Desperation is a stinky cologne, and the Chargers reeked at about halftime on Sunday afternoon against the Falcons, facing the potential end of an already snakebit season, down 27-17 and looking overmatched.
It's a testament to Philip Rivers, an underrated defense and a whole lot of luck that they walked out of Georgia Dome with a season-saving win, taking down the Falcons 33-30 in overtime.
The Chargers were in a fun little game, battling it out with the Birds when Tevin Coleman ripped off a huge, untouched run to make it 20-10. On the next possession, Rivers fumbled after being sacked by Vic Beasley, who is emerging nicely this year; Adrian Clayborn picked the ball up and rolled into the end zone. Suddenly it was 27-10, and Atlanta was getting the ball back after the break.
San Diego's defense stepped up huge, however, limiting Atlanta to just three points after halftime. That allowed Rivers and the offense to crawl back in the game with some Josh Lambo field goals and a Rivers touchdown pass late in the fourth. Matt Ryan made his first truly terrible mistake of the season with a bad interception over the middle that set up what might be the best run of Melvin Gordon's career, a season-saver for San Diego.
Mike McCoy wasn't interested in playing to win, so the Chargers kicked a short field goal to tie things up. They probably should have been burned by the conservative effort, but the defense got away with pass interference on Julio Jones one play after the freakish receiver outleaped four defenders. Julio is getting hosed by the Shaq/Cam/Gronk/Calvin treatement -- he's too big, too tall and too fast for refs to give him the benefit of the doubt. Defenders are allowed to get handsy with him because he's more talented.
A 58-yard field goal from Matt Bryant was just short and it set up an overtime battle in the best game of the day.
Falcons came thiiiiiiis close to getting the W. pic.twitter.com/5ig02njOcW— NFLonCBS (@NFLonCBS) October 23, 2016
Falcons coach Dan Quinn got aggressive in overtime on a fourth-and-1 situation, but Denzel Perryman, who also intercepted Ryan, snuffed out the play and handled Devonta Freeman well behind the line of scrimmage.
The play set up a Josh Lambo game-winner from 42 yards. Can we quibble really quickly on how highly unnecessary that distance was? Mike McCoy had Rivers take a knee in the middle of the field on first down. It was the polar opposite of what Quinn did, but it wasn't criticized, a reminder that we're a results-oriented society. (If Quinn gets the fourth down he's a smart, aggressive coach. If Lambo misses, McCoy is crushed for coaching not to lose.)
At any rate, it can't be overstated how big this win was for San Diego. They stole back one of their horrific losses from earlier in the season and are now 3-4, well within striking distance of the rest of the division, which looks like the best group of teams in the league. San Diego plays at Denver next week, but is clearly capable of beating the Broncos, who will be off a short week. Then they get the Titans and Dolphins at home before a bye. After that it's the Texans on the road and the Buccaneers at home. That is favorable five-game stretch for a team that could very well be 5-2.
The Chargers have lost a lot this season to injury and impossible odds, but they very likely saved their season on Sunday.
1. Exotic smashmouth succeeding but Mariota isn't
For some reason we all kind of bought into the idea of Mike Mularkey creating this complex, power rushing attack, an "exotic smashmouth." Oh sure, that sounds great. Yeah totally, Mike Mularkey will run an offense that goes against the modern-day trends, is a relic of years gone by and it will work perfectly. Why not?
But there's a little bit of sexy underneath that white, frumpy smock of an offense that Mularkey is trotting out there. For instance, how about offensive tackle Taylor Lewan catching a touchdown pass from Marcus Mariota on a play-action screen play?
It's pretty rare when an offensive lineman scores a receiving touchdown -- Donald Penn is the last lineman to catch a touchdown pass, having leapt into the Black Hole in 2014 for the Raiders, while also previously pulling it off with the Buccaneers -- so that's a plus for creativity.
On the other hand, it's pretty clear Marcus Mariota is regressing this season, while creativity is an aberration for Mularkey's offense.
The Titans lead the league in formations that have nobody on or outside the numbers. Look at the timestamps. pic.twitter.com/RiCP1AmVd1— Cian Fahey (@Cianaf) October 24, 2016
Here's a comparison of Mariota through seven games this year versus the first seven games of his career in 2015.
|Year||Comp/Att (%)||Yards||Yards/Att||TD/INT||QB Rating|
Don't forget he dealt with an injury during the first seven games of his career last season and was operating as a rookie. This is an offense that's not only failing to encourage his development, but actively restricting it. Linemen are catching touchdown passes, though.
2. The Cooter factor comes up big in Detroit
Sunday featured yet another win from the Detroit Lions late in the game, with yet another fourth-quarter comeback from Matthew Stafford. 2016 has provided a substantial argument for Stafford as a clutch quarterback -- he's led a game-winning drive in every Lions win this season and now has the most in the NFL since 2011 (22, with Tony Romo next at 19).
Stafford is more than that right now, though, because he's morphed into a viable MVP candidate and elite quarterback under the tutelage of Jim Bob Cooter.
Cooter was promoted to Lions offensive coordinator almost a year ago, getting the promotion from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator when Joe Lombardi was fired on Oct. 26. Sunday gives us a full season's worth of production from Stafford while playing for Cooter, and the results are incredibly impressive.
|Player||Att/Comp (%)||Yards||Yards/Att||TD-INT||QB Rating|
|2015-16 Stafford||391/570 (68.6)||4310||7.6||35-8||105.2|
Remember, this is a guy who lost Calvin Johnson and who had only once finished the year with a completion percentage above 61 percent. Stafford has turned into an efficient quarterback who doesn't make mistakes and is capable of making huge throws at huge moments.
3. Jay Ajayi unleashed
How did we get here with Jay Ajayi? The former star at Boise State who fell in the draft because of health concerns with his knees was a healthy scratch in Week 1, essentially benched by Adam Gase because he pouted about being named second on the depth chart behind Arian Foster.
This tough love from Gase paid off, though, because the Dolphins just won their second straight game behind a second straight week of Ajayi going off for 200 rushing yards.
Ajayi became just the fourth player in NFL history with back-to-back 200-yard rushing games, joining a decently exclusive club along with O.J. Simpson, Earl Campbell and former Dolphins star Ricky Williams. Ajayi is the first player to pull off the feat in two of his first three starts since 1970. Simpson, by the way, pulled it off twice in his career.
|Player||Year||Rush Att||Rush Yards||Yards/Att||TD|
No one's putting Ajayi in the class of running backs with those guys just yet. And, uh, by the way those guys have a pretty high variance when it comes to career/life outcomes. But he compares favorably with the performances from the other guys, the '76 Juice games aside (8.48!).
Two things really stand out about his performance. One, Ajayi is a physical dude when he runs. There's some Marshawn Lynch to his game, a violent attacking style of running that pops the defense back on its heels as he bursts through the line of scrimmage.
The other thing? There have only been two games so far when the entire Dolphins offensive line, as they originally planned, has been in place. Those two games are the last two games, which have featured a once-dominant college running back coming into his own. They are also both wins.
It's possible Gase's vision for this roster just took a little bit of very aggressive massaging.
4. Bad News Browns
They weren't going to be good before the season, but they've really had a bad run of things, particularly at the quarterback position.
Kevin Hogan is the 6th player to line up at QB for #Browns in 7 games.— Tony Grossi (@TonyGrossi) October 23, 2016
Kevin Hogan was considered a stud early in his career at Stanford, but his star dimmed a bit as he progressed through college. He's got high-end backup upside, but he's not the guy you want rolling out there before midseason.
Hogan actually acquitted himself pretty well, all things considered.
Browns forced to throw yet another QB in the fire, Kevin Hogan gives them a 28 yd TD run pic.twitter.com/BAvKsIxACu— The Cauldron (ICYMI) (@CauldronICYMI) October 23, 2016
He finished the game as one of the top Fantasy rushers for the day, compiling more than 100 yards and joining a very exclusive club.
Kevin Hogan (104 rush yds today) & Johnny Manziel are the only @Browns quarterbacks in the Super Bowl era to rush for 100 yards in a game— NFL Research (@NFLResearch) October 23, 2016
What? There are only two people in it! That qualifies as exclusive.
The larger point it serves is to note that the Browns, a very bad football team, are doubly dogged by the fact that they're unlucky. Credit Hue Jackson for keeping them competitive.
5. You can't stop A.J. Green, so why bother trying?
Green had what has to be called the catch of the year. Rodney Harrison of NBC called Green's incredible Hail Mary snag before halftime "lucky" but the dude managed to outmuscle four other human beings chasing the same oblong leather object and then juggle the ball into his hands for six points.
It wasn't Green's only filthy catch of the day, either.
Green's eight-catch, 169-yard day gives him nine career games with 150 yards and a score, which is the fourth-most of all time in a player's first six seasons. Ahead of him are Lance Alworth (13), Jerry Rice (11) and Randy Moss (10). Do not let anyone tell you Green doesn't belong among the elite wide receivers.
6. Drama in New York
What is Ryan Fitzpatrick doing with his complaints about the team ditching him? Of course they're ditching him! He's thrown 11 interceptions through the first seven weeks of the season, helping the team lose multiple games. Everyone knew the coaching staff and front office had to give Geno Smith a little run.
Fitzpatrick: "When owner stops believing in you & GM stops believing in u & coaches stop believing in u, sometimes all you have is yourself"— Manish Mehta (@MMehtaNYDN) October 23, 2016
Can you imagine the reaction if Geno Smith says this? People would lose their minds. Fitz has been terrible after an offseason where he got all of the attention for the sad game of chicken he and the Jets played over a contract. Do that, play terrible and you're going to get people yelling at you.
7. Gronk had a very Gronk day in Pittsburgh
Rob Gronkowski remains both the most dominant offensive force on the field (non-quarterback division) and also the most hilarious off-field persona of all time.
Gronk found the end zone after a quiet start against the Steelers.
He ended up with a strong day all around, his second-straight big week. Since Tom Brady has been back, Gronk has looked basically unstoppable. If he, Brady and Martellus Bennett stay healthy all season the Pats will crush everyone.
Oh and when he found out about his touchdown being the 68th of his career and tying Stanley Morgan for the most all time with the Pats, he was pretty thrilled about the next one that would break the record.
8. To Bortle, or not to Bortle
Blake Bortles was supposed to make the leap this year and the Jaguars offense was supposed to destroy people. Neither thing has happened and he is not making good decisions right now. This was one of the more horrific moves you'll see from the entire week of football.
Blake Bortles just tossed a ball into TRIPLE COVERAGE in the end zone.— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) October 23, 2016
Spoiler: it didn't work out well for him. pic.twitter.com/dbpTPxTe0J
Bortles now heads up a pretty awkward leaderboard.
Most Games With Multiple Interceptions - Since 2014— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) October 23, 2016
Blake Bortles 13
Peyton Manning 11
Joe Flacco 10
Andrew Luck 10
There are good names on there, but Bortles clearly has regressed as well. The Jaguars weren't ready to take a step forward this season and his struggles are the primary culprit.