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Going coast to coast as hard as ever

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Brian Billick

Brian Billick served as head coach of the Baltimore Ravens from 1999-2007, winning Super Bowl XXXV. He has also authored books, including More Than A Game: The Glorious Present and Uncertain Future of the NFL. Follow him on Twitter.

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I have said multiple times before that winning an NFL game on the road may be the toughest thing to do in all of team sports, and that is only amplified when you travel from coast to coast. On Sunday, we saw four teams from the West Coast make the cross-country trek to face opponents in the Eastern time zone, and all four of them lost.

The Seahawks traveled to Pittsburgh, but never really showed up. The Steelers took out their Week 1 frustrations on the Seahawks from the first snap and eventually pitched a shutout.

The Chargers traveled to New England, and while they were only down by a touchdown with 5:40 remaining in the fourth quarter, there was never a sense that they would steal a victory on the road.

The Cardinals traveled to Washington and almost stole a victory by forcing Rex Grossman into his old habits. Early in the game, Grossman threw two interceptions in the red zone and had at least one other that was dropped by a defensive back. It wasn’t just Grossman struggling early for the Redskins. After driving into Cardinals territory on each of their first five possessions, the Redskins could only put 10 points on the board. In addition to the interceptions, there were critical penalties and a blocked field-goal attempt, but it was a different story late in the game. Grossman led his team to 13 fourth-quarter points and a game-winning field goal to send the Cardinals packing.

In the end, the Redskins accumulated 455 total yards of offense, but they will be working on their red-zone scoring this week leading up to the divisional matchup in Dallas.

It was a similar story in Buffalo, as the Raiders took a 21-3 lead into halftime but couldn’t seal the deal against the Bills. This game was a tale of two halves as the Bills came out in the third quarter and scored on their first five possessions. Of the Bills’ 481 total yards, 386 of them were gained in the second half. Even then, they needed late-game heroics and a little bit of luck to send the Raiders packing.

In a fourth quarter that had five lead changes, Ryan Fitzpatrick finally hit David Nelson to secure the victory, but only after converting on two fourth downs on the 14-play, 80-yard drive. What hurts even more, just a couple plays before Nelson’s game-winning reception, Oakland cornerback Chris Johnson dropped an interception in the end zone.

In the latter of the four games, the home teams were able to overcome adversity and make the plays they needed late in the game. This is always an easier task at home when you have the momentum of the crowd behind you. Had Washington been on the road, I’m not convinced that Grossman overcomes his early mistakes and leads his team back in the fourth. Similarly, I’m not sure the Raiders don’t stop the Bills on at least one of those final-drive fourth down conversions, or better yet, hold on to that interception in the end zone.

This is precisely why teams fight so hard for home-field advantage in the playoffs. It makes a huge difference.

Interesting coaching decisions

There were two coaching decisions this weekend that could come into question, and coincidently enough, they both came from a Harbaugh. Let me just say, while both decisions may be questionable, they certainly aren’t wrong. In looking at the outcome, it is easy to go back and question strategy, but that doesn’t make it right or wrong in the heat of the moment.

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The first came in the Ravens’ loss to the Tennessee Titans. The Ravens were down by 13 points with just 6:58 remaining in the game, and had the ball on the Titans’ 11-yard line. After two drops in the end zone, coach John Harbaugh decided to kick the field goal and cut the lead to 10. The problem, the Ravens would need two more possessions to tie the ball game, and in the end, they barely even got it back once.

With it being third and 11 and having the typically dominant defense that they have, you can’t completely fault Harbaugh for taking the points. Looking back on it now, it is easy to say they should have gone for a touchdown because they only got one additional possession, but that is a call that could go either way. In the end, it didn’t matter much anyway, the Titans went right back and scored a field goal of their own, which put us right back to where we started.

The second came in the overtime thriller in San Francisco. With just over 11 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, David Akers connected on a 55-yard field goal to put the 49ers up by 10 points. On the kick, the Cowboys were flagged for a 15-yard penalty that would have given the 49ers a first down on the-23 yard line. Coach Jim Harbaugh elected to keep the three points on the board rather than risk a mistake on the next four downs and come away with nothing.

The old coaches’ adage says you never take the points off the board, and that’s the exact side I argued during the broadcast. But this decision could have triggered a series of events that may have led to a much different outcome. The Cowboys eventually came back and pushed the game into overtime by hitting a 48-yard field goal of their own. Simple math would suggest that had the 49ers accepted the penalty, and either had a turnover or missed the ensuing field goal, the Cowboys' final field goal would have won the game in regulation . . . maybe.

They also could have accepted the penalty, and still either had a turnover or missed field goal, but taken enough time off the clock for the Cowboys to not even have a chance at that final possession . . . therefore still heading to OT with a tie game at 21 points, rather than 24.

The 49ers could have also accepted the penalty, ran out some valuable clock, and then converted on the field goal later in the drive. Or, the 49ers accept the penalty and eventually score a touchdown. The latter two have the best probability of leading to a 49ers victory, but that’s easy to say now looking back at it in full.

In the end, there is no telling how accepting that penalty would have played out and affected the rest of the game. But given the outcome, I bet Jim Harbaugh would like to go back at accept it.

Quick Hits

Jonathan Casillas is an underrated pass rusher. He has a sack in each of the first two games and will be an impact player all year for the Saints.

It’s no surprise, but the Bears need to protect Jay Cutler. With 92 total, he is the most sacked quarterback in the NFL since 2009, and he was taken down another six times on Sunday.

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The Saints were able to hit on big plays against the Bears’ cover-2 defense. They will need to get this fixed in a hurry with the Green Bay Packers up next on their schedule. If not, their impressive win over the Falcons won’t matter much after losing two in a row.

The Bears’ offense runs through Matt Forte, not Jay Cutler. Forte may be the most complete back in the NFL. If you shut him down in the run game, he hits you with an explosive screen play or wheel route out of the backfield. Defenses must account for him on every play.

The Panthers had a great first-quarter strategy against the Packers -- don’t let Aaron Rodgers have the ball. It was nine minutes into the game before the Packers even had their first offensive possession.

While Cam Newton is still a rookie, he showed some veteran moxie on Sunday. I was most impressed after his first-possession touchdown pass to Greg Olsen was called back due to an illegal shift. Often times, a stupid penalty like that is hard to overcome, but he calmly came back and hit a quick screen, ran for a first down, and then had a great touch pass to Brandon LaFell for a touchdown.

The Ravens didn’t look like an inspired football team on Sunday. Is it possible that this team shot their gun early against the Steelers, and left nothing else in the chamber?

The Titans’ toss to Javon Ringer on fourth down was an excellent play call. They recognized they couldn’t attack the middle of the Ravens’ defense, and used the short-yardage situation to their advantage. With the Ravens flowing hard down hill, the Titans took advantage of their aggressive defense on the misdirection.

Kenny Britt will continue to be a mismatch for multiple defenses this season. His big frame is already a nightmare, but if teams sell out to stop Chris Johnson, he will have multiple chances to go up and get the ball in single coverage.

Josh Freeman is an excellent fourth-quarter quarterback, but the Bucs need him to get started earlier. This team only had three first downs in the first half against Minnesota, and it can’t ride that way all season. Still, you can’t overstate the fact that he is 26-of-37 for 260 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter this season.

This is the second week in a row that Minnesota has blown a first-half lead. The Vikings were up by 10 in Week 1 and 17 this week. That can’t happen in the NFL.

You won’t hear me say this very often, but punter Andy Lee is a weapon for the 49ers. This guy can flat-out boom it and that is the hidden yardage that no one really takes the time to point out.

Jason Peters’ downfield blocking was very impressive on Sunday night. He got to the second level of the Falcons’ defense and looked like a fullback clearing the way on long runs and screens for the Eagles.

Tagged: Bills, Bears, Cowboys, Packers, Titans, Raiders, Saints, 49ers, Redskins, Panthers, Ravens, Cardinals, Rex Grossman, Jay Cutler, Matt Forte, David Nelson, Chris Johnson

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