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NFL: Patriots And Cardinals The Ones To Catch

football

Another huge weekend has just whizzed by in NFL land. The big results just keep coming and coming and, as teams realise that they are already running out of fixtures, each win is more satisfying and each loss more damaging to the hopes of football in January. There were also some pretty stunning upsets, with the St. Louis Rams taking down the playoff chasing San Francisco Forty-Niners.  It is those kind of losses that can be pivotal come season’s end, especially with a multitude of teams chasing the wild-card berths in the NFC. Let’s review the action here.

Denver Broncos at New England Patriots (21-43)

The people suggesting Tom Brady was over the hill look pretty dumb right now. The New England Patriots won this clash of the titans at a canter. Brady was immaculate, throwing 33/53 for 333 yards and four touchdowns. Admittedly there was a second half interception to slightly take the gloss off the numbers, but Brady was immaculate. With Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman taking off for just under two hundred yards between them, it is fair to say Brady had his way with the defense. But the narrative of Brady being better than Peyton Manning in colder conditions is probably unfair. The Patriots actually did most of their damage playing into the wind. Every home advantage is different, and you can make a case that New England benefits from playing in Gillette Stadium as Denver do playing in Mile High. That Pats defense should get a lot of credit too. They are banged up, but the new guys made a big impact, particularly Akeem Ayers, who sacked Manning on 4th and 6 when the game was still right in the balance.

Probably the poorest showing of the year from the Denver Broncos. Peyton Manning has already acknowledged he didn’t play well, and his early interception by Rob Ninkovich seemed to unsettle him. His receivers weren’t really winning the battle at the line of scrimmage, and Ronnie Hillman was making very little on the ground. It made it hard for Manning, and he couldn’t get it done.  The toughening up process of the off-season didn’t seem to stand up for Denver here, as they got bullied by New England. The race for the top seed in the AFC is still on, but the Patriots only have to match the Broncos record to pip them now. We just saw how important home field advantage is.

Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers (23-43)

Ben Roethlisberger is officially on fire. The Pittsburgh Steelers’ quarterback threw six touchdown passes for the second game in a row, a monumental accomplishment. Big Ben ran roughshod over the defense, throwing a touchdown pass just about every fourth completion. Roethlisberger is ably assisted by the NFL’s leading receiver in Antonio Brown, who ran riot here with eleven receptions for 144 yards. The Steelers have come from a team getting beaten up by the Cleveland Browns and Jacksonville Jaguars to the most complete offense in the league in just a few short weeks. The Steelers are right in the mix to win the topsy turvy AFC North, with a soft looking schedule and two games against the Cincinnati Bengals to come.

The Baltimore Ravens are just the latest team to fall from the top of the carousel in the AFC North this season. Two crippling divisional losses in a row have left them bottom of the pile, with a lot of work to do if they are to get a wild card berth. Joe Flacco’s play is very streaky, and while he is great when going well, he can’t produce that week to week. The defense badly missed Jimmy Smith at the weekend, but they struggled badly as a whole. The Steelers botched point-after attempt that they then converted into a two-pointer says a lot about the ebb and flow of this one.

Arizona Cardinals at Dallas Cowboys (28-17)

The beat goes on for the Arizona Cardinals, who added another impressive victory to their repertoire here. The Cardinals now have a 7-1 record in the NFC West, the best record of any NFC team, and one that puts them two games clear in the division. To win a road game against a conference rival who was leading their own division after surrendering a pick six on the opening drive is a Herculean task, but Arizona managed it on Sunday. With Tony Romo out, that mean defensive front set about taking down DeMarco Murray. The Cardinals don’t statistically have the best run defense in the league, mainly because no one can stay with Denver long enough to keep running the ball, but they are a very mean unit. Murray made some plays, but the fewest of the year, with this his first game under a hundred yards all year. Arizona aren’t the best at any one thing, but they are so good at so many different aspects of the game. They will be very hard to stop.

All of a sudden, the Dallas Cowboys are in a two game losing streak. Brandon Weeden, filling in for the stricken Romo, could not move the ball out wide, failing to find Dez Bryant until the fourth quarter. With Murray being pretty well marshalled, the Cowboys were effectively nullified offensively. The defense had no answer to the bevy of receivers available to Arizona, and now even  week ten’s London game against the Jacksonville Jaguars doesn’t look like a walkover any more. If they can’t pick up a win there, then it will be panic stations in Dallas.

San Diego Chargers at Miami Dolphins (0-37)

What a display put on by the Miami Dolphins. Shutting out a team whose quarterback was being mentioned as an MVP candidate in the early season takes some doing, but that is exactly what the Dolphins managed on Sunday. Ryan Tannehill has been playing outstanding football since the London victory over the Oakland Raiders, before which his starting position appeared to be in jeopardy. Mike Wallace probably still isn’t happy, but the Dolphins are now firmly in the wild card race in the AFC. Lamar Miller and the offensive line deserve a huge amount of credit considering their respective shambolic positions over the off-season, but they are really helping Miami put up some wins now. The defense completely dominated, shutting down the run game and forcing Philip Rivers into three interceptions and only allowing twelve completions. That’s serious football.

The San Diego Chargers have been beset by injuries of late, but that was still a shambolic performance. There were no high points, no silver linings and no positives to take going forward. If the Chargers continue struggling to run, then Rivers won’t get the breathing room to make throws. At one point this year, the Chargers were matching pace with the Denver Broncos in the AFC West. Now they have fallen into third place, behind the Kansas City Chiefs. A long road back for the Chargers.

Philadelphia Eagles at Houston Texans (31-21)

Another big win for the Philadelphia Eagles, who hardly missed a beat when Nick Foles left the game with a broken collarbone. Mark Sanchez, who was run out of town when last seen with the New York Jets, had a stellar performance. The man formerly known as “the Sanchize” completed 15/22 passes for 202 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. Not bad for a backup, and those numbers should improve as he gets more first team reps with Foles out. LeSean McCoy helped out by gashing the defensive front for 117 yards on the ground, while Jeremy Maclin continued his wild comeback year with 158 yards and two touchdowns on just six passes. The Eagles offense is getting back to its ferocious best, and it doesn’t necessarily matter who is under center.

The Houston Texans season is falling away, with this team in need of a win more than most. Ryan Fitzpatrick continues to struggle manfully, but he just isn’t a starting calibre NFL quarterback. Ryan Mallett has let it be known on twitter that he is willing to take the job on. Houston really are just an above-average quarterback away from competing. Their defense is a top unit, and that’s even before Jadeveon Clowney makes his impact. Arian Foster’s injury is a worry, but DeAndre Hopkins had a big game, finishing with 115 yards and a touchdown. Houston aren’t finished yet.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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