By the Numbers - Week 11

Matthew Stafford has never played particularly well at home against the Green Bay Packers (48.9 career QB rating against GB in the Motor City) and the Detroit Lions passer maintained that trend during a 24-20 loss on Sunday night.

That home defeat to Green Bay dropped the Lions to 4-6 and leaves them facing an uphill task if they are to make a return trip to the playoffs this season. It was also further evidence of a talented team continuing to find different ways to shoot themselves in the same foot.

Playing against a Packers defense that was missing experienced campaigners in Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson, Stafford was disappointing in what was a big, must-win game for the Lions. His receivers didn’t help him with some dropped passes early in the game but, for the most part, Stafford looked out of sorts and he left too many plays on the field.

There were two occasions where he had a wide-open Calvin Johnson running down the right sideline. And both times Stafford missed his guy for over-throws. That simply cannot happen. Those were touchdowns waiting to happen and Stafford and the Lions failed to take advantage.

In both those cases, Stafford had time to get the ball out and downfield, so there’s no excuse for missing his man. He is certainly big enough to find at 6-foot-5 and 235 pounds.

If there was any doubt in Stafford’s mind, he needed to put a little bit more air under the football or simply throw it up for grabs and have Megatron work back and fight for the ball. Those plays might not have resulted in touchdowns but they would likely have been big plays because I would have backed Johnson to win jump balls against much smaller defensive backs.

Stafford ended the game having completed 17 of 39 passes for 266 yards, 1 touchdown and 2 interceptions.

He was at fault for the interception that M.D. Jennings returned 71 yards for a score when he threw the ball behind tight end Tony Scheffler. Stafford even got lucky on his only touchdown pass of the day. He threw the ball into tight coverage and it should have been picked at the goal-line by Morgan Burnett. Luckily for the Lions, Burnett couldn’t make the grab and as the ball flew through his hands, Megatron made the catch at the front of the end zone.

But it was one of just a few bright spots for Stafford on a day when he had a chance to defeat Aaron Rodgers and salvage some pride against the Packers.

The Lions were also undone by some strange play-calling and I thought they tried to get too cute down near the goal-line leading by three late in the game. They had the perfect opportunity to put the game away and you simply have to find a way to get the ball to your money player in that situation.

For the Lions, that money player has long been Calvin Johnson.

Yet for some reason with first and goal at the 10-yard line, offensive coordinator Scott Linehan chose to dial up a pair of Mikel LeShoure runs before Stafford fired incomplete in the direction of Titus Young. Detroit settled for a field goal and left more than enough time on the clock for Rodgers to lead Green Bay on a game-winning touchdown drive.

That series of plays resulted in sideline spat between Linehan and receivers coach Shawn Jefferson which was yet another example of how the Lions can be affected by ill discipline at times.

We often see players lose their cool on the sidelines during a game and we occasionally see a player and a coach go at each other. But we rarely see two coaches from the same team go head to head on the sidelines at a crucial stage of such a big divisional game.

Given how the Lions coaches were losing their heads on the sidelines, is it any wonder the players on the field found a way to snatch a defeat from the jaws of victory on Sunday?

They’re not quite the circus that the New York Jets have become, but the Lions do remain a frustratingly dysfunctional team who seem unable to take full advantage of the talent on their roster.

Now onto this week’s numbers...

354 and 236... Tickets go on sale for the 2013 Wembley games on Thursday of this week and details of how to buy your two-game package can be found here. I just want to say that if the Jacksonville Jaguars are going to be as exciting as they were on Sunday night, we could be in for a real treat when they take on San Francisco in London next October. And the Jags might just have found a more explosive key to their offense because Chad Henne looked to be a vast improvement over the injured Blaine Gabbert, throwing for 354 yards and four touchdowns in a heartbreaking 43-37 overtime loss to the league-leading Houston Texans. I still have my doubts over the long-term success you can enjoy with Henne at the helm, but if he is the man with the hot hand, the Jags need to go with him and see what he can do. They’ve had an extended look at Gabbert and head coach Mike Mularkey needs some wins to create much-needed off-season momentum. Henne probably gives him a better chance to succeed down the stretch. The improved play at quarterback also helped rookie wide receiver Justin Blackmon have a break-out game and he showed he can be a truly devastating weapon when on top form, catching 7 passes for 236 yards and 1 touchdown. The Jags are still in a world of trouble at 1-9 but they might be exciting to watch in the closing weeks of the season if Henne and Blackmon can form a useful partnership.

16 and 3... Over the past six games, Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman has thrown 16 touchdown passes and just 3 interceptions. But 2 of those picks came during Sunday’s game with the Carolina Panthers and one of Freeman’s errors resulted in seven points for the opposition as Captain Munnerlyn returned the ball 74 yards to the end zone. But then Freeman showed me something in the face of adversity. With the game on the line – which is when the really good quarterbacks in NFL history should be judged – Freeman fired a 24-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Vincent Jackson with 12 seconds remaining. He then followed up with the all-important two-point conversion to send the game into overtime. And in the extra period, Freeman gave the Bucs their fifth win in their last six contests with a 15-yard touchdown pass to Dallas Clark. This was a game the Bucs were expected to win so some pressure came with being the favourites. Freeman managed to deal with that pressure – eventually – and also delivered the goods when a single mistake late on would have handed victory to Carolina. He took a very important step forward on Sunday, in my mind.

0 and 5... Matt Ryan didn’t throw a touchdown pass on Sunday night, even though the Atlanta Falcons somehow found a way to improve to 9-1 on the season with a 23-19 win over the struggling Arizona Cardinals. Ryan had a meltdown game, to be honest, throwing five interceptions and getting his team in some early trouble that they were fortunate to get out of. A better team than the Cardinals – who have now lost six in a row – would have had the Falcons dead and buried by half-time. There is a mental toughness to these Falcons that has not existed in previous years and that could still serve them well come playoff time, but I still would rank them below San Francisco, Chicago and Green Bay come the post-season in the NFC. And I would take all three of those teams to beat the Falcons in the playoffs, even if they had to play in the Georgia Dome. Ryan certainly cannot afford that kind of game in the post-season and it is not the first time he has endured an error-strewn display this year (3 picks at home to Oakland). He has suddenly gone from being an MVP candidate to having a pretty good year, but he has fallen behind the likes of Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. The Falcons are still 9-1 and I know all their fans will point very strongly to that fact – but those same supporters cannot be happy with how events unfolded on Sunday night.

Monday Musings...

  • I started off Monday morning recording the Inside the Huddle podcast with Darren Fletcher and we discussed the broken forearm suffered by Patriots star tight end Rob Gronkowski. Earlier this morning I mentioned that having The Gronk blocking on an extra point while leading 58-24 was “bizarre” and that the backups should have been in the game. Having been given more time to think about the injury, it probably shouldn’t have been that alarming to see Gronkowski on the field for a PAT. Have you seen the effort NFL players put into a bog-standard extra point attempt? Particularly at the end of a one-sided blowout? There is more intensity in the annual Christmas Knit-Off at the local Women’s Institute. In an ideal world, the Pats would have had Gronkowski safely tucked away on the sidelines at the end of that game. But Patriots head coach Bill Belichick would not have dreamt in a million years that Gronkowski would have been injured on such a seemingly-innocuous play. Now he is injured, The Gronk will be missed, particularly in the red zone. But I have a feeling that Brady will keep the Patriots offensive machine humming until the big man returns towards the end of the regular season.
  • So long, Andy Reid... and it’s not all your fault. I’m not going to sugar-coat this and I don’t say this lightly because NFL players are a proud, aggressive and competitive bunch who would often run over their own grandmothers in order to win each weekend – but the Philadelphia Eagles have given up! The first Monday after the end of each regular season is dubbed Black Monday around the NFL because it is the day under-fire head coaches hide in their offices, refuse to answer phone calls and generally try to avoid or at least delay getting the sack. Even though he has served 14 years in Philadelphia and deserves to see out the year, I’m beginning to wonder if Reid will even make it to Black Monday. There is certainly nothing worse than seeing a team quit on the field and the Eagles appear to be doing that now as losers of six successive games. Reid is obviously not doing a good job of motivating his troops this year and the death of his son, Garrett, this summer has clearly knocked him for six, as you would expect. But some of the blame has to go to his players. Should they be allowed to simply give up because their coach is not doing a good job? No. They should take it upon themselves to play with pride and keep fighting to the bitter end, regardless of the leadership they are receiving – or not – from Reid. Time and again during Sunday’s 31-6 concession at the hands of the Washington Redskins, the Eagles appeared to playing at half speed. They allowed Aldrick Robinson to get so wide open that it was impossible not to score and their tackling efforts on touchdowns scored by Santana Moss and Logan Paulsen were just pitiful. The Eagles are falling fast and Reid, who looks burnt out, is running out of time. A mercy firing might be the best thing for this beleaguered coach right now. His players already seem to be planning for the long off-season ahead so he might as well save himself the stress and do the same thing.
  • With Andy Reid struggling to get the job done in Philadelphia this year, Eagles fans are clamouring for Jon Gruden to throw down his ESPN microphone and return to coaching. Those calls will intensify in Week 12 when the Eagles play host to Carolina on Monday Night Football. Gruden will be in the booth calling a game you can watch via the red button on the BBC. Of course, once the calls for Gruden are out there, we will hear the exact same calls with regard to Bill Cowher’s return to coaching. And then you can throw Tony Dungy into the mix. And maybe Brian Billick. But will these guys seriously return to the sidelines - ever. It is something that is much easier for us to say than it is for them to do. Coaching is highly stressful and the hours are ridiculous. Sure, they probably miss the thrill of competition and maybe getting out onto the practice field every now and then, but they would never miss the stress that can literally make them ill. And consider this when you think about Gruden. He currently gets to spend his week now working from home watching game film. He then travels to the city where the Monday Night game is being played. He watches practice, hangs out with players and coaches and orders room service in a swanky hotel. He then calls the game, flies home and repeats for the entire season. What’s not to love? He is highly-paid and still gets to be around the game he loves without the stress and silly hours. Don’t forget that when he coached the Oakland Raiders and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Gruden’s work day would begin at 3:45am and he would consistently work until midnight. You can live that way, but not for very long without making yourself ill. If he were to return to the NFL coaching ranks, could Gruden seriously dial back on the hours he works? I doubt that he could. And that makes me think that more former coaches would rather stay in TV-Land than return to the sidelines.

Final Thought

The Dallas Cowboys have pulled off back-to-back wins following their victory over the Cleveland Browns on Sunday and I’m looking forward to seeing how they fare against RGIII and the Redskins on Thanksgiving Day later this week. But I still wonder how far these Cowboys can go and if they have what it takes to put together a late season playoff run. My biggest worry? The offensive line. They shipped 7 sacks to the Browns on Sunday and Tony Romo will need all his improvisational skills down the stretch. It should be a fascinating day of football so make sure you join us. We’ll be sat in our chairs for 12 hours as the Texans visit the Lions, the Cowboys host the Redskins and the Jets take on the Patriots. I’m sure one of us will be caught stretching on an unexpected return to the studio or Cecil Martin will beat me over the head with a greasy turkey leg. Whatever happens, we will be revelling in our feast of football and we’ll be thankful for the NFL feast laid out before us. Make sure you tune in for not one, but three ball games!