Here are three quick NFL observations coming out of Sunday’s Week 8 games:
1. Buccaneers’ season on the brink — The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have lost four straight after a 2-1 start, staring up at the other three NFC South teams above .500. Quarterback Jameis Winston is beaten up and struggling. Head coach Dirk Koetter might suddenly be feeling the heat — the team that was supposed to compete for the division crown and end a nine-year playoff drought is in major trouble.
Koetter was kept on after Lovie Smith’s firing because of Koetter’s fine work with Winston in his rookie season. Last season Winston took a step up, and Year 3 appeared to be the stage when he became an upper-level performer. With new weapons on offense and a resurgent Doug Martin re-entering the lineup following a three-game suspension, everything appeared to add up to that reasonable conclusion.
The bottom has fallen out the past month. The Bucs had been slow-starting on offense and weak on defense — at least prior to a solid effort in the 17-3 loss to the Carolina Panthers on Sunday. That dropped the Bucs into last place — they face serious challenges to pull out of this horrid skid.
Winston injured his non-throwing shoulder in Week 6 and aggravated it in Week 7. He played hurt this week but was worse than anyone could have imagined, throwing two awful interceptions and losing a fumble on a sack. Too often, Winston’s accuracy waned in key situations. He hasn’t taken his game to the next level, and you could make the argument he has regressed, injury or not.
This game could not be blamed on a fluky special-teams error or a leaky defense. Those units played well enough to win. The Panthers just grinded away at the Bucs and let them beat themselves with mistakes.
Down 10-3 early in the fourth, Winston overthrew Martin on second down and then was picked on third. The Panthers scored a touchdown five plays later. Still in it, Winston drove the Bucs to the Carolina 25-yard line with six-plus minutes left. But he overthrew Mike Evans for what should have been a touchdown on one play and then was picked by Luke Kuechly on the next. It felt like the Bucs’ season went down the drain right there.
They still have time to pull out of this funk, but making the postseason would be nearly impossible short of something magical happening. The Bucs’ schedule is rough, starting with next week’s game at the New Orleans Saints — one of five remaining road games — and no bye left to regroup.
Koetter must do whatever he can to keep the team from splintering and find answers offensively, but right now neither look very easy.
2. Bills do it again, could be 6-2 on Thursday — What a story the Buffalo Bills are. They’re 5-2 and heading into a Thursday game against the suddenly reeling New York Jets that could leave them four games above .500 at the midpoint of a season everyone assumed they were punting for the draft-pick bounty that awaits them in 2018.
The Bills stomped the Oakland Raiders with their most complete performance of the season, winning 34-14 after starting slowly but taking control in the second quarter. Tyrod Taylor made some clutch throws and scored a crucial TD on 4th and goal inside the 1-yard line. LeSean McCoy finished off the game with a 48-yard score.
But we want to talk about this defense, which has been fantastic all season. Despite not having starting defensive backs Jordan Poyer and E.J. Gaines, the Bills made huge plays on that side of the ball nearly all game long. Sunday’s heroes included names that might be unfamiliar outside of Buffalo — Matt Milano, Trae Elston and Preston Brown, to name a few. Micah Hyde and Tre’Davious White also continued their strong play.
All of this speaks to the preparation of new head coach Sean McDermott, who has had his team ready to play every single game. The Bills easily could have won both games they lost, by six and four points, on the road. While McDermott has struggled at times with in-game decisions, he handled the fourth-and-goal possession well and stuck with his gut to go for it. It was the only call in that spot.
As Bill fans know all too well, the team’s last playoff game was — brace for it — back in the 1999 season. That was the time they lost in the Music City Miracle. The way things are going, the Bills are becoming miracle workers of their own this year, and they could be looking at a chance to end their long streak of missing the playoffs.
3. What’s a catch? We have no idea anymore — The Chicago Bears had a touchdown taken away from them on the most painful play of their season.
Tight end Zach Miller appeared to make what was a tremendous TD grab that would have cut their deficit against the New Orleans Saints to 14-10 in the third quarter at the Superdome. But Miller went down in pain, and it was clear this was no minor deal — he was later diagnosed with a dislocated kneecap, an excruciating injury that will end his season.
On top of that, the replay ruled that Miller “dropped” the pass. It was a laughable call at the time, but the explanation of the head referee, Carl Cheffers, made it worse. After the game, Cheffers said that Miller did not “survive the ground” — an unfortunate phrase turn, by the way — because he supposedly lost control of the ball, which supposedly touched the ground.
Hogwash. Miller did put the ball on the ground after the injury — meaning he finished a play and then tended to his injured body. In no way, shape or form should that have not been ruled a score.
A quick rule refresher on such plays: The pass catcher must “maintain control of the ball until after his initial contact with the ground” on any reception in the end zone where he goes to the ground as part of the process of the play. Oh, it’s confusing for sure. But even watching the Miller play (if you can bear seeing him mangle his leg), it’s clear that he checked those boxes for what should have been a touchdown.
The Bears would lose, 20-12. Even FOX rules analyst Dean Blandino — the former head of officials until this spring — seemed to think it should have been a touchdown.
“He went to the ball and had the ball in his left arm,” Blandino said during the broadcast. “Obviously, the injury occurs, but he maintains control of the ball all the way to the ground, rolled over and then — because he’s in such pain — he lets the ball go. To me, that looks like a catch.”
This what’s-a-catch debate has been going on for years. Every year, the competition committee seemingly amends or clarifies its rule in an effort to clear up what is and what isn’t. Yet that’s now two huge touchdowns — including the Austin Seferian-Jenkins non-TD for the Jets in a loss to the New England Patriots — that have been called back in one-score games this season.
It’s a horrible look for the league that’s already struggling with sagging ratings, alienated fans, and a depleted talent base with several All-Pro players done for the season with major injuries. For the person watching at home, a referee in New York City overruling what most of the natural, TV-watching world believed to be a touchdown only adds a layer of “WTF” to a game that can be its worst enemy at times.
You feel horribly for Miller — adding insult to his gruesome injury — but you worry about the game and its integrity. Isn’t that what Roger Goodell spouts off about every time he talks? This is as big a concern as anything because we’re taking away incredible achievements from players making herculean efforts… all over a poorly worded, incomprehensible and — at least in this interpretation — indefensible rule.
— Eric Edholm is an NFL writer for Pro Football Weekly.
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