1. I think Sunday Night Football will feature two of the best comeback stories of 2015, starring two of the best dudes in the NFL.
You already know about the life and times of Matt Hasselbeck (quarterback controversy!) in Indy. But, had he been the starter the entire year, we might be talking about a Pro Bowl nod for DeAngelo Williams. Vultures were circling the 32-year-old Williams after an injury-filled 2014 season in Carolina. Even worse, when he was on the field he averaged just 3.5 yards per carry in one of the league’s most rusher-friendly attacks.
Williams reportedly dropped weight and has looked like a new man in Pittsburgh. You can look at the box scores and see how well he’s running it: 4.9 yards per carry, 20 catches for another 225 yards. And while he’s not Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers have been able to use Williams in a lot of the same ways as a receiver. They can empty out the backfield and get him in a mismatch with linebackers. He has 635 yards from scrimmage in the five games Bell has missed so far, and the Steelers offense hasn’t missed a beat without their All-Pro running back, averaging 32.4 points per game sans-Bell.
And, beyond the box score numbers, Williams has been outstanding in pass protection; he was king of the chip block in Seattle last week, a big reason Steelers quarterbacks dropped back 62 times (not including that disastrous fake field goal) and were only sacked twice.
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2a. I think I’d like to take a moment to give Browns fans a little pick-me-up.
It’s the tale of a wide-eyed young football fan growing up in north-central Connecticut.
The Patriots weren’t bad in the early-90’s. They were unwatchably bad. I grew up rooting for a Hugh Millen-led team that, over a three-year span from 1990-92, won nine games and scored 594 points. Yes, football was different back then, but 594 points over 48 games. The 2013 Broncos scored 606 points in 16 games. (And that’s a big reason why I also grew up rooting for the Steelers, Bears, Seahawks and sometimes Bills, but that’s a story for another time, especially since I’m an objective journalist these days.)
New England went 1-15 in 1990 and had a chance to draft a franchise-changing player first overall: Rocket Ismail. Then Ismail signed with the Toronto Argonauts. They traded down and drafted Pat Harlow and (Rookie of the Year!) Leonard Russell. Six wins in 1991! Hope! Then 2-14 in 1992.
The point is: There was a time when Patriots fans couldn’t picture their team competing for a playoff spot, let alone winning a Super Bowl. Then the franchise savior came in the form of Drew Bledsoe, then Bill Parcells joined him, then an appearance in Super Bowl XXXI. It happened quickly. So did the next downfall.
Five years later, Bill Belichick had taken over and the Patriots seemed headed toward rock bottom again. Remember, Belichick lost 13 of his first 18 games with a team that had been .500 or better in the previous four seasons before he arrived. What was the turning point? When the franchise quarterback, who had just been signed to a record contract, had his internal organs liquefied on a hit.
All I’m saying is: The football gods work in mysterious ways. Keep the faith, Cleveland. (Either that, or spend more time watching the Cavs.)
2b. Up this week in The MMQB’s “Corridor of Woe” series… oof, the Cleveland Browns. Sorry about that.
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3. I think I have one more “buck up, Browns fans!” thought. Losing a game on a blocked field goal happens to really successful franchises too, even on Monday Night Football.
Way back in 1997, the Jaguars blocked Norm Johnson’s potentially game-winning 40-yard attempt and ran it back for a TD as time expired. (The Jags were already up two at the time so it wasn’t a miss-it-and-go-to-OT situation, but it was upsetting enough for Bill Cowher to nearly lay out a Jaguar mid-play.)
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4. I think, in light of everything I wrote above, I’d like to briefly address Patriots nation.
This is going to be difficult to hear, because I’ve been a part of New England sports fandom, and the only thing more important than wins and losses is feeling a sense of woe-is-me persecution, but: NFL officials are not out to get the Patriots. What happened last week in Denver happens every week. Bad calls and missed calls. It’s a part of life, more for some teams than for others (but the Patriots are usually one of the “others”). The league, for its part, would have loved to see the Patriots go 16-0. If Tom Brady had another shot at perfection, coming off all the offseason controversy, Super Bowl 50 would have been watched by literally every human being on the planet. The Nielsen folks would be scrambling to account for babies who were born mid-game in front of a television. And, in case you missed it, the NFL loves ratings. And money.
We here at The MMQB received more complaints and amateur conspiracy theories about the officiating in Denver than Santa gets letters this time of year. Pats fans, you have the best quarterback and the best coach in the NFL. You’re reigning Super Bowl champions, and you’ve played in six of the past 14 Super Bowls. (That’s insane!) So instead of spending your week searching for screengrabs and GIFs of what are among the hundreds of incorrectly called holds or missed holds that take place during an NFL season, get out of the apartment. Pat Patriot looks better with a tricorn hat than a tinfoil one.
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5a. I think I would like to take you back to a time when we were all a little younger, a little more innocent, and the head-to-head score between two AFC East quarterbacks was Mark Sanchez 3, Tom Brady 2.
Brady, as Brady does, ran off four straight wins against Sanchez and the Jets after that, swinging the career record in his favor. But you have to feel for Sanchez, who had a real shot at a career-altering win on Sunday if Sam Bradford wasn't ready to return. Sanchez could have beaten Tom Brady again. Really. And I don’t mean that in a Stuart Smalley Daily Affirmations-type of way.
I touched on this a bit last week, and with Rob Gronkowski out it has reached a tipping point: After a certain number of injuries, “Next Man Up” is just a load of crap. You run out of men. The Patriots are going to be trotting out Brandon LaFell, a hobbled Danny Amendola, Scott Chandler, Keshawn Martin... Vincent Brisby?... Hart Lee Dykes?... Paul Krapence from Cheers? How many points can this offense possibly score?
This would have been a golden opportunity for Sanchez. You never say never in the NFL, but will he ever get a nibble as a starting quarterback? But more importantly, he could have helped scrub the internet of what happened the last time he faced the Patriots.
5b. I was looking at the box score from Sanchez’s last win over the Patriots (and Sanchez’s only win in Foxboro), the time the Jets came into Gillette for a playoff game in January 2011 and just gut-punched the Patriots.
The strangest thing about that 2010 Patriots team was their kicker. Over the past 20 seasons, only one man besides Adam Vinatieri and Stephen Gostkowski has kicked for New England. He was filling in for an injured Gostkowski that day. Can you name that kicker? Answer at the end of this sentence: Shayne Graham. It was Shayne Graham.
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6. I think the one player I’m most interested in watching on Sunday is Dee Ford.
Two drafts ago, with glaring weaknesses at wide receiver and on the offensive line, the Chiefs drafted Ford with the 23rd overall pick, much to the chagrin of Chiefs fans. He was immediately looking up at Justin Houston and Tamba Hali in the outside linebacker rotation. The Chiefs’ reasoning: When you have a chance to get a stud pass rusher, you take him. They’re pretty much right. After quarterback, pass rushers are the premium position in the NFL.
Fast forward 18 months. Ford, obviously, hasn’t seen many snaps playing behind the two stud veterans. He has 1.5 career sacks, none this year, in spot duty. On Sunday, Houston is out with a knee injury, perhaps for multiple weeks. Ford will make his first career start in Oakland, as the Chiefs look to stay hot and finish their sprint to the postseason. This is why they went and got Ford. Let’s see what you got.
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7. I think Matt Forte might be in for a long offseason. Forte was on NFL Total Access on Friday, addressing the fact that he’s not been offered a contract extension by the Bears:
“The decision on whether I stay or whether I go is not really up to me. It's whether I get offered a contract extension, which I haven't been offered one and doesn't really look like it [will happen].
“If not, I go into free agency. So I'm pretty much satisfied with either way it goes.”
Hmmm… Forte has been a great and often underappreciated player. But he turns 30 on Thursday, will potentially be coming off a second straight season averaging less than four yards per carry, and the Bears didn’t miss a beat in the games he missed. Factor in the Eagles’ buyer’s remorse in regards to signing the reigning rushing champ this past offseason, and Forte is likely going to be in for a shock when it comes to the open market.
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8. I think I think one thing about college football: conference title games are stupid, lame money grabs. They’re nothing but a reminder of the ridiculous division systems that so many of these leagues had to adopt once they became overgrown and watered-down. None of the power conferences had their best two teams playing in the title game. Who’s better: Florida or Ole Miss? North Carolina or Florida State? Iowa or Ohio State or Michigan? USC or Oregon?
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9. I think, while you’re counting down the hours to kickoff, you should spend some time with The MMQB Read of the Week: Robert Mays (the new guy!) on The “New” Andy Dalton.
“I’m not playing for those people who want to say something. People can hide behind a computer, they can hide behind a cell phone, they can tweet. They can say whatever they want. I’m not worried about them. It’s not that I need everybody to be patting me on the back. Things are good right now, but regardless of people being positive or negative, I’m still the same person.”
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10a. I think, at 12:58 p.m. ET, you should turn your volume all the way up and press play…
10b. Then come back at 11:58 p.m. ET, press play and feel sad about Scott Weiland (but let it run to the hidden track, it’ll make you feel a little better)…