As always, we detail the sordid and the successful every Tuesday in our weekly look back at the previous weekend's games; this is "The Fabulous and the Flops" for Week 15.
This week, we'll identify the player who might qualify as the worst backup quarterback ever. We'll point out which quarterback looks like a different man during the second half, try to compare a player to a couch, and note which head coach was brave enough to own up to his mistakes on Sunday. We'll start, though, with the blowout from last Thursday night.
Atlanta Falcons 41, Jacksonville Jaguars 14
Fabulous: John Abraham, who pulled his season from the category of "disappointing" into "productive" by virtue of a 3.5-sack day against embattled Jaguars starter Blaine Gabbert. Those sacks produced a whopping 35.5 yards, and Abraham was able to force a fumble on two of them. That big day gives him 8.5 on the year, and it might just kick-start a Falcons pass rush that's been one of the worst in football this season; consider that fellow starting end Ray Edwards, who was signed this offseason to kick the pass rush into high gear, has just 3.5 sacks this season.
Flop: The Atlanta running game. Jacksonville had a very good run defense during the first half of the season, but injuries have turned that unit into an average group of run stoppers at best. The Falcons, who have prided themselves on running the ball since the arrival of Michael Turner in 2008, should have been able to piece together some serious yardage once Atlanta got out to an early lead. Instead, its three running backs ran the ball 32 times and gained just 93 yards. Blech. Those runs produced just six first downs, and Atlanta is now averaging 3.9 yards per carry on the year, which is good for 25th in the league. Don't get fooled and think it's 2008: This is a terrible running game.
Dallas Cowboys 31, Tampa Bay Buccaneers 15
Fabulous: Tony Romo, who continues to play great football in December despite his win-loss record. He benefited from the injury-enforced absence of Aqib Talib after the first quarter, but 23-of-30 for 249 yards with three scores is pretty impressive. That brings his December totals up to a stunning 72-of-103 (69.9 percent) for 869 yards, and Romo has thrown eight touchdowns without having a pass intercepted. For his career, he now has a 98.1 passer rating in September, a 91.6 figure in October, rising to 111.4 in November, and then falling to 86.3 in December. That's just not a big difference. If you're reading into those numbers and suggesting that Romo plays worse in December, you're creating an effect that isn't there.
Flop: Jeremy Trueblood. The Tampa Bay right tackle was ninth on our list of the 25 least valuable players in the NFL before the season, but after being benched following an injury during the 2010 season, he's gotten his job back in 2011. If Saturday night was a good example of how he's played this season, he should lose it again before 2012 starts. Trueblood allowed pass pressures on each of the first two plays from scrimmage for the Buccaneers offense. Later on, he let Marcus Spears slip into the backfield to stop LeGarrette Blount on a third-and-1, and DeMarcus Ware's lone sack of the game came at Trueblood's expense.
Miami Dolphins 30, Buffalo Bills 23
Fabulous: Reggie Bush. Is it really time to start regarding Reggie Bush as a legitimate NFL running back? Much like Marshawn Lynch, Bush has followed years of mediocrity with an impressive multi-game stretch toward the end of the 2011 season. On Sunday, he had 203 yards on 25 carries, including a 76-yard scamper through the middle of a rain-soaked field with one of the better illegal touchdown celebrations you'll ever see. That marked his third consecutive game with 100 yards or more, as Bush now has run for 406 yards on 61 carries in December. Before this year, Bush had run for 100 yards in a game exactly once as a pro, and that came in 2006. Give credit to the Dolphins: They believed that they could get more out of Bush as a pure running back than the Saints had. And give credit to Bush, too; he now has more rushing yards than he had over his final three seasons as a Saints player combined, and he's averaging five yards per carry.
Flop: Ryan Fitzpatrick. His numbers don't look awful, as he went 31-of-47 for 316 yards with two touchdowns and three picks, but that's a lot of work in garbage time. Through the first three quarters of the game, Fitzy was 12-of-24 for 137 yards with all three of those picks. Even if you throw in those fourth quarter numbers, though, Fitzpatrick has entirely fallen off over the second half. If you split his season in half at the Redskins game, you basically see two different players:
Before 2011, Ryan Fitzpatrick had completed 57.8 percent of his passes and averaged 6.0 yards per attempt. Which of these two halves do you think is more representative of Fitzpatrick's actual ability?
Seattle Seahawks 38, Chicago Bears 14
Fabulous: Bears run defense. Remember how we noted two weeks ago that it might be time to take Marshawn Lynch seriously? Well, the Bears weren't convinced. Despite facing umpteen short fields and sudden possessions after turnovers, they shut down what had been a very effective Seattle running game. Lynch was held to 42 yards on 20 carries, and the rest of the team had 10 carries for 18 yards. Six of Lynch's carries went for no gain or a loss. This defense deserves better than
Flop: Caleb Hanie, who serves as another example of why you can't take one quarter of action very seriously. In last year's playoffs, Hanie came in after Jay Cutler got hurt and Todd Collins 0 for 4 performance basically signed the death warrant on his own career. The Bears took Hanie's play as a sign that he was ready to be Jay Cutler's primary backup, and while he was an upgrade over the atrocious Collins, he's not an NFL quarterback. After his latest start, Hanie's thrown 102 passes and completed 51 of them, for a completion percentage at an even 50 percent. He's thrown nine interceptions, producing an interception rate of 8.8 percent. Nobody has thrown interceptions that frequently over 100 or more pass attempts in 23 years! Steve Grogan narrowly beat it out in 1988. After you adjust for the era Hanie plays in, pro-football-reference.com suggests that Hanie's been worse at avoiding picks than anybody in NFL history since the merger. Hanie's also been sacked on a whopping 14.5 percent of his dropbacks. PFR suggests that only three players since the merger, after adjusting for era, have gone down more frequently. Bottom line: Caleb Hanie might be the worst quarterback to throw 100 passes since the AFL merged with the NFL. If Chicago's backup had merely been below average, their defense would likely have been enough to get them into the playoffs. Instead, they will spend their January on the finest golf courses in America.
Carolina Panthers 28, Houston Texans 13
Fabulous: Panthers coach Ron Rivera, who ran a fumblerooski play for a touchdown that he said was motivated by The Annexation of Puerto Rico from the legendary early-nineties movie The Little Giants. Ironically, if you watch the final ten minutes of the Giants-Cowboys game from The Little Giants, it's very similar to the final ten minutes of the actual Giants-Cowboys game from a couple of weeks ago.
Flop: Johnathan Joseph. Joseph has been one of the best cornerbacks in football this season, but Steve Smith had a great game against him on Sunday. Smith caught five of the seven passes thrown to him and gained 82 yards, including a 26-yard touchdown pass where he torched Joseph for six.
Indianapolis Colts 27, Tennessee Titans 13
Fabulous: Pat Angerer. Perhaps the only young Colts player exhibiting star potential during this dismal season, Angerer was all over the field on Sunday. He made 12 tackles during the game, including two behind the line of scrimmage for losses. He was superb in coverage on underneath routes, breaking up a pass while going out to defend against Chris Johnson numerous times in the flat. Oh, and Angerer made big plays in the fourth quarter. First, he forced a fumble out of tight end Jared Cook after a 27-yard completion, giving the Colts a key possession to take time off of the clock. Then, after a Johnson touchdown was called back after the star back was ruled down by contact, Angerer picked off Matt Hasselbeck in the endzone, preserving Indy's 20-6 lead.
Flop: Joseph Addai. While Donald Brown ran for 161 yards on 16 carries and sealed the game up with an 80-yard scamper deep into the fourth quarter, Addai was a stopper for the Indy offense. He got 13 touches (11 carries, two receptions) and produced a total of 27 yards. Addai finished the day with just two first downs. Everyone on the Colts roster should be celebrating their first victory of the season, but Addai should be doing so quietly in the corner.
Kansas City Chiefs 19, Green Bay Packers 14
Fabulous: The Kansas City offensive line. We gave them some credit yesterday, but let's call some extra attention to the great work done by the Chiefs' offensive line in pass protection. With a quarterback taking regular snaps for the first time in two months and an elite pass rusher on the other side of the field, the Chiefs built their gameplan around play-action passes and an upright, unmolested Orton. Thirty-one dropbacks later, Orton had been knocked down just once and went the entire game without being sacked. He was rarely hurried and had extra time to stare down the receiver on a number of his big plays.
Flop: Jermichael Finley. Safety is the weakest link in Kansas City's defense, so it was only natural that the Packers would target players like Reshard Langford and Sabby Piscitelli by getting Finley up the field. When he got there, though, he left the ball behind. Finley caught just three of the 10 passes thrown to him, and while one of them was a wildly impressive 41-yard snatch, his drops were the biggest reasons why the Packers only scored 14 points.
New Orleans Saints 42, Minnesota Vikings 20
Fabulous: Drew Brees. Shocking, huh? As it turns out, 32-of-40 for 412 yards with five touchdowns is enough to qualify as a good day. Granted, it was against a Vikings defense that has seen its secondary make its own play calls at times this year, but Brees just about played a perfect football game. One stat note: Brees was recorded as having fumbled a ball away during this game, but it's an absurd assignment of value. With Brees in the shotgun, center Brian de la Puente snapped the ball past Brees while the quarterback was changing his protection. 15 yards later, the Vikings fell on it. This was a play that had virtually nothing to do with Brees and wasn't remotely his fault, but because the NFL has to assign fumbles to somebody, the quarterback gets the blame here.
Flop: Christian Ponder. Again, take disappointing raw numbers (14-for-31, 120 yards, two touchdowns, one interception) and then discount them for garbage time. In the first half, Ponder was 4-of-8 for 18 yards. His Vikings went to halftime trailing by just eight because the Saints fumbled the ball away inside their own 30-yard line on two different drives. The ensuing Minnesota drives went for a total of -10 yards and produced two field goals. During the third quarter, Ponder was 0-for-5 with an intentional grounding penalty. The only Vikings first down of the quarter came when Ponder took a sack and Roman Harper was called for a late hit. Ponder threw for just one first down (a 10-yard touchdown pass to Toby Gerhart) before the fourth quarter, at which point his team was down 29 points. Donovan McNabb, sitting on his couch, is a better quarterback than Christian Ponder is right now. Sorry, that's an extraneous comma. Let's try that again Donovan McNabb sitting on his couch is a better quarterback than Christian Ponder is right now. As in, if you carried McNabb onto the field on his couch, had him throw passes and take snaps out of the shotgun while he sat on said couch, and then had two offensive linemen matriculate him up the field after each completion like he was Byron Leftwich, McNabb would still be better than Christian Ponder.
Washington Redskins 23, New York Giants 10
Fabulous: The Washington secondary. The Eli Manning who looked unstoppable against the Cowboys in the fourth quarter was silenced by an oft-maligned group of defenders on Sunday. Missing star safety LaRon Landry, DeAngelo Hall's defense stepped up and made a number of big plays to create and preserve a Redskins sweep over Big Blue. The Redskins broke up 12 of Manning's 40 pass attempts, including ten passes defensed by members of the secondary. Those defensive backs also picked Manning off three times, including an interception in the end zone by Josh Wilson while the Giants were within one touchdown of the lead during the fourth quarter.
Flop: Hakeem Nicks. Nicks' drop came on one of the few times the Giants had a receiver run free downfield, and while we can't give Nicks credit for breaking up a pass that was intended to himself, it was a drop that cost his team seven points. That was the beginning of a frustrating day at the office for Nicks, who caught just five of the 12 passes thrown in his direction, gaining a mundane 73 yards.
Cincinnati Bengals 20, St. Louis Rams 13
Fabulous: Kellen Clemens. 25-of-36 for 229 yards with a touchdown and no picks for a guy who wasn't good enough to play ahead of Mark Sanchez and only signed with the Rams 11 days before his start? That's actually pretty impressive. You know what's really scary? The Rams had 210 net passing yards, and that was the first time they had gone over 200 yards since Week 9. Clemens' offense also went through an entire game without turning the ball over, which was the first time all season that the Rams made it through 60 minutes without a giveaway. Insert your own seat/tickets joke here. (Clemens did fumble once, but his team recovered it, so there was even a bit of luck involved there.)
Flop: Cedric Benson. 22 carries for 76 yards and a touchdown. Not great, but no reason to nominate the guy as the flop of the game, right? Well, dig a little deeper. Benson fumbled three different times on Sunday, recovering two of them himself while getting Jerome Simpson to recover the third. That the Bengals recovered all three fumbles is serendipity, not skill. He did all this against a run defense that's allowed 4.8 yards per attempt, the fifth-highest rate in football. Cincinnati finished with just 110 yards rushing; only three teams all season have failed to hit that total against the grotesque Rams ground defense.
Detroit Lions 28, Oakland Raiders 27
Fabulous: Calvin Johnson. OK, so he's not really injured. Maybe he was just resting. This, though, is the Megatron that the Lions need to make it into the playoffs. It was, considering the meaningful context, Johnson's best game as a pro: 9-of-14 for 214 yards with two touchdowns, including the game-winner with 43 seconds left. On the final drive, Johnson was basically uncoverable, picking up receptions for 21 and 48 yards and drawing a defensive pass-interference call against Stanford Routt for 17 yards before catching the touchdown pass that gave Detroit the lead. He also drew a holding call and a 14-yard DPI against Routt earlier in the game, although Johnson also took an offensive pass-interference call himself.
Flop: Hue Jackson. Not only was Jackson incredibly naive to pass up the two-point conversion we discussed in Monday's column, he appears to be doubling down on ignorance. He blamed Johnson's 48-yard grab on the final drive on middle linebacker Rolando McClain, noting that the Raiders were in the Tampa-2 defensive scheme on the play and that it was McClain's responsibility to travel back and cover the middle of the field. Jackson's correct, but it's unreasonable to expect a middle linebacker to go stride-for-stride up the seam with one of the league's dominant wideouts for 40 yards. With that in mind, it was probably really, really stupid to call for a vanilla zone coverage on Detroit's drive for the game without getting some sort of double-team on the Lions' best offensive weapon.
Arizona Cardinals 20, Cleveland Browns 17
Fabulous: Greg Little. In what might be the league's most stultifying offense, Little has been earmarked as the most plausible path to excitement. During an up-and-down rookie season, Little hasn't delivered very much. Against the Cards, though, Little had a 76-yard touchdown catch that gave the Browns the lead with 18 minutes to go, and he threw in catches of 15 and 29 yards to supplement his big day. He finished with five catches on nine targets for 131 yards.
Flop: Seneca Wallace. The ol' scrambler showed some gumption during his first start of the season, but he gave away a fumble at the wrong time. With a three-point lead and third-and-15 facing Cleveland on their own 14-yard line, the Browns could have simply run a draw play or some other safe handoff and punted. Their upside, the odds of converting third-and-15, was very slim. The downside, of course, was enormous; playing field position with John Skelton could have possibly set the Browns up to win the game. Instead, Wallace was sacked and fumbled (upon review), and while Skelton's offense moved the ball backwards a full ten yards in three plays, it set up the game-tying field goal.
New England Patriots 41, Denver Broncos 23
Fabulous: Denver's running game. The Broncos simply could not be stopped on the ground, running for a whopping 252 yards on 31 carries while scoring three times. These weren't runs in garbage time, either; Denver had 20 carries for 182 yards and two scores in the first half. The only things that actually did stop the Broncos from running the ball were turnovers, since the Broncos fumbled the ball away to the Patriots twice on running plays, turning the game around after a hot Broncos start.
Flop: BenJarvus Green-Ellis. We've said this before, but the Law Firm might be closing up shop very soon in New England. Green-Ellis is on the field because he's a vicious pure runner; there are plenty of guys on the roster who are faster, better at receiving, and superior at pass-blocking. For BJGE to be worth a roster spot, he needs to run efficiently and consistently. Instead? Green-Ellis ran for 17 yards on 10 carries against the Broncos, scoring on a one-yard plunge in the fourth quarter.
Philadelphia Eagles 45, New York Jets 19
Fabulous: LeSean McCoy. Take out the middle of the season and Shady is a legitimate MVP candidate! Most voters do tend to count the middle of the year, though, and so Shady will end up finishing relatively low on the charts. The Eagles were gifted with some short fields on Sunday, but McCoy made the most of them. His 18 carries produced 102 yards, including a 33-yard score that was one of his three touchdowns on the day. He now holds the Eagles record for most touchdowns in one season, beating out Hall of Famer Steve Van Buren.
Flop: Santonio Holmes. Holmes would eventually catch four of the six passes thrown to him and pick up a 25-yard score, but he also ended two early Jets drives. One saw him fumble away a short pass that was promptly returned for a touchdown, and, nonplussed, Holmes tipped a pass intended for him into the arms of Asante Samuel for an interception.
San Diego Chargers 34, Baltimore Ravens 14
Fabulous: Antwan Barnes. Just the latest ex-Eagles pass rusher to break out somewhere else (see: Clemons, Chris and Babin, Jason), Barnes hit double digits in sacks for the first time in his career by dropping Joe Flacco four different times on Sunday. That's 11 sacks for Barnes on the year. He also had two other tackles for loss in the running game.
Flop: John Harbaugh. He was a flop on Sunday, but let's give Harbaugh some credit for what he did the next day. After failing to use his timeouts late in the first half to give the Ravens a shot at a two-minute drill, Harbaugh looked pretty bad. After thinking about it, he came back out on Monday and admitted that he screwed up. It's not a huge deal that he screwed up, since every coach does. It's good, though, that Harbaugh recognized his mistake and was willing to admit it. Most coaches would be afraid or unwilling to admit that they were wrong. Good for Harbaugh.
Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.
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