As a Bears fan, this NFL season has been like three kicks to the nuts, then a brief icepack reprieve, followed by three more kicks to the nuts. And yet – ignoring the pain of the previous simile – here I stand at the midpoint of the season, still somehow hanging onto hope of January football. In years past, thinking like that was so hopelessly moronic, it’d be deserving of yet another kick in the nuts. But in this season of beautifully messed up football, nearly every team has hope as we enter the second half.
Entering Week 10, only four NFL teams are more than two wins back of either a division leader or Wild Card holder: Jacksonville, San Francisco, Cleveland, and the New York Jets. And even though they’re three games back of Houston and playing terribly, given the ridiculous nature of the AFC South, it’s hard to write off the Jags just yet. Especially considering they have four more games against division opponents (including the Texans twice).
The league is a jigsaw puzzle of mediocrity: at the time of writing (before Bills-Seahawks on Monday Night Football), 12 teams currently have four wins; two of them are leading their divisions while two are in dead-last. But if you’re the type of puzzler that likes to start from the outside, the good news is we seem to have found our 2016 corner pieces. Unsurprisingly, the New England Patriots are one. A little more shocking is the Dallas Cowboys, Atlanta Falcons, and Oakland Raiders appear to be the other three. (Write to us if you called that at the start of the year. Accolades will be mailed your way.)
As we work our way to the center of this 32-piecer [ages 5 and up], it will be fascinating to see which teams continue to chase and which ones give up, “settling” for a great draft spot. The Browns and 49ers should make up the first two spots, but the rest of the early picks are there for the taking. Should the Jets keep trotting Ryan Fitzpatrick out every week in hopes of wins? Do the Bears really need to take anymore looks at what Jay Cutler has to offer? FiveThirtyEight gives each team just a three-percent chance at the postseason; at what point do you pack it in and start chasing third overall?
Hopefully we begin to find all these answers as early as next week. Even if they’re only the periphery of the crowded playoff picture, games like Jets-Rams and Bears-Buccaneers will bring us one step closer to solving the puzzle.
This season hasn’t always been the most thrilling display of football, but entering the second half, every game continues to have high stakes. And if the games can’t always be pretty, at least they can be meaningful.
Now let’s address some of the meaning we found this weekend. Time for Week 9 nuts.
Week 9 in a Nutshell
Shout-Out Of The Week
Anthony Costanzo, LT, and the Colts offensive line.
If we’re talking about the most impressive performances by an o-line this week, we all know the Oakland Raiders’ beatdown of the defending champions was where it was at. But it’s no secret that the Raiders have the best blocking unit in the league this year. Heck, I wish John Madden was still calling Sunday Nights so he could’ve circled Kelechi Osemele on every play and gargled praise in between bites of pie.
Instead, I want to give a shout-out to a unit that has been s*** on all season, for good reason. The Colts’ big men have largely been turnstiles, as they’ve seemed more focused on battling Seattle for title of “worst offensive line in football” than battling the man across from them. But on a day where Andrew Luck wasn’t at his best, in a game Indy had to have, their line was not a weakness. (High praise indeed!)
Up against the league’s top run defense, Indy didn’t rewrite any record books. But they did grind out 85 yards and score two rushing TDs, doubling the total allowed by the Pack on the year. Costanzo was crucial in the run game, leading the way on Gore’s first score.
Against the Packer pass rush, the line also held up surprisingly well; Indy surrendered their fewest sack yardage on the year and had no penalties. Green Bay only got to Luck on safety blitzes when Dwayne Allen and Robert Turbin failed to pick up. According to Pro Football Focus, Luck was pressured on 18 plays, but some were a result of the QB’s habit of holding the ball too long. And when he was kept clean, Luck was 20 of 24 for 244 yards and a touchdown.
For a unit that had surrendered 31 sacks coming into the afternoon, it was their best performance of the year. For it to come in the hostile territory of Lambeau Field is worth a shout-out.
Other great things from Week 9
Golden Tate’s awesome ending.
The chain of events required for the Lions to get into overtime was bananas. After Matthew Stafford completed a 27-yard strike to Andre Roberts with just 10 seconds left, the Vikings’ strategy of “oh, I’ve fallen on the ball carrier and can’t get up” failed, and Detroit spiked the ball with two ticks left. Matt Prater casually nailed a 58-yarder, earning himself a bump in the kicker rankings.
After all those shenanigans, Golden Tate was determined not to give Minnesota the ball back, and may have provided us with one of the plays of the year. On the first drive of OT, Tate caught a 13-yard out, but instead of jogging out of bounds, he slammed on the brakes, tightroped his way upfield and flipped into the endzone. The best part of the whole thing is that he unintentionally puts his butt in Andrew Sendajo’s face, giving him a whiff of what the Vikings offense has played like the last three weeks.
Good call on Eagles interception.
It seems unlikely I’m ever going to stop railing on referees when they’re terrible, so the least I can do is give props when they’re great. In the Eagles-Giants game, Eli Manning hit Odell Beckham on a quick slant and Nolan Carroll brought him to the ground. After a brief struggle, Carroll emerged with the ball. Bill Vinovich and his crew made the call that Carroll intercepted the pass, rather than Beckham fumbling and Carroll recovering.
It was a lightning quick play, and I would’ve understood had they thought it was the other way around. But a catch and fumble would’ve been overturned by replay, while the interception stood as called. So well done refs! I’ll have no complaints about flags this week.
Travis Kelce; drama queen.
… except this one. I don’t know what habits the E! reality star picked up during his search for true love, but they may not belong on a football field. Kelce was justifiably upset with a missed facemask call in the back of the endzone, and made his opinion known by throwing his own “flag” (i.e. his hand towel) at the ref. I enjoyed how ridiculously childish it was, but it resulted in the tight end’s ejection in a game that the Chiefs nearly blew.
Side note: since the towel was camo for the NFL’s “Salute to Service”, is throwing it disrespecting the troops? Should the internet all gang up on him now? Help me out, Kaepernick haters.
Marquette King, the dancing punter.
Just another reason to love these resurgent Raiders.
Other bad things from Week 9
Niners make love, not touchdowns.
I’m not actually sure where I fall on this one, because the 49ers play before halftime did seem kind of smart. Yet at the same time, if your defense needs to bear-hug all four receivers to guarantee a stop, you might not be in a great place as a football team.
The scenario was this: the Saints had the ball on the San Francisco 13 with time for one more play before they kicked a field goal. So naturally, every Niner defender commits defensive holding to guarantee they wouldn’t give up the TD. It was a “genius” call only the master himself could come up with.
Thankfully, it probably won’t become a trend, as most NFL defenses aren’t that incompetent and the extra five-yards can make all the difference against today’s kickers. Speaking of kickers…
“Crafty” onside kicks.
Chris Boswell is getting killed for his failed soccer move, but he’s not the only one who should be getting an earful. Any coach who thinks they can catch a professional team off guard in an obvious onside scenario should face ridicule. The Rams tried to pull a fast one on the Panthers this weekend, too, quickly breaking their huddle and popping the ball downfield. Too bad Greg Zuerlein sent it 46 yards downfield, so no amount of surprise was going to net them the football.
Special teams coordinators have to stop trying to reinvent the wheel. The onside kick is a low-percentage play, like a halfcourt heave in basketball. But LeBron doesn’t try to catch his opponent off-guard by blindfolding himself first. NFL kickers, you’re already dealing with bad PR: just pop the ball up and pray for the best.
Big Ben’s “Wolverine” act.
If Large Benjamin is really as quick to heal as he would lead us to believe, then why did the Steelers run an offense so conservative that it would make Landry Jones blush? During a three-quarter stretch where Pittsburgh had as many first downs (two) as turnovers, the offense was so predictable and vanilla that they only mustered 69 yards (easy Gronk!) against their hated rivals. The Steelers ran the ball at predictable times, and did it way too often, on the whole, given how little they were gaining. And when Ben did dial up deep throws, he was way off target.
Down 21-0 in the fourth, Roethlisberger finally put up enough garbage time points to save fantasy owners, but it can’t hide how terrible that game was. Jones may not be the better quarterback, but you’d have a tough time convincing me he would’ve been a worse start yesterday.