Panic Meter: Which contenders are in trouble after a rocky Week 10?
Week 10 delivered a stressful, frustrating Sunday to many of the NFL's playoff contenders. It's hard to find a competitive team that left the weekend in better shape than how it entered, with the Steelers, Vikings and suddenly resurgent Chiefs as notable exceptions. Even teams that won big games, such as the Cardinals and Patriots, are dealing with injuries that could dramatically impact how they play in the weeks to come.
At the same time, no sport creates a tempest in a teapot quite like the NFL. Injuries or narratives that seem like an enormous deal get replaced within a week. Remember Week 4, when kickers were melting down around the league? The league's placekickers have converted 86.2 percent of their kicks since, an improvement of their 84.0 percent clip from 2014. Or how the Steelers were going to struggle this week without Ben Roethlisberger, who is recovering from a sprained foot? Not only did they win comfortably against the Browns, but they did so with Roethlisberger excelling in place of an injured Landry Jones.
It's not always easy to differentiate between a real menace and a temporary nuisance, so let's try and split them up here by running through some of Sunday's top stories to figure out which of the NFL's contenders actually need to panic. And that starts in Denver, where a presumptive Hall of Famer was feted by the fans and roasted by the Chiefs . . .
Peyton Manning gets benched for Brock Osweiler
Even in what is almost surely going to be his final season of professional football, Manning probably couldn't have envisioned a performance quite as bad as the one he put on Sunday against Kansas City. He might have set the league's passing yardage record during the first half, but he also threw three picks before halftime for just the fourth time in his career. He added a fourth interception before coach Gary Kubiak mercifully brought in Osweiler. It was the first time Manning was benched since September 30, 2001, when he was with the Colts and then-coach Jim Mora took him out for Mark Rypien during a 44-13 loss to the Patriots. That game is famous for another reason: It was Tom Brady's first career start.
Kubiak tried to take the blame afterward for Manning's subpar start, suggesting he should have sat him after he suffered a rib injury during the week, but it's hardly as if this were a one-off performance. (ESPN's Adam Schefter reported Monday morning that Manning was also playing through a partially torn plantar fascia in his left foot.) It might have been Manning's first four-interception game of 2015, but he didn't look appreciably different from the struggling passer he has portrayed all season. This isn't like 2007, when Manning threw four picks in the first half of the season before a flukish six-interception disaster of a start against the Chargers. This has been a bad season at the office.
Manning has now thrown picks in nine consecutive games. That places him in dismal company. The list of quarterbacks who threw picks in nine consecutive games since 2000 isn't a pretty one. The names aren't the ones you associate with greatness. John Skelton. Ryan Leaf. Donovan McNabb's sojourn in Washington makes an appearance (you never want to be on a list with Donovan McNabb's year in D.C.). There are a couple of appearances by Philip Rivers and Drew Brees, but this is mostly a list of quarterbacks who were about to expire. The previous time Manning threw picks in even as many as six consecutive games was in 2001.
And while I'm sure Manning was affected by the rib and foot injuries, the issues Sunday against the Chiefs are the same ones he has had throughout this season. As much as his struggles are chalked up to his diminished arm strength, that's just part of the problem.
It's not as if he's deadly accurate on short passes and just can't throw a 16-yard out anymore. Manning has lost a great deal of his touch and labors into and out of his throwing motion. He overthrows his receivers seemingly as frequently as he one-hops passes in their direction. The amount of torque he needs to generate with his body to get zip on his passes forces him to commit to his throws earlier, making it far easier for defenders to hijack previously clear throwing lanes. His lack of arm strength is at the heart of some of Manning's issues, but somebody like Chad Pennington was able to succeed without an NFL-caliber arm toward the end of his career while simultaneously posting solid interception rates.
Manning is a mess -- and sadly for Broncos fans, there's just not much of a reason to think things will get better. The arguments earlier in the season were that the Broncos needed to return to a more Manning-friendly scheme and get their offensive line right, and neither solution appears to be in the cards. Each of Manning's 20 pass attempts Sunday came in the shotgun or pistol, and he posted a 0.1 QBR on those throws. Further injuries to the offensive line have prevented the unit from jelling, and the running game that carried Denver over the regular-season finish line last year hasn't shown up since the Nov. 1 win over Green Bay. Denver still has a great defense, but when the opposition's average starting field position is 52 yards away from the end zone, as it was for the Chiefs on Sunday, even a dominant defense can do only so much. The Broncos may have already banked enough victories to claim the West, but with Manning this altered, it's hard to see them doing much in January.
Julian Edelman breaks his foot.
Well, no on a technicality. The Patriots might have made their way to 9-0 on Sunday, but they lost another offensive weapon when Edelman left the game with a foot injury and did not return. Edelman was diagnosed with a Jones fracture, similar to the injury suffered by Cowboys wide receiverDez Bryant against these same Giants in the season opener. Bryant received a bone graft for the injury, and despite suggestions that a four- to six-week return timetable was "impossible,"Bryant indeed missed just six weeks before returning against the Seahawks in Week 8. A similar time frame would get Edelman back for the Week 17 regular-season finale against the Dolphins.
The Patriots should be able to slot in Danny Amendola as their primary underneath weapon. Amendola is not as identical to Edelman as you might think -- Edelman plays faster and is more slippery after the catch, while Amendola has better hands -- but it's worth noting that Edelman stepped in as the Patriots' primary receiver only after Amendola got hurt in Week 1 of the 2013 season.
The problem for the Patriots is less about Edelman and more about how they're becoming increasingly dependent on the few weapons they have left. They already took a huge hit after breakout star Dion Lewis tore his ACL last week; nominal replacement James White was anonymous against the Giants on Sunday. The Pats can get by with Amendola, but he's an enormous injury risk. They still have Rob Gronkowski, but we're still not too far removed from the days when Patriots fans closed their eyes and prayed that Gronk was going to get up every time he was tackled.
As long as Brady is at quarterback, Gronk is in the red zone, and Jordan Deveyis on the 49ers, the offense should still be just fine. The Edelman injury just further lowers the Patriots' ceiling and reduces their margin for error.
Sam Bradfordsuffers a concussion and possible shoulder injury.
Before their bye, I wrote a whole bunch of words on why the Eagles would have been wrong to bench Sam Bradford for Mark Sanchez. Now, a big hit may have done that for them. Bradford reportedly suffered a concussion and a sprained AC joint in his non-throwing shoulder after being hit Sunday in the game against the Dolphins, giving way to Sanchez, who went 14-of-23 for 156 yards with a dream-crushing interception in the end zone.
My case a few weeks ago centered on the idea that there really wasn't much of a production gap between the two quarterbacks. Whatever modest improvements the Eagles made by adding Sanchez would be offset by the massive confidence dagger Bradford would take as part of any benching. It essentially would be shuffling the deck chairs on the Chiptanic.
With that in mind, then, there's little reason to think that Sanchez's presence as an injury replacement should make the Eagles any worse. If anything, he might actually improve things a tiny bit given how Philly is getting squeezed on offense. Teams aren't afraid of Bradford beating them downfield and are crowding the line of scrimmage to take away the running game. Sanchez isn't as accurate as Bradford, and his arm isn't as strong, but he typically gets more out of his arm throwing downfield in game situations than Bradford does. Sanchez posted the league's seventh-best QBR (96.1) on what the NFL defines as "deep" throws (16-plus yards in the air) last season as a backup. Bradford is 25th among qualifying passers, with a QBR of 69.2 on the same passes this season.
Anecdotally, that could do wonders for the other struggling aspects of the Philly offense, both of which were exposed by the Dolphins on Sunday. Philadelphia ran the ball 36 times for a total of just 83 yards during the 20-19 loss, with DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews struggling to find consistent running lanes. And with the offense in third-and-long, the Dolphins were able to get pressure on whomever happened to be playing quarterback for the Eagles. Defensive end Olivier Vernon had a whopping six quarterback knockdowns as part of Miami's four-sack, 10-hit day.
If the running game gets going, it slows down the rush. And if the rush slows down, that gives the Eagles time to make throws downfield for steady chunks of yardage. That just hasn't been the case with Bradford in his Philly career. The Eagles shouldn't force a change, but they also shouldn't be afraid of one, now that an injury might have made the decision for them.
The Packers suddenly look like one of the worst offenses in football.
Of course, you'll remember that "relax" is what Aaron Rodgers told Packers fans to do last season after Green Bay got off to a 1-2 start. The offense was struggling mightily during that early-season run; Rodgers had fewer than 200 passing yards in two of those first three games, while the rushing attack produced 236 yards on 65 carries, an average of just 3.6 yards per attempt. With right tackleBryan Bulaga missing for a chunk of that three-game stretch because of a knee injury, Rodgers was being sacked on 7.9 percent of his dropbacks, the third-worst rate in the league.
And you know what happened after that? Things were just fine. The Packers won nine of their next 10 games, averaging 36.9 points per contest in that stretch. Green Bay averaged 4.5 yards per carry, and Rodgers' sack rate dropped to 4.9 percent. He averaged 296 yards per game while throwing 30 touchdowns against two picks. It turns out that overreacting to three games was naive and shortsighted.
With that in mind, as much as I want to get into the numbers and point out how the Packers are struggling to protect Rodgers or get separation downfield and haven't seemed to be able to run the football in the past three weeks, what I'm going to say instead is: R-E-L-A-X. The same personnel problems that seem to be ailing the Packers now are mostly the same concerns they had earlier in the season, and it wasn't a problem then. Sure, they miss Jordy Nelson, but Rodgers didn't have Nelson during the first quarter of the season, and he threw 11 touchdowns without a pick in that 4-0 span. It'll be troubling if left tackle David Bakhtiari's knee injury is serious, but they'll survive. Be disappointed by their ugly three-game run all you want, but this hasn't been a Manning-esque decline in Green Bay. If anybody has earned the benefit of some patience, it's Aaron Rodgers.
Coach Tom Coughlin mismanages the clock ... again.
For a guy who famously insisted upon his players showing up to meetings five minutes early, Coughlin seems to stop paying attention five minutes before his team's games come to a close. The Giants bungled another favorable fourth-quarter lead on Sunday in ignominious fashion, and again, timekeeping issues were to blame. Once the Giants were finished picking on overmatched Patriots cornerback Rashaan Melvin and advanced the ball near the goal line, they were comfortable favorites to win. With 2:06 remaining and the Patriots leading 24-23, the Giants had first-and-goal from the 5-yard line, giving them a 77.6 percent chance of winning, according to Brian Burke's win probability calculator.
From there, the Giants stuttered. Despite the fact that the Patriots had only one timeout, the Giants dialed up three passing plays, which produced two incompletions and a sack when Eli Manning learned from his prior mistakes and fell down to keep the clock running. While the Giants kicked a field goal to take the lead, they handed the ball back to Brady with 1:50 left, leaving the Patriots with just enough time to scramble downfield and set up Stephen Gostkowski for a game-winning 54-yard field goal.
The alternative argument in hindsight, of course, is that the Giants should have run the ball three times before kicking the field goal. Had they done that, they could have handed the ball back to the Patriots with about 1:10 to go, and because the Patriots weren't even on New York's side of the field with 40 seconds to go, the Giants very clearly would have won by running the football. Right?I'm not so sure.
For one, those arguments about how the drive would have gone under different circumstances always break down because the Patriots would have approached the possession differently. And you can't start with the idea that the Giants were going to kick a field goal because the game situation made it valuable to score a touchdown. If the Giants run the ball three times and kick a field goal and give the ball back to the Patriots up two with 1:10 to go, their win expectancy is 80.1 percent, a figure that would be lower if the model factored in the presence of the truly awesome Gostkowski. If the Giants score a touchdown on the first play, even if they miss the two-point conversion and kick off to the Patriots up five with 1:58 to go, their win expectancy leaps to 87.4 percent. And in the best-case scenario, where the Giants score a touchdown on the other side of the two-minute warning, force the Patriots to use their final timeout, and get a two-point conversion to go up seven, their win expectancy hits 94.2 percent.
Given that it's incredibly important to score a touchdown and not just settle for a field goal, the Giants can't just settle for running the football. This isn't the Seahawks with Marshawn Lynch. The Giants are comfortably the worst short-yardage team this season, converting on 27 percent of their power-running attempts during the first half of the season. The second-worst team, Jacksonville, is at 38 percent. It's reasonable for the Giants to mix in one run play, but the significant value added by scoring a touchdown and the game situation mean the Giants can't just try and chew clock. They have to try and score.
And truthfully, it took a lot of breaks to go the Patriots' way over those final 126 seconds for this to even end up as a loss. What looked an awful lot like an Odell Beckham Jr. touchdown catch on first down was ruled incomplete. Even worse, the play somehow contrived to end before the two-minute warning, narrowly gifting the Patriots an extra timeout. Landon Collins dropped what would have been a game-sealing interception on the first play of the final Patriots drive. And then this happened:
The Giants had Amendolasealed up on the final pass attempt of the game, only for Amendola to juke out a pair of defenders and create a few much-needed yards for Gostkowski. That move alone nearly doubled New England's win expectancy; Burke's model gives the Pats an 18.4 percent chance of winning with a 60-yard field goal attempt, but that figure jumps to 36.3 percent with Gostkowski merely having to hit a 54-yarder.
I don't think Coughlin (and Manning) mismanaged the situation all that badly, given the Giants' strengths and the breaks it took for the Patriots to get the victory. And while the Giants have blown several fourth-quarter leads this season, I'm also not sure why we're treating that as a sure fatal flaw. Coughlin has been conservative with late-game clock management for years now, and he has won two Super Bowls. The idea that a team needs to "learn how to win" late in games has always been nonsense, but that seems doubly naive with a veteran combination of coach and quarterback who have managed to succeed in years past. It's disappointing, but not worth a panic.
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