Seven Points With Charlie Bernstein

In our Monday morning Seven Points article, we discuss the surprising finishes on Sunday, why teams coming off their bye weeks have a poor record, how there’s a new (old) power atop the AFC, how the Eagles saved their season and the rookie quarterback that isn’t exceeding expectations. Also some great notes on Tim Tebow, Mike Shanahan and the New England Patriots.

Up is Down, Black is White

The one o’clock games on Sunday appeared to be mismatches with five of the six matchups having a point spread of greater than a touchdown. Although the Tennessee Titans took care of their business in decisive fashion with a 27-10 victory over the winless Colts, the other favorites were given all they could handle.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the NFL season occurred in St. Louis as the formerly winless Rams welcomed a New Orleans squad that dropped 62 points on Indianapolis a week ago. Seemingly energized by the presence of the World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals, the Rams defense held Drew Brees and the second-ranked Saints offense scoreless through the first half en route to their 31-21 upset victory.

“We always thought we had that in us,” Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo said. “It was a wonderful weekend for St. Louis fans.”

The NFL’s best defense entering the weekend statistically was the Baltimore Ravens and they were expected to beat up on a struggling Arizona Cardinals offense which was ranked 21st in football and forced to travel across the country. The Ravens were apparently still hungover from their Monday night loss in Jacksonville as they found themselves down 24-3 at one point in the first half.

“I don’t go to a lot of football games, but I probably would have wanted to boo if I was in the stands, too,” Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said when asked about the Baltimore fans voicing their displeasure in the first half. “We weren’t looking too good. We weren’t playing too well.”

The Ravens staged a furious second half comeback to avoid embarrassment for the second straight week and beat the Cardinals, 30-27 thanks to a Billy Cundiff 25-yard field goal as time expired.

The Miami Dolphins made headlines this week as running back Reggie Bush and safety Yeremiah Bell were jawing back and forth about how the team “stinks” following their 18-15 loss against Denver. The winless Dolphins weren’t supposed to be much of a match for the well-rested, first place New York Giants on the road. Miami fought for 60 minutes and put a scare into New York as they were up 14-3 at one point before losing 20-17 to fall to 0-7.

“We knew coming in it would be a tough battle,” Giants quarterback Eli Manning who completed 31 of 45 throws for 349 yards and two touchdowns said. “A lot of games have come to the fourth quarter, and we knew it would be a tough road. They did a lot of good things defensively, ran a lot of different blitzes. We didn’t run the ball real well today, and we had to throw the ball more than we wanted to. But we’re capable of doing that.”

Elsewhere, Jacksonville was in a one-score game in the closing minute in Houston before bowing out to the first-place Texans, 24-14……Vikings rookie quarterback Christian Ponder engineered a come from behind victory against fellow rookie Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers.

Steelers Dominate Brady and the Pats

The Pittsburgh Steelers spent all week listening to experts bring up how Patriots quarterback Tom Brady had a 5-1 career record against them. To make matters worse, Pittsburgh was forced to play without the services of Pro Bowlers James Harrison, Hines Ward and James Farrior. The Steelers knew the deck was stacked against them but they refused to lose any confidence.

“You’ve just got to get the game film out from ’04,” Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said before the game. “I think we beat them 35-3 [34-20] or something like that. He was the quarterback that day. I think we had two interceptions for touchdowns. He’s gotten us and we’ve gotten him. I hope we do get him again. He is a great player but he’ll not do the same thing.”

All the Steelers did was shut down the leagues top offense en route to a 25-17 victory. New England was held to just 213 yards of total offense and Brady threw for just 198 yards.

“We definitely confused Brady,” Steelers safety Ryan Clark told NBC following the game.

While New England struggled to move the football, Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers racked up 427 yards of offense with Ben throwing for 365. Pittsburgh had 10 more first downs than their counterparts, ran 28 more plays, more than twice as many rushing yards (98-43) and had nearly a 2:1 time of possession advantage (39:22-20:38).

“It just wasn’t a really good day for us in any phase of the game, in any area,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said. “We just didn’t do a good enough job. That’s really all there is to say.”

There’s still half of the football season left to play and nothing is set in stone yet, but the Steelers look like the best team in the AFC as they own the conferences best record at 6-2.

“It’s a huge step,” Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons said. “The New England Patriots have Belichick and Brady. This is a team that contends in the AFC every year and goes to the championship or the Super Bowl. So having this win, in our house, is huge and something to build on.”

Next week Pittsburgh will try to avenge their opening day loss to Baltimore as they host the Ravens on Sunday Night Football.

Questionable Decisions From Carroll

The Seattle Seahawks were slight underdogs Sunday as they hosted the Cincinnati Bengals. Almost inexplicably, the Seahawks significantly outgained Cincinnati (411-252), had more first downs (20-18) and as many turnovers (two each) but were pounded 34-12.

“I can only think of what we can become, but it’s going to take some time,” Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said following the loss.

Carroll had a hand in the loss with some questionable decision making as he started Charlie Whitehurst following his atrocious 12 for 30, 97 yard, two interception performance last week at Cleveland when his offense could muster only three points. Whitehurst failed to move the football and the Seahawks found themselves in a 10-0 hole.

Playing Whitehurst for Tavaris Jackson is understandable, as Jackson was still hampered by his strained pectoral. It is understandable if starter Tavaris Jackson is unable to play, but Carroll switched to Jackson early in the second quarter. Jackson went on to throw for 323 yards in relief, and was able to pull the Seahawks within a score in the fourth period.

Carroll called Tarvaris Jackson’s effort “extraordinarily courageous,” and said, “He gives us our best chance.”

Aside from keeping a mostly effective Tavaris Jackson on the bench for more than one quarter, Carroll botched a crucial situation at the end of the first half.

Seattle was driving deep in Cincinnati territory when faced with a 4th-and-2 with 14 seconds remaining in the half. Armed with no timeouts on the Cincinnati 4-yard line and down 17-3, Carroll decided to forgo the chip-shot field goal attempt and ran the football with Marshawn Lynch. The good news is that Lynch gained three yards for a first down. Unfortunately by not throwing the ball and Lynch not scoring, the clock expired and Seattle was held scoreless.

“We’re still growing. We’re still looking for ways to improve. And I’ve got to help them more,” Carroll said.

It’s tough to say that a team that won it’s division and a playoff game last season is still growing as they sit with a 2-5 record. Nobody can argue that Carroll needs to help them more.

Gabbert Being Left Behind

When the Jacksonville Jaguars traded up in the first round of April’s draft to select quarterback Blaine Gabbert, it was clear that he would be the future of the franchise. With former starter David Garrard’s poor play in practice and preseason, it was very easy for the team to try and accelerate Gabbert’s development by playing him early.

Rookie mistakes are expected with any player, especially at the quarterback position. Even some of the all-time greats struggled early as Peyton Manning threw 28 interceptions as a rookie, his brother Eli tossed nine picks in seven starts and Troy Aikman led the Cowboys to a 1-15 record his rookie season.

Blaine Gabbert has started six games and if you judge him statistically, he’s one of the worst quarterbacks in football. Gabbert has completed just 45.2 percent of his throws for 907 yards with five touchdowns and four interceptions. Those numbers aren’t atrocious for a rookie but it appears that Gabbert is somewhat regressing.

In Gabbert’s first victory last Monday against Baltimore, he threw for just 93 yards while completing just 9 of 20 passes and taking five sacks.

“I thought he was making steady progress and he went up against a top end defense (Baltimore) and he regressed a little bit,” Jaguars offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said.

“He did what he had to do. We won the game. He didn’t turn the ball over and you would expect a rookie quarterback to be inconsistent at times. We felt like we had been seeing steady improvement, but we felt like he took a little bit of a step back fundamentally. You can say maybe that’s somewhat to be expected from a rookie, but it’s not necessarily acceptable. He knows that. I’m not saying anything he already doesn’t know,” Koetter added.

Playing against a lesser Houston Texans defense on Sunday, Gabbert had his worst game of the season as he connected on just 10 of 30 throws for 97 yards with one touchdown and a pair of interceptions. Gabbert’s rating was a career low 26.7.

“We expect to come in and succeed,” Jaguars quarterback Blaine Gabbert said when asked if his struggles are typical because he’s a rookie. “That’s an excuse, and I don’t like to use an excuse.

“Those are for weak people.”

Nobody expects Blaine Gabbert to look like a Pro Bowl quarterback as a rookie and nobody expects him to carry a bad Jaguars team to the playoffs, but the rest of his rookie class is showing more promise early on.

First-overall pick Cam Newton is completing better than 60 percent of his passes and is averaging nearly 300 yards passing per game. Newton has accounted for 18 touchdowns with just 11 turnovers. Second round pick Andy Dalton isn’t on pace to break any records, but he is completing better than 62 percent of his tosses with more touchdowns than interceptions. Most importantly, Dalton has helped Cincinnati to a 5-2 start when they won just four games all of 2010.

“We didn’t have to go far to surpass last year, unfortunately,” Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said.

The Minnesota Vikings just made the switch to rookie Christian Ponder and Ponder has led the team to 51 points in two games including a victory. Ponder’s stats are mediocre- 51.9 percent completions, with three touchdowns and two interceptions but the team has been more competitive and the offense is scoring points.

The book should be far from closed on Blaine Gabbert after just six starts. He has considerably less weapons than the other rookie quarterbacks and the Jaguars line play has been poor. Still, Gabbert needs to improve significantly if the Jaguars are going to win some football games.

Bye-er Beware

If you ask any veteran NFL player about his favorite parts of the regular season, the bye week will come up sooner rather than later. The bye gives players a chance to let their bodies rejuvenate, the minds re-focus and it allows coaches to get an extra week of film study on their next opponent.

Seemingly a team that is coming off a bye week would have a significant advantage over it’s next opponent. That hasn’t really played out this year. Thus far in 2011, teams coming off a bye week have won just eight of 18 contests.

Perhaps teams aren’t winning because of the new collective bargaining agreement which limits contact practices during the bye week. Instead of teams being healed and focused, the players seem distant and somewhat soft.

This week the Giants struggled with a winless Dolphins team and looked to be unfocused early on. Although New York laid an egg of a weeks ago at home against Seattle, that shouldn’t have happened again to a Tom Coughlin coached team. Especially against a Dolphins team that had all sorts of issues following their collapse last week.

Even the greatest coach in the game, Bill Belichick had his team come out flat against a very good Pittsburgh team. The Steelers looked fresher and more focused and executed their game plan to a dominating victory.

It’s possible that this bye week swoon is temporary and just a current statistical anomaly. For now the Bears, Falcons, Buccaneers, Packers, Jets and Raiders should all be on notice for next week.

Eagles Save Their Season

Following the “Dream Team’s” 1-4 start, Philadelphia has new life after pounding Dallas, 34-7. The Eagles looked like the Super Bowl contender they were touted to be as they jumped out to a 24-0 halftime lead and never looked back.

“We felt good about our game plan against everything they like to do,” Eagles quarterback Mike Vick told ESPN following the game.

The victory was clearly the most impressive Philly has had this season as the other two teams the Eagles have defeated (St. Louis and Washington) have a combined record of 4-11. Make no mistake, Philadelphia still has plenty of work to do as they have a 3-4 record and are tied for last place in the NFC East, but things are certainly looking up.

“Our approach was that the season started tonight and we had to get a win and we just want to keep pushing,” Vick said.

Philadelphia is two games behind the New York Giants in the division title race but the schedule seems favorable for a run. The Eagles host Chicago and then Arizona the next two weeks before traveling to the Meadowlands to take on the first-place Giants. New York visits New England before heading out west for a date with the first-place San Francisco 49ers prior to the matchup with Philly. It’s more than likely that the November 20th meeting between the two teams will be for a share of first place in the NFC East.

Extra Points

No Tebow Magic

The argument that Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow “just wins football games” didn’t really hold much water on Sunday as the Detroit Lions pounded Tebow and the Broncos, 45-10. Tebow completed just 18 of 39 throws for 172 yards, with one touchdown and one interception which was returned 100 yards for a touchdown and another fumble which was taken back 24 yards for another score. Tebow was sacked seven times.

“I just don’t know how effective that style can be over the course of long games and playing formidable opponents,” Tebow’s former teammate wide receiver Brandon Lloyd said this past week.

If you want to say a 45-10 loss isn’t just the quarterback’s fault, you’d be 100 percent correct. But doing so also means that last weeks victory wasn’t solely Tim Tebow’s doing. If the supporting cast is the problem, why wasn’t that excuse good enough for Kyle Orton? In five games as the Broncos starter, Orton was sacked nine times. In two games as a starter, Tim Tebow has been sacked 14 times.

Shanahan Shut Out

The Washington Redskins traveled north of the border and were shut out by the Buffalo Bills, 23-0. Redskins quarterback John Beck completed 20 of 33 throws for 208 yards but was picked off twice by an aggressive Bills defense.

“I kind of don’t have any answers right now,” Beck said. “I’m trying to figure that out myself. This is the one you want to see the tape, because it will be very telling.”

Amazingly, Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan had coached 267 games prior to Sunday and had never been shut out.

“It’s pretty humbling to take that,” Shanahan said. “That’s as bad as I’ve ever been involved with from the offensive side.”

Quarterbacks Feasting on the Pats

Ben Roethlisberger is amongst the elite quarterbacks in football as he has Pro Bowls to his credit and more importantly three Super Bowl appearances. Big Ben completed 36 of 50 throws for 365 yards, with two touchdowns and an interception in Sunday’s 25-17 victory over New England.

“We can be as good as we want to be,” Roethlisberger said. “When we don’t kill ourselves and stop ourselves, we can be pretty dangerous.”

The Patriots defense has surrendered a 300-yard passing performance in six of their last seven games, with Mark Sanchez and the Jets being the only team held under that mark. Perhaps this week’s release of cornerback Leigh Bodden wasn’t the right move.

Charlie Bernstein is the NFL Insider for ESPNFlorida.com and ESPN 1080 and 1040 in Orlando/Tampa and Editor-in-Chief of Sports Media Interactive, covering the National Football League, NCAA, and National Basketball Association. Charlie covers the Jacksonville Jaguars for FoxSports and has been featured on the NFL Network and Sirius NFL Radio. Charlie is also a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Charlie on Twitter @nflcharlie

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