What do the great competitors on the best teams do? They find something their opponents can't stop. They latch on and, like a big nasty leech, they suck blood until pried off with an open flame.
(Or something like that.)
Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium, Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning exploited the Kansas City Chiefs' weak downfield passing defense to score four unanswered touchdowns in a 35-28 victory. Watching it go down was like seeing a slideshow on continuous loop. You knew what was coming and could eventually predict it on demand. Yet the Chiefs couldn't pry off the Broncos until the Broncos had all but locked up the AFC West championship.
We'll dive deeper on that dynamic, along with a few other instances I stumbled upon while taking in Week 13, below.
1. Recognition, Denver Broncos: It didn't happen until they were trailing 21-7 midway through the second quarter, but the Broncos figured out that the Chiefs quite simply weren't up to defending their downfield passing game. In a span of 19 minutes, 50 seconds between the second and fourth quarters, the Broncos scored 28 points. Three of them came on passes to receiver Eric Decker on touchdowns of 37, 15 and 1 yards. Decker also set up the fourth touchdown with a 42-yard reception. Fellow receiver Demaryius Thomas, meanwhile, hauled in a 77-yard pass. Chiefs rookie cornerback Marcus Cooper was victimized on two of the touchdowns, but the real blame -- as Manning seemed to understand -- goes to the Chiefs' safety play. As a group, they were impossibly slow to the ball and couldn't keep Decker in front of them. Manning kept firing downfield, and the Chiefs made no discernible schematic adjustment to help out players who had demonstrated they couldn't succeed in the defense they had been put in. The slideshow continued looping until the Broncos had turned a 21-7 deficit into a 35-21 advantage. Overall, Manning completed eight passes of his 10 attempts that traveled at least 15 yards downfield.
2. James Develin, New England Patriots fullback: You might never see a more contested and ultimately satisfying 1-yard run than the one Develin produced Sunday against the Houston Texans. The play began with an ill-advised attempt to dive over the line of scrimmage. Texans linebacker Jeff Tarpinian pushed Develin back, but by my count, that was the first of six failed attempts to bring him down. Develin bounced his way down the left side of the line before finally falling backward into the end zone for a touchdown. In other words, more than half of the Texans' defense had a chance to tackle him but could not. We live in an era when teams use empty backfields in short yardage situations more often than a fullback dive. Develin's run was a throwback to a few generations ago, when teams employed bruising 250-pound runners, dressed them with a number in the 40s and asked them to plow through short-yardage situations. Develin is listed at 255 pounds and wears No. 46, by the way.
3. Scouting, Philadelphia Eagles: How did the Eagles beat a hot Arizona Cardinals team and its exceptional defense Sunday? Much as the Broncos did in Kansas City, the Eagles identified a weakness and exploited it. All three of their touchdowns came on passes from Nick Foles to a tight end. Zach Ertz caught two and Brent Celek added another. Why is this important? According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Cardinals entered Week 13 having given up more yardage and touchdown passes to tight ends than any other NFL team. Foles targeted tight ends on 12 of his 34 attempts, a season high. Cardinals coach Bruce Arians was largely dismissive of the Eagles' scheme during the week, but Foles and coach Chip Kelly found a way to accomplish the basic goal of any offense: outscore their opponent.
4. Light officiating touch, Peter Morelli: It has been a few weeks since we last broke down the frequency of penalty calls by referee crews. At the time, Morelli's crew was calling an NFL-low average of 11.2 combined penalties per game (for context, John Parry's crew led the league with an average 17.9 penalties). So maybe we shouldn't be surprised that Morelli's crew called only two accepted penalties in Sunday's game between the Patriots and Texans (the Texans got hit with both). Low penalty totals aren't necessarily a virtue for NFL officials, of course. But over time, crews gain reputations much like baseball umpires or NBA officials. Morelli's crew, it can be safely said, is more likely to "let them play," than, say, Parry's. This is an important collection of information as teams prepare for games.
5. Robbie Gould, Chicago Bears place-kicker: Yes, it's true that Gould missed two potentially game-winning field goals on a day when the Bears lost to the Vikings. He magnanimously took blame for the loss, but it's important to note how unique his day was and how his coach did him no favors. First, Gould was present for the overnight birth of his first child in Chicago. He took an early morning flight to Minnesota but it's hard to believe he got any sleep. Coach Marc Trestman then sent him out to attempt a 66-yarder on the last play of regulation. The kick was understandably short. Then, Trestman passed up two chances to get Gould a closer kick in overtime, choosing instead to kick on second down. Gould was just wide on a 47-yard attempt. It was a makeable kick, but Gould deserves a bit of a break there.
6. Tear ducts of Knowshon Moreno, Denver Broncos tailback: It's not unusual for an American citizen to get emotional during a well-performed rendition of the national anthem. And we all know that professional athletes possess physical capacities beyond that of the average American. But I'm not sure we've ever seen a set of tear ducts produce the way Moreno's did Sunday afternoon at Arrowhead. CBS cameras captured a blink that brought forth a flood first from his right eye and then, after a another blink, from his left. Most football players whip themselves into an emotional frenzy, and Moreno was one week removed from a career-best game. It was not immediately clear if there was a more personal explanation for the tears, and so I don't want to make light of the scene. But no matter the cause, it was an impressive display. Don't take it from me. Here's a photo for your own viewing.
1. A forgettable sequence of professional football: Last week's ESPN.com Hot Read focused on anecdotal observations that quality of play in the NFL is down this season. Many league observers are concerned that backup players are inadequately prepared to play when starters get hurt, leading to some brutal displays. We got to see a few of those, in near-simultaneous fashion, Sunday afternoon. In Cleveland, the Jacksonville Jaguars took a fourth-quarter lead when Browns (backup) quarterback Brandon Weeden couldn't control center Alex Mack's shotgun snap. The ball rolled 14 yards and eventually went out of the end zone for a safety (Weeden had earlier committed turnovers on three consecutive possessions). At about the same time, Bears (backup) quarterback Josh McCown made a terrible decision to flip a pass wildly into a crowd. Vikings linebacker Audie Cole tipped the ball into the air. Bears guard Kyle Long caught it -- and promptly fumbled. The Vikings, of course, failed to capitalize on the ensuing possession because a potential touchdown pass bounced off the chest of tight end Rhett Ellison and was intercepted. Ellison, you see, was playing only because of an injury to starting tight end Kyle Rudolph. For some reason, the "Three Stooges" theme song has been playing in my head every since. ...
2. Quarterback change, New York Jets: It's difficult to imagine a less inspiring change to the depth chart than the one Jets coach Rex Ryan orchestrated at halftime of a 23-3 loss to the Miami Dolphins. This is nothing against backup Matt Simms, who seemed awfully fired up to get on the field. Simply, Ryan stuck with starter Geno Smith for such an extended period of futility that it was clear he thought nothing of Simms' ability to spark the team. The Jets have been in the mix of the NFL playoff race, and yet Ryan continued with a quarterback who now has led the team to one touchdown in its past 36 possessions. The Jets went all in this season on a rookie who wasn't ready to be an NFL starter, and by the time Ryan got around to acknowledging that, it was too late.
3. Attendance, NFL stadiums: Week 13 brought the first local blackout of the 2013 season. The San Diego Chargers were about 5,000 tickets short of a sellout for their game against the Cincinnati Bengals, but Qualcomm Stadium was not the only facility that seemed less than full Sunday. Photographs at FedEx Field (Washington), First Energy Stadium (Cleveland) and Rogers Centre (Toronto, where the Buffalo Bills had a home game) all showed thousands of empty seats. The matchups in those games were particularly bad, each featuring two teams with losing records, and no one had high expectations for attendance in Toronto (announced: 38,969.). But it's only the first week in December and a bit early for fans to give up on their teams -- or at least in attending their games. At the very least, it seems clear that the NFL needs to enhance its push to make game attendance more attractive.
4. Misplaced attention, Indianapolis Colts: Sunday began with reports that the Colts would start tailback Donald Brown and acknowledge that Trent Richardson -- whom they spent a first-round draft pick to acquire -- would be the backup. The Colts' shaky running game masked what might be a bigger problem: Their pass protection. Quarterback Andrew Luck took five sacks and was hit three other times by the Tennessee Titans. Sunday was Luck's third game in four weeks with a Total QBR less than 38. A stronger running game would help, but it is not the only issue going on with the Colts at the moment.