have a record, in all, of 25-39.
8. Thursday blowouts: The Thursday night games are a problem. The quality of play isn’t particularly good and, increasingly, the outcome is a foregone conclusion without things being particularly competitive.
Home teams are 7-3 in Thursday night games this season, and six of those seven victories have come by eight points or more. It’s difficult enough to prepare for such a game in that condensed time frame. It’s even more demanding when travel is involved.
In all, only two Thursday games all season has been decided by seven points or fewer. They came in the first two weeks of the season: Denver 21, Carolina 20 in the NFL’s season-opening game and Jets 37, Bills 31 in Week 2.
9. Harbaugh’s challenge: When it comes to pace-of-play issues, how about Ravens Coach John Harbaugh’s challenge late in Thursday’s game? The Ravens led by 21 points with less than three minutes remaining when Harbaugh made the challenge, attempting to get a safety for his defense as the Browns tried to run the ball out of the shadow of their own goal line.
Yes, Harbaugh was trying to reward his defense. But how about rewarding them with praise during the postgame news conference or in the meeting room? Did everyone really have to wait around for the outcome of a failed challenge so late in a game that no longer was in doubt? The Ravens lost the challenge. They never should have made it in the first place.
Other than that, it was a feel-good week for the Ravens. They beat the Steelers and Browns at home in a span of five days to change the tone of their season. Prior to that, they were on a four-game losing streak and hadn’t won since Sept. 25. Now, even with a still-modest record of 5-4, the Ravens are back on course and suddenly are the front-runner in the AFC North.
10. Extra point: When the NFL lengthened the extra point prior to the 2015 season to attempt to put just a little bit of drama into what had been one of the most automatic plays in all of sports, it also added the provision that a blocked extra point could be returned by the defensive team to the opposite end zone for two points.
The Broncos can thank that wrinkle for their victory Sunday. With the New Orleans Saints lined up for a would-be go-ahead extra point with just less than a minute and a half remaining in the game, the Broncos blocked the kick and returned it for two points. Those became the decisive points in a 25-23 triumph.
The NFL certainly has succeeded in making the extra point a slightly more enthralling play. And Sunday, the Broncos took full advantage of that.