1. I think the one good thing the Colts accomplished this offseason was improve their run defense (though considering the improvement is coming from mid-round picks David Parry and Henry Anderson on the defensive line, you could debate whether or not that was intentional). This is one season after the Colts made Jonas Gray look like Jim Brown circa 1958 and LeGarrette Blount look like Jim Brown circa 1958 if he was empowered by the invincibility star in Super Mario Bros. So that’s why I expect the Patriots to let Tom Brady air it out (with extreme prejudice) on Sunday night.
No unit in the NFL game-plans better than the Patriots offense. The Colts have been revving up to stop New England’s run game for some nine months now; unlike last year, they’re equipped to handle it. But the Patriots won’t even give them the satisfaction. The Colts don’t have the pass rush to get to Brady (even with Nate Solder sidelined), and if you can’t pressure Brady you have no hope of slowing him down. And yes, in the event that the Patriots are up two or three touchdowns, they’ll absolutely be throwing it throughout the fourth quarter.
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2. I know you kids these days like your french fries and your FM radio and, more than anything, your forward pass. But take some time to appreciate the running of Le’Veon Bell. (And not just from a he’s on my fantasy team perspective.) It’s the beauty of improvisation; the guy is Charlie Parker out there. Instead of hitting the hole, he stops, waits and plays peek-a-boo behind his blockers. And those jump cuts; not only does he cover an absurd amount of ground horizontally, but he always seems to time them at the perfect moment. He’s not Barry Sanders (because no one is Barry Sanders), but you might have to go back to No. 20 to find a back who has thrived using this kind of improvisational style.
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3a. I think this pretty much sums up everyone’s thoughts on Matthew Stafford these days (including us!).
It’s one thing to be the quarterback of a team with no running game. And it’s another thing to be the quarterback of a team with no running game and an offensive line that can’t pass protect. But Stafford is the quarterback of a team that can’t run the ball, can’t pass protect, and just happened to face elite defenses (Denver, Seattle, Arizona) each of the last three weeks.
You don’t need to be father of number theory Pierre de Fermat to connect the dots here: A quarterback, with a crappy supporting cast, facing a great defense, is going to play poorly. Stafford just happened to have three of those games in a row in the early season. The schedule will soften up and he’ll be fine. He didn’t become Brandon Weeden overnight, just like he’s not going to become Aaron Rodgers overnight.
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3b. Here’s another clip featuring Milhouse that I quite enjoy.
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4. I think, speaking of strength of schedule, the NFC South is something else right now. Neither the Falcons nor the Panthers are likely among the top-16 teams in the NFL, but with the division matching up with the AFC South and NFC East this year, each has a real shot at 12 wins.
And, really, even before Thursday night’s shellacking in New Orleans against a pretty bad Saints team: If you had given the Falcons the first five games of the Lions’ schedule (at San Diego, at Minnesota, vs. Denver, at Seattle, vs. Arizona), they’d be sitting at, what, 2-4, maybe 1-5 right now?
If you’re looking for the biggest driver behind parity in the NFL, it’s the schedule.
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5. I think we’re all kidding ourselves just a little bit when we refer to Seahawks running back Thomas Rawls as an underdog story. Rawls was most certainly talented enough to be drafted out of Central Michigan. He just disappeared from a lot of draft boards because of an incident in the summer of 2014, when he allegedly stole a woman’s purse at a casino and used her credit cards (originally facing felony charges, he eventually pled guilty to attempted larceny and returned to the football field soon after).
That’s not to say Rawls is a bad guy. I don’t know him at all, and I know I wouldn’t want to be judged on the decisions I made as a 21-year-old. But when you’re a mid-round talent at a low-priority position, this is the kind of thing that leads to you going undrafted. And the Seahawks, who rolled the dice on an even bigger character question mark when they took pass rusher Frank Clark—obliterated from many draft boards—in the second round last spring, have shown they’re willing to take risks on players with checkered pasts. (Not unlike the team they lost to in Super Bowl XLIX.)
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6. Decent catch…
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7. I think, while you’re counting down the hours to kickoff, you should spend some time with The MMQB Read of the Week: Robert Klemko’s X’s and O’s take on the 5-0 Bengals, including the impact you don’t see being made by Vincent Rey, a linebacker you might not have heard of.
“The coaches gave [Rey] the keys to this Ferrari that is this defense,” safety George Iloka says. “They trust him, and we trust him.”
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8. I think I’d like to take a moment to shill for a project I spent many hours working on over the last year. Sports Illustrated Super Bowl Gold: 50 Years of the Big Game is available from fine retailers everywhere.
I worked on first-person pieces for Super Bowls 36 through 47, talking to one player from each team, for each game, to get some insight from the men who were there. The majority of the guys I spoke to were great.
Adam Vinatieri talked about the one person who spoke to him (an equipment manager with a promise) on the way to the field before his first Super Bowl-winning kick. Tracy Porter talked about the Saints’ defensive backs cramming into a hotel room, sitting on blankets and eating pizzas, and noticing a certain route combination the Colts frequently ran on third-and-medium. Patriots pass rusher Jarvis Green spoke about having to re-live Eli Manning escaping his grasp, in commercial form. Jerome Bettis, Ed Reed, Devin Hester and Lincoln Kennedy (“I thought I’d go out on top, win the Super Bowl then announce my retirement. Instead, I cried like a baby”) had very different experiences playing the Super Bowl in their respective hometowns.
Matt Hasselbeck had my favorite anecdote (and as a bonus, it involves a urinal):
“During the preseason, they’d always tell us beforehand how much we’d play in that game. And for whatever reason, Steve Hutchinson and I would always end up at the urinal together before most games. We’d ask each other ‘How much do you think you’re playing tonight?’ So it’s before the Super Bowl, it’s a little tense in the locker room, and I see him. He has a really serious look on his face. He comes up to me like he’s going to say something really profound. He asks ‘How much do you think you’re playing tonight?’”
The book is beautiful, the stories are great. Some guy named Peter King did a nice job with the foreword. If you love football, you’ll love this book.
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9. Twelve-plus things I think about Sunday’s 12 games:
a. If ever there were a trap game for the New York Jets, this is it: home against Washington, Patriots coming up next week. Washington can run block, and their defense is going to make the Jets sustain some drives. They’re exactly the kind of team who will steal one from you if you’re not paying attention.
b. At one point during the fourth quarter Monday night, I said to myself (because my wife and kids were in bed and I have no friends): “The Steelers could play 18 quarters in San Diego and not have a touchdown drive.” Then Chargers corner Brandon Flowers defied all logic by jumping a route Mike Vick had zero chance of completing, allowing a walk-in touchdown. And then Vick finally used his legs on the final drive. With Ben Roethlisberger close to a return, his is conceivably Vick’s last NFL start, as he’s incapable of completing intermediate throws. The screen game isn’t surprising anyone. Vick has to chuck it deep and escape the pocket a few times if the Steelers are going to hold off Arizona.
c. Most running backs are fairly replaceable, but the Chiefs will sorely miss Jamaal Charles’ contributions in the run game and, more importantly, the screen game. I thought K.C. might be able to work themselves into the Wild-Card conversation after a torturous early season schedule, but sans-Charles I’m not sure they can compete.
d. Maybe Tyrod Taylor goes on Sunday. My guess would be he doesn’t. That could throw EJ Manuel into the fire against the 5-0 Bengals. That’s not an ideal matchup for which to be thrown back into the fire.
e. By the way, I’ll be at Ralph Wilson Stadium Sunday afternoon, as it’s the greatest place on earth on a football Sunday. Come by and say hello. I’ll be the 5-foot-9 white guy with medium build and dark hair, wearing jeans and a shirt of some kind, possibly a hat as well. Just look for Kevin.
f. I mentioned Matthew Stafford above, but hey, how ‘bout the other quarterback in this game? Jay Cutler has been sharp in back-to-back victories. Maybe a little Adam Gase magic at work.
g. If I’m a member of the Broncos right now (which I’m not), I’m telling anyone who will listen all about how we’re 5-0 despite Peyton Manning playing the worst football of his career. However, deep down I’d be terrified. With Manning struggling, and the running game non-existent, can this team string together three postseason wins?
h. Welcome back, Brian Hoyer. The vet returns to the starting lineup Sunday afternoon. And J.J. Watt continues to slam his head into a wall out of frustration.
i. Welcome to the show, Dan Campbell. On paper, the Dolphins should handle the Titans easily, even on the road. It’s up to Campbell to awaken a team (and specifically a pass rush) that’s been sleep-walking through the first quarter of the season.
j. Similar to the Falcons scheduling note above, the Panthers are at risk of being overpowered in Seattle. Especially with the Seahawks likely to come in laser-focused after blowing one in Cincinnati.
k. The Packers keep running out of weapons, and it’s fair to wonder how last week would have played out if, say, Nick Foles hadn’t thrown a series of crippling interceptions. They seem oddly vulnerable as the Chargers come into town.
l. The Ravens visit San Francisco; two proud franchises desperate for a win. I’ll be curious to see (a) How Joe Flacco performs on the road, against a solid defense, with most of his weapons missing, and (b) If Colin Kaepernick can string together two straight encouraging performances after a narrow loss at the Giants.
m. I know everyone is going to throw out “Deflategate” as motivation if the Patriots blow out the Colts. But really, the Patriots try to do this to everyone.
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10. I think, at 12:58 p.m. ET, you should turn your volume all the way up and press play…