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  • Deshaun Watson shines, Roethlisberger returns to his house of horrors, plus, musical guest: ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead
By Gary Gramling
October 01, 2017

1. [You hear the faint wail of the hot-take siren off in the distance as you reluctantly embark on another Gameday 10 Things adventure]

Remember back on Sept. 6 or so, when the Patriots’​ undefeated season was still intact? The assumption was that New England was going to walk through the AFC into Super Bowl LII with little resistance. K.C.’s Opening Night romp in Foxboro signaled that maybe things will be a bit messier. Meanwhile, quietly, the Falcons might be doing to the NFC what we thought the Patriots would do to the AFC.

Week 1 in Chicago was rough, but keep in mind Atlanta was breaking in a new offensive coordinator in Steve Sarkisian, against an underrated defense on a slow track. In Week 2, Atlanta dismantled the Packers at home, kinda like last January. But most impressive might have been their win in Detroit last week.

I know, they were three inches away from a loss! But the Falcons caught a couple of bad breaks in that game, specifically a pick-six—bad throw by Matt Ryan, good play by Glover Quin, fair enough—then two more Ryan interceptions, each of which bounced off an open receiver’s hands. Ryan hadn’t thrown multiple interceptions in a game since 2015!

Having things like that happen, when you’re on the road playing against a good opponent, usually results in a loss. But the Falcons ran up 428 yards of offense and didn’t have to punt until there were less than seven minutes left. That, more than that final play, is what won the game. The offense looks like it’s on the verge of unstoppable again. The defense is young and fast, and figures to keep getting better just like it did a year ago.

Every other team in the NFC already has one loss, and the only other team at three wins is the Packers, who Atlanta has already beaten head-to-head. And the NFC South looks like it might be weak (especially with the Panthers seemingly hanging by a thread). The Falcons will likely be underdogs on their visits to New England and Seattle. Maybe they trip up one other time. But, what, 12.5 as the over/under for wins? And if they get that top seed in the NFC, they might just walk through the playoffs again; even with the surprisingly affordable concession prices, no opponent wants to be in Mercedes-Benz Stadium in January. No Super Bowl runner-up has returned to the game since the 1993 Buffalo Bills, but the Falcons seem to be staring at a great opportunity to break that streak.

2. This is your bi-weekly reminder that Ben Roethlisberger is bad on the road, and your annual reminder that he’s especially bad when playing in Baltimore.*

Roethlisberger actually hasn’t led the Steelers to a win in Charm City since December 2012, when he was three inches shorter, 40 pounds lighter, more tanned than usual and going by his pen name, “Charlie Batch.”

His eight career starts in Baltimore as “Ben Roethlisberger”: 243.9 passing yards per game, 57.5% completion percentage, 6-to-10 TD/INT ratio, 68.6 passer rating and a 2-6 record. For a guy with that much talent, surrounded by so many talented players, those are the kind of numbers you wouldn’t expect to see in any city, with the possible exception of the Lost City of Atlantis since at 20,000 leagues visibility would be next to nothing and most players wouldn’t be able to survive at those depths, let alone effectively operate an expansive passing attack.

Fortunately for the Steelers, stud Ravens DT Brandon Williams will sit this one out, giving Pittsburgh a significant edge in the ground game. Not to mention, Baltimore’s crummy offensive line, plodding receivers and Joe Flacco-y quarterback (I kid, Flacco’s fine, the rest of the offense not so much) will likely prevent them from doing much against a rising young Steelers defense. This game could turn on which defense is first to record their second or third safety of the game.

*—GAMEDAY 10 THINGS POP CULTURE CROSSOVER LITTLE-KNOWN FACT BROUGHT TO YOU BY SHASTA COLA: Did you know that the HBO television series The Wire was set in Baltimore? Tell your friends about that little-known pop-culture factoid at your next social event and watch the amazement wash over their faces. And then, enjoy the refreshing taste of Shasta Cola. [Takes sip of Shasta Cola**] Remember, if you’re having any health problems, it’s because you aren’t drinking enough carbonated beverages from the Shasta Corporation and its subsidiaries.***

**—I know some of you have been disappointed in the lack of shoutouts for one-time official unofficial Gameday 10 Things sponsor RC Cola so far this season. But I think RC Cola might have grown too big for this fake sponsorship.

***—And just to be completely clear, what’s written above is not actually Shasta Cola’s tagline, so please don’t threaten to sue me or them. It’s just a thing I made up that was funny. That was supposed to be funny.

3a. A quick epilogue to what I wrote about Deshaun Watson a week ago, in light of what he did in New England. In short: holy crap. A longer version: Those highlight-reel improv plays were incredible, though it doesn’t hurt that he was going against an unathletic front seven playing on its heels (but that unathletic front seven was playing on its heels because of Watson’s incredible playmaking ability!; I know! Shut up! I was just gonna write that . . . ).

Anyway, as my podcast co-host and dojo sensei Andy Benoit said before Watson set Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia’s defense ablaze last Sunday, I was underestimating the rookie’s ability as a playmaker. He shows signs of being Russell Wilson-like when it comes to creating something out of nothing. I’m still a little worried about his longterm development—he’s so quick to lower his eyes!—but my Lord, those two touchdown passes (a seam route to Bruce Ellington against a single-high safety, then a back-shoulder throw to Ryan Griffin), were so good I spit-taked a combined total of about 36 ounces of Kombucha. And that stuff’s expensive. So expensive that I really shouldn’t be trying to down it approximately 18 ounces at a time.

There’s no reason to get carried away yet. It’s been 10 quarters of football. You could probably find a couple of good moments if you watched Ryan Mallett play for 10 quarters. (I’d check, but the parental control software on my laptop has blocked videos of Ryan Mallett playing quarterback—there are some things kids just shouldn’t see.) But Bill O’Brien did a nice job adding some bells and whistles to the offense against New England, and then Watson did the rest. It will be a tougher test against a more athletic Titans defense this week, but it’s O.K. to feel a little giddy right now.

3b. I actually got a tweet from Watson at 11:03 last Sunday night, expressing some polite criticism of my column. (He tweeted it and deleted it so I got notification-only, my girlfriend who lives in Canada can confirm.) I don’t write this to name-drop, but . . . I do mostly write this to name-drop. More than anything though, I’m just amused that six people read my column last week, and one of them was the rookie quarterback in the lead item, seven hours after he nearly toppled Brady/Belichick in Foxboro.

4. Apparently the NFL accidentally called Justin Timberlake when they meant to call Dave Grohl. How embarrassing! (My guess is their phone numbers are next to each other on the NFL's "boy musicians" contact sheet.) The question now is: Do they correct the mix-up, or go ahead with the farce of a Justin Timberlake Super Bowl halftime show?

5. I actually turned off the Thursday night game after the Danny Trevathan-on-Davante Adams hit; it’s disturbing to watch a professional athlete’s body go limp mid-play (though the fact that the game wasn’t competitive and Mike Glennon was about to re-take the field sealed the deal).

I’m glad there was a multi-game suspension for Trevathan; at this point there should be steep penalties for any hits delivered with the crown of the helmet, whether intentional or not (enforce it similar to contacting a quarterback’s head). Over-punish on these hits. That’s really the only way to litigate the sometimes-instinctive helmet-as-a-weapon hits out of the game.

I think the thirst for vengeance in the aftermath has been a little over-the-top though. You see attempted hits like this frequently every week—whether it’s “finishing a play,” or a tackler simply turning himself into a missile and taking his eyes off his target—they just rarely land so flush (and only so many games are played in front of a national audience). If Trevathan’s timing is just a little different it doesn’t even draw a flag. It was reckless and dangerous. An intent to hurt? Definitely. An intent to injure? I could be convinced, though I consider ankle/foot/knee-wrenching stuff to fall under “intent to injure.” So, is it a dirty play? I guess it depends on your definition of “dirty” (that’s not much of an answer!). But I think it’s a bit much to brand Trevathan a cheap-shot artist off this one play.

I know you come here for bad NFL takes and dumb jokes. And I had so many bad NFL takes and dumb jokes this week! But for now, a quick few notes about things that are happening around the game . . .

6a. Last Sunday felt like something of an awakening for the NFL. The Sunday nighter was a dud, but other than that the games were incredible. It was as fun and entertaining a football Sunday as I can remember, and yet a small percentage of football fans claim they missed the whole thing.

I had a note at the bottom of last week’s Sunday FreakOut, noting that I didn’t understand the logic behind boycotting the NFL. A handful of folks wrote in to me, citing patriotism and politics, etc., but nothing that really offered true clarity. I mean, I understand those who are upset that the demonstrations are taking place during the playing of the national anthem—the song and the flag mean different things to different people—but I don't understand how someone who would be upset about the demonstrations would have no interest in learning about why the demonstrations are happening. Then there were notes like this:

I don’t say this jokingly: Don’t do that; that is absolutely no way to live your life. It is utterly insane. (And not just the fact that the entire message was sent in the subject line and the actual email field is empty.)

The NFL is an organization made up of thousands of human beings, and like any such organization, there are a wide range of beliefs among them. Politics has always been heavily entwined with the league, from stadium financing deals to pay-for-patriotism military displays to the owners themselves filling the campaign coffers of political candidates. There are a handful of players demonstrating in order to raise awareness for criminal-justice reform and to undo some of the racist policies and practices we have in this country. But as a whole, there’s really no more politics in the sport than there was, say, five years ago. And if you’re going to limit yourself to strictly (or as close to strictly as possible) apolitical organizations, you’re going to be awfully limited in your options for food and soap and toothpaste and basically everything everywhere.

Boycotts are the new fad for professional yellers on various mediums. Call for a boycott and then claim victory (Boycott the sun . . . it’s 10 pm and I don’t see the sun in the sky, we did it!) If you’ve found something that you’d rather do than watch football, then good on you. But to deprive yourself of something you enjoy just because someone who yells and feigns outrage in order to promote his or her personal brand told you that you should, and that if everyone who boycotts gets 100 more people to boycott, the NFL will go from a $9 billion industry to an $8.9 billion industry, and then we win . . . I dunno, maybe it’s time to step back and reassess. And I know that sounds a little nihilistic, you-can’t-beat-the-big-smelly-corporation kind of thing. But really, the NFL isn't going away. If you enjoy watching football then watch football being played at its highest level. Your time on this planet is too short to make yourself miserable.

6b. The “unity” demonstrations, in a vacuum, are indeed meaningless. But they also crack the door open, if ever so slightly. The Seahawks have the right idea.

So Drew Brees wants to take a knee before the anthem in London? Cool. Have him read this on the bus ride over to Wembley Stadium (it’s apparently a really long bus ride, just ask John Harbaugh). Brees has an enormous platform and, well, doesn’t always use it as well as maybe he should.

Jerry Jones wants to take a knee? Awesome, he has plenty of money and influence, and the Ban the Box campaign would be a perfect fit for a guy who’s able to see the good in some of the young men with troubled pasts in his organization.

This isn’t either/or politics, and that’s the beauty of it. You can honor both! Make it the halftime show. At the same time. Or one ceremony after another. Supporting the military and supporting criminal-justice reform are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they’re both exceedingly noble causes!

6c. Just a reminder: What’s popular isn’t always what’s good. A lot of folks have taken to yelling and pointing to public opinion polls on the anthem demonstrations, and how, depending who you ask, anywhere between 45 and 70% of the country is “against.” The last year Gallup polled the nation on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. before his death, in 1966, 32% viewed him in a positive light, and 63% in a negative light. Granted, there’s been a bit of a  Disney-fication of Dr. King over the years, but still: People’s minds can change.

7. Ladies and gentlemen, …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead!

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