There are always two critical factors to determine when watching any football game, from high school to the NFL. The first is rather easy: Who is in the lead? One quick glance at the scoreboard gives us the answer. The second is not so easy: Who is in control of the game? This answer is harder to determine, and there at times when neither team is in control.
The perfect example of no control occurred Saturday afternoon when Alabama played Tennessee. As the scoreboard lit up with points, neither team was in control and the outcome was always in question. Monday night in Los Angeles, the Chargers were in control of the game against the Broncos after the first quarter. The Broncos had their two best drives of the game, got 10 points and five first downs, and from then on could do nothing offensively. The Chargers, even though they were not their explosive selves offensively, had the game under control.
So, why did it take an overtime period for the Chargers to prevail? Because their head coach, Brandon Staley, never understands that every decision should be made based on which team is in control. For example, late in the second quarter, the Chargers drove the ball from their own 12-yard line to the Broncos’ 19 facing a third-and-17. The Broncos used their last timeout on the play before, so if Staley runs the ball, giving up any realistic hope for the first down and settling for three points (which I know he hates), they can run the clock to under 20 seconds and kick the field goal.
Instead, the man who has devoted every in-game coaching decision to analytics decides to throw a pass, which is incomplete and stops the clock. How can Staley profess to be a numbers man and make such a stupid mathematical mistake? Why give the Broncos any hope? You might say they shouldn’t have blown the coverage on Russell Wilson’s deep ball to KJ Hamler, true. But why be in that position? Essentially giving the Broncos a fourth timeout. The Broncos took advantage of the blown coverage then got a roughing-the-passer penalty and stole three points at the end of the half to lead 13-10. No big deal for most watching, but for betters of the Chargers laying the four points, it’s a huge mistake. One Staley makes all the time. And giving up those three points came back to haunt him, forcing the game into overtime.
The Broncos offense was struggling. After their five first downs in the first quarter, the Broncos had nine drives, and six of them produced zero or one first downs. The drive to end the first half was their longest, covering 57 yards. The Broncos had trouble handling the Chargers' five-man pressures and could not adjust their protections. Wilson tried to move around using his feet, carrying the ball four times and made a few plays sliding away from pressure.
Wilson still doesn’t look like the player he was in Seattle. He isn’t as fast or elusive and perhaps because of the shoulder injury, his arm looks weak, not explosive. Even though he has never been a big player in terms of size, his arm was always big, and now he needs a clean pocket to drive the ball down the field. Father Time is catching up with Wilson and the Broncos' offensive line isn’t helping. They play soft, with little or no toughness as does the entire Broncos offense. With Wilson, the Broncos rank 32 in points per play at 0.244. Last season with Teddy Bridgewater under center and Pat Shurmur calling plays, they were at 0.32 points per play and every Broncos fan thought that offense was horrible. Little did they know it was going to get worse. As for a point of reference, the Chiefs are the best team in points per play at 0.463, which is slightly better than their 0.439 number of last season when they had Tyreek Hill.
When determining what is wrong with teams, the evaluator must examine players coaches or schemes. In the case of the Broncos offense, their scheme is basic, their protections are easy to attack and their quarterback cannot overcome the breakdowns. In essence, they have problems in all three areas and they are not easily solvable this season. The Broncos have some talent at the skill positions, but they're not a tough-minded team or show any nasty to make the talent flourish. They face the Jets at home this week, then the Jags in Jacksonville before their bye week, two games every Broncos fan had as wins before the season started. Now, they are not sure. Denver opened as a 3.5-point favorite against the Jets and the number moved to three rather quickly. Surprisingly, the game is one of the most bet games early in the week, an indication smart handicappers felt the 3.5 was too high as the Jets are receiving 88% of the money. Expect this number to move under three before the end of the week and the ball kicks off on Sunday.
As for the Chargers, they host the Seahawks this week and opened as a 7-point favorite. On paper, they should be able to cover that number and move the ball on the Seattle defense. However, we know nothing is ever easy for the Chargers, and don’t be surprised if that number slides below seven as no one is betting the Chargers. The betting public knows betting on Staley and his decision-making process is always a risky proposition.
One thing I learned Monday night: Denver isn’t going to be good enough this season and will have hard decisions to make this offseason. Another thing I learned: Always bet the Chargers reluctantly, as the dog, never the favorite, as they do too many dumb things during the game to ever feel they are a legitimate playoff team.
Week 6 review
Twelve teams have three wins after six weeks: the Patriots, Jets, Ravens, Bengals, Titans, Colts, Rams, Seahawks, 49ers, Falcons, Bucs and Packers. Which of those 12 are going to emerge as legitimate playoff teams? I love what Arthur Smith has done so far coaching the Falcons, and he should be a serious contender for Coach of the Year, but the Falcons aren’t a playoff team in terms of their talent level. Neither are the Seahawks. Pete Carroll has done an amazing job of winning three games and getting his offense to play at such a high level. Geno Smith is playing well, but this team isn’t talented enough to make the playoffs. Removing those two leaves us with 10. They all have problems, some related to injuries, some related to talent, and the teams that overcome their problems with the right adjustments will rise over the next 11 weeks. San Francisco, Baltimore, Tampa and Tennessee seem like the best bets to win their respective divisions. Who from the remaining six can close the gap?
The Rams? With their left tackle Joe Noteboom out for the season with a torn Achilles, the Rams’ already bad offensive line just got worse. Quarterback Matthew Stafford looks beat up, and even though everyone says his arm is fine, he doesn’t look fine to me.
Green Bay? Aaron Rodgers has hidden the Packers’ problems for years. Now without any skill talent around him, even he cannot cover up for the Packers’ coaching sins. How can Matt LaFleur expect to run the exact same offense this season as last season when he doesn’t have Davante Adams? That would be like the Bulls running Michael Jordan isolation plays at the end of the game without Jordan. It makes no sense. And don’t expect the Packers to turn it on anytime soon. Their problems are larger than any of us could imagine. Their defense cannot stop the run, they have no playmakers on offense outside of their two running backs and when they face a good defensive front, like they did against the Jets, Rodgers gets too much pressure because no one is instantly open. It’s not going to be easy for the Packers to get back on track.
Indy? The Colts played their best game on offense on Sunday, protecting the ball and throwing the ball quickly to preserve Matt Ryan from getting constantly hit. It will be interesting to see Ryan throw the ball outdoors as the weather changes, facing wind.
New England? The Patriots have stopped turning the ball over, have been playing well on defense and seem to be a tougher, more physical team this season. They have improved over the last three weeks since Mac Jones was injured. If they don’t beat themselves, they will be a tough team down the stretch.
The Jets? A three-game winning streak is not something anyone can ignore. Two of the wins came on the road, and if their offense doesn’t hurt them with turnovers, they will be tough to handle for 60 minutes. The Broncos game will be a great test — a tough place to play, a defense that can give the Jets’ offensive line trouble — and how they handle it will tell us a great deal about their future. The Jets can dominate the Broncos offense with their defensive front, and if they can run the ball, they will win. The Jets are for real if — and this is a big if — they continue to manage quarterback Zach Wilson.
Cincinnati? The defending AFC champions are improving, ever so slightly. They made a big play last week offensively, which was much needed for their offense. Their defense has proven to be able to carry them for stretches. They must get running back Joe Mixon going and find more balance with their offense.
Of the six, the Bengals have the best chance to emerge, but the Jets and Patriots are improving. In the NFC, the Packers and Rams need to show improvement, with the Rams slightly ahead despite their bad offensive line. Something is wrong in “Titletown,” and don’t be surprised if Rodgers has a complete meltdown if they don’t make a move for a wide receiver.