Sorting the Sunday Pile: Saints, Panthers, Vikings, Bears provide statement wins in loaded NFC

We might very well end up remembering Week 9 as a Separation Sunday in the NFC, a week when a series of contending teams established themselves as legitimate threats to advance in a deep and dangerous confidence. The marquee game in the afternoon featured the Saints and Rams battling it out in New Orleans, with Drew Brees and Co. knocking off the NFL’s last undefeated team in convincing fashion.

You can read more about the Saints’ own statement win right here, but now, let’s look at the second tier of NFC contenders who stepped up and made some statements about their interest in contending this week. 

Minnesota Vikings

The situation: Coming off a brutal loss to the Saints, Minnesota hosting the Lions in a critical division matchup, while trying to ease star players on both sides of the ball back into the game.

How they handled it: The Vikings ran well, passed pretty well and snuffed out Detroit’s offense to win 24-9. 

Biggest strength: A defense loaded with talent that’s been struggling during the first half of the season and now appears ready to take off down the stretch run thanks to the return of Everson Griffen. Danielle Hunter has been outstanding the last few weeks. The Vikings are getting a bye week at the right time too. The Vikings might be the most complete team in the NFL when they’re playing well on both sides of the ball, and they showed it on Sunday. 

Biggest weakness: Minnesota’s offensive line is not up to snuff yet, but there should be hope about the run game improving after seeing Dalvin Cook come in and pile up over 100 total yards on 14 touches, including a nifty 70-yard run. It’s not out of the question to expect him healthy after the bye. 

At 5-3-1, Minnesota is going to get a break and then hit a rough stretch of games — three of their next four are on the road, including Week 11 at Chicago, Week 13 at New England and Week 14 at Seattle. The home respite? Week 12 at against a Packers team that might be playing for its playoff life. That stretch might decide the season, although sweeping the Bears would put them in good shape.

Carolina Panthers

The Situation: Major letdown spot for the Panthers, who smashed the Ravens last week and stayed at home against a questionable Buccaneers team with a terrible defense and a lively offense on its 12th quarterback switch of the season. Panthers get the Steelers on the road this coming Thursday as well, so it was a lookahead spot of sorts too.

How they handled it: The Panthers came out and stomped the Bucs early before eventually holding on to 42-28 and moving to 6-2. 

Biggest strengths: Right now it’s Cam Newton. The MVP candidate is dealing, completing 75 percent of his passes for the second straight week en route to a 19-for-25 performance with 247 yards and two touchdowns. He’s got what Greg Olsen rightfully called the best group of weapons Newton’s had since the tight end arrived in Carolina.

Biggest weakness: Oddly enough, the defense has been a problem for the Panthers, although they’re starting to round back into shape. Tampa’s offense is legit and put up points — Carolina has to generate more pressure up front if it wants to hang with teams like the Saints and Rams. 

Carolina has four of its next five games on the road, including this Thursday in Pittsburgh. After that they get the Saints twice in a three-week span. 

Chicago Bears

The situation: Mitchell Trubisky laying 10 points and going to play a top-10 defense on the road in a game the Bears had to win in order to keep pace in the division and having to do so without Khalil Mack on defense.

How they handled it: The Bears dropped a 40 burger on the Bills and were never remotely close to not winning or not covering. 

Biggest strength: Mack, who has transformed Vic Fangio’s defense into one of the best in the NFL. The Bears’ one concern with that defense, which has been extremely good this season, is the depth. But they made Nathan Peterman pass 49 times (!) on Sunday, which is obviously not an ideal recipe for success. The defense scored twice in the first half, which would have been enough to win on its own. 

Biggest weakness: Trubisky, who still has his moments where he looks completely off and takes off running. Maybe he’s able to keep developing as the season goes along. This game might not be a perfect way to look at Trubisky: it was on the road, against a dangerous defense, in a situation where the Bears wanted to pile up points and get out of Dodge.

The Bears just went 2-2 against the AFC East (you take that, even though it should have been 3-1) and now get three straight division games, with the Lions and Vikings visiting Soldier Field. Big three-game stretch but they’re fortunate to catch the Lions a little wounded twice in three games now. 

Atlanta Falcons

The situation: Off the bye, going to a dangerous Washington defense, needing a win to get to .500 and to keep the hope of a playoff run alive. 

How they handled it: The Falcons went up top on the Redskins, with Matt Ryan throwing for 350 yards and four touchdown passes.

Biggest strength: Ryan, who is on a better pace than his MVP season at this point. Atlanta is going to have to win with offense, because their defense has suffered too many injuries to really be the dominant unit we thought it could be this season. Credit Dan Quinn for not giving up when things went south — Atlanta is very much back in the playoff hunt now.

Biggest weakness: That defense can give up points to explosive teams, and everyone else in the NFC South is extremely explosive. The Redskins do not appear to be very explosive. 

The Falcons need to win the next two weeks (Browns, Cowboys), because they have the Saints, Ravens, Packers and Panthers remaining on the schedule. 

We’re not mentioning Washington (lost), Philly (on a bye) or Dallas (Monday night) here, but obviously those three teams are worthy of our attention too. 

Sound the Horn

Millennials won’t remember this, but there was a stretch of time in the early 2000’s when the explosion of diva wide receivers created this unbelievable run of touchdown celebrations. Terrell Owens and my guy Chad Ochocinco were the leaders in on-field insanity, but plenty of other receivers got in on it. The tipping point for the NFL cracking down on celebrations may have been Saints receiver Joe Horn stashing a cell phone in the goal post padding and pulling it out after scoring a touchdown. It was a shoot your shot moment no one watching would ever forget. 

Current Saints receiver Michael Thomas had a celebration dialed up on Sunday to pay homage to Horn, stashing an old-school flip phone of his own in the goal post and pulling it out after crossing 200 yards on a 72-yard touchdown that gave the Saints a 10-point lead.

Peep the combo of the celebrations here:

Thomas apparently put a ton of work into this celebration.

But he was also aggressively chastised by Troy Aikman for the act, which cost the Saints 15 yards of field position in a critical game. You can make a case it wasn’t the smartest move in the world at the time, but it was freaking fun and the Saints won anyway. Expect a fine, and be glad there won’t be hand-wringing about it this week. 

Coaching scared

The Broncos entered Sunday slight home favorites badly in need of a victory to keep AFC wild card hopes alive. They left Sunday a 3-6 team that may have been broken after Brandon McManus missed a potential game-winning 51-yard field goal at the buzzer. Don’t pin everything on McManus’ leg — Vance Joseph deserves plenty of criticism for coaching scared in the final minutes of the game. 

Denver got the ball back on its own 14 with 3:40 left and trailing by two points. Not the ideal situation, but more than enough time for Case Keenum to move the ball and either score a touchdown or get well within McManus’ range. For whatever reason, the Broncos waited until the fourth play of the drive to crank up their no-huddle offense. They ran six plays, got one first down and advanced the ball to their own 40-yard line all while burning up 1:40 on the clock. 

The Broncos finally crossed midfield with 40 seconds left in the game after battling back from a first-and-25 and converting a pair of fourth downs. In other words, this was a wildly inefficient use of the clock. 

It got worse. After an 18-yard pass from Keenum to Emmanuel Sanders on fourth-and-8 got the Broncos inside field goal range, Joseph used his second timeout with 43 seconds left. Credit where credit is due to Keenum: he completed a heck of a pass with the Texans getting heavy pressure and Sanders double covered.

But Keenum also looked confused after the play — he was sprinting the offense up to spike the ball and Joseph squeezed timeout. The timeout is fine there if you’re going to be aggressive and try and pick up more yardage. The spike is preferred though, however, if you’re trying to get closer.  

Keenum then completed a five-yard pass to Jeff Heuremann … and the Broncos let 30 seconds run off the clock before running Philip Lindsay up the middle for a loss of one and calling their final timeout with three seconds left on the clock. This playcall makes the timeout even more bizarre. It’s almost like Joseph was petrified his team wouldn’t be able to stop the clock late and refused to use the timeout to save time instead of just stopping it for the final play. 

Houston was the top rush defense team by DVOA coming into this game and the Broncos hadn’t run the ball well, yet Joseph called for a hurry-up run call right before the two-minute warning on third down (they didn’t get a first) and then ran the ball on the final play before attempting the kick. What he should have done is let Keenum throw in both spots. 

“We were in range there and the time was ticking down, so we want to kick it in the middle for B-Mac,” Joseph said after the game. “Our line was the 35, we were there, so it was time to kick the ball.”

McManus is a good kicker and the air is thin in Denver, making long kicks much easier. But — and this shouldn’t be news to anyone who is a professional coach — it’s easier to make a field goal the closer you are to the end zone. 

McManus had also already pushed a 62-yard kick, and it was extremely windy throughout the game. Not getting any more yardage and settling for the kick was just dumb. Bill O’Brien appeared to think so too, though he later denied he said what amateur lip readers thought he did.

Joseph also cost his teams points in the first half, when he attempted that 62-yard kick with McManus — after the miss, the Texans had excellent field position and managed to pick up a field goal of their own. It would be the difference in the game.

“McManus has been really good for us. At the half, that’s on me,” Joseph said after the game. “I was trying to get greedy there and get three more points.”

His poor clock management might cost him his job as soon as tomorrow. 

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