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17th Nov 2014

NFL Monday Review: Statement Sunday

All the talking points from yesterday's action

Gareth Makim

The New England Patriots, Green Bay Packers and Arizona Cardinals made big statements of intent yesterday as the NFL regular season moves into its final third.

The jostling for play-off positioning has well and truly begun and as so often is the case, the Patriots (8-2) are at the head of the queue.

Last night’s convincing 42-20 win on the road in Indianapolis (6-4)  not only backed up their recent dominating successes over Peyton Manning’s Denver Broncos and the faltering Chicago Bears, but was built on the back of a devastating power-running attack, a fact that should send a shudder down the spines of New England’s AFC rivals.

With head coach Bill Belichick penning the notes and quarterback Tom Brady conducting the orchestra, New England’s passing attack has been the envy of the league for well over a decade, but the Pats are always at their most dangerous when they have a ground game.

With last year’s leading rusher Stevan Ridley on the shelf with a knee injury, the Pats frequently stacked the line of scrimmage with extra linemen and the unheralded Jonas Gray, who was promoted from the practice squad a month ago, delivered the season’s most impressive rushing performance, hammering the Colts for 199 yards and four touchdowns, one in each quarter.

After beating Denver through the air, Belichick, faced with another likely play-off foe, showed the rest of the league his team could win on foot as well.

With Denver (7-3) suffering a second defeat in three weeks in St Louis and the Colts now headed back to Indy with their tails between their legs, New England is currently a class apart in the AFC, and must be considered the favourite to claims home field advantage through the play-offs.

As an aside, this game was also notable for the high standard of dance. Rob Gronkowski, who  also got into the end zone with a bulldozing catch and run, showed off his dance moves on the sideline.

But Gronk was left in the shade by Colts offensive tackle Anthony Castonzo, who after catching a short touchdown pass broke into the following dance move.

Meanwhile, Aaron Rodgers and the offensive juggernaut known as the Green Bay Packers (7-3) continued on their merry way, blitzing the NFC East-leading Philadelphia Eagles (7-3) 53-20 and turning former Jets passer Mark Sanchez back into a pumpkin in the process.

Rodgers threw a pair of first-half touchdowns as the Pack ran out to an untouchable 30-6 lead, mirroring the previous week’s 42-0 first-half drubbing of the Bears and cementing his place as the front-runner for league MVP.

Rodgers now has an otherworldly touchdown to interception ratio of 28:3 this year, and much like Brady in New England, is beginning to get some help from the rushing game.

Last year’s offensive rookie of the year, Eddie Lacy, is averaging just 15 touches per game and that sparing usage has set him up for a big finish to the season. He picked up 69 of the team’s 110 rushing yards on just ten carries against the Eagles.

Despite trailing the Detroit Lions for the NFC North lead on a tiebreaker, Green Bay are unquestionably the scariest team in the NFC right now, although the Arizona Cardinals would no doubt beg to differ. Defending the NFL’s best record, and without starting quarterback Carson Palmer, the Cards hosted the Lions and emerged victorious in a defensive struggle that saw both sides struggle to move the football.

Back-up Drew Stanton led Arizona on two first-quarter touchdown drives and let a tenacious defence do the rest as the Cardinals moved to 9-1. With Palmer our for the season with a cruciate injury, the Cardinals remain underdogs despite their record and their three-game lead over preseason Super Bowl favourites Seattle and San Francisco, but then that’s how they seem to like it. They have a simple recipe for success – don’t turn the ball over and play ferocious, in-your-face defence – and head coach Bruce Arians has gone on record as saying he has as much confidence in Stanton as he did in Palmer.

To RG3 or not to RG3?

That is the increasingly fraught question facing Washington as another season draws to a fruitless conclusion.

Just two years ago, having traded multiple first-round draft picks for the right to draft Griffin second overall in the 2012 draft, Washington looked set at quarterback for a generation. With his lightning speed and big-play ability, Griffin was on his way to winning Rookie of the Year honours ahead of top pick Andrew Luck and the pair looked set to dominate the league for a decade.

Fast forward through three serious leg injuries and much of the sparkle is gone. Griffin is a step slower and has barely played under first-year head coach Jay Gruden. Yesterday’s miserable defeat at the hands of the hapless Tampa Bay Buccaneers gave little in the way of encouragement as Gruden watched his quarterback throw two awful interceptions and get sacked six times. At 3-7, their season is over, so the remaining six weeks will in many respects be little more than a job interview for Griffin, with the team nearing a crucial deadline over his future.


As a first-round pick, Washington holds the option to extend his four-year rookie contract into a fifth year, but at the steep price tag in the region of $18million.That’s not the kind of money you want riding on anything less than a sure thing, but the decision must be made next May and as it stands it is an option that looks unlikely to be exercised.

Should that be the case it would almost certainly signify the beginning of the end for Griffin in Washington, and mark the blockbuster trade to acquire him one of the most expensive mistakes in recent times.

The division nobody wants to win.

Something looks very wrong with this picture…

NFL standings

While Arizona’s victory over Detroit yesterday leaves them head and shoulders above the rest of the NFC play-off contenders, and the remainder of the conference’s elite teams slug it out to make the postseason, a very different battle is going on in the NFC South, where the Atlanta Falcons sit proudly atop the standings with a meagre 4-6 record following their 19-17 victory over rivals Carolina.


To put this putridity into perspective…

– Atlanta, currently riding a two-game win streak, previously went 51 days without registering a victory and has yet to beat a team from outside the division.

–  New Orleans, holders of a 14-game home winning streak, were widely expected to walk away with the division title after getting back to 4-4, but have now lost at the Superdome on consecutive Sundays, including yesterday’s 27-10 non-performance against Cincinnati.

– Carolina hasn’t tasted victory since Week 5, has only one win in nine games and this week trotted out an offensive line with four undrafted players, yet sits just a game out of first place.

– Tampa Bay has the worst record in the NFC at 2-8, yet is just two games out of the division lead, having changed quarterback twice already this season.

– Of the teams’ combined 13 wins, seven have come against each other. Their record against the rest of the league is an abysmal six wins, 20 losses and a tie. That’s 6-20-1.

New Orleans remains the favourite and the only one of the four with a realistic chance to blossom into a legitimate contender, but regardless, one of these teams will be in the postseason, possibly with as few as six wins, and a home play-off game against a wild card team that is likely to be heavily favoured on the opening weekend of the play-offs.