Colts' Ballard, Bears' Jennings prove major playmakers in Week 8
Despite continuing struggles, the Eagles shouldn't demote Michael Vick just yet
Broncos, Bears D proving to be just as vital to their team's success as the offense
Blame Garrett; Fine Fifteen; Awards of the Week; Ten Things I Think and more
"Just landed. Thank you God''
-- Tweet from New York Giants defensive end Justin Tuck at 1:13 a.m. today, six minutes after the team charter from Texas just beat Hurricane Sandy up the East Coast.
The flight, Tuck texted a couple minutes later, was "not really that bad. Just glad to be home."
He should be. The weather establishment has been scaring the tar out of the 100 million or so whose lives will be rattled by this event (justifiably, apparently). As I was writing last night, I came across this from veteran meteorologist Stu Ostro of the Weather Channel, with the capital letters in the second paragraph his:
"History is being written as an extreme weather event continues to unfold, one which will occupy a place in the annals of weather history as one of the most extraordinary to have affected the United States.
"REGARDLESS OF WHAT THE OFFICIAL DESIGNATION IS NOW OR AT/AFTER LANDFALL -- HURRICANE (INCLUDING IF "ONLY" A CATEGORY ONE), TROPICAL STORM, POST-TROPICAL, EXTRATROPICAL, WHATEVER -- OR WHAT TYPE OF WARNINGS ARE ISSUED BY THE NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE AND NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER, PEOPLE IN THE PATH OF THIS STORM NEED TO HEED THE THREAT IT POSES WITH UTMOST URGENCY.
"A meteorologically mind-boggling combination of ingredients is coming together: one of the largest expanses of tropical storm force winds on record with a tropical or subtropical cyclone in the Atlantic or for that matter anywhere else in the world; a track of the center making a sharp left turn in direction of movement toward New Jersey in a way that is unprecedented in the historical database, as it gets blocked from moving out to sea by a pattern that includes an exceptionally strong ridge of high pressure aloft near Greenland; a 'warm-core' tropical cyclone embedded within a larger, nor'easter-like circulation; and eventually tropical moisture and arctic air combining to produce heavy snow in interior high elevations. This is an extraordinary situation, and I am not prone to hyperbole.''
Wow. Time to cower in the corner (and I don't mean Bill). Two sets of scribes began to fight Sandy Sunday night. After covering the Giants-Cowboys game in Arlington, Texas, Mike Vaccaro and Steve Serby (New York Post) and Ralph Vacchiano (New York Daily News) took off for the 1,556-mile rental-car drive home. "I wasn't on a flight [home] until late Wednesday, and who knows if that one will go?'' Vacchiano said from the car as it approached Texarkana about 2 a.m. If all goes well, they'll arrive home sometime around the start of the Monday night game -- though I don't believe they'll be in a mood to watch it, even if their homes have power.
And headed south from the Meadowlands after the Dolphins' win over the Jets was Team Sun-Sentinel: Omar Kelly, Dave Hyde and Mike Berardino of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, along with Palm Beach Post columnist Greg Stoda. They had a nice, easy 1,271-mile drive ahead of them.
Now I'll get to football, but respect the weather. It's going to be a rough three days on the East Coast, or more.
1. Denver's got a defense. In the last six quarters (Denver 69, Foes 14), the Broncos look like a match for any team in football. Peyton Manning has been ascending as his surgically repaired neck improves daily, weekly, monthly; Sunday night's 34-14 rout of the Saints was another Manning-frozen-in-time game (73 percent passing, 309 yards, three touchdowns, no picks), and as he told me last week: "The whole goal was try to get better every week, even if only a little bit better every week. And I knew all along the nerve would take a long time, and you couldn't rush it. It'll be a tad better in two weeks, then a tad better two weeks after that. On game day, I get a little juice and feel pretty good.''
But what really will help Manning the rest of the way is the knowledge he doesn't have to do everything himself. Denver held New Orleans to 252 yards Sunday night, and in the Saints' 39 games since opening day 2010, that's the Saints' lowest yardage total. Thomas Morestead punted eight times last night, his high over that same period. "We knew we had to take away Drew's ability to throw it deep,'' said Wesley Woodyard, the special-teamer-turned-playmaking-linebacker, from Denver after the game. That starts with being solid in our run defense, so we know what they're going to do. Then we had great coverage over the top, not letting their receivers get open over the top. They're a great offense. They can score on anybody. This was a big night for us.''
2. Reid's got to give Vick one more week. Listening to Vick after another ridiculously lifeless game for the Philadelphia offense, he sounded resigned. Resigned to the likelihood that he'll be moving on from Philadelphia at the end of the season, and that he'll be yanked from his starting job soon -- if not this week, then in the next couple. But I look at a couple of things with the Eagles' offense right now. One: Vick's been pretty accurate over the past month: four straight games of 60 percent completions or better. Two: LeSean McCoy has had three straight poor games -- 53, 22 and 45 rushing yards -- with 15.3 carries a game. He's just got to get the ball more.
And I look at the fact that the Eagles, 3-4, can still save their season, and they go to the team playing the worst defense in NFL history next Monday. The Saints have allowed more yards over the first seven games of an NFL than any team ever has. This is the kind of game made to give a struggling team confidence. And Reid has invested so much time and effort in Vick -- who didn't turn it over once Sunday in the loss to Atlanta -- that to yank him now Reid would have to have an inordinate amount of trust in rookie Nick Foles to win big. I think there are too many signs that Vick and McCoy could bust out in New Orleans for Reid to yank Vick now.
3. A big day for a small corner. Of all the defenses in football, none plays offense like Chicago's. The Bears scored their sixth defensive touchdown of the season Sunday. The Bears' savvy 5-foot-8 corner, Tim Jennings, picked off Cam Newton twice in a 23-22 win, returning one for a touchdown that doomed Carolina. "This is what I always thought Tim would be,'' Tony Dungy said Sunday night at the NBC studios. "He's matured a lot, and he fits perfectly in that defense.''
The Colts drafted Jennings in the second round the year they won the Super Bowl, and he never had the confidence in the NFL that he showed at Georgia. He needed experience, and a mentoring corner like Charles Tillman has helped. He caught a lucky break when Steve Smith fell midway through the fourth quarter and he was able to dart into the open space, pick off Newton and run for a touchdown. Earlier, he had a perfectly timed diving interception on an attempted throwaway by Newton, a poor decision by the quarterback. "I've been able to grow up here, and learn front some great players -- Charles Tillman, Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs,'' Jennings said. "There's no reason why you can't get better if you have great players to follow.'' The Bears are going to be a dangerous team, but only if they can protect Jay Cutler, who was sacked six more times by Carolina Sunday.
4. Jason Garrett deserves some of the blame for the Dallas defeat. Second-and-one, Dallas ball at the New York 19, 1:27 left in the game, Giants up 29-24. Short pass by Tony Romo to the right to Jason Witten, incomplete. Long pass into the end zone (why?) to Kevin Ogletree, incomplete. Romo flushed, throws on the run way behind the line, intercepted. Now, here's my problem: Dallas went to Witten 22 times on the day, so everyone knows he's going to be targeted; that's where the first pass goes. And instead of spreading the field and jamming in a quick curl or comeback, or rolling out and letting Romo try to gain a yard himself (the Dallas run game stunk Sunday), Romo throws it out of Ogletree's reach near the goal line. The fourth down's a disaster, Romo was chased to Plano before throwing the pick. Make the first down first. Plus, Dallas had all three timeouts left. Why not a play-action fake and a rollout run or curl? The Cowboys were crippled by a bad running game Sunday, but that series should have been called better.
5. The play of the day ... maybe the year. Vick Ballard was a lightly regarded mid- to-late-round prospect from Mississippi State, a 219-pound bruiser thought to be a better runner between the tackles than outside of them. The Colts tabbed him 170th overall and put him in the rotation in the backfield, and now it appears he and Donald Brown are going to share the job. But Ballard got outside on a swing pass from Andrew Luck in a 13-13 game on the first drive of overtime. (First drive, meaning the game can end on a touchdown but not a field goal.) As he turned upfield and sprinted along the left sideline toward the goal line, Ballard saw traffic coming. Three Titans -- corner Ryan Mouton, about to dive at his legs; middle linebacker Colin McCarthy, also getting set to submarine him; and hammerhead safety Michael Griffin, near the goal line.
"I knew I was going to dive for the pylon,'' Ballard said as the Colts waited to take off from Nashville for Indianapolis after the game. "I did it twice in college and didn't make it. Once, I fumbled through the end zone. The other time, I got stopped at the inch-yard line.'' Huh? The inch-yard line? "Yeah, just an inch or two away. This time, I know I couldn't run to the end zone. I was going to have to dive. When I jumped, somebody hit my legs, and I rolled over in air.'' Mouton clipped his leg, McCarthy got him by the shoe, and he turned over, like he was taking a nap on his back in air. As he fell, he leaned for the pylon. His helmeted head hit the pylon, and then Griffin fell on top of him in a full, legal mugging.
"I know the rule,'' he said. "you hit the pylon without going out of bounds, it's a touchdown.'' Very big day for the kid. His dad came to the game. It was his first touchdown. It won the game -- in overtime. It got the Colts over .500. "It's a special feeling,'' Ballard said. "I'm looking forward to watching it. I have a feeling I'll be able to find it on the internet."
In Memory of Marty
Not saying a man whose team was 9-29 in the last 2.5 years doesn't deserve to have his job jeopardized, even though the timing for firing GM Marty Hurney in Carolina was ridiculous. What good does it do to fire a GM in the middle of a season?
Don't tell me, though, that Hurney left the cupboard bare. His sixth-round pick in 2010, defensive end Greg Hardy, had three sacks of Jay Cutler Sunday. His big 2011 free-agent keeper, Charles Johnson, Hurney's third-rounder in 2007, had two sacks of Cutler with two forced fumbles. His first-round pick this year, linebacker Luke Kuechly, had another big game Sunday, with 10 tackles.
I know the way the business works, and I know Hurney deserves to be under the gun, and I know Cam Newton now is not a sure long-term thing in Carolina, and Hurney wanted Newton as his franchise quarterback. I'm just saying nothing is ever totally black and white in this game, and Hurney's record should include it all: the questionable free agent spending, the unlikely Super Bowl run in 2003, the three playoff berths in 10 seasons, the inability to get Carolina out of a losing funk over the past four seasons.