Eagles disappoint late again while Broncos, 49ers continue to surge
Eagles squander yet another fourth-quarter lead; Tebow, 49ers win again
Justin Smith, a defensive lineman with the 49ers, makes the MVP Watch list
My Penn State thoughts and more in Ten Things I Think I Think
Before we get to the teams still playing for something, I bring you the most disappointing team of recent years, the 2011 Philadelphia Eagles. In the span of seven days at home, the Eagles blew their season by doing what they've done all year: disappear down the stretch. The 3-6 Eagles have been to fourth quarters what John Lackey is to baseball free agency. Their two-month history of fine fourth-quarter play:
Week 2: Up 31-21 at Atlanta with 14 minutes left. The Matt Ryan-led Falcons twice drive 80 yards to touchdowns. Eagles lose, 35-31.
Week 3: Up 16-14 over the Giants at home with 10 minutes left. Eli Manning takes the Giants on 54- and 56-yard touchdown drives. Philadelphia offense snoozes again. Eagles lose, 29-16.
Week 4: Up 23-17 over San Francisco at home with six minutes left. Alex Smith drives the 49ers 77 yards to a touchdown. Jeremy Maclin fumbles with the Eagles on the doorstep to win late. Eagles lose, 24-23.
Week 9: Up 24-20 over Chicago at home with 14 minutes left. Jay Cutler drives the Bears 51 yards to a touchdown and 54 yards to a field goal. Eagles lose 30-24.
Week 10 (Sunday): Up 17-14 over Arizona at home with five minutes to go. Arizona's third-string quarterback last year (behind Derek Anderson and Max Hall) and its second-stringer this year, Fordham Ram John Skelton, drives the Cards 87 yards in 11 plays. On third-and-10 from the Eagle 38, rookie safety Jaiquawn Jarrett, making his first career start, is left alone in coverage on Larry Fitzgerald, and Skelton rainbows a pass to Fitzgerald to the one-yard line. The Cards score three plays later. Skelton throws for 166 yards in the fourth quarter. Eagles lose 21-17.
That, folks, is how to blow a season right there.
The stories of week 10:
1. Tim Tebow came, he saw, he ran the Veer, he conquered. On a gorgeous 67-degree day in Kansas City with weather being no factor, the Denver Broncos completed two passes, never trailed and forged a three-way tie for second place in the mighty AFC West. Denver 17, Kansas City 10. Victories since Oct. 23: Tebow 3, Tom Brady/Michael Vick/Philip Rivers (combined) 2.
2. Mike Smith makes a curious call, and the Saints take command of the NFC South. The Falcons coach channeled his inner Belichick, went for it on fourth-and-inches from his 29 in overtime, didn't make it, and the Saints kicked a field goal a couple of minutes later to win 26-23. "First we were going to punt the football,'' Smith said, "then we had a change of heart and I wanted to go for it.''
Don't read the papers today, coach.
3. The 49ers might never lose again, but don't you dare call them good. "The longer we can keep the players from knowing they're good, the better,'' Jim Harbaugh told me over the din of the Niner locker room after San Francisco held off the Giants 27-20 at Candlestick. Interesting little turnaround the 8-1 Niners have coming up: home with Arizona Sunday, then at Baltimore four days and three time zones later.
4. The Bears are eating teams alive, and the Texans cannot lose without two of the best players in football. Chicago pulverized the reeling Lions. The Bears have gotten back in the playoff race by winning four in a row by 65 points. The Texans have also won four straight -- by 90 points. Wasn't supposed to be this easy without Andre Johnson and Mario Williams, but it sure looks it.
5. Get the ticker-tape ready, Indy: The 2012 Draft is 23 weeks away, and you can't lose Andrew Luck now. The Colts are one of the worst offensive teams the league has seen in years. Proof: They went to Dan Orlovsky Sunday for a spark. More proof: They've been outscored 137-27 over the last four weeks. But as I said on NBC last night, Indy's all but clinched the first pick in the April draft. The Colts have 10 losses, with games at New England, Baltimore and home with Houston remaining. No other team in football has more than seven losses. It's almost inconceivable that the Colts could lose the first pick now.
6. And more: New England all but wins the East (is this some tape loop?), the Steelers make it a very bad day in Cincinnati (what else is new?), and Dallas creeps to within a game of the Giants (have you looked at their schedules?).
How do you not love what the Broncos are doing?
We media geniuses have had our fun in the last few weeks. Tebow will never make it. Tebow can't transition to the NFL. Tebow's game is a college game. The Broncos are playing the guy just to show the fans it can't work, and then they'll move on to a real quarterback.
"After a while,'' coach John Fox said from the Broncos locker room Sunday, "you come to the realization that Ernie Els' golf swing is different than Lee Trevino's, but it's what they're comfortable with, they both work, and they both win.''
When Tebow took over as quarterback four games ago in Miami, offensive coordinator Mike McCoy tailored a few things to him, but the Broncos basically ran their regular offense, the one Kyle Orton used to go 1-4. They lucked out in that win at Miami, then tried their luck against Detroit, with McCoy calling 46 pass plays and 30 runs in the 45-10 loss to the Lions. "We got shellacked,'' Fox told me. "We were so one-dimensional, and we were banging our heads against the wall. I remember back in '06 in Carolina, we had a bunch of injuries, we were losing and we had to go play a really good Atlanta team. We basically invented the Wildcat for Chris Weinke that week and went into Atlanta and won the game. So here, we just figured let's try to do what Tim's comfortable with. It's just coaching. Doesn't matter if you coach JV, high school, college or the pros -- when you've got different kids, you need to do different things. Figure what your players can do, and adjust to them.''
So in the last couple of weeks, practices have been different for the Broncos. "Lot of dive options, pitches, play action, trying to get Eddie Royal the ball wide,'' Fox said. "Practicing what Tim does well, and oh yeah, I'd say that part [of the gameplan the last two weeks] has grown.''
In Oakland eight days ago, the Broncos ran it 39 times (for 299 yards) and called 22 passes; Denver won 38-24. In Kansas City Sunday, the ratio was out of control: 55 runs, eight passes ... and that was after losing the top two backs, Willis McGahee and Knowshon Moreno, to injury, and running a third-stringer, Lance Ball, 30 times. The offense is not necessarily designed to get Tebow running; of their 94 runs in the last two weeks, Tebow's had only 22. The offense uses Tebow the same as at Florida, as an option pilot. As Tebow said after the game Sunday, he doesn't care how often he throws or passes or hands off -- his job is to survey the defense and make a judgment how to attack as the play, millisecond by millisecond, develops.
Can it work long-term? Doubtful, but who knows? Who'd have ever figured, in the Aerial Era, a team going 2-0 running it 76 percent of the time? That's what Denver's done the last two weeks. Tim Tebow hasn't completed 50 percent of his throws in any of the five games he's played this year ... and he's lost only once.
I expected to hear the "yeah but'' at some point from Fox -- like, This is great, but it can't last long-term. Instead, I heard in Fox's voice, Why can't we win this way?
"The division has come back to us,'' Fox said. "We've got a great opportunity here, and that's what I've told the players.''
"So,'' I said to Fox, "is Tebow your quarterback the rest of the way?''
"At this rate,'' he said, "I would say yes. Now, who knows? But he's running the offense well, and he's not turning it over.''
The Broncos are a game behind Oakland, the team they clobbered last week. The battered Jets come to town for a Thursday-nighter this week, and the advantage for Denver is simple: The Jets have a short practice week to figure out a new offense and have to travel. Who knows? Ride the wave.
One of my favorite statheads loved what Mike Smith did in the New Orleans-Atlanta game at the Georgia Dome. As did his players, apparently. "All of the talking-head dummies and Monday morning quarterbacks will second-guess but I still think it was the right call,'' tackle Tyson Clabo told Jeff Schultz of the Atlanta Journal Constitution. (I think I am both.)
The situation: Overtime, 23-23, Falcons ball, fourth-and-a-foot at the Atlanta 29. Smith sent out the punt team. Then he changed his mind and decided to go for it. He had a 245-pound back, Michael Turner, and an interior line he trusted to get a foot. Smith knew, of course, that if the Falcons failed, the game was over. If they gained nothing in the next three plays, the Saints would send out John Kasay to win it with a 46-yard dome kick; just a few yards would put him in the lock zone. Kasay was 15 of 15 from inside the 40- this year. So Smith knew the consequences of a miss. Miss equals loss, basically. Which is exactly what happened. It was reminiscent of two years ago, when Bill Belichick went for it, with a lead, on fourth-and-two from his 37- at Indianapolis, failed, and watched Peyton Manning march down the short field to beat New England. That's where we first got to know Brian Burke, a former Navy fighter pilot and huge football fan. He runs a website called AdvancedNFLStats.com, and he was the first to say Belichick actually made the right call based on the performance of teams in similar down-and-distance-and-game situations over the previous decade. So I called him to ask what he thought of Smith's move.
"I thought it was smart,'' Burke said. "It just didn't work.''
According to Burke, judging Smith's call by using data of all similar game situations over the past 11 years found:
If Atlanta punted the ball, the numbers say New Orleans would start its drive on its own 33-yard line, and the Falcons would have a 42 percent chance of winning the game. If they went for it on fourth down, they had a 47 percent chance of winning.
If Atlanta went for it on fourth down, they had a 74 percent chance of making it. But, as Burke pointed out, that includes all fourth-and-one calls, including fourth-and-inches and fourth-and-a-yard-and-a-half.
If Atlanta went for it and got the first down, they had a 57 percent chance of winning. If they went for it and failed, an 18 percent chance of winning.
I guess where I fall on this is simple. I'd rather make Drew Brees drive the ball 45 yards into comfortable field goal range, with all the risks that entails, instead of taking the 26 percent risk that I wouldn't make the first down. Making the first down, by the way, would mean exactly this: a little better than 50-50 chance the Falcons could drive the ball for a touchdown or into field goal range.