Week 14's best statistics

Posted Dec 14, 2015

How quickly things can change in the NFL. The Cincinnati Bengals went into Sunday’s contest with the Pittsburgh Steelers as the top seed in the AFC knowing that one more win would give them the division crown. And they came out of a 33-20 defeat with a lot more questions than answers.

In the first quarter, Andy Dalton threw an interception down near the goal line. And in an instant, the Cincinnati Bengals’ season changed. Whether that change leaves the Bengals beyond repair remains to be seen.

Dalton broke the thumb in his throwing hand while trying to tackle defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt and, suddenly, one of the most potent offenses in the NFL this season lost the highest-rated quarterback in the league.

Dalton will see a hand specialist on Monday and the whole of Bengaldom will be awaiting news out of that visit. Last night, there were reports that Dalton would definitely miss one game and others suggesting he is done for the year.

As it stands right now, wild card weekend is just under four weeks away. And if the Bengals can secure a first round bye, Dalton has five weeks to get ready for the playoffs in the divisional round. But as of right now, we just don’t know how bad the injury is and how quickly he can return.

And that means it’s going to be all eyes on A.J. McCarron for the immediate future and he showed some good signs – and some bad – against the Steelers on Sunday.

McCarron will be at home in the spotlight. He posted a 36-4 record at the University of Alabama and delivered back to back national championships. And on those Alabama teams he was well coached and surrounded by good players, which is exactly the situation he faces in Cincinnati now.

On the field, McCarron – who doesn’t have the strongest of arms – could do with getting Tyler Eifert out of the NFL’s concussion protocol because that is a wonderful safety valve for a young quarterback to have.

Off the field, offensive coordinator Hue Jackson is the key man. I think Jackson has shown enough this season to prove himself worthy of a head coaching appointment around the NFL but first he has to pull off the coaching job of his life and keep this offense ticking with a back-up quarterback at the helm.

One of the things Jackson has done with Dalton is basically make him feel even more comfortable and assured in what was already Jay Gruden’s system. So the elevation in Dalton this season can, to a large degree, be attributed to the coaching of Jackson.

Now, Jackson has to make McCarron feel as comfortable and at home as possible in what could be three very defining games at San Francisco, at Denver and at home to Baltimore. The Bengals have a multitude of offensive weapons and a creative play-caller – it’s time to put all of that together to take some pressure off McCarron, who was a fifth round draft choice in 2014.

If the Bengals can do that, they can keep their season alive because this is a talented team. But if McCarron stumbles at the game’s most important position, they may look back on that Dalton interception as the point in which a genuine Super Bowl-challenging season fell apart.

And that’s why even the most confident and successful of teams can never afford to rest on their laurels. Things can change in a split second in the NFL and one seemingly innocuous play can end up shaping an entire season.

Now onto this week’s numbers…

17-321-8… We have talked a lot in recent weeks about the outstanding form of Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson – but it’s about time we gave some love to one of his key receivers in Doug Baldwin. If Wilson is in the form of his life – which I believe he is – the outstanding Baldwin has been the biggest beneficiary and he continues to get open and make big plays for the in-form Hawks. In the past three games, Baldwin has caught 17 passes for 321 yards and 8 touchdowns. Obviously, that is remarkable production but it also highlights the fact that these Seahawks will be fine even without injured players such as Marshawn Lynch, Jimmy Graham and Thomas Rawls. With Wilson at the helm firing passes to Baldwin and rookie wide receiver Tyler Lockett, the Seahawks might end up being a lot better that just fine!

40-66-572-8-0… Again, that is a lot of numbers but it merely goes to emphasise how in form Blake Bortles has been for the Jacksonville Jaguars over the past two games. He has hit on 40 of 66 attempts for 572 yards and most importantly he has thrown 8 touchdown strikes and no interceptions. Bortles is undoubtedly up and down but I do think he is a special talent. He has already posted five 300-yard games this season and has 30 touchdown strikes on the year. Hall of Famer Jim Kelly told me during the recent International Series game in London that he felt Bortles was going to be a great quarterback and I tend to agree. In a league of haves and have-nots at the most important of positions, count the Jaguars among the haves for the next decade or more. While Jacksonville remain just one game out of first place in the AFC South, the playoffs may prove to be beyond them this season. But the good times are just around the corner with Bortles at the helm.

5… There’s a nice easy number to get our heads around on this Monday after the Week 14 action. But that simple digit was a key reason why the Oakland Raiders threw a spanner in the Denver Broncos’ homefield advantage aspirations in the AFC with a 15-12 win. Outstanding second year pass-rusher Khalil Mack totally abused the Denver offensive line to the tune of 5 sacks and a Raiders team that had -12 yards at halftime was able to rip off 15 unanswered points on the way to victory. The Broncos controlled the early proceedings but kicked too many field goals instead of finding the end zone and Mack made them pay. He took his season sack tally to an NFL-leading 14, becoming the first Raider to record 10 sacks in a season since Warren Sapp in 2006. From the moment I watched him on the practice field in Oakland as a rookie I’ve felt that Mack could be truly special. His first step makes him appear as if he has been shot out of a cannon and this year he is finishing the deal and getting the sacks that his speed and athleticism deserves. Good for him – Mack is a good guy and deserves the credit and plaudits currently heading his way.

Monday Musings…

  • Incredibly, given the way they have played for the past month, the Pittsburgh Steelers may need some help to get to the playoffs because they are currently stuck behind the Kansas City Chiefs and the New York Jets in the race to wild card spots. But if they get there, the Steelers will inflict a little bit of concern on any potential opponent.
  • There has been a lot to like about the New York Jets this season but I have been especially impressed with Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback. He continues to play mistake-free football most weekends and is benefiting from having two veteran play-making receivers in Eric Decker and Brandon Marshall.
  • I remember the days when Robbie Gould earned the nickname ‘Money’ in Chicago. Those days are gone, my friends, after Robbie missed a 50-yard effort late in Chicago’s 24-21 loss to Washington. That was the second in as many weeks for Gould that cost the Bears a shot at victory.
  • Chuck Pagano has to win the Super Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts this season or I think he will be out of work in the New Year. Sunday’s 51-16 loss to the Jags was unacceptable, even without Andrew Luck in the line-up.
  • I think Jim Caldwell might also be out of time in Detroit. The only reason he survived the mid-season cull was because the Lions want the new general manager to have complete choice of the head coach, and that includes taking a look at the incumbent.
  • If I were the Carolina Panthers, I would chase perfection for all its worth and I would certainly not rest my starters. That said, if I can get into leads like the 28-0 at halftime against Atlanta, I’m taking all the big names out. So start them, Ron, but get ready to yank them.
  • After an off-season of Rex Ryan-inspired hype, the Buffalo Bills look like being right where they have been for the past 15 years – on the outside of the playoff picture looking in. They talked another good game going into Sunday’s 23-20 loss to Philadelphia but couldn’t back it up. Some things never change for Rex Ryan-coached teams.
  • I thought Todd Gurley had well and truly disappeared under the rookie wall so it was good to see him bounce back with a couple of touchdown runs in St. Louis’ 21-14 win over Detroit.
  • I’ve not been his biggest fan in previous years, but the San Francisco 49ers have to do better by quarterback Blaine Gabbert. He has shown some promise in recent weeks but you cannot allow him to get sacked nine times, as the Niners did in their 24-10 loss to Cleveland.
  • The New England Patriots just look so much more like the Patriots when Rob Gronkowski is in the line-up. And in this ever-changing race to the Super Bowl, Bill Belichick’s men are once again the top seeds in the AFC.

Final Thought

I think Mike McCarthy has made the best call of all this season by deciding to take back the play-calling duties for the Green Bay Packers. It was by no means perfect during a 28-7 win over the Dallas Cowboys, but it was better from Green Bay and Aaron Rodgers looked more comfortable and in rhythm than he has done for many weeks. I think what McCarthy did best was cover up Green Bay’s deficiencies at wide receiver – he called running back screens, tight end screens and the Packers rushed for 230 yards, giving them more balance. When the Packers lost wide receiver Jordy Nelson to the season this summer, I think McCarthy should have taken back the play-calling at that time. It was such a big loss that everything should have been done to make Rodgers comfortable. It’s a bit late in the day and the Packers are still a team with problems, but they are top of their division and poised for a Super Bowl run. There are quite a few teams who would kill to be in that position at this time of the year!

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