Judgements: If Big D = Defense, it's time to believe in Cowboys
The Dallas Cowboys did more than prove they're for real. With their defeat of defending Super Bowl champion Seattle, they proved they might be the best team in the NFC, and here's why: Defense. Somehow, some way, the Cowboys found one, and, Rob Marinelli, take a bow. He's the coordinator who put together a game plan that kept Russell Wilson from making plays outside the pocket, blanketed receivers, shut down Marshawn Lynch, made Percy Harvin a non-factor and held the Seahawks to nine first downs, 206 yards and one offensive touchdown -- which, it should be pointed out, was the result of a muffed punt. Not only are the Cowboys on top of their division at 5-1; they're the league's only unbeaten team on the road ... and there's no way you can overstate the importance of either. The Cowboys don't want to go down to the wire with the NFC East in the balance. With a chance to make the playoffs on the last day of the 2008, 2011 and 2012 seasons, they imploded.
2. Suddenly, there are cracks in the Legion of Boom. When it allowed Peyton Manning to go 80 yards in 41 seconds to send a Sept. 21 game into OT, we cut the Seahawks slack because ... well, because it's Peyton Manning and he does that. But then the Seahawks let Tony Romo and Terrance Williams convert a crucial third-and-20 on the Cowboys' game-winning drive and had no answers for DeMarco Murray. No question, Williams' catch was remarkable, but that's not supposed to happen to these guys -- especially when both games are in Seattle, where the Seahawks are virtually bullet-proof. Except they're not ... not anymore.
3. Start making room on the Cleveland bandwagon. The Browns are legit. Not only have their only losses been on last-second field goals, but look what's ahead: Their next three games are vs. the Jaguars, the Raiders, the Bucs -- opponents with a combined record of 1-16.
4. Sorry, Mathias Kiwanuka, but the New York Giants are not the team to beat in the NFC East -- not after losing their best playmaker, Victor Cruz, to a torn patellar tendon and getting drilled Sunday in Philadelphia. But now comes the hard part. Their next five games look like this: At Dallas (5-1); Indianapolis (4-2); at Seattle (3-2); San Francisco (3-2) and Dallas (5-1). One thing about the Giants: When they're bad, they stink. They play as they did against the Eagles, and Eli Manning can return to taking your order at the Dunkin Donuts drive-thru.
5. Aaron Rodgers didn't win that game for Green Bay. T.J. Lang did. The Green Bay guard is the guy who jumped on Rodgers' third-down fumble to keep the game-winning drive alive. Without Lang, there is no last-second TD pass.
6. Update from the Jets: Rex Ryan's return is doubtful.
7. That Cincinnati-Carolina game was just a reminder to college football to wake up and make the change to the NFL's overtime. There's nothing better.
8. I don't know if LeSean McCoy is back (he ran for a season-best 149 yards) or if the Eagles' defense solved its shortcomings with Sunday's win. What I do know is that if Philadelphia is as good as it looked Sunday night, its Thanksgiving Day game in Dallas determines who has the inside track in the NFC East.
9. Congratulations, Lovie Smith. That 38-0 halftime deficit was the largest incurred by any home team ... ever. Any chance the Bucs can move the rest of their home games to London? If not, at least let Lovie use a running clock from now on.
10. One of Sunday's biggest winners didn't suit up. That would be New Orleans. Nobody in the NFC South won, including Atlanta -- which was home. That gives the underachieving Saints hope that they may, in fact, survive. The way things look, 9-7 could win in a division where nobody has a positive net-point differential.
11. And speaking of Atlanta ... you have to start wondering about Mike Smith. I like the guy, too, but he lost 17 of his last 23 regular-season games and 18 of his last 25 overall. Not good. "Nothing is off the table with regard to what we have to do to get better," Smith said after Jay Cutler shredded the Bears for 381 yards passing. That sounds like a coach in trouble ... and he may be.
12. I don’t care what you think of Cam Newton. The guy is talented, and he's tough.
13. So the Raiders lost again. They may have found a quarterback. Derek Carr looks like the best of this year's rookies, and no surprise there. Of the quarterbacks in this year's draft, he was the most ready to step into an NFL huddle.
14. Do not forget about Arizona. The Cards are 11-3 over their last 14 starts, including a defeat of the Seahawks in Seattle. Oh, yeah, they're also on top of the NFC West.
15. No, the Ravens don't miss Ray Rice. They have a league-best nine runs of 20 or more yards, and their backs average 4.7 yards a carry.
16. Maybe one day we look back at that Kansas City loss as the wake-up call New England needed. All I know is that since then Tom Brady has six TD passes, no interceptions and a completion percentage of nearly 70.
17. Then, of course, there are those injuries to Stevan Ridley and Jerod Mayo. Teammates reportedly were somber in the locker room afterward, which tells you this: Imagine the worst.
18. Someone give San Diego coach Mike McCoy a watch for Christmas. He could've stopped the clock with 44 seconds left in the first half but chose not to. When Sebastian Janikowski missed a 53-yard field goal, McCoy cost his offense a chance for a last-minute drive. Not smart.
19. I'll tell you what I like about San Diego: On an afternoon when it looked beatable ... and in a stadium where it typically struggles ... it found a way to win. And I'll tell you what I don't: Those four TD passes by a rookie quarterback. If nothing else, it's a warning not to get too carried away with the San Diego defense.
20. Joe Philbin, the clock is ticking.
FIVE HALL-OF-FAME SIZZLES
1.Cleveland QB Brian Hoyer. The way he's going, we may not see Johnny Football until 2015. That's when Hoyer becomes a free agent, with the Browns under increasing pressure to make a decision on the guy. Hoyer is 6-2 as a starter, with only one interception. Impressive? Try this: The Browns have only two turnovers all season.
2.Cincinnati RB Jeremy Hill. Forget the touchdown run. I'm talking about the celebration. He channeled Icky Woods with the "Icky Shuffle," and hallelujah. I haven't seen that since Icky had his number called at the cold-cuts counter at the local deli.
3. Carolina QB Cam Newton. He did it all for the Panthers. He threw for 284 yards and two TDs. He ran for 107 yards and another score. Don't blame him for what happened in Cincinnati. The Panthers' offense put up 37 points and still couldn't win.
4. Arizona WR Larry Fitzgerald. That was just a reminder that maybe, just maybe, you don't want to phase out this guy yet. He's still a premier receiver ... when you throw him the ball.
5. San Diego RB Branden Oliver. He's part Darren Sproles, part Ryan Mathews and everything the Bolts need now. For the second straight week, he broke 100 yards rushing -- saving his best for last when he produced the last 23 yards and a TD on the Chargers' game-winning drive.
FIVE HALL-OF-FAME FIZZLES
1. New York Giants' offensive line. Let's not sugar-coast this. It was Gawd awful, allowing eight sacks of Eli Manning and Ryan Nassib -- or five more than it allowed the previous three games, all victories. OK, I'll give Philadelphia some credit. But Tom Coughlin was right: They're not the '85 Bears. The Giants assume plenty of responsibility for a horrific performance, with the offensive line in a starring role.
2. Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Todd Haley. In the last five quarters and 19 series vs. Cleveland his offense produced exactly 13 points ... and that's a problem when your opponent is scoring 55.
3. Miami's defense. Bad enough that it allowed Green Bay to score with three seconds to go, but, worse, was how the Packers got there: With an assist from Miami. On the next-to-last Packers' play, Aaron Rodgers suckered the Dolphins with a Dan Marino fake spike, then found Green Bay receiver Davant Adams near the right sideline. With Cortland Finnegan there, all he had to do was keep Adams in bounds. But he failed, leaving the Packers at least one more snap ... and you know the rest of the story.
4. Cincinnati PK Mike Nugent. So he misses one of four field goals. Big deal. Well, yeah, actually it is ...because that one goof happened on his last kick, a 36-yarder he pushed wide right at the gun -- costing the Bengals a win. Mike Nugent, please report to Detroit.
5. Dallas special teams. One punt was blocked. Touchdown. One punt return was muffed. That led to a TD. Do the math, people:Two gaffes equal 14 points, and that could've been the difference in a close game. Fortunately for the Cowboys, they were solid on kickoff coverage, and their defense was downright brilliant.
WHAT WOULD LOMBARDI DO?
Twelve seconds are left. The ball's at your opponent's 37-yard line, and you trail by two. You have no timeouts left, but you do have a quarterback who's thrown for 336 yards. So W.W.L.D.? Tell your quarterback to throw to the sideline and try to get another 5-10 yards. You must get closer. Unfortunately, Jacksonville coach Gus Bradley wasn't listening. He rushed Josh Scobee on to the field, Scobee tried a 55-yard field goal that was blocked and the Jags suffered their ninth straight loss.
ON THE HALL-OF-FAME RADAR
1. Baltimore QB Joe Flacco. All he did was throw for five first-half TDs, including four in the first quarter, in the latest demolition of Tampa Bay.
2. Denver TE Julius Thomas. He's the first tight end in NFL history with nine TD catches in five games.
3. Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers. Look at that last drive. He made a converted a critical fourth-down. He pulled a Marino fake of a spike in Dan's house. And he pulled off victory with three seconds left with a dart to Andrew Quarless. Good thing he listened to Hans and Franz. All that training paid off.
4. New England QB Tom Brady. That makes him 23-2 vs. Buffalo. Maybe the Pegulas should buy him, too.
5. San Diego QB Philip Rivers. All he did was something no other quarterback in league history has: Produce his fifth straight game with a passer rating of 120 (123.8) or better. Over his last five starts, Rivers has 14 touchdown passes, one interception and five victories. No quarterback anywhere is playing better.
THIS WEEK'S HALL-OF-FAME NOMINEE
Dallas RB DeMarco Murray. He just joined Jim Brown as the only back in league history to start a season with six straight 100-yard games -- and he did it against the league's best run defense. More importantly, he's put the Cowboys on his back and led them to a stunning 30-23 upset. If there were an MVP vote held today, Murray would win it.
THIS WEEK'S HALL-OF-FAME QUOTE
"We all got a lot of getting better to do." -- Tampa Bay T Demar Dotson.
6 -- Tennessee sacks, the Titans' most since 2012 vs. ... who else? ... Jacksonville.
9 -- Straight Jacksonville losses
11 -- Consecutive games with multiple Peyton Manning TD passes
16:03 -- Time it took Joe Flacco to throw five TD passes
18-8 -- Denver on the road under John Fox
31 -- Yards rushing by the Jets, fewest under Rex Ryan
39-9 -- New England in October since 2003
72-17 -- Opponents vs. Tampa Bay in the first quarter
146.0 -- Joe Flacco's passer rating
1996 -- Last time Philadelphia shut out an opponent (the Giants)