The Broncos remain perfect after exposing Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. Here’s how Denver held Green Bay to just 77 passing yards. Plus more from Week 8, including Drew Brees’ incredible day, the possible return of Steve Smith Sr. and big injuries on a brutal Sunday
So, let’s review what we learned in Week 8, in the league where they play … for pay:
1. Denver has the best defense in football.
2. The best three teams in football are all in the AFC: New England, Denver and Cincinnati, probably but not certainly in that order.
3. Carolina and Green Bay are the best in the NFC, probably in that order, too. The Packers’ offense continued a trend of worrisome play Sunday night in Denver. The Pack is averaging 19.5 points a game over the past month.
4. Charles Woodson, 39, is not finished—not after his 65th career interception on Sunday. The oldest defensive player in football leads the league with five picks.
5. Peyton Manning, 39, is not finished, after outplaying Aaron Rodgers markedly Sunday night in Denver.
6. Tom Brady, 38, is definitely not finished; he’s the best player in football.
7. Drew Brees, 36, is not finished either. He played the game of his life on Sunday, a seven-touchdown-pass masterpiece against the Giants.
8. Steve Smith, 36, is not finished either. I mean, I’m hearing he’s really not finished. He had announced his retirement effective at the end of this season, but was already talking about surgery and rehab for the Achilles he shredded against San Diego on Sunday. He could give the Ravens one more season in 2016.
9. The Bengals are not fooling around.
10. We learned more about the Broncos this weekend than we learned about any other team. Very late Sunday night, over the phone from Denver, cornerback Chris Harris summed it up quite well.
“We just held Aaron Rodgers to 50 [net passing] yards!” the rising-star cornerback yelled over the phone. “AARON RODGERS! That’s a little shocking.”
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The football world entered Sunday night trying to comprehend a few things. Did Eli Manning and Drew Brees really just combine for 13 touchdown passes and 101 points in New Orleans? Did Andy Dalton really play better in the clutch than Ben Roethlisberger at Heinz Field? Are the Raiders really over .500 in November? How did the Lions go from the playoffs in January to the Washington Generals in November?
But we also wanted to know if there was any hope for Peyton Manning, coming off a bye, to play like Peyton Manning again. As much as the result of the Sunday night game between twin 6-0 teams, Denver and Green Bay, the Manning question was on the minds of every fan and every media person. I’m sure it was on his mind entering this game too, though Manning denied it afterward. “How can I say this without hurting anybody's feelings?” he told the press after Denver’s surprisingly lopsided 29-10 victory. “I just don't give what y’all say that much merit. It just doesn't—I'm not going to put a Jim Mora on you and say the famous, ‘You think you know, but you just don't know and you never will.’ ”
Manning was a superb and efficient machine, helped by the emergence of a running game (160 rushing yards) and finally some help from his tight ends (105 receiving yards). He threw for 340 yards, and wasn’t sacked. “Peyton,” said Chris Harris, “looked like Peyton Manning.”
Imagine bigger news than Manning’s best game of the year coming out of this game. There was. It revolved around AARON RODGERS! and the stifling of the Packers’ passing game. All credit to defensive coordinator Wade Phillips for building a smart and aggressive game plan, and holding Rodgers to the lowest yardage—77 gross passing yards—of his eight-year starting career. “The game plan was bring the heat, load the box, keep him in the pocket and force him to throw quick,” said Harris. “Wade put it on us: If we let him go outside, that’s where he’s going to get us.”
I’d never heard this before, but when Harris talked about Green Bay’s receivers, he voiced what I seemed to notice while watching the game—that the Denver secondary stuck with its coverage far longer than you normally see.
“That’s right,” he said. “We basically had to cover twice. That was the plan. First you cover your guy for two-and-a-half seconds. Then you don’t stop. You figure Rodgers is getting out on the edge, scrambling around looking for a receiver after he leaves the pocket. And we were able to hang in there. I think when you hold Aaron Rodgers to 50 yards, you know you’re capable of being great as a defense.”
It was more than great coverage, though. In the second quarter, after Denver had gone up 14-0, Green Bay started from its 20-yard line. Rodgers hit Davante Adams for eight, and then began the long slog back. Or so it seemed.
Next snap: Eddie Lacy slammed up the middle and got nothing, smothered by a group that included defensive end Derek Wolfe. Now third-and-2.
Next snap: Still confident in the run, Rodgers handed on a stretch run to Lacy again. Wolfe burrowed in, stout defensive tackle Sylvester Williams didn’t allow the pile to move, and linebacker Danny Trevathan came in to help finish it off. Gain of one.
Field goal on the next series for Denver. Broncos, 17-0.
Green Bay totaled 40 yards in the second half. The Green Bay Packers, possessors of the best offense in football—or so we would have believed on opening day—were totally smothered.
“I haven’t had my ass kicked like that for a long time,” Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy said.
• THE BENTON HARBOR MIRACLE: Robert Klemko on how a grizzled veteran coach with more than 40 years of pro and college experience turned a down-and-out Michigan high school team into a winner—and changed his players’ lives
“When you get criticized the whole season, you live for a game like this,” said DeMarcus Ware. “During the week, I talked to the guys—I talked to the guys who play run defense. I said, ‘You guys don’t get the recognition, but you’re the heart of our defense. You make us go. This week, we’ve got to crush the pocket.’ ”
And they did.
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Top AFC playoff seeding drama all but over
The drama atop three of the four AFC divisions, with nine weeks still to go, is basically over.
In the AFC East, New England has a three-game lead plus the tiebreaker over the Jets.
In the AFC North, Cincinnati has a 3.5-game lead plus the tiebreaker over the Steelers.
In the AFC West, Denver has a three-game lead plus the tiebreaker over the Raiders.
(The AFC South is in its own Triple-A world. There could be a tie at 3-5 between Houston and Indy if the Colts lose in Carolina on Monday night.)
The NFL schedule just might make AFC play interesting down the stretch. When Howard Katz and his lieutenants put the schedule together last spring, they had no way of knowing how dramatic and well-spaced the last 10 weeks of the season could be.
This week it was unbeaten Green Bay at unbeaten Denver, and last-gasping Pittsburgh with Ben Roethlisberger back hosting unbeaten Cincinnati.
Four weeks later, on Sunday night in Week 12, it’s New England at Denver … maybe Brady playing Manning for the last time.
Four weeks later, on Monday night in Week 16, it’s Cincinnati at Denver, maybe for a first-round playoff bye.
A lot can change between now and then, and a lot will change. Some team is going to go on a roll—Oakland (Michael Irvin actually said on NFL Network Sunday night that the Raider triplets remind him of the old Dallas triplets) or Minnesota or Seattle. But I expect New England and Denver and Cincinnati to be the AFC’s top three seeds in some order on the morning of Jan. 4, 2016.
The Steve Smith Sr. story
Some of you (flattering myself here) may have noticed I was missing from the set of NBC’s Football Night in America on Sunday night. I have permission to miss a couple of shows a year to work on writing projects, and I was in Cleveland on Sunday, with the Cardinals, working on one that should be out in a couple of weeks. But as word filtered out from Baltimore that Steve Smith Sr., the Ravens receiver who’d previously announced his retirement effective at the end of the season, was likely out for the year with a torn Achilles, I told a few Cardinals. They winced, mostly, and shook their heads sadly. Smith, for his occasional hot-headedness, is almost universally admired among players in the league. They might have had run-ins with him, but most love his fire.
And so when I told Larry Fitzgerald about it in the Cards’ locker room, he looked suddenly emotional. This, on the day when Fitzgerald passed Smith for 14th place on the career receptions list, with 964 catches to Smith’s 961.
“It breaks your heart,” Fitzgerald said. “I just saw him last week on Monday night, and the guy, playing through a broken back, is just the ultimate competitor. When you think of somebody who embodies greatness and toughness, somebody who came in as a special teams guy and elevated himself to one of the greatest receivers to ever play the game, that’s Steve. I always looked up to him and admired the way he played, the tenacity he played with. I felt the same way when Reggie Wayne tore his ACL a couple years ago in year 13 of his career. You never want to see anybody get hurt, especially legends-of-the-game type guys. But the way he works and the way he takes care of himself, he could play another three years if he wanted.”
Now comes word that Smith might not quit. Coach John Harbaugh raised the issue Sunday by saying, “I have a feeling Steve Smith will be back,” and others close to Smith think it’s unlikely he’d quit now, for a couple reasons. He doesn’t relish the last image of him on a football field being one with two Ravens staffers helping him off the field, a towel draped over his head so fans and cameras wouldn't see him crying. And he still desperately loves the game.
There’s another reason, illustrated by the scene in the Baltimore locker room after the Ravens’ win over San Diego. A stream of players and coaches came by to talk to Smith, or simply to hug him. One person in the locker room estimated it was well over half the team. Harbaugh came by, and with nowhere to sit, sat on the floor and talked to Smith for several minutes. In less than two years, Smith has established himself as the Ravens’ toughest player. He’s under contract for next year, and it’s conceivable that the team would not only welcome him back but also urge him to come back. He was on pace for a 1,435-yard receiving season (95.7 yards per game, with one game missed) when he went down. Betting on his production would be risky, coming back from Achilles surgery at 37. But it seems worth the $3 million investment; that’s his scheduled salary next year. Stay tuned.
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Anyone left standing?
A partial list of the players who left Week 8 games with an injury:
Calvin Johnson, Darius Slay, Josh Wilson, Andre Fluellen, Joe Haden, Donte Whitner, Le’Veon Bell, Ray Maualuga, Carlos Dunlap, Andre Smith, Khiry Robinson, Larry Donnell, Orleans Darkwa, Jacquies Smith, Desmond Trufant, Robert Alford, Ricardo Lockette, Greg Hardy, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Geno Smith, Brandon Marshall, Chris Watt, Chris Hairston, King Dunlap, Jason Verrett, Keenan Allen, Corey Liuget, Ladarius Green, Stevie Johnson, Steve Smith Sr., Matt Forte, Eddie Royal, Duane Brown, Kurtis Drummond, Kendall Wright, Reggie Bush, Sam Shields, Quinten Rollins, Cam Wake, Garrett Celek and Jadeveon Clowney.
Just in case you forgot what you were watching.
I don’t know if this is high for a midseason week, but I do know the names could fill half a Pro Bowl roster. Or more.
Fun with Drew Brees
“It was like magic,” C.J. Spiller said Sunday in New Orleans, referring to the day Drew Brees had at the Superdome: 40 of 50 passes completed, a career-best 511 yards, seven touchdowns, one interception. Spiller hasn’t been around the Saints long—only half a season. He hasn’t seen what New Orleans has seen for the last 10 seasons, since Brees arrived in 2006 and started playing football the way few quarterbacks ever have. Sunday was a mile-marker for Brees and his New Orleans legacy. He said afterward the weirdness in the 52-49 win over the Giants “wasn’t about numbers,” but we’re going to make it that way this morning.
The five factoids/numbers/bizarre things I thought about Brees’ game, and the footprints he is leaving in New Orleans:
1. Brees has been down this road before. In his 10th regular-season game with the Saints, in 2006, he threw for 510 yards against the Bengals. In his 150th regular-season game with the Saints, in 2015, he threw for 511 yards against the Giants.
2. Brees had a day. Brees threw seven touchdown passes on Sunday. Peyton Manning has seven touchdown passes this season.
3. The best 30 minutes of Brees’ career. Well, that’s conjecture. But in a 30-minute span Sunday, here were his five drives:
Six plays, 80 yards, 34-yard touchdown pass.
Five plays, 96 yards, 26-yard touchdown pass.
Five plays, 80 yards, 53-yard touchdown pass.
Fourteen plays, 60 yards, two-yard touchdown pass.
Eight plays, 80 yards, 21-yard touchdown pass.
4. Brees has been doing this a while. Odell Beckham Jr. scored three touchdowns for the Giants. When the Saints signed Brees, Beckham was a 13-year-old seventh-grader in New Orleans.
5. Brees was almost on the losing side. Early in the fourth quarter, the Saints led 42-28 and it seemed they finally might have the game in hand. Nope. The Giants scored 21 points in five minutes to go ahead, 49-42. Brees couldn’t actually lose this game, could he? He drove his team 80 yards to tie it with 36 seconds left, and then, after a strange Giants series that ended in a punt and a facemask penalty, there were five seconds left on the clock when Kai Forbath lined up for a 50-yard field goal. He aced it. Saints, 52-49.
“I guess this is our reality,” Brees said afterward.
Where do we buy tickets for this reality show?
The road back for Jason Pierre-Paul, through the eyes of his coach
When Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul was maimed in a July 4 fireworks accident in Florida—he lost his right index finger amidst other damage to the hand—agent Eugene Parker called former Cowboys defensive line coach and Oklahoma head coach John Blake to tutor Pierre-Paul in his comeback from the injury. Blake traveled to Florida a half-dozen times, and spent several days on each visit coaching Pierre-Paul in football and rebuilding his confidence. In Blake’s own words, his experience with Pierre-Paul, and what Blake expects when JPP returns to the field—which could be as soon as Sunday in Tampa Bay:
“I’ve trained a lot of defensive lineman—Dwight Freeney, Jerry Hughes, Robert Quinn, others. I think it’s a gift I have. Eugene Parker reached out to me after the accident and said, ‘Jason needs you now.’ When I first saw Jason, he was down. Discouraged. The first thing I said was, ‘Look, my friend, get your head up. Forget about your hand. It’ll heal. You made a mistake. We’ve all made them. So let’s start working on rushing the passer.’
“What I worked with him on was this: There’s a way of rushing the passer that doesn’t have anything to do with rasslin’. We watched tape of good rushers, and how they rush, how they set people up, and how they use speed. He already had enough [negativity] around him; I never dealt with the negative. I always dealt with what he could do. He’s got a gift to rush the passer, and what I tried to do is help him see he could use his speed to get around the edge. So he doesn’t want to be too heavy. [Pierre-Paul has lost about 10 pounds, and weighs around 267.]
“I went [to Florida] to train him more as the hand healed. The doctors have released him to play now, and so one of the things I wanted to do was get him comfortable with the soreness that was going to come with using the hand, and getting it banged around. Even a healthy hand will get sore. I just told him, ‘Jason, use the hand. Be violent. Be physical.’ And he’s to the point now where he’s comfortable using his hands. He knows what he can do. I want him to know he’s doesn’t always have to be the kind of rusher he had been. DeMarcus Ware is not a bull-rusher. He uses speed to beat people. And Jason can do that too. I honestly believe he can do this to offenses: I am going to make you scared of my edge-rushing. I think he can be a tornado. I’m very confident in what he can do.
“He knows he’s going to be great a year from now. He wants to be great now.”
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Quotes of the Week
“It’s my fault, not his. I let my heart get in the way of my gut.”
— Mets manager Terry Collins, who, instead of pulling Matt Harvey for his closer, allowed Harvey to start the ninth inning with a 2-0 lead. The first two batters reached base, the Royals tied the game, and Kansas City went on to win the World Series with five runs in the 12th.
“Are we really talking about fantasy football? Wait a second. We have $19 trillion in debt, people out of work, ISIS and Al Qaeda attacking us and we’re talking about fantasy football? Enough on fantasy football! Let people play! Who cares?”
— Presidential candidate Chris Christie, at the Republican debate Wednesday night, railing at the moderators who asked fellow candidate Jeb Bush if fantasy football should be regulated by the federal government.
“There’s nothing more satisfying than saddling the Indianapolis Colts with a loss, something the Patriots did 16 times in Willie McGinest’s career.”
— New England owner Robert Kraft, at a ceremony honoring McGinest on Thursday night at Gillette Stadium.
“I’ll try to get through this quickly. My wife’s been waiting in the car for the last two and a half hours.”
— A Raiders fan who spoke Thursday night at the public hearing in Oakland, staged by the NFL to hear voices on the topic of the Raiders’ possible franchise relocation, via Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times.
“Public hearing” is a polite way to refer to an event that was more like “a chance to lob tomatoes at all the people trying to steal our team and place it in Los Angeles.” St. Louis held one Tuesday night, and San Diego on Wednesday night.
“I do about 19 calf raises in the morning while I am brushing my teeth just to see how it feels. I’m on my thousandth tomorrow, not that I’m counting.”
— Victor Cruz, who missed his 18th straight game on Sunday—the first 10 with a torn patellar tendon and the last eight with a nagging calf injury that won’t go away. He made the comments at the premier of his Showtime documentary “I Am Giant: Victor Cruz” last week in Manhattan.
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The Awards Section
OFFENSIVE PLAYERS OF THE WEEK
Sorry, Tom Brady and Eli Manning and Peyton Manning and Odell Beckham Jr. and Todd Gurley and Jameis Winston (for the biggest win of his eight-game career at formerly 6-1 Atlanta) and Russell Wilson (for the final 17-play winning drive in Dallas), all of whom could be lauded in this space. I thought two men stood above all.
Drew Brees, quarterback, New Orleans. For having one of the best days a quarterback has ever had. The numbers are other-worldly: 40 of 50, 511 yards, seven touchdowns, one interception, in the Saints’ 52-49 win over the Giants … and he did it on All Saints Day. “I visualized this,” he said after his career-best yardage day. “But it wasn’t quite this big.” No. How could it be?
Derek Carr, quarterback, Oakland. Well, we thought the Jets had an outstanding defense. Sunday was a debacle of a day for that unit, in part because Carr was on fire for the first 28 minutes of the game. He threw his four touchdown passes in the first half and on the first drive of the second, scoring on throws of five, 36, 49 and 59 yards. For the game, he was 23 of 36 for 333 yards, with the four scores and no picks, in Oakland’s 34-20 win.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Kwon Alexander, linebacker, Tampa Bay. He stands above all defenders after his game in Atlanta. The 21-year-old rookie middle linebacker was playing with the heaviest burden after his 17-year-old brother, Broderick Taylor II, was shot dead in a fight in Alabama on Friday night. Alexander decided to play, and came up with the best game of his young career. After an end zone interception of Matt Ryan and a long return was negated by a penalty early at the Georgia Dome, he still had two very big plays to make. He stripped Julio Jones of the ball in mid-sprint, then returned it 20 yards, leading to a field goal. And late in the first half, he picked Ryan (and it counted), returning the ball 15 yards to midfield, and setting up Jameis Winston’s only touchdown pass of the day. Alexander led all Bucs and Falcons with 11 tackles. “What this guy did today was something special,” said Logan Mankins, in presenting Alexander with the game ball after the Bucs’ 23-20 overtime win. Alexander wept as Mankins, with his arm around the rookie, spoke. “I got a lot of respect for what you did today.” Alexander paid tribute to his brother thusly: “All he wanted me to do was ball. I gave this game to him. I came out here and dedicated this game to him.” Someone asked Alexander if he thought of his brother out on the field during the game. Said Alexander: “Every play.”
SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYER OF THE WEEK
David Irving, defensive lineman, Dallas. He very nearly saved the Cowboys’ season with one of the clutch blocked kicks of the year. With the Cowboys ahead 12-10 midway through the fourth quarter, he swatted down Steven Hauschka’s 47-yard field-goal try, preventing Seattle from taking the lead. Great play at the perfect time—even if the Cowboys did allow Seattle to drive the length of the field for the winning field goal minutes later.
Kai Forbath, kicker, New Orleans. Imagine the score is 49-all, you’ve never attempted a field goal for your new team, you’re asked to boot a 50-yarder on the last play of the craziest game of the 2015 season, and you know your career in New Orleans is hanging on a thread as this week’s itinerant kicker of the week for the Saints. And you drill a 50-yarder. “Brees had seven touchdowns and we told him the game ball is going to the kicker,” said coach Sean Payton. “Outstanding! It was his first kick, right? That’s as big a kick as you can have with a new team.”
Justin Tucker, kicker, Baltimore. Somebody had to win this game—allegedly. And Tucker was huge for the Ravens, making all five of his field goal tries (48, 29, 48, 45 and 39 yards), the final one with three seconds left to win an exhausting game at home.
COACH OF THE WEEK
Bruce Arians, head coach, Arizona. Carson Palmer told me an incredible thing after the Cards’ 34-20 win in Cleveland: He said Arians’ play-calling was the best of any coach at any level of football in any game he’s ever played. “B.A. was just on fire for four quarters,” he said. “The runs were right on. The passes, we had guys open on everything. It was special.” The Cardinals were a phenomenal 13 of 16 in third-down efficiency—on the road, on a windy day on the shores of Lake Erie—and ran for 119 yards and threw for 372. It would have been a rout if the Cardinals didn’t turn it over four times. What a relationship Arians and Palmer have, the kind that can take a team far in January.
GOAT OF THE WEEK
Geno Smith, quarterback, N.Y. Jets. Smith spent the afternoon reminding Jets fans why he hasn’t been missed. Late in the first half he floated an ill-advised pass down the left sideline that was intercepted by Charles Woodson. Worse was his game management in the fourth quarter, taking multiple sacks when he could have easily thrown the ball away, and generally operating the offense with no sense of urgency as the Jets tried to mount a comeback in Oakland.
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Stat of the Week
Take away the glitzy quarterbacks tonight, look at the gritty running games, and you see another reason why Carolina should be 7-0 shortly before midnight in Charlotte.
• Total rushing yards, past 10 regular-season games
Panthers: 204, 135, 133, 119, 172, 105, 194, 209, 123, 271.
Colts: 75, 120, 110, 60, 133, 93, 64, 64, 1*, 110.
*Not a typo. 10 carries, 1 rushing yard against Dallas last December.
• Average rushing yards per game, past 10 regular-season games
The Panthers have rushed for double the yards—almost precisely—of the Colts over the past 10 games. So even after importing Frank Gore and Todd Herremans in the off-season so Indianapolis would be more competitive on the ground, add “construction of a running game” to the myriad jobs GM Ryan Grigson has on his plate to get this team back to the top of the AFC.
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Factoid of the Week That May Interest Only Me
The Cardinals played for 18 years in Sun Devil Stadium, on the campus of Arizona State University in Tempe, after they moved from St. Louis to Arizona in 1988. The team began playing in a new venue, University of Phoenix Stadium, in Glendale, Ariz., in 2006.
Cardinals games in Sun Devil Stadium: 180.
Sellouts in Sun Devil Stadium: 12.
Cardinals games in University of Phoenix Stadium: 99.
Sellouts in University of Phoenix Stadium: 99.
Chris Cooley did color Sunday for Fox on the Arizona-Cleveland game, which was an interesting juxtaposition for him and the Cardinals.
In the summer, when the Cards were talking to free agent tight end Jermaine Gresham about signing a contract, the team thought it was close to a deal for a couple of days, and was getting impatient for him to commit. So the team decided to invite another free-agent tight end in for a workout. Maybe, the Cardinals figured, that would spur Gresham into action. So they arranged for a workout for another tight end, and word conveniently got out.
Gresham agreed to terms that day.
The other tight end never came in for the workout after all.
The other tight end: Chris Cooley.
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Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Note of the Week
So I was fortunate enough to continue a ritual autumn pleasure last Wednesday: attending a World Series game. I took a close friend from my New Jersey days, Ken Fost, as a celebration of his 80th birthday, and we went to Kansas City’s 7-1 victory, sitting in the middle of the third-to-last row in the lower bowl between home and third base.
A thoroughly enjoyable experience, from the time we stepped onto the Arrowhead-Kauffman complex. I met Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller for a Boulevard Wheat (actually two) in the parking lot before the game. Ken and I sat down well before the start of the game and watched batting practice and the regular game prep as people began to come into the section around us. A mom and her daughter—who had a huge sign—sat and then got ready to go get some food, and we said we’d watch their stuff; we weren’t going anywhere. They thanked us, and offered us popcorn on their return. The guy sitting in front of me, a lawyer from Washington, formerly lived in Kansas City and said he simply couldn’t miss the chance to see the Royals in a World Series; he’d be at every home game. A realtor to Ken’s right talked to him the entire game. When Ken told him that he was staying an extra day to see some of the Kansas City sights and the Truman Library, the man, a Gregg Davidson from Prairie Village, Kans., mentioned the Art Museum. Gregg then offered to meet Ken the next day for lunch, and Gregg would show him around. Ken said he’d think about it, and thanked him profusely. (They didn’t end up meeting.)
“Two elderly guys thrown together by chance and for about three hours enjoying a common interest,” Ken said. “Only in America, and probably most likely only in friendly Kansas City, and at a baseball game.”
As the game went along, and the Royals ended up cruising to a 7-1 win, high-fives among strangers hours earlier got more fervent. Just a very cool night. The lawyer in front of me, when the seventh run crossed the plate, had a look I can only describe as blissful on his face. Good for these people. Good for this town.
• IT’S GOOD TO BE BIG GARY BARNIDGE: A football ambassador, a companion of WWE Divas, a part-time film critic, and an afterthought for his first seven NFL seasons, Browns tight end Gary Barnidge is 2015’s most unlikely breakout star.
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Tweets of the Week
WTH!!!! Geno needs to be cut after this!!!!— Damien Woody (@damienwoody) November 2, 2015
The former Jets offensive lineman, tweeting about current Jets quarterback Geno Smith, who made several questionable decisions down the stretch of the Jets’ loss in Oakland, highlighted by taking a couple of sacks instead of throwing the ball away.
Safety Kenny Vaccaro lost a tooth while making a tackle on the Saints’ 2nd defensive snap of the game, redefining the term tackle for loss.— Jeff Duncan (@JeffDuncan_) November 1, 2015
TV should just leave that little FLAG designation in the corner of the screen on permanently, then turn it off for the occasional clean play— Sam Farmer (@LATimesfarmer) November 1, 2015
A number of audible groans in the press box watching the replay of Le'Veon Bell's injury. #Bengals— Coley Harvey (@ColeyHarvey) November 1, 2015
Jerry Kill will always be more than a football coach to me. He made me a better person. I love that man from the bottom of my heart.— Peter Mortell (@PMortell37) October 28, 2015
The University of Minnesota punter tweeted this after hearing the emotional news that his coach was retiring effective immediately for health reasons. Kill has a history of epilepsy and was advised to quit by doctors.
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Ten Things I Think I Think
1. I think this is what I liked about Week 8:
a. The Broncos’ classy and reverential tribute to ailing owner Pat Bowlen, putting him in their Ring of Fame on Sunday night. Say this about that franchise: It treats its heroes with class and dignity. Bowlen, who has Alzheimer’s disease and stepped away from running day-to-day operations in July 2014, got the royal treatment and deserved every second of it.
b. Greg Hardy’s tipped interception—to himself. What a play.
c. Todd Gurley: 20 carries for 133 yards. For him, that’s downright mediocre.
d. The Rams are 3-1 since handing Gurley the starting running back job four games ago. His performances: 146 yards, 159, 128 and 133. And the 159 came in a loss at Green Bay.
e. Philip Rivers in defeat: three touchdowns, no picks, 76% passing, season-high 126.1 rating.
f. The first offensive snap of the Jim Bob Cooter offensive era in Detroit: an 11-yard out to Calvin Johnson. More, please. The Lions need more out of Johnson than the 82 yards per game he’d been delivering over the first seven weeks. Unfortunately, that was the highlight for Detroit.
g. Knile Davis’s 49-yard kick return for the Chiefs—impressive because of the superb holes created by the return team.
h. Superb team blocking on the edge by the Chiefs on DeAnthony Thomas’s first-quarter touchdown sweep against Detroit, the best one by tight end Travis Kelce.
i. Good instinct, good dive, great pass-breakup by Kyle Fuller, who needed that big, late-second-quarter pick for the Bears.
j. Giants punter Brad Wing, for a while. Languishing as the league’s 26th-rated punter in gross average (43.8 yards) entering Sunday’s game at New Orleans, Wing, acquired by the Giants to replace Steve Weatherford just before the season started, had a 62-yard punt to pin the Saints at their 4-yard line. His second traveled 57 yards, to the Saints’ 34. Had a very costly facemask, though, leading to the Saints’ game-winning field goal.
k. The Bengals’ transformation from being a crummy late-game team to being the Royals of the NFL.
l. Dont'a Hightower. Chandler Jones. Never thought the Patriots would be a top-five defense in the league this year, but they are.
m. The Cardinals: 6-2 at the bye … 6-2 after eight games last year, too.
n. Geno Smith early.
2. I think this is what I didn’t like about Week 8:
a. Geno Smith late.
b. Le’Veon Bell’s torn knee ligament, on an ugly play. The Steelers can’t catch an injury break.
c. Matt Cassel’s inability to make the smallest things happen for Dallas.
d. The Giants’ defense, crying out for a pressure player to bother the quarterback. I think they have a pressure player in the incubator (and I wrote about him higher up in this column).
e. Miami's underneath coverage against New England. Awful.
f. The Steelers’ alternate home jerseys, the prison-stripe jobs. Awfuler.
g. Reggie Bush slipping on concrete at the Ed Jones Dome and hurting his knee. What, precisely, is exposed concrete doing near the boundaries of any NFL field?
h. Matthew Stafford taking an early sack against the Chiefs coming out of an empty set, because he took too long to search for options.
i. Most everything about the Lions. Amazing how noncompetitive that team has become, eight games after almost winning a road playoff game in Dallas.
j. Can’t blame a guy for getting hurt, but 2014 top overall pick Jadeveon Clowney sure has been injured a lot in his 1.5 years as a pro. He left Sunday’s game against Tennessee with a back injury.
k. Bears: One win in their last 12 games against NFC North foes.
l. Bears give up a touchdown and a field goal in the final 110 seconds. Lose 23-20 to Vikes.
m. Ken Whisenhunt: 3-20 in Tennessee. Not a lot of patience in what is usually a patient place, and with the resurgent Saints and unbeaten Panthers ahead over the next two weeks, an ownership that had zero stomach to make a coaching change this year might have to think about one.
3. I think this is what I hear happened at the Jets-Patriots game, regarding the sweeping of the locker room for bugs: The reason the Jets say they didn’t know about it is because they didn’t request it. The sweeping of locker rooms is done in every locker room in 31 stadiums during the course of the year, checking for anything irregular, such as listening devices. Requesting the IDs or credentials of random people on the sidelines, which the Jets reportedly did during the New England game, is quite common, and those checked had legitimate reasons to be on the sidelines. So nothing to see here, people. Move along.
4. I think for all who rail against their home teams for taking away a regular-season home game and putting it in London (or Mexico City or Germany), it’d be better to rail against the league office. Much better. Because all teams are going to do it eventually, and soon. Some teams, like Jacksonville, view it as a way to broaden their market in London and become the NFL team British fans most identify with—though it’s going to take years, plus a better winning percentage, for the once-a-year Jags game in London to reap dividends. For other teams, it’s mostly a case of taking one’s medicine. Kansas City, for instance, had no desire to play a home game in London on Sunday and take one away from the Arrowhead faithful. But owner Clark Hunt chairs the International Committee, and the Chiefs want to do everything they can to encourage the NFL to consider a cold-weather Super Bowl for Kansas City, and, in the end, Hunt is a good league guy. As president Mark Donovan told the Kansas City Star: “The reality is because [the NFL is] going to play more games, more teams are going to give up home games in the future, and we feel like it was the right thing to do now. It was the right thing to sort of get our place in line and get that box checked. But this is going to happen across the league, and it’s just a matter of time for other teams.”
5. I think I applaud Christine Brennan of USA Today for her column decrying the deaths of seven high school football players this fall, and asking pointed questions about the viability of the game as it exists now. I am on record as thinking high school football is a good thing overall because of the lessons it teaches players and the camaraderie and so many other reasons (see Robert Klemko’s story on our site this week for all the good things it can do for teenage boys). But Brennan points out something that has boggled my mind about high school football in America: “There's this appalling statistic that doesn’t attract nearly as much attention as it should: Only 37 percent of U.S. public high schools have full-time athletic trainers, according to the National Athletic Trainers Association. This means that thousands of high school football games go on every year without a certified athletic trainer anywhere nearby … What kind of society allows a vast majority of its children at public schools to play such a rough and violent sport without any semblance of a safety net?”
6. I think Cam Wake’s torn Achilles is an absolute killer for Miami. Not only was he playing great, and not only was his season taking off in the two-plus games since Dan Campbell took over for Joe Philbin, but in general he’s more of a cornerstone player for that defense, and makes significantly more big plays, than Ndamukong Suh. At his peak, Wake is so hard to block, both coming around the edge and fighting through traffic inside. The Dolphins probably have to go 6-3, minimum, to be serious wild-card contenders in the AFC, and it’s hard to see them winning at that rate without Wake.
7. I think there are two football stories of the week. One is the searing rebuke of the Packers by the dean of Wisconsin Packer writers, Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, for the team overlooking poor off-field conduct in making personnel decisions. The other is a Washington Post story about the late Gene Upshaw’s widow, and the incredible ordeal she went through when she fell in love with Upshaw. Both will make you think.
8. I think the NFL will have to come down on the Colts with a significant fine if, after the league investigates, it finds Andrew Luck has multiple broken ribs and the team never claimed it on the injury report. Jay Glazer reported on FOX that Luck had broken ribs in addition to his bum shoulder, and when GM Ryan Grigson responded with a statement on Sunday afternoon, he didn’t deny Glazer’s report. He didn’t confirm it either. But clearly, if Luck had no broken ribs, Grigson would have shot the report full of holes. He did not. Because the Colts were the ones who fingered the Patriots for the deflated footballs before the AFC Championship Game, leading to the current Tom Brady scandal, the league will have to do something more than a just a letter of warning telling them not to play games on the injury report anymore.
9. I think there’s no telling what the Lions and 90-year-old owner Martha Ford will do about the shocking dissolution of the franchise on the field. She’s not the type to consult with other owners, or take counsel from the league office. But soon, she’s going to have to consider the fate of GM Martin Mayhew (6.5 years: 41-63, no playoff wins) and coach Jim Caldwell (1.5 years: 12-12, including 1-7 this year). If she decides to replace the GM, isn’t the best way to find a good general manager to give him the power to hire the coach he wants, instead of settling for a shotgun marriage? It certainly wouldn’t be fair to Caldwell to can him a year after he took Detroit to the playoffs in his first year, but the climate in Detroit may force the Lions to do just that—sweep the place clean.
10. I think these are my non-NFL thoughts of the week:
a. RIP, Grantland. Consistently good writing, with excellent analysis of all things NFL by Robert Mays and Bill Barnwell. It’s always sad to see a site with such wonderful writing and ideas die. I really feel for those two men, and for everyone on that staff.
b. What an emotional way to go out for Minnesota football coach Jerry Kill. Rarely when a man leaves his sport too soon do you get universal love and respect—from those he coached, and those he coached against. But the outpouring for Kill was amazing. Very good football coach, and, though I never met him, from all accounts a better man.
c. Royals in five. They deserved it. They’re the best late-game team I’ve seen in a long time. Christian Colon? Jarrod Dyson? Those guys combined to make the winning run of the World Series. That’s one heck of a roster put together by Dayton Moore.
d. I just love watching Eric Hosmer play.
e. It’s going to be a long winter for Daniel Murphy. Who could have imagined the last five games of his season, after the previous two series?
f. Breakout star of this Series: Alcides Escobar. Smart player, impossible to intimidate (the Noah Syndergaard first pitch didn’t do the trick), contact-maker, leader.
g. By the way, for my money I found nothing wrong with what Syndergaard did. The ball he threw was high and tight. Baseball pitchers have been doing that for decades. It was not at his head. It was near his head. And though I detest the act of pitchers throwing “at” batters, I find the act of pitchers brushing hitters back to be part of the game. If those Royal barkers were in the Mets’ dugout, they’d have had no problem with it either. But I get it. The Royals should have been angry, and should have yelled at Syndergaard; they have to stick up for their man.
h. FOX did a good job Friday night showing an entertained Billy Joel in Citi Field as “Piano Man” played between innings.
i. I know it’s not exactly a triple-double, but how about this line for point guard Russell Westbrook on Friday night in Orlando: 48 points, 11 rebounds, eight assists … and one banked-in three-pointer from 40 feet at the end of regulation to force overtime.
j. Sorry to hear of the death of Mel Daniels, the former Indiana center and two-time ABA Most Valuable Player, at 71 in Indiana on Friday. Only one man (Julius Erving) won more MVPs in ABA history, and greats like George Gervin didn’t win any. Imagine averaging 19 points and 16 rebounds a game over six Indiana seasons.
k. Coffeenerdness: Very good post-dinner coffee Friday night, Laughing Man. Not as bold as I’m used to, but I don’t want an espresso-type at 7:30 p.m.
l. Beernerdness: Boulevard Wheat (Boulevard Brewing, Kansas City, Mo.) is such a gift to find on tap in an MLB stadium, and Kauffman Stadium has it throughout. That is as easy-drinking and smooth and tasty a beer as I’ve had in a ballpark. I mean, anywhere. Makes me happy that, even though craft beer is only 11 percent of the market in the United States, you can find some terrific local beers all over Kauffman Stadium under the Boulevard labels.
m. Not sure how a story can be as distasteful as the Louisville basketball scandal.
n. Running note of the week: I’ve been trying the Queensboro Bridge lately. It’s fun, in a challenging way. This is the yellow bridge on the East Side of Manhattan that some of you might have seen while watching the New York Marathon on Sunday; the runners take it from Queens into Manhattan, and then they make their winding way to Central Park and the finish line. Anyway, I get on the bridge a few blocks from where I live, on a pathway to the north side of the road surface, and on the deck above the subway connecting Queens and Manhattan. The bridge is uphill for about the first .55 miles, then almost flat for a couple of minutes as the bridge comes to its apex, and then about .55 miles slightly downhill. Then I run a few blocks into Long Island City, Queens, turn around, and do the same thing back across the bridge into Manhattan, and run back to my gym. It’s a very good workout. Hills always challenge me. Time: 3.5 miles in 33:20. Not good. I’m just not a hill person.
o. Sign painted graffiti-style on the ground of the running path on the Queensboro Bridge: MAKE YOUR OWN LUCK.
p. I like that one.
q. Then there’s this one: STAY GRATEFUL. STAY WILD.
r. One college football comment from Saturday's games: There looked to be as many uncalled penalties and knees on ground with ball in hand as there were backward passes in that freaky Miami touchdown that beat Duke.
s. Congrats on a great career, Frank Beamer. I love guys who get out at the right time, and Beamer will do just that.
* * *
Who I Like Tonight
Carolina 27, Indianapolis 22. There is an air of Jimmy Irsay-is-gonna-shake-things-up-and-the-only-question-is-how-much inevitability around the Colts, who are, as usual, killing it in the AFC South (3-0) and being sheepish (0-4) outside the division this year. The next three games—at 6-0 Carolina, 7-0 Denver at home (bringing Peyton Manning’s ghosts to Lucas Oil—again), at 6-2 Atlanta—must have been sent from the Bad Karma gods. Struggling to find your footing, in danger of falling into a tie in one of the worst divisions since realignment, and here come three teams in 14 days with a combined record this morning of 19-2? Sheesh. The only way out of it, I believe, is for Indianapolis to run the ball better and play keep away from Cam Newton and an offense with just enough weaponry to be dangerous. Two bits of hope I see for Indy’s running game: Ahmad Bradshaw knows he’s playing for his football future, and he’s always been good at making an extra yard that didn’t look to be there. And Frank Gore, in his past three games, has run for 4.5, 6.0 and 4.8 yards per carry. That’s something to build on, at least—especially against a team with a front that’s been weak against the run in the past three games, allowing 5.0 yards per rush. That’s why I’d put the ball in the hands of Gore and Bradshaw 40 times tonight.
* * *
The Adieu Haiku
This I can’t figure:
Rodgers The Great was held to
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