Leaving it Late
After their first loss of the season the previous week to Seattle, you would forgive there being butterflies in San Francisco stomachs as they found themselves behind Arizona going into the final few minutes of their weekend match-up. But the 49ers are proving themselves to be anything but pretenders. Just inside the second half two-minute warning, the Niners finally took the lead over the Cardinals, who had led 16-0 to lead 30-26. The final 36-26 scoreline somewhat flattered San Francisco with a last-ditch bit of Cardinals lateral rugby being picked off for a touchdown.
The 49ers now go 9-1 to keep up their chase of a bye in the playoffs and home-field advantage but the Cardinals’ quarterback, Kyler Murray keeps impressing as he tied for the days highest rushing yards and threw for 150 and two touchdowns.
Also leaving it late was the play-off chasing Minnesota Vikings who were in real danger of losing at home to the Broncos. The Vikes went into halftime 20-0 down and it seemed that the improbable was staring them in the face. But, quality is quality and when you have receiver Stefon Diggs - who had 5 receptions and 121 yards - with the quarterback, Kirk Cousins - who threw 3 touchdowns for over 300 yards - there is always a chance. They left the Broncos (who were camped out just yards from the Minnesota goal line as the clock went dead) a chance to take the game in the final seconds. This comes as a concern to the Vikings but a 27-23 win keeps them firmly in the playoff picture.
For Denver, it’s another season to write-off. New quarterback, Brandon Allen had a mixed day but completing just 19 from 37 leaves the Broncos General Manager and legend John Elway with a lot to think about going into next season. How is it so difficult for one of the great quarterbacks to spot talent in the games’ most important position?
One Name Wonder
The Baltimore Ravens game with the Houston Texans was billed as a showdown between two of the great young quarterbacks of the league. However, while Texans’ Deshaun Watson toiled to throw just one touchdown, Lamar Jackson treated those watching to four!
How does a team win 41-7 over another AFC playoff with a quarterback who attempts just 24 throws with 17 completions? One answer is by making those completions count for 222 yards on the day with 4 touchdowns and no interceptions. The other answer is that Lamar runs with the grace and purpose of a gazelle outpacing a pack of lions. He averaged nearly 10 yards-per-carry on Sunday and sits firmly inside the top 10 players for rushing yards this season. At 8-2 going into the home straight and games against the Rams, 49ers, Jets, Bills, Browns, and Steelers, it’s looking good for Baltimore.
There is a very real chance that Jackson will be called MVP early next year. We saw what the current MVP, Patrick Mahomes, thinks of that as the Chiefs rounded out the week’s action with a hard-fought 24-17 win over the LA Chargers in Mexico City. Mahomes led his team in rushing yards though he still has some way to go to challenge Jackson on that front.
A Change in Atlanta?
On the subject of MVP candidates who are good on their feet, the league’s leading man in rushing yards, Christian McCaffrey couldn’t save his Carolina Panthers from going down 29-3 to the lowly Atlanta Falcons. McCaffrey had 70 yards from 14 carries but the key to the Panthers now sitting 5-5 for the year with ever diminishing hopes of a play-off spot were the 4 interceptions thrown by Kyle Allen and the 5 sacks he took.
Suggesting that this was a game lost by Carolina rather than one won by Atlanta is somewhat disingenuous though. When a team boasts such talent as 2016 MVP quarterback Matt Ryan and receivers Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley, these kinds of performances should be much more common than their 3-7 losing record for the season would indicate.
After back-to-back wins, there is a newfound positivity around the Falcons who now play divisional rivals Tampa Bay next who replaced them at the foot of the division after being beaten by New Orleans 34-17. Making it three in a row isn’t out of the question for Atlanta but the idea of them making a late charge for the post-season is far-fetched.
The bigger question for the Falcons is how to build something for next season. Money has been spent and the first half of the year under head coach Dan Quinn was simply atrocious. Despite the optimism around Atlanta, you can’t imagine them rising to a winning record from here with games against the Saints and 49ers still approaching. Will Quinn lead the team next year? You get the feeling the answer is probably no unless they manage to win the last 6 games of the season.
When a 34-17 losing scoreline flatters the loser, something is not right. When that result is against the Jets, who have been inept at times this year, something is definitely not right. But those who still turn up to watch the Redskins would have told you that for a long time.
Perhaps there are mitigating circumstances you can point to. The horrific injury quarterback, Alex Smith suffered in 2017 when it was thought he would carry the team into the future has clearly been a setback. Whether Smith ever takes the field again remains to be seen. The beginning of the Dwayne Haskins era has so far been underwhelming, though it may have to do with the team as a whole, rather than Haskins himself.
In a city that now boasts the World Series-winning Nationals and 2018 Stanley Cup winners, the Capitals, the Redskins were once a jewel in the city’s crown. Since the turn of the 21st century, this has been a downward spiral that shows no sign of a reverse in fortunes.
With a 1-9 record for the year, Washington is even being outdone on the losing front by the 0-10 Cincinnati Bengals who lost 17-10 to a wild card chasing Raiders. The Bengals are gaining control of next year's draft.
It’s hard to tell what the future is for this team. Owner Dan Snyder is widely derided for his ownership. Team president Bruce Allen doesn’t fare much better with fans. Head coach Jay Gruden hit the dust earlier this season and while that was probably the right call after five years of underwhelming performances, where they go next is a mystery.
Whether you are a Redskins fan or not, there is something disheartening about seeing one of the most storied organizations struggling as they are. The best they can hope for now is a good draft, for Haskins to find his feet (which under the pressure his offensive line puts him under will be difficult) and for the front office to find the right staff for the future.
In the NFL, replays have been a widespread reality going back well over a decade, yet still, we are debating the use and the performance of referees every week.
Short of actually playing the game, being a referee is the toughest position on the field. The standard of decision making this season has been terrible though.
Calls have been made against players for face mask infringements when the hands were at shoulder level. Whistles have been blown to stop a takeaway interception that was otherwise good. Pass interference has been called - or not called - one way and then another, to the point where nobody actually knows what's allowed anymore.
Hot on the heels of the New Orleans no-call that effectively stopped them yards from a Super Bowl appearance last season, the league instituted the new Pass Interference rule in which teams can challenge a failure from the referees to call such an infringement. But nobody, including those on the sidelines with the power to challenge the rule, actually trusts that the referees will actually call it whether it looks clear or not.
Though it hardly cost them the game, DeAndre Hopkins of the Texans has every right to feel a replay should have seen his team awarded a penalty on what looked like a blatant Pass Interference by the Ravens’ Marlon Humphrey. It wasn’t overturned leading to the bemusement of millions watching. This is far from the first time such a call or judgment has been made.
The rulebook has never been bigger and the game has never been faster, yet the standard of refereeing appears to have never been worse. When the millions at home and in the stadiums can see clear infringements in HD, 2K and even 4K resolution during a game, yet the referees are struggling, something must be done.
For too long the NFL has muddied the water by implementing bizarre rule changes and guiding referees to the point where they are confused as to what to do. The interference must stop in order to increase quality in the game. The NFL must allow referees to use the technology available to them in order to make better calls. A direct line to a panel of specialist video referees at each game is now a must as is stripping back the most convoluted rules and NFL guided regulations.
Contributing Author - Rees Dale